Showing posts with label Judy Johnson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Judy Johnson. Show all posts

Monday, July 13, 2015

Mahlon Duckett, 92, a Philadelphia Negro League legend dies

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 was a Philadelphia native who starred in track at Overbrook High School, where he was recruited as an infielder by 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 its decline. He was signed with the New York Giants in 1951, but his major league hopes were 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 his house guest 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 through the on-field ceremonies. After the pre-game honors ended, I accompanied him to the autograph area. 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."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Stanley Glenn, 84, Negro League catcher and president

Stanley "Doc" Glenn, a catcher with the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro Leagues died Saturday, April 16, 2011 due to natural causes at his home in Yeadon, Pennsylvania. He was 84.
Born Sept 19, 1926 in Wachatreague, VA, Glenn was a star at John Bartram High School in Philadelphia where he quickly drew the attention of the Stars Hall of Fame player / manager Oscar Charleston. Charleston signed him off of the sandlots in 1944 shortly after graduating from high school. Within a week of graduating, he was making $175 per month playing in the Negro Leagues.
Stanley Glenn (r.) at 2007 Judy Johnson Night / N. Diunte
Glenn played with the Stars through 1950, facing the likes of countless Hall of Famers in the Negro Leagues including: Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin, Ray Dandridge, Roy Campanella, Hilton Smith, and Willard Brown. He expertly detailed his recollections of not only his career, but of all of the greats he encountered in the Negro Leagues team-by-team in his 2006 autobiography entitled, "Don't Let Anyone Take Your Joy Away: An Inside Look at Negro League Baseball and Its Legacy."
His career, like many ballplayers at the time, was interrupted by World War II. He served as a technician in the Army Medical Corps during from September 1945 through November 1946, taking time off to play with the Stars when the opportunity presented itself. Upon his return from military service, he earned the nickname "Doc" for his physical therapy work performed during the war.
Glenn as a member of the Philly Stars
After Jackie Robinson's signing with the Brooklyn Dodger organization, many teams saw their top talent raided by major league organizations looking for the next baseball superstar. During the 1950 season, the hands of the Boston Braves scout Honey Russell reached down and signed Glenn to their Class-A affiliate in Hartford. As a catcher in the Braves organization, he faced stiff competition from the likes of Walker Cooper and Del Crandall. Nonetheless, Glenn played four seasons with Braves minor league outfits in Quebec, Lincoln, as well as Hartford before moving on to a career in the electrical supply business.
Glenn's Hartford teammate Gene Conley, who would go on to win championships in both MLB (Milwaukee Braves) and the NBA (Boston Celtics), was in his first year in pro ball when he pitched a game with Glenn as his catcher. Conley's performance that night was reminiscent of another lanky Negro League hurler.
"Stanley was my catcher the first season I played in A-ball," Conley recalled in a 2008 interview. "I liked him. I pitched a lot to him. I won my 20th game against Wilkes Barre. He was behind the plate when they gave me a night in Hartford. It was Gene Conley night. I pitched a shutout and beat Wilkes Barre 2-0 that night. After the last out, Stanley comes running out to the mound. Remember Podres jumping into Campanella's arms? He jumped up on me and said, 'I love you like a brother. You reminded me of Satch tonight!' He used to catch ol' Satch. I'll never forget that. It was a warm feeling. It was a good thing that he did; it made me feel good. The whole thing was nice. It was my 20th win, they gave me a night, and Stanley came out there and grabbed me. I tell people my first catcher told me I reminded him of Satchel Paige!"
Later in life with the resurgence of interest in the Negro Leagues, Glenn took the position as the president of the Negro League Baseball Players Association. He advocated for the rights of many of the former players and helped to create opportunities for them to share in the profits that many companies were making off of the renewed interest in the former league. He was a fixture at many events in the Philadelphia area, generously appearing to spread the word about the league and its history. 
Stanley Glenn Negro League Art Card / Author's Collection
Glenn was ceremoniously given his first baseball card by the Topps Company in 2007, when he was included in their Allen and Ginter set. His inclusion in the set opened up his career to a new generation of fans and collectors alike. He received a tremendous amount of fan mail after the printing of the card with requests for his signature and information on his career.
Mr. Glenn often appeared at the Delaware Blue Rocks annual Judy Johnson Tribute Night, where he graciously signed autographs and spoke about the history of Negro League baseball for many hours throughout the ballgame, often giving fans his home phone number to contact him with their questions. He was honored by the club in 2008 with special artwork bearing his image that was given to fans entering the stadium that evening. His passing dims another beacon that was able to illuminate the rich history of the Negro Leagues.
2010 Judy Johnson Tribute Night

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bill Deck's exciting journey through the Negro Leagues

About two weeks ago, I reported on the death of one of the oldest living alums from the Negro Leagues, former Philadelphia Stars pitcher Bill Deck. Deck passed away in Philadelphia at the age of 95 after an extended stay in a nursing home.

