Kharacters in the Kitty
By Larry Edmundson
Class D baseball was the starting point for many young baseball hopefuls. Just as often it was the last stop in a sometimes illustrious, sometimes mundane, but always exciting, interesting career. Many of these older players had rubbed elbows with the "greats" of the game and most had crossed paths with each other over the years. All had tremendous experience to share with the young guys. Many were sought as managers in the farm chains where they had labored for years. Such was the case in 1946 at the start-up of the Kitty League following the shutdown for WWII. Anyone of the starting managers in that year could have been welcomed as a geography teacher for high school students. They had been exposed to the 48 states.
Johnny Gill of Nashville was signed by Walter Ward to be the field manager of the Greyhounds. Born in 1905, a left- handed hitting infielder, Gill broke into organized ball in 1925 with the Knoxville, Smokies of the Southern Association. After part of the year in class D Alexandria, LA of the Cotton States League, class B Selma, AL in the Southeastern League, and Shreveport in the class A Texas League, he jumped to the Cleveland Indians in 1927. The next year found him in Decatur of the 3-I league and Shreveport again before rejoining Cleveland at the end of the season. Albany, NY was his home in 1929, followed by Baltimore of the International League in 1930 and part of ’31 before joining the Washington Senators. He played in Chattanooga in ’32 and ’33, where he hit .325 with 15 homers and 110 RBI’s. Minneapolis in ’34 \, and finishing the season with Washington. The next year he was back in Minneapolis with a .361, 43 homers and 154 RBI’s. This got him picked up by the Chicago Cubs for his only full season in the majors. He hit .253. From 1937 to 1945 he played in San Francisco, Chattanooga, Baltimore, Nashville, Portland (5 years), and Seattle.
Gill was forty years old with a lifetime batting average of .325. He had been in professional ball for half his life. He was recommended for the manager position by the Nashville Vols manager Larry Gilbert and Dick Luckey recently named to manage the Clarksville team. He was also recommended by a former Greyhound manager, Johnny Antonelli. Antonelli had just finished the 1945 season playing for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Hugh Holiday was chosen to manage the Fulton club. He was a journeyman baseball player whose travels epitomized the players of the twenties and thirties. His career had included stops in Hutchinson, Kansas; Beaumont, Texas; Muskogee, Oklahoma; Springfield, Illinois; Jackson, Mississippi; Charleston, West Virginia; Albany, New York; New Orleans; Mobile, Gadsden, Montgomery, Alabama; Louisville and Memphis. His family lived in Boonville, Mississippi where he ran his own hotel in the off season.
Managing the Madisonville Miners was Frank Zubik. Zubik’s experience started in 1934 with Springfield in the class C Middle Atlantic League where he played for two years. In 1936 he played in Allentown of the class A New York-Pennsylvania League, as well as class B Savannah in the SALLY League and Tulsa in the Texas League. In ’37 he played in Canada, ’38 in Wilkes-Barre, and ’39-’40 in Buffalo. In 1941 he was playing in Utica, NY. He lost the next several years to WWII before joining the Miners for the ’46 season. It was his first time in class D ball.
The Cairo Egyptians chose Frank Piet to lead the club. He spent 1933-35 with Winnipeg of the class D Northern League. 1936 and 37 found him in Des Moines, a class A Western League team. He was with Memphis for three seasons. During the war he played in Knoxville, St. Paul, Louisville, and Toronto, before being named manager at Cairo.
Calvin Chapman was the head man for the Hopkinsville Hoppers. Chapman, originally from Courtland, MS, had two years with the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1935 and 36. Before that he played in Baton Rouge in 1932, followed by three years in Memphis and part of a year in Toronto. After his stint with the Reds he played in New Orleans, Nashville, Minneapolis, Montreal, Chattanooga, and Dallas before WWII caught him in 1943. The Kitty League was his first class D experience in 14 years.
Earl Browne was born in 1911 in Louisville. He began play as a pitcher in 1928 with the Louisville Colonels in the class AA American Association. He hit .091 and lost 2 games, no wins. He continued to pitch until 1934 posting an overall record of 54-55. He played in Louisville, Dayton, Huntington, Mobile, Knoxville, Asheville, Little Rock, and Winston-Salem during that time. In 1935 her moved to first base and concentrated on his hitting. After hitting .345 for Little Rock he finished the season that year with Pittsburgh. Sent to Minneapolis at the start of 1936 he was hitting .328 when Pittsburgh brought him up again. He finished the year with a .304 average and played in an exhibition game the Pirates played against the Cincinnati Reds in Union City in September of that year. !937 found Browne traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, where he hit .292. After the ’38 season with the Phillies, he played with Columbus, New Orleans, Chattanooga, Louisville (4 years), and Atlanta, before being called from his Louisville home to managing neighboring Owensboro.
Dick Luckey was called to managed the Clarksville Owls for the 1946 season. Luckey played most of his career in class B Piedmont League from 1933-38. He began his career in 1927 with Nashua of the New England League, then to Selma, Spartanburg, Columbus, Lake Charles, Alexandria-Monroe, New Orleans and ending in Omaha in 1932. The Piedmont years were spent in Winston-Salem-Charlotte, Portsmouth, Rocky Mount, and back to Portsmouth. He was in Salisbury and Birmingham in 1939, Greenville 1940, and Americus, GA in 1941 before being called to defend the country in WWII. He was hired as a non-playing manager in Clarksville.
Ed O’Connell in Mayfield had more familiarity than the others with the Kitty League. He began in Terre Haute in 1935, then Rogers of the Arkansas-Missouri League in 1936. He played for Mayfield in 1937. After going to Palestine in the East Texas League for part of 1938, he came back to Owensboro for the ’38 and ’39 seasons. The call to Mayfield in ‘46 was his first professional ball after the ’39 season.
Not all these managers finished the season with their team. This was not uncommon in the Kitty. Browne lead the Oilers to a first place finish. He hit .429. He was back the next year and hit .424. Promoted to manage Hartsford of the Eastern League in ’48 and ’49, his playing days were over. He died in Whittier, CA in 1993. Chapman managed Clarksdale, MS in 1947 and El Dorado, AK in 1948 before ending his career. He died in Batesville, MS in 1983. Piet managed five more years in Janesville, WI, Springfield, in the Western Association, St. Augustine and Leesburg in the Florida State League, and ending in Danville in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League in 1951. Frank Zubik managed one more year in Madisonville. Johnny Gill was replaced toward the end of the ’46 season while hitting .378. He managed the Fulton Chicks in ’47 hitting .396. In twenty-one seasons he averaged .340, hit over .300 16 times and 7 times had over 100 RBIs. He died in his Nashville home in 1984. O’Connell never managed nor played after 1946. Holiday was relieved before the season was over but managed one more time in Clarksville.
These men played countless games in countless ball-parks, in countless towns for more than 100 different teams. Baseball was their lives. None of them got rich at their trade and in fact most probably died poorer for the experience, but I doubt any regretted their time in the game, and baseball fans are richer for their efforts.