Tuesday, March 01, 2011

“Otey and Jackie: An Unlikely Rivalry”

“I was really curious if you remember anything about the tryout at Fenway for Jackie Robinson?”
“Yes, I know about that.”
“Do you remember it happening?”
“Yes, Cronin chose me - because I had good control - to throw batting practice to Robinson.”
“Oh, is that right?”

The first time I heard of Jackie Robinson’s 1945 tryout for the Red Sox, I was surprised that it had taken me so long to learn about it.  I was a Sox fan. I had read plenty about my team and its history. On top of that, I had read loads about baseball history; somehow I had just missed this episode.  I wasn’t alone, though.  I asked around and was surprised to find that there were plenty of heavy-duty baseball fans who didn’t know about it either.  

I learned some more about the Boston tryout and I found myself a tad proud.  Sure I would have been prouder if the Sox had signed Robinson.  But they didn’t. Neither did they sign the other two Negro Leaguers who tried out with him: Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams.   Isadore Muchnick, an official representing the city of Boston, my home town, made the tryout happen, though.  I liked that. I didn't get caught up in the guilt of the Red Sox not signing Robinson on the basis of his race.  To me, that was long in the past, a product of the time. Sure my team missed a historical opportunity and the chance to pick up a Hall of Fame player.  But so did every other team in the league, and every team in the other league, too - except the Dodgers.

What interested me most was an obscure baseball story about a long-ago era in American history. I saw in Muchnick an ambitious, right-thinking man who acted without regard for his image or reputation, who became an integral link in the chain of events that led to baseball’s integration.

The coincidence that Jackie Robinson, the man who almost exactly two years later broke the color barrier in baseball, was one of the players there for a tryout has long since elevated this story from mere historical footnote to a significant, if not too widely known parable. However it has been repeated, the moral has always been the same: the Red Sox were racists. They could have had Jackie Robinson, but they didn’t want him because he was black.

This was the front bookend on a long shelf of evidence of the hiring bias of the Boston Red Sox. I thought such a cut and dried view of the tryout was too easy. That was another thing that always got me.  It was a story that seemed to have been told wrongly for a long time. I decided I needed to find out more about what happened at that tryout.

The date and place I knew:  Fenway Park, April 16, 1945.  Why it happened and who was there was another matter.

The short of it was that some Boston politicians had pressured the local clubs on the issue of the color line. They rallied behind a City Councilman named Isadore Muchnick to compel the local Major League baseball teams (the Braves and the Red Sox) to audition black players while the color barrier still existed in baseball. The hope was that it would be a first step in breaking down that barrier. The Red Sox begrudgingly agreed, and the tryout happened. None of the three players were signed by the Red Sox. At its essence, that much of the story was mostly agreed upon.

In some versions Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey was there, in some he wasn’t. Those that had general manager Eddie Collins there usually had him indifferent to the whole affair.  Most of the accounts included manager Joe Cronin, but only to say he had his back to the field.

There were supposedly white players trying out that day too. And, depending on whose account you read, they numbered as many as fifty.

I was fascinated by the mystery of it all.  No one could agree on everything that happened. How could such an important event become so poorly understood? The official record of the tryout was so sparse that later accounts understandably offered conflicting and wildly differing descriptions. Even the Negro Leaguers themselves remembered few facts from that day or the week they spent in Boston leading up to the tryout. I quickly assumed that since there were so many different versions of what had happened that none of them could be true. I set out to find out what really happened.

I read every contemporary newspaper and magazine account of the tryout and came to the conclusion that only one of the writers was actually there.  Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier was instrumental in organizing the tryout, and likely wrote the only firsthand account of the day. To me his version was likeliest to get the facts right. Other versions of the story, many of which contradicted Smith’s account, were based on second-hand retellings and probably not as accurate.

Next, I read what baseball writers had written about it more recently, and found that nearly nobody had found a witness to the event.  This omission seemed strange to me. After all, people - lots of them - were there.  Of course the principals were long dead, but there had to be someone alive who remembered being at Fenway Park the day it happened. Or at least someone was alive who remembered talking to people who were there when it happened. Thus, I began my search for witnesses.

