Showing posts with label Butch McCord. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Butch McCord. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Butch McCord leaves behind a baseball legacy of a lifetime

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.

Butch McCord - Louisville 1957
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

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Danny Ozark, 85, Phillies Manager, WWII vet and Dodgers farmhand

Death is never a timely thing, especially when there are questions that are left unanswered. I was left with many when the news broke of Danny Ozark's passing on May 7, 2009. A few months earlier, I had interviewed a spry Ozark on his cell phone for almost an hour about his baseball career and his attempts to ascend through the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Ozark, like many others of his era, was whisked away from professional baseball to serve in World War II, only to return to a crowded minor league system that was about to experience the effects of integration.

Danny Ozark / Topps
Ozark entered professional baseball in 1942, starting out as a second baseman for Brooklyn's Class D team in Olean. It was there where he was teammates with a future Brooklyn Dodger, Cal Abrams. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted into the Army.

"I was in the Army, and we landed in Europe on D-Day," Ozark said in 2008. "I received the Purple Heart in St. Laurent, France and got out in 1945. I spent three years in WWII, all of them in Europe. I never saw a baseball during WWII. I wasn't even sure I was going to go back [to baseball]."

Ozark described just what it was like to be there on D-Day.

"Well, it was I guess, the way alot of people ask me, and the best thing I probably said was, 'My underwear was very dirty and I didn't have a chance to change it for two weeks.' We were scared like everyone else, but we were young kids and alot of that stuff didn't bother us. Once you've seen death and people dying slowly, things like that stay in your memory. I can still visualize guys drowning after getting out of LCT's (landing craft tanks), because the water was deeper than they anticipated. Some of the guys that went down with the 60 lb. tanks drowned and we never saw them again." 

He was wounded in combat and later received a Purple Heart for his bravery.

"I received a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds off of an artillery shell," he said. "The other battle we were in was the Battle of the Bulge. I spent time in Antwerp while the bulge was coming towards us because of the shipping they had in the docks where all of our equipment came in."

Returning from WWII in the winter gave Ozark very little time to prepare himself for spring training.

"When I got home in December 1945, my brother didn't go into the service and I played basketball with him until spring training," he said. "I got my legs in better shape than I had them before, but I never got to throw or anything like living in Buffalo [in the winter]."

Ozark, as well as many others returning from the war found themselves behind the curve entering Florida in February of 1946. They were also walking into history unfolding before their eyes.

"I didn't even pick up a baseball you know. Brooklyn sent me a contract to report to Spring Training in February. They brought us down to Sanford, Florida. That's where Jackie [Robinson] came in, right near Daytona Beach. It was the first time I got to meet him too. We were in spring training together in '46. Heck, the first week we started playing exhibition games. I got a sore arm like everyone else. We couldn't throw the ball, yet they kept pushing us. It took time to get our arms in shape, our bats to hit the ball, and for us catch the ball because we never played baseball [during the war]."

There was immediate competition from the players that lived on the West Coast and those that spent their military service playing baseball.

"Guys in the service, especially in the Navy, some of them played with teams in exhibition games where the war was going on, guys like [Bob] Feller, Virgil Trucks, etc. We had so many guys coming from California where they can play year round. They were so far ahead of us in spring training, fielding, hitting, throwing, as far as baseball was concerned. It took us a whole month to catch up, sometimes longer because so many players in the service came out and reported. Pitchers hurt their arms because they threw too soon. [Branch] Rickey wanted to see how hard you could throw. We didn't have the doctors like they have today where you could mend in a short time and bring it back like it used to be."

At one point during that 1946 spring training, there were over 600 players in camp. Ozark marveled at the talent that was there.

"There were so many guys that could have surely made it," he said. "It wasn't that there was a shortage of talented players, there was a shortage of roster spots for them in the majors."

The problem with having so many players in camp was due to the reserve clause; you weren't free to leave for another team that could use your services.

"We were in there like a bunch of slaves," he recalled. "That was for every major league team. We had farm system, and you couldn't leave them unless they released or traded you. [Brooklyn] wouldn't listen to you. They said, 'Hang on and you'll get your opportunity'."

For Ozark, that opportunity never came. After returning from WWII, the Dodgers converted him from a second baseman to a first baseman. Not only was he behind Robinson at first base [in 1947], when Robinson moved over to second base, he was stuck behind another Dodger mainstay, Gil Hodges. He looked back at what was a hopeless situation.

"Every year, I was stuck behind Gil Hodges. Where could I go?"

He felt like he had at least one supporter in the long time Dodgers executive Fresco Thompson.

"Fresco Thompson did the most for me," he said. "He helped me along quite a bit. He gave me a rule book. He said, 'You read this thing, and as your career goes on this thing will come in as handy as you can imagine.' He admired my family. He liked me and kept visiting me wherever I managed. I felt like I was going to get a shot to going up there [to Brooklyn]."

He did the best he could playing out the string in the Dodgers farm system, experiencing a few brushes when he thought he was going to get called up.

"The closest I thought I was going to get was in 1953. I always played against the big club in exhibitions, but they never took me though if they had an A or B game. Brooklyn needed a third baseman at that time, as they had [Don] Hoak and [Don] Zimmer [in Montreal]. I think finally they picked up Billy Cox and he was struggling too that year. I was hitting really well and Fresco came to the ballpark to watch me. I asked Tommy Holmes, 'Why did you put me at third base? I had no time there.' He said, 'Just to give you a change, we had Clint Weaver at first base, he was left-handed'. I wondered after all of these years if Fresco Thompson was looking at me to play third base." 

