THE KITTY’S LAST GASP
By Larry Edmundson
While the following article is built around the 1955 Union City Dodgers, it represents the saga of the ending of the Kitty League era.
The loss of Jackson in 1954 was the start of the downfall of the league. Every team in the group experienced financial and support problems on an almost continuous basis. Madisonville was $2600 in debt and needed an "all out city campaign" to raise the money to begin the season. That the towns could rally behind the clubs, and the way individuals continued to come forward providing leadership says volumes about the cities and citizenry of the time. As 1955 began the Union City club was ready to go again. The same leaders were in place and a number of new and additional directors were added to the board. Isadore Rubenstein retained the position of president and A. F. Thomas was back as business manager. The Brooklyn Dodgers offered a deal to the local club including assumption of all expenses associated with spring training, payment of transportation expenses from Florida to Union City, and the manager's salary in excess of $2500.
At the winter league meeting, Union City made a motion that each team be allowed only one class player. A class player now being defined as any individual having three or more years of professional baseball experience. A team having a number of class players not only had higher salaries, but usually a better, experienced team. Fulton had used from three to five class players for the past several years. When the motion passed Fulton walked out of the meeting, declaring they would withdraw from the league before they would abide by the rule. They did not withdraw, however, and did abide by the rule. On the other hand Hopkinsville, a city counted among the original six to be in the league in 1903, announced they would not field a team for 1955. Hopkinsville had a deficit of over $7000, had poor attendance numbers, unable to get a major league sponsor, and a management team who had enough.
Hopkinsville's withdrawal caused the remaining members to decide to drop Central City from the league and play with six teams. Central City was ready to continue and was disappointed at this turn of events. As it turned out this decision probably hastened the death of the league.
The 1954 Dodger team was spread to the four winds. Fifteen players were advanced in the farm system. Manager Earl Naylor, the only manager to ever survive two complete seasons in Union City, went to Ashville of the Tri-State League. Going with him was Sal DeMatties, Lowell Mendenhall, Rocky Gisclair, Bob Koczwara, and Bill Liberto. Gene Dearman moved up to Bakersfield, Rene Masip, Souix City; Al Costa and Jim Major, Pueblo, Colorado; Tom Sheridan and Bill Dixon, Elmira; Ed Allen, Newport-News; Al Shinn, Mobile; and Chuck Templeton with Brooklyn. Liberto and Gisclair were later optioned back to Union City. Templeton did not stick with Brooklyn and spent most of the season in St. Paul, mowing down AAA batters. Al Shinn wound up managing the Hannibal, Missouri, team, and Bill Dixon dropped out of baseball. The 1955 Union City Dodgers would be new from the manager to the batboy...not really, Buster Thomas was back.
The directors with Brooklyn's help, hired Joe Hauser to manage the team. He was one of the most interesting and colorful characters to appear in Union City. Hauser was fifty six years old and would serve as a non-playing manager. He played six years in the majors, five of them with Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's. He hit a career .284, two times over .300, and collected 80 homeruns. Following an injury that sent him to the minors for the rest of his playing life, he became one of the all time great homerun hitters in minor league history. He hit 63 homers in 1930 with Baltimore and hit a record 69 for Minneapolis in 1933. The record stood until Fred Bauman of the Roswell, NM team in the Longhorn League hit 72 in 1954. He was the only man to ever hit 60 or more homers in two years until Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire in 1999. He was touted as a great teacher of young players and had been a manager in the Dodger chain for eleven years, all of them in his hometown of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He was out of baseball in 1954 because the Wisconsin State League folded, but he had won five pennants and his team finished in first division every year. Known in Sheboygan as Unser Choe (German for Our Joe), Collier's Magazine sent writer Tom Meany, and a photographer to Union City to develop a story about Hauser. It appeared in a summer edition of the national magazine. Hauser, a left handed first baseman, hit 27 homeruns in 1924, second in the league to Babe Ruth. He had fond memories of the Babe. "Babe loved to pull my shirttail out every time he stopped at first base. Lucky for me, he seldom stopped there. He was usually on his way to another base."
Hauser was the only non-playing manager in the league at the season's start. Of the other five each would be their teams class player. Fulton named Ned Waldrop to manage the Lookouts. Other managers were Bill Close, Madisonville; Walter Lance, Owensboro; Ray Wilson, Paducah; and Dave Garcia, Mayfield. Garcia was a rival of Hauser's in the Wisconsin State League when he managed Oshkosh. Shelby Peace decided to return for another year as league president. He was honored at the winter minor leagues convention as "King of Baseball for 1954".
