Showing posts with label Negro Leagues. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Negro Leagues. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Satchel Paige: Baseball as a Campaign Tool

When I wrote out the outline for my book, there were a few key illustrations I knew I wanted to expand into full-page drawings - Satchel Paige on the 1937 Los Dragones team was one of them. I like the tropical setting and moving from the vertical, narrow format I use for my cards into a more roomy square let me really illustrate the story that I was trying to tell.

Hall of Famer and blackball legend Satchel Paige was almost as good a storyteller as he was a pitcher. In a career spanning five decades and a dozen countries, Satchel accumulated countless great tales of his exploits, and the one I’m about to tell is one of his most famous.
In 1937 the Dominican Republic was ruled by a nasty dictator named Rafael Trujillo who found his control over the island nation beginning to slip. Opposition groups formed in distant parts of the country and one rival in particular began gaining in popularity, partly through his alliance to a powerful baseball team in the Dominican Baseball League. An election loomed in 1938 and there was no way Trujillo was going to lose. What better way to regain the heart and minds of a baseball-mad country than field an even greater team to represent the capitol city, Ciudad Trujillo (one of the perks of being dictator is you get to rename the capitol city after yourself).

So in the spring of 1937, Dominican agents were dispatched to America and bring back a team of hired guns to win the pennant for Trujillo. According to Paige, a carfull of Trujillo’s torpedoes abducted him off a New Orleans street at gunpoint and took him to a hotel room. Confronted with an offer he couldn’t refuse bolstered by a suitcase filled with money, Paige agreed to assemble a dream team of outsider ballplayers.

Ok, let’s pause there and hose down Paige’s tale and see what it looks like underneath.
Rafael Trujillo was indeed the dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 up until he was assassinated in 1961. A look through Latin American history books confirm that the Trujillo regime was in fact a bit wobbly in the spring of ‘37. Opposition groups were gaining strength in the country side and El Presidente’s secret police roamed the streets in a red Packard dubbed “carro de la muerte” (“car of death”) picking up dissidents. He was one bad dude.

Satchel Paige was, of course, the most famous ball player outside the major leagues. In the spring of 1937 he was with with Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords, considered by most historians to be the greatest assemblage of blackball talent before integration. Though not as well known as the Puerto Rican and Cuban leagues, there was a Dominican Baseball League that attracted many Caribbean ballplayers during the mid 1930’s. For 1937, Liga Dominicana was streamlined to three teams representing the country’s biggest cities: Águilas Cibaeñas (Santiago), Estrellas Orientales (San Pedro de Macorís) and Los Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo. The Santiago team was supported by Trujillo’s opposition and boasted some top-draw talent imported from Cuba and the United States. They were the odd-on favorite to win the ‘37 pennant.

Dr. José Enrique Aybar, Trujillo’s pal and head of the National Congress, took the reins of Ciudad Trujillo and figured if he made it a winner it would bolster El President’s popularity. Los Dragones already had a few key Latino stars including pitcher Rudy Fernandez and Puerto Rican slugger Perucho Cepeda, but to guarantee a championship Dr. Aybar sought out the best money could buy and that meant Satchel Paige. As far as the abduction at gunpoint story goes, it most likely never happened. Paige is well-known for disdain for authority, and I for one can’t see him working for a bunch of thugs waving automatics around, no matter what the size of the paycheck. Most likely the doctor had his men track down the elusive Paige and invite him to Aybar’s hotel suite. Surrounded by luxury, not guns, the pitcher was offered $30,000 to recruit and fund a team of Negro League stars.  Not as fun as the gun-toting Latino-gangster story, but that’s most likely how it went down that spring.

Paige was training with the Crawfords and since they had the best roster in blackball at the time, he knew the right men for the job. First was his personal catcher, Cy Perkins. Then came Cool Papa Bell, the team’s speed-demon hit-machine. The addition of Sam Bankhead, Leroy Matlock, Schoolboy Griffith and Harry Williams effectively gutted the Pittsburgh Crawfords. When Josh Gibson, blackball’s greatest slugger and almost Paige’s equal in popularity was recruited, Crawfords’ owner Gus Greenlee contacted his congressman about a foreign power stealing his players. While a minor international incident heated up, Paige and his mercenaries ducked out of the country.

The 8 week, 32 game season had already begun when Paige and his men arrived. They were fêted like the stars they were and almost immediately the night life took its toll. Paige, hung-over in his first start, performed poorly. Gibson couldn’t hit and quickly Santiago was atop the Liga Dominicana standings. Dr. Aybar’s plan to boost Presidente Trujillo’s image now began to make him look like a fool. That, in a dictatorship with secret police roving the streets in “cars of death”, was not a good thing.

According to Paige, Trujillo reacted just the way you’d expect from a dictator. Paige often told how the team was shadowed by armed escorts and locked up at night, virtual prisoners. The truth, as Los Dragonnes pitcher Rudy Fernández told it, was a little less extreme. Since the D.R. was not exactly a crime-free paradise and there were revolutionaries and other unsavory characters roaming around, an armed escort was sent out to make sure no harm came to the pricey imports. When the American’s night-clubbing and womanizing began to affect their game, Dr. Aybar put a stop to it by secluding a few of the key members, including Paige, on the nights before a game. The result was that Ciudad Trujillo began climbing up the standings. Again, not as cinematographic as being locked in a cell and held prisoner Caribbean Gestapo knock-offs, but the truth was still something you didn’t see in baseball back in the states.

With a dozen games left to play, Ciudad Trujillo was neck and neck with Santiago. Though they didn’t have the star-power like Paige, Bell and Gibson, Santiago had as strong a team as Los Dragonnes. Cuban superstar Martin Dihigo is widely regarded as the greatest ball player of all time. Chet Brewer was one of the best pitchers outside the majors during the 20’s and 30’s and often considered as good or better than Satchel Paige. Luis Tiant, father of the future Red Sox pitcher, rounded out a solid rotation. Clyde Spearman was one of Paige’s Crawfords teammates and was runner up for the Liga Dominicana batting crown that year.
Since Estrellas Orientales was out of the running, the league was narrowed down to just the two top teams and eight games left to play. Ciudad Trujillo took the first four and Paige, who seemed to benefit from his enforced sobriety, won two of them. Still, Santiago remained ahead by less than a percentage point and if they won three of the remaining four games they would be champs. Although a few of the team’s Cubans including Luis Tiant deserted, Águilas Cibaeñas took the next two games. One more and the championship was theirs.

Now this is a pretty dramatic set up, right? Two games left, winner take all? Two teams of baseball mercenaries, one representing a banana republic dictator and the other  the voice of opposition - you couldn’t dream something like that up. But Paige could turn any good story into a made-for-TV movie.

In his memoirs and quite a few newspaper and magazine stories, Paige recalled how the gun-toting crowd was primed for revolution - a clear warning to win or else. Pitching the game of his life, Paige still found himself down 5-4 going into the seventh. According to Satch, Trujillo had his soldiers fan out and line up on the sidelines - a very clear message of what the consequences would be if Los Dragones lost. Fortunately Ciudad Trujillo staged a two run rally and took a one-run lead. Paige, throwing to save the lives of he and his teammates, shut down Santiago for the last two innings and won the game. Within 24 hours all the Americans had fled back to the safety of the United States, never to return.
In actuality, Paige’s victory was not a do-or-die scenario in the slightest. While the air was surely charged with excitement and the crowd whipped up into a frenzy, if Santiago managed a win, an eighth game would have followed to decide the championship. In fact, Paige didn’t even start the game, only entering in the ninth when Ciudad Trujillo was up 8 to 3. Granted, there was a bit of drama by the time Paige came in from the bull pen: Santiago had two men on base and one out. Now the real excitement began. Paige gave up three hits and all of a sudden the score was 8-6. A sure Dragones victory was now in jeopardy. Though not as dramatic as he probably would have liked, Paige bore down and aided by a game saving throw from the outfield by Sam Bankhead, finally got out of the inning and won.

