RIP to Arnold Umbach, a pitcher in the Braves organization at the time the team was making the move to Atlanta. He died on May 30 in Auburn, Ala. He was 77 years old and had been battling Parkinson’s disease. Umbach played for the Milwaukee Braves (1964) and Atlanta Braves (1966).
Arnold Umbach Jr. was born in Williamsburg, Va., on December 6, 1947. Both of his parents were teachers, and they must have instilled a belief in a good education in him, as we’ll see later. His father, Arnold “Swede” Umbach Sr., was a well-respected college athletic coach. He started as a high school wrestling coach in his native Oklahoma, became an assistant football coach under Coach Carl Voyles at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. (where his son was born) and then moved with Voyles to Alabama Polytechnic Institute, which changed its name to Auburn University in 1960. Swede Umbach gave up football coaching to become an extremely successful wrestling coach at Auburn.
Umbach Sr. was also a top official in the city of Auburn’s Little League baseball program, and his son was the best pitcher in the league. Umbach Jr. attended high school at the Baylor School for Boys in Chattanooga, Tenn. Not only was he a great pitcher, but he was also a quarterback/kicker for the football team. When he was 17 years old in 1960, he threw a no-hitter with 24 strikeouts in an All-America Amateur Tournament in Johnston, Pa., It was rumored that he could become baseball’s next bonus baby, but he and his father had their hearts set on him attending Auburn University.
Umbach spent a year at the school before the Milwaukee Braves signed him to a contract in excess of $100,000 on June 8, 1961. He made a brief stop with the AAA Vancouver Mounties of the Pacific Coast League, which happened to be managed by another former Auburn athletic star, Billy Hitchcock. After going 1-1 in 3 games with a 1.80 ERA, Umbach headed to the Class-C Boise Braves. He was roughed up there, but he fared much better in his other stops in the ensuing years. He made five different stops in 1962 and ’63, from Eau Claire to Yakima to Denver. During the offseasons, he went back to Auburn to complete his college education.
Umbach became known for a pretty good fastball. He fanned 121 batters in 147 innings in 1962, for example. A sore arm slowed down his progress in 1963, and he occasionally struggled with the Austin Senators of the Texas League in 1964. He had a 6-11 record and 4.20 ERA, but he managed to toss a 4-hit shutout of the Albuquerque Dukes on August 4. It was the first game of the year where everything came together for him.
“Control was the big thing. I was getting my fastball over. And I was getting enough curveballs over where they couldn’t wait on my fastball. It made all the difference in the world,” he said.
The Braves decided to bring the 21-year-old Arnie Umbach to the majors at the end of the season to see what he had to offer. He started the second-to-lase game of the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates on October 3. He picked up his first major-league win with an 11-5 victory. Umbach scattered 11 hits and allowed 4 walks and 5 runs (3 earned). Most of the damage came in the eighth and ninth innings, when he started to tire. Still, he struck out 7 Bucs and didn’t allow Roberto Clemente to hit the ball out of the infield until he singled in his fourth at-bat of the day against the rookie. Umbach finally ran out of gas in the 9th inning, and Warren Spahn had to record the last two outs to preserve the win.
Umbach beat the Braves to Atlanta — the franchise slogged through its final season in Milwaukee, while the pitcher played for the Atlanta Crackers in their final season. He had an ERA of over 7 through July 22, when he shut down the Syracuse Chiefs on 4 hits, facing 28 batters in a 4-0 win. That game seemed to turn his season around, as he ended the year with a career-best 13 wins and 3.59 ERA. He credited Braves scout (and his former manager) Hitchcock for a much-needed pep talk and pitching coach Bob Turley for correcting a flaw in his delivery.
Umbach made the Opening Day roster of the first-ever Atlanta Braves team and pitched in 22 games, including 3 starts. He had an 0-2 record, but his 3.10 ERA in 40-2/3 innings was one of the better marks on the team. In his last appearance on July 19, he was brought into the game in the bottom of the 12th inning in a 9-9 tie against the Cardinals. Orlando Cepeda started the inning with a double, and Mike Shannon sacrificed pinch-runner Bobby Tolan to third. Umbach then gave up a single to third baseman Charley Smith, who drove in his fourth run of the game for a 10-9 St. Louis win.
Soon after the game, Umbach was sent back to Austin to work on his delivery and learn a new pitch that former big-leaguer Paul Richards swore by, the slip pitch — similar to the palmball. “[Richards] saw me pitch in my last game and he felt I was too deliberate. He’s making a few changes so it will be a little harder for the batters to pick up the ball as quick,” Umbatch explained.
The Braves sent him to AAA Richmond to work on the pitch, but he struggled and never returned to the big-league team. At the end of the 1966 season, he was traded to the Houston Astros along with Eddie Matthews and a player to be named later (Sandy Alomar Sr.) for outfielder Dave Nicholson and pitcher Bob Bruce. Umbach pitched for AAA Oklahoma City in 1967, but he came down with a sore arm in spring training the following year and quit the game.
Umbach appeared in 23 MLB games over two seasons, with 4 starts. He had a 1-2 record and 3.12 ERA, with 30 strikeouts and 22 walks over 49 innings. He also won 42 games over 8 seasons in the minors.
In the fall of 1968, Umbach started attending the University of Alabama Law School with the intent on becoming a lawyer. “I’d probably be better off facing batters from the mound but right now I’m looking forward to facing judges in the courtroom,” he told The Atlanta Constitution.
If anything, his time in baseball gave him a good foundation for practicing law. “Confidence is a big factor in baseball,” he explained. “and I feel that it is the same in law — if you don’t believe in what you’re saying, it’s hard to get someone else to believe you.”
Umbath graduated from Auburn (1969), Alabama (1971) and Emory University School of Law (1976) and practiced law in his home town of Auburn. His firm, Davidson, Davidson, Umbach & Forbus LLC, still operates in Auburn and continues to bear his name, though he’d retired.
During his time as a lawyer, Umbach regularly gave back to the Auburn community. According to his obituary, he worked with many organizations like the Salvation Army and Rotary Club, and he was an advisor to the city of Auburn school system. A diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in 2007 didn’t seem to slow him down much, as he continued to travel around the world with his wife of 56 years, Bobbie.
For more information: Legacy.com