While every other team in the league was suffering financial woes, the smallest populated town of all, Fulton, was remodeling their ballpark thanks to three straight pennants delivered by manager Lamintino, and a by-pass crossing the outfield. Sixty men in Fulton contributed $100 each to complete the funds needed to remodel Fairfield Park. At times in the preceding years the teams success had hurt them. In 1951 their lead was so big the fans become complacent and stopped coming out.
Jay Stasko having made his home in Union City for the past few off seasons, was nominated for the city's Distinguished Service Award for the year 1953. While Stasko did not win the award, it was certainly an indication of the service he had given to the community and the high regard the community had for him. Jay left Union City in February, 1954, to enter business in his hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
The 1954 team was among the best to ever play in the league’s 52-year history. It was a tumultuous year for the league with the normal problems of raising money and support to get the year started, Jackson’s club withdrawing in June, the struggle to find a replacement, the threat of forcing out one of the remaining teams, and finally the mid-stream switch to a split season and two team playoff.
Preparation for the baseball season began long before opening day. The 1953 Union City Dodgers left a debt of $3200 that had to be addressed before embarking on the next season. Union City’s baseball team was always run as a non-profit, volunteer-run organization. It had been started and managed by the American Legion Post for several years. The Union City Jaycees for a couple of years, and most recently an independent organization called the Union City Baseball Association. Men acting out of civic responsibility and love of the game gave time and begged money to keep the team afloat. In 1954 the President of the association was Isadore Rubenstein. By early February Mr. Rubenstein and his officers had 36 volunteers making contacts to solicit financial assistance that would ensure continued operation of the Union City Dodgers. Earl Naylor, the 1953 manager, had already been contacted and offered the opportunity to manage the club again. By February 24, 1954, the support had been pledged and a contract signed with the Brooklyn system. A. F. Thomas was picked to act as the club’s business manager.
It was reported that Brooklyn admitted to not assigning the caliber of talent necessary to compete in the Kitty League the previous year. The Kitty League was class D, but unlike any other league in its level of play. The team officers also reported their intention to raise the price of a single game ticket to 60 cents. The price had been 50 cents for years and meanwhile tickets to movies had doubled from 20 cents to 40 cents. Officers were quoted as saying, "we think the people of a town like Union City should realize the increase is to be able to do more for the people, get better players, and in general have a better operation." Season tickets could be purchased with a reserved seat for $35, or a reserved seat alone for $10 or a season gate pass alone for $27.50. There were 60 home games scheduled.
By April the Dodger minor league teams were in full spring training mode at Vero Beach. Earl Naylor had 11 players assigned to him, five were holdovers from the ’53 team: Gayle Boykin, John Dickerson, Tom Sheridan, Tony Matsikoudes, and Enrique Salazar. In addition to managing the Union City club, Naylor was assigned to instruct all the pitchers in the Dodger camp, especially in making the move to first base. He was soon assigned addition players including Lowell Mendenhall, Gene Dearman, Jim Major, and Al Shinn.
On April 24, 1954 the Union City Dodgers arrived at the local airport on the Brooklyn Dodger transport plane. Representatives of the association and the Civitan Club met the plane and welcomed the players. They were escorted to town and paraded through the business district to Turner Field where the players were assigned to the private homes where they would live during the summer. The celebration was concluded with a steak dinner in a local restaurant.
During summer of 1954 Union City celebrated 100 years as an incorporated town. The Dodgers were all given centennial caps on their arrival and indoctrination into the festive occasions to take place. On the day of the first game of the season the players donned their uniforms and rode in old centennial cars in another parade through the business district of downtown. The local high school band led the way. As a part of the centennial celebration most of the men of the town grew beards. During the first part of the season many of the players followed suit. Of course many were simply to young to have much success.
In another event involving the team and before the opening game, pitcher Bill Liberto was married to Miss Jean Straub at the First Methodist Church in Union City. Outfielder Lowell Mendenhall gave Miss Straub away. Gene "Shorty" Dearman was the best man. The entire team complimented the couple with a reception at the Lexington Restaurant after the opening game with Jackson.
The team not only celebrated the Liberto vows, but also their first of many victories. The Dodgers beat the Jackson Generals 20-0. The opening lineup featured Gene Dearman 2nd base, Tony Matsikoudes 3rd base, Ed Allen rf, Al Shinn 1st base, Lowell Mendenhall lf, Jim Wilson cf, Al Costa ss, Disk Barry c, and Jim Major p. Major struck out 16. Oddly enough the only Dodger to not hit safely was Al Shinn. It was the start of a very bad streak for the Jackson club.