I asked just about anybody I could find associated with the Red Sox or baseball in general in 1945 and had learned nothing.

“Do you remember the tryout for Jackie Robinson at Fenway on April 16,1945?”  I asked Dave “Boo” Ferriss, the 1945 rookie sensation, who won 21 games on the mound for the Red Sox that year, what he knew about it.  He never heard of it.  He wasn’t called up until April 29, two weeks after the tryout. So he wasn’t around and he swore no one ever mentioned it to him.

I asked teammates Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky what they had heard of the tryout. Nothing again. They weren’t back from the war yet at that time. And if they had known anything about it, they had long since forgotten.

I asked former Fenway office boy, Monsignor Thomas Daly. He knew the ins and outs of everyone and everything that went on at Fenway Park in the mid-forties. He could still recite the address of almost every employee of the ball club in 1945 (including Lefty Grove’s in Lonaconing, Maryland).  Daly had attended the Negro League exhibitions at Fenway in the mid-forties, but he had never heard of Jackie Robinson auditioning for the team.

I even asked former Yankee General Manager, Lee MacPhail, now 93-years-old, who started working for the Yankees in 1945 when his father Larry became a co-owner of the team.  All I received back was a curt, non-memory of the event. “No. I never heard of that.”

When I finally dialed the number of the oldest living Red Sox player, and one of only two players from the 1945 Red Sox roster still living, I wasn’t expecting much.

My modest expectations were completely blown away with what I found.  Here was a 95-year-old, cup of coffee, war call-up named William Otis “Otey” Clark of Boscobel, Wisconsin, not just telling me that he had heard of the tryout, but describing important details of the day he threw to the Kansas City Monarchs shortstop and future trailblazer, Jack Roosevelt Robinson. He said, “Joe Cronin would say ‘take a little off’ and all of that.”

I recoiled.  I actually pulled the phone away from my ear and stared at the receiver, wondering if I had heard him right.  I wanted to believe Otey, but I had spoken to too many elderly former players, who remembered their careers frozen in great moments, and then filled in the missing details in no predictable order.  I have heard players say they saw plays while playing for teams they never played on.  I’m not being mean or even cynical.  They weren’t lying. They were aging. And age plays a funny trick on memory.

Over the years, there were minutiae of their days in the bigs they never even imagined someone else would care about. Why should they have remembered it all? So some obsessed fan, who called himself a writer, could call them up and ask them for instant recall, decades after these trivial things passed? Selfishly my answer was “yes”. I needed to know very obscure things about their playing days.  

To their credit, the men I spoke with always did the best they could, and very few said no.  But verifiable facts from them could be difficult to gain.

Truthfully, to be fair, just a few years ago, many of their stories could have easily entered the lore of baseball history - an old trunk full of dusty myths we love to hear and tell. In fact, lore was just what many of the stories of the Robinson tryout were based upon. Their most important details were misfitted hand-me-downs, reprinted on faith alone.

But with the recent advent of the internet, research has blown the dust off that trunk forever.  When I did these interviews last year, any story from a 1945 issue of the Pittsburgh Courier could have been read from my home. Hell, I could have read it on my phone! Facts were checkable, and many of the great old stories were now, sadly, being shown to have been inaccurate. The myths were being busted.

That was, at essence, why I began studying the tryout.  The mythology surrounding it had been taken as fact for so long, that the facts had been long ignored.  And here was a fact on the other end of the line:  Otey Clark pitched at the tryout for Jackie Robinson at Fenway Park in 1945.

My doubts about Otey faded; he seemed so sure. He described why he was there and at what time he came to the ball park.  He remembered talking with a black reporter and how Jackie hit.  He was right. He was there!  Otey got only one year in the majors, the highlight of which was beating Bob Feller at Fenway Park. A neat happenstance, though, gave him another very notable performance.  

Otey told me that his manager, Joe Cronin, called him up the day before and asked him to be at the ballpark at 10 am.  He explained, “Cronin chose me because I had good control.” When he got there, he dressed and went out to the bullpen to warm up.  According to Otey, Robinson hit well, but didn’t have a strong enough arm to play shortstop.  He said, “I didn't think he could throw from the hole behind third.”

