A pro from Cedar Rapids…from the old days: Joe Pickart

Joseph Albert Pickart, born on February 4, 1924 to Oscar and Mary (Boddicker). Pickart was a native of the Norway, Iowa area, yet spent the majority of his later town ball career playing for rival Watkins.  Oscar had played on a Norway town team called the ‘Cubs’ in 1912, along with Joe’s uncle Ed Pickart.  Another uncle, Clyde, was a local umpire.  As with almost all Norway boys of the last century, Joe grew up living and breathing baseball.

Pickart attended Norway high school for two years, playing on the high school baseball and basketball teams, but left when his family moved and forced him to transfer to Franklin High School (now Franklin Middle School) in Cedar Rapids.  Joe had never wanted to leave Norway, and as a new student was relentlessly harassed about being a ‘country’ kid.  Joe soon soured on Franklin, and quit high school during his junior year.  Free from school, he took a job at the Quaker Oats mill in Cedar Rapids

With stories of World War II combat dominating the news, Joe enlisted in the Army Air Forces on January 20, 1943.  Not quite nineteen years old, his enlistment record declared him to be 5’10” tall and weighed in at 148 pounds.  Naturally, during his military service, he found time to play baseball on one of the bases at which he was stationed.

Returning home at the end of the war, Joe split time with the semi-pro Storm Lake Whitecaps, and as an outfielder with the Paul ‘Daffy’ Dean’s Rockford Rox, the Cincinnati Reds Class C farm team in the Central Association.  Playing a season that spanned June 9 until September 5, the Whitecaps played teams from across the Iowa and Eastern Nebraska, including the towns of Harlan, Spencer, Lake City, Vermillion, and Akron, as well as barnstorming clubs like the famed “House of David”. 

Pickart returned to Eastern Iowa during the off seasons, where he worked at the Quaker Oats mill while playing in the “Manufacturers and Jobbers” (M&J) League and on the Watkins town team. 

Encouraged by his success the previous year, Pickart spent 1948 with three different minor league teams.  Joe began the year signing a contract with the Class ‘B’ Decatur Commodores in the old Three-I League (Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana) on March 3.  After his batting average dipped to .225, Decatur optioned him to the Visalia Cubs of the California League for 34 games, and on July 1 he was sent to the Class ‘C’ Boise Pilots of the Pioneer League.  There he drilled five home runs in fifty-two games, but finally called it a career and returned to Iowa.

During the offseason between the 1947 and 1948 seasons, he again returned to Cedar Rapids, and married Helen Travnicek on October 1, 1948. On April 27, 1949, Pickart placed himself on the ‘Voluntarily Retired List’, formally ending his professional baseball.  He continued with Storm Lake for a while, as well as with the “M&J” league, but found other interests as well, including music.  During the early 1950s he opened “Pickart Mattress” in Coralville, and also served as an officer in the American Legion post there.  In February 1967, the family packed up the business and moved to Arizona, where Pickart spent his working days in the mattress and carpet businesses, and playing the bass and harmonica in a local Arizona band called ‘4 Guys’ for the rest of his life.

On September 5, 2010, Joe Pickart passed away in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The Case for Earl Whitehill

Earl Whitehill, a Cedar Rapids native, is not in the Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame. This is inexplicable. Not only did he grow up in Cedar Rapids, but he is buried there as well. He is still #81 on Major League Baseball’s all-time pitching victory list (218 wins), but he played in a World Series and was enshrined in the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame in 1963. Yet, for reasons unfathomable, no one in Cedar Rapids is willing to honor this great pitcher and favorite son of the City of Five Seasons.

This is a copy of the text of a nomination I submitted to the Hall of Fame board in 2018, but I was told that he was not selected because he “never played in town.” False. He played for a local semi-pro team in the days before the M and J league…and there are many many enshrinees who have even less connection to the city.

QUOTE

Cedar Rapids Ball Club, Inc.

c/o Mrs. Marcia Moran

PO Box 2001
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52406-2001

Hello.  In the course of my research into Iowa, eastern Iowa, and Linn/Benton County baseball history, the absence of Earl Whitehill from the Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame stands in stark relief against an otherwise wonderful educational, heritage-focused entity.

This is submitted as an unsolicited nomination of Cedar Rapids native Earl Oliver Whitehill (1899-1954) for election to the Cedar Rapids Ball Club, Inc. Hall of Fame.  Through his extraordinary personal effort, this native-son of Cedar Rapids clearly furthered the high reputation of professional baseball in this area, and the reputation of Cedar Rapids to the baseball world.

Nomination summary:

Earl Whitehill’s professional baseball success, and winning over 200 major league games is success by any measure (as of the date of this letter, it is the 81st highest total in Major League Baseball history, per baseball-reference.com), reflects brilliantly on Cedar Rapids and its baseball heritage.  Bill Hoffer was the first Cedar Rapids native to star in the big leagues in the 1890s, but Whitehill appeared barely a generation later as evidence that baseball is truly in the city’s collective DNA.  He did it all on the diamond: led the American League in victories (22) in 1933, won a World Series game, and led the American League in games started twice.

Whitehill was born in Cedar Rapids, grew up here, and played baseball here before moving on to major league stardom.  Signed by Cedar Rapids Hall of Famer Cy Slapnicka, and later a teammate of Cedar Rapids Hall of Famer Hal Trosky, Earl Whitehill’s life and career are most certainly worthy of his inclusion in this wonderful shrine.  He has been deceased for over 60 years, and it is natural that his name and his superb career might be barely remembered, but selection to the Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame would go a long way toward making permanent and visible the contributions he made to baseball and to Iowa.

Earl Whitehill (From Baseball-Reference.com)

Position: Pitcher Bats: Left  •  Throws: Left  5-9, 174lb (175cm, 78kg)

Born: February 7, 1899 in Cedar Rapids, IA us

Died: October 22, 1954 (Aged 55-257d) in Omaha, NE

Buried: Cedar Memorial Park, Cedar Rapids, IA

Career

W /L 218 -185                 ERA   4.36          G   541                 GS   473               SV   11

The bottom line: 

Earl Whitehill’s lifetime record compares well with National Baseball Hall-of-Fame pitchers Bob Feller and Red Faber:

Pitcher                  Appearances           Wins                    Innings Pitched

Feller (HOF)               570                  266                              3,827

Faber (HOF)               662                  254                              4,086

Whitehill                     541                  218                              3,562

*Whitehill’s lifetime major league pitching record was 218-186, and included 226 complete games (81st on the all-time “wins” list)

*Inducted into Des Moines Register Iowa Sports Hall of Fame, 1963

*Pitched complete game victory (4-0) over New York Giants in 1933 World Series, the only win recorded by the Washington Senators in that contest.          

His life in brief:

The son of a local barber and his wife, Noah and Margaret Whitehill, Earl was born on February 7, 1899, in Cedar Rapids.  He had a sister, Edna, born in 1901, and a brother, George Edward, who was born fourteen years later.

As a teenager, he attended the Washington school and on the weekends he starred as a pitcher in the Twilight League.  The boy was a sought-after talent on the local scene, and was referred to as “Dick” Whitehill in those early articles in the Cedar Rapids. 

The local newspapers clarified the distinction years later after the pitcher had made it to the 1933 World Series with the Washington Senators.  Those pre-1920 Twilight League teams not only played each other, but also staged contests against local, “town teams” from Norway, Atkins and other, outlying communities, all of which further reinforced the value and importance of baseball in the area.  Ultimately, the Twilight League morphed into the much longer-lived Manufacturer’s and Jobber’s Industrial League. 

