"Honestly, growing up in the ‘30s, I really thought I was a better basketball player, which is sort of funny now," laughed King, not sure that he could've spent the better part of seven decades in a gymnasium. "I really never thought too much of my abilities until I was older, when Mr. Rickey told me I was good enough."
More on that momentarily. King's arrival in Chapel Hill in 1942 has somewhat of a movie set feel to it. A wide-eyed teenage athlete from a small town set among the tobacco fields and pig farms of Eastern North Carolina arrives on a scenic college campus during a magical time. The country is united in its war efforts, and hundreds of preflight students and troops are training and living in Chapel Hill. You can almost see King standing at the bus stop as the Greyhound pulls away, perhaps a suitcase in one hand and his coat over his other shoulder—a Norman Rockwell painting brought to life.
"I slept on the bench in front of Steele Dorm the first night I was in Chapel Hill — I'll never forget that," King recalled from his room at the Waterfront Radisson in Tampa, where he and his dear wife Norma spent their customary month at Spring Training, watching his beloved New York Yankees loosen up. King, 83, is a member of the New York Yankees Advisory Board and a special assignment scout. "All non-scholarship students were supposed to sleep in the basement of Lenoir in bunks, but they didn't have those set up yet.
"I didn't have a scholarship of any kind, so I had to serve breakfast to the preflight boys (cadets) in Lenoir Hall every morning at 5:30," he continued. "But that got me my meals, and made me a little extra change."
King played freshman basketball for coach Al Mathes, maintaining a daily schedule that began with serving breakfast, followed by a day full of classes, baseball practice, basketball practice, serving dinner, studying, and sleep. At one point he was ready to head home, exhausted and homesick. "Five or six" cars passed him by as he tried to thumb a ride home to Goldsboro, through with Chapel Hill. The only car to stop belonged to Mathes, who drove King around town and talked him into staying.
"The rule at the time was that a freshman couldn't go home during their first six weeks of college," said King. "That day, that ride, truly was a divine intervention. Had any one of those other cars given me a ride, who knows how my life would've played out. But Coach Mathes picking me up and talking me into staying in Chapel Hill — a greater power made that happen."
In the spring of 1944 gas rationing played a pivotal role in how America operated. Limiting gasoline usage because of war needs, Americans consolidated in many ways, oftentimes taking on additional roles in their professional lives. One such individual was Lieutenant Commander Howie Haak of the physical therapy subdivision in the preflight school, a former baseball player in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Referred to by King as a "bird dog" scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Haak would also umpire local "Ration League" games — the league, designed to save gasoline by limiting travel, was comprised of baseball squads from Duke, Wake Forest (then in its original location), UNC, NC State, and the preflight program. After King played in one such game against Duke, Haak sat him down in the dugout.
"He told me he could help me play in the big leagues," said King. "Heck, I wanted so desperately to help out in the War, but I couldn't pass the vision test — I even memorized the eye chart one time to try and slide by. But this was a chance for me to do something special."
Haak arranged for a tryout in Brooklyn, and the rest, as is often said, is history. Haak gave King a ride to Raleigh, and put him on a train to New York City on June 19, 1944. Instructed to get off at Pennsylvania Station and hail a cab to 215 Montague Street (offices for the Brooklyn Dodgers), King arrived in the middle of Manhattan carrying a beat-up suitcase with a bumper sticker reading "Beat Dook" stuck to its side.
"I met with Branch Rickey [President and General Manager of the Dodgers] and he took me over to Ebbets Field, and I worked out with Manager Leo Durocher — I didn't have a uniform, so they just gave me a pair of cleats and I did a 50-pitch workout wearing my slacks and shirt," laughed King, always a clever storyteller. "Afterwards, Durocher was pleased, and Rickey asked me to sign.
"When he asked about a signing bonus, I had no idea what to say — so I just threw $5,000 out there, expecting him to laugh," King continued. "He immediately told his secretary to cut me a check, and I was officially a Dodger."
Understand that Clyde King went from being a Tar Heel to a Brooklyn Dodger in one day's time. If that isn't cinematic enough for you, it should be explained that King pitched in the very first big league game he ever attended, against the cross-town New York Giants, the very next day. He would remain with the big league club until the War's end — he made several trips to the minor leagues, but spent the better part of six seasons pitching in Brooklyn. His years as a Dodger could best be described as magical — Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson were two of his closest friends, and King's wife, Norma, whom he met in Chapel Hill, would befriend Rachel Robinson during her husband's color barrier-breaking experience.
If you are an old-time, tradition-rich baseball fan, a conversation with King is a fantasy trip. Stories of train rides from Chicago to St. Louis, pitching against Musial and Ott, how to keep Richie Ashburn from stealing second, shagging flies with Duke Snider and "Campy" before a game — one cannot create a cupboard of such fantastic tales. To this day, King's best friend is Ralph Branca, a former All-Star inauspiciously remembered for one fatal moment. In August of 1951, King developed soreness in his throwing shoulder, likely an unidentifiable case of rotator cuff problems. He was a valuable contributor for Brooklyn that season, winning 14 games out of the bullpen, with the occasional spot start. As King watched his good friend enter a pennant-deciding playoff game in the 9th inning, he knew he could have been the one taking the hill at the fabled Polo Grounds.
