Personality Profile

Ron Campbell was a Cub at heart

RICHARD ROBERTS Banner Sports Editor
Posted 3/16/15

You won’t find Ron Campbell's sculpted plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame since the majority of his tour of professional baseball was spent in the minor leagues.

But his eyes still light up …

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Personality Profile

Ron Campbell was a Cub at heart

Posted

You won’t find Ron Campbell's sculpted plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame since the majority of his tour of professional baseball was spent in the minor leagues.

But his eyes still light up when he talks about his 11-year career with the Chicago Cubs organization, the big-name friends he made and his home run — his only homer — as a pro ball player.

A Meigs County native, Campbell grew up in Decatur where he attended Meigs County High School before moving on to Athens’ Tennessee Wesleyan to play baseball and basketball.

He began playing baseball at 13 with a Hiwassee League semipro team where his name became well known in baseball circles across the region. Campbell said he didn’t feel his was much of a standout talent at the time.

“I was average,” he said of his ability.

Campbell soon garnered the attention of University of Tennessee assistant football coach Bobby Proctor. Of course, it wasn’t Campbell’s talent on the baseball diamond that caught Proctor’s eye during a city/county All-Star football game. But good to his word, Campbell stayed with his original commitment to Tennessee Wesleyan.

“I had a pretty good game and he offered me a football scholarship. But I wanted to play baseball. I could go to Wesleyan and play basketball and sign a baseball scholarship,” said the 1984 TWC Hall of Fame inductee. “I went to Wesleyan and signed to play baseball at the end of my freshman year. I probably would have played baseball at UT, but I didn’t go up there. I had already told (TWC benefactor) Scott Mayfield Sr., I would go to Wesleyan. I had already kind of committed, and I didn’t want to back out.”

Campbell’s baseball career went just fine until 35 players were ruled ineligible during his sophomore season, a ruling that was changed a couple of years later.

“We had a good baseball team and a pretty good basketball team. We did pretty good. Carson-Newman was the horse back then, but we competed with them,” Campbell recalled.

Campbell got his start in professional baseball in a way he never expected — while playing in a basketball tournament in Middle Tennessee.

“The way that worked out, I was playing basketball in a state tournament in Nashville and a scout for the (Chicago) Cubs was there. He had heard about me playing baseball, but had never seen me. He invited me to Morristown to a rookie league and I went 3 for 4 in an exhibition game and he signed me the next day,” Campbell said of his first major league contract in 1960.

The young ballplayer collected a hefty $24,000 signing bonus to join the Cubs’ Morristown Rookie League team.

“The way they cut it, I got about $5,000 of that, plus my salary. Back then, I think I started out at $850 a month which wasn’t bad,” he said of the new payday.

Following his year in Morristown, Campbell headed north for C-League baseball in St. Cloud, Minn. From there, he traveled west for B-League baseball in Wenatchee, Wash., and moved to the Southwest to AA ball in Amarillo, Texas. He started his AAA baseball on the move again, heading north to Salt Lake City, Utah, and then to Tacoma, Wash., before completing the four-year cycle and heading to the major leagues.

The call to join the big club in Chicago came when Cubs second baseman Ron Santo broke his jaw and Campbell was on the road. It was Sept. 1, 1964, and Campbell expected to ride the bench his first day with the team, and stayed up until 4:30 a.m. talking to a coach after the previous night’s game. Things didn’t quite work out the way he anticipated.

“Charlie Graham, one of our coaches, called me to the room after the ballgame and talked to me until 4:30 in the morning. I was leaving at 5:30 flying to Cincinnati. I thought I wouldn’t be playing, so when I arrived I ran around with the guys. Lo and behold, I was in the lineup that night facing old Jim Maloney. And he could bring it. He had a good fastball.”

The newest Cubs rookie went 0-for-8 before his first big-league hit — a single against the Reds — produced his first RBI. Three weeks later, Campbell garnered his first three-hit game while playing against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

His first stint with the Cubs saw him at second base, where he wasn’t very comfortable, and he committed an error his first time out.

