Posts Tagged ‘Kansas City Monarchs’

Mickey, Whitey, and the Class of 1974

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

During the summer of 1974, excitement charged the air.  We watched with wonder when Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the Twin Towers, with dismay when President Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal, and with awe when the Universal Product Code débuted to signify a touchstone in the computer age.

For baseball fans, the Baseball Hall of Fame induction marked the summer.  In this particular instance, two Yankee icons, polar opposites in their upbringing but thick as thieves in their friendship, ascended to Cooperstown.  Mickey Charles Mantle and Edward Charles Ford.  The Mick and Whitey.

Mantle—the Yankee demigod with 536 home runs—thanked his father in his induction speech.  “He had the foresight to realize that someday in baseball that left-handed hitters were going to hit against right-handed pitchers and right-handed hitters are going to hit against left-handed pitchers; and he thought me, he and his father, to switch-hit at a real young age, when I first started to learn how to play ball,” explained the Oklahoma native.  “And my dad always told me if I could hit both ways when I got ready to go to the major leagues, that I would have a better chance of playing.”

With overwhelming power, Mantle compiled dazzling statistics:

  • Led the major leagues in runs scored (five times)
  • Led the major leagues in walks (five times)
  • Led the American League in home runs (four times)
  • 2,401 games played
  • 9,907 plate appearances

Mantle’s aplomb came with a cost—strikeouts.  #7 led the American League in strikeouts five times and the major leagues three times.

Like Mantle, Ford spent his entire career in a Yankee uniform.  Where Mantle came from the Dust Bowl, Ford came from the city.  Queens, specifically.  After achieving a 9-1 record in his rookie season of 1950, Ford lost two seasons to military service.  He returned in 1953 without skipping a beat, ending the season with an 18-6 record.

Mantle and Ford played together on the World Series championship teams of 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, and 1962.

Joining the pinstriped legends were—as a result of the Veterans Committee’s votes—Jim Bottomley, Jocko Conlan, and Sam Thompson.

Bottomley, a first baseman, played for the Cardinals, the Reds, and the Browns in his 16-year career (1922-1937).  He was not, to be sure, a power hitter—his career home run total was 219.  But he sprinkled 2,313 hits, resulting in a .310 lifetime batting average.  Bottomley led the National League in RBI twice, in hits once, and in doubles twice.

Conlan was the fourth Hall of Famer from the umpiring brethren.  In his 25-year career, Conlan umpired five World Series, six All-Star games, and three tie-breaking playoffs.  Conlan’s page on the Hall of Fame web site states, “He wore a fashionable polka dot bow tie and was the last NL umpire to wear a chest protector over his clothes.  Besides his attire, Conlan was known for his ability to combine his cheerful personality with a stern sense of authority.”

Sam Thompson was a right fielder for the Detroit Wolverines and the Philadelphia Phillies from 1885 to 1898.  In 1906, Thompson played eight games with the Detroit Tigers.  Thompson finished his career with a .331 batting average—he led the major leagues in RBI three times, in slugging percentage twice, and in doubles twice.  Thompson also led the American League in hits three times—in one of those years, he led the major leagues.

The Special Committee on the Negro Leagues okayed the inclusion of center fielder Cool Papa Bell, who played for:

  • St. Louis Stars
  • Kansas City Monarchs
  • Homestead Grays
  • Pittsburgh Crawfords
  • Memphis Red Sox
  • Chicago American Giants

In Mexico, Bell played for:

  • Monterrey Industriales
  • Torreon Algodoneros
  • Veracruz Azules
  • Tampico Alidjadores

Bell’s speed was legendary; speed inspired his nickname.  Ken Mandel of MLB.com wrote, “While still a knuckle balling prospect in 1922, he earned his moniker by whiffing Oscar Charleston with the game on the line.  His manager, Bill Gatewood, mused about how ‘cool’ his young player was under pressure and added the ‘Papa’ because it sounded better, though perhaps it was a testament to how the 19-year-old performed like a grizzled veteran.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 24, 2016.

The Last Eagle

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

Once upon a decade—the one that introduced Elvis Presley, car tail fins, and McDonald’s franchises—a ballplayer blessed with speed, grace, and athleticism rivaling Orsippus’s climbed to the apex of baseball, popular culture, and media.

The year was 1951.  The place was New York City.  The ballplayer was Willie Mays.

Talent alone does not make a major leaguer, however.  Responding to this reality, Leo Durocher, manager of the New York Giants, selected a member of his Polo Grounds posse to shepherd the 20-year-old Mays upon the rookie’s ascension from the Minneapolis Millers—the Giants’ AAA team.

Monford Merrill Irvin.  Monte.

In his 1975 book The Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff, Thomas Kiernan wrote, “Irvin not only accepted responsibility for Mays, he took the move as a challenge.  For the first time as a Giant he had a teammate who, it appeared, was every bit as talented as he was.”

