Monday, January 26, 2015

186. Joe Press: A Semi-Pro Scouting for the Pros

This is the first of 5 Bushwicks Stories in 5 days. For the introduction to the Bushwicks and this series please go HERE first. 

I wanted to start out this series with Joe Press, the team's manager from 1935 until they folded in 1951. Through Joe Press and the Bushwicks, the New York Yankees had a nice pipeline of young New York/New Jersey born talent that flowed into their farm system. Joe Press represents the Bushwick's unique role in developing raw semi-pro talent into big league material.

Since the Bushwicks were founded around 1917, the team's owner Max Rosner had held the  managers reigns. However by the early 1930's the once local semi-pro team had become bigger and more financially profitable than many minor league franchises. When his silent partner Nat Strong passed away after the 1934 season, Rosner recognized the need to step back and hire a dedicated manager to pilot the Bushwicks. Instead of tapping a retired big leaguer, Rosner snagged local semi-pro legend Joe Press. 

The Bronx-born Joe Press was in his early 30's and although he never played professional baseball, he had been managing the New York Metropolitan area's best semi-pro teams since he was a teenager. Even lacking a professional pedigree, Joe Press was a respected man. After dropping out of school at age 14, the teenage Press skippered the Bronx Orioles, then took over the Highbridge Athletics, a traveling team that featured future Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch, a Fordham University student at the time. By age 19 he was running the Bronx Giants, one of the best semi-pro outfits of the pre World War I period. During the war Press managed a team for the Seabury Shipyards which boasted several big leaguers trying to avoid the draft. After the war he moved up steadily to better clubs, first College Point, then the Springfield Greys. The veteran baseball man gained a reputation of not only assembling top-notch teams but also for his role in finding and nurturing home-grown talent for professional baseball. Among his biggest finds were Tony Cuccinello of the Dodgers and a steady stream of prospects for the Yankees. As one of the most experienced men in the Metropolitan semi-pro circuit, Press' word was good enough for Yankees super-scout Paul Kritchell to hop on the subway and take a look at whoever the manager recommended. The two men formed an unofficial working relationship that lasted into the 1950's.

By 1930 Press was leading the Brooklyn Bay Parkways, the Bushwick's biggest rival and coincidentally owned by Max Rosner's little brother Joe. When Max made the decision to give up the reigns he received permission from his brother to ask Press. 

For Joe Press the decision was a no brainer - the Bushwicks paid the best salary outside professional baseball and were the New York Yankees of the semi-pros. He could hope to climb no higher than the Bushwicks. There was one thing standing in the way of his taking the helm of the mighty Bushwicks: their popular outfielder Overton Tremper. Tremper was a former Brooklyn Dodger, the best Bushwick player and a clubhouse leader. Two of those three attributes posed a problem to Joe Press - unlike Tremper, the manager-to-be had no pro experience and the ex-big leaguer's leadership on the team could pose a threat to Press' authority. To accommodate Press, Rosner released Tremper who was immediately snatched up by another Bushwick rival, the Springfield Greys.

Now with his hand at the tiller of the best semi-pro outfit in the area, Press began re-making the team. With the exception of a few core players with big league experience, Press discarded all the high-priced but otherwise washed up veterans. Instead, he focused on college students and graduates who for family or career reasons turned down professional baseball contracts in order to stay in New York. To many it was more advantageous to hold down a lucrative weekday job and play ball for the Bushwicks on the weekends. Often the combined salaries added up to more than an average player would have made in the big leagues. Joe Press was no stranger to holding down a day job - since he left school he ran a business delivering bacon and ham throughout the city.

Under Press' leadership the Bushwicks became an even stronger team. His youth movement worked well with the core veterans like former Giant Al Cuccinello and former Red Charlie Hargreaves. The revolving door of young players were complimented with appearances by former big league stars on their way down the ladder of pro baseball. Lefty Gomez, Waite Hoyt, Dazzy Vance and George Earnshaw were among the fading stars who donned the Bushwick colors. In fact, Joe Press might hold the record for managing the largest number of Hall of Famers, all be it some for only a game or two.

Like he had previously with Springfield and the Bay Parkways, Joe Press acted as an unofficial scout for the New York Yankees. Working closely with Paul Kritchell, Press supplied the Yanks with a steady stream of local prospects, all battle tested and evaluated before hand by the Bushwicks manager. The pipeline worked both ways, as in the case of Marius Russo. The former Long Island University student originally caught the attention of Kritchell while pitching for the Bay Parkways. The Yankees scout arranged for Russo to be transferred to the Bushwicks where he could play against a higher caliber of opponents, thus enabling Kritchell to better evaluate his talent. With Bushwick Russo not only faced the best white semi-pros, but also against various big league all-star teams that came into Dexter Park throughout the summer. Perhaps more importantly, Russo and the Bushwicks also got the opportunity to play against the best non-white players in the country.

The Bushwicks can claim a unique position in baseball history in that they played against the very best blackball teams on a regular basis. From the early 1920's through the team's disbandment in 1951, the Bushwicks were host to the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Homestead Grays, Baltimore Elites, Kansas City Monarchs, New York Cubans - you name the team and they came to Dexter Park. Until his death in 1935, Max Rosner's silent partner was Nat Strong, the Philadelphia-based booking agent who worked closely with most of the blackball teams on the east of Chicago. This partnership ensured that Bushwick faced the best talent excluded from organized baseball. While the Bushwicks crushed any white teams that ventured to Woodhaven, the team held their own or more often than not were bested by the top-level black teams. Because of this unique opportunity, both Bushwick players and fans were able to evaluate first hand the talent level of Negro League players. And here lies Bushwicks and Joe Press' part in one of the more frustrating stories in baseball history.

In the spring of 1949 the Birmingham Black Barons ventured north to play the New York Cubans at the Polo Grounds. They also scheduled a double header with the Bushwicks. The Barons were the defending Negro League Champions and boasted a great roster of veteran blackball players. For more than a decade Joe Press had had the unique opportunity to play against the best black players in the country. Now with Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby integrating the National and American Leagues, Press was perhaps the most knowledgeable white man on black baseball talent. His role as an unofficial Yankees scout gave the Bronx Bombers the leading edge in first hand scouting. 

Only the Yankees didn't care.

When Birmingham pulled into Dexter Park, Press made a note of two players in particular - second baseman Piper Davis and outfielder Willie Mays. He notified Kritchell of the two, further singling out Mays as the can't-miss prospect. The Yankees passed. The New york Giants didn't. It's apparent from his surviving correspondence that Press was frustrated with the Yankees refusal to sign a black ball player: "Within the past two years I have given you reports on practically every player, with the exception of a very few, that have been signed to contracts by other teams. . . . You could have had practically all of them, just for the asking".

I don't know for sure if the Yankees were completely against having a black player don the saintly pinstripes for racist reasons. They may very well have been. But then again, if the Dodgers or Giants or Braves farm system was pumping out Mantles, Fords, Rizzutos, Martins and Berras by the dozens, who would needed all the headaches that came along with integration?

Anyway, for Joe Press it was probably the only disappointment of his long semi-pro career. The Bronx dropout and bacon and ham delivery man who never played a day of professional baseball in his life could say he launched the careers of dozens of big leaguers, managed countless Hall of Famers and personally held the reigns of the most successful semi-pro team in baseball history, the Bushwicks of Brooklyn.

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