Just as Union City's directors were thinking they would be starting the season with a balanced ledger, the electric system presented them with a bill for over $800. In the past the city commissioners had provided a subsidy to the team that was used to reimburse the electric system, thereby essentially making the electrical service free. The city had recently awarded another $500 for the upcoming 1955 season. For some reason the team directors were unaware of the debt to the electrical system that included unpaid bill back to 1953. Mr. Rubenstein threaten to resign over the incident, but the other directors discouraged him and in fact said there would not be a 1955 season if he resigned. He reluctantly agreed to keep the job "temporarily".
Union City's opening day roster had 22 players present. The club would have to be down to 16 by May 20. Those listed were catchers, Paul Stammen, Gary Coultas, and Charles Miney. Pitchers included Bill Liberto, Galen Brown, Jack Parr, Jerry Cashhill, Don Hansen, Ron Forsythe, Bob Veritch, Ed Hughes, and Bennie Poole. The Infielders were Al Hartung, 1b, Bob Carlson and Ed Duncan 2b, Frank Bronk, and Carl Nageleisen ss, and Bob Ford, 3b. In the outfield were Rocky Gisclair, Fred DeFalco, Gene Conquy, and Bennie Bland. The six teams of the Kitty were farm clubs of the New York Yankees (Owensboro), New York Giants (Mayfield), Brooklyn Dodgers (Union City), Chicago White Sox (Madisonville), St. Louis Cardinals (Paducah), and Washington Senators (Fulton). Union City lost to Fulton in the opener by 5-1 before 914 fans. Fulton scored 4 unearned runs in the ninth inning. The next night in Fulton, Union City returned the favor and spoiled Fulton's opener 8-6.
The players in the Kitty League in 1955 were the youngest ever, with an average age of under 20. Even when the playing managers were added in the age increased to only slightly above 20. Sam Lamitina returned to Fulton in late May after Ned Waldrop resigned as manager. He continued as a player, but did not have a typical Waldrop year. Fulton started in the cellar and remained there throughout the year. Lamitina was released before the season ended and was replaced by Mel Simons.
Dodger players came and went during the early part of the season. Jerry Cashhill and Bob Ford were among the first to be released following Charles Miney. Nageleisen and Veritch were released as was Ed Duncan. Bob Morris joined the team as an infielder, but was released in short order. At the end of May the Dodgers were leading the league and three games ahead of second place Paducah. Franklin "Spud" Hale, a pitcher from Yorkville was signed and stayed the season, pitching well and playing outfield when needed. Walter Pawiak came from Bakersfield to play infield, but he walked out after only one month and one paycheck. On June 13 the Dodgers fell out of first place by losing the second of six straight to Paducah. The Chiefs did not give up first place for the remainder of the year.
Paul Strickland, a recent Union City High School graduate was signed in June. Paul was at that time, perhaps the best all-round athletic to come out of the school. A football quarterback, a high scoring forward in basketball, and an infielder/pitcher in baseball, he played them all well. Strickland had a slow start with the bat, but improved continuously throughout the season playing shortstop and third base before settling in at second. He played several years of minor league baseball before settling in the Montgomery, Alabama, area and entering the trucking business.
With the team continuing to lose, Al Costa was brought in from Pueblo. His bat was one of the bright spots in what was becoming an otherwise dismal season. Paducah signed and played infielders Al Smith and Paul McGuire, the first black players in the league since Mickey Stubblefield. By the end of June the Dodgers were in third place behind Paducah and Mayfield. A. F. Thomas resigned as business manager citing to much time required away from his regular job with Railway Express. Again there was talk of giving up the club. R. F. Brownlow was appointed to the business manager job, and the games went on. Fulton and Madisonville were in financial stress. Shelby Peace said the problems were caused by the daily radio broadcasts of the major league games. According to Peace, the major league radiomen made the plays sound so outstanding, people tended to think the play in the Kitty was far, far below the caliber they were listening to on the radio. He said the broadcasters always tell the audience to support their local teams, but the broadcasts are killing minor league ball.
On July 7, 1955 the death bell tolled for the Kitty League. It did not die until later, but when Madisonville withdrew from the league because of rising debt and civic disinterest, all concerned knew it was a matter of time. The remaining teams met and voted 4-1 to finish out the season until August 30 with the remaining five teams. Fulton wanted to call it quits at that time. The five also voted to lower the player limit to 14 players and to allow two class player, vice one.