Signed by fellow Cedar Rapids native Cy Slapnicka, who scouted for the Tigers before switching his allegiance and employment to Cleveland, Whitehill began ascending the ziggurat of organized professional baseball at 21 when he reported to Birmingham in the Southern league in 1920.  Arriving in late season, he pitched only one game, a loss, and was sent down to Columbia of the South Atlantic league.  The next year, a 20-10 record hastened his return to Birmingham.

Detroit purchased his contract from Birmingham and brought him up to play for manager Ty Cobb in 1923. Whitehill made his first appearance on September 15 1923, at age 24, and that season ultimately appeared in 33 innings over eight games. In 1924, Whitehill became a Tigers starter, and led all AL rookies with 17 wins and a .654 winning percentage.  Over 10 years Whitehill posted a 133-120 record for the Tigers. In December 1932, he was traded to the Washington Senators for two pitchers, Carl Fischer and Firpo Marberry.

In 1933, Whitehill led the AL in games started and was near the top in most pitching categories. His 22 victories (against only 8 losses) were a career-best, and led the league, and his ERA of 3.33 was a full run below his lifetime figure.   

On December 10, 1936, he was traded to the Indians.  In Cleveland, Whitehill appeared mostly in relief.  He won 17 and lost 16 for the Tribe in the 1937-38 seasons and in February 1939 was released.  The Chicago Cubs assigned him number 31 for the 1939 season, and he finished that year, the last of his career, with a 4-7 record.  His final game was on September 30, 1939.

The Indians hired him as a coach in 1940, but let him go in 1941.  Whitehill’s final stop in the majors, after a season in the International League, was as a coach for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943. After that, he took up traveling sales of sporting goods, using his name and energy in representing the A.G. Spalding Company.  Whitehill died in 1954 following a car crash in Nebraska and is buried at Cedar Memorial Park.

Earl Whitehill was inducted into the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Sports Hall of Fame in March 1963.  While not a National Baseball Hall-of-Fame selectee (his vote totals were: 1956 – 1 – .5%; 1958 – 2 – .8%; 1960 – 3 – 1.1%), he was a terrific pitcher in what is generally regarded as a hitter-dominated era.  None other than James “Cool Papa” Bell, of the Negro Leagues and the Baseball Hall of Fame, noted in an American Heritage interview with John Holway, that “Earl Whitehill was the toughest big-league pitcher I ever faced.  In 1929 we beat the major-league all-stars six out of eight games, and Whitehill beat us both times”.

END QUOTE

You tell me: does he deserve enshrinement alongside the “cake lady”? Yes.

Bill Hoffer, Belden Hill and early Cedar Rapids’ baseball

Organized baseball began spreading throughout Iowa immediately after the American Civil War, and professional baseball began in Cedar Rapids in 1890 with the entry of the Cedar Rapids “Canaries” in the old Iowa-Illinois League.  From that time forward, with few breaks, the game matured into the dominant sport, and activity, in the town and in the region.   

While Cal McVey, from Montrose, was Iowa’s first professional ballplayer, William C. “Billy” Hoffer was the first major league baseball star from Cedar Rapids proper.  Born in 1870, Hoffer played with several of the local club teams before making his professional debut, winning sixteen games for the 1891 Cedar Rapids Canaries.  That team had a roster that included an eighteen-year old John McGraw at third base. 

McGraw carried a reputation for scrappiness-bordering-on-petulance-bordering-on-anger, but the relationship between Hoffer and McGraw proved providential, as the latter convinced Baltimore manager Ned Hanlon to offer the pitcher a spot with his 1895 Orioles (National Association).  On the same roster as not only player-manager McGraw, but also Wilbert Robinson, Hughie Jennings, and others, Hoffer won 78 games between 1895 and 1897 and pitched in several Temple Cup series (the predecessor of the modern World Series). 

The Temple Cup was just that, a silver cup, which was awarded to the National League champions following a seven-game playoff between the two top teams in the standings after the 1894-1897 seasons.  Lumber magnate William C. Temple sponsored the award as a way to generate additional baseball-related revenue after the regular season was finished, and a 12-team league offered the opportunity to pull more paying customers through the doors in order to watch an official (of sorts) championship.  The series died after 1897, but was resurrected in a new form, now called a “World Series”, in 1903 along with the rise of a rival American League. 

Slight of build, even for the time, at 5’9” and 155 pounds, Hoffer was strong enough to toss fifty sixty complete games in his first two years in the minors, relying on his fastball and a healthy dose of Iowa-bred toughness.  He needed that toughness just to survive on the field with McGraw.

“They (his teammates) could be pretty rough on us pitchers – especially that McGraw. It was good for me, though.  I couldn’t pitch my best when I wasn’t mad.  McGraw would yell at me: “You fat-headed Dutchman”, and maybe some other insults.  Then I’d get mad and throw that ball so damned hard.”

In 1901 Hoffer earned a more dubious distinction, earning the loss in the first official American League game ever played.  Later that year, on July 4, the 125th birthday of American Independence, he appeared in his final major league game.  In that game, despite striking out eight batters and hitting a triple himself, Hoffer and the Indians lost to the White Sox in Chicago.  Bill returned to the minors for parts of six seasons, including the 1903 year with the wonderfully named Des Moines Undertakers, before concluding his career in 1909 with Belden Hill’s Cedar Rapids Rabbits.  He won three and lost six for that team, a squad that won only 31 times and finished a distant 59 games out of first place in the class B Three-I League (Indiana/Illinois/Iowa).  The team played in the old Cedar Rapids Athletic Park, situated inside a 1/3 mile bicycle track and a few blocks from their future home at Hill Park (current site of Roosevelt Junior High School).  After that 1909 performance, though, the team abruptly ceased operations.  It did not reappear for four years.

After baseball Hoffer went to work as an engineer and conductor on the now-defunct interurban railway between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, did some house painting and sketching on the side, and by all accounts led a comfortable and happy life until his death at age 88.  His role as spiritual head of Cedar Rapids baseball had, by the time of his retirement, been assumed by one Belden Hill.

Hill was actually six years older than Hoffer.  He was born in Kewanee Illinois, and reached the big leagues for a brief nine-game stint with the Baltimore Orioles in 1890, after tours with five minor league teams in the preceding three years.  Hill batted only .167 in thirty at-bats with Baltimore, and after he broke his leg the following spring, the major leagues left him behind.  He continued to play in the minors until 1905, finishing as an infielder before finally taking over as full-time manager for Cedar Rapids’ teams.  His lifetime managerial record in Cedar Rapids was 831-660 (.557), and he still owns more wins than any other manager in the city’s professional baseball history. 

His 1906 Cedar Rapids Bunnies won the Three-I League title  with a squad the included Neal Ball (who later turned the first unassisted triple play in major league history), Russ Ford (infamous for scuffing the baseball and credited by some with the invention of the emery ball), and Doc Crandall.  Hill, by his own admission later in life, was not infallible as a talent evaluator, however:  In 1907 he cut future star pitcher and outfielder Smokey Joe Wood just a year before Wood made it to the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox.

Belden Hill’s greatest contributions, actually, were on the organizational level.  In 1901, along with a Mike Sexton of Rock Island, he was instrumental in forming the first iteration of the Three-I League (Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa), and then played a comparable role in forming the Mississippi Valley League.  In 1926, and then again between 1928 and 1931, he served as league president before his death in Cedar Rapids in 1934.  The successor to Athletic Park, as the home of professional baseball in Cedar Rapids, was dubbed Belden Hill Park in honor of his achievements, and Hill is a plank-holding member of the Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame.

