Obituary: Ron Campbell (1940-2023)

RIP to Ron Campbell, who was an infielder for the Cubs during the 1960s. He died on February 2 at the age of 82, at Bradley Healthcare & Rehab in Cleveland, Tenn. Campbell played for the Chicago Cubs from 1964 to 1966.

Ronald Thomas Campbell was born in Chattanooga on April 5, 1940. He played in the Babe Ruth League as a teenager for Johnson City. A multi-sport athlete at Meigs County High School, he was considered one of the best basketball players in the region. He was also a top third baseman on area teams, though Meigs didn’t have a baseball program. Abe Zarzour, a Chattanooga restaurateur and devoted baseball fan, ran an annual baseball school and tournament for area youths. Campbell was part of the winning team in 1958 and was awarded a trophy as the tournament’s best prospect, picked by Zarzour. It was a basketball player where he found most of his high school success, though. He almost led Meigs to the state championships in 1959.

See Ron Campbell at Baseball Almanac

Campbell went on to attend Tennessee Wesleyan University. While basketball took up much of his time, his baseball abilities led several pro teams to scout him for a couple of years. The Pirates took him to Pittsburgh shortly after Meigs lost in the state basketball tournament in 1959. Since Campbell had been so focused on basketball, his baseball skills failed to impress. Finally, the Chicago Cubs took a chance on him in the summer of 1960. “He has wonderful potential, just wonderful,” said Cubs scout “Shaky” Kain. “The big thing in his favor is that he looks so good with so little experience, even for an amateur… There’s no telling what he may do when he starts playing every day.”

Source: Chattanooga Daily Times, June 25, 1960.

Kain was right. Given the chance to play baseball every day, Campbell quickly showed his potential. He hit .275 for Morristown of the Appalachian League in 1960, with his first 3 professional home runs. He moved up to the St. Cloud Rox of the Class-C Northern League in 1961 and made the All-Star Team, though his slash line was just .264/.307/.322. As he rose through the Cubs organization, Campbell began to develop more extra-base power, though he never became a home run hitter. He banged out 25 doubles for Class-B Wenatchee in 1962 and followed that up with 33 doubles for Double-A Amarillo of the Texas League in 1963. Campbell also added 6 triples and 7 home runs for Amarillo, finishing the season with a .313 batting average and a .434 slugging percentage. While his offense was improving, Campbell’s defense at third base was very erratic. In his first four seasons in the Cubs system, he never had a fielding percentage at third base higher than .928.

Campbell was moved up to the Salt Lake City Bees of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1964, and he had a very good all-around season. In 144 games, he batted .273 with 6 home runs and drove in 64 runs. His play at third base improved as well. There was one problem, however. Ron Santo, who came up with the Cubs in 1960, had established himself as one of the team’s best players. The best opportunity for Campbell was at second base. Veteran Joey Amalfitano had been thrust into the role of starting second baseman in 1964 following the tragic death of Ken Hubbs, but he hadn’t impressed. Campbell began playing second base more frequently in Salt Lake City and handled the position change well. In September of 1964, the Cubs brought him to the major leagues and basically handed him the starting second base job for the remainder of the season.

Campbell made his major-league debut on September 1, against Cincinnati. He struck out twice against Reds starter Jim Maloney and was hitless in 5 at-bats the next day. Campbell didn’t get his first hit until September 3, but it was an RBI single off Reds pitcher John Tsitouris in the top of the second inning that gave Chicago an early 1-0 lead. He added a single off reliever Joe Nuxhall later in the game as the Cubs won 3-0. He hit his first career homer off Ray Sadecki of St. Louis on September 6, and his hitting remained steady through the end of the year. In 26 games, Campbell had slashed .272/.277/.391, with 6 doubles, a triple, a home run, and 10 runs driven in. His fielding percentage of .941 was below average and lower than Amalfitano’s numbers. More concerning was the fact that Campbell walked just once in 95 plate appearances and struck out 21 times.