A few years later, Ozark thought that opportunity was once again knocking on his door.

"In '55, the same thing happened," he said. "I was sure I was going to go in '55. Hodges was having a tough year and they needed a third baseman and a first baseman. Thompson came again [to see me], but Frank Kellert took my place in '55. I'm almost 100% sure that is what happened."

Ozark batted over .300 in both AA and AAA. He was also among the league leaders in home runs every season. At times he felt like he was getting used to shore up the farm teams of the Dodgers instead of getting a shot at the big league club.

"You take the Kansas City team of the Yankees," he said. "[Lew] Burdette was there. I used to wear those guys out. They had [Moose] Skowron and [Bob] Cerv on their way up. These guys looked at me like, 'What is this guy doing down here?' You could have said, 'I guess I'll never make it,' but I never gave up. I just played to win."

He seemingly played for every farm club in the Dodgers organization, moving around so much that he almost hung it up in 1950.

"They sent me from AAA to Class B [Newport News] and then I went to Elmira [Class A]. It seemed like every time they sent me somewhere, it was a losing proposition. They sent me there to build up the team. We won the pennant in Neport News, I was the most valuable and popular player. In Elmira in 1950, I went back to St Paul, made two-to-three trips out of St. Paul [to Ft. Worth]. We really liked it there [St. Paul]. Our first child was born there in 1949. In 1950, they sent me to Elmira. That was when I was close to saying goodbye. They called me back to St. Paul though, and I kept going."

As we returned to discuss Jackie Robinson and the topic of baseball's integration, Ozark brought up two pioneers in their own rights, Hall of Famer Willard Brown and Clinton "Butch" McCord. Both were alumni of the Negro Leagues, and Brown holds the distinction of being the first African-American to hit a homerun in the American League. While Brown sputtered in his short trial with the St. Louis Browns in 1947, Ozark saw flashes of greatness from the 40 year-old player in the Texas League that Puerto Ricans labeled "Ese Hombre".

"I was in a home run contest with Willard Brown," Ozark recalled. "They gave us 10 swings, he beat me 9-8. He was kind of a hot dog. He could run, but never energized himself. He had a good arm and good power."

He explained how McCord's inspired play in heavily segregated Macon, Georgia mesmerized the fans.

"I had Butch McCord in Macon," he said. "He was a super guy. A good contact hitter, he didn't strike out much. He hit over .300. He became the most popular player on the team and the MVP. He was pretty close to 30 years old when I had him, and wasn't the one the organization was watching to replace Hodges at first base."

Towards the end of our discussion Ozark reflected on his coaching and managerial days in baseball.

"I retired in 1984 from managing after getting 20 years in the pension for being a major league coach and manager. I still worked for the Giants as a scout, reporting to Tom Haller who was the GM at the time. I worked for the Dodgers all my life until '72. I went back with them from '80-'82, coaching in the World Series versus the Yankees which we won in 1981. I was in three World Series with them. As I look back, five of us from the 1955 Fort Worth team, Sparky [Anderson], Dick Williams, Norm Sherry, Maury Wills, and myself all went into managing. Talk about a lineup!"

Ozark, as many others from his generation shook his head about how modern pitchers rarely throw a complete game.

"Alot of guys that are pitchers now can't finish games because the pitching coaches are counting clickers all games. The only person that knows when it is time to come out is the man upstairs. How can you apply the same rule [100 pitches] to each pitcher? We have two different bodies, you live differently, you have different eating habits, take different vitamins, etc. How can you tell whose arm can last longer?"

He cited changes in the height of the pitching mound, as well as increases in strength training as reasons for pitchers being injured more frequently.
 
"Today, guys like Clemens lift 300 lbs. In my day, you couldn't lift a feather. You had to have loose limbs. They can throw harder, yet they are tearing muscles more, due to the extra strength training. The big factor in pitching came when they changed the dimensions of the mound, when they flattened it out. They're using more of their arm instead of their legs and back, going downhill. Who would have thought that someone like Spahn would pitch the way he did for that many years? Now these relievers can't go more than one inning and get hurt. The mound has an effect and the baseball itself. They'll never raise the mound again because people want to see action."


Living in Vero Beach in 2008 gave him the opportunity to visit Dodgertown for the last time before the Dodgers moved to Arizona. The thought of the Dodgers moving signaled an end of an era to Ozark.

"It was sad to see the Dodgers leave Dodgertown, as I spent alot of time there with the organization," he said. "I went to Dodgertown the last year to watch a few games, and to visit Joe Torre, Tommy Lasorda, and Larry Bowa."

Ozark spent over 40 years in baseball as a player, coach, manager and scout. A baseball lifer and World War II veteran, he was a true hero and gentleman in every sense of the word. Some reporters had commented that Ozark was "too nice," when he managed the Phillies in the 1970s, but after speaking with him I couldn't imagine Ozark any other way. We could have kept on going that afternoon, but I felt that I had already occupied enough of his time. Upon ending the interview, Ozark left me with these final words.

"Anytime you need me, you give me a buzz,"  he said.

I wrote him three days before his death to see how he was doing. I can only wonder if he received my letter before he passed.

Rest in peace Danny Ozark. The man upstairs might need some good counsel on when that pitcher needs to come out.

 

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