An Introduction to Larry Doby

Doby, the first black player in the American League, has always been overshadowed by Jackie Robinson. Here, from the Cleveland Plain Dealer of early July, 1994, are excerpts from a lengthy profile of Doby written by the paper’s Tony Grossi:

On an airplane from Cleveland to Newark, one passenger notices another paging through a book. It is the authorized biography of Larry Doby, “Pride Against Prejudice.”

“Who was he?” inquires the passenger, a businessman in his 30s.

“Ever hear of Jackie Robinson?” he is asked.

“Of course.”

Jackie Robinson broke the National League color barrier 11 weeks before Doby did so in the AL. Doby has never been able to step out of the long shadow cast by Robinson in those 11 weeks.

“That doesn’t bother me,” Doby says. “Jackie Robinson was No. 1. And he deserves that. But when people ask me, `Did he make it easier for you?’ … That’s a stupid question. Eleven weeks. C’mon, we’re still having problems in 1994, 47 years later.

“Whatever happened to him naturally happened to me in the American League. People don’t realize I might have gotten worse treatment than he got. For one thing, the American League was the so-called elite, the top echelon at the time. And the American League was not that concerned with bringing in Afro-American players.”

Doby was 23 when Indians owner Bill Veeck signed him to a $5,000 contract on July 3, 1947. The next day, Doby hit a home run in his final at-bat for the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. He departed on a train between games of a double-header for his historic journey through an America with which he was unfamiliar.

When Doby arrived the next day in Chicago, where the Indians were playing, he hit what he still considers the low point of his life.

“That reception I got in that clubhouse when I walked in the first day … that was a total shock,” Doby says.

After a private meeting with manager Lou Boudreau, Doby was escorted into the clubhouse and introduced to each of the Indians. To this day, Boudreau and Doby disagree about the reception Doby received.

“He shook everybody’s hand,” Boudreau said in an interview from his home in Dolton, Ill. “Now, whether they were a little backwards in doing it, I don’t know.”

Doby recalls: “It’s a known fact there were a lot of guys that didn’t shake my hand. I just don’t think I want to dignify those people by mentioning their names.”

After the Indians took the field for warmups, Doby says he waited a full five minutes before any of his new teammates tossed him a ball.

Second baseman Joe Gordon, who would become Doby’s closest friend in those early years, finally broke the ice and warmed up with him.

“You don’t know what a terrible feeling that was,” Doby says of the longest five minutes of his life.

Doby, though, is far from being a bitter man.

He understands the cold treatment he received at first from his teammates as a product of their ignorance. They never had a black teammate.

He had played alongside whites throughout his high school years in Paterson, N.J. “I was the only black on my high school football team,” Doby says. “I was one of two blacks on the basketball team and the only one on the baseball team. There was no discrimination as kids. We would walk home from school together and after practice and games.

“(The Indians) had to do the adjusting, not me. Also, I was a rookie coming in to compete for a job. Some of them naturally didn’t like that.”

After that tentative beginning, Doby and his new teammates gradually settled into a rather unevent- ful relationship the remainder of that first season together. Doby biographer Joseph Thomas Moore credits Boudreau for keeping a volatile situation from exploding.

Gordon, who died in 1978, also was instrumental.

Boudreau recalled: “After Larry would strike out, he’d walk to the corner of the dugout and sit all alone. After a week or 10 days of watching this, Joe Gordon struck out once and went right over to Larry and sat next to him and talked to him.

“Joe told me he said to Larry, `Look, I’ve been around this league for a number of years and I still strike out. So don’t worry about it.’ Joe helped me tremendously. This (Doby’s arrival) was overwhelming. I didn’t know what the reactions would be by 24 other members of my team.’

Doby, a natural second baseman, appeared in only 29 games in 1947, mostly as a pinch hitter. The following season, Doby was switched to the outfield and took over as an everyday player.

Over the next eight years, Doby starred as a center fielder on the last great Indians teams. He was a fixture on the teams that won two AL pennants and one World Series championship and finished second – to the Yankees, naturally – four times.

Doby was named to the AL All-Star team six consecutive seasons. He led the league in home runs twice, in runs scored once and in runs batted in once.

Through it all, he never stopped being reminded that he was a black man in a very white world.

“It was awful for him,” [Steve] Gromek said.

“I don’t think I ever was scared during the whole period,” says Doby. “But I was a bit down most of the time. I had come from situations where I had always been accepted. I was alone a lot in major league baseball.

“It’s hard to explain the loneliness. When you’re accustomed to leaving the ballpark and going to eat, or wherever, with your teammates, and then all of a sudden you leave one way and they go another … it’s a loneliness where you’re glad when the next day comes. Because you know you’re back in the ballpark. The best time was the time on the field.”

