It was somewhat ironic that in his next-to-last appearance in a Milwaukee Braves uniform, Warren Spahn replaced Arnold Umbach on the mound. The declining veteran got the final two outs in an 11-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on October 3, 1964, ensuring the first – and only – victory for the 21-year-old Umbach in the right-hander’s major-league debut. The irony was that Umbach, part of a pool of costly pitching prospects, was expected to be one component of a new staff set to replace the aging corps anchored by Spahn. Injuries accounted for the mixed success garnered by this pool of $100,000 bonus babies, none more so than those that befell Umbach. Seemingly a sure bet when inked by the Braves in 1961, he ended his short major-league career with less than 50 innings pitched.
Prowess in athletics came naturally to Arnold William Umbach Jr. His father, Arnold “Swede” Umbach, was the son of Swedish immigrants and an accomplished amateur athlete whose success was carved in the coaching ranks at Auburn University and earned him induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame (1981) and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame (1991). Born December 6, 1942, one of two children of Arnold and Lucile Irene (Cox) Umbach, Junior found success in part by flinging a ball, both as the quarterback and pitcher for the Baylor School Red Raiders in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At the time, Baylor School was an all-male military prep school. Yet Red Raiders fans were not the first to witness this flame-throwing youngster.
In 1955 an entry in the ninth Little League World Series emerged from Auburn, Alabama, thanks to the pitching exploits of 12-year-old Arnold Umbach. “We got on his back from day one … and rode Arnold all the way. … [H]e was that good,” said catcher Ted Wilson, who required a sponge inserted into his mitt to be able to catch the hard-throwing youngster.1 Underdog Auburn stunned the Williamsport, Pennsylvania, crowd with a 4-1 victory over San Diego in which “Umbach struck out the side in the first inning on the way to a commanding 15-strikeout performance.”2 He won another game in the third-place finals.
Continued success, and major-league attention, followed five years later during a no-hit performance hurling for the Birmingham, Alabama, entry in the All-American Amateur Baseball Tournament in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Excluding one walk, Umbach struck out the first 26 batters and induced the last to pop up. “My teammates wanted me to get that 27th strikeout, and … were yelling for the infielder to drop the ball,” he laughingly recalled.3 The pro scouts were present at another no-hit outing in the spring of 1961 (where he also exhibited his hitting prowess with two home runs), while the Chattanooga newspapers covered a subsequent loss to another prep school rival in terms evoking a match between Cy Young and Christy Mathewson. Milwaukee Braves scout Dixie Walker outbid numerous suitors by signing Umbach to a $100,000 bonus (an amount sufficient for him to forgo athletic scholarships from three universities). The Milwaukee franchise was ecstatic when, on June 25, he made his debut with the Vancouver Mounties in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League with four innings of two-hit relief.
Mixed success followed – including a propensity for yielding walks that became a signature characteristic of Umbach’s career – but it still earned him an invitation to the Braves’ spring training in March 1961. The presence of the youthful Umbach and fellow bonus baby Wade Blasingame contributed to both the youngest and most expensive squad the Braves had yet assembled. Assigned to the minor-league camp on March 18, Umbach spent the next four seasons at various levels in the Braves system. The pitcher who seemed untouchable in amateur play proved exceedingly hittable in the pros (nearly 10 hits per nine innings pitched throughout his minor-league career). Combined with a high number of walks, wild pitches, and batters hit, his minor-league totals are indicative of control problems, which were no doubt compounded by arm problems that surfaced in the 1963 and 1964 campaigns. Umbach struggled to secure both victories and an ability to maintain an ERA less than 4.00.
On more than one occasion the youngster appeared poised to turn this trend around. A dreadful start to the 1964 season with the Austin Senators of the Double-A Texas League – 18 runs in 20 innings, the result of a sore elbow – earned a stay on the disabled list. Upon his return he settled into a respectable 3.54 ERA. A five-hit gem over the El Paso Sun Kings on August 15, his third victory in four outings, prompted speculation that Umbach had “come into his own of late,”4 and his last outing, a six-hit, 12-strikeout effort against the Texas League champion San Antonio Bullets, helped lead to his major-league debut exactly one month later. A campaign in the Florida Instructional League (where he’d wintered in seasons past), combined with a major-league win under his belt, had given hope for a promotion to the parent club.