With the season finished, the Americans did quickly return to the United States, but not out of fear of their lives, but because it was only mid-July and there was still baseball being played up north. Instead of returning to their respective Negro League teams, the renegade ball players found heavy fines levied against them and banned from league play. Paige, ever the showman, hooked up with a Midwest promoter and formed the “Trujillo All-Stars”. Playing semi-pro teams throughout the country, Paige told the press an ever-growing tale of the team’s experiences in the Dominican Republic. Consisting of some of best ballplayers outside the majors, the Trujillo All-Stars entered the famous Denver Post Baseball Tourney and wiped the floor with the amateur teams they faced, each man taking home a hefty cash prize.

Realizing that regaining their stars was more important than taking a stand against contract jumping, the Negro League owners allowed the mercenaries to return to league play, all except Satchel Paige. His reputation as the best pitcher in the game allowed him to demonstrate an unrepentant attitude and still earn outsider baseball’s biggest salary by hiring himself out to the highest bidder.

Baseball in the Dominican Republic was effectively ruined for a generation - the high cost of foreign talent bankrupted all three teams. That summer Trujillo stepped up his reign of terror, culminating in the “Parsely Massacre”. Trying to rid his country of dark-skinned Haitians and claiming their country gave shelter to Dominican dissidents, Trujillo sent his army to the border. Knowing the French-Creole speaking Haitians couldn’t pronounce the trill of a Spanish “r”, Trujillo’s men would hold up a sprig of parsley, asking suspect Haitians “quien es?” or “what is this?”. Over 20,000 people couldn’t pronounce “perejil” the correct way and were shot. The international outcry forced the dictator to take himself off the ballot in the 1938 “election” and instead ran a puppet until he returned to power a few years later.
Baseball remains the National Pastime of the Dominican Republic and native sons Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez, Albert Pujols, and Manny Ramirez are among the best ballplayers to ever play in the majors.

Hope you enjoyed the sneak peak!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

170. Cyclone Joe Williams: Blackball's Best

I'm proud to say that last week Sports Collectors Digest (or "SCD" as we used to call it), the premier baseball card and memorabilia publication, wrote a nice story on my artwork. I'm really humbled and proud to be featured in the pages of that magazine as I have fond memories of reading it as a kid, drooling over the pictures of baseball artifacts that I could only dream of possessing. Within the pages of SCD I discovered the beautiful art that graced turn of the century tobacco cards and 1930's bubble gum cards, a love of which I've never lost and whose influence looms large over The Infinite Baseball Card Set today. You can read the article online HERE, though I think it is much more impressive when you can physically flip through its pages, just like I did 35 years ago...

Where do you begin when writing about the greatest pitcher from the days before integration? Perhaps the first place to start would be to qualify my first statement. Was Cyclone Joe Williams better than Satchel Paige? In a word, yes.

While Satchel Paige is usually referenced as the finest pitcher Blackball produced, fans and sportswriters alike who witnessed both Paige and the man known as Cyclone Joe Williams pick the latter as the best. The two have much in common, both possessed blinding speed coupled with pinpoint control and excelled when pitching against white big leaguers. Both men had careers spanning in excess of over 30 years around which Paul Bunyan-esque legends have been spun. Looking at Cyclone Williams the astonishing part is that much of it is true.
The Cyclone blew out of Texas in the early years of the 20th century, first by word of mouth spread by traveling Blackball teams that encountered him. In 1910 he moved north to Chicago where he received real news coverage pitching on quality ball clubs. From the start he was a combination of mystery and awe. He was a giant of a man, about 6’-4” just under 200lbs, lean like you’d picture a Texas cowboy, his half Black-half Comanche Indian heritage giving him a strikingly exotic appearance. He was quiet, didn’t talk much, but exuded a confidence that his fastball backed up.

Williams threw the ball with a phenomenal speed that many guess to have been in the 100mph range. The sheer velocity at which he unleashed a baseball was aided by the way it rolled off his inhumanly-long fingers, giving the sphere an added break as it approached the plate. In the days before radar guns, the only way to gauge a pitchers velocity was by comparison to other hurlers - in this case when veterans tried evaluating The Cyclone, he is often put in the same category as contemporaries Walter Johnson and Joe Wood, white baseball’s hardest and fastest. Like Walter Johnson and Satchel Paige, opponents invariably commented on his pinpoint accuracy. When a man batted against The Cyclone he didn’t have to be worried about getting plugged by a pitch - he just couldn’t hit it.

Williams was known for his strikeouts - The Cyclone Joe legend passed down in oral histories have him repeatedly pitching games of 20 or more punch-outs. Granted, many of the feats performed by Williams, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson that have become part of the Blackball  canon were against semi-pro or amateur clubs. In The Cyclone’s case however, he went head-to-head against actual Major League teams in 11 documented games and won an astonishing 6 times (plus one 1-1 tie). We’re talking pitching match-ups that featured Williams against the mighty New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies when they were pennant winners, and the four games he did lose were by 2 runs or less. Against all-star teams made up of a mixture of white major and minor leaguers, The Cyclone won 15 out of 19 games. The big Texan hung losses on Walter Johnson, Chief Bender, Waite Hoyt and Rube Marquard, all Hall of Famers. One of the most tantalizing stories that make up the Cyclone Williams legend is a 1917 game in which he no-hit the pennant winning New York Giants for 10 innings before losing 1-0 on an error. Though many players have claimed to have taken part and fans recalled the game, no box score or newspaper account has ever surfaced. Something tangible from that lost afternoon would be an important find to say the least, but we do have those other games. You can’t measure Williams’ talent any better way than that; except if his career was spent in the majors, which of course he was denied.

After he walked off the mound for the last time in 1932, The Cyclone strapped on an apron and became a popular New York City bartender. Before his death in 1951, a whole new generation of Negro Leaguers had benefited from The Cyclone’s career-changing advice dispensed over a few beers.  The following year the Pittsburgh Courier asked ballplayers and sportswriters who was the best Negro Leagues pitcher: The Cyclone beat Satchel, 20-19.

One of the things I like most about writing/illustrating this blog is the emails, letters and phone calls I get from the people who visit my site. Besides the kind words of encouragement which are appreciated more than you could ever imagine, I enjoy the pitches made for future players that should be included to the endless roster that makes up The Infinite Baseball Card Set. One of the players that gets requested frequently is Cyclone Joe Williams. I couldn't agree more - Williams was the best pitcher to have come out of Blackball and could quite possibly be among the very best of any color to have stood on a mound. Besides the sheer greatness of his career which always stalled me when beginning a story on The Cyclone, there was one other thing that kept me from featuring him so far: for all his fame, there are very, very few photographs of the man. 

ARTIST'S NOTES: Now if you've been following my site for a while, you've probably read that one of the things I wanted to do when I began some 4 years ago was to never simply re-draw an existing photograph of a player. Any sports artist can and does do that, and you can get that elsewhere. That's why if you search the internet for Joe Williams, the same darn photograph shows up over and over again - a full body pose taken from the side of the great man in a Lincoln Giants uniform, arms dangling, one holding a ball, the other gloved. I gave up counting how many artistic interpretations came up in a search because I got bored. And that's why I had such a hard time when it came to beginning an illustration of the great man. I wanted mine to be different - not that darn pose again. After sketching the pitcher countless times, I finally settled on a front view of him that could show off his much talked about long fingers - said to be the source of the unique movement he put on the ball. I also wanted to depict him in his prime, when he was in the late 20's pitching for the New York Lincoln Giants. That's the team was was pitching for when that famous picture was snapped. Since I'm a stickler for uniform details and strive to offer something new and unique, I wanted to show him in a different jersey than the one he is always shown wearing. For that I made a call to the bullpen and asked baseball archaeologist and early Blackball expert Gary Ashwill for his help. Digging deep into his archives, Ashwill sent me a photo of the Lincoln Giants that I'd never seen before, the team outfitted in natty pinstripes with "WORLDS COLORED CHAMPIONS" across the front. Bingo! What could possibly be a better jersey to show the best pitcher in Negro Leagues history than that?

