By Trey Williams
It’s often been said that life is what happens while you have other plans, and Charlie Bailey can attest.
Bailey started in basketball and baseball at Science Hill (class of 1967) despite beginning his career in the Johnson City school system while wishing he was still attending nearby Lamar. And he started two years for the East Tennessee State baseball team after being on the ETSU basketball team two years – after briefly beginning his career at Carson-Newman, where he initially intended to play basketball and baseball.
And Bailey would’ve liked to have been a high school basketball head coach, but the timing was such that he ended up coaching the Science Hill baseball program for a nine-year stint that included a state runner-up finish in 1981.
Bailey reunited with some of those players Saturday at Memorial Park at a reunion that materialized thanks to Jimmy Williams, a backup catcher on Bailey’s ’81 team and the starting catcher when the Hilltoppers were ranked No. 1 and won a school-record 32 games in 1982.
Players from all nine of Bailey’s teams (1980-88) attended the reunion.
“Jimmy has always been a kind person, a thoughtful person,” Bailey said. “For him to put this all together, I can’t put it into words how much it meant to me. Tony Shade came all the way from Louisville, Kentucky – he and his wife. Mike Williams came all the way from Hilton Head.
“It was the only reunion I’ve ever been to that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was such a special day, just a blessing. I told the folks there that the only thing that could’ve made it better was if Jeff Forney could’ve been there.”
Forney, who went on to play in his beloved Cincinnati Reds organization and coach at Notre Dame and with the Arizona Diamondbacks, died unexpectedly last year.
Bailey’s wife of 52 years, Diana, also died last year after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. Bailey’s loving affection and dedication during that protracted process made inspiration of a nightmare.
“I can still get choked up,” he said Sunday night.
Time is good medicine for grief, and the four hours Bailey spent Saturday, nearly 11 months after Diana’s death, made smiling easy.
“I always hoped they were learning more than baseball,” Bailey said. “I hoped they were taking some things they learned that would make them responsible citizens. And the ones that were there are all good citizens, good fathers – just like a son you’d want to have.”
Bailey wasn’t thrilled when his parents told him he was going to begin attending Johnson City Schools. He’d grown up “two fields away” from Lamar, and was an avid spectator while watching the likes of Doug Howell and dreaming of being a Cherokee.
“I went to all the basketball games on the bus with the players,” Bailey said. “I had an uncle that played there. And I went to the baseball games as a batboy. … I made a lot of lifelong friends down there. In fact, when we moved to Johnson City (in the fifth grade) I didn’t want to go to city schools. I was going to go back to Lamar, but mom and dad weren’t going to let that happen.”
Science Hill gained a slick-fielding infielder and savvy point guard. Bailey was all-conference in basketball and baseball. The Hilltoppers basketball team, which included juniors James Percy Hairston and Sammy “Dee Dee” Stuart and senior Jim “Curly” Thomas, advanced to the state semifinals during Bailey’s senior season. They lost 45-41 in Stokely Athletic Center to Holston, which was led by future Tennessee Volunteers player Jimmy England.
Bailey was coached by former Tennessee player Elvin Little, a fiery competitor who led the ‘Toppers program from 1960-79.
“With Charlie it was like having a coach on the floor,” the late Little said in 2012. “He had great vision, great peripheral vision. I believe he could see the floor better than anybody I ever coached outside of (Steve) Spurrier. He was a born leader and a great competitor.”
Stuart, a Bluefield State Hall of Famer for football and basketball, stressed Bailey’s value on the hardwood.
“Look here, Charlie Bailey could play some basketball,” Stuart said. “He could handle the ball, he was a good passer and he was smart.”
Bailey played baseball on John Broyles’ final team his senior season and started at shortstop two years for Joe Shipley at ETSU. Bailey was two years into basketball with the Buccaneers when Shipley saw him hit a bloop single over first base off former major league pitcher Jim Constable.
“He wasn’t throwing as hard then, of course,” Bailey said.
Bailey had briefly been the third guard for Madison Brooks’ basketball team after the seniors departed following his sophomore season, but he “saw the writing on the wall” when some junior college recruits were signed.
“I played baseball for Conklin and we were playing in the state tournament down at Magnavox in Greeneville,” Bailey said. “Magnavox always won that thing, but we ended up beating them in the first game down there. And by chance, Coach Shipley was in the stands.
“At the time we were living in University Apartments, right across from where Coach Shipley lived, and he came over to the apartment one day and said, ‘What are they giving you in basketball?’ I told him and he said, ‘If I gave you the same thing, would you play baseball?’ And I said, ‘Where do I sign, Coach?’”
Bailey’s love of baseball blossomed while playing for the Buccaneers.
“I started at shortstop two years out there and enjoyed every minute of it,” Bailey said.
Bailey initially signed to play basketball for Dick Campbell at Carson-Newman. Little had coached Gil Luttrell on a state championship team at Lenoir City in 1958, and Luttrell had an All-American career for Campbell’s Eagles. But Campbell left to become the head coach at The Citadel during the summer before Bailey began school, and he was back at ETSU the first week.
He was a freshman when Harley “Skeeter” Swift and the Bucs beat Dave Cowens-led Florida State to get to the Sweet 16, and the Bucs won at No. 9 Duke the following year during Swift’s senior season. Bailey recalled Swift forcing overtime with a 70-footer in a home win against Austin Peay.
“Skeeter didn’t throw it,” Bailey said. “He shot it with two hands – from probably about the head of the free throw circle on the far end of the court.”
Bailey was a basketball assistant 11 years under Little and Dennis Greenwell.
“I’ve never seen anyone that was any more intense and making sure the little things were done right (that Coach Little),” Bailey said. “Above all, you gave effort for him. … I always felt like he had confidence in me. … George Pitts always reminded me of Coach Little a lot with his intensity and preparation.”
Bailey was the Science Hill athletic director 10 years (1990-99). Among the accomplishments on his watch were Pitts’ three state basketball championships and a state baseball title with Bernie Young.
Bailey has often said if Science Hill had one more day of rain in 1981, he would’ve won a state title. But the sun came out in Memphis and strong-armed ace Mark Elrod wasn’t available for the championship game.
But Bailey certainly felt like a champion reuniting with some of those players Saturday. Billy Patton, who went on to become an All-Southern conference center fielder for Charley Lodes at ETSU, was one in attendance Saturday. He played on Bailey’s first baseball team in 1980 when the Hilltoppers had their first losing season in 42 years.
“In our sophomore year we had a losing record,” Patton said. “Coach Bailey took us up to Sullivan East to play summer league. Some of us switched positions. And by the time the summer was over, at least in my case, my confidence level was so much higher than when the season ended.
“And that next year, by the time the season was over, we were state runner-up. Coach Bailey’s belief in us was responsible for that, and I will always be grateful to him for that.”