The Dodgers swept the Generals in three games. Other players showing their stuff were pitchers, Keith Boyd and Bill Liberto, and catcher Morris Hall, subbing for Barry who was out with the flu. In the next few days the Dodgers continued to hit, run, field, and pitch to perfection. Pitchers Tom Sheridan, Jerry Briggs, John Dickerson, and Phil Lentine got their chance in starting or relief roles. Major won again. Mendenhall hit the first ball out of the park in a game against Paducah Chiefs. After eight games the Dodgers were tied for first place with Mayfield, both at 7-1. A three game series in Mayfield left Union City in first place and there they remained until July 4.
When league statistician J. P. Friend released his first official statistics after ten games the Dodgers were hitting .323 as a team. Lowell Mendenhall led the league with an average of .474 and was closely followed by Gene Dearman at .467. Meanwhile new pitcher Rene Masip had joined the team. Masip, a native of Havana, Cuba, was transferred from Asheville. By May 20, the Dodger lead was 4 and Jackson’s loss streak had grown to 14. As the May 24 date to get rosters down approached some players were inevitably given releases. Jerry Briggs of Cincinnati and Keith Boyd from Nova Scotia were two of the first to feel the ax. Boyd was 3-0 when released.
Meanwhile the club was feeling a money crunch. One of the areas under scrutiny was the number of foul balls that were not returned to the playing field. Balls cost about $2.50 each and the league required six new balls be turned over to the plate umpire at the start of each game. This was a major expense in a time when admission was only 60 cents per person. The team adopted a rule that any fan chasing down a foul ball and failing to return it would be barred from entrance to the field for the remainder of the year. Additionally the team hired three young lads to "officially" chase down the fouls and return the balls to batboy Buster Thomas. The job paid $1.50 per game and the writer proudly held down the first base side for the next two years without having a single ball escape (and not without the loss of considerable skin and blood).
Outfielders Jim Wilson and Joe Kobelski were released on May 20. Kobelski had come in as a pitcher but had been primarily used as a relief outfielder. Wilson caught on with Sandersville in the Georgia State League where he hit .260 for the year. There is no record of Joe Kobelski playing professionally again. His record as a pitcher was 1-1. At the same time they were making cuts players were also being added. Clyde "Rocky" Gisclair came in from Great Falls, Montana, and Joe Fernandez took over center field. Catcher Al Giordano, age 22 and just released from a tour in the Army was assigned to Union City. He was nicknamed "Paddy" due to his resemblance to boxer Paddy DeMarco. Lowell Mendenhall missed a few games due to injury/illness. Ed Allen was also hurt and out for several games after crashing into the concrete centerfield wall while chasing a towering fly hit by Hal Seawright of the Fulton club.
After 14 games the Dodgers had three men hitting over .400, Al Shinn at .490, Mendenhall at .474, and Dearman at .407. Pitchers Jim Major, Tom Sheridan and Boyd were respectively 4-0, 3-0, and 3-0. On May 26, Shinn hit for the cycle, going 5-5. Catcher Morris Ray Hall was sent to Thomasville.
In 1953 the Jackson Generals had a working agreement with the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds failed to renew this agreement just before the start of the 1954 season causing owner Hiram Hopper to scramble to fine playing staff for his club. By the end of May Jackson’s Generals had tied the league record for consecutive losses at 25, equaling the 1922 Paducah team. The next day the record was broken and owner Hopper announced that he would abandon the franchise and close the team business. Jackson won a game in their 27th attempt and ended play with a record of 1-26. The league had a dilemma.
The first rumors were that the league would drop one of the other clubs to make a six-team league. Union City was the team to go said the rumors. President Shelby Peace quickly said no such movement was afoot. Eight players on the Jackson team were give unconditional release. Another ten were kept on pay with the league picking up the tab of $1800 per month total.
