In a roundabout way, the serendipity between Bobby Kline and the New York Yankees always existed. That it manifested itself on the unremarkable diamond at Johnston Field, home of the Anniston Rams, in the worst of the team’s 10 summers, may be the most unexpected of all their stories.
Kline never played for the Yankees, but that’s not relevant. (His one Major League season came with the Washington Senators.) There nevertheless is a direct line between Kline’s youthful baseball days in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Yankees’ decision to rescue him from Anniston’s near-death Southeastern League team in 1950.
A strong-armed infielder who could also pitch a bit, Kline played most of 1949 in Anniston and returned the following spring. By the middle of 1950 Kline was perhaps the best MLB prospect on a terrible club.
Just before Opening Day in April, The Anniston Star newspaper was convinced of Kline’s stardom. “There’s no worry at shortstop, either,” it wrote. “Bob Kline, unanimously tagged as one of the top fielders in the league, has his position sewed up from the start.” And then he delivered the goods, making the SEL All-Star team despite hitting a pedestrian .259.
Kline was oblivious that a Yankees scout, Spud Chandler, had trailed the Rams earlier that summer. Days before the SEL folded the Rams because of their steep financial debts, the league sold Kline’s contract to the Yankees, who sent him to their Class AAA farm team in Kansas City.
“Ram management wasn’t willing to part with the bullet-armed All-Star shortstop while the team had a chance of developing,” The Star reported. Chandler’s earlier efforts to buy Kline’s contract were rebuffed. But when the Rams’ local owners relinquished control of the cash-strapped team to the league in early July, SEL officials began liquidating its talent. Good players were sold. Marginal ones were released.
That’s only half of the story, though.
Kline’s formal introduction to the Yankees happened years before when New York invited the local teenager to work out at its spring training camp in St. Petersburg. Kline took infield practice and rounds in the batting cage. That brief exposure with the Yankees organization, from the spring training fields of Florida to Johnston Field in Anniston, came full circle in July 1950.
“And when they picked me up,” said Kline, 92, who still lives near St. Petersburg, “I was quite excited about that.”
Kline’s one glimpse of the Major Leagues’ good life came in 1955 when he broke camp with the Senators, a godawful squad that posted a 101-loss season. Manager Chuck Dressen wanted his team to run and steal and use its athleticism, and Kline admits that wasn’t his game.
“The biggest problem I had is that I wasn’t fast afoot,” Kline said. “I wasn’t a speed merchant running, and that’s very detrimental.” He wore a size 14 shoe, and “that’s why I was slow.”
The talent that took him to the Major Leagues came from his right arm and his ability to turn the double play. He’s still proud of it. “I had a great arm and I had a quick release; it was quite phenomenal,” Kline said. “I really did — I’m bragging — but I’m going to do it.”
Strong-armed but slow, Kline became a fixture in the Senators’ infield, mostly at shortstop. He debuted on Opening Day against Baltimore, a 12-5 Washington victory in which President Eisenhower threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Kline went 0 for 2 and made his first big-league error.
“I wasn’t overly anxious or nervous,” Kline said, though he remembers as much about the president’s appearance as the game itself. “All us ballplayers gathered right up to his box before the game and he threw the ball out,” he said. “It was always a scramble with the players to get the ball, and I missed it just by a hair.”
Sinking amid a sorry campaign, Dressen made a change in midseason, bringing in another infielder more in line with his managerial preferences. Kline became a backup. In 77 total games he hit .221 and made 16 errors. His final MLB appearance — the final appearance by any former Anniston Ram, for that matter — occurred Sept. 25, 1955, in a 5-4 loss to Baltimore. Kline went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts.
When the Senators traded him the following February back to the Yankees, it marked Kline’s third go-around with that organization: two official stints, and one as a high-school player way back when. But the Yankees never called him up from the minors, and he retired after the 1958 season, playing 1,272 professional games across all levels.
There’s little doubt, though, that the 161 games he played for the Rams are among the most important of his career. Without them, his time in professional baseball might have have lasted but two wholly forgettable seasons. “As I look back,” he once told his hometown newspaper, “(Anniston) was the start of my rise to a chance at the majors.”
Playing for those final Rams teams wasn’t for the weak at heart. Kline made $225 a month. “And I thought I had died and gone to heaven to get paid to play baseball,” he said, “But that was about it. They didn’t pay big salaries to ballplayers down that low.”
Players rented rooms from Anniston families during their stays. The Rams traveled to away games on buses discarded from the local school system. “They usually were an old school bus, hard as a rock, you know what a school bus is,” he said. “They didn’t have comfortable seats, and that’s how we traveled.”
Truth be told, he never would have played for Anniston had a buddy, William Revels, not given Kline a rousing recommendation to the Rams’ general manager. Kline’s first two minor-league teams had traded or released him, making him an out-of-work professional baseball player before his 20th birthday. Anniston, desperate for decent players, offered to pay Kline’s way up from Florida. “I said, ‘Well, I’m happy to do it; I’m on my way and I’m out of a job, and I’ll be right there.’ That’s how I happened to get to Anniston.”
The Rams got an All-Star infielder. Kline earned a meandering route to the Major Leagues. But the reality remains.
“We didn’t do that well,” he said. “And I don’t think, if I remember correctly, that we had that good of pitching and perhaps we didn’t have that good of a hitting ball club, either. So the combination of that whole thing kind of puts you in the loser’s spot.”