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)  

Willie Mays in 1950 and 1951

I’ve looked up the beginning professional careers of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, as reported by the New York Times in 1950 and 1951. It seems Mantle was more highly touted; the paper talked about him more before he came up than it did Mays. I looked at Mantle recently; as for Mays, on June 22, 1950, the Times reported that “the Giants yesterday announced they have signed Willie Mays, Negro outfielder from Fairfield, Ala., to a Minneapolis contract and have farmed him to their Trenton club.”

Mays starred there and in Minneapolis. Here is the Times reporting on his call-up to the Giants on May 25, 1951:

And the Times describing his 0 for 5 that night, in Shibe Park in Philadelphia, an 8-5 win over the Phillies:

On May 28, 1951, in New York, the Times reported:
“After Mays, who had gone 12 for 0 in Philadelphia, where he made his debut for the Giants, hoisted a towering poke that landed atop the left-field roof with the bases empty in the first inning, the Giants were powerless to budge Spahn (who won the game at the Polo Grounds for the Boston Braves, 4-1, in a night game with 23,101 fans attending).

“The free-swinging 20-year-old outfielder, called up from Minneapolis to lend needed punch to the Giant attack, also popped up for the final out with a man on base.”

Here’s a picture of Mays in ’51:

Published in: on June 28, 2012 at 5:54 pm  Comments (1)  

Mickey Mantle in 1950 and 1951

I recently looked up the beginning professional careers of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, as reported by the New York Times in 1950 and 1951. The paper talked about Mantle more before he came up than it did Mays.

On September 17, 1950, the Times reported:
“The highly touted Mickey Mantle, brilliant 18-year-old shortstop prospect, also will join the Yanks on this jaunt (road trip).

“‘Nothing like giving these kids first-hand demonstration of what it’s like on a ball club shooting for a pennant,’ says Casey (Stengel). Mantle, a switch-hitter, batted at a .390 clip for Joplin during the past season.”

Mantle was on hand as only an observer for the conclusion of the Yankees’ 1950 season. On January 6, 1951, the Times added that “Mantle is a shortstop on the Binghamton roster but, in the opinion of Tom Greenwade, veteran scout, ‘might be a great center fielder.’ This means that the Yankees are looking to the day when DiMaggio hangs up his glove.”

In the middle of that April, days before the start of the season, word came from Oklahoma that Mantle would escape being drafted into the military:

On April 17, 1951, Mantle made his debut, playing in right field and batting third, with DiMaggio in center and batting cleanup, for a 5-0 home win over the Red Sox to start the 1951 season. In the sixth Jackie Jensen led off with a double, in the wake of which “came solid singles by Mickey Mantle (scoring Jensen), tagged as the rookie sensation of 1951, the venerable Joe DiMaggio and robust Yogi Berra.”

Published in: on June 24, 2012 at 6:03 pm  Comments (3)  

A Brief Note on the Boston Red Sox and the Daly City Earthquake of March 22, 1957

I found this little item by Art Rosenbaum in the San Francisco Chronicle of Thursday, April 18, 1985:

THIS IS THE 79th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which isn’t exactly a newsflash, but it does remind us younger fellers of another temblor that could have been as disastrous except for stronger building-fire prevention codes.

On a Friday morning in March 1957, the old town rocked through one big quake [a 5.3] and 24 aftershocks. They heard about it in Boston because the Red Sox, who at the time owned the minor league San Francisco Seals franchise, were here for a weekend of spring exhibition games.

Seals Stadium, where the Giants were later to play, had a capacity of fewer than 20,000, and after the quake there were dire forecasts that the attendance would be 900, maybe, which would be typical of the faltering Seals. After all, who could expect people to leave their families and foundations? Surprise – the overflow reached 20,099, with some people standing in the roped-off outfield.

Psychologists analyzed it as mass human reaction. The fans came to see Ted Williams, Jackie Jensen and the other Sox, certainly, but they also gathered as survivors to share this question, “Where were you when the quake hit?”

