Sample Inducted Into VBL Hall

Former Turk was VBL MVP in ’75

By Greg Madia
Daily News Record

Photo by Josh Walfish/DNR

HARRISONBURG – Billy Sample can remember when he dollided with Mickey Rivers in the outfield at old Yankee Stadium just as well as he can recal a similar play from his time with the Harrisonburg Turks.

The former nine-year Major Leaguer was one of five Valley Baseball League Hall of Fame inductees honored before the league’s All-Star Game at Veterans Memorial Park on Sunday in Harrisonburg.

“Did I mention about running into Gene Richards?” Sample says of his former Turks teammate who went onto play eight years with the San Diego Padres. “I’m in left and Gene is in center, I get a pretty good jump on it, I’m about ready to leave my feet to drive, and in the air I already see that Gene is under it. He’s under it, and I’m trying to stop my dive, so I kind of ball up and run into the trunk of his body.

“He’s kind of like looking at me like, “How’d you get into this position?” I thought I was making a play and he was already there.”

Sample said he enjoyed making diving grabs at every level of the game, and joked that he always told himself to make the catch look natural even when it wasn’t. There weren’t many of those spectacular attempts that didn’t work out positively for the Salem native, so when he leaped at Yankee Stadium and coule see rivers failing to give ground, he could only remember that play the college summer league. 

“At Yankee Stadium when Mickey and I were with Texas,” Sample said, “and back in those days it was 411 (feet) instead of 385 (feet) in left center, so you had to give the hitter something because it’s kind of hard to cover it all, but sure enough we’re playing whatever the scouting report is saying to play, and someone tags one to left center and I got a pretty good jump.

“I’m thinking, Ok, this is going to be a This Week In Baseball attempt and there’s Mickey Rivers already under it. Well he’s just drifting under it and without saying anything I give him this incredulous look. He’s like, Homie, I had him shaded that way.”

The Valley League was a proving ground for Sample where he learned plenty, he said.

And ahead of the days when he lunged in outfields and collected hits across the big leagues in seven seasons with the Texas Rangers, one season with the Yankees and one with Atlanta, he simply was a prospect trying to reach the pinnacle.

He played his college ball at then – Division II James Madison for former Dukes coach Brad Babcock as the program was in its infancy.

“It gave me an opportunity to measure up against the best players along the Eastern Seaboard,” Sample said of the Valley League. “And back in those days not only did you have college players, but you had some pro players, too, that may have signed contracts, played and then got released, and came back.

“And when you see players that have been there, I think it kind of helps you move toward your ultimate goal, which is to make it to the Major Leagues.”

There was a learning curve for Sample, who spent two summers with the Turks, but in some ways it aided his quick rise from Division II ballplayer to big leaguer. He was a 10th round pick in 1976 and made his MLB debut in 1978.

He was the Valley Baseball League’s 1975 MVP – his second season with Harrisonburg – but admitted his first summer with the squad might have been more valuable for his baseball future as he figured out what he was really up against and how drastic the difference in levels were.

“Yeah, I made outs in crucial situations in Division II,” Sample said with a laugh. “My goodness gracious, did we ever beat Lynchburg?”

“And my first year (with the Turks) I really scuffled, I hadn’t seen a good slider and I used to hold my hands all up in the air like this,” he said, recreating his old batting stance. “But I wasn’t strong enough to do that to stop and start my swing, so I had to make some adjustments.”

Those adjustments stuck with him and led to a successful career. He won the MVP the next summer, hit .421 in his final season at JMU and then better than .348 in each of his three minor league seasons, before batting .272 with 127 doubles and 230 RBIs over the nine MLB seasons.

“It’s nice to see Billy back here”, said longtime Turks manager Bob Wease, who knew Sample when Sample played at JMU and for Harrisonburg. “He was a tremendous player, and he is a class guy and it’s an honor to know him.”

Sample was one of two former JMU players enshrined this weekend along with former New Market and Winchester player Rob Mummau, who was with the Rebels for two seasons (1990-1991) and the Royals for one (1992).

Mummau had double duty Sunday night — enjoying the ceremony as an inductee and workng his day job evaluating the current all-stars as a scout for the Seattle Mariners.

“It’s special,” Mummau said of his first trip to Harrisonburg since 2009. Mummau is based in Palm Harbor, Fla., where there’s a game to scout nearby each night.

“It’s my alma mater here,” he said. “I played in the league for three years as a player and to see these guys out here, it’s pretty special.”

Mummau said it wasn’t until after he was a player that he’d get into scouting, but added that he thinks he always had the skillset.

“I knew I wanted to stay in the game with coaching, scouting or whatever,” he said. “But playing everyday, being on the field everyday and as a player, you’re already a scout, you’re just not officially a scout, because you’re always a scout, you’re  just not officially a scout, because you’re always evaluating players on other teams or as a hitter, you’re seeing what kind of patterns the pitchers fall into and that’s no different as a scout, so it’s prepared me for what I’m doing now.”

After his JMU and Valley League days, Mummau played nine seasons in the Toronto organization.

Former Winchester and New Market coach Kevin Anderson, former Harrisonburg and Staunton manager Bill Burkholder, and former Staunton player Ted Bosiack were also inducted.