Thursday, February 24, 2011

69. Satchel Paige: Hitting Rock-Bottom

I was searching the internet for something or other when I came across a website dedicated to baseball in Western Canada and found an unpublished photograph of Satchel Paige. Taken in Butte, Montana in 1939 or 1940, Paige looked weary and distracted, posing with a baseball fan. I'd seen hundreds of pictures of Satchel before but this one was different. Besides the distractingly sad look on his face, it was the jersey he wore that captured my attention - it simply said "PAIGE" - that was all. I've seen Paige in the uniform of the Monarchs, Baltimore Black Sox, Birmingham Black Barons, St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, New York Black Yankees... etc, etc... but never "PAIGE." Intrigued, I decided to do a drawing of this unique jersey and write about what the Great One was doing in 1939 and 1940...

Recognized as the best pitcher in baseball, Satchel Paige took his golden arm wherever the money and swag was good. 1938 found the great Paige in Mexico City being paid $2000 a month to hurl for Club Agrario. The fledgling Mexican League desperately wanted to bring an element of legitimacy to their league and a handful of American Negro League stars provided that while the great Satchel Paige was looked upon to provide the flash and headlines.

By the age of 33 Satchel had probably thrown more innings of ball than anyone ever had before and while much younger and stronger pitchers flamed out with arm injuries, Paige and his rubber arm never dimmed. But one afternoon warming up in the rarefied air of Mexico City, Paige threw a curveball and felt a snap in his shoulder. He retreated to his hotel room and treated the injury with a liberal dose of tequila and went to sleep. The next morning the arm was worse. The pain was incredible and quickly doubled when he tried to pitch. He managed to appear in a few games for Mexico City but with the league promoters angered and Mexican fans disappointed he finally gave up and fled across the border back into the United states.

Satch traveled around the country seeking specialists who could find out what was wrong with the greatest arm in baseball, but the only advice he got was "you'll never pitch again." Paige soon found himself running out of cash and had to start pawning his belongings in order to survive. He sank into a deep depression, realizing that he had nothing to show for all his success and absolutely no options left outside of baseball. His years of ignoring contracts and leaving teams whenever he was offered better money somewhere else had made him few friends. Only 1 man was willing to take a chance with Satchel, Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson. Wilkinson put Satchel on the payroll and had him front the Monarchs second-rate traveling team. Now billed as the "Satchel Paige All-Stars" the team barnstormed all over the western part of North America, often teaming up with one of the bearded House of David teams and brought their game to the most rural of towns.

Wilkinson played up Satchels reputation for all it's worth, giving him top billing on all advertisements and guaranteeing him to pitch a few innings of each game. Paige endured the terrible pain game after game trying to alternately rest and pitch his arm back into shape. Wilkinson had the Monarchs' trainer, Frank "Jew Baby" Floyd travel with Satch and see if he could do anything to help him along. "Jew Baby" (don't even ask where his name came from, better men than I have failed to find out) rubbed Satchel down relentlessly before and after each appearance with a mysterious home-made potion, then alternated between steaming hot towel treatments and freezing cold water and ice.

Through it all Satchel Paige thrilled thousands of baseball fans who had never seen real ballplayers. The publicity surrounding Paige made him a mythical figure and the arrival of the All-Stars to a small town sometimes was the highlight of the whole year. Since the regular press didn't really write about Paige or other black players and teams, many had only heard of the great pitcher through word of mouth, pushing his already monumental reputation to biblical proportions. When the All-Stars weren't touring with the House of David they played against town teams and amateur clubs where players of all levels got the chance to try their best against the greatest pitcher in the world. Dizzy Dean or Carl Hubble would never visit the places the Paige All-Stars did and to get a chance like this was something that participants never tired of retelling throughout the years. Even in constant pain Paige gave the audience what they expected from him. His double and triple windmill wind-up, hesitation pitch and trash-talk was well worth the price of admission. That his famed fastball was now nothing more than a change-up didn't really seem to matter all that much. He relied on junk pitches and street psychology to get over on opposing batters that simply added to his mystique. However some came away disappointed by seeing Paige as a mere mortal and it was humbling for the proud Paige as well. Batters that would have hesitated to even step into the box and face him a few years earlier now hit line drives off of him and the second-rate traveling team who backed him up didn't always win.