Red Sox players roomed on the seventh floor of the old Alexander Hamilton hotel. The rumble sent them flying down the stairs, leading manager Mike Higgins to observe, “We’d lead the league in stolen bases if these guys knew how fast they were.”

Bob Stevens, retired Chronicle baseball writer who now does official scorekeeping at Candlestick and the Coliseum, revives this scene:

A Boston baseball reporter, Hy Hurwitz, had interviewed Boston’s general manager, Joe Cronin, and was dictating his story on the long-distance phone to a desk man in his sports department. True to his duty, Hurwitz didn’t stop dictating even when the hotel walls seemed about to crumble, but from the other end the man in the newspaper office shouted, “My, God, there’s a terrible earthquake out there,” and hung up.

AT THE OLD Market Street Roos Bros. store (now Grodin’s), Ted Williams was on the fourth floor trying on an expensive camel’s hair overcoat. Suddenly, there was terrifying noise and quivering. Williams, hero of Air Force combat missions and a crash survivor, sped immediately for the stairs and must have taken them three at a time, because within seconds he was on the street and running. There is some question if he ever returned the coat.

Rumors that the Boston franchise would be transferred to San Francisco, since the Sox had taken over the minor league territory, died immediately after the earthquake . One report had it that Williams vowed he would never play baseball here.

However, capacity attendance over three days was heartening to onlooker Horace Stoneham. Horace correctly dismissed the tremor as something that wouldn’t happen again while he was Giants owner. Maybe nobody told him about the wind.

One year later, 1958, the New York Giants became the San Francisco Giants and played their first two seasons in Seals Stadium while Candlestick was being built.

Published in: on March 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm  Comments (2)  
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Vin Scully’s Pre-Dodgers Life and Career

Scully’s been a Dodgers fixture for so long it’s hard to imagine him existing as anything other than their broadcaster. But, back in 1985, Rick Reilly of the L.A. Times took a long look at Scully’s already very long career, as well as his pre-Dodgers story. Here is that story:

Born to immigrant parents, Scully was seven years old when his father died of pneumonia and the family moved to a fifth-floor walk-up apartment house in Brooklyn, near the George Washington Bridge [Scully grew up in Washington Heights, near the bridge, which actually links north Manhattan to Fort Lee, New Jersey]. His mother later married a reserved, pipe-smoking Englishman who worked as a doorman near Central Park in Manhattan.

“We weren’t real poor, but we weren’t quite middle class, either,” Scully remembers. “I remember my stepfather used to come home sometimes with a pair of pants. One of the tenants at the apartment where he worked would hand him a pair and say, `Hey, Al, don’t you have a son these might fit?’ And he’d bring them home to me.”

On Scully’s most lavish Christmas he received a bicycle. “It was stolen in two days.” When Scully eventually made his television debut, his family had to walk down to the neighborhood saloon to witness it. They didn’t own a television.

Ironically, the loquacious Scully almost turned out to be a stutterer. The sisters at his Catholic elementary school believed left-handedness to be a vice cured best by a ruler rap across the knuckles. Scully was a natural left-hander. The strain caused when a natural left-hander is forced to use nothing but his right hand was starting to show up in Scully’s speech pattern _ he was starting to stutter.

Eventually, Scully’s mother asked a doctor for help. The doctor sent a note to the sisters explaining to them that if God had wanted young Vincent to favor his right hand, God would have made him right-handed. But since young Vincent most definitely wanted to use his left hand, the sisters must not mess with God’s work. And from that point on, they didn’t.

Scully was never without employment, inglorious as it sometimes was. He delivered the Bronx Home News. He pushed garment racks through Manhattan. He delivered mail. He delivered milk. And, of course, he worked the Silver Room at the Stadler Hotel.

The Silver Room?

One day a man walked up to a group of teen-agers and inquired as to who among them would like to work The Silver Room at the hotel. That sounded pretty glamorous to Scully, so he raised his hand. The Silver Room! Scully could see himself now. Dressed in tails at the maitre d’ stand of the Silver Room. Table for two? Right this way.

