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The little team that could

August 12, 2005

Joe McAdory / Staff writer
Opelika-Auburn News
Article Online

1955 Auburn All-Stars made historic series trip

Auburn’s all-stars gazed in awe at San Diego’s giants the first time they met. The California champions were the Little League World Series favorites and the little team from Alabama wasn’t given much of a chance.

“We went to the airport and met their guys,” Ted Wilson, an Auburn businessman who played catcher on the team, recalled. “It seemed like we were all looking up at them. We thought, ‘oh my goodness.’”

But Auburn went from diminutive underdog to Williamsport, Pa., crowd favorite - stunning San Diego 4-1 as pitcher Arnold Umbach struck out the side in the first inning on the way to a commanding 15-strikeout performance. Auburn won two of three games and finished third in the 1955 Little League World Series.

This week marks the team’s 50th anniversary. Its feats were recognized Sunday during the Dixie Youth World Series opening ceremonies at Plainsman Park.

Auburn’s 1955 roster included Lewis Cherry, Berner Chesnutt, Tommy Flint, Buddy Hollis, James Neal, George Salter, Frank Salter, Frank Smith, Roger Tapley, Umbach, Stan Weldon, John Whatley, O’Neal Whitman, Ted Wilson and Fleming Wilson.
“We can relate to the boys and the girl who’s playing here,” Wilson said. “The night they had the opening ceremonies and to see them experience Tiger Walk, we got a thrill out of that. We’re just as excited for them.”

Auburn’s 1955 story is an inspiration to any team competing this week that came from a small stage to the big time.
“We were from a little town playing against teams from bigger towns,” Wilson said. “We were far and away the smallest town. I don’t think they took us that seriously. But when we went onto the field and Arnold pitched that first inning - we knew we had a chance to win.”

Coming from small ballparks in Alabama to the grandest youth stage of them all was quite a shock.

“We played on a couple of little fields,” Wilson said. “When we made it to Rome, Ga., (South Regionals) it still was little. But then we got to Williamsport. There were 6,000 to 8,000 people there. That’s an unbelievable crowd when you’re an 11-12-year-old kid who grew up in Auburn. We were in awe. I think that motivated us.”

Umbach, an Auburn attorney, said, “I don’t think we felt any pressure. It was more just being excited.”

Wilson ripped a three-run home run - the first of his Little League career - against San Diego. The win propelled the team into a semifinal matchup with Delaware Township, N.J., in a historical matchup for the World Series.

“When we played against New Jersey, we played the first integrated team to come to Williamsport,” Wilson said.
But pitcher Billy Hunter and New Jersey edged Auburn, 6-4. Today, Hunter serves as the NBA Player’s Union Representative.
Auburn was thrust into the consolation round, where it nipped Winchester, Mass., 1-0 behind Umbach’s pitching and Tapley’s seventh-inning single to score Frank Salter. Morrisville, Pa., went on to win the title, beating New Jersey 4-3.

Even in defeat, Auburn relished in their experience.
“The hosts at Williamsport made it easy for all of us,” Wilson said. “They made sure our players were housed in the same dorm and ate in the same dining hall. We swam together with the other teams and we all got to know each other.”
The Wilson-Umbach battery was unbeaten during the 1955 postseason. Part of the success may be attributed to an unlikely source - a sponge.

“He (Umbach) could throw hard,” Wilson said. “I was not his catcher in the regular season. I had a mitt with a thin pocket. I told his daddy (the legendary Swede Umbach) that my palm was black and blue. Then he brought me a sponge to put inside the mitt. They (Demopolis) laughed because I had this sponge. Then I thought, ‘You guys don’t even know what you’re about to see.’ He had a fastball that nobody could hit.”

Umbach struck out 18 in an easy Auburn win.

“A lot of the games come down to pitching,” said Umbach, who went on to pitch for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves. “Most Dixie Youth tournaments are double-elimination now, so you can’t have too much pitching.”

Wilson said chemistry is an important factor as well.
“I’m a sentimental guy,” he said. “Looking back on that team, and the chemistry of the guys that played together was as good as we could ask for. We peaked as 11-12-year-olds. We never got to that level again.”

Auburn’s 1956 all-stars earned a trip to Williamsport, but the team was eliminated by Massachusetts in the first round.
Auburn rode talent on the field and a passenger train off it to make it to the World Series.

“It sure was fun,” Umbach said. “It was the first train ride for most of the boys.”

One important stop along the way was Washington, D.C., where the Auburn all-stars were to be treated to a Senators-Red Sox baseball game. Former Auburn University star Willard Nixon played for the Red Sox. But Mother Nature had other ideas - the game was rained out. Despite missing the game, Auburn’s all-stars were treated to something possibly even more special - the Splendid Splinter.

“Ted Williams (manager of the Senators) came down at the hotel and shook all of our hands,” Wilson said. “We were like, ‘Wow.’ He was a big man to us.”

Umbach said the Little League World Series is “obviously bigger now. The stadium is much larger and there are more diverse teams from other countries.

“But we got the chance to compete with the best of the best, and we were the smallest team from the smallest town.”