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

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