While Hill nurtured the growth of the professional game throughout eastern Iowa and into Illinois, the increasing national popularity of the sport at the time spurred interest in local baseball teams and leagues to support the burgeoning community’s need for recreational outlets.  Organized amateur baseball existed in Cedar Rapids well before 1890, with teams like the “Rough and Readys”, “B.C.R. & N. Railroad”, “Farmer’s Insurance” and “T.M. Sinclair” taking the field on a semi-regular, and certainly organized, basis.  A 1915 article in the Cedar Rapids Republican headlines that the “Sixteenth Ave. Industrial Club voted to challenge the South Side Business Men’s Club to a five game baseball series.”  That was amateur baseball, certainly, although in a more exclusive, private club setting. 

Then there was the Twilight League, whose membership included Denecke’s (an early department store in town) and which featured future big league star pitcher and favorite son Earl Whitehill.  Those teams played local squads from Norway, Atkins and outlying communities, which further underscored the breadth and importance of baseball in the area.  Finally, those entities – essentially – merged into the Manufacturer’s and Jobber’s Industrial League.  The M&J, as it was known, hosted an enormous amount of baseball talent during its 38-year life. 

The story of baseball in Cedar Rapids both long and distinguished, so there is no full understanding of even the bones of the story without a quick survey of how baseball spread across Iowa.  Generally, according to baseball and Civil War historian John Liepa, baseball crossed the state from southeast to northwest, beginning with Mississippi River ports like Keokuk and then moving with the rail lines across the state.  Peter Morris, in his book But Didn’t We Have Fun?, found a record of a town ball game in Davenport as early as 1858.[i]

                “Town-ball is one of the old games from which the scientific but not half so amusing “national game” of base-ball has since been evolved. In that day the national game was not thought of. Eastern boys played field-base, and Western boys town-ball in a free and happy way, with soft balls, primitive bats, and no nonsense. There were no scores, but a catch or a cross-out in town-ball put the whole side out, leaving others to take the bat or “paddle” as it was appropriately called.”[ii]

Town ball was something of a precursor to modern baseball, with few limits on team sizes, no foul territory, and runners were put out by “soaking” them, or hitting them with a thrown ball.  The game balls were fairly soft, both to protect the runners and to prevent any long hits, and the games had no time or innings limit; they were loosely scored, but mostly ended when the families and players decided they’d had enough.

Prior to the 1861-1865 US Civil War, town ball and English cricket were the dominant recreation sports, but once the soldiers returned home and brought baseball with them, that all changed.  By the end of 1865 there were perhaps ten town baseball teams in all of Iowa.  By the end of 1867 there were over 200. 

On May 9, 1867, the Cedar Valley Times briefly described the new Cedar Rapid Baseball Club, and a week later, on May 16, reported that the team practiced twice a week on the grounds a t the intersection of Washington and Daniels streets.  Team leaders included Chairman G. M. Howlatt and Secretary E. S. Hibl.  In short, organized baseball had finally arrived in the town.

By the late 1880s city leagues (with sponsors like T. M. Sinclair meat packing, progenitor of Wilson Packing) had popped up in and around town, and interest in the game was strong enough that the town created a professional franchise.  In 1890, as part of the soon-to-disband Iowa-Illinois league, the Canaries took the field and introduced professional baseball to Cedar Rapids.

John McGraw was, without a doubt, one of the greatest “names” in baseball history to have played professionally in Cedar Rapids.  Charles Alexander wrote: “By early April 1891, Mc Graw was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a thriving little city of about 18,500.  Baseball enthusiasm was running high there, especially when the National League’s Chicago White Stockings, led by first-baseman Adrian “Cap” Anson, baseball’s first authentic superstar, came into town for an exhibition game.”[iii] 

The team sputtered though.  Near the end of the 1891 season, the Iowa-Illinois league disbanded (and McGraw went on to Baltimore) and professional baseball went on an unscheduled four year hiatus.  An independent team played in 1895 as part of the unaffiliated Eastern Iowa League (Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Clinton, Dubuque, Galesburg, Ottumwa, Rock Island, and Waterloo),[iv] but that organization died as well.  Starting in 1896, and ushering in the Belden Hill era, the Cedar Rapids Rabbits began played in the Western Association and Three-I leagues – there were no formal major-minor league affiliations until 1919, when the Detroit Tigers and Branch Rickey’s St. Louis Cardinals reached agreements with specific franchises in Fort Worth and Houston, respectively – and lived until 1909. 

The Rabbits re-emerged in 1913 as part of the Class D Central Association, then took another two-year sabbatical until 1920, when it joined the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (Three-I) league, and then the Mississippi Valley League in 1922.  Due to the Depression, and the failure of a number of minor leagues including the MVL, there was no team in 1933.  From 1934 until 1942 the Cedar Rapids Raiders (Western and Three-I leagues) played until stopped by World War II.   President Roosevelt’s Work-Or-Fight policy left Cedar Rapids with no capacity for professional sports, so the team disbanded yet again.  In 1949, with World War II now over, the Cedar Rapids Rockets took the field for one season, and there has been professional baseball in the city ever since.

The Rockets lasted only a year before being re-christened the Indians, and formalizing a developmental agreement with Cleveland.  The 1952 iteration included future Tribe star Rocky Colavito, and over the years it hosted other prominent future major leaguer stars like Rob Dibble, Chris Sabo, Ron Hunt, Paul O’Neill, Eric Davis, Howie Kendrick, Bob Brenly, Reggie Sanders, Chili Davis, Trevor Hoffman and, most recently, Mike Trout.

But the story of the game in Cedar Rapids is more than just the professional and industrial league versions.  In the 1940s and 1950s some of the more prominent former players, civic leaders, and citizens started the Cedar Rapids Kids Baseball League.  That was the actual name of the league.  Teams were sponsored by the same businesses that subsidized the Industrial League baseball and softball teams, but there was none of the modern pretense about the game.  It was baseball for kids.  It wasn’t created so that parents could live vicariously through their progeny, or so their sons could be showcased for big league scouts, or for any other reason that didn’t involve getting youngsters outside and playing baseball.  No analog existed for basketball or football.  This was about baseball, the game that has always been part of the regional DNA.


[i] Peter Morris. But Didn’t We Have Fun?  (Ivan R. Dee, 2010), pg 20

[ii] Eggleston, Edward (March 1879). “Some Western School-Masters” Scribner’s Monthly 17 (5): 751

[iii] Charles C. Alexander, John McGraw (New York: Viking, 1988), pg 20.

[iv] http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/league.cgi?id=cfd943d2

Norway’s baseball in old age

 

The Effect of Baseball on the Development of the Community of Norway, Iowa”

Presented at the 23 Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture

Approximately twenty minutes, by car, west of Cedar Rapids, Norway, Iowa, is a town with a population that has only rarely exceeded 700 residents since 1900, yet has produced four major league players and twenty Iowa high school state baseball champions.  The first, Hal Trosky, led the American League in Runs-Batted-In in 1936, and was followed by his son Hal Trosky, Jr., who made two appearances for the Chicago White Sox in 1958.  Bruce Kimm became the primary catcher for Detroit Tiger rookie Mark “The Bird” Fydrich in 1976, and Mike Boddicker spent more than a decade on major league mounds before he retired in 1992.

