At 91, Bobby Kline is spry and funny and, best I can tell, still brimming with the youthful swagger that etched his name in what remains of Anniston’s forgotten baseball lore.
Kline’s time in Anniston was impermanent, two nondescript summers spent playing baseball here seven decades ago. But today he’s an Anniston rarity — one of the few former Anniston Rams who are still with us.
“I thought Anniston was a nice city,” he says. And the Rams?
“Well, we did so bad (in 1950),” he says, “that we put them out of business.”
True, that. The woebegone Rams were Anniston’s longest-tenured professional baseball team, habitually crestfallen and perpetually cash-strapped. Given that it’s World Series week — sacred days to baseball fans — it’s almost sinful to recall the Rams’ bad-news existence.
But hopelessly bad they were. One of their players lost a leg in a self-inflicted hunting accident. Another died in a midseason car wreck. A fire destroyed their field’s wooden grandstand before their inaugural game in 1938, The Star writing that a “pyromaniac” torched the place.
They lost more games than they won. They played 10 seasons and won a single league championship.
Which makes Kline doubly rare — the undisputed star of the final Rams team who went on to play in the Major Leagues with the 1955 Washington Senators. He’s one of 43 Rams who reached MLB, most doing so before arriving in Anniston as 30-year-olds clinging to a pro paycheck.
Kline, an infielder and pitcher, was neither the Rams’ biggest big-leaguer nor their longest tenured. But he has Anniston clout. His final Major League appearance — Sept. 25, 1955, against Baltimore — was the last by a Rams alum. And he is one of the few former Rams alive today.
Kline played 1,272 professional baseball games, including 77 with the Senators. But here’s how seminal Kline’s 161 games as an Anniston Ram in 1949 and 1950 were: He once told his hometown newspaper in St. Petersburg, Fla., that “as I look back, (Anniston) was the start of my rise to a chance at the majors.”
Postwar Anniston, though, didn’t resemble today’s version. Fort McClellan still existed; the city’s population rested above 30,000; and almost every Southern city of Anniston’s size — Gadsden, Selma, Pensacola, Meridian, Vicksburg — fielded a minor-league club affiliated with a Major League team.
Connections, not mere talent, brought Kline to Anniston, though the infielder’s arm strength and adroitness in turning the double play earned him playing time. “I had a great arm and I had a quick release; it was quite phenomenal,” he says, and then he laughs. “I really did — I’m bragging, but I’m going to do it.”
Nevertheless, his first two professional teams discarded him; one sold him, the other released him. So at 19 he was an out-of-work athlete who knew a guy from high school who was pitching in Anniston, a late-1940s baseball version of LinkedIn.
His buddy, William Revels, gave Kline a rousing recommendation to the Rams’ general manager, who offered to pay his 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,” he says.
There was no glamour playing pro ball at Johnston Field. Tiny crowds and low expectations overwhelmed the Rams’ final seasons. Players came and went. Annistonians rented rooms to players during the season. Road games sardined players onto buses, but they weren’t Greyhound or Trailways models.
“They usually were an old school bus, hard as a rock, you know what a school bus is,” Kline says. “They didn’t have comfortable seats, and that’s how we traveled.”
“Wow,” I said.
He got paid — $225 a month. “And I thought I had died and gone to heaven to get paid to play baseball. But that was about it. They didn’t pay big salaries to ballplayers down that low.”
Unbeknownst to Kline, a New York Yankees scout had trailed the Rams in their final summer. Days before Anniston’s team folded, its owners sold Kline’s contract to the Yankees, who dispatched him to their minor-league club in Kansas City.
The Rams died. Kline’s baseball career lived.
“Yeah,” Kline says, “I was excited.”
Five years later, after more minor-league stints and being shipped from New York to Washington, Kline made a MLB roster in 1955. He played 77 games for the Senators, mostly at shortstop, but was benched for a speedier player in midseason, which essentially ended his MLB career. The Senators returned him to the Yankees, who never promoted him. He retired three minor-league years later, turning down an opportunity to manage a low-level team in New York state.
But without the woebegone Rams and two summers spent playing professional baseball at 18th Street and Christine Avenue, Kline’s journey to the Major Leagues might never have happened.
“I enjoyed Anniston,” he says. “The city itself and the people were very friendly there, and I enjoyed playing baseball there, the (brief) time I was there.”