Tom Umphlett was born in Scotland Neck, North Carolina, on May 12, 1931. Scotland Neck was a small rural town of 2,339. Tommy attended elementary school at Holland, but graduated from high school at Ahoskie, North Carolina, roughly between Holland and Scotland Neck. He was a three-sport star in high school, captaining the baseball, football, and basketball teams. He managed to get on the team as a catcher the year before he began high school.
Tom had a superb rookie year in 1953, finishing second to the Detroit Tigers’ Harvey Kuenn in American League Rookie of the Year voting. Kuenn went on to an excellent 15 seasons of major-league baseball. Toms career declined dramatically and he only worked two more years in the majors. He put in 12 seasons in the minors, but never made it back to the big leagues.
In high school, Umphlett attracted the most attention with football. He was the quarterback, the kicker, and did most of the running. Duke, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest all offered football scholarships, but he enjoyed playing baseball more and earning some money playing semipro ball.
In June 1949, he played on the Tarheel team as North Carolina high school boys squared off against those from South Carolina in the Carolinas All-Star baseball championship, and scored the winning run.
Red Sox scouts followed Umphlett through high school, and signed him when he graduated in the spring of 1950. He was due to play in the state All-Star basketball game in August, but announced he would be unable to do so, having just signed to play baseball for the Red Sox.
For the 1950 season, the Red Sox assigned Umphlett to the Class-D Ohio-Indiana League’s Marion (Ohio) Red Sox. He acquitted himself well, playing outfield and hitting .319.
Umphlett started the 1951 season by playing three games for Class-B Roanoke. Then he was sent back to Class D, to the North Carolina State League’s High-Point-Thomasville Hi-Toms. The Hi-Toms won the pennant and the playoffs, and he was named to the league All-Star team.
In 1952, the Red Sox invited Tom to their rookie camp at Sarasota. He showed well and was kept on for the start of spring training. With the war in Korea, he was a more valuable commodity because, for whatever reason, he had been rejected for military service.
He joined Gene Stephens and Faye Throneberry as the team’s leading prospects that spring. He seemed to have so much potential that the Red Sox briefly considered converting Jimmy Piersall from an outfielder to a shortstop. In part because Stephens was thought more likely to take Williams’ place when the veteran was recalled to the Marines for Korean War service, the Sox sent Umphlett to Deland, Florida, in mid-March to join the Louisville Colonels for the remainder of spring training. This represented a promotion all the way to Triple A, and he stuck with the Colonels.
When 1953 spring training began, Tom reported to Deland, not to Sarasota. He was destined for another year of development at Louisville. But Dom DiMaggio, the oldest player on the team, entered Beth Israel Hospital in Boston for treatment of an inflamed right eye in February. A month later, DiMaggio reported to camp but admitted his vision was still blurred. In March, the Red Sox asked Umphlett to report to the major-league camp. He began to play center, with Piersall moving over to right field. With Ted Williams flying combat missions in Korea, Gene Stephens played left field.
Sox manager, Lou Boudreau named Tom his starting center fielder and he played in every one of the Red Sox games, through the first game of the Memorial Day doubleheader. DiMaggio came back briefly, but retired on after appearing in only three games.
In the July 29th game, in a futile attempt to catch a Minnie Minoso home run, Tom slammed into the Fenway Park center-field fence so hard that the team could hear it from the dugout bench. He dented the screen where he hit and was held overnight at the hospital, but only missed one game. By season’s end, he played in 137 games, with a .283 batting average.
In December, he was dealt to the Washington Senators, with pitcher Mickey McDermott. He struggled at the plate in 1954, and at the end of the season, his average stood at .219.
Things got worse in 1955, both marginally for Umphlett and significantly for the Senators, who finished in last place. Tom hit .217, and in many of the games, he worked as a late-inning defensive replacement.
In November, Tom was back with the Red Sox and stayed in the Sox system for the next 6½ years. It was clear at the time of the trade that he was most likely to be a “reserve outfielder. As it happens, he never reached the big leagues again. He became the “forgotten man” on the Red Sox with Ted Williams, Jimmy Piersall, and Jackie Jensen in the outfield. He was the first player the Sox cut in spring training 1956, optioned to the San Francisco Seals.
He spent 1956 and 1957 in the Pacific Coast League with the Seals and was with the Minneapolis Millers in 1958 through 1960.
In June 1962, the Red Sox traded him to the Yankees for Billy Gardner and the Yankees assigned him to the Triple-A Richmond Virginians
He was released in the spring of 1964, but got in touch with the Charlotte Hornets and he played ball for four more seasons, 1964 through 1967, all back home in North Carolina for the Southern League’s Hornets, a Minnesota Twins Double-A club. His 1967 season only lasted 31 games, when he was named manager of the Auburn (New York) Twins of the New York-Penn League.
He worked three more years managing Single-A teams for the Twins. It was in the Midwest League in 1968, managing the Wisconsin Rapids Twins. In 1969, he managed the the Red Springs (North Carolina) Twins in the Carolina League, and in 1970 the Lynchburg Twins.
After baseball, he worked at several positions as a craftsman, building beautiful furniture, working in the men’s department of Belk’s Store in Ahoskie, and taught sports at Ahoskie High School, particularly girls’ tennis. He also enjoyed his spare time hunting and fishing.
On September 21, 2012 Tom Umphlett suffered a stroke and was taken to Norfolk General Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, where he died of a heart attack.