by Thad Mumau | Photography by Diana Matthews
James McLamb is as steady and constant as the sunrise. He is Old Reliable. Has been for a long time—as a son, husband and father; as a school teacher and coach; and as one of the finest big-time softball players to come out of these parts.
McLamb, a 67-year-old retired school teacher, is simply one of those guys—the good ones that go about life without fanfare or the “me” attitude—who can be counted on to deliver. He gets the job done.
His actual job was teaching health and physical education for 31 years, almost all of it at Pine Forest Middle School in Fayetteville. He started doing that right out of Campbell University, where he ran track and played soccer, helping the Camels finish third and fifth in the national NAIA soccer rankings his last two years.
And, then, there is softball. McLamb is in his 50th year of playing slow-pitch softball. Not just the recreational variety, though he has played plenty of that. We’re talking about ultra-competitive softball, where large companies and wealthy individuals sponsor teams, pouring thousands of dollars into the pursuit of huge, shiny hardware for their trophy cases.
He played on three teams that won major championships—Larry Strother Realty, taking the USSSA Class C World title in 1977, and Blanton’s, capturing both the ASA Major and the ISA 4-A National titles in 1985. He played on two 40-and-over national championship teams, a 45-and-over national title team and dozens of senior teams that have won national championships.
There have been enough individual honors to fill his own trophy case, but those who know McLamb would be quick to tell you that’s not what he is all about. He was an All-World selection three straight years while playing for Blanton’s and made it once with Strother.
“My best seasons were 1985, 1986 and 1987,” he recalls. “That was the most recognition I received for what I did.”
What McLamb did was to consistently hit right around .600, while supplying a truck load of clutch home runs and RBIs.
“I wasn’t a big home run hitter,” he says. “That was Jack Melvin. He is my best friend in softball and the best player I have ever seen. And I saw a lot of them in all those high-level tournaments we played in.”
To “not be a home run hitter”, McLamb has clouted his share of long balls, including nearly 400 in a two-year stretch. He hit 193 homers in 1978 and 189 in 1979.
He has seen substantial changes in himself as a player and in the game of softball over five decades.
“I started out in a little old church league, and I liked playing softball. I couldn’t hit much, but I could run and I could catch the ball. We used wooden bats back then.
“The first team I played with downtown was WFAI. That was in the old A League. I was with Trudeau’s Carpet in 1974, and we were playing a lot of games and a lot of weekends. We went 120-21 one season.
“Softball started getting big around here, and I played with some pretty good teams —the Fayetteville Merchants, Bedsole’s Pig ‘n Chicken— but with the same nucleus of guys – Jack Melvin, Tommy Warren and Virgil Bunce.
“I started hitting home runs around 1977,” McLamb says, “and there were a few reasons. I started lifting weights and got stronger. I only weighed 170 or so, but working out made a big difference. And the equipment got better.
“Not only were we using aluminum bats, but technology made them so they produced more whip action, and that improved bat speed and helped launch balls over the fence. The other thing was practice. A bunch of us would go out and hit most afternoons. We all got better.”
Over 50 years, softball has obviously been a big part of McLamb’s life. He met Sherri, his wife of 36 years, and for their first date, he took her to watch him play in a softball game. They have a son, Chad, and a daughter, Jamie.
“My dream was to play on the same team with my son,” McLamb says. “We did that for the first time when he was 12, and then we played together 10 or 12 years for Line Drive. We won our league just about every year. Chad is an outstanding player.
“Some of the most fun I’ve had was 12 years ago when all of us – Sherri, Jamie, Chad and me – played on the same team in a co-ed league.”
McLamb enjoys life, one built on faith, commitment and integrity. Those cornerstones were established early.
“My mama started me going to church when I was little, and she told me about Jesus. I grew up seeing her live her faith. She was the example of what Christians should be. I try to be like her.
“I liked being a teacher and a coach. I didn’t set out to go into teaching when I went to college. I don’t even know why I decided to do that. The thing I liked about it was the involvement with the kids.
“As for sports, the person who influenced me was L.B. Faircloth. He was a policeman, who would work the night shift and then be out with us boys the next day, teaching us how to play baseball.”
A left fielder for most of his softball career, McLamb pitches these days. He has been slowed by a hip replacement, a knee replacement and – like all of us – by age. He just keeps on going. Now, he also has Chad’s two daughters to share the love of softball.
“Softball has been a bunch of fun,” he says. “I have a lot of good memories and friends because of it.”