John Shearer: Nonagenarian Jim Worthington To Throw Out Pitch At Upcoming Vols’ Game

  • Monday, April 22, 2024
  • John Shearer

For 98-year-old former Tennessee Vol baseball player and former Chattanoogan Jim Worthington, life has certainly not thrown him a curve ball, as he has managed to land safely wherever he has been.

“I always said that I believe the Holy Spirit was one step ahead of me all along my path,” said the former Baylor School head football coach and UTC assistant with a chuckle of feeling like he has been watched over all his life.

Mr. Worthington, who still lives independently in an Atlanta townhome after living in Chattanooga for decades, is believed to be the oldest known UT letterman not only in baseball, but also any sport, according to UT athletics staff historian Bud Ford.

He is also scheduled to be recognized along with other baseball lettermen at a UT home game May 18 against South Carolina, UT officials said. His family has also confirmed that he is scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch that game.

Mr. Worthington, who is hoping to attend along with some of his family, said he was honored to play for Tennessee, a program that has produced such major leaguers as Todd Helton, Phil Garner, Rick Honeycutt, and Chris Burke. But the opportunity almost did not happen and required a little proverbial pinch-hitting from the best-known man on the UT campus at the time – Gen. Robert Neyland.

Forget breaking into the baseball lineup, if he had not been helped by the football coach, he might not have even become a UT student. As he recalled in a recent phone interview, Mr. Worthington had spent his younger years in Knoxville off Western Avenue near campus but later moved to Sheffield in Northwest Alabama after his father, who had operated Knoxville Plumbing Co., took a job with TVA.

But his childhood love for the Vols never wavered, so he tried to enroll at UT a year or so after World War II ended and after a stint in the service and helping his high school coach.

However, UT at that time was overrun with male veterans returning from the war and going to school on the GI Bill. As a result, the registrar’s office told him they only had room for in-state students.

Like a determined batter down 0-2 in the count, though, he kept trying. “I wasn’t going to be defeated that easily,” he recalled with pride. “I went to see Gen. Neyland, and he invited me into his office. We talked a while and I said, ‘Gen. Neyland, I hoped I could try out for the baseball team.’

“And the next thing I know, he said, ‘Go to the registrar’s office and tell them I said to admit you to UT.’ So I told the registrar what Gen. Neyland said, and he said, ‘If Gen. Neyland said you are in, you are in.’ “

But he still had other obstacles to overcome. The varsity baseball program at UT was just getting started again in 1947 after being paused during the war after the 1942 season, but a lot of interest existed in playing. He said he went up to the coach, Ike Peel, a former UT football blocking back, and told him of his interest and that he was a catcher. Peel told him good luck, that the team had 18 catchers.

However, he went on to become a contributing catcher for three years before not playing his senior year due to a schedule conflict with his student teaching at Tyson Junior High, he said.

He remembered that the team did not have an official field initially. They played at Caswell Park and would either practice in a gym or on an old field on campus. In fact, he recalled that the first time they had any live hitting was the first game. However, they managed to go 13-6 their first year, the UT annual said.

The coach the remainder of his time playing baseball was S.W. “Cy” Anderson. “He was always immaculately dressed,” Worthington recalled, adding that he would sit outside the dugout during games. “During practice he would talk for 15 or 20 minutes and talk strategy. He was a good baseball teacher.”

According to some information from Mr. Ford, Mr. Worthington played in three games his freshman year, and 14 both his sophomore and junior years. No official stats were catalogued until beginning in the 1951 season, Mr. Ford added.

The Vols struggled a little with 4-18-1 and 6-12 records his last two years, but coach Anderson eventually got the program going, as UT was runner-up in the College World Series in 1951 after Mr. Worthington had left. That was also the first year UT had its own on-campus field, Lower Hudson Field, which sat where the current field, Lindsey Nelson Stadium, sits today, Mr. Ford said.

While at UT, Mr. Worthington was also president of the Sigma Epsilon Omicron organization and was involved in the T Club for lettermen. He is pictured in the former group photograph in a UT annual wearing the same letter sweater he still owns.

A catcher who played for the Vols right after Mr. Worthington was Ed Bailey, who went on to enjoy a 14-year major league career, including several seasons with the Cincinnati Reds. (As a sidenote, my wife, Laura, and I lived in Mr. Bailey’s former mid-century ranch home in the West Hills area of Knoxville from 2005-17.)

Mr. Worthington, who had a little speed, also recalled jokingly about his own time at UT that no NIL deals to financially compensate the players existed, although some players worked in the cafeteria for free meals.