Even on the field, Doby had to abide by a different set of rules. Veeck specified them immediately: Turn the other cheek. Don’t fight back. Don’t disagree with the umpire. Don’t listen to the fans. Be thankful you’ve been given this opportunity.

“They kept emphasizing, `If you did anything out of character, you’re out and the next person ain’t gonna get an opportunity,’ Doby said.

The only recorded instance of Doby “cracking” under the pressure, of him stepping “out of character,” occurred in a game in 1957. By then, he was a member of the Chicago White Sox, having been traded after the 1955 season.

Yankees pitcher Art Ditmar knocked Doby down with a high fastball. Doby ran to the mound and knocked Ditmar flat with a punch described at the time as a “symbolic left hook,” setting off a brawl.

It was recorded as the first baseball fight involving a black and a white player. The possibility the pitch may have been called by a black player, Yankees catcher Elston Howard, served to sanction the knockdown as nothing more than a pitcher throwing at a hitter.

“I never did find out if Howard called that pitch,” Doby says with a laugh. Doby says that early on in his career, he did not fully grasp the responsibility thrust upon him as a 23-year-old.

“It didn’t dawn on me for three or four years,” he says. “I was always told by Veeck that I was doing something for history and I’d say, `OK, fine.’ All I wanted was to play baseball.

“But after a few years, when I saw other black players coming up, I realized that 20, 30, 40 years from now, somehow my name would be involved in being a part of the integration of baseball.”

Doby also barely missed out – to another Robinson – at becoming the first black manager in major league baseball.

When Doby returned to the Indians in 1974 as a coach, speculation was rampant he would eventually succeed manager Ken Aspromonte. But Indians General Manager Phil Seghi named Frank Robinson the following season.

Doby was appointed manager of the White Sox during the 1978 season by his old friend Veeck, but the stint lasted only 87 games.

Since 1990, Doby, 69, has worked with Major League Properties, securing licensing revenue for former players in need. Proceeds also aid the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the planned construction of a Negro Leagues museum in Kansas City, Mo.

Nine years later, on June 18, 2003, Doby died, at 78. The Plain Dealer’s Bob Dolgan:

Hall of Famer Larry Doby, the first black baseball player in American League history, died last night in his home in Montclair, N.J.

Doby was one of the Indians’ finest center fielders, a slugger with speed. He had been suffering from cancer. He was 78.

He endured a lot of vicious bench jockeying. “They would yell anything you can think of,” Doby recalled. “In those days, every team had bench jockeys. That was how they kept their jobs. But that’s all right. Life has been good to me.”

Doby survived because of the support he received from his late wife, Helyn, Indians owner Bill Veeck, who brought him to the majors, teammates Gordon and catcher Jim Hegan, and coach Bill McKechnie. They were the closest to him that first year.

Veeck held a special place in his heart. “He was one of the greatest people I ever met,” Doby said. “I lost my father when I was 8 and I certainly would have liked him to be the same kind of man Bill Veeck was.”

When he first met the dynamic Indians owner, he called him “Mr. Veeck.” Veeck replied, “Call me Bill and I’ll call you Lawrence.”

“We remained friends until the day he died,” Doby said. “He personified the phrase, ‘human being.'”

At the end of the 1947 season, fatherly coach McKechnie, who had won four pennants as a National League manager and was Boudreau’s top aide, told Doby, “We’ve got a second baseman in Gordon. I suggest you get a book and learn to play the outfield, because when you come to spring training that’s where they’re going to put you.”

“It was no big deal to me,” Doby said. “I had played every position in high school and the Negro League. I just wanted to play every day.”

He read Yankees star Tommy Henrich’s book on playing the outfield, then received more instruction during spring training in 1948 from Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, who had led the Indians to the 1920 world title as centerfielder-manager.

“He talked to me about charging balls and throwing to the right base,” Doby said.

Doby was thrown into the competition for the right field job among a platoon of players. He made the team, but not before a harrowing experience in an exhibition game in Texarkana, Texas. Fans threw bottles at him, driving him out of the game.

In an exhibition in Columbia, Ga., ushers refused to let him enter the front gate even though he was in full uniform. “You have to go in through the centerfield gate where the colored folks go in,” he was told. So, Doby entered through centerfield.

His most famous homer came in the fourth game of the 1948 World Series at Municipal Stadium, when he connected to give Steve Gromek a 2-1 victory and the Indians a 3-games-to-1 lead over the Boston Braves.

After the game, Doby and Gromek were photographed hugging each other in jubilation. The picture is considered a civil rights milestone. It was the first widely-publicized photo of two baseball players of different races embraced in victory.

