Sunday, October 2, 2016

Jim Zapp, Negro League teammate of Willie Mays, passes away at 92

Jim Zapp, a star outfielder for the 1948 Negro American League Champion Birmingham Black Barons, passed away Friday September 30, 2016 in Harker Heights, Texas. He was 92.

Born April 18, 1924 in Nashville, Tennessee, Zapp attended a Catholic school that lacked a baseball team, so ironically his first real exposure to the game wasn't until he enlisted in the Navy during World War II. Stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1943, Zapp played third base for their black baseball team. His abilities caught the attention of Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones, a former All-American football player at the University of Pittsburgh who was coaching the white team on the base. Zapp made history when Jones selected him to integrate his team.


Jim Zapp with the Birmingham Black Barons / Author's Collection

After returning to the United States in April 1945, Zapp was stationed in Staten Island, New York. Due to the good fortune of a recommendation from a base teammate, Zapp had his first taste of the Negro Leagues when he joined the Baltimore Elite Giants to play on the weekends. His teammates included Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, whom Zapp recalled in Neil Lanctot’s “Campy,” that the catcher used to, “like to sit on the back wheel,” during bus rides.

Zapp played with the Elite Giants through 1946 before returning home briefly as a member of the Nashville Cubs. After one season with the Atlanta Black Crackers in 1947, he joined the Black Barons in 1948 off the strength of a recommendation of a player in the league. It was there in Birmingham in 1948 that things came together for Zapp and his teammates. Buoyed by a squad that included an outstanding double play combination in Piper Davis and Artie Wilson, Zapp provided much needed power to a lineup that included a 17-year-old center fielder by the name of Willie Mays. Zapp was one of many mentors to the talented teenager, and the news of his passing greatly touched the now 85-year-old Hall of Famer.

“Willie took it really hard,” his son James Zapp Jr. said in during a phone call Sunday afternoon. “His secretary e-mailed me yesterday; he’s going to write a letter that he wants read at my dad’s funeral.”

Zapp saved one of his greatest performances for the 1948 playoffs. In Game Three of the Negro American League Series against the Kansas City Monarchs, Zapp hit a game-winning ninth-inning home run to lead the Barons to a 3-2 victory. Unfortunately, he could not carry that magic into the World Series, as the Barons succumbed to the Homestead Grays 4-1 in a best of seven series.

At the close of the season, members of the Barons were invited to barnstorm with the Jackie Robinson All-Stars as well as the Indianapolis Clowns. Zapp was offered a spot with the Clowns, which he declined on the basis of a reduced draw. Years later, speaking with author Brent P. Kelley in, “The Negro Leagues Revisited,” Zapp lamented about his decision to leave the team.

“I told them to just give me my release,” Zapp said. “That’s probably one of the biggest mistakes I made in my life.”

He came back to Nashville to play semi-pro ball after parting from Birmingham. Not completely done with the game, he went for another round with the Elite Giants for two years from 1950-51 until he was signed into organized ball.

Zapp with the Big Springs Broncs / Author's Collection
Right away Zapp turned heads with his prodigious power while playing for the Class D Paris Lakers, crushing 20 home runs with a .330 batting average in 1952. Zapp’s terror of minor league pitching continued in 1954 when he set a Longhorn League record by swatting 32 blasts in only 90 games for the Big Springs Broncs. He played one more season in 1955 with Port Arthur and Big Springs before hanging it up for good.

Zapp stayed involved in sports after finishing his professional baseball career, serving as an athletic director at multiple military bases until his 1982 retirement. He continued to share his knowledge of the game through coaching and umpiring for an additional 20 years. With the Negro Leagues experiencing a resurgence in popularity throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Zapp frequently attended reunions and was honored with multiple baseball cards, including one in 2010 by Topps, as well as his own Hartland statue.

Within the last year, Zapp experienced a renaissance of sorts rarely seen by nonagenarians. In January 2015, Zapp Jr. sent correspondence indicating that due to his father’s advancing Alzheimer’s condition, that his grim prognosis could no longer allow him to accept fan mail. Amazingly, 18 months later, not only was Zapp alive, but Bill Nowlin reported in a July 2016 National Pastime Museum article, that Zapp’s condition had actually improved due to his family stepping in and altering his treatment.

“It’s been a little over a year since I took him off that medication and it worked out great,” Zapp Jr. said. “It got to the point where it was great to come see him because he was back to himself.”

Early in the morning on September 30, 2016, his son received a call from his father’s caregivers that his dad passed away. Sadly, the elder Zapp had premonitions that it was soon to be his time to go.

“He said he wanted to lay down awhile before he had breakfast,” Zapp Jr. said. “They put him back in his bed in his clothes and 20-30 minutes later, he was gone. He made a comment to them the night before that he wasn’t going to be around much longer. He was at peace.”

To be able to have that last year with his father’s improved condition and care meant the world to the Zapp family. They watched in amazement recently as Zapp reconstructed memories 70 years ago about his baseball career.

“He could remember things in the past that I was astonished that he could remember,” Zapp Jr. said. “A great era just came to an end.”

Funeral services will be held at Heritage Funeral Home in Harker Heights at 10AM on October 6, 2016.

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