While at UT, his conversational friendship also continued with Gen. Neyland, who would come to the games and was a big baseball fan. A former pitcher, he told Mr. Worthington of occasionally getting into trouble at West Point and throwing baseballs into a pillow in his quarters while not allowed to play.

Coach Neyland offered Mr. Worthington a football scouting position after graduation, but he honored a family commitment building a family home in Sheffield and ended up teaching and coaching several sports at Sparta and then McMinnville in Tennessee. While he tried to positively influence young men and others, someone ended up having a strong influence on him in Sparta.

The chairman of the school board in Sparta, Ralph Hudson, asked him to come by his office to borrow a truck. While there, he introduced the young bachelor to a young woman named Sallye Webb, who worked for Mr. Hudson. She had been a former homecoming queen, cheerleader, and top student at White County High in Sparta.

A romance soon developed, and marriage would follow. “I don’t think I ever thought clearly after that,” he joked.

They would raise three sons – Jim, Bob and Bill – and she would later become a somewhat pioneering woman entrepreneur in Chattanooga with Athletic Specialties, which would do work like providing letters for letter jackets for high school teams. She even did specialty work for such clients as Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Burt Reynolds, according to her obituary published following her death in 2017.

Coach Worthington ended up in Chattanooga after he was in McMinnville. Word of his coaching skills had evidently spread, and as is sometimes the case, his potential future involved both McCallie and Baylor. He said McCallie headmasters Spencer and Park McCallie had invited him down to McCallie for an interview, and at the end of his visit, they drew up a contract for him to sign.

He was flattered at the offer but asked if he could go home and talk to his wife, and that he would let them know Monday after thinking about it over the weekend.

On Monday morning, he said, he was back at school in McMinnville in his first class, and a student came from the office telling him he had a call from a headmaster named Herb Barks from another Chattanooga school named Baylor. “I haven’t ever heard of Baylor before,” he said, adding that the principal was familiar with it from having coached at former Baylor military rival Tennessee Military Institute and told him more about it.

He ended up talking with Mr. Barks Sr. during a visit and realized that was a better situation for him and his blossoming family, so he arrived at Baylor in 1953.

“I came over and was impressed,” he said, adding that his wife also liked the handsome riverside campus and thought it would be a great community in which to raise a family. “Mr. Barks was easy going and straight to the point and had a lot of feeling for people. I couldn’t have found a better place in the world.”

Part of his reason for being in demand was that he was knowledgeable about the then-innovative split T offense that featured an offensive line spread or split farther apart than had been typical. He was to assist the successful head coach and business manager Humpy Heywood.

“Humpy and I got along amazingly well,” he said. “He left the offense to me, and he handled the defense.”

Baylor was a powerhouse at that time, with coach Heywood knowing a number of college coaches and would sometimes end up with several post-graduates and others who would eventually star at several colleges, particularly Georgia Tech. Mr. Worthington said Georgia Tech would recommend they come to Baylor for some further academic and sports enrichment.

Mr. Worthington would eventually become head football and head baseball coach at Baylor and was also a math teacher. By that time, he had already been featured at some coaching clinics, and some college coaches even wanted him on their staffs, his family said.

Unfortunately, Baylor during the 1960s when Coach Worthington headed the football program had different admissions standards and did not draw quite as many good football players as they had in the past or as they would in later years. Military prep schools in the late 1960s were also starting to wane in popularity before Baylor dropped its curriculum in 1971.

But coach Worthington did enjoy an undefeated team in 1963 that featured such players as future Georgia defensive star Happy Dicks, future Georgia Tech standout Jimmy Brown, UT commitment Rusty Kidd, and others.

After the 1969 season, coach Worthington began assisting the UTC football program for three seasons under coach Harold Wilkes before getting into real estate appraising work in Chattanooga. He also stayed active in sports as a fan watching his son, Bob, lead Baylor to a state and mythical national football championship in 1973 as a quarterback, and Billy’s son, also named Bobby, led Wesleyan School of Atlanta to a state football championship as the captain in 2008.

Mr. Worthington, who still exercises on a stationary bike, said he has enjoyed his retirement.

Regarding his secret to a long life, this man who also had several members of his mother’s family live long said he is not sure, other than good genetics. He said his doctor has tried to figure out his secret and has deduced he must have eaten right and lived right over the years. While he admits he has tried to eat well, he jokingly added he is not so sure about the latter.

Continuing to pull for all the Vols’ sports teams – including the currently successful UT baseball team under popular coach Tony Vitello -- has also given him plenty of positive emotional stimulation over the years and contributed to an overall positive life. And for all of it, he has been thankful, he added.

“I’ve lived a great life. I’ve been so fortunate,” he said.

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