By Troy Treasure, NEMONews Media Group
KMEM-Memphis Sport Director Donnie Middleton’s family loved St. Louis Cardinals baseball of the 1950s and 60s – especially his mother, Elaine.
Broadcasts of then mostly daytime games brought the voice of St. Louis play-by-play man Harry Caray into the Middleton’s Downing residence in eastern Schuyler County.
Donnie Middleton eventually went to broadcasting school.
“I worked for two weeks at a radio station in Texas before I got drafted,” Middleton recalled recently.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals did not make the draft selection. It was the United States Army. Middleton served in the Vietnam War during portions of 1969 and 1970. He stepped off an aircraft in Long Binh, just outside Saigon, on Easter Sunday, 1969.
“Eleven months and 20 days,” Middleton said. “My son was born less than a month after I got in Vietnam.”
When Middleton returned home from the service, there was not a radio station in Clark or Scotland Counties. He had a family to support. Middleton’s broadcast career, all two weeks of it, went on another hiatus.
Donnie returned to the radio business in 1986. He’s witnessed a lot.
“I saw one time at Putnam County, a Milan-Putnam County game, Milan got beat,” Middleton recalled. “The crowd from Milan went after the coach, that’s how intense it is.”
Another indication of the rivalry is a sign somewhat similar to Notre Dame’s “Play Like A Champion Today,” which Fighting Irish players touch on their way to the playing field.
“I’ve never been in Milan’s locker room, they may be the same way, but in Putnam County’s locker room, there’s a sign that says ‘Beat Milan’ right above the door,” Middleton said.
Middleton recalled broadcasting a Schuyler County game at Milan. It was a rare down year for the Wildcats and the Rams won. His trademark touchdown call for Rams’ games of “Baahoskie” did not go over very well with Wildcats fans seated nearby.
The Rams scored multiple TDs. One lady gave Middleton an evil look each time.
“Milan fans are rabid football fans,” he said.
Middleton remembers Wildcats head football coach John Dabney going back to when Donnie’s son, Andy, was playing at Schuyler County in 1987 and Dabney played for Knox County.
“In fact, Horst, his dad, told me when John (later) got hired as football coach at Knox County,”
Middleton respects Dabney’s knowledge and appreciates the coach’s accessibility and sense of humor.
“They broke the mold with John Dabney. John’s a dandy,” Middleton said, then added a story from a few years ago.
“He used to film when his boys were playing and like at Schuyler County, you could hear him from the top of the bleachers. If he didn’t like a call, he didn’t go on and on and on but the coach in him…,” Middleton said before breaking into laughter.
“He likes to win, he’s a competitor and Andrea is, too. They’re a perfect couple and they’ve got three outstanding kids and they’re all good athletes.”
During his career, Donnie has broadcast games or been public address announcer from such locations as the back of a pickup truck, as well as a small booth atop a telephone poll.
He has also endured less than ideal weather conditions. Just two or three years ago, however, Middleton experienced a first.
“Over at Putnam County, it’s the first baseball game of the year,” he recalled. “We’re out in the open, dark, steely gray skies, just like Vin Scully would describe it.”
Snow began to fall.
“By the third inning, it was comin’ down; big old flakes. Our stat sheet? Gone, it got so wet. It snowed hard. It was almost covering the infield,” Middleton said.
“A kid hit a line drive into left field. The left fielder caught it. I don’t know how because I could not see the ball,” he continued. “That’s when the umpire said, ‘That’s it.’ I had insulated coveralls on. They suspended the game.”
The contest was later resumed at Knox County as part of a quasi-doubleheader. Middleton stated he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
Middleton also recalled a fire at the 2007 North Shelby Tournament and a bomb threat during a Scotland County-Clark County basketball game at Memphis. The incidents occurred approximately a month apart.
“I’m in the hospitality room all by myself at North Shelby and the fire alarm went off,” Middleton said. “Dave Sharp walks in and says it’s probably the popcorn machine. He left, then came back and said, ‘The place is on fire!’”
Middleton, like just about everyone else, found himself outside.
“You looked to the north at the elementary school and there were big, black, billowy clouds of smoke and the fire trucks were coming,” he said.
The bomb threat at Memphis turned out to be a false alarm. However, the fieldhouse was evacuated – except for one person.
“Dave Boden (producer) said stay there and report,” Middleton said. “The song Bits and Pieces by the Dave Clark Five went through my head.
“There was nothing to report. I was talking to walls,” he added. “Finally, somebody said, ‘Donnie, you’ve got to leave.’”
In 2017, Donnie was inducted into the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Overall, Middleton estimated he’s had the privilege of calling 10 state athletic events in either Columbia or Springfield. The most recent was with the Scotland County Lady Tigers in the 2021 Show- Me Showdown at Missouri State University.
This past basketball season, KMEM aired 95 games. Middleton estimated he did about 80.
“I went to all these places and, knock on wood, I didn’t have the COVID,” he said.
Middleton has jokingly indicated to people his service in Vietnam might be the reason why.
“I took 1,120 malaria pills and after 50 years, maybe they’re still kicking in. I don’t know,” he said with a laugh.
Middleton, 73, has no plan for putting down the headset for a final time.
“I hope that if I start going downhill – some people might say I already have – I hope I know that it’s time to step down,” he said.
“Right now, I’ve already told my producer Dave Boden, who does the majority of the games, that if I’m ever doing a ball game and all of sudden after about 30 seconds he hasn’t heard anything, call 911 because I’ve probably keeled over,” Middleton concluded with a chuckle.