"It could've easily been me coming in at that spot — we went into the bottom of the 9th up 4-1," said King. "I'll never forget the sound of that ‘crack' as the ball left Bobby Thomson's bat — what a moment."
One of the most famous, and infamous moments in baseball history, in fact. King would pitch in the Majors through the 1953 season, ending his playing career as a Cincinnati Red. Clearly someone strong in instructional and communication skills, King was a natural fit for coaching and managing. He had many stops — he began as Manager of the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association in 1955. He coached in Pittsburgh during the 1960s, working closely with Maseroski, Stargell, and Clemente. After managing several minor league teams, his big league managerial career began in 1969 with the San Francisco Giants. King coached Mays, McCovey, and company, leading them to a second-place finish in '69, but he was fired after only 44 games the following season.
"I remember that summer of 1970 so well — it was the first summer in my entire adult life that I ever spent at home in Goldsboro," said King, who recently established a baseball scholarship at Carolina. "I really cherished that summer that I spent with my [three] girls and my wife. Good things were around the corner."
Indeed they were. At the All-Star Break in 1974, a mere three months after Hank Aaron hit homer No. 715, King took over the struggling Atlanta Braves for manager Eddie Matthews. The team, riddled with talent the likes of Hank Aaron, Dusty Baker, Phil Neikro, Davey Johnson, and a young Tony LaRussa, would finish the second half of the season with the best record in the National League. Clyde King was the only manager to ever coach both Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.
King exited Atlanta upon Ted Turner's acquisition of the team before the 1976 season. His next stop would be his last, and the happy marriage continues today. King joined the New York Yankees in the fall of 1976, just prior to their match-up with Sparky Anderson's Big Red Machine in the World Series. His love for the Yankees is only matched by his fondness and admiration for their owner, the colorful and seemingly misunderstood George Steinbrenner.
"He is a brilliant and articulate man, a tireless worker, a hands-on type boss and always — I repeat always — knows what's going on with his ball club," said King in his 1999 biography, "A King's Legacy." "The Boss doesn't ask people to do anything that he would not do himself.
"Mr. Steinbrenner is one of the most generous men I have ever known," King continued. "It would be impossible to count the number of young people he has helped through college. Suffice it to say, he has shared with those who are in need."
And Steinbrenner's ties to UNC and his aforementioned generosity have received spotlight and acclaim over recent years. In 2006, the Steinbrenner family pledged $1 million to name the courtyard to the entrance at Boshamer Stadium, home of the baseball Tar Heels. Steinbrenner brought the Yankees to Boshamer in 1977, 1979, and 1981 to play exhibition games against UNC — his two daughters were Morehead Scholars in Chapel Hill, his granddaughter Haley is currently a Morehead, and his son-in-law Steve Swindal [married to Jenny], who now effectively runs the Yankee organization, is a graduate of Carolina. The ties between the most successful franchise in sports history and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are many.
"I remember when they were talking about making the gift for the courtyard, and I met with Mr. Steinbrenner and Dick Baddour, as well as Coach [Mike] Fox and some others," King recalled. "Coach Fox told me later that he was nervous before the meeting, but once he saw me in the room he felt much more comfortable."
During his 31 years with the Yankees, Clyde King has played a number of roles — a utility man, to borrow an appropriate term. He has served as a scout and as a coach, as general manager and even as manager in 1982, between stints by Billy Martin. He was in the dugout for Reggie Jackson's three-homerun game against the Dodgers in '77 and for Bucky Dent's unlikely homer in Fenway in '78. He served as referee a number of times, sending Martin and Jackson to their separate corners during their much publicized clubhouse disputes. He worked closely with Guidry and Righetti, Winfield and Mattingly, Nettles and Munson. And King's advice to Rickey Henderson, the stolen base king, is unforgettable.
"I get on Rickey every spring to slide feet-first, but he just won't listen," King said in the mid '80s, a time during which he infected this author with pinstripe fever. "About once a week he's jamming his fingers on the bag when he slides head-first, but I think he likes the look of the dirt on his jersey. Can you believe that?!"
As fate would have it, I'm a close friend of King's grandson — Jay Blackman — a former student manager for the men's basketball team at Carolina (1993-98). As a groomsman at his wedding in 2006 on the North Carolina coast, I couldn't resist sitting on the porch at the beach, talking baseball with a man devoted to his university, his family, his Yankees, and his sport.
"How about those Tar Heels coming so close?" said King, referencing Carolina's run in the 2006 College World Series. "My time in Chapel Hill turned my life around. I'm so proud of those boys — it was so great seeing Coach [Roy] Williams there cheering them on! What a school."
Clyde King was headed home to Goldsboro in 1942, homesick with one thumb out. Had it not been for coach Al Mathes behind the wheel with sage advice, an entirely different path would have been cut, and many lives would have turned out differently. He married a young lady he met as an undergrad, has three daughters and eight grandchildren, six World Series rings (all with New York), and countless memories of timeless baseball moments.
"It was divine intervention, I tell you it was," King reiterated. "The Good Lord works in mysterious ways."
So sayeth the King.