Then on a warm Sunday in Oklahoma City, the arm came back. There are a few stories that supposedly tell the true circumstances surrounding his comeback: one relates how he was punched in the arm by a teammate resulting in the arm suddenly becoming painless, another had him making a pick-off throw to first, the ball unexpectedly rocketing to the first baseman with such velocity that the whole ballpark paused in a collective hush, and still another simply has him telling his catcher that he was feeling good that day and that was that. What all the stories have in common is that they all feature the arm suddenly, not gradually, regaining its power again. What that means and what was really wrong, we'll never know.

But one thing was for sure: Satchel Paige was back.

If you're interested in this phase of Paige's career or just want a great book about an average negro league ballplayer during the 1930's and 40's, you have to get a copy of "Catching Dreams by Frazier "Slow" Robinson. He was Satchel's catcher on the 1939 and 1940 All-Stars and his book relates what it was like playing along side Paige as his career hit rock-bottom. Robinson wasn't a star, after the Paige All-Stars broke up he bumped from team to team as a second-string backstop but his stories are top notch - not as interesting as Paige's nor as embellished as Buck O'Neil's, Robinson's book is indispensable for anyone interested in what life was really like for a typical journeyman during the golden years of the negro league baseball.

The website where I found the photograph of Paige that started this story: Baseball In Western Canada

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

68. Mickey Mantle: Spring, 1949

So I heard on the radio this morning that pitchers and catchers are starting to arrive in Arizona. It's that time of year again that I look forward to so much, as do millions of others around the country: spring training. As a fan I always follow my teams as they unlimber from the long winter, slowly working themselves into a working machine again. And as a nod of all the new players reporting for their first spring training as a professional ballplayer, I thought I'd write about (and draw) Mickey Mantle's first year in pro ball. Every player, even gigantically famous hall of fame players like The Mick had to start somewhere, fresh-faced, full of self-doubt and cockiness, excitement at finally getting a start and a sense of wonder at where it all could lead...

Out in rural Oklahoma the Yankee scout Tom Greenwade had been keeping an eye on this kid for a while, tracking his development through his teenage years. He made sure he kept his distance as it was against the rules for a major league team to sign let alone approach a player while still in high school. He watched as the kid got bigger and stronger every year and boy, was he fast! Some say he got that fast from running down deserted country roads on his way home afraid of the wild animals that lurked in the dark Oklahoma night. Whatever the cause, the end result was they called this sandy-haired kid from Commerce, Oklahoma "The Comet."

His real name was Mickey Charles Mantle and his dad tutored the boy from an early age to be a ballplayer. Even his name was chosen specifically for that reason - catcher "Mickey" Cochrane was Mr. Mantle's favorite player and he named his boy after his idol. (Luckily for his son and millions of others his Dad didn't know Cochrane's real first name was in fact "Gordon." Gordon Mantle just doesn't have that certain "something" to it, does it?) A former semi-pro ballplayer who never had a chance at the big time, Mr. Mantle wanted one thing for his son - a life outside of the lead mines that he wound up in and from which he had no hope of escape.

Mickey excelled at baseball for no other reason than that he simply loved to play it. After graduating high school he played shortstop with a local semi-pro team called the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids and that Yankee scout was there watching. He was sloppy at his position but he hit for power from both sides of the plate as well. In the first game Greenwade saw him play for the Whiz Kids, Mantle went 4 for 5 with two singles, a double and a home run. Later Greenwade told reporters that watching the young Mantle play he knew the feeling that fellow Yankee scout Paul Krichell felt when he first spotted Lou Gehrig. Seeing the kid play one more game the following Sunday, the scout made his move.