“We had won and we showed respect for each other,” said Doby, who considered that incident the highlight of the season. “The picture showed that black and white people could get along and work together. I don’t think too many people were ready for that type of picture in 1948.”

Doby led the Indians in hitting in the series, with an average of .318.

Players soon accepted him because of his playing ability and he became a confident leader in the clubhouse as time went on. He was articulate and friendly on Jimmy Dudley’s Dugout Interviews radio show and in television appearances.

The right-handed throwing Doby was also an excellent fielder, once playing 166 straight games without an error. He had a powerful arm and made many spectacular catches. Maybe the most memorable came on July 31, 1954, when he raced to the Stadium fence in left-center, leaped and grabbed a drive by Tom Umphlett of Boston. His body was half-draped over the fence when he caught the ball.

He was still only 29 years old in 1954 and appeared to have many fine seasons ahead of him. But that season was his apex.

In 1955, he pulled a leg muscle and suffered a hand fracture, but still had a good season, hitting .291 with 26 homers. His RBI dropped to 75, however.

The Indians traded him to the Chicago White Sox for shortstop Chico Carrasquel and centerfielder Jim Busby on Oct. 25, 1955. It was a bad deal for the Indians.

Doby rebounded with 102 RBI for the White Sox in 1956, his fifth and last season over the century mark. He also hit 24 homers, his eighth straight year over 20.

From there it was a steep drop. He went to Baltimore in a six-player deal and then came back to the Indians in 1958 in another trade. In 1959, Cleveland sent him to Detroit for Tito Francona. Injuries to his back and rotator cuff ended his career at age 34.

Al Lopez, Doby’s manager for most of his career in Cleveland, said, “Larry had tremendous ability, but he could have been even better. Being the first black player in the league, he over-tried. He’d get real mad at himself when he didn’t do well.”

He received many honors in his later years. The Indians retired his number 14 on July 3, 1994, the 47th anniversary of his debut in Cleveland.

In 1998, Doby was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, becoming the fifth player from the ’48 Indians to reach Cooperstown. The others were Boudreau, Feller, Lemon and Leroy “Satchel” Paige.

When he was 72, Doby was stricken with cancer and his left kidney was removed. His wife, Helyn, to whom he was married for 52 years at the time, suspected the cancer was caused by radon, a soil contaminant that was ordered removed from the street where they lived by a government environmental agency. The Dobys had lived in the house in New Jersey for 39 years at the time.

Half the street where the Dobys lived was dug up by the government because of the radon.

“I have no idea if the radon caused my illness or not,” Doby said. “My wife and five children lived here, too, and they’re all healthy.”

Shortly after, Helyn Doby contracted liver cancer. Doby then became ill with bone cancer. “I have my good days and my bad days,” he said.

In 1998, the Indians held a 50-year reunion of the ’48 team. Doby was the center of attention as a new inductee into the Hall of Fame. Then-team owner Richard Jacobs presented the old player with a replica of his 1948 World Series ring, which had been stolen.

“Two great things happened to me this year,” Doby said at the time. “I was voted into the Hall of Fame and I got my ring back.”

Published in: on August 20, 2013 at 4:32 pm  Comments (2)  

Witt Orison “Lefty” Guise

I bought a photo of this man recently, because it was an interesting photo, not having ever heard of him.


I looked up his name, and found little. But there is this, from the Conlon collection of baseball photos:

“Although his major league career consisted of only two games, Witt ‘Lefty’ Guise, a southpaw from Arkansas, had to overcome steep odds to do that much. After his second year in the minors leagues (1931), he blew out his shoulder in a fishing boat mishap, and he couldn’t throw at all for several years. Eventually he started pitching semi-pro ball, developing a knuckleball and screwball to compensate for loss of velocity. It took until 1939 for him to get a professional contract, but in 1939-40 he had a combined record of 28-13 and an ERA under 3, so the Cincinnati Reds brought him to Cincinnati during the September pennant drive in 1940. In his first outing, on September 3, he pitched 4 1/3 innings of relief against the Cardinals, allowing six hits but just one run. Ten days later he got another chance, relieving at the Polo Grounds in the third inning with the Reds ahead by a run. He pitched into the sixth inning, yielding only an unearned run, and would have been awarded the Win under today’s guidelines. On that day, the reliever who followed Guise got the credit, but his consolation prize was a single off future Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell. He continued his minor league career through 1951, minus four years of World War II military service, and finished with 117 wins, 111 of them after his shoulder injury.”