But a jumbled mound corps (made more so by the winter acquisitions of Billy O’Dell and Dan Osinski) convinced management that the 22-year-old Umbach would get more work in the International League. “We figured there was no use cluttering things up,” said Braves manager Bobby Bragan. “Besides, the [youngster is] better off going to [the minors] right away than to sit around here.”5 Joining the Atlanta Crackers in their last year of existence, Umbach would string together two diverse half-seasons.
An unexpectedly difficult start to the 1965 campaign resulted in Umbach’s being labeled a “problem child … [and] a question mark in the Braves’ future plans” as he got a mere two wins in his first nine decisions.6 Just as unexpectedly, his season turned around on July 22 when he delivered a four-hit shutout against the Syracuse Chiefs and finished the season with a record of 13-10, 3.59 (the 13 wins placing second among the league leaders). Asked to explain the turnaround, Umbach credited pitching coach Bob Turley for detecting a flaw in his delivery and scout Billy Hitchcock for “bolster[ing] my confidence … caus[ing] me to stop pressing too much.”7 He hit his first professional home run to aid his own cause in a victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on August 12. Four days later he struck his second (and last) dinger, against Jacksonville in a pinch-hit role. (His overall athleticism afforded him numerous opportunities throughout his career as both a substitute hitter and runner.) Doing their collective version of a complete 180-degree turn, sportswriters were now referring to “Umbach threatening to burst forth like [a] big leaguer.”8
Advantage accrued to him in 1966 provided he made the parent squad – he would not have to relocate since the parent club, Milwaukee, was moving to Atlanta. His chances were enhanced on two accounts: He was out of minor-league options, and with the December trade of pitchers Osinski and Bob Sadowski, the door was fully open for Umbach to step into the rotation. “The way I look at Arnold,” said Bragan, “and from what I hear of the way he finished in Atlanta, he could be ready to push some of our veteran pitchers.”9 Though his Grapefruit League campaign during spring training did not allow him to break into the rotation – a much-heralded starting corps that included many of his fellow bonus babies – Umbach left Florida with the Braves.
Great expectations for the inaugural season in Atlanta yielded to a drastic fall from second place to ninth with an 11-25 record from April 27 through June 3, resulting in a desperate search for solutions (including the brief benching of future Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews). “[T]he future of the Braves might very well rest with such young pitchers as Arnie Umbach, Clay Carroll and [Dan] Schneider and such regular players as [Woody] Woodward, [Felix] Millan, [Denis] Menke and some youngsters still on the farm,”10 said team president John McHale. In the first game of a doubleheader against St. Louis on June 4, Bragan turned the starting assignment over to Umbach. Excluding a rough outing against the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 28, he entered the contest having made 10 other appearances out of the bullpen – mostly in long relief – that resulted in a 1.88 ERA. The only error committed by Umbach in the majors accounted for the Cardinals’ lone tally that day, resulting in a 1-1 deadlock when he was lifted in the ninth inning. This impressive outing earned Umbach another start one week later in Pittsburgh.
This time he did not fare as well, surrendering a bases-loaded double to Pirates pitcher Steve Blass in the second inning that contributed to his first career loss. Perhaps more disturbing was Umbach’s yield of three hits, two walks (one intentional), and two wild pitches in two innings of work that (despite his seven subsequent appearances) accounted for his attendance at a week-long pitching clinic in Austin, Texas, beginning July 4. Under the direction of Paul Richards, director of player development, the session was intended for recently signed prospects, and Umbach was the only representative from the parent club. Returning to the club after this refresher course, he made his next – and last – major-league appearance on July 19 in an extra-inning affair in St. Louis. Entering the game in the 12th inning, he surrendered a double, a sacrifice bunt, and a game-winning single, absorbing his second loss. The defeat was the team’s first in a 1-8 losing skid that prompted still another abrupt response from management. Eleven players were moved between Atlanta and two of its minor-league affiliates on July 27. Despite the lack of options available to Umbach, he was assigned to Richmond. The difficulties he encountered there are best illustrated by three starts over a 17-day stretch in which he got only four outs while surrendering 10 runs and 11 hits. On December 31, 1966, he became part of a five-player deal that sent Eddie Mathews to the Houston Astros.
