August 6, 2004

NLBPA’s Mahlon Duckett is featured in this article

Posted on Fri, Aug. 06, 2004

Survivor of school of hard knocks


For the Daily News

Fourth in a series

MAHLON DUCKETT was 17, trying to make the doubleplay pivot for the Philadelphia Stars, trying to avoid a bellyful of spikes, trying to keep his knees from getting shredded by enemy baserunners, playing on guts and gumption.

"Lots of guys were married, playing ball was their livelihood," Duckett said recently. "They didn't want anybody taking their job. Only one or two guys tried to help me out. I was playing on instincts. Finally, a couple of them said, 'Kid, you better watch it on the doubleplay,' and they showed me how to do it."

Duckett played shortstop, second and third for the Stars. Teamed with Frank Austin for a slick doubleplay tandem. Lasted 10 years. He is 82 now, stubbornly putting off knee surgery, his mind as sharp as those enemy baserunners' spikes.

He is one of five surviving Stars, along with Bill Cash, Stanley Glenn, Harold Gould and Wilmer Harris, to be honored at a black-tie dinner at the Mann Center on Sept. 2, a fund-raiser for a Negro leagues memorial park to be built at Belmont and Parkside.

Duckett never played high school baseball at Overbrook. Too busy running sprints and the 440 for a championship track team. Wound up playing baseball in the Main Line League for the Wayne Hawks. A manager in the league, a former Negro leaguer, suggested he try out for the Newark Eagles.

"They were playing the Stars on a Tuesday night," Duckett recalled. "It rained and it rained and it rained. Newark left town. The Stars manager said, 'How about coming out on Thursday and letting us look at you?' I played the next couple of games and they signed me.

"It was fun, playing in the North. When we went below Washington, it was miserable. No place for us to stay...The restaurants were closed by the time the ballgames ended. Go to the back of some store, get some lunch meat, eat on the bus.

"Eddie Gottlieb owned the team and he booked the games at Yankee Stadium. First time I played there, I was standing out at second base, thinking how Charlie Gehringer, who was my favorite player, had played there. A great thrill."

When you're a teenager, doubt is your roommate. Duckett remembers when he knew he could compete, playing against a major league team at Griffith Stadium in Washington.

"They had a pitcher they were high on, Walter Masterson," he recalled. "First time up, I hit a double to right-center. I'm at second, thinking I got lucky Next time up, I hit one to left-center. Slid into second with another double, and then realized I'd been looking at that kind of pitching all year, guys like Satchel Paige and Leon Day.

"My father had taken me to see Hilldale play when I was a kid. Hilldale wound up playing four games against the A's and beat 'em four in a row. After that, the commissioner stopped major league teams from playing black teams intact."

Barnstorming trips continued, Negro leaguers playing against major leaguers, holding their own. An East-West All-Star Game was a brilliant success, luring entertainment celebrities, drawing huge crowds. And then, the Negro league world crumbled after 1947, when Jackie Robinson integrated big-league baseball, playing for the Dodgers. Duckett had known about Robinson for some time.

"His brother Mack was an Olympic sprinter," Duckett said. "He was talking to me, telling me he had a brother who played second base. It went in one ear and out the other. I always thought of Jackie as a football player. I guess Branch Rickey knew more than we did. [The Kansas City Monarchs] signed him and he wasn't nearly the best player in the [Negro] league. It shocked me when Rickey signed him, because I thought there were so many others who could have gone first. The Dodgers sent him to Montreal and he set that league on fire.''

It shocked Duckett when Robinson wrote a scathing article for Ebony magazine, demeaning the Negro leagues and the off-the-field behavior of its players.

"The problem was," Duckett said, "that lots of people thought all black players were alcoholics or woman-chasers.

"On the Stars, they called us the deacons; Cash, Glenn and myself. We were all raised in the church."

It did not shock Duckett that the Phillies were pitifully slow in signing minority players.

"The press, mostly the Philadelphia Tribune, talked the Phillies into giving Roy Campanella a tryout," Duckett said grimly. "They said he might not even be a minor league player. Soon after that, he got hooked up with the Dodgers. Roy always said, 'They didn't give me much of a tryout.' "

Duckett got his chance, too late. The Giants signed him, and he reported to their spring-training site in Phoenix in 1951.

"And I came up with rheumatic fever," he said. "I was 29, going on 30 and the rheumatic fever almost took my life.

"Had a severe case of pneumonia, too. They were worried about it affecting my heart. They wouldn't let me play any sports. After a couple of years, I'd made a recovery, but I lost 5 years."

Duckett and the other Stars survivors appear at memorabilia shows, part of a dwindling group of Negro league alumni.

"When we first started the Negro League Players Association," he said, "there were 200 members, including some of the Hall of Famers. Then, they started dying off. Satchel died, Cool Papa Bell died.

"We started going around, giving talks to high school kids, to college kids. It seemed that white folks knew more about the league than black folks.

"And then they started talking about a memorial, 5 or 6 years ago. I think it's going to be a nice thing, letting people know where the ballpark used to be."

Meanwhile, Duckett can close his eyes and visualize where second base used to be, where, at 17, he learned to spin out of the way of razor-sharp spikes and make the doubleplay.