Guise had his contract bought by the Reds while pitching for the Columbia, S.C., farm team, in the South Atlantic (Sally) League, in late August, 1940. He’d gone 13-5 for Columbia, and was 32, a lefty knuckleballer. He was not on the postseason roster when the Reds won the World Series, and 1940 was his only MLB season.

I did find a story about that single off Hubbell in Three Men on Third: A Book of Baseball Anecdotes, Oddities and Curiosities by H. Allen Smith, Ira L. Smith and Leo Herschfield (2000). Guise, on a 2-2 count against Hubbell at the Polo Grounds, knocked a single through the infield between first and second.

The book quotes him saying: “A man like me, getting a hit off Hubbell-it’s a miracle. I got the ball-gonna save it to show people-the one I hit off Hubbell. Lord, what a good feeling! I just feel like doing something good for somebody. Believe I will.”

He sent a dollar to the Salvation Army. Soon he’d be a staff sergeant in the real Army, in World War II, and that’s how he’s identified on his gravestone in Little Rock National Cemetery.

Published in: on March 15, 2013 at 3:09 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , ,

A Charity Game Between New York City’s Department of Sanitation and Police Department in 1941

I don’t know how many times groups of New York City public employees took over the city’s stadiums to play contests between themselves, but an account of a cops vs. firemen game has already showed up on this blog. And, NYC’s Department of Sanitation opposed the Police Department in a charity game on September 7, 1941, in the Polo Grounds. The New York Times said Sanitation’s two four-run innings let them “clean up the Police Department nine” before 45,000 fans, to win the game 11-7. There’s one more in a long tradition of punning newspaper headlines and leads.

Walter Holborrow had what must have been his greatest baseball game pitching for Sanitation: a complete game victory, and he went 4-5, with a solo homer. Although it’s quite likely that the Times misspelled his name, and he was actually Walter “Wally” Holborow, a city native born in 1913 who pitched in 21 games for the Senators and A’s in 1944, ’45, and ’48, including a shutout in 1945. The receipts, which must have been well into the tens of thousands of dollars, went to the city’s Welfare Honor Relief Fund. For posterity’s sake, and interested descendants of the participants, here’s the box score:

And the headline:

Published in: on September 5, 2011 at 3:44 am  Comments (5)  

The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants Play a Military Fund-Raising Game in 1942

The National League half of the 1942 mission to raise funds for Army Emergency Relief and the Navy Relief Society wound up on August 3, 1942, with a Dodgers-Giants game at the Polo Grounds. The game raised about $80,000, making the N.L. contribution something over $250,000. You might wonder if the story of baseball fund-raising for the military in WWII was simple, selfless charity. As an antidote to that saccharinity, here’s the start of the Times’ game account:

On a note of discord and keen disappointment the Army Emergency Relief game between the Giants and Dodgers at the Polo Grounds last night ended with Brooklyn triumphant by 7 to 4. The contest fell short of nine full innings because of wartime military regulations.

Umpire in Chief George Magerkurth signaled an end to the battle in the midst of a Giant rally in the last half of the ninth inning, and from the greatest crowd that ever saw a single game in the Harlem area (57,305) there came a storm of boos and jeers that drowned out the opening bars of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in a darkened park.

The game went into the records as an eight-inning affair, inasmuch as the Giants, the home team, had not completed their ninth turn at bat. Buried by two home runs. . . the Giants were just launching their fourth and last desperate stand as Bill Werber opened the ninth with a single and Whit Wyatt walked Manager Mel Ott, when the game ended.

The players and fans could not grasp the situation for a moment. When they did, a storm of disapproval echoed from the hollow of Coogan’s Bluff. Not until a spotlight flashed on Old Glory, flying in the breeze atop the office quarters that overlook centerfield, did the outburst subside.

Later it was revived in waves as different sections of the gathering kept up the discord, even while the anthem was being played and sung.

The struggle, however, projected the end of night or twilight baseball at the Polo Grounds. . . There will be no twilight or night ball there for the duration of the war.

There are a couple more notes to add: this was the first regular season game in the history of the Polo Grounds where the fans were allowed to stand in the outfield. Any ball hit into the crowd in the outfield would have been a double. A lot of Army and Navy personnel were on hand. And, the Times said “Owen was up to his world series tricks in the fifth when he dropped the third strike on Young and Ott, who had singled, reached third while Young pulled up safely on the error.” This was a less-than-gentle reference to Dodger catcher Mickey Owen’s passed ball in the 1941 World Series.

By the way, the next day, August 4, 1942, the Dodgers and Giants tried it again at the Polo Grounds, and again the game was halted in the twilight. The Times said “the dimout regulations brought to a halt the game, nullifying a 4-run Brooklyn outburst in the top half of the tenth. So the Dodgers had to be content with a 1-1 nine inning tie. . . Pee-wee Reese hit an inside-the-park home run with the bases filled and none out. The blow routed Fiddler Bill McGee, but it will never appear in the records.”