The indifference in the league is evidenced by the experience of Union City outfielder Rocky Gisclair. Gisclair was playing in Union City and hitting above the three hundred mark,although he was actually the property of Ashville. Ashville released Gisclair in early July, in an effort to save money. Union City could not afford to sign him. He went to Hannibal and joined Al Shinn's team, where he hit .350 with 20 homers for the rest of the year. He was selected for the Kitty all-star team after he was released.
The all-star game did go on in 1955, and was hosted by Paducah in their Brooks Stadium. The team consisted of Dave Garcia, manager, Mayfield; Ed Russell, 1b, Mayfield; Terry Laschen, 2b, Owensboro; Fred Studstill, 3b, Mayfield; Ed Herstek, ss, Mayfield; Bob Thomas, of, Fulton; Gene Conquy, of Union City; Joe Cintron, of, Owensboro, catchers, Paul Stammen, Union City, and Lee Browning, Fulton. Pitchers were Jim Swiggett, Fulton, Dave Palmer, Owensboro, Verne White, Mayfield, and Bill Liberto, Union City. The Chiefs beat the all-stars 11-10. Miss Kay Bowen of South Fulton, the Lookout representative was elected Miss Kitty League. Miss Dodger was Fonciene Keene of Union City. Ms. Keene later became the wife of Al Giordano.
By the end of July Union City had fallen to fourth place ahead of last place Fulton. Attendance was deplorable, averaging only 200 fans per game. They played .500 ball through August, and in the last home game played at Turner Field by the Kitty League representatives defeated Paducah 12-0.
In an ending typical of the season, there was an auto accident involving the team while making the last road trip for the last game of the season. Six Dodgers were injured on the way to Mayfield when a Studebaker ran a stop sign in Water Valley, Kentucky. The occupants of the Studebaker were members of the Water Valley baseball team on their way to a game. While there were no lasting injuries, only one of the six injured was able to play in the final game. Since each team was now down to 14 players this meant Union City had only nine players available for the game. Union City lost 6-3. The final standings were Paducah 64-39; Mayfield 65-43; Owensboro 53-56; Union City 50-57; and Fulton 43-66.
The 1955 Dodgers were led in hitting by Paul Stammen with .310 and Al Costa at .307. The pitching staff results included Ron Forsythe, 11-11, Jack Parr, 7-8, Bill Liberto, 9-12, Spud Hale, 4-7, and German Guzman, 2-3. The league's batting champion was Ed Hestek of Mayfield with .359. All the players were paid their final salaries and given transportation money in cases where their contracts called for it. Some of the last dollars paid by the team were to buy airline tickets for Guzman to Venezuela and Costa to Havana, Cuba.
Joe Hauser said the teams failure was largely because the Brooklyn club never provided the talent necessary to succeed. It was certainly not up to the standard of past years. Hauser returned to Sheboygan and his sporting goods business. He remained there until his death in 1997 at age 98. He died four days after receiving word from the commissioner's office that all players who served in the majors before 1947 would receive a pension.
By August 31 it was announced the Kitty League was expected to fold when the season ended. Union City board of directors said they would not attempt to field another team. A meeting was called in October to give a final accounting of the teams condition and to see if there was even the smallest interest in trying to pursue another season. The board even arranged to have a television set available so the fans would not miss the most popular show, $64,000 Question. No one came. Fulton said they could not field a team, but later tried with Mayfield and Paducah to get revived interest. Owensboro would need a new park if they were to play again, as their current field had been purchased by race track tycoon, James Ellis, and was being razed to make way for a 50 unit motel, a drive-in bank, and a shopping center.
In a last ditch effort to save the league, Shelby Peace contacted Paris, Clarksville, and Dyersburg in Tennessee, Bowling Green and Central City, in Kentucky, trying to solicite members. All said no for varying reasons. He tried to get help from major league teams. They turned him down, too. Peace announced the league would not operate in 1956.
Thus professional baseball died in Union City, and the other small cities of the Kitty League. The tombstone could have read born in 1903-died in 1955. There could have been a wake to allow all the friends of baseball to gather and talk about the times had, the memories, good and bad. There was little recognition given to the passing of the team and league. A wise man once said, "it matters little the good one does in his life; the achievements; the friends. The size of the crowd at your funeral will largely be determined by the weather". It was a stormy day when the Kitty League died.