Fielder’s choice

Vol All-Century selection ‘ultimate team player’

Larry Fielder readies to fire the starter’s pistol at the Blount County Track and Field Championships on Tuesday at William Blount. Fielder was named to the Tennessee All-Century Baseball Team earlier this year.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Larry Fielder readies to fire the starter’s pistol at the Blount County Track and Field Championships on Tuesday at William Blount. Fielder was named to the Tennessee All-Century Baseball Team earlier this year.

Fielder checks the hurdles prior to a race at the Blount County meet.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Fielder checks the hurdles prior to a race at the Blount County meet.

His high school didn’t have a team.

His coach at Tennessee never saw him play until he took the field for the first time as a Vol.

For a second baseman, though, he had a killer last name: Fielder.

Forty-three years later, Larry Fielder took his seat at the school’s annual Baseball Leadoff Banquet in late February, acknowledged as one the 26 greatest players in 100 years of Tennessee baseball.

The Tennessee All-Century Baseball Team came with many familiar names. Former Major League Baseball manager and player Phil Garner naturally made the list, the former Vol great having his No. 18 jersey retired the same evening. The All-Century inclusion of names like Chris Burke, Todd Helton, Luke Hochevar, Condredge Holloway, Rick Honeycutt and Bubba Trammell was no surprise, either.

Fielder, 62, said he felt honored to make the list.

“I was just honored to be nominated,” Fielder said. “There were a lot of guys over there at UT deserving.”

Few of his players are more deserving, former Vol coach Bill Wright said, and not just for the way Fielder played baseball.

“He was a great kid,” Wright, 85, said. “He’s the kind of player you like to have on your team. He was a team player.”

Dyersburg High School didn’t have the enrollment to field a baseball team in the early 1960s. Fielder, a standout on the school’s basketball and track teams, got his start in baseball in the town’s Little League, advancing to Babe Ruth and Connie Mack leagues during his high school years.

Fielder had the skills. When it came time for college, he had someone very influential in Tennessee athletics that went to bat for him.

Longtime UT trustee Col. Tom Elam was a native of nearby Union City. A collection of smaller schools in the area had offered Fielder by his senior year at Dyersburg, but Elam saw bigger things. When Elam recommended Fielder, then a slightly undersized middle infielder, Wright signed him sight-unseen. It’s a move he never regretted, Wright said.

You needed players who were self-starters back then, he said. In 19 seasons as coach at Tennessee, Wright never had a full-time assistant. Anything other than football was an afterthought at Tennessee and other Southeastern Conference schools.

“When I started at UT, we didn’t have an outfield fence,” Wright said. “The band practiced on our field. That was something we went round and round about for a little bit.”

Freshmen were eligible for varsity play Fielder’s freshman season at Tennessee in 1965. Over his final three years, he would hit for a .306 career average and fill out to 6-foot, 175 pounds. The Dayton Pilots, who would later become the Seattle Pilots/Mariners, had put forth a professional contract the previous summer.

Dianne Fielder, Larry’s wife and high school sweetheart, played a pivotal role in the offer. She’d broken up with Larry following his junior season at Tennessee, all the time intending to reunite with him later in the year when he returned from a summer league for prospects.

“If we hadn’t split up, he wouldn’t have gone to play in the summer league,” Dianne said.

Fielder’s senior year at Tennessee played to a curious start. Wright had been pleased with the way his hustling second baseman had aggressively swung the bat at a season-opening tournament. All Fielder saw were the numbers.

“I hit the ball pretty good,” he said, “but I came back 2-for-20.”

What Wright had seen during the tournament proved no mistake. Fielder would hit .340 the remainder of the season, finishing year with a robust, .331 average. Only one Vol, at .332, would finish better that season. On April 3 of that 1968 season, Fielder went 6-for-6 in a game against Georgia Tech, a Tennessee record for hits in a game that has been three times tied but never broken.

The mark was last equaled by Kris Bennett in 2001, when Fielder’s daughter, Amy, was a student at Tennessee. It made all the papers.

“She (Amy) asked him, ‘Are you disappointed your record was tied?’” Dianne Fielder said. “He said, ‘No. I’m just glad they’re still talking about it.’”

Fielder would never get the chance at a professional baseball career. The year was 1968. The Vietnam War was at its height. The draft board in a town the size of Dyersburg had very few options. Fielder was forced to secure a waiver to complete his final two quarters at Tennessee.

“The draft board said they weren’t even going to let me finish the two quarters,” he said. “They said, ‘We’ll let you finish up, but, as soon as you finish, your papers are on the way.’”

Fielder said he wonders sometimes what might have been had he accepted the contract offer following his junior year.

“I probably could’ve gone on and signed then because the draft board wasn’t after me yet,” he said. “That’s been a hard pill to swallow all these years.”

Instead of waiting for the draft, Fielder chose the Air Force, attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he would become a military air traffic controller.

“He got his orders to report,” Wright said. “A lot of students were scrambling around, trying to get in the reserve or get out of the draft.”

After being discharged, Larry and Dianne returned to East Tennessee and settled in Blount County. Dianne favored Blount County as a place to raise a family. The couple’s daughter, Amy, was a standout cross country distance runner at William Blount High in the late 1990s. To help his daughter train, Larry took up running, eventually completing three marathons.

When Amy Fielder Pritchard, now a high school cross country coach, went off to college, Larry remained close to the William Blount track and cross country programs. He took a certification course with a local track club and is a fixture at all William Blount home meets.

“He’s been invaluable,” William Blount track coach Chris Frary said.

Fielder wanted settle in Blount County to stay close to Tennessee. Dianne’s mom, brother, sister, cousin and, eventually, Amy were all graduates.

“Everybody in my family has gone there,” Dianne Fielder said.

Larry Fielder remains a fanatic when it comes to the Vols and Lady Vols alike.

“He started going to Lady Vol basketball games before Pat Summitt was coach,” Dianne Fielder said.

Girls’ basketball was still a halfcourt game when he went to high school, Fielder said.

“I’d never seen fullcourt women’s basketball,” he said, “so I went over there to see women play fullcourt, to see what it was like. Those girls got up and down the court pretty good.”

Summitt was hired the next year, this past season becoming the first college coach - men’s or women’s - to win 1,000 games.

Larry Fielder - grudgingly, at first, Dianne said - eventually abandoned baseball in adult men’s leagues for slow-pitch softball. His competitive drive to perform never waivered, though.

“He says he still fields (ground balls),” Dianne said, “but the other over 60s don’t.”

The true greats, they say, never take plays off.

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