So fans saw one of the exceptionally rare baseball events, the inside-the-park grand slam, but if you look up the game’s box score today, there’s no sign it ever happened. The Times also added that the game “was the first major league tie under the lights.” Which, if you can somehow convince someone at the bar to ask you “When did the first tie night game in MLB happen?” should get you a free drink.

Published in: on August 1, 2011 at 3:40 am  Comments (3)  

The Army and Navy Benefit All-Star Game of 1942

Two years after ballplayers were raising money for the Finnish Relief Fund, the U.S. was in the war too. In spring 1942, the New York Times reported that MLB decided to have “each major league club donate the entire receipts of one regularly scheduled game to Army and Navy relief. It also was decided . . . that the winner of the major league all-star game at the Polo Grounds on July 6 would face an all-service squad in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium the following night.”

The Cleveland game did happen, and here’s some of how the New York Times reported on it:

Tanks rumbled over the field, along with jeeps, mobile anti-aircraft and anti-tank, transport and motor cycle equipment in an impressive demonstration of Uncle Sam’s military might. The Great Lakes Naval Training Station and the Fort Hayes bands played martial music. A crack company of the United States Marine Corps from the Navy Pier, Chicago, gave an exhibition of precision drilling. White-clad sailors from the Great Lakes station and the Coast Guard paraded. Cheers swelled to a roar when the “Star-Spangled Banner” was played and Old Glory hoisted aloft on the field staff.

62,094 fans attended the game, raising about $120,000, $100,000 of which went to the Bat and Ball Fund for athletic gear for military trainees, and the rest went to Army and Navy Relief funds. A $1 surcharge for each ticket went to the purchase of war bonds.

The game featured chief boatswain’s mate Bob Feller pitching for the service all-stars and allowing four runs in one+ inning. Other notable service team members were pitcher Mickey Harris and their manager, Mickey Cochrane, but they were really outclassed by the A.L. stars, with DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Lou Boudreau, and other Hall of Famers.

Here’s the box score for the 5-0 game:

You can also read a SABR member’s article recalling attending the game.

Published in: on July 6, 2011 at 1:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ted Williams, the 1946 World Series, and Enos Slaughter

Here’s Enos sliding home with the winning run in game 7 of the World Series:

Ted and Red Sox pitcher Mickey Harris sitting dejected in the Red Sox clubhouse after the game:

A Boston Globe cartoon of Harry “the Cat” Breechen, Enos Slaughter, and some fine St. Louis Cardinals’ defense that helped defeat the Red Sox:

Published in: on May 17, 2011 at 4:16 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,

Baseball and the End of World War Two in Europe and Asia

After news broke that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday night, and Phillies fans started celebrating late in their game vs. the Mets in Philadelphia, I wondered what had been organized baseball’s response to V-E Day on May 8, 1945, and then V-J Day, the end of World War II, on August 15, 1945. (Truman announced the end of the war late on August 14 in the U.S.–Hirohito announced the end on midday on August 15 in Japan–and the games on the 15th were the first following that announcement.) I found these notes from the New York Times of August 16: “The Navy cancelled its baseball game with the Glenn Martin Club because of the V-J- holiday.”

“There was a gay and festive spirit in the air at the Polo Grounds yesterday as New York sat down to enjoy its first major league baseball in four years without the shadows of war hanging overhead. But the Giants, unhappily caught nothing of this except two thrashings at the hands of Frankie Frisch’s Pirates, a pair of reverses.”

The Times added that “a 50-year-old man named Joseph L. Fielding died watching the Giants games, at 3 p.m.” Mel Ott hit his 494th homer in the first game for the Giants, topping Lou Gehrig on the all-time home run list.

An AP story on the 16th said that MLB, meeting in Washington, D.C., held “two long sessions by the game’s post-war planning commission. No formal action was taken, but it was learned that returning war veterans probably will be eligible for the world series or any other post-season baseball play.”

The baseball casualties in World War Two had included A.L. players Eugene Stack, Ardys Keller, Forrest Brewer, Elmer Gideon, and Franklin Schulz.