Baseball in Norway, however, has always been much more than those four major leaguers.  The high school program, which ended in 1992 when the state directed regional consolidation of some of the smaller schools such as Norway, won twenty Iowa titles in baseball between 1965 and 1991.  The town team continues, as of 2011, to play a full Iowa Valley League schedule every summer, but it is the only relic of a community baseball program that began in the nineteenth century.

Since Norwegian immigrant Osman Tuttle founded Norway, Iowa – originally little more than a railstop in the midst of Iowa farmland – in the mid-1800s, the game of baseball infused the town with a shared, community identity, and the relationship between village and sport grew more inextricable across the succeeding decades.

The introduction of organized scholastic baseball in 1906 provided an additional opportunity for fathers and sons to form and share a sporting legacy, and provided Norway a degree of national notoriety when the tiny school won twenty state baseball championships before succumbing to state-imposed consolidation in 1992.

The mosaic of American history is filled with small farm and railroad towns like Norway, frontier communities built on an ethic of personal initiative and hard work.  What makes Norway unique, though, is the role of baseball in the lives of the citizens, and how the seasons of a simple game have marked, shadowed, and paralleled the maturing of the community.  As Shona Frese, curator of the Iowa Baseball Museum of Norway, has stated, “To study Norway baseball history is to study Norway history.”

INTRODUCTION

Community, the noun, may evoke images of congenial, neighborly relationships, children growing up together, parents united by the shared objective of raising families in a “decent” place.  This vision, often a product of literary reference and a touch of nostalgic amnesia, is rarely realized in towns or cities of any size, from the tiny hamlets of fewer than one hundred residents to megalopolis’ of millions.

But even if the gauzy, unrealistic image of small town community is rarely adequate to describe the real complexities of relationships among individuals, there have been instances in the growth of the United States of America in the Twentieth century in which events drive the development of a collective ethos, a shaping force strong enough to shade the physical borders with an umbrella of ‘community’.  It is that ethos which, nurtured across generations, can build identity within towns, within communities, and which foster legacies that become emotional touchstones for past, present, and future residents.

Norway, Iowa, is one such community.  If there were a single word to serve as both subject and predicate to describe the small village of fewer than 700 people, it is ‘baseball’.  As the long-time residents have often repeated, “Norway is baseball. Baseball is Norway.”  The game, as much as the railroad that founded the town and the farms that surround it, has shaped the town’s collective perspective.  Even today, in 2011, two decades after the high school closed, the echoes of baseball’s influence still resonate.  For the preceding century, however, the game was one of the planks used to build the rural community.

DEVELOPING THE FRONTIER

In 1854 Osman Tuttle, an immigrant from Norway, became one of the first settlers in the area now known as Benton County, Iowa,[1] when he acquired 640 acres from the US government as part of the largesse of the Homestead Act (1862).  In 1859 Tuttle offered eleven acresto the “Chicago and North-Western Railway Company” as a railroad depot on the condition that the company name the station ‘Norway’.  In 1880 the town was formally and finally rechristened Norway, Iowa.

Tuttle was merely the leader of what became a migration, movement that brought more than families to Iowa.  They brought the New York version of baseball as well.  “The Midwest and West … shared in the excitement over baseball. Baseball in general and the New York version in particular were becoming familiar pastimes across the continent prior to the Civil War. Larger Midwest cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Paul and smaller towns such as Nininger City, Minnesota territory, Oberlin, Ohio, Davenport, Iowa, and Fox Lake, Wisconsin, all reported clubs and matches to the New York sporting journals.” [2]  As with baseball in the United States of America, there was no singular ‘alpha’ moment of creation or specific individual that introduced the sport to Norway, although many of the young town’s returning war veterans certainly helped expand the game in the region.

Much like other agrarian rail stops of the time, the town of Norway developed a self-sustaining infrastructure, a contained society built by men who relaxed – in part – by

playing baseball.  The men played, and watched, baseball, but few details were recorded about the local games in the mid-19th Century, so it is difficult to identify specific players or assess the caliber of Norway teams, but it is a matter of record that neighboring Blairstown had seven baseball teams in 1884, and played a schedule of games against Belle Plaine, Marengo, Norway and other communities.  Thus, the sport had established a foothold in Norway as well.

Baseball, even in the town’s infancy, had an effect on social interaction and community growth.  Weekend contests were community events, often including picnics and outdoor music (abutting one of Norway’s earliest ball fields was a small band pavilion), and not only fanned local pride but also afforded residents an interruption in the work routine and an opportunity to congregate in a purely social setting.  While it would be entirely speculative to assign a value to baseball’s effects within the larger community, the games clearly fostered a corporate identity that was independent of individual occupation or wealth.

The seasonal cadence of baseball complemented the farming and school calendars as well.  The typical school year included a two month Fall term followed by a two week break for harvest.  The winter trimester was a full four months and also concluded with a two week break, but this time for planting. Finally, the spring term was two months, and rolled into summer baseball, before the cycle continued in autumn.  The proliferation and role of the game as played in Norway – at that time, a frontier of sorts – mirrored that of baseball’s expansion and entrenchment across the rest of the country.  In other words, it ‘fit’.

SCHOOL CONSOLIDATION

High school baseball began in Iowa in the spring of 1906[3], following the establishment of the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) the previous year.  Many of the rosters of high school teams at the time approximated those of the town teams, and were often actually filled with graduates, railroad workers, and other non-students.  The teams were often not built from the student body, and there was only a skeletal rule-enforcement structure as the reach of the IHSAA did not extend to many of the dispersed communities. Lifelong Norway resident Otis Tuttle played high school baseball in 1906, and noted in 1988 that, for a time, a local Methodist minister was a catcher on his (high school) team.  Tuttle graduated from Norway High School in 1907, at age fourteen, so his recollections indicate that Norway likely fielded one of those hybrid school teams of the era.

Further west, across the county, an array of small country schools also fielded teams, including the Prairie Bell School baseball team (established in 1885, southeast of Norway).  Other schools that sprang up close to Norway included Pleasant Ridge, the Empire School, Mound School, Country School, Excelsior school, and Florence #6.  Several external pressures shaped the ultimate consolidation of those small, truly local, schools.

The presence of the railhead in Norway, for one, encouraged farm and trade families to live closer to town (and provided some safety-in-numbers in the face of the ‘unknown’ threat posed by local, native tribes) for purely commercial efficiency.  The number of small schools, each with perhaps ten to fifteen boys, and associated baseball teams that were scattered throughout the county and region began to shrink during the first decade of the Nineteenth century as commerce and families gravitated toward the growing town.  Norway’s population in 2011 is approximately 600, but in the early 1900s and 1910s had reached a number greater than 1,600.  It was, almost unbelievably in the context of today, a large town and a nexus for social activity.

From 1910 to 1919, the outlying schools dwindled as Norway became one of the first districts in Iowa to introduce public transportation for students.  By importing boys from outlying farms, the consolidation inevitably strengthened Norway scholastic baseball program while simultaneously paring the smaller, country school teams.  The aggregate effect of these changes was that baseball decisions began to shape the community:

  • When farmers might make a trip into town (for games);
  • What boys might do in their non-chore time (play ball);
  • Where the athletic focus of the students should lie (baseball first, followed by basketball and then everything else); and
  • Who was socially prominent (for athletic reasons)

The greatest single force in creating what became Norway High School was the state’s rural school consolidation effort, work that has crossed generations and is still actively shaping the education picture in Iowa today.  “The consolidation of rural schools in the United States has been a controversial topic for policy-makers, school administrators, and rural communities since the 1800s. At issue in the consolidation movement have been concerns of efficiency, economics, student achievement, school size, and community identity. Throughout the history of schooling in America, school consolidation has been a way to solve rural issues in the eyes of policy makers and many education officials.”[4]

School consolidation and grade sharing were social issues, often fiercely debated in their time by residents and educators, which have shaped Norway scholastic baseball throughout the generations and on which Norway’s collective attitudes have brought pressure to bear.  The net effect, at the start of the Twentieth century, however, was to funnel the students toward Norway.  The secondary effect was to also funnel the best baseball players there as well. It is ironic, then, that the periodic recurring threats to close Norway public schools, and to consolidate within Benton Community, were finally executed in 1990, near the end of that Twentieth century.

