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Smith: Memories of Pyburn

When Vince Dooley was organizing his staff in late 1963, the assignment stimulated much excitement in town. There was curious anticipation in that everybody knew that coaching staff would include several new personalities, who had not been schooled between the hedges.

Jim Pyburn, who died this past weekend, was one of Dooley’s first hires.

Pyburn was Dooley’s teammate at Auburn, a rugged end in the era when the rules dictated that players compete both ways.

Coverage of Pyburn’s playing career was often chronicled in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The AJC brass had its sports department covering Auburn almost as much as it did the two home-state schools, Georgia and Georgia Tech. It was intended to be a circulation enhancement in the Chattahoochee Valley stretching down to Columbus.

When Pyburn joined the Bulldogs staff, we often talked about his big league career with the Baltimore Orioles. He was one of the last "bonus babies," signing for $55,000 in 1955. There was a hitch, however. When you signed for the big bucks, you had to remain on the big league roster for least two years instead of learning the game in the minor leagues.

How could a 19-year-old college kid in 1955 turn down $48,000? Pyburn didn’t, but later realized the folly of giving raw rookies immediate major league roster status.

Pyburn’s big league career was brief, but it was more than a cup of coffee. He played three years with the Orioles (l955-57), but had trouble consistently hitting big league pitching, ending up with a career batting average of .190. He hit .225 his last year, but only played in 35 games.

"I got to see some great players in the big leagues," Pyburn said in consolation several years ago. "Mickey Mantle was some athlete. I enjoyed watching him, but the one who turned everybody’s head was Ted Williams. When Ted stepped in the batting cage, it didn’t matter what everybody was doing, they stopped and watched him hit. What a graceful swing! I would have liked to have had more big league success, naturally, but I am grateful that I got to watch Ted Williams play and to play against him."

Pyburn, whose list of personal highlights included a home run in Yankee Stadium, was sent down to Louisville in his fourth year, where he became one of several players to play every position in a game. Pyburn pitched the first inning and retired the side. Next, he played catcher for an inning and then was moved around the infield. Next, he rotated the outfield positions, completing the cycle.

After a year of AAA ball, he was offered an opportunity to coach on the high school level in his hometown of Birmingham, and subsequently became the head coach at Columbus (Ga.) High School. While baseball was fun and an opportunity to return to the big leagues from Louisville was tempting, he realized that if he settled down and began a coaching career, it would be the best for him and his family.

Pyburn coached 16 years in Athens and recalled with relish two key wins over Alabama – the 18-17 flea flicker victory in ’65 and the 21-0 shutout of the Tide in the SEC championship year of ’76, a game in which his son, Jeff, later Georgia’s starting quarterback, threw a key completion on a halfback pass.

Pyburn, after retirement, settled on Smith Lake in Jasper, Ala., where he bought and sold antiques. He also refinished furniture, a onetime hobby that evolved into a successful business.

Whatever activity Pyburn pursued, he seemed to do well and always applied robust enthusiasm and dedication to any and all projects.

That included coaching.

• Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald.

E-mail: loransmith@sports.uga.edu

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