“Come with me,” the man said. He took Scully back to a hot, steamy little room where, cascading through a hole in the ceiling, came dirty silverware from the hotel restaurant. The lucky young gentlemen in The Silver Room were granted the distinct privilege to wash it.

Scully eventually went to Fordham Prep, then to Fordham University, where he worked on the school paper, ran the school radio station, wrote stringer stories for the New York Times, and played for the Fordham baseball team, for whom he contributed a decent center field, swung a fickle bat, but exhibited the best adenoids on the team.

“I remember I’d stand out there and broadcast the games to myself, although sometimes the priests sitting behind me in the stands would hear me and laugh,” he said. “But I kept right on.”

After spending two years in the Navy, Scully came back to Fordham and graduated in 1949.

[I looked, and Scully first appeared in the N.Y. Times as a player on the Mount St. Michael football team in 1943, and he was already broadcasting Fordham games in fall 1947.]

That summer [of 1949] Scully got his break. Pressed for a warm body, Red Barber of CBS Radio told his aide to call “that red-haired fellow” he’d met once upon a time to help fill in on the Boston University-Maryland game. Scully, 21, was glad to do it, but because of a mix-up, Scully wasn’t going to do it from a broadcasting booth.

Instead, he had to work from the roof of the stadium on a cold and wind-whipped day, wearing only a light coat and counting upon a 60-watt bulb for his sole source of light and heat.

“Yet not once did that boy complain about how cold he was or how he couldn’t see,” remembers Barber, now living in Tallahassee, Fla. In fact, Scully didn’t even complain the following Monday when he saw Barber in the CBS offices. Scully’s misfortunes were retold to Barber later that week. “I was very impressed about that,” says Barber.

By 1950, Barber had offered Scully the job of replacing Ernie Harwell on the Dodger broadcasts, to be the No. 3 man behind Barber and Connie Desmond. But when Desmond left, Scully moved up to No. 2. By the beginning of the 1954 season, Barber had jumped to the New York Yankees and the Dodgers had themselves a brand-new No. 1 golden-throat, Vince Scully, age 26.

Published in: on February 14, 2011 at 4:27 am  Comments (1)  

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.

Luke Easter’s Career and Murder in 1979

In its report on the death of Easter, United Press International wrote on Friday, March 30, 1979:

Luke Easter, former Cleveland Indians first baseman and one of the first blacks to break into major-league baseball, was shot and killed yesterday by two men who robbed him of more than $5,000 outside a bank in suburban Euclid.

The two men accused of stalking and killing the powerful home-run hitter, who played for the Indians from 1949 to 1954 and who was a star in the old American Negro League, were caught after a high-speed chase and shootout with police. They face aggravated murder and aggravated robbery charges.

Victor Pritchett, 32, and Roderick Thomas, 31, both of Cleveland, were in fair condition at Euclid General Hospital. They both suffered superficial wounds and facial cuts when their getaway car crashed along a railroad underpass on Cleveland’s East Side.

Easter, 63, chief steward for the Aircraft Workers Alliance at TRW, Inc., Euclid, where he worked for about 15 years, was accosted by the suspects in a parking lot outside a Cleveland Trust Co. branch in a shopping centre at East 260th Street and Euclid Avenue. He had just cashed payroll cheques for his company totaling $5,000. He was shot in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun and a .38-calibre revolver and was dead on arrival at hospital.

Bank employees and police said Easter was known to have gone to the bank every other Thursday to cash payroll cheques totalling as much as $40,000 and usually asked Euclid police for an escort to the nearby plant. ”He did not ask for an escort today,” said Euclid police captain William Donner. Donner said the robbery suspects either knew Easter, had been former TRW employees or knew of his bank errands and had been stalking him.

Hearing the shots, bank employees sounded a robbery alarm to summon police. Authorities said the suspects fired wildly at them when they arrived and then fled in an auto. The chase proceeded through Euclid and into Cleveland and ended when the suspects’ vehicle crashed.