Peace worked hard to find a replacement group in Jackson. Failing there he approached several area towns including Dyersburg, Milan, Paris, and Clarksville in Tennessee. All had previously fielded teams in the league with Dyersburg winning championships in back to back seasons in the 1920’s. A Dyersburg group had attempted to buy the Jackson franchise when it went to Hopper in 1952. Peace approached Bowling Green, Henderson, and Corydon in Kentucky. Either the towns were not interested or did not have the facilities to operate a baseball club. None wanted to pick up Jackson’s record. Meanwhile it was decided that games scheduled would go in the books as forfeits. Eventually every team was awarded 6 victories over the defunct team except Madisonville who received 5 because the one win in Jackson’s record had come from the Miners. Additionally the league voted to go to a split season if a new club could be found to enter the league. After several flirtations, including Metropolis, Illinois, Central City, Kentucky, stepped forward to the challenge and was accepted as the eighth member. This set the stage for a new season to start on July 5th. The end of the season playoff would be limited to the winners of the two halves of the split season. To what extent these troubles influenced Peace’s decision is not known, but he announced that 1954 would be his last season as president of the league. He had served continuously since 1941. He also named what he considered to be his all time Kitty League all-star team:
Gabby Street, catcher, played for Hopkinsville in 1903, and had a career with the Washington Senators. Ellis Kinder, pitcher, with Jackson went to the Boston Red Sox. Jim Turner, pitcher for Paris in the 1920’s played for the New York Yankees. Johnny Schmidt, pitcher for Hopkinsville, later with the Chicago Cubs. Bob Schultz , a Fulton pitcher, also played for the Chicago Cubs. Dave Koslo, pitcher with Paducah became a standout for the New York Giants. Earl Browne was Peace’s choice for first base. He hit .400 two times as the Owensboro manager after a career with the Pittsburg Pirates.
Although he played only a few games in the Kitty League, the choice for second base was Red Schoendienst from the 1942 Union City team. Red played and managed the St. Louis Cardinals. The shortstop was oldtimer Harold Irolan, of the 1911 Hopkinsville team and a former member of the Philadelphia Phillies. Vern Stephens of Mayfield and later the Boston Red Sox was the choice at third base. Outfielders were Hal Peck of Hopkinsville a member of the Brooklyn/Cleveland organizations, Frank Shaughnessy of the 1904 Cairo team and the Washington Senators, and Harry Rice of Paris, who also played for the Washington Senators. The manager was Red Smith of Hopkinsville’s 1938 team. Smith sent 10 players to majors. The umpires were Deacon Delmore and Angelo Guelielmo. His picks were probably based more on the later success of these men than their play in the Kitty League. It is unknown why or how he overlooked Edd Roush a Hall of Fame member who played on the Evansaville team in 1912. Although Peace returned to serve in 1955, it could be well said this episode was the beginning of the end for the Kitty League.
Through it all the Dodgers continued to pound the ball and win games. Phil Lentine received his release and departed with a 1-2 record. Immediately joining the team was lefty Chuck Templeton. Veterans of the armed services were not counted toward the allowed number of players carried on the roster. Eleuterio Lopez joined the team from Bakersfield as a pitcher. In a few days he had moved on the Asheville. Bob Koczwara from the Great Falls team came to town along with Sal DeMatties a former Fulton player in 1953. Sal replaced popular Tony Matsikoudes, who quickly joined the Fulton Lookouts. DeMatties quickly became a crowd favorite when on the first weekend he collected six hit, two of them triples, and stole home to win a game against arch rival Fulton.
In the first quarter of the season Al Shinn was hitting .486 with an unbelievable slugging average of .927. With 109 at bats Shinn had 53 hits good for 101 total bases including 10 doubles, 7 triples and 8 home runs. Lowell Mendenhall was hitting .370 and slugging at .506. The team slugging percentage was a grand .470 with 58 doubles, 31 triples and 15 round-trippers.
June 13th saw the Dodgers outlast the Paducah Chiefs 16-15 in 14 innings. The Dodgers finally won the five-hour game when a slow roller hit by Al Costa was muffed and Ed Allen scored the winning run. Shinn and Allen each went 4 for 8 on the day and Masip collected the win in relief after six innings of allowing only one run. The Dodgers had been down 14-5 when they started their comeback.
The first half of the split season ended with the Union City Dodgers leading second place Mayfield by 5 games. Shinn still led the league in hitting with .417. The team average was .321, including DeMatteis with .368, Allen at .356, Mendenhall .333, Gisclair .320, Costa .305 and Dearman .300. Rene Masip led all pitchers with a record of 9-0. He would eventually stretch it to 13-0, a league record, before suffering his first loss. Major was 8-2, Sheridan 6-2, and Koczwara 3-1. Shorty Dearman led the league in stolen bases with 31.