Despite palpable public disagreement and amid tangible local controversy, the Norway School district closed the high school at the end of the 1991 academic year, along with the baseball program.  Many of the same terms, such as “loss of community identity” were used in public meetings and in media discourse.  The government officials, however, rejected the entire argument as baseball-centric, and not in the best educational interests of the current and future students.  This is common in consolidation discussion[5], and ultimately made no difference in the final decision.  Upon that closure, the sunset of Norway’s magnificent century of baseball excellence and the ethos of Norway baseball began a slow evaporation.

THE ETHOS IS BASEBALL

Boys growing up in and around Norway in the 1930s and 1940s – and earlier – were, almost without exception, introduced to baseball before even beginning their formal education.  From impromptu ‘three-on-three’ games between seven-year-olds at the town diamond (or off at some remote corner of the field once the older boys showed up to play), through high school and town teams, and even at the semi-pro level for a time, baseball – almost as surely as the planting and harvest cycles – was the metronome that kept the cadence for the community.   The cycle survived economic meltdown and global conflict.

Many of the high school players played for the Norway and/or the Watkins town teams, and for various firms in the Cedar Rapids M & J League. Donald ‘Rasty’ Elliott, for years the town barber, noted in 2007 that it was commonly known that if you were from Norway, you could easily get a job with a Cedar Rapids manufacturer and play on their team.

By 1942 over 250 high schools with spring teams were organized among 32 sections and 8 districts.  The Great Depression, and then the war, shaped parts of the tournament, as what had been state tournament games were more often played at neutral sites closer to the teams.  The tournament games were usually all played on one day.  In the early 40’s, Norway High School had not ventured beyond Benton County, staying just north and south of the Lincoln highway corridor to compete against other schools. There was exception made for the sectional tournaments in which Norway played teams from other counties.

Baseball, through this period, served as a stabilizing force for Norway.  The community’s population has contracted to approximately 600 residents, so every resident was either related to, or knew well, a player on the high school (thus, the town) teams.  The success of Hal Trosky, with his 1936 American League RBI crown, and the potential of his son, Hal Trosky, Junior, gave every boy a palpable performance standard against which they could measure themselves.  It was not, to those boys, an impossible dream to reach the apex of the game.

In 1944 Norway won their first district title but failed to capture the state championship when they lost to Wiota 9-1.  The next spring, 1945, that same team lost to Atkins in sectional play at Blairstown.  The high school continued to play well throughout the rest of the decade, losing to Wayland in the 1947 district tournament at Wilton Junction, and 6-4 to Oakville in the 1948 sectional tournament at Davenport.          The 1958 Norway high school team, the first under Pinky Primrose (reared in the 1940s, and part of Norway’s earlier legacy), included young players with names from the town’s past and future, including Boddicker, Himmelsbach, Frese, Schulte, Lee, Robinson, and Van Ourney, but boys who had grown up with less ‘tradition’ during the early part of the decade.  So much had Norway’s baseball interest waned over the preceding ten years that the new coach, just two years out of college, was often forced to drive to the homes of some of the boys just to convince them to play.  But play they did, and Primrose’s teams never suffered a losing season.

The value of that effort resonated in a way that no one could have foreseen.  Watching those young athletes, the boys that Primrose pulled together for practices and games, were the next generation of high school high school stars, boys already playing together on youth squads every year.

The 1961 Norway Pee-Wee league team, coached by Lyle Kimm and Don Stumpff, Sr., included future major league catcher Bruce Kimm, future minor leaguers Dick McVay and Steve Stumpff, and John Frese, who would father future minor leaguer Nate Frese, along with Mark Miller, Terry Brecht, Don Stumpff, Jr., and Roger Boddicker.  That team was undefeated in Little League in both 1962 and 1963.  Fast-forwarding to the Fall 1966 high school team, the high school roster was virtually identical, and the team outscored opponents 104-8, and posted a 13-0 record.  On that team were Bruce Kimm, Terry Brecht, Mark Miller, and Dick McVay, the returning starters from the 1965 champs, along with Don Stumpff, Jr., in left field; Dave Schulte in center field; Roger Boddicker in right; Randy Schulte at second base and Lee Brecht at shortstop.

The recurring presence of the same players on sports teams in such small towns is not uncommon, simply due to small talent pools, but the competence of the players in Norway was phenomenal.

Those teams represent a case-study in the self-regenerating process of Norway baseball.  Lyle Kimm and Don Stumpff , Sr. were, themselves, standout players in their youth.  Kimm had played on Norway squads with Art Holland, teams that followed those of Hal Trosky and Jerry Meredith, and inculcated the value of, and proper technique in, pitching and defense on the diamond.  Well-grounded in the fundamentals from an early age, the boys grew into the high school program and, simultaneously, the town team.  The extra playing opportunities afforded by the town team allowed the Norway boys to, effectively, double their game experience, and do so against older players from other towns.

For Norway high school players, used to batting against 26-year olds in the “Iowa Valley League” town games, the threat posed by 15-year olds in the high school contests was often non-existent.  To be sure, the absence of high school football freed the best athletes to play baseball and basketball exclusively, but it was the entire ‘system’ that spawned the coming Norway High School dynasty.

The religious life of the town also intersected with the game.  The presence of St. Michael’s Catholic church provided much more than a picturesque background for baseball photographers.  The church itself was finished in 1893, at a cost of $15,000, and in 1903 a tenant parochial school was built.  Of all the priests who served there, one was a particularly notable baseball supporter.

Father Joseph Krocheski, in bridging baseball and the Church, united the community in a way that few external forces are ever able.  After his arrival in 1960, he would – on occasional –conduct ecumenical services that mixed the Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman-Catholic parishes.  He also attended every youth, high school, and town ball game that he could, used church money to buy some of the higher cost baseball equipment for catching, and even worked with the younger boys on skill development.  Gary Volz, a high school and town pitcher in the late 1960s and early 1970s, still chuckles when he remembers Father Krocheski – a light sheen of perspiration on his bald pate gleaming in the sun, glasses jostling, and middle-aged paunch bouncing – as he showed the boys how to better run the bases.   He used baseball to scale, otherwise, impenetrable walls, and when he departed in 1969, the grateful town bought him a new car in appreciation.

Between the 1960’s and the 1980’s, “the lot” was an important training area for boys too young to play high school ball. “The lot” was located immediately south of the 1908 high school building and over time the grass area had become worn with base lines and home plate.  Boys would congregate there for hours, playing baseball until they were called home for meals or the darkness asserted itself.  Without coaches, the boys simply played ball, the young learning from their elders by word and example.