Instead of surrendering, the suspects got out of the car and opened fire on police, said Lieut. Howard Rudolph. The shots were so heavy a passing motorist’s vehicle was riddled by bullets as he threw himself down on the front seat.

During the attempted escape, police said one shot fired by the suspects smashed through the windshield of a police cruiser – passing between the two officers inside. Neither was injured.

Easter, born Aug. 4, 1915, in St. Louis, is on record as having hit what is believed to have been the longest home run at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. The 477-foot shot into the upper right-field stands occurred June 27, 1950.

The 6-foot-4, 240-pound slugger batted left-handed and in six seasons with the Indians, had a .274 batting average with 93 homers and 340 runs batted in. His best seasons were from 1950 to 1952 when he hit 28, 27 and 31 home runs, respectively.

Before joining the Indians in 1949, Easter played in the old American Negro League. He once hit a home run into the centre-field bleachers at the Polo Grounds in New York, a 475-foot blast, while playing in the Negro League.

Only two other players, Joe Adcock and Lou Brock, duplicated the feat.

After leaving the Indians, he continued to play for Rochester Red Wings in the International League until he was in his early 50s. Before that he played three years with the old Buffalo Bisons of the International League.

Thirteen years later, in 1992, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looked back at the man:

IN A GAME filled with improbable lore and lustrous feats, Luke Easter – the first black major-leaguer from St. Louis – has been largely forgotten, a 6-foot-4 1/2, 240-pound footnote in baseball history. A Ruthian home-run hitter and personality, Easter is a legend in need of resurrection.

In 1949, Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers overheard his teammates say that no one had ever hit the ball into the center-field bleachers at New York’s old Polo Grounds, 475 feet from home plate. He corrected them. Easter had done it in a 1948 Negro League game, playing for the Homestead Grays against the New York Cubans. “He hit it halfway up the stands, about 500 feet,” says Bob Thurman, Easter’s teammate. “The thing about it – it was a line drive.”

And in a home game against the Washington Senators in June 1950, Easter, then a Cleveland Indians first baseman, hit what is believed to be the longest home run ever at cavernous Municipal Stadium. The 477-foot shot, which one writer called “eerie,” went over the right-field upper deck auxiliary scoreboard, previously outer space for baseballs.

After Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Easter was the first black player who looked ready to challenge baseball’s sacred home-run records. Signed in 1949 by Bill Veeck, the Cleveland Indians owner, Easter became an instant sensation with the Triple-A San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, then an Indians farm team. In 80 games, Easter hit 25 home runs, drove in 92 runs and batted .363 – while playing on a broken kneecap.

No Pacific Coast rookie since Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio had had so glorious a debut. In three seasons with the Indians, from 1950 to 1952, Easter batted in 307 runs and hit 86 home runs.

Even so, statistics – the barometer of baseball greatness – tell as much about Easter’s career as a blurb on a book cover.

Barred from the major leagues because of his color, and at first ignored by the Negro Leagues, Easter had an astonishing career. He turned 35 years old in his first full season with the Indians, only three years after he started playing professionally in the Negro Leagues.

To this day, Easter amazes baseball people. Al Rosen, manager of the San Francisco Giants and an Indian teammate of Easter’s, is known as an excellent judge of baseball talent. “Had Luke come up to the big leagues as a young man, no telling what numbers he would have had … Instinctively, he did all the right things.” Rosen paused, then added, “Maybe there is such a thing as ‘a natural.’ ”

Yet the people who admired Easter never knew his exact age or much about his background. Throughout his baseball career, Luke Easter maintained that he was born in 1921. But it is written, between the Old and New Testaments in the big, pictorial Easter family Bible, that he was born Aug. 4, 1915, at 8:15 p.m. His given name was Luscious.

Easter also let everyone believe he was born in St. Louis. But, in fact, Luke Easter was born in Jonestown, Miss., deep in the heart of the Delta.