Huddled in Greenwade's Cadillac in the pouring rain after the game, Mickey Mantle and his Dad listened as the scout drew up a contract to play professional baseball. Greenwade used all the slick salesman's tricks he could muster, going through his analysis of the youngsters abilities, making sure that he particularly played up his less than stellar abilities at shortstop, followed up by letting it slip that he was actually on his way to sign a much better shortstop from another team the following day. The Mantle's haggled a little over the money the contract held arguing that Mickey could make a better salary working beside his Dad in the mines. Numbers were scribbled out on scraps of paper and adjustments were made as lightening from the storm knocked out the lights in the stadium parking lot. This was the moment all three men had been waiting for - Greenwade because this Mantle kid was the best natural ballplayer he'd ever seen, Mr. Mantle because he'd never made the big time and Mickey because he was one signature away from making a living at playing the game he loved. For $1,500 Mickey and his Dad signed the papers that made him property of the New York Yankees. $1,100 was the signing bonus and the remaining $400 was for reporting to and playing the rest of the season with the Class D Independence Yankees of the KOM (Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri) League.

With the words "This is your chance, son. Take care of yourself and give 'em hell." Mr. Mantle dropped his boy off at Riverside Stadium in Independence, Kansas. Wearing number 16, Mickey soon discovered that the level of talent was much stiffer than what he was facing in the semi-pro leagues. Easily discouraged, it took a long time for Mickey had to learn that it was only natural that he would fail 6 or 7 times out of 10 turns at bat. Early in the season and batting under .250, he confided to his Dad that maybe he wasn't good enough to play pro ball. Mr. Mantle, who'd tried his damnest to escape the debilitating life of a miner, pushed his son to continue. It wouldn't be the last time he'd have to push and cajole his boy into believing he can succeed in making it to the big leagues.

His teammates found Mickey to be a kind and innocent boy. He loved going frog hunting with pitcher and friend Red Crowder and it was at this time that he apparently began the semi-creepy hobby revealed in Jim Bouton's groundbreaking book "Ball Four" - Mantle was a peeping tom. He and roommate Bob Mallon would huddle in their closet and listen through the wall as Crowder and his wife made love in the apartment next door. The kid played boyish pranks on his teammates and thought it especially funny flicking boogers at the roof of his teammate's car interior. At the conclusion of the last road trip with the team, Mickey wept because the boys wouldn't all be together again the next year.

Overall, Mantle was sloppy at shortstop but his hitting steadily improved and he finished his first season batting .313 with 7 homers in 89 games - good enough to merit advancement to the next level in the Yankee organization. It was the beginning of a long and brilliant career, one that would eventually make him a hero to millions of young boys and become the face of the next Yankee dynasty, like Ruth and DiMaggio before him.

This story is dedicated to my Uncle Eddie, a great Mickey Mantle fan and the guy who came to my little league games when my father could not.

Monday, February 7, 2011

67. Johnny Mohardt: He Batted 1.000 - You Can Look It Up!

This post is by guest author Dan Cichalski, whose research interest lies in fellow Notre Dame alumni who made it from that prestigious Midwestern university to the major leagues. One of the reasons (besides giving me a little break) I try to encourage "guest authors" on my site is because it helps broaden the subject matter covered here. See, my main interests rest mostly with players from the 1930's and 40's - I have a pretty good working knowledge of players, both black and white, as far back as the turn of the century, but it is always a great benefit when someone else with different interests can step in and introduce us to a new time period and genre of story. The history of this great game of ours is so long and varied that sometimes I fear I can get too myopic in the subject matter I write about. Thanks to Dan and all the other writers who graciously donated their personal research efforts to make this site as varied and interesting as possible...

John Henry Mohardt was born in Pittsburgh on Jan. 21, 1898, but grew up in Gary, Indiana - from one steel town to the next. His high school education stopped after the 10th grade, when he dropped out to work in the steel mills to help support his family. This was in Gary's infancy - the settlement first took root in 1906 and became a city - with 16,000 inhabitants - only in 1909. By 1920, 55,000 people lived in Northwest Indiana's largest city.

