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.

1 comment:

  1. A short interview with Stubblefield. Didn't know much about his career until now. He passed a few months ago.