Other games included ‘fast rubber’ and wiffle ball.  Fast rubber was played with the gym as the backstop and the Masonic Temple as the outfield, essential a version of over-the-line with a pitcher delivering the ball instead of underhanded tosses or fungos.  Evidently it was not long until the windows of the Masonic Temple were boarded to save replacement costs.  Wiffle ball was the diversion of choice in back yards and behind the grandstand at all high school and town team games

The biggest discriminator among the players in town came from the parents:  boys were either ‘farm’ kids or ‘town’ kids.  In the 1960s, the latter group included Bruce Kimm, Dick McVay, Max Elliott, the Stumpffs, and the Ryans, boys who were more easily able to spend their time playing ball, while the farm kids, many with comparable talent, necessarily prioritized baseball behind chores.

In 1969 the Tuttle family donated the electric scoreboard in memory of their grandfather, Osman Tuttle who had donated land for the town of Norway and named the town after his native county.   After three years of municipal debate, and some hard feelings among those who felt that tax revenue ought to support more than baseball, lights were erected (at the cost of $15,000) and used for the first time on June 20, 1969.

Three years later, the town also had a new head coach.   By the 1970s, baseball was omni-present.  Boys, in doing school projects, wove the game into their classwork.  At the Iowa Baseball Museum of Norway, there is a photo of an entry from a school ‘values’ poster contest in which the entrant chose to illustrate ‘sportsmanship’ with the following:  “Sportsmanship – Never gets (sic) mad if strikes out or flies out or grounds out.”

In the 1980s, Mike Boddicker made it to the World Series with Baltimore, and Norway baseball made it to ESPN while racking up seven state titles.  By the time the school program closed in 1991, nine alums had been either drafted or signed minor league deals, and four others had played in the major leagues.

2011 AND BEYOND

The Norway Bandits, in the Iowa Valley League, play on Tuttle Field in Norway weekly during the summer, and continue to play in the annual Watkins 4th of July baseball game (the 100th anniversary of the Watkins/Norway rivalry approaches in 2013).  Today, though, instead of being filled with high school teammates, the roster is populated by college players seeking additional summer experience.

Several businesses in town sell Norway Baseball memorabilia – referent to the past, with no apparent future – and in 2006 a new scoreboard and fence were installed for the filming of the movie “The Final Season”.  In 2008 Burt Day offered a building on the main street of Norway, which housed the Benton County Savings Bank until 1927, for a baseball museum. It has become the Iowa Baseball Museum of Norway, and houses an array of objects, artifacts, and information that chronicles both the game and the town.  Again, in the words of Shona Frese, “If you study Norway baseball history, you study Norway history. “

In the end, Norway baseball lives most vibrantly in the collective mind and memory of aging generations.  The youngest member of the 1991 champions, the last in Norway, is now thirty-three and is married with three children.  His eldest is as interested in football as baseball.  Anecdotally, Bruce Volz’s (C 1976, member of the 1972 champions) son is now sixteen and playing football with Chris Frese’s (C 1988) eldest boy.  Both boys are quarterbacks, while their fathers were pitchers.  This is the reality of 2011 and beyond, and it will – in all likelihood – change Norway’s community forever.

CONCLUSION

Baseball has had a demonstrable effect on the town of Norway, Iowa.  It is difficult, even impossible, to predict an alternate pate for the community’s development without the sport, but it is almost inarguable that the town would not have such as firm grasp on the older residents.  It would have been, in a word, ordinary.

[1]  Andreassen, S. (2000).  Norway, Iowa.  Norwegian Philatelic Journal (Volume 6)

[2] Kirsch, G. B. (2003). Baseball in blue and gray: the national pastime during the civil war.  Princeton University Press.

[3] http://www.iahsaa.org/baseball/index.html

[4] Bard, J., Gardner, C.E., and Wieland, R.L. (2006). Rural school consolidation: history, research summary, conclusions, and recommendations. National Rural Education Association Consolidation Task Force, available on line: http://www.academicleadership.org/cgi/article/print/Rural_School_District_Consolidation

[5] Ibid

The Story of Black Baseball in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

It euphemistically was known as “Black Ball,” a style of baseball that was loose and athletic and fun, and that attracted enthusiastic crowds everywhere it was played during the first half of the 20th century.

It was, in large part, a product of big cities, baseball centers such as Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, but it was a phenomenon shared across the nation.

Cedar Rapids, though nowhere near the size of those cities, not only embraced barnstorming black baseball teams, but for decades even sponsored a semipro team of its own. Black baseball’s glorious history traveled through Eastern Iowa.

April 15 has become a universal day of celebration throughout baseball. On that date in 1947, Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In taking his position at first base in the season opener against the Boston Braves, he became the first black player to play in a major league game since 1887, and the first in an “organized baseball” contest since 1889.

That spring afternoon marked the start of the racial integration of the national pastime, and perhaps of the nation.

During the 60-year gap between Fleet Walker, a deft player from Ohio who was the last black man to play alongside white counterparts in American baseball, and Robinson, black stars played with the same passion and verve as their white counterparts.

Every year, beginning even before 1900, Negro teams from New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania barnstormed throughout the Midwest and the South, playing all challengers — black and white — for little more than meal money and respect.

Eastern Iowa benefited from those games, as they gave the region an opportunity to enjoy part of the game denied to fans and players in the white, major leagues.

The town’s first documented brush with a barnstorming black team occurred in April 1897. The Adrian (Mich.) Page Fence Giants stopped in Cedar Rapids to take on the Belden Hills Rabbits at the old Athletic Park (near Roosevelt Middle School).

The Giants were beginning what would become a 125-12 touring season, and beat the local professionals 2-0.

The game featured a visit by one of the greatest of the early black players, Grant “Home Run” Johnson, and also by a young infielder named Charlie Grant. The latter became infamous in 1901 when John J. McGraw (another Cedar Rapids baseball alum and Hall of Fame manager) tried to pass him off as Native American to skirt the de-facto ban on black players and sign him to the big-league New York Giants.

Despite the loss to the barnstormers that afternoon, local fans loved the spectacle. According to the Evening Gazette’s account of the game, “The only disagreeable feature … was the disgraceful conduct of several young men who occupied seats in the bleachers. These young men … are amateur ball players … a repetition of their conduct will precipitate action on the part of the Athletic Association …”

C.R. gets its own team

Black barnstormers made several more trips to Linn and Benton counties over the next few years, and by 1909 the appreciation of the local baseball community emboldened Clarence Williams to start a local all-black team, the Cedar Rapids Colored Giants.

Clarence “Baldy” Williams had been born into the baseball tradition in the small mining town of Buxton in 1886. Buxton baseball was deadly serious, and the amateur team, the Buxton Wonders, traveled to Kansas City three times between 1909 and 1911 to take on the unofficial national Negro baseball champions, the Monarchs.

In early 1909, Williams had been hired on as an usher at the new Majestic Theater, a vaudeville show house on Third Street NE, and he had brought his love of the game to his new home.

Each year until 1937, he would advertise in the local papers that he was organizing the team for the coming year and that any black ballplayer was welcome to try out.

Even that requirement was eased in years when there simply weren’t enough black players to fill the roster. For years, the squad included not only Clarence but his brother Adolph “Skinny” Wilson in the infield, Sinclair Packing’s Alnutt brothers, Alvin Hurst, Tim Mims, Les Ament and Lloyd and Leroy Capes. All the players labored during the day at whatever work they could find, whether it was at one of the meatpacking plants or for the city’s parks department or even shining shoes, before gathering in the early evening to practice and play the game they loved.

The Colored Giants were extremely successful. Piling into cars for weekend road trips throughout the summers, they played the local Cedar Rapids white squads as well as teams from across Iowa and surrounding states.