In November 2007 on a Friday afternoon after a long day of teaching, I decided to drive to Mr. Deck's home in North Philadelphia to see if he would be willing to talk about his baseball career. After a few knocks on the door, a tall, lithe man with a baritone voice appeared. He briefly questioned my purpose for the visit; when I told him what I was there for, he graciously invited me inside. I understood his initial skepticism as there was a horrific shooting of a cop the day prior about two blocks away at a nearby gas station. After entering, we spent close to two hours discussing his career in baseball, his World War II service, and his life after baseball. Upon discovering the news of his passing, I decided it was best to share visions of the career of another Negro Leaguer who has taken his stories to eternal rest.

Bill Deck - Philadelphia Stars
Deck became enamored with the national pastime after moving to Darby, PA from North Carolina at the age of ten.

“That’s when I became wrapped up in baseball," he said. "I would go to the games every day. We were what you would call ball chasers. We would get the foul balls and bring them back in. That was the good part.” A few years later, his family migrated across the Delaware County border into Southwest Philadelphia. It was there where he began playing baseball. “I started playing ball when I was 13 years old. We had moved to Southwest Philadelphia from Darby. They had a little team there, it was a mixed team, black and white. I was the only black on the team. When it came time to play against the other teams in our age group, they wouldn’t let me play. They said I was too good. I only played for special occasions, so I played with kids older than myself.”

A major opportunity arose when the family moved back to Darby. His neighbor was Ed Bolden, who was the owner of the Hilldale Daises (who would later own the Philadelphia Stars).

“I had access to every game that came there," he said. "It taught you the basics of baseball, you learned everything. We had a kids team in Darby, and they would allow us to play like on a Monday, because the big time baseball was on the weekends. They would allow us to play in the park, provided we cut the grass and to put the lines down. I learned more about that than the players did. You learned how to put down a pitcher's mound, the batters box, etc. You learned a lot by just being around.”

His memories of watching the legends play in Hilldale Park were vivid. His lauded the merits of shortstop Dick Lundy, who many feel belongs in the Hall of Fame.

“There was a player with the Bacharach Giants, this was when I was still young," he said. "I used to watch him, he was a shortstop, Dick Lundy. He was the best shortstop I’ve ever seen. He was so smooth. He made hard plays look easy. His rival, Jake Stephens, played for Hilldale. I used to compare the two of them. Jake Stevens was a good shortstop. He’d make an easy play look hard, kicking up dust and everything, but Dick Lundy was the opposite. He made hard plays look easy.”

Deck also had the pleasure of watching Hall of Famer Judy Johnson operate on an up close and personal basis with the Hilldale team. While many are quick to sing the praises of Brooks Robinson and fellow Negro Leaguer Ray Dandridge as the best at the hot corner, Deck offered up the Delaware native.

“I’d rate him the number one against anybody," he said. "He was actually that good. Nothing got past him. Being a kid, I was around 13-14 years old watching guys like that play; just to have a catch with him was the highlight of your life.”

As Deck spent more time around Bolden's squad, the more he learned and matured as a player. He eventually had his shot with the Philadelphia Stars in 1939. Deck described how he made his way into the Negro Leagues.

“They way you made your way in, people would notice you playing," he noted. "I was a pitcher. Hilldale had a pitcher, Red Ryan. He taught me how to throw the curveball. I perfected it so good, it drew everyone’s attention. As I grew older, I developed a few pitches and that’s when they gave me a chance to play.”

The person that opened the door for him was his former neighbor, Bolden.

“Ed Bolden wrote me a letter, and asked me if I would come to talk to him. And that’s how I got started.”

While his stay with the Stars was brief, he most memorable moment came during a stop in Iowa.

“The best game I ever pitched was on a Tuesday night," Deck recalled. "We had played in Chicago, and we stopped in Des Moines, IA. We had a night game. I didn’t start the game. We were playing the St. Louis Stars, one of the big teams out West. In the 3rd inning, the manager came in and asked me, 'Could you come in and stop these guys from hitting?' I said, 'I just pitched Sunday, what are you talking about, that’s only two days rest!' He told me, 'They’re making us look like chumps.' I replied, 'Ok, I’ll give it a shot. I don’t know how long I’ll last, ‘cause you know I just pitched Sunday.' Anyway, it was very warm that night, and I guess that’s what did it. From the 3rd inning to the 9th inning, I didn’t give up a hit. It was the greatest moment of my life. It was in the papers. There were big write-ups in the Des Moines paper the next morning. I went to the restaurant the next day and the people asked, 'Are you the guy who pitched last night?' It was quite a crowd at the game, so I said 'Yeah, it was me.'” 