“Luke never did want anybody to know he was from Mississippi,” said a younger brother, J.C. Easter, who still lives in St. Louis. “People would tease you if they knew you were from Mississippi. I guess Luke wanted to avoid that.”

As the preceding stories indicate, Easter was essentially a Great Lakes region legend as a major and minor league player, hitting tremendous home runs that were called Easter Eggs in Cleveland, Rochester, and Buffalo. He did grow up in St. Louis, but his legacy is most evident now in Cleveland, which named one of its parks after him. Cleveland hosted Easter’s funeral, as the Post-Dispatch explained:

For the first time, most of the baseball world knew Luke’s true age, 63. At the funeral home, 4,000 fans filed past his casket for a last look at their hero; more than 1,000 people attended the funeral at Mount Sinai Baptist Church; Cleveland police led a procession of 150 cars to the cemetery. In the casket was a fresh deck of his favorite “Bee” playing cards, placed there by his son Gerald.

Virgil Easter still lives in Cleveland, in the large two-story house that she and her husband bought in the early 1950s. A few miles west is Luke Easter Park, which has its share of crime and drugs. In a grassy area in the middle of a semi-circular drive, there is a seven-foot-high bust of Easter on a pink-granite pedestal. He’s wearing an Indians uniform.

Several miles east is the well-kept cemetery where Luke Easter is buried. Virgil Easter frets because a crab apple tree that once shaded the grave is gone. “But he liked the sun,” she said. “He wouldn’t have minded.” She visits her husband’s grave twice a year – near opening day and after the World Series.

Published in: on December 16, 2010 at 5:21 am  Comments (3)  

Ernie Banks’ Early Life and Baseball Career

In 1987, the Chicago Tribune’s Jerome Holtzman wrote a long article about Ernie Banks. It was seemingly a reminiscence of Banks’ 500th homer, hit at Wrigley Field on May 12, 1970, but Holtzman was really intent on writing a kind of profile and appreciation of Banks. Holtzman noted Banks’ ebullience at the ceremonies after his 500th homer, and wrote that

Such emotion seldom was displayed by Banks during his early years with the Cubs. Stan Hack, who was Banks’ second manager (Phil Cavarretta was the first), once made the statement, which became widely quoted, “After he hits a home run, he comes back to the bench looking as if he did something wrong.” What Hack and some of the Cubs coaches didn’t realize was that Banks was unusually shy.

The second oldest of 11 children, Banks was raised in modest circumstances in Dallas in what was then the segregated South. Eddie Banks, his father, had been a semipro ballplayer with the Dallas Black Giants, Houston Buffaloes and also played with teams in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and in his native town of Marshall, Tex.

“My father tried everything,” Banks recalled. “We didn’t have much money, but I can remember him buying me a finger-mitt. Cost two dollars and ninety-five cents. Sometimes he’d give me a nickel or dime to play catch with him.”

The elder Banks picked cotton and also worked as a laborer on a WPA construction gang-the Works Progress Administration funded by the federal government at the height of the Depression in an effort to relieve the poor. For a time, Mrs. Banks was employed as a bank janitor. Perhaps it was mostly nostalgia but Banks’ mother, in an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, described her son as an almost model boy.

She said he never “prowled” at night and was a “regular” at Sunday school and church. “He liked to stretch out on on top of his bed and read for hours,” she said. “He was an an average student in school.”

After he became a baseball star, Banks always had an ample fund of poor-boy stories, which he enjoyed telling: How he shined shoes and mowed lawns, cut wood for Dad, did the dishes for Mom and helped take care of the younger children. Eddie Banks couldn’t remember the boy shining shoes or cutting grass but did recall that Ernie had a brief fling at cotton picking. “Ernie never learned how,” said Papa Banks. “The only work he ever did”-the elder Banks didn’t consider baseball work-“was at a hotel. Ernie was to carry out garbage but the cans were too heavy. After three days, he quit and didn’t even go back to collect his money.”