Every year they earned local praise not only for their athleticism and speed, but for their baseball intelligence.

The Cedar Rapids press often was racially blind when describing the Giants’ games, only seldom describing it as a “black” or “Negro” team. The team disbanded during the Great Depression, and Clarence Wilson went to work for the sheriff’s department. But the legacy of his teams and their players is a proud piece of Cedar Rapids history.

Negro League

By 1920, on the national level, Rube Foster had established the first formal Negro League, and black teams were forming throughout Iowa. A Chicago touring team, Gilkerson’s Colored Giants, made periodic trips through Muscatine, Davenport and the rest of Eastern Iowa.

In 1931, Gilkerson’s team came to Cedar Rapids and gave a young Hal Trosky his first chance to face quasi-major league talent. That 1931 Gilkerson’s team included aging Kansas City Monarchs star Hurley McNair and the ever-dangerous Walter “Steel Arm” Davis. They held Trosky hitless that day while dispatching Paul Speraw’s local squad.

Negro League teams regularly barnstormed through Cedar Rapids throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to Kansas City, Negro League teams like the Philadelphia Stars, the Memphis Red Sox and the Indianapolis Clowns played exhibitions in Cedar Rapids, and almost always enjoyed an enthusiastic welcome from a baseball-adoring public.

Breaking barriers

By 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues, Iowa’s two-sport superstar (and future football Hall of Famer) Emlen Tunnel had broken Cedar Rapids’ professional racial ceiling when he played six games for the Class C Cedar Rapids Rockets.

Two years after that, Arnie Green, and then Negro American League veteran Horace Garner a few years later, took the field in the local Manufacturers-and-Jobbers industrial league play.

Garner, in particular, had significant experience as a baseball desegregator. In 1953, the 29-year old Garner, along with 18-year old Felix Mantilla and a 19-year old power hitter named Henry Aaron, played a full season in the South Atlantic League. Not only were the three the first black players in that particular league, but the cities in which they played were some of the most segregated in the nation.

Yet Garner and his teammates held their ground. It was the league that ultimately relented.

Art Pennington

Garner played well in the M & J and was followed by perhaps one of the greatest black players ever to lace ’em up for a Cedar Rapids team. Art “Superman” Pennington played for the Cedar Rapids Indians in 1953 and 1954, just a few years from a Negro League career that had seen him play in three East-West All-Star Games.

Even at age 31, he more than held his own at Cedar Rapids, finishing second in the 3-I league batting race against competition that included future major league stars Roger Maris, Luis Aparicio and Earl Battey.

Pennington’s career spanned what might be called the Golden Age of the Negro Leagues, before full integration began to rob it of its young stars, and he played either with or against some of the greatest black players to ever take the field. He told stories of battles with Satchel Paige (Paige generally won), Alex and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, “Cool Papa” Bell and many others. He even faced a young Cuban pitcher named Fidel Castro during a stint in winter ball in Cuba.

In his own right, he was one of the greatest players, of any race, to play in Cedar Rapids.

Cedar Rapids enjoys a tremendous baseball history. Part of that narrative comes in the stories of the black players and the black teams that played here during the years before Jackie Robinson, and in some of the years after Robinson’s groundbreaking game.

Baseball history is, in part, both black and white. Tomorrow’s stories, though, will be told in color.

The Life and Times of Hal Trosky

He led the American League in Runs Batted In with 162 in 1936.  He is listed (by The Sporting News) as the unofficial (because the award did not exist until after World War II) American League Rookie of the Year for 1934.  In his first three seasons, he posted offensive numbers that rival those of Mike Trout in the latter’s early campaigns.  Yet his story has largely been consigned to the dark closets of baseball history.

Trosky was born in tiny Norway, Iowa, in 1912, and  grew up on a farm just outside the hamlet.  He was signed by local scout Cy Slapnicka, and went on to an abbreviated-yet- terrific career with the Indians and the Chicago White Sox.  He left baseball for good in 1946, and returned to Iowa to raise his family and sell agricultural real estate.  His story, of battling an array of the giants of the game’s history that included fellow first-basemen Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg, is the classic baseball tale.  Trosky was the farmboy-made-good.

McFarland and Co. (Jefferson, NC) will be publishing Trosky’s biography later this year (2016), and it is worth a read by anyone with an interest in the golden age of baseball.

First post: a quick review of industrial league baseball in Cedar Rapids in 20th Century

“I’m looking for a place to play, and I heard that all through the Midwest, towns have teams, and in some places they’ll find you a day job so you can play ball nights and weekends.”                             -Archie Graham, in the movie Field of Dreams

Archie Graham’s utopia may have never existed in total, but there was a baseball league in Cedar Rapids in the first half of the twentieth century in which baseball skill was occasionally part of a job description, and in which played men from eastern Iowa’s greatest generation.  The Manufactures and Jobbers (M & J) league started play in Cedar Rapids in 1924, comprising teams of full time workers, who doubled as after-hours baseball players, from some of the most prosperous companies in town.  Until the league’s final out, in 1963, it played a full schedule every summer at Daniels Park, not even stopping for World War II, and it embraced many of Cedar Rapids’ families.  The league has been gone for fifty years, with the last living players in their seventies or beyond, and the M & J story is fading, but the league was as much a part of the city’s history as the Brucemore estate or Mercy Medical Center.  In fact, the M & J has more in common with both of those institutions than you might realize.  It represented baseball for the people, played by and for the enormously talented players who lived in the area, and in many ways the M & J story is inextricably intertwined with the story of Cedar Rapids.

The talent in the league, especially at the semi-pro level, was dizzying.  Dozens of the league’s alumni and supporters played professional baseball at one time or another.  Hal Trosky, Sr., and Earl Whitehill both played a few games in the league, as did Mike Chartak following his big league days.  M & J alum Orie Arntzen, pitched in 32 games with the 1943 Philadelphia Athletics.  Hal Trosky, Jr., won a game in two appearances for the White Sox in 1958, and Dick Rozek pitched in more than thirty games over a five year period in the American League.  Eddie Watt was one of the more successful M & J veterans, pitching for the Orioles, Phillies and Cubs in the 1960s.  In addition there were others who logged significant time in the minors, including league star Ray Petrezlka, and Norway’s contingent of Ray Waychoff, Art Holland, and Joe Pickart.

Even those who did not make a living exclusively playing baseball left their personal marks on the league.  The retired owner of Iowa Midland Supply, R.J. Stephan, spent spring training in 1955 as a pitching prospect with the Brooklyn Dodgers in Vero Beach, Florida.  The Dodgers had an open spot for a left hander that year, the year in which the franchise would win its first World Series, and Stephan, just out of the U.S. Air Force at the time, had built a terrific pitching reputation.  He was beaten out by a nineteen year old prospect from New York named Sandy Koufax, but returned to Cedar Rapids and his Uncle Leo’s company, Midland Supply, and to the mound at Daniels Park.

Bill Quinby left the M & J and went on to some fame as a NFL official, working the sidelines in Super Bowl XIX, and Harold “Pinky” Primrose dedicated his life to the community as an educator and coach at Washington High School, and in 1980 was named “National High School Baseball Coach of the Year” by the American Baseball Coaches Association. That list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the cadre of prominent citizens in Cedar Rapids who helped make the M & J the league that it was.  If a family has been in Cedar Rapids for a few generations, chances are excellent that they have a connection to the league.

