By Trey Williams
Three Major League Baseball players were born in Washington County during a two-year span beginning in 1933.
Two of those, Johnson City’s Joe McClain and the late Ferrell Bowman, have said the other – Jim Constable – probably had the best shot at a lengthy MLB career.
Constable, a hard-throwing left-handed pitcher, certainly seemed to believe he was born to reach the majors.
Constable’s youngest son Tim, who played shortstop on two state tournament teams for Lou Thornberry at University High in the mid-1980s, said his father went to St. Louis with his uncle Lawrence Miller to watch two World Series games when he was nine years old in 1942.
And the young Constable told Miller, who would later coach him at Jonesboro High School, that he would return to the majors.
“When he was nine years old in St. Louis,” Tim said, “dad told my uncle that he’d play in the majors one day.”
In a manner of speaking, Constable, who died in 2002, began in the farm leagues. He grew up on a farm in the New Victory section of Washington County near Telford. A less flattering name for at least a portion of New Victory back then was Shakerag.
Constable was a humble, soft-spoken man, but humble beginnings didn’t stunt his development. He’d throw walnuts at targets and hit rocks with garden stakes. Ghost runners were everywhere in Shakerag while he played make-believe games some 80 years before MLB’s imagination came up with ghost runners.
Constable’s father James died at 28 years of age when his son was five. James had suffered from a condition known as “manic depressive” in those days, a chemical imbalance that would hound his son as well.
But before his untimely death, Constable’s father had made a left-hander out of young Jimmy, who was born doing everything right-handed. And sure enough, by the time Constable was a 17-year-old senior for the Jonesboro Tigers, he struck out 104 batters in 50 innings while compiling a 7-2 record for his uncle, Lawrence Miller.
McClain, who pitched 212 innings for the Washington Senators in 1962, played at Science Hill when Constable was at Jonesboro (Jonesborough).
“We tried to get Mr. Miller to let him come up to Science Hill and play with us,” McClain said. “Well, if we’d had him up there we’d have won the state championship going away.”
Bowman and Constable, who Bowman and McClain referred to as “Sheriff,” ended up being teammates anyway when they were both San Francisco Giants in 1963.
“Me and the Sheriff roomed together there for 30 days at the Casa Mateo Inn,” Bowman said, “and they sent him to Tacoma.”
They got a kick out of being major-league teammates.
“The Sheriff said, ‘Boy, wonder what everybody back home thinks about us country boys,’” Bowman said.
Constable had begun his career with the Giants organization when it was still in New York. Scout Dale Alexander signed him out of high school in June of ’51.He was pitching for the Knoxville Smokies by the end of the week after receiving what the Knoxville Smokies business manager described as a sizeable bonus from New York.
Constable was pitching in the Polo Grounds five years later, coming in out of the bullpen for his MLB debut after getting the call from manager Leo Durocher.
Constable pitched with the Giants in 1956, ’57 and the beginning of ’58 – the year the organization moved to San Francisco. He got a chuckle out of the fact that he was there for the San Francisco parade when it moved in ’58, although he ended up the season in Cleveland after being released, and he was in the parade at the beginning of ’63 held for the Giants’ 1962 World Series team that he wasn’t on.
Bowman was certain half a century later that Constable even got voted a portion of the ’62 World Series share due to his popularity.
“I don’t know, maybe it was a quarter of a share or something,” Bowman said. “I remember the first thing Don Larsen said was, ‘How ‘bout the Sheriff?’ So they go around and start talking. Everybody loved the Sheriff.”
After finishing the ’58 season with Cleveland, Constable pitched in a winter league in Cuba, where he suffered a nervous breakdown in the winter of 1958-59. Castro was overtaking Batista, some of Constable’s earnings were apparently never recovered from a Cuban bank and he ended up in a hospital in Mexico.
Constable overcame the setback three years later. He signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League, and went 16-4 with a 2.56 ERA.
The late Charlie Leonard, a Dobyns-Bennett basketball and baseball standout who played 10 years in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, fondly recalled Constable’s inspirational rebound in Toronto.
“I did play against Constable in ’62 in Triple-A,” Leonard said. “He was playing for Toronto. They had Sparky Anderson. He wasn’t a real good player, but he came on to be a wonderful manager. They had guys that didn’t belong to an organization. They’d just sign ‘em as free agents. …
“Jim was, like, the top pitcher in the league. Man, he was tough. And he got the Most Valuable Player for Toronto and they gave him a new car. He ended up giving it to his half-brother, Johnny Hensley. He was real good baseball player, too. …
“So Milwaukee signed Jim (at the conclusion of the International League season). They had Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, Hank Aaron – all these guys in ’62. He pitched a shutout against Pittsburgh like a week after our season was over. I mean he just had a great arm.”
Indeed, Constable threw a five-hit shutout at Forbes Field against the Pittsburgh Pirates in September of ’62. He struck out Roberto Clemente twice. Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski and Bill Virdon accounted for three of the Pirates hits, although Constable usually fared well in the lefty-lefty matchups with Stargell. Constable went 3-4 with two saves in 98 career innings in the majors. He won 102 games in the minors, and 64 of those came in Triple-A for Minneapolis, Toronto and Tacoma.
“He was a fastball-slider pitcher,” McClain said. “I don’t recall him ever being able to throw a curveball. He had a like a stiff wrist or something, and he couldn’t snap the ball. But he had a strong arm.”
McClain said Constable was a low-key, likeable man.
“I guess we’s in American Legion ball maybe, and Jim used to sing ‘I’ll sail my ship alone,’” McClain said. “That was his theme song.”
And he sailed it to the top.