By Tim Chambers
Peanuts and Cracker Jacks have been around for a long time, and so has Appalachian League baseball.
The same can be said for Elizabethton’s Carmen Dugger.
The former Appy League player is a walking history book when it comes to baseball. Not only does the 83-year old Dugger know the game, but he played it as well. In addition, he did a bang-up job as the Parks and Recreation director from 1966-1991.
Dugger played in high school before joining the old Six Star League, where he played for three seasons, in 1945.
“I was a young boy back then,” said Dugger. “We had some good ball players on every team in the Six Star League. Some of them could have went and played in the big leagues, but never got looked at, and some of them went on and played in the minors.”
The league was made up of teams from Valley Forge, West End, South Side, Bunker Hill and Butler. Some others played from time to time.
“We played games at the old high school, where the senior citizens building is now located. It had a short left field, so I saw a lot of balls hit out of there. Hunter had all the Holly boys. I played for South Side. It was me, Sonny Fletcher, John Pansock, Oscar Dykes and his brothers, and Daylight Fletcher. Valley Forge had a really good team. Bill and Henry Jenkins could play. They had Wright Swanay and his brother blade. Keg Simerly was good, too.”
He continued to name players without missing a beat.
“Buddy Nidiffer was the best athlete that I’ve ever seen come out of Elizabethton,” he said. “He played at South Carolina and then went to the Yankees. Sid Smithdeal, Jay Nidiffer, Sid Hathaway, Taylor Shell, Billy “Nat Taylor and Ray Vaughn could all play at a high level. Some signed, some never got seen. Vaughn could have played anywhere. So could Smithdeal.”
Dugger joined the Marines in the following year but his baseball playing didn’t stop.
“We got a team up when I was in Japan, but we had only had 150 marines where I was at. We played over there and won everything. I remember winning a big championship in Tokyo. If my memory is correct, I won 49 games and lost 2 over there. That was some good times.”
Dugger signed with the Cardinals out of service and made it to Omaha. He played at Winston Salem in 1953 and for Omaha and Lynchburg in 1954. He started 28 games on the mound for Winston Salem and finished the year at 10-10.
His best season was with Salem in 1955 after being released by the Cardinals.
“I went over to Johnson City and threw batting practice that same year because I was in good shape,” said Dugger. “Carl Jones wouldn’t sign me in Johnson City because I had been released by the Cardinals and he was affiliated with them. So Salem’s coach, Jack Crosswhite, came in one night and offered me a job up there. I told him if I can make a little money then I would love to.”
It proved to be a good move for Dugger.
“Salem was an independent team, but they still gave me $300 a month,” said Dugger. “Jack was a man of his word. He said if you sign with me I’ll let you pitch against Johnson City on Friday. I took him up on it.”
Dugger drove to Salem and arrived there about 4 p.m. on a Friday.
I went straight to the business manager and told him why I was there and who sent me,” said Dugger. “He kept saying that they couldn’t pay that much money. About that time Jack walked in. He said a few choice words, then told him I was pitching and to go get my uniform on, that the game started at 7. All the business manager kept saying was he can’t pitch without a contract. At 6:30 they had a contract for me to sign. I pitched that night and beat Johnson City. We had a real good baseball team and won the pennant by 13 games. That was the last year of the old Appalachian League.”
Once again Dugger put up some impressive numbers. He ended the year with a 12-4 record and hit .318 in 110 plate appearances. One of his teammates was former major leaguer Orlando Cepeda.
“I played pretty well,” said Dugger. “I didn’t get there until June. We had one guy named Paul Johnston that won 20 games. I loved playing, but it was hard making ends meet because I had a family.”
Dugger came back to Elizabethton and got a job selling insurance in Johnson City. It was a day at the local golf course that would change the next 25 years of his life.
“I was playing golf one day with Buck VanHuss, who was on the city council,” said Dugger. “He told me the city was going to hire a Parks and Recreation director and wanted to know if I was interested. I didn’t know what all it involved, but Buck just told me that I played ball, knew what to do and could handle it. I went the next day and put my application in for the job.”
Dugger would end up being chosen to fill the new position.
“I met with Bill Pike, Bill Wilkins, Ray Lyons and Charlie Click, who were all on the board,” added Dugger. “Pike asked me what I had to have. I told him a lot, but also asked him what does it pay? He offered me five thousand dollars a year and I took it. I wasn’t doing that good in insurance anyway.”