“I was a third baseman,” he says of what he considered his natural position. “I played shortstop and second, but I wasn’t real good there. I was a pretty good third baseman, though,” he said.

Walking into a professional clubhouse can certainly be a daunting experience for the “new kid” the first day. But Campbell said his experience wasn’t so bad even though he still felt a little lost coming from a small town to a big city like Chicago.

When Campbell walked into the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, a virtual Who’s Who of Chicago Cubs baseball was already ensconced in the clubhouse. Names like Lew Burdette, Joey Amalfitano, Don Kessinger, Ron Santo, Lou Brock, Billy Williams and “Mr. Cub” himself, Ernie Banks, were there to size up the new guy.

“It was kind of weird. When I first got there it was strange, an old country boy being in a town like that. It was kind of awkward,” he recalled. “But, they treated me real good. They always treated rookies pretty good. The guys who made money would always take you out and feed you, because they knew we were struggling to get by.”

While playing baseball in the Windy City, Campbell had the privilege of playing on the same team as Ferguson Jenkins, Randy Hundley and Glen Beckert, as well.

His first trip to “the bigs” lasted only as long as it took Santo’s jaw to heal. Campbell returned, however, at the end of the season.

While playing baseball at Wrigley Field, Campbell was under the leadership of Bob Kennedy and the legendary Leo Durocher, who was known as much for his catchy quotes as his managing.

“Leo and I didn’t get along. Nobody could get along with Leo,” Campbell said through a chuckle. “Leo was bad news. But he was a good manager.”

Although his baseball career never blossomed as he hoped and he didn’t see enough time in the big leagues to draw a pension, Campbell looks back on his time as a professional baseball player with fondness, particularly the day he smacked his one and only homer in the majors, on Sept. 6, 1964.

On an afternoon when his then wife and some friends from Meigs County made the trip to Cincinnati, Campbell stood in against St. Louis Cardinals left-hander Ray Sadecki. Campbell made the trip worthwhile for his friends and family when he deposited a Sadecki pitch over the fence.

“I guess that was my most exciting day,” he said. “I don’t remember what the count was, but I remember it was a curve ball.”

He looks back at Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax as the two best players he faced and drops the name Don Drysdale as another pitcher to be reckoned with back in the day.

“The hit off Gibson was probably luck. Gibson had a slider just like a fastball. It didn’t break much. He was hard to deal with,” he recalled. “I did get a hit off Gibson but I don’t recall getting one off Sandy and I was about half afraid to face Drysdale; he’d knock you on your butt over nothing. He didn’t want anybody crowding that plate. He had a good curve ball, but he didn’t have anything like Gibson. Gibson had a good slider, a sharp curve and a fastball that would run in on you.”

Campbell played most of 1965 in the minor leagues, but made an appearance against the San Francisco Giants in a doubleheader in which he produced a hit in each game. He went back to the Cubs twice in ’66, to fill in for Santo and Kessinger. On his last day as a major league player, he booked his second and last three-hit game while playing the New Yok Mets in a doubleheader. He finished his time in the majors with a .247 batting average with one homer and 14 RBIs.

“In the major leagues, I was more of a bench warmer than anything, to be honest,” he said with a laugh.

He still managed to make friends with many recognizable names. He counts former Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro as one, as well as Tim McCarver.

Campbell’s travels in professional baseball led him to time with the Pittsburgh Pirates AAA club in 1968-70 before he finally decided to hang up the cleats for good. He finished his minor league career with a .269 batting average and .942 fielding percentage.

“I didn’t think I was going to get back to the major leagues and I was wanting to get home and start a new career,” he said.

He successfully ran for a Meigs County trustee position and stayed in that capacity for eight years while running a tractor-trailer tire retread business. These days, Campbell is content to do nothing but relax and watch baseball.

“I’m content to sit on my recliner and watch TV,” he said. “I still watch a lot of baseball. I guess the Braves are my favorite team. I don’t watch the Cubs that much. Bobby Cox and I were real good friends. I thought that rascal would give me a chance to get my time in (to collect a pension), but it didn’t work out that way.”

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