After two years in the mills, Mohardt applied to Notre Dame and, as written in Cappy Gagnon's Notre Dame Baseball Greats, was given two tests (according to Mohardt's son): running and throwing. The right-hander passed these "tests" - presumably with flying colors - and enrolled at Notre Dame in the fall of 1918, when he was 20.

Mohardt saw athletic action right away - as the third-string right halfback on the Fighting Irish football team, playing under their first-year head coach, Knute Rockne, and assistant Walter Halas, whose brother would soon found the Chicago Bears. A year later, Mohardt had moved over to left half as the third-stringer behind starter George Gipp, whom he backed up the following fall. In 1921, after Gipp's untimely death, Mohardt became the starter and led the Irish with his feet and his arms - 781 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns, 995 passing yards (completing 53 of 98 attempts) and nine touchdowns - in an All-American campaign. His passing numbers wouldn't be surpassed until Angelo Bertelli threw for 1,027 yards in '41 and 10 TDs a year later. Mohardt's rushing records were not bettered until Creighton Miller rushed for 911 in '43 and Neil Worden scored 11 times in 1953.

From 1919-21, with Mohardt on the team, the Irish were 28-1, winning a national championship in 1920. Besides the legendary Gipp, his teammates included Paul Castner, who also had a brief Major League career, and Curly Lambeau, who went on to found the Green Bay Packers. When he wasn't playing football, Mohardt was a part of Notre Dame's baseball and track teams, serving as captain of the Notre Dame nine in '21. In his three years on the squad - from 1919-21 - Mohardt played center field and third base and compiled a 6-1 record on the mound.

In the summer of 1920, he was one of several Irish players who suited up for a semi-pro ballclub in Iowa - a common practice at the time. Though it was against the rules, it was a regulation that was not strictly enforced. Still, Mohardt and his teammates took some precaution, using aliases during their summer employment. As Jake Kline, then a teammate and later the coach of Notre Dame's baseball team for four decades, recalled, he hit .394 that summer to Mohardt's .309. But Mohardt - who used as his alias the name John Cavanaugh - scored off the field, falling in love with a local Iowa girl. She wrote to him when he returned to campus, but because Mohardt never revealed his actual name, her letter addressed to John Cavanaugh at Notre Dame went to the priest of that name - who happened to be the university president. Though Cavanaugh was not pleased with this development, Mohardt went unpunished.

No discipline resulted from Mohardt's summer ballgames in Iowa, but in January 1922, he found himself caught up in a major football scandal after it was discovered that several Irish players had suited up for a match in what was described as the "bitter rivalry" between the Illinois towns of Taylorville and Carlinville on Nov. 27, 1921. An Associated Press story that appeared in The New York Times on Jan. 30, 1922, reported that "Carlinville people bet approximately $50,000 on the game, it is said, after hiring ten college players for their eleven, only to find that Taylorville had learned of the plan and procured nine Illinois athletes for its team, which won, 16 to 0." Taylorsville was said to have played its regular "townies" for the first half, taking a 7-0 lead into halftime, then bringing out the Illini ringers to close out the game.

The nine Illinois players were disqualified from further college competition, but the investigation revealed that only eight Domers showed up to play for Carlinville for an alleged $200 apiece. While Mohardt was originally one of the 10 Irish suspected of playing in the game, the eight who actually did play - and were thereafter suspended from college competition - exonerated Mohardt and Gus Desch, a bronze medalist in the 400-meter hurdles at the Antwerp Olympics. The 17 college players who were disqualified all claimed that they took no money for playing in the game.