  • Holway, John B. Blackball Stars (Carroll & Graf, 1988)
  • Gary Ashwill's great baseball research lab "Agate Type" has been instrumental in this article.
  • Various Contemporary newspaper sources including Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier and Baltimore Afro-American.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

168. Dobie Moore: Not All Cats Land On Their Feet

May 18, 1926.

The Kansas City Monarchs won again that afternoon, and befitting their name, the team went out to celebrate in regal style. The Monarchs were the class-act of blackball, the most professional and talented of ball clubs and its players were welcomed everywhere they went in black Kansas City. Ragtime was transitioning into jazz and the though prohibition was law of the land, liquor flowed freely in KayCee if you knew where to look. The town was theirs.

At the head of the party looking to celebrate was their star shortstop, Walter "Dobie" Moore, known to fans as "The Black Cat". Loud and boisterous, Moore was not shy about shooting his mouth off to criticize his teammates, his big size - 200 lbs and just shy of 6 foot - enabling him to back up most anything that passed his lips. But that night there was no reason to criticize anything - the Monarchs had beat the Chicago American Giants, Moore was batting .415, in the prime of his career, and the night was young. 

Though he was married, the best shortstop in the game wasn't adverse to stepping out and conveniently his current girlfriend, Elsie Brown, was owner of a popular brothel. So naturally "The Black Cat" led his boys over to Elsie's to cap off the evening. In retrospect it's not too hard to see how a cocky, hot-headed ball player, souped up on illegal liquor, could get into an argument with his brothel-owning girlfriend, and according to Elsie, that's exactly what went down that night.

Engaged in a heated arguement in her bedroom, Elsie Brown told police that the big shortstop slugged her in the face three times before she managed to get a hold of her pistol and shot Moore in the leg. The Black Cat, leaking blood and fearing a second, more fatal shot from his girlfriend, staggered onto the balcony and leaped into the dark alley below. 

Unfortunately not all cats land on their feet.

Upon hitting the pavement, the impact from the 2-story jump shattered Moore's already injured leg. His Monarchs teammates carried him to the team's physician, Dr. Bruce, where he discovered the ballplayer had no less than 6 compound fractures of both the tibula and fibula and that the bullet could not be successfully extracted. In other words, Dobie Moore's career was through.

But what a career it was...

Walter Moore was born in Atlanta Georgia in 1896. He was functionally illiterate and never shared any details about his life before he joined the U.S. Army in 1916. Assigned to the 25th Infantry, one of the peacetime Army's few black regiments and something of an elite outfit, Moore was stationed in Hawaii. The 25th boasted one of the best semi-pro baseball teams of the time and Moore learned his trade playing shortstop with a number of future Negro League stars: Catcher Oscar Johnson, nicknamed "Heavy" for obvious reasons, was a pure slugger, Lemuel Hawkins was a solid first baseman and the team's captain, best pitcher, clutch hitter and perhaps the best all-around ballplayer of all-time, was Bullet Joe Rogan. Along with Moore, the four would form the nucleus of the Kansas City Monarchs when discharged in 1920.

As the Monarchs quickly established themselves as the most professional and dominant team in black baseball, Moore usurped the mantle of the best shortstop from the former king, John Henry Lloyd. Though not the most graceful of fielders, somehow Moore's threw his big 200lbs frame around the infield with the nimbleness of a ballerina, pouncing on any ball hit in his direction. Newspapers began calling him "The Black Cat". Moore also wasn't adverse to  bending rules a bit in his favor, like grabbing hold of base runners belts as they made their way to third, causing them to loose a stride or two. Through hours of practice, his arm became about as powerful and accurate as the '03 Springfield rifle he used in the service and his skill with the bat made him one of the team's most feared hitters. In his seven years in blackball, spent entirely with the Monarchs, Moore hit in the area of .350 against professional Negro League competition. 

Like many black ballplayers, Moore played ball year-round and his numbers in both the integrated California Winter League against white major and minor leaguers and the tough Cuban Winter League is consistent with his Negro League averages, .385 and .356 respectively. 

1924 was his best season as a pro, but the story of that milestone year actually starts in the winter of '23-24 in Cuba. Moore sailed to the island nation to join the Santa Clara Leopardos, one of the four Cuban major league teams. Santa Clara was stocked with the best black and Hispanic players of the time: pitchers Jose Mendez and Dave Brown, a Hall of Fame quality right-left punch, Oscar Charleston and Alejandro Oms in the outfield and an infield made up of Heavy Johnson, Weasel Warfield, Oliver Marcelle and the best shortstop in the game, Dobie Moore. The Leopardos easily took the pennant and the team has gone down in island history as the greatest Cuban League team of all-time, the 1927 Yankees of their day. And among this all-star conglomeration, Moore hit .386 and led the league in hits and triples. After the winter season ended, Moore rejoined the Monarchs where he hit .453 to lead the Negro National League in hitting and Kansas City defeated Hilldale to take the first Colored World Series title. Moore had 12 hits in 49 at bats and then took a train to southern California for the Winter League season. Playing with the Los Angeles White Sox, Moore hit .487 against the white major league and Pacific Coast League players and led the circuit in hits, doubles, triples, home runs average and slugging percentage.

The 1925 edition of the Kansas City Monarchs was weakened with their heart and soul, Bullet Joe Rogan, out with an injury but still the club managed to take the pennant before bowing to Hilldale in the World Series. Moore hit .333 that season, a bit less than his epic '24 numbers but was still the best shortstop outside the major leagues. In the series loss he still put up a .364 against Hilldale's formidable pitching staff. 

And that brings us back to those first weeks of the 1926 season. In the fifteen games against league teams, Moore rapped out 22 hits and was hitting at a .415 clip, seemingly on-track for another spectacular season, that is until he found himself in a crumpled and bleeding heap in the alley below Elsie Brown's bedroom.

Aided by a sanitized version of the shooting in which Ms. Brown mistook Moore for a robber, the Monarchs fans rallied around The Black Cat and the local colored newspaper, The Call, started a fund to help with his medical bills. Unfortunately the leg was too badly damaged and never healed properly. Despite his claim that a comeback was in the cards, Moore's career was through. By the end of 1926 he left KayCee and ended up in Detroit where the ex-Monarch played a bit of semi-pro ball, hobbling around first base as best he could. After a mid-1940's newspaper article showing the former shortstop on crutches reminiscing about the old days he disappears. A 1947 death certificate from Detroit may be Moore's, but a 1948 newspaper articles mentions the old ballplayer as a pallbearer at a former teammates funeral. Since the earlier article shows Moore on crutches, it may be assumed the article was wrong and the pallbearer was not in fact the former star. Regardless, it was an inglorious end to what may have been the best shortstop of the 1920's.

  • Lester, Larry Baseball's First Colored World Series (McFarland & Company 2006)
  • Revel, Dr. Layton and Munoz, Luis Walter "Dobie" Moore (Center for Negro League Research, 2009)
  • Holway, John B. Dobie Moore (Baseball Research Journal, 1982)
  • Gary Ashwill's great baseball research lab "Agate Type" has been instrumental in this article.
  • Various Contemporary newspaper sources including Chicago Defender and Baltimore Afro-American.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

167. Cristobal Torriente: If Not for His Hair

For those who haven't heard yet, I'm officially working on a full-scale Infinite Baseball Card Set book for Simon & Schuster. It's going to be a much-expanded version of the small privately published book I completed last spring. While some of the drawings and stories are derived from this blog, it'll also be chock-full of new material - which explains why I haven't been doing updates a often as I used to. Getting married in August and then moving and then working on the book proposal had taken it's toll on my time to do this blog. However, now that it's a go on the book, I plan on not only updating more often, but also periodically sharing sneak-peeks of some of the new drawings I've been doing. To say I'm excited is an understatement; this book will be my grand statement as an artist and writer, the fruition of 4 years of producing a labor of love that means more to me than any artistic endeavour I've done in my entire career. To say it will be a culmination would be wrong, it will be more like just the beginning, a whole new route that my career will take. Stay tuned!

