I was going through some old files the other day and I came across my birth certificate. It’s a real mess. I have seen enough of my Dad’s handwriting to be reasonably certain that he filled out the top part with all the particulars. They had decided to call me Jack, so he wrote in “Jack Paul Rice.” Then, the “Jack” was scratched out and “Jackson” was inserted high on the line between “Paul” and “Rice.” I had noticed all that years earlier. I used to kid that if I had been the oldest, I would have been worried about my legitimacy (back when people worried about things like that).
The thing I did notice for the first time was the listing of my father’s occupation. It simply said’ “Base Ball Player.” Isn’t that something? I suspect not too many people have listed baseball player as their father’s occupation on their birth certificate. But it also made me feel guilty because I didn’t know much about his baseball career. By the time I started to kindergarden, his career was over and it was just something that never got discussed in great detail. I knew he had gone to Spring Training with the Chicago Cubs when he was only 19. He played for the Little Rock Travelers for a few years, managed and played for the Lenoir Reds and ended his career with the Albany Senators.
Dad was a catcher. We were all catchers (my brother, Bill, and yours truly). Dad taught us the footwork to stop wild pitches, to catch foul balls and to throw out runners bunting for a base hit. Footwork is absolutely critical. So now, as an old-timer, I drive my wife, Carole, crazy talking about mistakes made by catchers on TV. She likes baseball, but sometimes I drive her out of the room by running a play over and over with the remote control. One announcer said that Yadier Molina (the superstar catcher for the Cards) was such a good defensive catcher because he had confidence. Confidence? It’s footwork (and a rocket for an arm).
Dad died over twenty years ago and I still miss him. After retiring from professional baseball, he became the National Sports Director for the Junior Chamber of Commerce. He formed what was called the Jaycee League and many kids throughout the nation, ages 10 to 15, played Jaycee baseball through those formative years.
After Dad died, I obtained what would barely pass for his scrapbook. I had looked at it a few times, but never studied it. So I decided to dig in. What a mess. What is so difficult about chronological order? All those great newspaper articles regarding his high school success, Muny League success and professional career glued on to pages where there happened to be room. Some going up and down, some going sideways. And, no dates whatsoever. But I hung in there.
Dad played high school football for East St. Louis Senior High School. He was an All-State left end at 5 foot 8 inches and 167 pounds. Did I mention that my Dad was tough? They were undefeated, but lost the Conference championship because they tied two games and Granite City only tied once. But, as my Birth Certificate stated, he was a base ball player. While still in high school, he was playing semi-pro ball in what was called the Muny League. He was 16 and a star. When he graduated, he went to Alabama and caught for their freshman team. Dad insisted that they batted him ninth, because he was a Yankee.
When Dad was 19, while playing in what was called the Trolley League (another semi-pro league covering Illinois and Missouri), he was observed by the Chicago Cub manager, Charlie Grimm. Grimm liked what he saw and invited Dad to Spring training with the Cubs on Catalina Island. Spring training with the Cubs at 19. Heady stuff. Most of the players took the same train from Chicago to California. Dad joined them in Kansas City. One article I read said that “Puffy” Rice was all over the train with his checker board “looking for victims to play him.” He never lost. Did I mention that Dad was competitive?
After Spring Training, Grimm farmed Dad out to the Little Rock Travelers. He was with them for three years and then moved to Columbia, South Carolina and into the Cincinnati Reds organization. He caught for the Columbia Reds in 1937 and 38. In 1939, he was catching for the Waterloo Red Hawks in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League. In the 11th inning of one game, the opposing catcher interfered with Dad’s bat. That should have automatically given Dad first base. However, the umpire insisted that he didn’t hear anything. Dad told the umpire that he knew he was blind, but that was the first admission from the umpire that he was also deaf! Dad got the rest of the night off.
In 1940, Dad was the player/manager for the Lenoir Reds in the Tar Heel League (managing at the age of 26). You know you can go on line and find out all about the players for the Lenoir Reds in 1940. It turned out he hit .329 that year. He had also been designated a scout for the Cincinnati Reds. The next year, he was the player/manager for the El Dorado Oilers in the Cotton State League. He hit .348 for the short time he was with them.
Dad was relieved of his duties as El Dorado manager and became a free agent. A Cincinnati scout named Frank O’Rourke notified the Albany Senator’s manager, “Specs” Toporcer that Dad was a free agent. He said, “Don’t know whether you can sign him to a contract, but if you can you will get a better than fair catcher.” He did sign with the Senators and we drove 1,600 miles in three days to join the team in Elmira, New York. Keep in mind that there were no interstate highways. And, you could figure that a tire would fail every 500 miles. Mom used to say that back then, I would scream every time they took me near a car. After that experience, at age three, I now understand my actions.
Dad’s lasted two years with the Albany Senators before his career ended. Back then, catchers didn’t wear hard helmets behind the plate (in fact, nobody wore what is now called a batting helmet). Today, catchers look like hockey goalies behind the plate. I always believed that Dad got hit by what we called a “second swing.” The batter swings and then the bat comes around a second time and whacks the catcher in the back of the head. The catcher is protected back there by a soft baseball cap. But it turned out to be even worse. Albany was playing Wilkes-Barre and Wilkes-Barre had a man on first base. The runner on first attempted to steal second base and Dad moved forward to collect a low pitch. At that moment, the batter swung the bat and hit Dad behind the right ear. They carried him off the field and he was in the hospital for over a week.
Dad did recover enough that two weeks later, he pinch hit against
Elmira. The pitcher for Elmira was none other that Sal, the Barber, Maglie, who gained his nick-name with the Giants, by giving out close shaves to the batters. He nicked Dad in the midriff. Here’s another little side note for baseball aficionados. Dad’s roommate on the road with the Senators was Ralph Kiner.
Dad’s vision was never any good after the bat hit him, at least not for a professional baseball player. So he retired when I was four. However, I did get to see him play once when I was eleven. My brother’s Jaycee team (ages 14 and 15) had invited a team from St. Louis to come over and play a practice game. The team that showed up consisted of 18, 19 and 20 year olds. So they worked out a deal where Dad and the assistant coach (a Muny League pitcher) would play for my brother’s team. The only thing I remember about the game was Dad batting. What a beautiful swing. It was lightning fast. I was so excited. The pitch came and Dad swung and the ball went straight up in the air. When it finally came down, the shortstop had caught it. I was crushed. I was sure he was going to hit the ball a long way. The good news is that I am no longer eleven and all I can see now is that beautiful swing. He was a great dad and he taught me the footwork, but he couldn’t teach me to swing a bat like him. Not many people could