They started at the old school up on Watauga Avenue with a pair of activities offered.
“We started square dancing and it went over big,” Dugger laughed. “Then we had karate with about 50 or 60 kids participating.”
What followed was a series of ball fields.
“We got the Little League up and going with two fields,” Dugger said. “Lynn Goddard ran them for me and they were going good. Later we got to build a few ball fields. I think we had 13 in all and 10 tennis courts. We had some pretty good recreation back in the ’70s.”
Dugger said that things are so much different than back during his time as director.
“Bob Asbury, the city manager, he let us run our departments and told us just to use common sense,” he said. “If we saw something that needed to be done, we went and did it. We didn’t have anything, but we tried to do it anyway.”
One of his best stories was how he lured the Twins into Elizabethton despite having only a small Babe Ruth baseball field in Blackbottom.
I met with Joe O’Brien, Jim Rantz and Asbury on a Sunday night in December of 1973,” Dugger said. “We had the lights on at the field and stayed there for about four hours. The field had to be moved back and new lights installed. Jim said, ‘Do you think we can have a ball field ready by summer?’ I said, ‘Sure, if the city council will agree on it. He called me back on Monday and told me they were coming here. Everything was verbal.”
That was good enough for Dugger, who immediately got on the project the following day. Today they would call it jumping the gun.
“I went up to city garage and got a backhoe and started digging up Riverside Drive because the road ran through where right field is now. Mr. Asbury came down and wanted to know what I was doing and why I was digging the street up? I already had it half dug up and had filled in some holes behind the backstop with it. He got a little angry and informed me that the city council hasn’t voted on it yet. I told him not to worry about it because I saved them a meeting. He blurted a bad word or two out and walked away.”
Dugger said it took the help of many to get things ready for minor league baseball.
“We made it a pitchers park. I took my tractor and farm equipment and we got started,” he said. “Alan Phipps at the Johnson City power board put up the lights. We were able to build the stand and get what we needed in place. We let Happy Valley play there, the high school and Babe Ruth. You couldn’t hurt it. We wanted people to use it. I went up to the old Douglas School and dug sod to put in the infield. Willie Church and Milligan’s baseball team helped me sod it. Roy Ellis helped a lot, too. Many people came in and volunteered. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Dugger touched on his friendship with Rantz, who is now a member of the Minnesota Twins’ Hall of Fame.
“We never had any kind of agreement with Minnesota,” Dugger said. “It was between me and Jim. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t work out. If I needed something I called him, and he did the same thing. That went on for years. I think the city has now got some kind of contract with them. It just worked out best for us during that time the way we did things.”
Dugger said his original plan was to build Joe O’Brien Field behind what is now known as Tractor Supply. It was where the old Cherokee softball field once stood.
I wanted build a new field on top and leave the high school and Babe Ruth down there. I was going to clean off the bank and build some steps so you could walk back and forth. It would have given us two good fields, but they couldn’t see that at the time. I still wish we could have done that.”
There are other things that Dugger would like to see finished during his stay here on earth. He touched on a few of those.
“I’ve been after the city for years to blacktop the parking lot,” he said. “Bill Hyder came down and gave us an estimate, but they wouldn’t let me do it years ago. We desperately need it now. You have to keep pushing for things. They need a new fence because the old one is about to fall down. A lot of times you can find ways to get things done, but you’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to go out and talk to people. Keith Lyons offered to put up a new one at his cost if he could put up a sign. I think it was a 12-foot metal fence where two rows of banners could have been hung all the way around.
“I still want to see things get done, but I can’t do it on my own. I know money is tight, but you’ve got to make upgrades when things are worn out. The fence is worn out.”
Dugger complimented current Parks & Rec director Mike Mains for doing an excellent job for so many years.
“Mike’s done a great job and he’s very good with promotions,” Dugger said. “He’s got a really good knack for that kind of thing.”
Dugger still wants to see progress 21 years after leaving his position.
“You have to look ahead a little bit. Anything you can get people who are willing to help or will put money into it, you need to get them. I love Elizabethton. I gave it my all just like Ray Smith, Jeff Reed and many others have done.
“I don’t regret any of it. This is home.”