This week's story and illustration is of Cuba's greatest ballplayer, Cristóbal (known to his peers as Carlos) Torriente. Countless baseball artists have done drawings of Torriente, always taken from the same photos. For me, I wanted to do the Hall of Famer for specific reason: through my years of reading about the Negro leagues, there's something than no other artist ever managed to capture when illustrating him - Torriente was famous for wearing gold bracelets on his wrist that he'd jingle before batting to rile up the crowd. I thought this a very important and frankly fun detail that made a standard Hall of Famer jump off the pages of history and into real life. It's details like that that drew me to outsider baseball history over 3 decades ago and epitomises what I wanted to do with my drawings when I began here 4 years ago.

It’s the fall of 1920 and the overflowing crowd at Havana’s Almenares Park was whipped to a frenzy. The great Babe Ruth had arrived with the New York Giants to take on Cuba’s best ball club, the Blues. Their star was a dark-skinned slugger named Torriente and everyone wanted to see him match his skills against The Babe. Ruth put on his usual show, but his trademark long distance shots, which would have been homers in any American park, were reigned in for outs due to the monstrous dimensions of the outfield. Helped by the Giants pitcher, who was normally a first baseman, the Cuban blasted three home runs. With the bases loaded,  Ruth limbered up and took the mound to face Torriente. Just two years earlier, The Babe was the best left-hander in baseball and he was sure he could make short-work of his adversary. Torriente hammered a ball past the third baseman for a 2-run double. The Babe frowned and the crowd went hysterical. He was forever after known as “The Babe Ruth of Cuba”. Described as “fun-loving”, Torriente had a string of eccentricities like the gold bracelets he wore on this wrists which he would jingle when he came to bat to excite the crowd. He’s most known for his years on the Chicago American Giants where manager Rube Foster put the versatile Cuban to good use as an everyday utility player. He hit with power and his average was usually in the area of .350. The major leagues were very close to signing him on numerous occasions but reportedly the only thing that stood between him and stardom in the white leagues was Torriente’s kinky black hair. By the mid 1920’s the slugger’s enjoyment of the nightlife and the hard life of outsider baseball began to take its toll on him. He bumped around from team to team and was out of baseball by 1933. The “Babe Ruth of Cuba” died a penniless alcoholic from tuberculosis in New York City in 1938. He was but 44.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

164. Chino Smith: Like a Meteor

Some ball field, somewhere in 1928 or 1929.

The air was electric. With the score tied up for the past 6 innings, the crowd had settled in the sticky late afternoon heat. After the first batter struck out, the number two man had just hit a cheap single that dropped behind the shortstop who was playing for a bunt. Now the crowd came to life. They knew who the man on deck was and what he could do. Chino Smith could break a ballgame wide open with a single swing of his bat. The stands were filled with taunts, screams, insults - even a few hats were launched onto the grass, but Chino Smith didn't care.

Savagely throwing the two extra bats he used to warm up behind him, he strode slowly towards the plate. Instead of walking in a straight line, he swung deliberately out of his way towards the hostile crowd. The noise got louder and he paused at one point to gaze menacingly over his shoulder. His eyes, slightly slanting at the corners, gave him a faintly Asian look, and from that sprung his nickname - Chino. Turning back, he continued his walk to the plate. He kicked savagely at the dirt, digging a hole for his spikes to get traction. He swung the bat back and forth and finally pointed it at the pitcher.

"I'm gonna kill you today". 

His voice was loud, booming and eerily even. The crowd ate it up and yelled louder than before. They cried for the pitcher to stick one in his ear. The catcher said something, but no one could hear for the crowd. The pitcher didn't say a word. He checked the runner on first.

The first pitch was close, a brush-back, up just beneath his chin. Fully expecting it, Chino dodged it and unleashed a foul stream of tobacco juice at it as it hissed by. The runner on first had taken off and took second standing up. Chino pointed at the runner, silently taunting the pitcher. The crowd loved it and hated it.

"That all you got? That all you gonna throw?" 

The pitcher pounded his glove and eyed the man on second.

"Cause if that's all you throwin', I'm gonna kill you today."

The stands erupted with an even louder torrent of hatred. Someone threw a soda bottle. Chino suddenly made towards the box seats along the first base line but stopped after a few steps. A smile curled up from the edge of his mouth and he turned back towards the plate. The umpire kicked the bottle back towards the crowd.

The next pitch sailed in just a bit outside but still within reach. With a flick Chino smashed the ball straight back at the pitcher who feebly stabbed at the ball while instinctively jumping out of the way. The runner on second crossed the plate before the center fielder made the play and Chino stood on first base like he owned it. When the crowd quieted down he motioned at the pitcher.

"Hey! I made you jump out there!"

The pitcher threw the ball in the dirt and charged towards first. The slight curl in the corner of Chino's lips turned into a full-blown smile as he braced for the coming fight.


When it comes to blackball, you take it for granted that due to lack of newspaper coverage, record keeping and plain-old racism that it's tough to discern truth from myth. With a guy like Chino Smith, the waters become as murky as Lock Ness. His career was so meteoric and short that over the years he took on an almost King Arthur-like reputation. And like the Medieval knight, whose story is based in fact, much of what is repeated is not. Often called a small man, listed in most books as 5'-6", if you just look at a team photo you can see he was most likely 5-11 or 6 foot. Not a giant, but average for a ballplayer in 1930. I reckon somewhere in some newspaper many years ago there is a typo that just kept getting reprinted. Even his great nickname "Chino", which he is universally known by today, is not quite correct. While the Spanish language press and fans in Cuba dubbed him Chino, after his "Chinese-looking eyes", in the States he was known to fellow players by the less racy "Smitty", and to the public as just plain-old "Charlie", his given name.

Though said to be from Greenwood, South Carolina, baseball archaeologist Gary Ashwill uncovered that Charlie Smith really came out of Hamlet, North Carolina. As a teen he added muscles by lugging baggage in New York's Pennsylvania Station and honed his baseball skills playing for the ball club made up of porters like him called the Redcaps. Boasting quite a few future and former blackball players, the Redcaps were a valuable training ground and after a few seasons playing for second-tier teams, Smith turned pro in 1925. Smitty's team, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, were one of the old independent blackball teams, but by 1925 they'd joined the Eastern Colored League. Playing alongside aging vets like Dick Redding, Bill Holland and Jesse Hubbard, Smith spent 1925 and 1926 getting his bearings and learning his craft. By 1927 he emerged as one of the most dangerous sluggers in the game.

In an era filled with hard characters, Smith quickly earned a reputation as one of the toughest. He was the grandfather of trash-talkers and decades later when old-timers tired of waxing poetically about Smitty's skills with a bat, they often turned to talking about the verbal abuse he slung like line drives. Once in Cuba he'd had a bust up with the Yankee's ace Johnny Allen which over the years turned into something of a legend. While some blackball players like Satchel Paige delighted crowds with good-natured antics, Smitty made them angry and dangerously on the edge. He deliberately riled up the crowd which in turn made him play harder.

Playing for the Royal Giants, Smitty averaged above .400 in league games in '27 and '28. In 1929 Smith moved from the aging Royal Giants to the New York Lincoln Giants, a younger and more competitive club. Just 28 and at his peak, Smith crushed the ball, going .465 and then .429 in 1930. He was the most feared batter outside the major leagues, which some might argue doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot. A common argument is made that the Royal Giants and his next team, the Lincoln Giants, played their home games in an oddly shaped ballpark called the Catholic Protectory Oval up in the Bronx. It was shaped, as it's name suggests, like an oval, much like the Polo Grounds where the New York Giants and Yankees played. The field had very shallow left and right field dimensions, making many modern historians look disparagingly at Smith's Ty Cobb-like averages. On the surface that's a great argument, but the Royals and the Lincolns didn't play the majority of their games "at home". Negro League teams traveled more than professional white teams and even league games were scheduled at neutral parks. The Lincolns, for instance, played some of their home games at Yankee Stadium during Smith's career. In games played against the other big names of the day, Smitty hit as good or better than the best outsider baseball had to offer.