Like fellow Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, Banks jumped to the big leagues from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Tom Baird, the owner of the Monarchs, sold Banks to the Cubs in tandem with a little-known pitcher, Bill Dickey, for $20,000-$15,000 for Banks, $5,000 for Dickey. The deal was made on a Monday, the day after Banks appeared in the Negro American League’s East-West All-Star game that was played at Comiskey Park. Several White Sox scouts were in attendance but were unimpressed.

The next day, Wendell Smith, a Chicago sportswriter, picked up Banks and John “Buck” O’Neil, the manager of the Monarchs, at their hotel and drove them to Wrigley Field, where Cub officials gave Banks a final look.

When the Monarchs folded three years later, O’Neil was added to the Cubs’ scouting staff and subsequently helped in the signing of dozens of black players, including Lou Brock. More than a scout, the courtly O’Neil, persuasive and with impeccable manners, was an organizational troubleshooter. When Billy Williams was in the minors and threatening to quit baseball-he was homesick-O’Neil was dispatched to Williams’ home in Whistler, Ala., and convinced him he had a bright future in baseball. Now 75, O’Neil is still on the Cub payroll as a consultant.

“We knew Ernie was a good prospect,” O’Neil said in a telephone interview from his home in Kansas City. “But we didn’t know he would develop that fast.”

Published in: on September 12, 2010 at 5:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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Some Notes on Don Larsen’s Perfect Game in the 1956 World Series

After his game, the New York Times interviewed several people. Larsen’s mom, Charlotte, said: “I make it a rule never to watch Don when he pitches. Seems like every time I watch him, he loses. So I just don’t do it. I didn’t today and see what happened.”

Ernie Shore, the Red Sox pitcher who retired 27 in a row in relief of Babe Ruth in a game in the 1910s and in 1956 was the sheriff of Forsyth County in North Carolina, applauded: “Wonderfully pitched. That Larsen deserves a lot of credit. I don’t believe he was ever in a hole.”

Yankee right fielder Hank Bauer on a near-homer by Sandy Amoros in the fifth inning: “When I saw that ball heading for the right-field seats I was ready to concede the homer. But when it hooked foul by this much (three inches) I was the happiest guy in the park.”

Charlie Robertson, a pecan broker in Fort Worth and pitcher of the last previous perfect game, in 1922: “I was traveling by car yesterday and didn’t know anything about Larsen’s game until I got home about 2 a.m. today.”

Home plate umpire Babe Pinelli told Larsen: “You were wonderful, just wonderful. [Larsen had] the greatest pin-point control I’ve ever seen. Even if the Dodgers had not swung at some of those slow curves they would have been strikes.”

Finally, the Times reported:

A discordant marital note marred yesterday’s day of baseball triumph for Don Larsen. The Yankee pitcher was notified that his estranged wife Vivian had filed a Supreme Court action seeking to withhold his world series money. Mrs. Larsen charged that Larsen was delinquent in his support payments and that he had subjected her and their 14-months-old daughter “to the pleasures of a starvation existence.”

The pitcher’s wife charged that he had deserted her three months after their marriage on April 23, 1955. Her affidavit asserted that Don had left her “with no intention of returning because he was not ready to settle down and preferred a life of free and easy existence.”

Later yesterday, Larsen sent his wife $420, her lawyer, Harry H. Lipsig, reported. Lipsig declined to say whether the payment would affect her court suit. The order charged that Larsen had not sent any money to his wife since July, and that he owed her the $420 under a court directive requiring him to pay her $60 a week for support.
Published in: on June 4, 2010 at 12:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Herb Score Being Hit by a Liner in 1957

In 2003, the Washington Times described this event as follows:

The count was 2-and-2 on the New York Yankees’ second batter in the first inning, and the Cleveland Indians’ 23-year-old left-hander didn’t want to throw a curve or slider because he felt he lacked command of his breaking stuff. So on his 12th pitch of the evening, he went to the whistling fastball that had helped him claim 508 strikeouts over his first two seasons.

The pitch was low and inside, and Gil McDougald lined it up the middle. Let Herb Score tell what happened.

