Monday, July 13, 2015

Mahlon Duckett, a tribute to the passing of a Negro League legend

Mahlon Duckett, one of the last living members of the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues, passed away Sunday at a Philadelphia area hospital. He was 92.

Duckett, a Philadelphia native who starred in track at Overbrook High School, was recruited an infielder with the Stars after playing semi-pro baseball for a local team. He shored up their infield for a decade from 1940-49 and finished his career in 1950 with the Homestead Grays as the league was on the decline. He was signed with the New York Giants in 1951, but whatever hopes he had of making the major leagues was derailed by a case of rheumatic fever right before he was to head out to training in Arizona. Sidelined for a year by the illness, his career was over.

Mahlon Duckett (center) at the 2008 Judy Johnson Tribute Night / N. Diunte

I first met Mr. Duckett in 2007 at the Wilmington Blue Rocks annual tribute to the Negro Leagues. Gregg Truitt, one of the chairs of the Judy Johnson Foundation graciously had me as a guest at his home for a pre-event ceremony with the players and their families. I sat down with him and after being greeted with a smile and handshake, we immediately connected. At the time, I was playing for the Roxborough Bandits, a semi-pro team in Philadelphia’s famed Penn-Del League. Once we started talking about the intricacies of playing the middle infield positions, I knew that I had made a friend.

Mahlon Duckett (r.) with the author in 2007 / N. Diunte

For the rest of the evening, I became Mr. Duckett’s go-to-guy, helping him get around the ballpark and on-field ceremonies. After the pre-game honors were done, I accompanied him to the autograph area, where I sat with him as he signed autographs for seven innings as a continuous stream of fans approached the table. During breaks in the action, we continued to talk baseball, as Duckett took pauses from signing just so he could finish telling me some of his vast encyclopedia of stories.

We stayed in touch after that evening, exchanging some photos from the event, a few letters in the mail, and subsequent phone calls. When I returned the next year, he told me that people who visited him at his assisted living home would always remark about the young gentleman in the photo with him. He said he was proud to display it.

In the following years, it became more difficult for Duckett to travel and slowly he watched his crew of fellow Philadelphia Stars dwindle with the passings of Bill Cash, Stanley Glenn, and Harold Gould. He made his final public appearance last month at the opening of the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Philadelphia.



We last spoke in 2013 and our talk returned to his career. Only 17-years-old when he joined the Stars, he told me that he was left to figure out most of the game by himself.

“In the Negro Leagues, you just played on your natural ability, that’s all,” he said during our 2013 telephone interview. “A couple of guys told me a lot of things that they thought would help me, but I never had any one individual say, ‘I’m taking you under my wing and teaching you this that and the other thing.’”

Some seventy years later, he chose to share one of his favorite stories that involved the great Satchel Paige. At an age when most ballplayers were trying to figure out graduating high school, an 18-year-old Duckett approached the plate with the game on the line against arguably the best pitcher in baseball history.

“I hit a game winning home run off of Satchel in Yankee Stadium in 1941,” he said. “I’ll never forget that; it was a great day, Yankee Stadium, about 45,000 people there. There were a lot of great things that happened in the Negro Leagues that a lot of people don’t know about. It was a great league with great ballplayers.”

For an excellent in-depth interview with Duckett, check out Brent P. Kelley's, "Voices From the Negro Leagues."

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