Under Irvin’s tutelage, Mays matured into the professional that Durocher et al. hoped he would be.  “Irvin would instruct Mays on game situations, shout out which bases the rookie should throw to, position against each enemy hitter—to make it easy for Mays to turn what would be extra-base hits with anyone else in center field into outs,” stated Kiernan.

Irvin played in the Negro Leagues before desegregating the New York Giants with Hank Thompson in 1949.  Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles, testified, “Monte was the choice of all Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the No. 1 player to join a white major league team.  We all agreed, in meeting, he was the best qualified by temperament, character ability, sense of loyalty, morals, age, experiences ad physique to represent us as the first black player to enter the white majors since the Walker brothers back in the 1880s.  Of course, Branch Rickey lifted Jackie Robinson out of Negro ball and made him the first, and it turned out just fine.”

Appropriately, Manley’s statement is on Irvin’s Baseball Hall of Fame web site page.

Irvin led the Eagles to the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series championship against the Kansas City Monarchs—a shining moment for the kid from Orange, New Jersey, for whom playing playing baseball was oxygen.

When Irvin died on January 11, 2016, he took with him the status of being the last living monument to the Eagles.  In a statement, Mays said that his mentor “was like a second father to me.”

Jerry Izenberg, an iconic New Jersey sports writer, eulogized Irvin in the Star-Ledger, which gained international recognition when Tony Soprano ambled down his driveway in a robe and slippers to pick it up, often thumbing through the pages for the latest news on mafia arrests.

Decades after his career in the Negro Leagues, Irving maintained joyousness that could light up Chancellor Avenue.  Irvin’s exclamations occurred repeatedly in conversations with Izenberg, who recalled the thread of joy running through them, including an excerpt of a conversation from the early 1990s:  “I played in three countries.  I played in two World Series.  But I never found anything to match the joy and the laughter those years with the Eagles brought me.”

Monte Irvin retired with a .293 batting average after eight seasons in the major leagues; the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted him in 1973.  “I hope my induction will help to ease the pain of all those players who never got a chance to play in the majors,” stated the man largely responsible for the career of Willie Mays.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 9, 2016.

Indianapolis, Bush Stadium, and the Clowns

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

More than the site of a world-famous automobile race, Indianapolis is a Midwestern bedrock of popular culture.  Its benchmarks include being the hometown for David Letterman, the site of Elvis Presley’s last concert, and the setting for the CBS situation comedy One Day at a Time.

Additionally, Indianapolis enjoys prominence in baseball history as the home of the Clowns, a Negro League team perhaps best known as a starting point for Hank Aaron’s career; Aaron spent a few months with the Clowns in 1952 before the Boston Braves organization signed him.  A day at Bush Stadium, the home field for the Clowns, provided entertainment beyond good baseball.  In the biography The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, Howard Bryant wrote, “The Clowns were a legendary Negro League team, known for being the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball.  The team featured good ballplayers but also high circus-style entertainment.  Toni Stone, a woman, played second base.  King Tut, an enormous man with a round belly, served as a mascot, wearing nothing but a grass skirt.”

Mamie “Peanut” Johnson played for the Clowns; she was the first female pitcher to play in the Negro Leagues.  In addition to Johnson and Stone, Connie Morgan also wore a Clowns uniform; with three women, the Indianapolis Clowns predated the women’s liberation movement by a decade.

With her height of 5’3″ inspiring her “Peanut” moniker, Johnson lured fans to the ballpark by being a solid ballplayer.  In the article “Breaking Gender Barriers in the Negro Leagues in the June 12, 2010 edition of the New York Times, Alan Schwarz quotes Arthur Hamilton, the Clowns catcher:  “She was a drawing card, I have to say.  She didn’t have that much of a fastball, but she could put the ball over the plate.  She’d get out of the inning.  A lot of guys hit her, but she got a lot of guys out, too.  The Kansas City Monarchs and the Birmingham Black Barons loved to play the Clowns, because we’d have a big crowd.”

Johnson’s story symbolizes perseverance, certainly, in an era that saw America take its first steps, albeit tentatively, toward equality, no matter one’s race or gender.  “In the face of ‘no,’ she pursued her passion.  You can get derailed by people who don’t believe in you.  Her legacy is not well-known because we lose our heroes.  Today, there are instant stars because short attention spans impact how information is packaged and, consequently, how we consume it.  But Mamie Johnson represented a time that gave us the heart and soul of the game,” says Yvette Miley, Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of MSNBC.

Bush Stadium stands today, decades after its prime as a Negro League fixture.  Partially, anyway.  Real estate developers demolished part of the stadium, renovated the remaining part for lofts, and preserved stadium icons, including Art Deco columns and iron turnstiles at the main entrance.  Further, the developers preserved the infield diamond, a lure for any baseball fan wanting to look out the living room window and imagine the Clowns playing one more time.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 6, 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.