“I heard the crack of the bat while my head was down in my follow-through. All I ever saw as my head came up was this white blur. I snapped up my glove, but the white blur blasted through the fingertips and into my right eye. … I clutched at my face, staggered and fell. … Then [I thought], ‘My God, the eye has popped right out of my head!’ ”

Not quite, but close enough. The date was May 7, 1957, at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, and the career of baseball’s best young pitcher 36-19 for his first two seasons and a sure Hall of Famer according to many was finished for all practical purposes.

Two future generations of Indians fans would know Score as a friendly, familiar broadcaster whose imminent retirement in September 1997 after 34 years behind the mike prompted a two-minute standing ovation from a sellout crowd at Jacobs Field. But older fans will recall him, too, as a pitcher who appeared certain to follow Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia as superb hurlers for the Indians in the ’50s, when good Cleveland teams frequently finished second to the Yankees.

Score always claimed that a sore arm the following season not the eye injury ruined his career. Regardless, the ball that McDougald rocketed back at him caused one of the goriest and most lasting images of that era.

It also showed the world how brave a baseball player could be in the face of physical calamity. As Herbert Jude Score lay near the mound so bloody and battered that the sight made some players want to vomit, he called on his patron saint for help. And unbelievably on that terrible night, the stricken pitcher cracked one joke after another.

“They can’t say I didn’t keep my eye on that one,” he told teammate Garcia on the field. Later, when a sympathetic reporter said he would see Score at the hospital, Herb replied, “I hope I can see you.” And referring to a recent championship fight, he said, “I must look like [Gene] Fullmer did when [Sugar Ray] Robinson hit him.”

In the Yankees’ clubhouse after the game, McDougald was disconsolate. A seven-season veteran who had preceded Score by four years as American League rookie of the year, the hard-hitting infielder told teammate Hank Bauer, “If he loses his sight, I’ll quit baseball. The game’s not that important when it comes to this.”

Talking to Jimmy Cannon in March 1958, Score said,
“I feel good. The eye is real, real strong.”

“Did you ever feel like giving up?”

“Give up? I never gave up. When I was first hit, they bandaged both eyes. I could hear people walking. I thought we never appreciate what God does for us. We never think what it is to see. I can see very well. My ankle has been a little sore. But the eye – the only problem I have now is to get the fellows out.”

And back in 1987, Score said, “The McDougald line drive had nothing to do with my career ending prematurely.

“I came back in ’58 throwing as hard as ever. I had a good spring and I was 2-1 early in the regular season. In one of those games, I struck out 13 or 14. I had 48 strikeouts in 41 innings. Physically, I was never better. Then we had about a week of rainouts, and I was pitching in Washington on a cold, rainy night.

“Late in the game, I felt a pain in my elbow and forearm that I didn’t pay much attention to. Then one of my pitches didn’t make it to home plate. The next pitch didn’t make it to the plate, either.

“The club sent me to Baltimore to see a specialist. I was diagnosed as having a tendon injury. I laid off about three weeks and came back in Washington again.

“I went in as a reliever, struck out five or six and ended the game on a popup to the outfield. But I hurt my arm again on that pitch. After that pitch, I was never the same again. My pitches never had the same movement on them. I had no snap.

“I know people think it was the McDougald line drive, but I really don’t think so. Oh, it’s possible the long layoff, the medication-I was on cortisone for 10 months to reduce swelling on the right side of my head-might have altered my muscle tone, and that may have affected my windup somehow . . . but I’ve really never been able to make a connection.

“I do remember this-when I came back, I’d wear out a toe plate in one game. Before McDougald hit me, a toe plate would last me all season.

“Everything I have in life I owe to baseball. I’ve been in professional baseball 35 years. Maybe if it wasn’t for the fact my playing career was short, I wouldn’t have this job. I was still pitching (for the Chicago White Sox) when it was offered to me, and I took it.

“I love broadcasting. Is there a better baseball job than this?”

Published in: on May 29, 2010 at 4:57 pm  Comments (6)  
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