Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Butch McCord leaves behind a baseball legacy of a lifetime

Butch McCord - Louisville 1957
Baseball lost another great ambassador last week with the passing of Clinton “Butch” McCord. His baseball career spanned from 1948-1961, starting in the Negro Leagues with the Baltimore Elite Giants. reaching as high as Triple-A for four seasons. Let Butch McCord narrate the story of his baseball career, however, he’d reply with a more modest answer.

“I call myself a backup singer,” McCord stated in a 2009 interview. “You know what that is? [You] sing good, but nobody watches you. That's the way I was in baseball. When I was playing, there were only eight teams in each league. It was hard to even get a break.”

For McCord, he almost didn’t even have a chance to play the game that he loved so much. In addition to growing up in the segregated south prior to Jackie Robinson’s signing, neither his high school nor his college, Tennessee State University had a baseball team. It was only through the intervention of one of his football coaches that McCord moved to baseball.

“I was a football player at TSU. I learned baseball from playing in the sandlots. We won the Negro National Championship in 1946. In 1947, Jackie signed and one of our football coaches said, ‘If I were you, I wouldn't play anymore football.’ So I signed with Tom Wilson, who had one of the few black owned ballparks here in Nashville, Wilson Park,” McCord revealed.

Wilson’s untimely death in 1947 put a damper on McCord’s plans to join the Elite Giants. “He asked me to play in 1947, but he died in 1947. His secretary that took over told me to stay and play with the Nashville Cubs. I stayed and played first base for them.”

True to their word, the Elite Giants signed McCord for the 1948 season, but there was a twist. He was going to be playing the outfield, a position he had never played before. McCord described his entry to the legendary ball club. “When I played for Baltimore, they had a first baseman by Johnny Washington, so Henry Kimbro “learned” me how to play the outfield. With them, I played right field.”

In Baltimore, he found himself surrounded by a bevy of talented players, better than any assembly he would play with, including at the Triple-A level in the Dodger organization. “We had such a good team in Baltimore. We had Joe Black, Leon Day, Pee Wee Butts, Henry Kimbro, Junior Gilliam, and Lennie Pearson with us. That was the best team of all the teams I played for,” explained McCord. He probably was right. Day went on to the Hall of Fame, Black and Gilliam were both Rookie of the Year award winners for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Butts, Kimbro and Pearson were repeat All-Stars in the Negro Leagues.

Like many others who entered the Negro Leagues, McCord experienced baptism by fire during his debut. "My first game in 1948 with Baltimore was against the Homestead Grays. Buck Leonard was at first base, Sam Bankhead was at shortstop, Luke Easter was in the outfield and Luis Marquez was in center field," McCord recalled. "I hit a ball to the left side, a slow ball down the left side. I was a left handed hitter, so I thought, 'I got this one made.' I thought I could run. He [Bankhead] threw me out by about two steps! I said to myself, 'Welcome to the Negro Leagues!'"

If facing the legendary talents of the Negro Leagues wasn't difficult enough, McCord and his teammates endured the Jim Crow laws to persist in playing baseball. McCord told a story when his white teammates with the Chicago American Giants weren't allowed to take the field. "When I was with the Chicago American Giants, we integrated in reverse. One of the white players was Louis Chirban, he was my roommate," remarked McCord. "We go to Birmingham; Willie Mays was still playing with them. Before we got off the bus, the police chief said, 'I hear you have some white players on the team. If you put them in uniform, I will close the concessions and close the ballpark; they'll be no game here tonight.' The white players asked, 'Well can we sit on the bench?' The chief said, 'You have to sit in the stands with the white folks.'" That was the way of life in South. We dodged it a lot of times."

In 1951, McCord signed with the Paris Lakers of the Class-D Mississippi-Ohio Valley League. He feasted on the pitching in the league, batting .363 in 1951 and an astounding .392 in 1952. So beloved was McCord in Paris, that he was honored with a "Clinton McCord Night" that featured Harry Caray who was a young broadcaster for the St. Louis Cardinals at the time.

His fine play saw him promoted to Denver of the Class-A Western League, where he played stellar defense at first base and batted .358 in 1954. One of his teammates in Denver would go on to make the Hall of Fame as a manager, Earl Weaver, who McCord described as a "pepper-pot" and one of the main contributors to their pennant winning season. It was McCord's steady play that would send him off to Triple-A the following season, one step away from the "big show."

McCord would spend the next three seasons (1955-57) at the Triple-A level playing for Richmond, Columbus and Louisville. He posted batting averages above .258 all three seasons and earned a reputation for being one of the top glove men in all of minor league baseball. It was during this time that McCord would reconnect with one of the biggest stars of the Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige.

"The biggest crowd in the minors was the game we played in Miami. There were 55,000 people. It was a benefit game. I got two hits off of him. I got a triple off of him when I was 16. The ones in Miami didn't count; he was an older man then. His main thing was his control by that time."

By 1958, McCord was already 33 years old and fading away from prospect status. That didn't prevent McCord from holding on to his passion. He signed with the Class-A Macon Dodgers, who at the time was managed by Danny Ozark. Ozark would go on to manage many years in the major leagues with the Philadelphia Phillies. When asked about McCord in a 2008 interview I conducted, the late Ozark responded, "I had Butch McCord in Macon. He was a super guy. Good contact hitter, didn't strike out much. He hit over .300. He became the most popular player on the team and the MVP."

McCord would spend a few more seasons in the Dodgers organization, bouncing between Double-A and Triple-A until retiring after the 1961 season with Victoria of the Texas League. He earned two Silver Glove awards for his wizardry around the first base bag. Even until they had to take the uniform off of his back, McCord still thought he had a chance to break through. “I always thought I’d do my best and somebody would give me a chance. Even when I decided to retire, I always thought I was going somewhere.”

McCord returned to Nashville and worked for the United States Postal Service until his retirement in 1988. He remained a fixture in Nashville area baseball, working tirelessly with the Nashville R.B.I. program to promote baseball to the youth in the urban area. He had the baseball field at Tennessee State University named after him following his efforts to revive the program.

McCord wanted to leave me with some advice regarding his longevity. The following words serve as an example of his humor and spirit. "I've been married 58 years to the same woman. I always ask the youngsters, 'Do you know how to be 83 like me? Do you have an idea how you can get there?' Here's the punchline. 'Just don't die.' Going to church, not drinking and all of that is fine, but you can have an accident and die. If you don't die, you might make it!" Don't worry Butch, you made it and in a way much louder than any backup singer could.

More Information -

Clinton "Butch" McCord - The Marsh Collection

McCord recalls his time with the Paris Lakers - Tribune Star

0 comments:

Post a Comment