On the 15th, Red Ruffing, making his fourth start for the Yankees “since returning from military service,” got the loss, his first of the year, in a game in St. Louis, and the Yanks were fifth in the AL. The Associated Press noted that the team was slumping badly:

You can look up all the box scores from August 15 on Retrosheet. The Cubs were easily the best team in the majors, at 70-37, vs 66-45 for the Cardinals: the AL leader was Detroit, at 61-44. Cubs’ manager Charlie Grimm exclaimed: “Peace, it’s wonderful! The war’s over! Boy, oh, boy! Is this great? Peace, it’s wonderful! There are a lot of good ball players in the services, and a lot of them are ready to step back immediately. At the world series I saw Enos Slaughter, Lonnie Frey, Terry Moore and Jimmy Brown. Each of them was as fit as a fiddle. The kids will start coming back and we won’t have to arrive at 3 o’clock in the morning any more. The railroad people will be holding up trains for us again, we can train in Florida and California once more, we’ll have the world series as usual and–oh, well, you get the idea.”

See where baseball landed in the radio listings for August 16 in New York City:

On VE-Day, May 8, there were only two MLB games: the Indians beat the White Sox at Comiskey Park, 7-1, and the Browns beat the Senators in St. Louis, 7-1. I have not seen accounts of what the fans were like at either game. You can look up those two box scores on Retrosheet too. Orval Grove, not Lefty Grove, took the loss in the White Sox game. The 16 MLB teams had played only 13 to 17 games thus far in 1945. See where baseball landed in the radio listings for May 9 in New York City:

Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm  Comments (1)  

The Finnish Relief Fund Charity Games in Spring 1940

About a month ago I talked with Big League Chew co-creator Rob Nelson, and he mentioned that Wrigley had recently given away about 150,000 leftover packs of the gum to U.S. military personnel.

That, along with reading a book about the Depression, led me to look up some Depression and World War II charity games put on either by major league baseball or by its players.

One example is two spring training benefits for the Finnish Relief Fund, which was established in 1940 to provide civilian aid to the Finns, who’d been invaded by the Soviet Union a few months earlier. The fund was headed by former President Herbert Hoover. I describe the games here for two reasons: one, to recall that the Soviets, before being invaded by Nazi Germany, were aggressors in World War II, namely by invading both Finland and Poland; two, to highlight the charitable intentions of pro baseball 70 years ago. It’s an effort that’s worth remembering.

So: the first game, played on March 10, 1940, in Los Angeles, featured major league stars vs. Pacific Coast League stars. Luke Appling, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons, and Claude Passeau were four key MLB players; the PCL stars included Jigger Statz and Tony Freitas. Here’s a bit of the game account from the New York Times, and an abbreviated box score:

The game was just one example of a host of U.S. athletic benefits for the Finnish fund in early 1940: Paavo Nurmi, the great distance runner, was Finnish, and he put on quite a few running events, as did several boxers and tennis players.

Seven days later, on March 17, 1940, teams of A.L. and N.L. stars put on another Finnish Relief Fund charity game, this time in Tampa, during spring training. The New York Times noted that it was the first all-star game ever staged in the South. It drew 13,180 fans, apparently the largest to date for a baseball game in the grapefruit belt, as it was already being called, and raised over $22,000. The game was mostly a New York affair: seven Yankees started for the A.L. squad, supplemented by Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx, and five Giants played in the game for the N.L. squad.

Al Lopez, a Tampa native, got plenty of cheers from the crowd, especially with his a lead-off single in the ninth to eventually produce the winning N.L. run on a single by Pete Coscarart of the Dodgers: a 2-1 N.L. victory. Bob Feller took the loss, in what was probably his first official effort in World War Two. The game was also Hank Greenberg’s “first important bow as an outfielder,” as the Times said: Greenberg would play all of 1940 in left field, and commit 15 errors.

The headline:

Published in: on March 7, 2011 at 10:19 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

The Late Celebrity of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League

The sweep of nostalgia for what I think is the first women’s professional sports league in the U.S. began in the early 1980s, about a decade before A League of Their Own came out. Dottie Collins, an ex-Fort Wayne Daisies pitcher, said, “It wasn’t until we hit Chicago in 1982 for a reunion that it hit us. We were swamped with reporters . . . and we thought, maybe we can do something about this.”

Then, as the Chicago Sun-Times reported in 1987:

“Tennessee” Jackson in Chicago and “Red” Mahoney in Houston could hardly contain themselves. The two retired ballplayers, gray-haired and in their 60s now, had just received the happy news: the Baseball Hall of Fame had decided to include them in a special Cooperstown exhibit, tentatively scheduled for 1989. “This is so wonderful!” exclaimed Jackson, a reserve outfielder who hit just .220 with three big league clubs in the 1940s. “All of a sudden, everyone wants to know about us.”