With Ron Santo at third base and Ernie Banks at first base, the Cubs came into 1965 with questions about the team’s middle infield. Amalfitano was considered the starter at shortstop, but he ended up sharing the position with rookie Don Kessinger. That left second base and a competition between Campbell and Glenn Beckert. The two players had been the double play combo in Salt Lake City in 1964, with Beckert at shortstop and Campbell at second base. The Cubs opted to keep Beckert as the second baseman, and Campbell spent almost all of ’65 back in Salt Lake City. He batted .258 there while learning to play shortstop. The only action he saw with the Cubs was as a pinch-hitter in both games of a doubleheader in San Francisco on September 12. He was hitless in both at-bats.

Baserunner Ron Campbell, standing on third base, stays in place as Phillies third baseman Dick Allen tries to push past him to catch a pop fly. According to the rules of the time, Campbell was called out for interference. Source: The Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1966.

By 1966, the Cubs infield of Santo, Kessinger, Beckert and Banks was well established. Campbell, sent to Tacoma of the PCL, had no place on the major-league roster except for an injury. That’s exactly what happened. Santo fractured his cheekbone when he was hit by a pitch from Jack Fisher of the Mets in late June, and Campbell was brought to the majors to fill in at third base. He had 5 hits in 6 games as a starting third baseman, and when Santo came back to reclaim third base, Campbell got several starts at shortstop. He didn’t hit well, but he was a part of an odd play against the Phillies on July 8, 1966. Campbell singled in the top of the third inning and advanced to third base on a double by Beckert. With 2 outs, Billy Williams hit a pop fly down the third base line. Phillies third baseman Dick Allen tried to push Campbell off third base so he could make the catch. However, the baserunner remained on the bag, and the ball dropped safely. Third base umpire Mel Steiner called Campbell out for interference, stating that Campbell had to vacate the area to let the fielder make the play — even though Campbell was standing on third base. Cubs manager Leo Durocher argued the play and filed a protest to no avail. “There’s no rule that says my man has to get off the base to let someone catch a pop fly,” he complained, adding that the other umpires in the game, Al Barlick and Augie Donatelli, agreed with him.

The rule, as it was written in 1966, seems to indicate that Steiner made the right call, as there are no exceptions in interference calls to baserunners occupying the base. Current MLB rules have added this phrasing: “If, however, the runner has contact with a legally occupied base when he hinders the fielder, he shall not be called out unless, in the umpire’s judgment, such hindrance, whether it occurs on fair or foul territory, is intentional.” Had the play occurred in 2023, Campbell would have been called safe.

Campbell was sent back to Tacoma about a week later and came back toward the end of the season to act as a pinch-hitter. He appeared in 24 games with the Cubs and hit .217 with 4 RBIs. It was the last time he would reach the major leagues. The Cubs infield remained together for several seasons more and almost led the team to the postseason in the ill-fated 1969 campaign. Campbell spent all of 1967 and ’68 in Tacoma. He hit well in 1967 until coming down with mononucleosis, but he still batted .246 with 6 home runs in spite of the illness. He slumped to the .230s in 1968 and was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, along with pitcher Chuck Hartenstein, in exchange for Manny Jimenez. Campbell spent two seasons with the Columbus Jets of the International League before retiring after the 1970 season, when he was 30 years old.

Campbell appeared in a total of 52 games in the major leagues, over parts of 3 seasons. He had 38 hits, including 7 doubles, 1 triple and 1 home run, for a .247/.276/.325 slash line. He drove in 14 runs and scored 11 times. Campbell also took 7 bases on balls and stole a base. In 11 minor-league seasons, he hit .269 with 46 home runs.

Campbell returned to Tennessee after his playing career. He was inducted into the Tennessee Wesleyan University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1984 and was the first ballplayer from the school to reach the major leagues. It would be another 20 years after Campbell’s debut before another Wesleyan student, Tom Browning, repeated the feat. Campbell operated B&R Retread Service in Cleveland, Tenn., for several years. He is survived by his wife, Bobbie, and children Connie, Scott, Jeff and Jessica.

For more information: Companion Funerals

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