Like many of the big stars of the Negro leagues, Smith was invited to play winter ball in Cuba. Down in the Caribbean the blackballers got to test their mettle against not only the best Latin players, but also against touring major leaguers and up and coming white stars. In the handful of winters spent on the island, Smith batted in the range of .340, putting him right about the top 10 of the time. In addition, pioneer blackball historian John Holway tracked down a slate of Stateside games in which Smith got to face off against active major league pitching (active big league hurlers, not washed up retreads throwing for semi-pro teams). Smitty clipped them at the same pace he did the Eastern Colored League pitchers: In 11 games against big leaguers Smith had 15 hits in 37 at bats, a .405 average. 

The two best pitchers of Smith's day, Baltimore's Laymon Yokely and the eternal Satchel Paige whose career spanned the 1920's to the 1960's, both put Smith in the top 3 of the toughest batters they faced. When Colonel Ruppert opened up Yankee Stadium to black teams in 1930, Charlie Smith was the star of the inaugural game. Facing the Baltimore Black Sox, defending champs of the American Negro League, Smith walked in the first, hit a two-run homer in the third, smashed an RBI triple in the fifth and then wrapped it all up with a three-run homer in the seventh. Nothing it seemed, could stop Smitty.

Then, just like that, it was over.

Sometime during the 1931 season, Smith started to feel sick. Self-medicating with a variety of different elixirs failed to prevent his batting average to plummet. Traveling to Cuba for the winter season, Smitty played a few games and then returned home to his wife in the Bronx. In less than a month after Christmas he was dead. Some attributed his illness to a game against the Homestead Grays when he took a knee to his stomach during a savage collision with Walt Cannady, others say it was yellow fever picked up in Cuba. Baseball archaeologist Gary Ashwill however put an end to the speculation when he uncovered Smith's death certificate which stated he died of stomach and pancreatic cancer. He was just 31 years old.

I went back and forth whether or not to put "Chino" on the front of Smith's card. When I started doing my illustrations and stories over 3 years ago, I began with the idea that I wanted my work to be as accurate as possible. Most of the time this comes down to very minute things like uniform details, but in this case I eventually thought it important to put the name he was known for in the States. In my research going through 1920's and 30's newspapers, the name Chino was never used, only "Charlie Smith". Since I illustrated him as a member of the 1930 Lincoln Giants playing at the Catholic Protectory Oval, I ultimately decided to give him the name he would have been known by as at the time. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

162. Max Manning: The Honor & Integrity of Dr. Cyclopse

There's no doubt that baseball's full of stories about guys who got the short end of the stick. When you're talking about the Negro leagues, the list gets even longer. Even after the majors were integrated there were precious few slots open to the black players and many men of doubtless talent were left languishing in the minors or never received the call they hoped for. Max Manning is one who received that longed-for call. When I learned about the life and career of Manning, known by the frightful nickname of Dr. Cyclopse, from his former teammate Leon Day, I figured if anyone had the right to be bitter, it was this guy. When I was fortunate to sit down with Dr. Cyclopse himself in the summer of 1992, I was pleased to see that he wasn't in the lest bit bitter about the way things shook down for him. On the contrary, I found the former All-Star to be a gracious, friendly man who readily shared his observations of over 10 years in the Negro Leagues with me. 

In the spring of 1948, honor and integrity was the only thing that stood between Max Manning and his shot at the big leagues. Manning was relaxing at his New Jersey home, fresh from another successful winter season in Cuba where he went 10-8 for Cienfiegos. That he had that many losses stemmed from his trying out new pitches, namely a straight change-up taught to him by Carl Erskine of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a few weeks Negro Leagues spring training would start and he and those new pitches were ready to go. Two years earlier Manning got out of the service and had roared back into action with the Newark Eagles, posting a 9-1 record in '46 and following that up with 15-6 in '47. 1948 promised to be even better.

Then one chilly spring afternoon the telephone rings. On the other end is Alex Pompez, former owner of the New York Cubans of the Negro National League, now a scout for the New York Giants. Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Dan Bankhead and almost two dozen other black ballplayers have already been signed to play professional ball. Three of his teammates with the Newark Eagles, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin and Ray Dandridge, have been signed to play in the white leagues and now, according to Pompez, it was Manning's turn.

All the tall, lanky pitcher had to do was go up to the Polo Grounds, add his signature on a contract Pompez had on hand and he was property of the New York Giants. Sounded great, but there was a problem: Manning had already signed a contract to play for the Newark Eagles in 1948. To most black ball players and the white teams that signed them, that little technicality was conveniently overlooked, which was exactly what Alex Pompez and the New York Giants expected Manning to do. 

Suddenly the black Bakelite telephone receiver weighted 100 pounds in Manning's hand. Sorry, he couldn't break his word: the Giants would have to negotiate with Newark owners Abe and Effa Manley. No doubt Pompez brought up all the other ball players who jumped their Negro League contracts: Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Willard Brown, Hank Thompson... but those guys weren't Max Manning. Taken aback, the scout asked again if he wanted to pitch in the major leagues, to which Manning replied "more than you could ever know, but if you don't have honor, what do you have?"

It wasn't the first time Max Manning had a cruel brush with the Majors. Back at Pleasentville High, Manning had tossed a couple no-hitters and a 23 strike-out game, he made the papers quite a few times. One day in 1937 a letter arrived from former Athletics star Max Bishop, now a scout for the Detroit Tigers. The letter, accompanied by a questionnaire, told young Max Manning that the Tigers were looking forward to seeing him in the spring for a tryout with the team. Obviously super-scout Max Bishop had just read the sports pages and not looked any further than Manning's stats. The letter was a mistake. A cruel mistake, but a mistake all the same.
Manning pitched on weekends with a semi-pro outfit out of Atlantic City called the Johnson Stars. His teammates were Pop Lloyd, Rats Henderson and a bunch of other ancient blackball stars. These oldsters taught the teenager how to pitch like a pro. At 18, Manning was a slim 6 foot 4. He possessed a side-arm fastball that would eventually register in the 90's and he had a streak of wildness. That speed coupled with his thick glasses made his wildness all the more scary to opposing batters. Leary batsmen soon called the skinny kid "Dr. Cyclopse".

Since a Major League career with the Tigers was not an option, Manning entered his father's alma matta, Lincoln University. His teammate on the baseball team was Monte Irvin and soon the two had attracted the attention of the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. With his father's permission, Max Manning embarked on a career in baseball.

The Newark Eagles team Manning and Irvin joined seemed to always be a bridesmaid and never the bride. The powerful Homestead Grays with Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard never failed to swoop in and take the pennant every year, but the Eagles had some good talent. Pitcher Leon Day was the equal of Satchel Paige and also happened to be one of the teams best sluggers as well. Shortstop Willie Wells and third baseman Ray Dandridge anchored what was dubbed the "Million Dollar Infield", Mule Suttles' bat added the power hitting pop to the line up and catcher Biz Mackey was a 20-year vet who most consider the best receiver in blackball history. All those men would eventually end up in Cooperstown.

By 1939 Manning was the team's number-two started after Leon Day. Though young and as thin as a reed, Dr. Cyclopes earned the respect of opposing batters with a dose of 90 MPH medicine thrown with a side of wild. He broke even his first full season with a 4-4 record. In '40 he busted out a 14-7 slate and became the Eagles ace after Leon Day jumped ship for Mexico. That he resisted the temptation of the big money Mexico waved in front of black ballplayers should have made Manning popular with the Eagles' husband-wife owners, Abe and Effa Manley, but it didn't. Manning, who was a bit more educated than the average ballplayer of the time, knew how much his arm was worth and his annual salary disputes with the Manley's kept him from being a front office favorite. While Effa's affections were slathered all over fellow pitcher Terris McDuffie, Manning, who had a better record, was held in contempt by Effa and their relationship never improved.