Mahoney, an even weaker-hitting utility player, whooped like a lottery winner. “I tell ’em, ‘Man, we could play ball.’ ”

This seems implausible, considering their skimpy numbers, but then, the two faced unusual pressures. Four years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, and 29 years before the passage of the initial Title IX legislation, Lillian Jackson and Marie Mahoney already had taken the field. They were among the several hundred young women who played between 1943 and 1954 when there were three major leagues – the National, the American and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).

The game these women played was good old country hardball. They threw knock-down pitches and low-bridged the shortstop on the double play. They jawed with umpires, played hurt and were tossed out of games. They gambled and drank. Millions paid to see them play. How good were they? Charlie Grimm, then manager of the Chicago Cubs, said after watching shortstop Dorothy Schroeder of the South Bend (Ind.) Blue Sox, “If she was a boy, I’d give $50,000 for her.”

There was little talk of the AAGPBL after dwindling attendance forced its demise following the 1954 season. But last spring, PBS broadcast a half-hour remembrance of the league. In June, Janis Taylor, an assistant professor of film at Northwestern University, completed a half-hour documentary about the league, “When Diamonds Were A Girl’s Best Friend.” Then came the news from Cooperstown. The museum plans to mount an 8-by-8-foot exhibit, recounting the history of the AAGPBL.

“When we were playing,” confessed star Fort Wayne (Ind.) Daisies pitcher Dottie Collins, from her Fort Wayne home several months ago, “we didn’t realize what we had. We were just a bunch of young kids doing what we liked best. But most of us recognize now that those were the most meaningful days of our lives. Times have changed; I don’t think we could ever have a league like that again. The bond between the girls now is very, very close.”

By the time the Evansville Courier told the story of how the AAGPBL had been quite popular back in the day, it was August 1991, and the buzz around the making of A League of Their Own was starting:

In their heydays, the Rockford and Racine teams were the hot draws in both cities, each of which had populations of about 90,000 in the 1940s.

In 1944, more than 68,000 people attended the Belles’ home games. More than 7,000 came out for the opening playoff game in 1946, the year the team won its second league championship.

Attendance at Peaches’ home games averaged more than 90,000 per year throughout the 1940s, easily outdrawing the Rockford Rox, a farm team for the Cincinnati Reds that played next door at Beyer Field, 1947 through 1950.

Daily newspapers in Rockford and Racine headlined game reports on the more than 120 games the teams played each season, and papers throughout the Midwest regularly carried box scores on all the league’s teams.

Beyond that, stories on the league appeared nationally in periodicals including Life, Colliers, the Saturday Evening Post and Holiday, which carried a lengthy text and expansive photo display in a feature titled: “World’s Prettiest Baseball Players.”

And millions of moviegoers saw the ballplayers of the “lipstick league” on the big screen in a 1947 Movietone News newsreel that included footage of Mrs. [Dorothy] Key (then Miss Ferguson, or “Fergie” to teammates) at spring training in Havana, Cuba.

In those days, Mrs. Key, Ms. [Anna Mae] Hutchison (“Hutch” to her teammates) and the other players on their teams were local celebrities.

“We would spend half our time after the games signing autographs,” recalled Joyce Hill Westerman, a Kenosha, Wis., native who played two of eight seasons in the league as catcher for the Belles.

In 1949, a ticket at Horlick Field cost 25 cents for children, 50 cents for students, 80 cents for adults, and $1.25 for reserved seating.

Mrs. Westerman has seen a resurgence of interest in the league in the last decade, but “up until then, nobody talked about it,” she said. . . .

A documentary [Taylor’s] was the catalyst for director Penny Marshall’s interest in developing “A League of Their Own.”

A League of Their Own opened in mid-July 1992. A couple weeks later, the Minneapolis Star Tribune caught up with two of the league’s veterans to get their opinions of the movie:

Kay Heim McDaniel, who now lives in Rosemount, was one of the first players recruited to play in the league. A resident of Edmonton, Alberta, she was a catcher for the Kenosha Comets starting in 1943, the inaugural season of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Nancy Midge Cato, now a resident of Elk River, Minn., was one of the last players in the league. She played second base for the Kalamazoo Lassies, the team that won the 1954 “World Series” championship in seven games. The league folded shortly thereafter.

Thanks to the success of the hit movie, McDaniel and Cato are dusting off scrapbooks that hadn’t been looked at for decades. The movie whetted the curiosity of their friends, many of whom are just now discovering that the women were former pro baseball players.

“When we moved to Rosemount, I never told anyone that I had played,” McDaniel said. Before that, “whenever I tried to tell someone, they’d look at me like I was from outer space.”

Cato got similar reactions. “They’d say, ‘You mean you played softball.’ And I’d say, ‘No, it was hardball.’ And they’d say, ‘But they pitched underhand.’ And I’d say, ‘No, it was overhand.’ I had to convince them that it was really baseball . . . . Most of the people I know now didn’t have the foggiest idea I ever did it.”

