Posts Tagged ‘Elite Giants’

Roy Campanella and the Baltimore Elite Giants

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

Roy Campanella was born in the same year as the team for which he played before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.  The Elite Giants débuted in 1921 in Nashville, where it stayed for a decade and a half before moving to Washington, D.C.  After spending 1936 and 1937 in the nation’s capital, the team moved about 40 miles north to Baltimore, where it won the Negro National League championship the following year.

In his 2009 book The Baltimore Elite Giants, Bob Luke described team found Thomas “Smiling Tom” Wilson as a businessman who straddled the line separating legal and illegal activities.  “He ran a profitable numbers operation, which was illegal, sponsored numerous events at his namesake stadium in Nashville, Wilson Park, and ran a popular nightclub, the Paradise Ballroom,” wrote Luke.

The Baltimore Afro-American ran a story in the February 5, 1938 edition—May Transfer Elite Giants From Washington To Balto—quoting Wilson, who explained the financial benefit of changing metropolises:  “Last year we lost money with the club operating from Washington.  I sincerely feel Baltimore far superior to Washington as a baseball town.”  Wilson added, “It’s been a long time since Baltimore has had a regular league team and I feel the people there need one and will support one.”

Five weeks later, the Afro-American confirmed the move, heralding the relocation to Baltimore—the team’s last city until its demise in 1950—amongst other decisions made at a three-day Negro National League conference:  “Tom Wilson’s Elite Giants, who operated from Washington the last two years, definitely have been transferred to Baltimore this season and will play out of either Oriole Park or Bugle Field as a home base.

“This gives Baltimore its first real big league club since 1931.”

Campanella credited his rookie season of 1937 with the Elite Giants as forming the foundation for his catching skills, specifically, learning under the tutelage of veteran catcher Biz Mackey, who managed the team.  Though he was 15 years old, Campanella possessed natural abilities that belied his young age.

In his 1959 autobiography It’s Good To Be Alive, Campanella wrote, “As that season wore on I began to share the catching with Biz Mackey fifty-fifty.  Instead of growing distant as I grew better, Biz gave me everything he could.  I was becoming a good instinctive catcher, doing the right thing without thinking about it.  But my hitting was something else again.  Biz tried to get me to cut down on my swing and meet the ball better.”

Campanella biographer Neil Lanctot investigated the Campanella-Mackey relationship for his 2011 book Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella.  Mackey according to Lanctot, did not mandate a “do as I do” guideline for the teenage protégé.  “Unlike some coaches, Mackey did not try to force his pupil to copy his style.  There were different ways of catching, Mackey felt, and each receiver should use the form that worked best for him.  However, the boy needed instruction in the mechanical and mental aspects of the position.  Roy soon discovered there was much he did not know about catching.  After watching Mackey for a few games, he began to wonder whether he knew anything about catching.”

Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Campanella after the 1945 season.  Campanella first played for the Nashua Dodgers, a farm team in the Eastern League, where he won the 1946 MVP Award.  Rickey called him up to Brooklyn in the middle of the 1948 season.

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Roy Campanella in 1969.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 29, 2015.

Biz Mackey: Baseball’s Unsung Mentor

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

Without James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, there would be no Roy Campanella.

A three-time National League MVP and an eight-time National League All-Star, Campanella played for the Baltimore Elite Giants when Mackey managed the team.  Campanella was 15 years old, not even old enough to drive.  He held his own in the Negro Leagues, thanks to Mackey’s tutelage.  “Biz Mackey was the master of defense of all catchers,” said Campanella.

Mackey’s introduction to Campanella is lost to history.  But Neil Lanctot surmises how these baseball icons met.  In Campy, his 2011 biography of Campanella, Lanctot poses the theory that Mackey was hurt, thereby in need of a replacement catcher for the Giants circa late 1930s.  Mackey learned of Campanella through the baseball grapevine.

Without Biz Mackey, there would be no Monte Irvin.  No Larry Doby.  No Don Newcombe.

When Mackey managed the Newark Eagles in 1940-1941, he mentored these future major league players who led integration in the major leagues by the end of the 1940s.  Fired by Eagles owner Effa Manley after the 1941 season, Mackey returned to play for the Eagles in 1945.  Mackey batted .307, a stellar batting average made even more impressive by his age—48.  Manley hired Mackey to manage the Eagles in 1946.  His governance led the Eagles to champion status in the 1946 Negro League World Series against the Kansas City Monarchs.  Newark’s tenure as the home of the Eagles ended just two years later; the team moved to Houston, where it played in 1949-1950 before disbanding.

Fired by Eagles owner Effa Manley after the 1941 season, Mackey returned to play for the Eagles in 1945.  Mackey batted .307, a stellar batting average made even more impressive by his age—48.  Manley hired Mackey to manage the Eagles in 1946.  Under his governance, the Eagles beat the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 Negro League World Series.  Its tenure in Newark ended two years later—the team moved to Houston, where it played in 1949 and 1950 before disbanding.

Born in Eagle Pass, Texas—the first American settlement on the Rio Grande River—Biz Mackey never reached the major leagues as a player or a manager.  But his influence is questionable, if not properly recognized.  Biz Mackey got inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, decades after his baseball career ended.

Mackey did, however, receive accolades from his peers in the baseball community other than the Hall of Fame entry.  The book Blackball Stars cites Cum Posey as saying that Biz Mackey is the all-time best black catcher, including Josh Gibson on Posey’s Homestead Grays ball club.  Posey’s praise of Mackey over Gibson is like the Steinbrenner clan saying that the best shortstop of the 1990s was Nomar Garciaparra, not Derek Jeter.

Scholars, historians, and enthusiasts of the Negro Leagues will know of Raleigh “Biz” Mackey and dozens of other players that don’t get the marquee recognition of Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson.  Mackey deserves to be recognized in the pantheon of Negro League icons who played before Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in 1947, not only for his achievements on the baseball diamond, but also for his mentoring of those who changed the game of baseball.

Biz Mackey died in 1959.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 30, 2013.