There have been more than 17,000 men who have played baseball in the major leagues. They traveled many different paths to get to The Show. One who took a circuitous path to the big leagues was Charles King, a good ole’ boy from Tennessee who made it as an outfielder with the Detroit Tiger sin the 1950s after giving up on a college career in another sport.
Few people ever called King by his given name of “Charles,” instead he was known as “Chick” for as long as anyone could remember. Growing up in the little town of Paris, Tennessee, one of Charlie’s older brothers (he had six) dubbed him “Chick” for unknown reasons. It may have been a verbal brutalization of his name spoken through immature cheeks and lips, or it may have been that he was the youngest and littlest of the King brothers. But for whatever reason, Chick was his name and it was Chick that ended up on his bubblegum card, though he never could have imagined that he’d be a ballplayer. Little Chick was more interested in traipsing through the woods at a breakneck speed than he was in organized sports. Growing up in the 1940s in rural Tennessee, Chick was a sort of a local Forrest Gump – if he was going somewhere, “he was ruunnning.”
Chick could run like a streak. He ran so well that he was the star halfback for his high school football team and the fastest boy on the track team too. Paris was the seat of Henry County and Grove High was a powerhouse in football during Chick’s time. There are still people in that area who will swear that no halfback ever hit a hole quicker with the football tucked under his arm than Chick King. The teenager played basketball and baseball in addition to football and track, but it was on the gridiron that he gained fame in Tennessee. Appearing in the All-American high school football all-star game, King dazzled onlookers when he returned the second half kickoff 91 yards for a thrilling touchdown.
Though Chick was pursued by both the University of Tennessee and the University of Georgia, it was coach Ralph Netaly of the University of Memphis who snared the recruit. There was a bit of a scandal surrounding his signing, with rival schools fighting over his rights. But Chick was a Tiger now – wearing the blue and grey of his new school. Just as he was poised to rack up laurels in college athletics, King was snatched by a baseball scout in April of 1951 after just one season of college football. The Detroit Tigers had cast their eyes on Chick in his freshman season with the Memphis baseball team, when he’d won 11 games on the hill. Chick quickly accepted a bonus and signed a contract to play professional baseball.
“It’s a terrible condition when guys can come on your campus and lure your athletes away from their college educations. It isn’t fair for major league clubs to pull a stunt like this,” coach Netaly barked. The ensuing controversy promoted the NCAA to pass rules protecting freshman athletes from being lured away by pro sports leagues.
Chick was assigned to the Tigers lower level minor leagues and turned into an outfielder where his speed was seen as a huge asset. By 1954 he was in the big leagues, sharing a clubhouse with another young outfield prospect named Al Kaline, who was in his second major league season despite being five years younger than Chick. King got his first hit in Yankee Stadium in his first game. A week later he smacked a triple at Griffith Stadium against the Washington Senators. He finished the season with the Tigers, but only got into 11 games, usually serving as a late-inning replacement.
King was never the baseball player that Kaline was, obviously. He served three trials as a backup outfielder from 1954-1956, getting into just 24 games and batting .224 with only three runs batted in. He was traded to the Milwaukee Braves in 1957 for Jack Dittmer, before bouncing to the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. Chick appeared in 20 big league games after leaving the Tigers, never getting a chance to play regularly. Perhaps trying to prove that he’d made the correct decision in choosing baseball over football, King spent 11 seasons in the minor leagues, usually playing very well at the top levels but not quite good enough to make it in The Show.