At the height of his career, Manning was drafted into the Army. With his couple years of college, Manning would have been ushered into officer training had he been white, but as it were, he became a truck driver. As part of the famed "Red Ball Express", Manning drove ammo round the clock to Patton's Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge. Manning's reaction to Army racism earned him a stint in the brig and his time in the service left him with a bad taste in mouth. Honorably discharged in January of 1946, Manning was ready to re-start his baseball career. 

After dropping his first decision, Manning went on a tear that had him winning every other game he pitched that year. He and Leon Day led the Eagles to the Negro National League pennant and he took home the Champion Pitcher Award, the blackball version of the Cy Young. Facing the fabled Kansas City Monarchs in the World Series, Manning beat Satchel Paige in Game 2 to even the series at a game a piece. Starting Game 5, Manning lost to Hilton Smith and the series was again even up at two games each. Newark eventually won in seven games and the 1946 edition of the Eagles have gone down as one of the best teams before integration. Two of his teammates, Monte Irvin and Larry Doby would make it to the majors and the Hall of Fame, and Johnny Davis, Pat Patterson, Rufus Lewis and Jimmy Wilkes would play in the minors. Leon Day and Biz Mackey would also eventually have a plaque in Cooperstown. It was a heck of a team and for that very reason it was quickly destroyed. Among the thousands of fans in the stands at the 1946 World Series was a whole corps of major league scouts. With Jackie Robinson, Johnny Wright and Roy Partlow already in the minor leagues, the big leagues were scouring the Negro Leagues trying to figure out the best talent they could grab. Not only were the two teams that played in the series that year stocked with great talent, as far as the majors were concerned, it was free for the taking.

Since black ballplayers for generations had taken the contracts they signed each spring with a grain of salt, "jumping" became common in the Negro leagues. Ball players were used to looking out for themselves and following the money and the owners very rarely had to money or legal staff to fight contract disputes. Since many of the owners, including Newark's Abe Manley, were gangsters who did not want to attract the kind of attention a court battle would bring, they grudgingly let the players jump from team to team with little retribution other than a small fine at best.

So, as the white teams came calling, black ball players didn't hesitate to jump. When Branch Rickey signed Robinson, Wright and Partlow, the Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles and Homestead Grays, their respective ball clubs, were not compensated a single cent. While the Monarchs and Grays let the matter drop, the Manley's were angered. Effa in particular was incensed. With Rickey being given God-like status for his racial sensitivity, Manley made as much of a stink as she could protesting what she considered stealing from the Negro Leagues. No one cared; white newspapers loved the controversy black ballplayers would unleash and the black press were ecstatic about the doors being opened for the first time in almost 50 years. When the Bill Veeck plucked Larry Doby for his Indians and then Horace Stoneham pulled Monte Irvin for the Giants, Effa swore to fight any other white owner who took any of her boys. Didn't really matter: there was only so many slots available for the influx of black talent and there were plenty of other teams to raid. That was why when Alex Pompez hung up the phone after Max Manning told him to negotiate his contract with the Manley's, the smart scout knew to look elsewhere. No one who knew Effa Manley wanted to negotiate with her.

For Max Manning, in the spring of 1948 he was in great shape, a young 29 and at the prime of his game. Sure he'd stood on his moral ground and it would keep him from going to spring training with the Giants, but his word was his word and that had to mean something. Of all the Newark players, Manning could especially make a case of jumping the club. Unlike Irvin and Doby, who were Effa's personal favorites, Dr. Cyclopse wasn't shown any particular love from the Manley's, but at least he could look himself in the eye every time he shaved. He was confident another team would come knocking. That winter in Cuba, many of the white major leaguers he played with and against told him he was of big league caliber, but he already knew that - white, black or brown skin, his fastball set 'em on their asses. He'd post another good season, augmented by that Erskine change-up, and then see what kind of offers came in.

But things don't always work out the way they should. It was a few weeks into the 1948 season that Manning separated his shoulder, and just like that, his baseball career was over. Manning consulted doctors and tried to hang on, pitching in Venezuela and Canada as the Negro leagues collapsed, but the fastball left and the pain was too intense. Now married, his wife talked him into going back to college. With help from the G.I. Bill, he graduated from Glassboro State and began a teaching career that would last for 28 years, retiring as Pleasentville's most beloved 6th grade teacher.

Perhaps it's this second career that kept Manning from being bitter. Or, more likely it's the fact that until the day he died in 2003 at the age of 84 that every time he ran a razor across his chin, he could look himself straight in the eyes, knowing his honor was intact.

  • Author's meeting with Max Manning, Baltimore circa 1992
  • 1946 Negro Baseball Yearbook (Sepia Publications, 1946)
  • Holway, John B., Black Diamonds (Stadium Books, 1991)
  • Holway, John B., Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues (Hastings House, 2001)
  • Martin, Alfred M. & Martin, Alfred T., The Negro Leagues in New Jersey (McFarland, 2009)
  • The Press of Atlantic City (June 25, 2003)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

160. Biz Mackey: International Man of Clout

Here's a ball player I've been wanting to do a card of for a long time. Actually, I illustrated the thing long ago, I just hadn't felt I completed enough research on the guy to tell the story the way I wanted to. Back when I was in college in Baltimore, I got to asking many of the old timers about the Negro League stars, and when catcher came up, most of the oldsters said Biz Mackey was The Man. I asked about Josh Gibson, the great Homestead Grays slugger and sure enough most said that yeah, that Josh could hit the ball a mile, but Biz was the better all-around ball player. 

Strong words, and contradictory to most blackball history you read, but me, I'll side with people who were there every time. So, who was Biz Mackey?

Heard of Roy Campanella? The Tokyo Giants? Well, without Biz Mackey both might not have existed...

He grew up playing town ball with his brothers Ray and Ernest before going pro with the San Antonio Black Aces in 1918. When the team folded C.I. Taylor's Indianapolis ABC's bought his contract. The ABC's were among the elite black teams at the time and for a young kid like Mackey to be picked up by them was saying a lot about his raw talent. Serving his big league internship on a team filled with stars such as Oscar Charleston, Dizzy Dismukes, Crush Holloway and Ben Taylor benefited the burly young catcher and he batted .312, 329 and .365. 

In 1923 he moved to the Hilldale Club out of Darby, Pennsylvania. Hilldale was the classiest of the eastern blackball outfits and were about to embark on a tear of three pennants once the Eastern Colored League was founded the year Mackey joined them.Because Hilldale already had slugger Louis Santop behind he plate, Mackey often played in the infield so both his and Santop's bats could be in the lineup. It says a lot that a man of Mackey's size, about 6' and over 200 pounds, could play shortstop and third base with the same ease as he could catcher. When he did displace Santop behind the plate, Mackey's mastery of the position became legendary. His arm was so strong and accurate that he didn't have to stand up to throw a base runner out at second. No one had seen that before and soon Mackey was getting compared to Major League baseball's best catcher, Mickey Cochrane, who played across town with the Philadelphia Athletics. Oldtimers who saw both men play usually give Cochrane the slight edge with a bat, but overwhelmingly give Mackey the nod when it came to defence and calling a game.

Mackey was gregarious and jolly; his nickname "Biz" actually derives from his propensity to give batters "the business" as they tried to concentrate at the plate. Mackey would ask them questions, try to get the ump to examine their bat, anything to distract them. He loved the nightlife, too. Blackball players were royalty in the still segregated cities and Mackey took full advantage of all it had to offer. Extremely fond of the sauce, the big catcher was known for his epic nights on the town, but while other ball players eventually succumbed to its debilitating effects, Mackey avoided the slippery slope to alcoholism. While known to show up at a ball game still showing the effects of the night before, once he put on that uniform and crouched behind the plate he was all business.