What was Otey doing there? Later accounts of that day mostly had high school players and other amateurs on the field with Robinson, Williams and Jethroe.  Robinson even said later that he took it as a slight that he was made to try out with kids.  But Robinson didn’t even recognize the “old man” giving him tips in the batting cage, Hall of Famer Hugh Duffy. It’s very possible he would not have known who some of the current Sox players were.  

Wendell Smith’s story said that the Negro Leaguers shared the field with seven white aspirants, not high school kids. Could some of them have been Red Sox players? If so, it was unlikely that Smith would have recognized the Red Sox wartime call-ups either, since many of them had never played a major league game.  

Otey was the pitcher Smith described in his story as “an impressive, ambitious recruit”. He may have been trying to exaggerate the hitters’ performances by elevating the pitcher’s ability.  But at a month shy of thirty-years-old, Otey was still very ambitious to be a major leaguer, and he had some great games ahead of him.  Officially, he wasn’t a major leaguer, yet.  He wouldn’t be one until the next day, when he took the mound for the Sox in the seventh inning of the season opener at Yankee Stadium. There he pitched one-and-two-thirds no-hit innings with a strike out. His long aspirations were finally fulfilled.

As for being impressive, Otey impressed the Red Sox coaches well enough the previous fall. While pitching for the Red Sox AAA affiliate in Louisville, he threw thirteen innings with a dislocated kneecap he had suffered after being hit by a line drive from the first Baltimore Orioles batter he faced that day. “I’ve had worse than this playing football,” he said to his manager, Harry Leibold.

In 1945, he showed the Red Sox a flash of that toughness, when he beat Bob Feller 2-1 at Fenway Park on September 6, then shut out the A’s, also at home, on September 19. Both wins were complete games. In his next appearance, he gave up no earned runs in six and one-third innings of relief against the Yankees. Otey finished the 1945 season with four wins to four losses and a respectable 3.07 ERA.

In 1946, Otey found himself back in the minors, pitching with Louisville.  Louisville had won the American Association title, which meant they played the champions of the International League in the Junior World Series.  As fate would have it, in 1946 the International League champions were the Montreal Royals, whose star second baseman, Jackie Robinson, was just a year from being called up by the Dodgers.  I asked Otey if he exchanged any words with Robinson when they met again.  “Just hello,” he said.

Otey continued to play baseball for the next ten years or so, but never made it back to the majors.  At the age of ninety-five, he had very few memories of his only season with the Red Sox, aside from  pitching to Jackie Robinson and beating Bob Feller.

I was thrilled to find Otey and called him several times. Usually, he didn’t notice when I tested his memory by repeating the same questions. He just gave me the same answers every time.

Not only was Otey the oldest living Red Sox player, he was also the oldest living major leaguer born in Wisconsin. So, I contacted the Brewers in the hope of getting Otey a day of recognition at Miller Park.  It didn’t happen.  Otey politely declined to have anyone come to his home.

I last interviewed Otey on June 23.  On October 20, he passed away at his home in Boscobel, Wisconsin.  When I heard of his passing I felt terrible that I had never told anyone Otey’s story.  For some stupid reason, I thought I had time.

Please leave questions or comments, or let me know if you’d like a copy of Wendell Smith’s article about the tryout emailed to you.

This isn’t meant to be the story of what happened at the tryout; that will come later. I only wrote this to introduce Otey to baseball fans who might not yet know him.

I’m writing a book about integrated baseball in Boston, for which I will give periodic updates here. Please follow the blog or check in occasionally.  I happily welcome all feedback and new information.


jonathan eig said...

Great work! I'm looking forward to reading more.

Unknown said...

Great stuff, Chris! Keep up the good work.

Unknown said...

Otey is from my hometown, very cool story

Anonymous said...

My husband Don, nephew to Otey Clark, always said Otey had his days in the sun - pitching to Jackie Robinson- Otey said he could not get anything past Robinson - striking out Bob Feller, and rooming with Ted Williams. Where is that Field of Dreams?

...If You Ain't Got That Ring.