By Trey Williams
Science Hill Hall of Famer Ferrell Bowman wasn’t the only East Tennessee State scholarship basketball player to play baseball for the San Francisco Giants.
Seven years before Atlee Hammaker pitched in the 1983 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, he arrived in Johnson City to play basketball for Sonny’s Smith Buccaneers – and baseball for the ETSU baseball team.
“I played baseball my freshman year as a favor to Sonny for Joe Shipley,” Hammaker said. “It wasn’t a heavy schedule. So I did it just to kind of satisfy that aspect of it, because they flew me up on baseball money to visit the school when I’s getting recruited because the basketball program didn’t have any money left. So baseball helped them out.”
Hammaker had no intention of playing baseball beyond his freshman season. He’d grown up in Northern Virginia, going across the bridge into Washington, D.C. for more stringent basketball competition the same way fellow Alexandrian and ETSU legend Harley “Skeeter” Swift had done.
When he was a teenager, Hammaker saw the chatty, sharpshooting Swift work camps. Oddly enough, Swift would go on to umpire some of Hammaker’s ETSU baseball games.
“Atlee was something,” the late Swift often said. “Rock and fire, fastballs at the knees. And then here comes the slider.”
Swift talked about as fast as Charley Lodes, who replaced Shipley as the ETSU baseball coach prior to Hammaker’s sophomore season.
“I had no plans on playing further than that (freshman season),” Hammaker said. “And Charley Lodes came in my sophomore year and pretty much begged me almost every day after basketball practice while they were working out in the cage. The cage was in the Minidome. So I’d come off the basketball court and he’d always come over and say, ‘I’d love for you to come over and throw a few minutes for me’ and ‘I’ve heard a lot about you’ and all this stuff.”
“Over a period of time, with enough nagging, I went over there and threw on the sideline for him,” Hammaker said. “And that’s when he said, ‘You’re crazy if you don’t quit basketball and play baseball.’ And so I said, ‘I don’t plan on quitting basketball,’ but that was encouraging on his part. At the same time, I really didn’t have the desire (to play baseball), but sometimes when somebody pursues you like that it kind of makes a difference. I ended up playing that year.”
Lodes recruited Hammaker with Smith’s blessing.
“I went to Sonny and said, ‘You’ve got a baseball player out here, Sonny. He’s got a chance to have a career,’” Lodes said. “And Sonny says, ‘Well, go ahead. He can work out with you after we finish practice.’ I said, ‘That’s fine. That’s all we need to do.’ And we worked out indoors all winter.”
Hammaker averaged 4.9 points per game as a sophomore in basketball while playing with the likes of Jim Smith, Scott Place, B.J. Johnson, Cat Watson and D.C. Smith. ETSU tied Middle Tennessee for the Ohio Valley Conference regular season title.
Hammaker transitioned almost seamlessly into baseball. In his debut in ’78 he allowed two runs in four innings against Northern Kentucky in Chipola, Florida. He’d played in the OVC basketball tournament against Western Kentucky the week before.
Lodes said he knew immediately that Hammaker had a chance to reach the majors.
“I knew he would be (that good),” Lodes said. “We worked him out after one practice in basketball. … He threw me seven fastballs and I said, ‘That’s all I need to see, Atlee.’”
Smith eventually encouraged Hammaker to pursue baseball after Cincinnati Reds scout Chet Montgomery, who’d played baseball and basketball at Western Kentucky, touted Hammaker’s talent.
“The summer between my sophomore and junior year Sonny Smith, of all people, came up to me in the spring and asked if I would consider going to Alaska to play summer baseball,” Hammaker said. “Sonny said that I was the starting two guard the next year regardless. So he thought it’d be good for me to get away. And a scout named Chet Montgomery for the Reds had been in contact with him and asked if he could help talk me into playing in Alaska in that summer league. …
“And that summer’s what changed everything, because I competed against guys from Arizona State, Cal-State Fullerton, guys that’d played all year round and they were pretty good players. I ended up going undefeated that summer and then got picked on the USA Team that summer to go play in the Pan Am Games.”
Sonny Smith also left ETSU for Auburn that summer. Hammaker never returned to the basketball court.
“They said Atlee had a chance to make a living playing baseball,” Smith said before prefacing the ensuing sentence with a chuckle. “I believe he took the right trail.”
Lodes quickly realized he might also have Hammaker for only two seasons. He was on seemingly every major-league organization’s radar after the summer of ’78.
“We had scouts at every game that was looking at Atlee,” Lodes said. “One night we’s playing Clemson, I think, at Cardinal Park, and there was 42 scouts there, primarily to watch Atlee and the right-handed pitcher (Clemson’s Tony Masone). They had a great program. And Atlee just stuck it to them that night and had a great game.”
Clemson was ranked No. 5 in the country for the matchup, which was actually at J. Fred Johnson Stadium in Kingsport. Hammaker left leading 6-4 after eight innings, but the Bucs’ bullpen gave up four runs in the ninth thanks, in part, to two errors.
The following month, Hammaker was drafted in the first round (21st overall) by the Kansas City Royals.
Not bad for a guy that’d arrived in Johnson City on a basketball scholarship three years earlier. Hammaker considered signing with Virginia Tech for basketball.
“Virginia Tech offered,” Hammaker said. “But the reason I chose East Tennessee State was the opportunity to play for Sonny and playing early. I had some other options, but I didn’t know if they’d be conducive to playing time right away. And Sonny had a great personality. We got along really well from the onset.”
Hammaker and the fiery Lodes didn’t get along well from the get-go, but they bonded in time.
“He did come up with a huge vision and salesmanship,” Hammaker said. “And he had John Whited (pitching coach). Both were baseball guys. John Whited had obviously a good career in Kingsport and was well respected. He worked with the pitching staff, which really helped us. He was very knowledgeable and a nuts and bolts kind of guy. …
“Charley believed in me greatly. That’s the one that gave me the inspiration to keep going. He said, ‘You’re a big-league pitcher.’ At first I thought, ‘Man, this guy’s just trying to get me to play.’ … It made a huge difference in my sight, for sure. I owe a lot to him. …
“Did I give him a hard time? Yes. But that was more because of my immaturity and my attitude, and how I wanted to do what I wanted to do and that type of thing. As far as the game and his belief in me and where and how I ended up, it was all a possibilty— he gave me that vision that maybe I am that good, maybe I can do this.”