The M & J story is filled with stories of Iowa’s families, and the companies that sponsored teams in the league were the engines of Cedar Rapids’ growth.  The league has been gone for half a century, but the legacy remains part of eastern Iowa’s lore.

EARLY YEARS

 

While baseball likely spread throughout Iowa after the Civil War, professional baseball began in Cedar Rapids in 1890 with the entry of the Cedar Rapids “Canaries” in the Iowa-Illinois League.  From that time forward, although with a few breaks, the game became the predominant sport in the town and in the region.  The increasing national popularity of the game spurred development of local baseball teams and leagues to support the growing community’s need for recreational outlets, amateur baseball began even before 1890 with teams like the “Rough And Readys”, “B.C.R. & N. Railroad”, “Farmer’s Insurance” and “T.M. Sinclair”.    A 1915 article in the Cedar Rapids Republican headlines that the “Sixteenth Ave. Industrial Club voted to challenge the South Side Business Men’s Club to a five game baseball series.”[i]  It was amateur baseball, certainly, but in a private club setting.  It was played more for the members’ entertainment, but not truly available to the general population.

Following World War I, through the mid-1920s, there developed a national trend among larger businesses to offer their employees opportunities for recreation as one more tool in keeping unions from creeping into the workplace.[ii]  In 1924, in Cedar Rapids, this took the form of the Manufacturers and Jobbers league, an organized group of teams who played a published schedule at a common site.  The M & J rules required that a quota on each team’s roster be filled by actual employees of the respective sponsor, but the teams were allowed to recruit outsiders on a limited basis.

Those original company teams included, from the major firms in town, included Wilson Foods, a firm that had begun as the T. M. Sinclair Packing Company in 1870[iii], but later merged with Wilson and Company in 1913; heavy equipment producer LaPlant-Choate Manufacturing, which later became Allis-Chalmers; and Quaker Oats.  Over the years, the size of the league varied between four and ten teams, and the list of sponsors comprised businesses from Link-Belt/Speeder, which created a detachable-link chain belt drive for tractors and other heavy machinery, to Collins Radio and Iowa Electric Power and Light.  There is no complete set of records regarding the M&J, but the following companies sponsored at least one team in the league:

  • Cedar Rapids Engineering
  • Civilian Conservation Corps
  • Collins Radio
  • Ed’s Yankee Cutrate
  • Hall’s Clothes
  • Iowa Electric Power and Light
  • Iowa Manufacturing
  • Iowa Steel
  • John Beck’s
  • Kilborn Photo
  • LaPlant-Choate/Allis-Chalmers
  • Link-Belt Speeder
  • Me Too Foods
  • Midland Supply
  • Midwest Janitors
  • Penick and Ford
  • Peoples’ Bank
  • Quaker Oats
  • Rock Island Shops
  • Sanitary Dairy
  • Swab Motors
  • Universal Crusher
  • Wilson Foods

 

There may have been others, as well.  During the Depression era in the 1930s, teams might last only a season before dropping out of the league.  As an example, the then-growing local firm “Penick and Ford” did not play in 1936, and was replaced by a team from the federally-sponsored Civilian Conservation Corps for that year.  In 1938 only five teams played, but that number returned to six the following season.

There were some terrific players in the M & J in those first two decades.  Robert “Pinky” Fuller, for example, moved to Cedar Rapids in 1932 after a stint in the Army, and by the next year was starring on the Wilson Packing squad.  The St. Louis Cardinals took note of his ability and signed him to their Class D Sioux Falls (Nebraska State League) team for the 1935 season.  Fuller returned to Cedar Rapids following a severe shoulder injury that kept him from climbing the professional baseball ladder, but he switched his position to pitcher and returned to the M & J almost immediately.  He managed in the 1950s, and was a favorite quotable source for Gazette sports editor Gus Schrader.

Of all the teams in the M & J, however, Iowa Manufacturing was the goliath of the league, due in part to the talent on the field, but as much to the support from the firm’s owner, Howard Hall.   Hall and a business partner bought control of a foundry in 1919, and named the enterprise Iowa Steel and Iron Works.  Aware that, as of the early 1920s, less than 300 miles of all the roads in Iowa were paved, Hall shifted his company’s focus to building equipment that supported road improvement, and renamed the firm Iowa Manufacturing in 1923.  The spread of the automobile led to a general demand for better roads, and Hall’s firm became a leader in rock crushing and road construction and paving.  Iowa Manufacturing and Howard Hall both prospered.  Cedar Rapids’ sole site protected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Brucemore estate, was home to both Thomas Sinclair (who’s firm sponsored baseball teams and later became M & J powerhouse Wilson Packing) and Howard Hall, in just one more example of the connection of the league, and of baseball, to the community’s history.  When Hall passed away, his brother-in-law (and former M & J director) Beahl Perrine assumed control of Iowa Manufacturing.  Today, those names remain linked publicly in both the Hall-Perrine Foundation and Mercy Hospital’s world-class Hall-Perrine cancer treatment center.

In 1940, the company began sponsoring a team in the M & J.  “Howard Hall just loved baseball”, says long time league veteran and star “Pinky” Primrose.  Hall was the kind of businessman who genuinely cared about his employees, and he spared no expense in supporting Iowa Manufacturing on the diamond, even bringing in the occasional player whose day job amounted to little more than showing up for work.  As long as those workers played ball in the evenings, the labor/salary exchange worked well for both sides.  “Iowa Man” essentially dominated the league throughout the 1940s, but found stiffer competition in the 1950s, with Kilborn Photo, Midland Supply, Hall Clothes and Midwest Janitors all competing for the championship in various seasons.

By 1961, though, the age of the industrial baseball league, and semi-pro baseball  in general, was ending.  Though league president Jack Ogden used every tool in his box to keep the league afloat, the writing was – literally – on the wall.  “M-J league In Danger After 37 Years of Play” announced a Gazette story on April 6, 1961, and the league barely held on for two more seasons.  Despite an impressive pool of talent, including sluggers like Dick Stanford, the need for the company baseball teams evaporated.  In 1963, after forty uninterrupted seasons, the Manufacturers-and-Jobbers league closed up shop for the last time.

The league held a reunion of old-timers in 1978, attended by both Troskys, Ken Charipar, Lyle Pickart, Clarence “Junior” Walter, Bill Zuber, Glen Erger, and many of the others mentioned earlier.  As time has passed, however, many of those players are no longer around to keep the league alive in the collective memory of Cedar Rapids.  Today, in 2013, the youngest M-J living players are, at best, seventy years old, and most much older than that.

The M-J league was, arguably, one of the strongest semi-pro baseball leagues in America during its heyday in the first half of the Twentieth century, and the catalog of former players includes major- and minor-league baseball standouts.  It also encompasses a collection of names and families that not only built Cedar Rapids into the city that it is today, but who were the civic leaders that have made it one of the finest, growing communities in the nation.[iv]   Baseball was Cedar Rapids’ pastime, and the city played it well.

[i] Cedar Rapids Republican, May 7, 1915.

[ii] Harold Seymour.  Baseball: The People’s Game (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 236

[iii] Iowa Labor Collection: Register of the  United Food and Commercial Workers International Union

Local P-3 Records, 1915, 1920, 1933-1990.  Online:  http://www.culturalaffairs.org/shsi/libraries/ collections/iowa-city-center/iowa_labor_collection /Inventories/050.htm

[iv] http://www.smartertravel.com/photo-galleries/editorial/americas-best-cities-on-the-rise.html?id=200&photo=26067&max_photos=7