Though Mohardt was cleared in that scandal, he later admitted to playing for Racine in an exhibition game against Lambeau's Packers on Dec. 4, 1921, in Milwaukee. Though the investigation didn't lead to Mohardt's admission until February 1922, local papers in Wisconsin reported openly on his performance in the days after the game: "Johnny Mohardt, late of Notre Dame, made his first professional appearance." As a senior, Mohardt's football career had ended by that point, but the university suspended him from playing baseball the following spring. A science major, he went on to graduate on schedule and enroll in medical school. But in order to pay for it, he needed to earn some money first, so he turned pro in both baseball and football. His football career lasted from 1921-26, during which time he suited up for the NFL's Chicago Cardinals, Racine Legion and Chicago Bears, as well as the Dayton Triangles of the American Professional Football Association and the Chicago Bulls of the American Football League. Alongside the 27-year-old Mohardt in that 1925 Bears backfield was a 22-year-old Red Grange, both of them playing under the papa Bear, George Halas.

Mohardt's baseball career, however, lasted just five games. Courted by the Pirates, Indians, Reds, Cubs and Cardinals, he signed with the Tigers on Feb. 6, 1922, after player/manager Ty Cobb assured Mohardt that he'd be able to leave the team in the fall in time to begin medical school. A feature with the headline "Mohart student as well as athlete" in the Sporting News on March 16, 1922, described "the flash of Notre Dame" as having "all the prospects in the world, and that he is likely to add professional baseball honors to the list of his achievements." Record-keeping back then wasn't nearly the science it is today, so the article lists Mohardt's accomplishments in general terms:

"Johnny sports baseball, football and track insignia, earned while a student in South Bend. He has registered fast time in the sprints; he has won fame in the gridiron and he has batted for something like .330 for his years in college. But it is also said that when Mohardt entered Notre Dame he assumed one of the stiffest academic courses available and he leaves the institution with a ranking of something above 90 per cent."

Mohardt made Cobb's squad out of spring training and made his Major League debut in the Tigers' third game, on April 15 at Cleveland, drawing a walk in a pinch-hitting appearance for center fielder Ira Flagstead. After scoring a run, Mohardt finished the game in center. The next day, at Chicago's Comiskey Park (where the Bulls played their home games four years later), Mohardt was sent into the game as a defensive replacement for first baseman Lu Blue, but never came to the plate.

Back in Detroit on April 20, Mohardt got into his third game, finishing out the first game of a doubleheader in left field in place of Bobby Veach, but again not getting a turn at bat. That at-bat would come the next day, when he again replaced Veach in left. Mohardt singled, setting his batting average at 1.000 and upping his on-base percentage to 2.000, but was caught stealing on the basepaths. Finally, on April 22, Cobb sent himself in to pinch-hit for pitcher Ole Olsen in the seventh, then asked Mohardt to run for him. Mohardt came around to score his second career run.

With the Tigers' outfield packed with Cobb, Veach and Harry Heilmann, Mohardt was sent to Syracuse of the Class AA International League. He hit .185 in 21 games before finishing the season in the Class A Western League with the Denver Bears, for whom he hit .188 in 10 games. The next summer, he signed on with the Greenville Spinners in the Class B South Atlantic League, but called it a career after playing just 15 games and batting .280.

Medical school and his desire to become a surgeon were too hard to resist. After earning his degree and beginning his career, part of which was spent on staff at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Mohardt used his talents and steady hands to serve his country. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Army, eventually serving with the 12th General Hospital Unit in North Africa and Italy and earning his discharge as a Lieutenant Colonel. Later, he went back into government service as the chief surgeon at a veterans hospital and the assistant director of the V.A. Surgical Service. Sadly, on Nov. 24, 1961, Mohardt took his own life at age 63, bleeding to death at his home in La Jolla, Calif., after cutting the femoral artery in his groin. He is buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Mohardt's legacy covers two sports, four major leagues and the deadliest war of the 20th Century. He played under the legendary Knute Rockne, Ty Cobb and George Halas and counted among his teammates George Gipp, Curly Lambeau, Red Grange, Harry Heilmann and the same Cobb. He served his country under FDR. And he remains one of just 66 no longer active players to have a career batting line that reads 1-for-1, 1.000.

Dan Cichalski is a writer and editor who ruminates on the national pastime at His latest obsession is collecting cards, autographs or photos of the 77 players who went on to the Major Leagues from Notre Dame, hence this post. Other profiles in the ND to MLB series can be found at