By Rubin E. Grant
John Baumgartner walked into the home team clubhouse at historic Rickwood Field on a late November morning and immediately looked at a picture hanging above some lockers.
The picture showed former Birmingham Barons legend Walt Dropo swinging a bat.
Dropo and Baumgartner were teammates with the Detroit Tigers in 1953, but it wasn’t Dropo at the plate that Baumgartner remembers.
“He was playing first base and I was at third base,” Baumgartner recalled. “There was a pop fly coming down near the pitcher. He was way over yonder and started coming. I called for the ball and he knocked me sideways.”
The force of the collision left Baumgartner bloodied, but he stayed in the game.
“I just got up and wiped the blood away,” Baumgartner added with a laugh.
Baumgartner appeared in only seven games with the Tigers during the 1953 season, the proverbial cup of coffee in baseball parlance. It was his only stint in the major leagues.
He spent the majority of his six-year professional baseball career, from 1950 to 1955, in the minor leagues while playing for a variety of teams. His minor league experience included three stops in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the Southern Association and playing time with the Montgomery Rebels in the Sally League. Some other stops included Durham, North Carolina, in the Carolina League and Buffalo, New York, in the International League.
Now 87, Baumgartner lives in Inverness with his wife, Mary Jean, who is founder and co-owner of Artists Incorporated gallery.
Baumgarter grew up in Mountain Brook in the Crestline Heights community. He attended Ramsay High School and was a multi-sport athlete, playing baseball, football, basketball and running track.
One of his coaches at Ramsay was the legendary Thomas “Mutt” Reynolds. “Coach Reynolds meant so much to me, not just at school but away from school,” Baumgartner said. “He was like my second father.”
While at Ramsay, Baumgartner’s most unforgettable moment was a record-setting punt against Woodlawn.
“The ball was on our 1- or 2-yard line and I was in the end zone,” Baumgartner said. “I punted and the ball went over the receiver’s head and into the end zone. The receiver was Bobby Bowden.”
It was a 98-yard punt, but back in those days the punter was given credit for the net yardage. Even so, it was a memorable kick. “I still get calls about it,” Baumgartner said.
And Bowden remembers.
“I met him for the first time on an airplane,” Baumgartner said. “I recognized him, and he recognized me. He mentioned the punt. He said he turned around and ran, but he couldn’t catch it.
“I’ve seen him several times since then at golf tournaments.”
Taking His Shot
Right after his high school graduation ceremony in 1950 ended, Baumgartner and several other baseball players from Alabama, including former Woodlawn and Alabama star Deacon Jones, were taken to Detroit by Tigers’ scout Bill Pierre for a tryout.
“The Tigers were on the road, so we had the stadium to ourselves,” Baumgartner said. “There were about 35 or 40 of us. I saw some really good ballplayers.
“We had races, throwing programs, fielding programs and hitting. They put together teams against other teams. That’s the most fun I have ever had.”
Baumgartner was rated the No. 2 prospect following the tryout and at the age of 19 signed a professional contract. “I signed for a lot less money than I should have signed for,” he said.
After the signing, the Tigers sent Baumgartner to its minor league ballclub in Jamestown, New York, where he hit .307 with six home runs in 65 games.
In the off-season, Baumgartner attended the University of Alabama and got to know Frank Lary and Al Worthington, two Crimson Tide ballplayers who later reached the majors.
The next few years, Baumgartner went to spring training with the Tigers in Lakeland, Florida, and he finally made Detroit’s opening day roster in 1953.
“We were about to go north to start the season when I finally got my major league contract,” Baumgartner said. “I checked my box at the hotel and saw the contract. It didn’t say for how much money, but it’s something I wanted all my life. It was a shining moment.”
Baumgartner started the first seven games of the regular season at third base for Detroit, collecting five hits, all singles, in 27 at bats and scoring three runs.
He was sent back to the minors and spent the rest of his professional career there, traveling by bus and train. “I liked traveling on the train,” he said. “You could do some good sleeping.”
In 657 minor league games, Baumgartner batted .261 with 624 hits, including 42 home runs.
During his career, Baumgartner had a number of encounters with famous ballplayers, including Al Kaline, Johnny Pesky, Bob Feller, Jim Bunning and Ted Williams. Kaline and Pesky were on the Tigers’ team when Baumgartner made his big league debut, and he played with Bunning in the minors.
“Jim and I were close friends,” Baumgartner said.
There’s a photo of Baumgartner and Williams hanging in the conference room at Rickwood. Williams had come to Rickwood Field in 1950 for two exhibition games between the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates. Williams gave Baumgartner some batting tips, then demonstrated to Baumgartner how it’s done by hitting two home runs in each of the two games.
Following the 1955 season, Baumgartner gave up on his dream of making it back to the big leagues.
“The truth of the matter is I could never beat the curveball,” he said. “I could play all the positions except catcher.
“I finally realized playing in the majors again was not going to happen. It took me years to get over it. I don’t know if I am over it now.”
Following his playing career, Baumgartner returned to Birmingham and worked as a salesman in the painting industry and for Baggett Transportation. He retired about 20 years ago.
“Playing professional baseball was a shining time in my life,” Baumgartner said.