In its first six years the Houston franchise (as both the Colt .45s and Astros) suffered a minimum of 90 losses each season. Among the many problems encountered by the expansion entry was the turnstile witnessed on the mound – an average of 20 hurlers in each of its first five seasons. Umbach was one of the large corps of pitchers reporting to training camp on February 10, 1967, hoping to reverse this trend. Though the Astros did not succeed in paring this number down in 1967, Umbach would not be part of the 22-pitcher contingent. Assigned to the club’s Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City, he closed the campaign with a brisk 6-3 record that included his last professional win, on July 31 against the Hawaii Islanders. At no point did it seem the Astros considered promoting him to the parent club. After two appearances with the team’s Double-A Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate in 1968, Umbach retired from the game.
Throughout his career Umbach received dispensations from the Braves and Astros for reporting late to spring training in order to complete his college courses. He graduated from Auburn University in 1969, received his law degree from the University of Alabama in 1971, and joined the firm that bears his name: Adams Umbach Davidson & White LLP in Opelika, Alabama. One of his first clients as a practicing attorney harked back to his playing career as he became legal counsel for the Southern League, and he subsequently served as counsel for the city of Auburn. In recognition of his prep achievements three decades before, Umbach joined 23 others – including major-league manager Dave Bristol – in the first induction class of the Baylor School Sports Hall of Fame. In December 2013, as he approached his 71st birthday, he also celebrated 50 years of marriage to his wife, Bobbie. They have two sons – one of whom is an attorney at the same firm – and five grandchildren.
In 23 major-league games (49 innings) Umbach collected one win against two losses accompanied by a 3.12 ERA. An amateur phenom who attracted pro scouts from across the nation, he struggled at the professional levels due to arm problems suffered as a 19-year-old and a lack of instruction. “Talent got me to a certain level,” Umbach told author Rob Trucks. “I didn’t learn much more about how to pitch because you didn’t get that in the minor leagues.”11
Throughout history many a professional baseball career has gone wanting. One wonders what Arnold Umbach could have accomplished with proper shepherding and without the ailments that befell him.
The author wishes to thank Lisa Smith-Curtean, a volunteer at the West Waco (Texas) Library and Genealogy Center, for her assistance with the 1940 census.
1940 US Census.
1 B.B. Branton, “Reagan vs. Umbach – The Dream Match-Up,” The Chattanoogan, April 10, 2011. (chattanoogan.com/2011/4/10/198681/Reagan-vs.-Umbach---The-Dream-Match-Up.aspx).
3 The August 31, 1960, edition of The Sporting News reflects the strikeout total as 24, a still significant number as it tied a 14-year-old tournament record.
4 “Texas Trimmings,” The Sporting News, August 29, 1964, 40.
5 “Braves Shock Foes With Bolt Of Carroll’s Mound Lightening,” The Sporting News, April 17, 1965, 43.
6 “Braves’ Hundred-Grand Bonus Kid Applauded After 4-Hit Atlanta Gem,” The Sporting News, August 7, 1965, 37.
8 “Braves Shop For Pitcher, First Sacker,” The Sporting News, November 27, 1965, 11.
9 “Right Off Bat – Bragan Names Braves’ Lineup,” The Sporting News, March 5, 1966, 8.
10 “Mathews and Bolling Benched; Braves Test Speed-Boy Millan,” The Sporting News, June 18, 1966, 16.
11 Rob Trucks, “Arnie Umbach,” in Cups of Coffee: The Very Short Careers of Eighteen Major League Pitchers (Astoria, New York: Smallmouth Press, 2003), 128, 135.