#CardCorner: T-Dog's Zombie Night First Pitch

Part of the CARD CORNER series
Written by: Bruce Markusen

Hall of Fame staffers are also baseball fans and love to share their stories. Here is a fan's perspective from Cooperstown.

Baseball players and managers have not been the only subjects to be featured on baseball cards over the years. In 1972, Topps issued a subset of cards highlighting various awards, including the Commissioner’s Award and the Most Valuable Player. Displayed against a bright colored background, the awards were not particularly scintillating to examine, but if you’ve ever wondered what these awards looked like, Topps provided the answer. In 1982, the famed San Diego Chicken made its way onto a Donruss card, a testament to his popularity as an on-field mascot. Since then, numerous mascots have been featured on cards. There have also been many baseball cards showcasing American presidents, some of whom have had their own cards (like George Washington and John F. Kennedy) and others (like George W. Bush), who made a special cameo on Derek Jeter’s 2007 Topps card.

In a continuation of this theme, Topps introduced a special series of “First Pitch” cards as part of its 2015 set. This subset of cards featured celebrities or otherwise notable figures as they threw out ceremonial first pitches at a variety of ballparks. The cards proved so popular that Topps has issued a second subset in 2016. Over their first two years, these cards have included heroic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, veteran comic actor Kelsey Grammer (who visited the Hall of Fame in 2015), singer/songwriter James Taylor, and legendary comic book writer Stan Lee. Additional First Pitch cards will be issued this year, reflecting those celebrities who will throw out ceremonial pitches at big league ballparks during the new season.

One of the celebrities included in the 2016 First Pitch series is actor IronE Singleton, who is not yet a household name but has developed something of a cult following. That is largely because of his role as the quiet but popular character “Theodore ‘T-Dog’ Douglas” on the smash hit zombie-themed series, The Walking Dead, which will air its much anticipated season finale on Sunday, April 3.

2015 IronE Singleton Topps card. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

While T-Dog was never one of the show’s featured characters - that standing is reserved for the likes of Rick, Glenn, and everyone’s favorite, Daryl Dixon - he did become an important part of the show’s initial group of survivors. Like many of the show’s actors, Singleton’s run on The Walking Dead was short-lived; as the group struggled with life in an abandoned, dungeon-like Georgia prison, he became a victim of some of the many flesh-eating zombies that had been left by the strange, unexplained virus that rendered the apocalypse upon civilization. It’s an all-too-common fate in a world where nature’s food chain has been altered in such an unfavorable way.

Singleton appeared in 20 episodes of The Walking Dead, starting in 2010 and concluding with his heroic death scene in the 2012 episode entitled “Killer Within.” For Singleton, The Walking Dead was not his acting debut, but rather the latest in a series of triumphs for a young actor who overcame a brutally difficult childhood. Born Robert Singleton and raised in Atlanta (where The Walking Dead is filmed), Singleton grew up in a housing project in the inner city. He met his father only twice. His mother died from AIDS while he was still in high school.

Despite a set of odds stacked heavily against him, Singleton persevered. He earned a college football scholarship to attend the University of Georgia. But he did far more than play football for the Bulldogs; Singleton diligently attended classes and earned a degree in theater and speech communications. He used that experience to write, direct and perform a one-man play called “IronE,” an autobiographical stage production. For those who might be wondering, his nickname stands for “Iron Eagle,” a self-imposed moniker that reflects his steely resolve.

Singleton’s one-man stage project became the springboard to his professional career, which officially began in 1996, when he made an uncredited appearance in a film called Fled. Four years later, IronE made another uncredited appearance as a football player in a more successful film, Remember The Titans. The movie told the true-life story an African-American coach appointed to lead a newly integrated high school football team in 1971 Virginia.

After appearing in two television series, Singleton enjoyed a big break when he landed a supporting role in the award-winning film, The Blind Side. Starring Sandra Bullock, the story about a black football player adopted by a white family earned an Oscar nomination for best picture in 2009. Singleton played a menacing drug kingpin known as “Alton,” a stark contrast to his more sympathetic portrayal of T-Dog in The Walking Dead.

Spurred on by his successful run in The Walking Dead, Singleton received an invitation from the Miami Marlins to throw out the first pitch on April 10, 2015. Wearing a Miami Marlins jersey, orange pants, and a smart-looking fedora, Singleton intensely delivered the first pitch at Marlins Park, moments before Miami’s game against the rival Tampa Bay Rays. The Marlins made the first pitch part of “Zombie Night,” surrounding Singleton with a group of fans dressed as a collection of zombies and ghoulish figures. The Marlins then gave selected fans the chance to talk to Singleton at a meet-and-greet, where he impressed observers with his down-to-earth nature and friendly manner.

While Singleton’s first pitch baseball card gives him a direct connection to the game, he is not the only part of The Walking Dead that can be tied into the National Pastime. Singleton shared screen time on The Dead with a chameleon-like character actor named Lew Temple, who portrayed the likable “Axel,” and whose baseball roots are as long as his career in Hollywood.

Like Singleton, Temple’s story is a good one. He is a survivor of leukemia who took an unusual path to Hollywood. Temple attended Rollins College, a Division II school in Florida, where he starred on the Tars’ baseball team. In 1982, he won the Tars’ MVP Award, leading Rollins to the championship of the Sunshine State Conference. Lacking the tools to pursue a professional career as a ballplayer, he found work in other areas of the game. Temple served two stints as a bullpen catcher, first with the Seattle Mariners and then with the Houston Astros.

Temple joined the New York Mets as a scout in 1986, the same year that the franchise won a world championship. Temple eventually rejoined the Astros, becoming the franchise’s assistant of minor league operations and scouting. At one point, he dreamed of becoming Houston’s general manager.

Suddenly, in the early 1990s, Temple decided on a change in careers. He left the Astros - and baseball completely - to become an actor. He would not regret the decision. At first, he worked on the stage at the prestigious Alley Theater in Houston. From there, he made the transition to film. Fittingly, his first feature film role came in the 1994 Disney baseball movie, Angels in the Outfield, in which he played a ballplayer. Temple would go on to make appearances in the adventure/thriller, Unstoppable, and a number of horror films, including The Devil’s Rejects, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, the lyrically titled Silent Night, Zombie Night, and the Fall 2016 release, 31.

Of all these appearances, perhaps none has drawn as much attention as Temple’s run in The Walking Dead in 2012 and ’13. He appeared in only eight episodes as Axel, but his portrayal of a seemingly light-hearted ex-criminal gave him a strong following. His run on the show ended when he was unexpectedly shot down by a sniper’s bullet, the victim of a group of assassins sent by “The Governor.”

Given Temple’s blossoming career and baseball background, he would seem like a logical candidate to throw out a first pitch somewhere in 2016. And if The Walking Dead continues to pull in the record-breaking ratings that it has drawn, there may be a few more actors from the show getting in on the first pitch action. I mean, who wouldn’t love to see Daryl Dixon ride onto the field on his motorcycle and then use his trademark crossbow to fire in a strike to the catcher?

Now that would be a First Pitch to remember.

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame

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Part of the CARD CORNER series