Because Mackey was renown as one of the best players outside the majors he was much in demand to play during the winter months. Besides the Caribbean, which was a popular destination for black ball players since the early 1900's, by the 20's Southern California had a burgeoning winter baseball season as well. The California Winter League usually featured a few white teams made up of major leaguers and Pacific Coast League stars and a single black ball club stocked with the best the Negro Leagues had to offer. In the winter of 1926-1927, promoter Lonnie Goodwin assembled the Philadelphia Royal Giants, what may have been the greatest single-season team of black players ever to take the field. Joining Mackey was the Kansas City Monarchs' ace Bullet Rogan, Turkey Stearnes, Willie Wells, Andy Cooper and Bill Foster, all Hall of Famers. The Royal Giants buzz-sawed their way through the winter league and took the pennant with a 26-11-1 record against the white teams. In a few more seasons Commissioner Landis would put a stop to the major leaguers playing in the Winter League, but for a few years it was possible to see how black ball players could do against their white counterparts. 

After the Winter League season ended, the Royal Giants split up. Bullet Rogan and the other Kansas City Monarchs headed back east to start the 1927 Negro National League season, but Biz Mackey, Frank Duncan, Rap Dixon, Andy Cooper and a handful of others boarded a ship to Japan. Touring baseball teams were not all that uncommon in Japan; American college, Japanese-American semi-pro and white professional teams had been doing it since the turn of the century, but this was the first major tour of black ball players.

Like every other American ball club that toured Japan, The Royal Giants won nearly every game; 47 out of 48 games. Their single loss to the Daimai Club serves as an example of what made the Japanese appreciate the black players so much. In a close game against the
Daimai Club, a bad call by the local umpire gave the game to the Japanese: with one out and two on base, a Royal Giant hit a long fly ball to sacrifice score a run, but the second runner was doubled off first and tagged out. The umpire refused to allow the run to count and Daimai won. The Royal Giants took the loss in stride, something the Japanese deeply appreciated.

While other visiting teams came to the island and beat the hell out of the inexperienced Japanese, the Royal Giants subtly kept their scores low to not insult the locals. The blackball players knew how to play "the game", they'd done it countless times back in the states against white semi-pro and town teams where to run up the score and embarrass the locals could cost them their part of the gate receipts, or worse, a beating. The black ballplayers also knew that by keeping the score close, the possibility to see a win would keep fans interested and coming to the park. The 1922 Major League tour realized this too late and gate receipts greatly diminished by the time their tour ended. When the big leaguers did let the Japanese win a game, it was such a farce that it only embarrassed the locals even more.

The Royal Giants also brought some good old barnstorming entertainment to the island, driving the fans nuts with their shadow ball routines. The Japanese watched in amazement as the Royal Giants whipped the invisible ball around the field. The team also shared their knowledge of the game with the Japanese, Mackey's exhibition on how to throw to second base from a crouch especially drew eager students.

When the Royal Giants played in Tokyo's brand new Meiji Shrine Stadium, Mackey became the first man to hit a ball out of its massive environs. The blast was estimated at 427 feet and before the tour ended he'd hit two more out of the ball park, each to a different field.

The Japanese deeply appreciated the kindness of the Royal Giants and the tour did much to spread the game's popularity. Many of the college players who faced the Royal Giants in 1927 went on to have roles in the founding of the Japanese Baseball League in 1936. By keeping the scores low and not embarrassing the locals, the Americans played to the Japanese sense of honor and dignity, something no other team of Americans had in the past. The gesture helped bolster the Japanese player's confidence, which when dealing with a game as complex as baseball, becomes very important.

Mackey returned to Hilldale half-way through the 1927 season. In his absence, the team had finished dead-last in the league's first half, but climbed back to 3rd place in the second half with him behind the plate. If the catcher had been a major leaguer who abandoned his team to barnstorm for half a season, he'd have been banned from the game. But, Mackey was in the Negro Leagues, and it speaks volumes of the precarious nature of the league that his only punishment amounted to little more than a scolding. Biz Mackey was a superstar of black baseball and the Negro Leagues need him.

For the rest of his long career, Mackey continued to be among the best ball players in outsider ball. When the Negro Leagues had their first East-West All-Star Game in 1933, it was Mackey, not Josh Gibson, who received the most fan votes and was the game's starting catcher. When Mackey was playing for the Philadelphia Stars in 1935, there was a chubby local kid who kept hanging around the star catcher. Through persistence, a little raw talent and Mackey's mentoring, the kid showed promise. By 1938 Mackey was in Baltimore with the Elite Giants and had the kid take the train down to Charm City on weekends to play in exhibition games under his watchful eye. Over the course of a summer the boy transformed into Mackey's "mini me". Veterans said that unless the kid took the mask off, you swore it was the ol' Biz himself behind the plate. When Mackey went to the Newark Eagles in 1939, the Elite Giants' catching was left in the able hands of that kid: Roy Campanella.
In Newark Mackey found a whole new crew of youngsters to mentor and over the next decade brought Larry Doby, Monte Irvin and Don Newcombe's skills up to major league standards. With collapse of the black teams in the early 1950's, Mackey drove a forklift but was brought into the national spotlight when on May 7, 1959, Roy Campanella introduced his old mentor before a crowd of over 90,000 Dodgers fans as the man who made him who he was. It was a tremendous compliment to a man whose generosity and kindness helped influence ballplayers of many colors and nationalities.

And that's who Biz Mackey was.

  • Holway, John B., Blackball Stars (Meckler Books, 1988)
  • Fitts, Robert K., Banzai Babe Ruth (University of Nebraska, 2012)
  • Lanctot, Neil, Fair Dealing and Clean Play (Syracuse University, 2007)
  • Gary Ashwill, Agate Type Website

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

153. Mickey Stubblefield: Integrating The KITTY League

Though it's hard for me to focus on one subject for too long, I've been slowly accumulating a roster of ballplayers for my next edition of "21". Unlike the last book, this one will focus on baseball in Kentucky. Why Kentucky you might ask? Though I was born and bred in North Jersey and over the course of my career have lived in many places, Kentucky is my adapted home. Moving to this area back in 1995, I instantly fell in love with the people and coziness of the place. So many places around the country have bled together and lost their uniqueness. It was that regional distinctiveness that made the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky area something special to me. I like how people still go nuts over fireworks, fight over whether Graeters or Aglamesis Brothers make better ice cream and that crazy Opening Day Parade. Still, my Gypsy blood (honestly, I actually do descend from Carpathian Roma) made me wander away not once, but twice over the years. In an odd twist of fate, I'm probably the only human being who was not born in this area that voluntarily moved here three separate times! There was good reason: The best friends I've ever had were made right here and, right after moving back here for the third time, I met the woman who in 6 short weeks will be my wife. Kentucky has been good to me and this little book will be my way of saying thanks. Over the years I've featured a few Kentucky ballplayers such as Pee Wee Reese and Happy Chandler, but looking deeper there are many more interesting characters who played ball here in the Blue Grass State and I'm excited to shine a light on these neat ballplayers.

Though Jackie Robinson is the man everyone thinks of when it comes to integration of the National Pastime, Robinson broke the color barrier in only two leagues. At the time he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, there were 52 minor leagues operating in North America, and though Robinson had integrated the International League in 1946, it was up to 51 other brave and talented black men to integrate the remaining circuits. On June 26, 1952, Mayfield, Kentucky's own Mickey Stubblefield became one of those men.

