Uncle Billy and Me
By Josh Ammons aka bigdog2003
Growing up, I was in love with the sport of baseball. I loved everything about the sport, but fell in love with pitching. I started pitching the first year I played 9-10 year old baseball, and was quickly the ace of the staff. I was always trying to learn how to better pitch, and how to be more effective on the mound. I had a leg up in this due to a former Major League Baseball pitcher attending my church. Billy O’Dell, or Uncle Billy to me, began working with me at about 9 years old to teach me the art of pitching. The lessons he taught me went further than the mound, and stay with me to this day.
I always knew Uncle Billy had played in the big leagues, but did not know how good he really was until he started helping me. Uncle Billy pitched for five teams from 1954-1967, and was a two time All-Star. He was a star at Clemson University before then, pitching a no-hitter against South Carolina in 1953. In the 1958 All-Star game, he was named the Most Valuable Player, after retiring all nine batters he faced. Among the batters he retired that day was Stan Musial, who at the time had the highest batting average in the majors, Frank Thomas, Ernie Banks, Lee Walls, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron.
Uncle Billy would always tell me that he would work with me as long as I was having fun playing the game. We would work on skills on Saturday afternoons in his backyard. Dad would always be my catcher, and I would throw all afternoon. Dad made a portable mound that we would take with us, so that I would be able to work on a mound. We would work on arm angle, driving off my back foot, following through, and getting into fielding position. We would also work on hitting. Uncle Billy was also a good hitter, and I learned a lot from him about hitting.
After working on skills, we would go inside and just sit around. He had all of his memorabilia hanging up and in cases. I would sit for hours just listening to his stories of his playing days. I loved hearing about Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron. He would tell us about how he would sit around with Ted Williams talking about hunting before games. He always had nothing but good things to say about the guys he had played with and against during his career. My favorite story of his was was the one about striking out Mickey Mantle twice in game one of the 1962 World Series. Every time he would start telling stories about his playing days, I would beg him to tell that one.
As time moved on, my pitching skills continued to get better with Uncle Billy’s help. My fastball got faster, my change up was better, but he would never teach me the curveball. He said he was protecting my arm. At the time, I didn’t understand, but now I do. He was looking out for the next generation and their chances to further the game.
Uncle Billy would come to my games when I was starting on the mound. I would look for him before I warmed up on the mound every game. He would be sitting there, with his snow cone in hand, yelling encouragement from the stands. Any time I would get down on myself, he was yelling at me to keep my head up, take my time, just play catch with the catcher. Having him there really helped me stay calm on the mound.
He was there the night I struck out 16 batters in a six inning game, but still lost 2-1. I gave up two homeruns that night, and we couldn’t score. After the game, I was as upset as I ever was after a game. He looked at me and said; “Kid, you shouldn’t be upset, you should be happy. You just pitched a great game. You win some, you lose some, but never forget, you are playing the greatest game in the world.” That has stuck with me all these years, no matter what, you are playing the greatest game in the world.
As I got older, I grew out of baseball. I went from a pitcher, to a 6’4 275lb offensive lineman. He was still there, not in the stands, but in my head. The lessons he had taught me were there when I felt like I couldn’t go on. It was like he was right there saying; “Stay with it, focus, have fun.” I always heard those words when I felt like quitting. When I was injured and my football dream died, he was there to say baseball was still an option.
I decided to play one more year of baseball when I was 19. Partly because of the chance to play with my brother, but also because of Uncle Billy. He told me to give it a shot, at first I thought he was crazy. I hadn’t played organized baseball in 6 years, could I still throw as hard? Could I still hit? Could I still play at the level I was use to playing at?
That season, I was the old man on the team. Everybody else was 15-17, and I was 19. I felt more like a coach than a teammate. I had more fun that year than any other year I ever played baseball. I even had a college coach offer me a chance to play for him, which I turned down. I told him I just didn’t enjoy the game enough to do it every day in college.
I run into Uncle Billy every now and then around town. When he heard I was a coach now at the high school level, he said he wasn’t surprised. He said he could see that I would be good at that if playing didn’t work out. I made sure he knew that the lessons he taught me were being passed on to my wrestlers today.
Uncle Billy is one of the greatest men I have known. His willingness to work with a short, skinny kid, has helped dozens of kids learn the lessons of the great era of sports. I pass little pieces of Uncle Billy’s lessons onto the next generation in the hope that they will continue to do the same.
Thank you to everyone for reading this, and more importantly, THANK YOU UNCLE BILLY! Thank you for teaching a young kid the RIGHT way to play the game. Your legacy will live on through every kid I coach.
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