The 1954 Dodgers were the only Union City team to ever host the all-star game. It was played at Turner Field on July 12. The stars selected to play had a combined hitting average of .351. Red Davis of Mayfield managed the team. Pitchers were Frank Funk, Mayfield, Dom Maisano of Owensboro, and Madisonville’s Bill Johnson. First base was held by big Ned Waldrup at .388, second Frank Bragan of Madisonville .329, third Hopkinsville’s Norm Abrams at .380. Shortstop was Tony Kubek at .333. Outfielders were Joe Moran, Mayfield; Frank Layana, Madisonville; and Paducah’s John Slana. They were hitting .346, .417, and .315 respectively. Behind the plate were Fulton’s Johnny Marr and Paducah’s Larry Smith. Waldrup received every vote except two from the writers, radio announcers, scorekeepers, and managers who picked the team.
Behind the pitching of Chuck Templeton and Rene Masip the Dodgers shut down the all-stars by a score of 4-1. A new Dodger, Bill Dixon was the starting catcher, relieved by Al Giordano. The official attendance was 1485. Prior to the start of the game Miss Nancy Adams of Mayfield was crowned Miss Kitty League. The Union City entry was Miss Union City Dodgers of 1954 Shirley Wright.
The Second half of the season had begun on July 5th, and by the All-star break Union City was leading the league again with a 7-1 record, ultimately jumping to a 12-2 start. On July 13th the crowd at Turner Field was treated to another pre-game show by Jackie Price, billed as the Clown Prince of Baseball. Jackie, also known as Johnny, Price had begun his professional career with the Union City Greyhounds as a 23 year old rookie in 1935. He played 7 games with the Cleveland Indians in 1946, but was primarily known for btinging fans to the park to see his amazing tricks. He could throw three balls to three different positions at the same time. He hit pitches while hanging upside down. While catching and throwing balls he could stand on his head. One of his most popular tricks is riding around the field in a jeep, or sometimes a Cadillac, shagging fungos in the outfield. Sometimes he would catch fly balls in his pants. Then when reaching into his pants to retrieve the ball he would bring out a snake instead. He was always certain to increase the crowd turnout and on this night the 1500 plus stayed until after midnight to see Union City beat Paducah 19-6.
The team continued to hit the ball well and to receive the best pitching in the history of the club. ReneMasip Threw a one-hitter against Central City on the 16th , winning 5-0. With the arrival of Bill Dixon, a catcher from Bakersfield, Dick Barry was released and went to play out the season in Central City. Ed Allen was injured, as was Sal DeMatteis. Rocky Gisclair was traded to Thomasville in exchange for 18 year old Bucky Russell. Bill Saar was reassigned to the Dodgers from Asheville, causing Popular Al Giordano to be released. Giordano was picked up by Central City after his release from Union City. He finished the season as Central City's top hitter with an average of .346. On July 29th Bill Dixon was hit in the head during a game in Mayfield. The concussion caused a career ending blow to the yourng man from London, Ontario. However he managed to find his future wife in Union City, and married Beverly Chadwell the following year when she graduated from high school. Together Bill and Beverly owned and managed the local Dairy Queen until his death in the late 1980's. At the end of July Union City led Madisonville by three games with Fulton and Owensboro only one game behind the Miners.
In early August Madisonville tied the Dodgers for the lead at 19-10. Jerry Cashill from St. Paul joined the team as a pitcher along with Keith Johnson from Hornell, New York. On August 4th the team that once had more catchers than they could play had to put Dearman behind the plate when Sasr received an injury. KjOn August 6th the Dodgers dropped to second place behind Madisonville. Although they played good ball and once got within a half game of regaining the lead they remained in second and third place for the rest of the season.
On August 7th Al Shinn was hit by a high inside pitch in Hopkinsville. The result was a season-ending broken jaw. He dropped under .400 after 84 games. Shinn was hitting .391, good enough to win the batting crown. With Shinn out, Ed Allen moved to first base where he tied a league record on August 9th when he hit three homers in one game.
Union City and Madisonville were scheduled to play a best four of seven for the overall championship. As was league custom the prices for the playoff games were raised to $1 per game. The increase in prices, plus the competition of early high school football and the annual visit by the traveling Bisbee's Comedian's tent show, saw attendance dip to 258 fans for the opening playoff game in Union City. The fans that stayed away missed a great performance. Chuck Templeton pitched a one hit shutout, facing only 28 batters, as the Dodgers won 5-0. Jim Major won the second game by a 5-4 score in front of 190 paying customers. This turnout prompted teams leaders Rubenstein and Thomas to say they would turn in the franchise to the league after the playoffs were completed. "If fans will not attend a championship series which the Union City team is leading two games to none, then it is apparent to us, people of Union City do not want Kitty League baseball."