Deck found his manager Jud Wilson to be very difficult to deal with. Wilson was a grizzled veteran who was known for his short fuse. He knew his days were numbered with Wilson at the helm.

“The manager of the team was Jud Wilson," he said. "He was a great third baseman. He was very hard to get along with. He didn’t like me at all I don’t think. In those days, the jobs were hard to come by. A rookie coming in, they were very choosy about who they wanted to play with them. If I come in, they’ve gotta move one of the old-timers. All of a sudden, here comes this kid to take his place. Anyway, that’s when he said, 'I’m going to send you down to the Bacharach Giants.'”

He continued to play until 1950, playing for the lesser known all-black semi-pro teams.

“I played for the Bacharach Giants and the [Philadelphia] Stars from 1939-1942," he said. "We played all up and down the East Coast. We’d go up to Connecticut and play. I got married in between. You had to have a job to boost the money up. We’d play in New Haven, come down the coast, play different teams. Around 1950, I finally stopped. I didn’t have that high hard one anymore. I played a little semi-pro after that. When I came out of the service, we moved to a little place called Lamont. I played with them in the Suburban League, to show them how to play ball. They’ve seen it [baseball], but they didn’t understand it.”

His playing career was interrupted by his military service in World War II. Deck spoke about how he was part of one of the pioneering Marine units in the service.

“I was one of the first black Marines in 1942," he said. "When they opened up the Marine Corp for Black Marines, I went to sign up in 1942 and became a Marine in 1943. It was separate. You could go in the Marines. They took three black guys from Germantown in the Marines. We were segregated right then. We had a different training camp. We went to Camp LeJune, and that’s where we took boot camp training.”

After returning from World War II, Deck moved to Lamont, PA. It was there where he was visited by another pioneer, Jackie Robinson.

“There was much buzz going on after Jackie Robinson. Jackie came to visit us in Lamont and explained to us about baseball. One of the fellows that lived up there knew someone who knew Jackie Robinson and he asked if Jackie could come to speak to us. That was in 1947.”

He also sensed that Robinson's breaking of the color line spelled the end for Negro League baseball.

“I knew that would break the Negro Leagues down. Everyone from kids on up they were thriving to go into the majors, black and whites. That little team we started in Lamont, a lot of those kids, the big leagues would look at them, send scouts out, and send them to farm clubs.”

After baseball, Deck went into the field of masonry, which he attributed to his longevity.

“[After baseball] I took up bricklaying," he said. "I put in 25 years. When I got married, I bought a farm in Wildwood, NJ. I bought that place in 1952. We kept it until 1993. We’d go out there and spend time on the shore, Rio Grande, NJ. It was getting too much for me to keep the place looking decent. My wife told me to sell it, and we went back to Philadelphia. After that I’ve just been retired.”

At the time of the interview, the 92-year-old Deck still felt that he could get around pretty well.

“I like to go around places. I had to stop driving. That’s a drawback. I’m going back to the doctors to see if they can help my eyes to see if I can get licensed again. My doctor told me physically I am in good enough shape. The years of bricklaying helped.”

In the mid 1990s, Deck ran into a familiar face while visiting a museum in downtown Philadelphia. He couldn't believe what he saw.

“I went down the museum once, down at 7th and Arch, the Negro Museum," he said. "I saw this big picture on the wall, I said, 'That’s a picture taken at Parkside in 1939.' This lady that ran the museum at the time, she told me to come into her office, she wanted to talk to me. She asked me a lot of questions, almost like you are doing. I told her, 'On this picture there, that’s me right there! She asked, 'Do you mind if we keep this?' I said, 'Sure.' I had seen this picture before, but I hadn’t noticed it this closely. They enlarged it and had it hanging up. A few guys I knew down there said, 'Deck, do you know they have your picture hanging at the museum?' This was about ten years ago. I remember when that picture was taken. Right away, it brought my mind back to 1939.”

Long after Deck threw his final pitch, he admitted that baseball had never left him.

“You get it in your blood and it stays there forever," he said. "I watch spring training when they televise it. I followed baseball all of these years. I’ll turn away something else to get to a baseball game. And you almost know what’s going to happen. It’s instinct or something.”

Only later in his life did Deck gain some fanfare for his accomplishments almost 60 years prior.

“Lately, I get a lot of mail," he said. "I never would have believed it. When it first started, they used to send us letters from Buck O’Neil. They used to send us a check twice a year. All of the black players, the ones that were living, but they stopped that.”

When asked about how he wanted to be remembered, Deck was humbled by the thought of it.

“I just want to be remembered as being out there trying to play. The thought of being remembered means a lot.”