Outside the Mayfield Clothiers' locker room, 1,500 people packed Graves County War Memorial Park. Although Maysfield was mired in last place, the game was completely sold out and the crowd had overflowed into the football stadium bleachers beyond the park's right field wall. Something was happening that day and that something was integration. Maysfield native Mickey Stubblefield was about to become the first black ballplayer in the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League, commonly called the "Kitty League". Buttoning up his home white jersey with "Clothiers" across the front, the team's new pitcher listened with apprehension to the rumble of the crowd. It wasn't the size that bothered him, heck, with the Kansas City Monarchs he'd played to Major League sized crowds. No, it wasn't the size of the crowd, it was the uncertainty of it. The Kitty League had always been a whites-only circuit. Even the Negro Leagues, which had teams in all parts of the country including the deep south, had failed to take hold in any of the towns the Kitty League represented. This was Jim Crow territory and by stepping out onto that field, Mickey Stubblefield was about to deal him a mighty blow.

Mickey was born not too far from the ballpark he was now scheduled to pitch in. The fifth of six kids, his real name was Wilker, after his mother's family. "Mickey" was a nickname given to him as a boy, derived not from the star catcher of the Athletics and Tigers, Mickey Cochrane, but from the oversize used shoes he had to wear: they reminded everyone of Mickey Mouse. Before he was a teen he was orphaned and was shuttled around from one relative to another. One of the only constant things in his life was baseball. At 11 he became the batboy to the Mayfield Clothiers, the Kitty League team he would one day pitch for.

When the war came, Mickey joined the Navy and served at various bases stateside. When he was cut loose from the service in 1946, Mickey didn't have a vocation to return to. When a Navy buddy wrote to him about a spot on a barnstorming baseball team out of Nebraska, and even offered to send money for a ticket, he jumped at the chance.

The Omaha Rockets were an all-black traveling team that covered the dusty plains playing in the small towns professional baseball never reached. Black barnstorming teams were an annual treat for isolated baseball fans and the Omaha Rockets were one of the last of their kind. Soon the advent of television and the recent lifting of baseball's color barrier would spell the end of this rural tradition. 

For the organized Negro Leagues too, baseball's integration marked the beginning of the end. As all the best players were relentlessly signed away, fresh blood was needed to keep the proud black institution operating. The venerable Kansas City Monarchs, winners of over ten Negro American League pennants, were no exception and Mickey Stubblefield soon found himself wearing the uniform of black baseball's premier franchise.

Joining the team for spring training, Mickey had to grow up fast. The Monarchs boasted one of the best pitching staffs in blackball. The rotation was of All-Star calibre: Hilton Smith, Lefty LaMarque, Connie Johnson and of course, the legendary Satchel Paige. Later Mickey would tell how Paige took him under his wing and taught him how to throw his special curve ball. At 5'-9" Mickey was dwarfed by the 6'-3" Paige, thus earning him the nickname "Little Satch". Due to his small stature he wasn't a fireballer like Paige and LaMarque. Mickey had to rely on an arsenal of junk balls and various curves which he threw from various angles to make them break differently.

It was a tough squad to crack. The Monarch's star pitchers were reserved for league games that counted and rookies like Mickey were used to face the semi-pro and town teams the Monarchs took on to turn a profit. The traveling was hard and the team sometimes played two games a day in different towns. When they slept in hotels it was usually a seedy rooming house and meals were either eaten on the bus in transit or at a rare black-friendly roadside diner. It was a tough life and many players succumbed to the temptations of the road. Mickey was more disciplined than many his age and he avoided drinking much and never took up smoking. He even got married and began a family.

After spending the summer pitching to farmers and factory workers, integration finally gave Mickey a chance at the starting rotation. In July Satchel was signed by the Cleveland Indians and others left the Monarchs for the white minor leagues, giving Mickey the chance to pitch against Negro American League opponents. While no statistics exist from the many games he tossed against the semi-pros that summer, it is documented that he won the two league games he appeared in, both complete games, giving up a total of 10 hits and 3 runs. It wasn't a bad record considering it was his first season of pro ball and it earned him a call back for the 1949 season.

With Jackie Robinson firmly established as a superstar and many other blacks now playing in the majors, black newspapers stopped covering Negro League ball as close as they had previously. No record exists from the 1949 season to document Mickey's sophomore year in the Negro Leagues. Though the reasons are not known, he left the Monarchs late in the season and hooked up with the McCook Cats of the Nebraska Independent League. The Cats were an integrated top-notch semi-pro team and Mickey returned the following season where he went 13-6. 

By now Mickey was 24 and a married family man. Thinking about his future, he gave up pro ball and returned to Mayfield, Kentucky. To keep his love of the game alive he played semi-pro ball for the Dr. Pepper bottling plant he worked at. For a veteran of the Negro Leagues, playing industrial league ball was a piece of cake and his advanced level of play soon attracted the attention of the team he was once batboy for.

The Mayfield Clothiers was one of the lower rungs of the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system. The Pirates had barely limped through the war years but now boasted Branch Rickey, mastermind behind the Cardinals and Dodgers dynasties, at their helm. With him in Pittsburgh was his son, Branch Rickey, Jr. and he is the man credited for signing Mickey to a Pirates minor league contact.

Mayfield was stranded in last place and in dire need of pitching. Whether Mickey's signing was the acquisition of a promising prospect or a shrewd way to pack the stands with black fans or a combination of both, is not known. What is documented is that until June 26, 1952, the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League was an all-white affair.

Which brings us back to Mickey and the sold out Graves County War Memorial Park. 

Grabbing his glove, Mickey emerged from the dugout and ran onto the field to start the game against the Paducah Indians. All apprehention subsided when he quickly realised the crowd was cheering for, not against him. Standing atop the mound, he could see that 1,500 black and white fans were on their feet giving him a standing ovation. When he struck out the first batter, Mickey also struck out Jim Crow. 

He won the game 5-4, giving up 6 hits and striking out six Indians. While it would be great to write that the addition of Mickey was the spark that ignited the Mayfield Clothiers to make a pennant run, it was not to be. The Clothiers still had a terrible team despite Mickey's decent pitching and finished dead last. A check of the 1952 Kitty League record book shows that Mickey Stubblefield won 7 and lost 6. His 3.71 ERA was pretty good considering that even the lousiest team in the league scored an average of 5 runs a game that summer. Hampering his usefulness was that only one other Kitty League team would allow him to pitch in their ballparks. Most of the cities that the league operated in still imposed segregation laws prohibiting the races from mixing in publicly owned stadiums. Paducah was the only team that allowed Mickey to pitch. Jackson, Tennessee was willing to have him appear in their park, but the game he was scheduled to pitch was rained out. Although he was probably the second best pitcher Mayfield had, a pitcher who was only available for home games stood in the way of him making his true value to the team apparent. 

Mixing of the races also played into 1952 being Mickey's only year in the Kitty League. The league agreed that beginning in 1953 no other black ballplayer would be signed because of the difficulty finding facilities that would accommodate them. While on one hand, finding separate hotels and restaurants that would serve blacks proved a problem, it was a technical way of saying that with the exception of Mayfield and Jackson, no other city was willing to change their Jim Crow laws just yet. 

But Mickey Stubblefield's year as a racial pioneer had deeper repercussions in the civil rights movement. His appearance in the previous all-white league joined with all the other individual strives made against segregation. Right there in Mayfield, the tide of integration once again swept into the little town in 1956. Ten black students enrolled in the all-white Mayfield High instead of the all-black Dunbar High, Mickey's Alma mater. It was a brave move and one that ended peacefully as the ten teens attended class without anything more serious happening than a meager walk-out demonstration. Within 2 years, segregated Dunbar High was a thing of the past.

As for Mickey, after the 1952 season he moved on to the Duluth Dukes of the Northern League. He was 2-0 when his arm went bad. Again, trying to mix a career with baseball, Mickey rejoined the McCook Cats and worked in a Chevy dealership. He liked Nebraska and made it his home, raising 10 kids. His days as a star ballplayer with the Cats made him a popular figure after he retired from the game. He even had his own radio show on WKTM called "Kick with Mick" and was the Grand Marshall of the 2011 Heritage Days Festival. With his kids grown, Mickey moved back to Mayfield in 1970. When he passed away in 2013, Mickey Stubblefield could look back with pride at the modest but important part he played in making baseball truly the National Pastime.