The movie plays loose with some of the facts about the league, rankling both veterans. Their chief complaint is that the team’s manager (played by Tom Hanks) is shown being drunk for many of the games.

“That never would have been tolerated,” McDaniel said. “He would have been fired in a minute,” Cato agreed.

While they understand that director Penny Marshall wanted to make a comedy, both players admit to being a bit miffed at the frivolous attitude the film assumes.

Cato said the actresses – including Geena Davis, Madonna and Lori Petty – weren’t convincing as ballplayers. “The feminists are going to get mad at me for saying this, but they threw like girls,” she said. “The pitching (by Petty) looked very slow to me. We didn’t play like girls, we played like boys.”

Another gripe deals with a player who is shown having her bratty son sitting in the dugout bothering the players. “I was told recently by another player – I never saw it myself – that there was a woman who took her baby with her on the road (trips), but she never had the baby in the dugout,” McDaniel said.

The showboat antics of the players, including Madonna catching a popup in her cap and Davis doing the splits while catching a foul ball, also had the women flinching. “Rinky-dink,” is how Cato described such action.

But neither woman wants to go on record as just bad-mouthing the movie. They’re glad their league finally is getting some long-overdue public recognition.

“I’m delighted that it’s making many more people aware of it,” Cato said.

To read about the details of the history of the AAGPBL, which lasted from 1943 to 1954 and generally played about a 110-game schedule each year, in about a half-dozen Midwest cities, you can go to their official website. They feature a full roster of the AAGPBL players.

A Report of Jackie Robinson Signing With the Brooklyn Dodgers

On October 24, 1945, the Brooklyn Eagle reported on this event (reprinted here via a book called Middle Innings, which you’ll like if you enjoy reading about baseball in the first half of the 1900s). Harold C. Burr wrote that “Robinson was carefully scouted by Tom Greenwade, George Sisler [the former St. Louis Browns star] and Clyde Sukeforth, the Rickey bird dogs. The boy was signed yesterday to a Montreal bonus contract, the Brooklyn club’s Double A International League farm.”

Burr added, “Jackie previously had received a tryout at Fenway Park, Boston, by the Red Sox. Of the three Negroes tried out on that occasion, Robinson received the most favorable attention from Manager Joe Cronin. But the Red Sox made no attempt to sign him and the Dodger scouts took over and reported to Rickey that he was the best of the Negro prospects.”

Some quotes on the signing, first from Branch Rickey Jr., the Dodgers farm director: “Mr. Racine and my father will undoubtedly be severely criticized in some sections of the country where racial prejudice is rampant. They are not inviting trouble, but they won’t avoid it if it comes. Robinson is a fine type of young man, intelligent and college-bred.

“Some of them [ballplayers], particularly those who come from certain sections of the South, will steer away from a club with a Negro player on its roster. Some players now with us may even quit, but they’ll be back in baseball after they work a year or two in a cotton mill.”

Montreal Royals president Hector Racine: “Negroes fought alongside whites and shared the foxhole dangers, and they should get a fair trial in baseball.”

And Branch Rickey, the Dodgers president, said of rumors that he was planning to sign a whole series of black players after Robinson, “I haven’t 25 prospects. The number I have in mind is nowhere comparable to that figure. I will continue to scout Negro talent. I know of no reason why I shouldn’t go after any ball players regardless of color. If I thought it would hurt the Negro, or our players, I wouldn’t have done it.”

A bit more from the Eagle:

Mr. Rickey was asked about the problem of living and traveling while the Royals are on the road.

“The boy himself answered that question. ‘I wouldn’t want to go where I’m not welcome,’ was the way he put it.”

The president of the Dodgers explained why he hadn’t broken ground before.

“When I was in St. Louis Negroes were not allowed in the grandstand. Hence I could not arrange for tryouts. If I was in authority, I would have changed that. I got the idea when I came to Brooklyn after watching Negro teams play at Ebbets Field. Baseball is a game played by human beings, regardless of color, and I want to have winning baseball.”

President Clark Griffith gave out a statement in Washington condemning Rickey for raiding an organized professional league. Rickey came back with a hot retort.

“The Negro leagues, as they are today constituted, are in the nature of a racket and Griffith knows that. History will record that Mr. Griffith introduced Negro ball in the major leagues. I want to help the Negro leagues organize. I’m doing this in spite of outside interests and pressure groups who are exploiting the Negro rather than helping him.”

Rickey said he had a heavy telegram reaction, mostly favorable.

Published in: on November 7, 2010 at 7:26 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,