The Duke of Storytelling

Duke Doolittle with his son, Sandy, in 1953. (Courtesy Duke Doolittle)

Duke Doolittle with his son, Sandy, in 1953. (Courtesy Duke Doolittle)

Marland “Duke” Doolittle is mentioned only once in The Bilko Athletic Club. He is quoted as saying George Freese, the slugging third baseman for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, was one of those rare players who could hit a curveball better than a fastball.

The title of a chapter in the newly-released book, Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer, was inspired by a story Duke told about Ben Howard “Rosie” Cantrell, a teammate with the Little Rock Travelers in the 1940s.

Rosie had a reputation for hitting a bottle of Four Roses bourbon as hard as the ball. He had a .315 career batting average in almost 2,000 games to prove it.

The story goes that Rosie was shagging fly balls in the outfield before one game in Little Rock when Duke sidled up to him and asked, “Rosie, why don’t you quit drinking? You’re such a good hitter that you’d go to the big leagues in nothing flat if they knew you weren’t messing around with liquor anymore.”

Rosie thought about the question for a moment and said, “Why would I want to do that? Where can you go from there?”

Duke is gone now.  He died July 11, 2016, in Mobile, Alabama at the age of 92.
He leaves behind a treasure trove of colorful baseball stories accumulated over 13 years as a catcher in the minors. More than half that time was spent with the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association, a league classified as double-A in the hierarchy of the minors that ranged from Class D at the bottom to Class AAA at the top. Duke batted .324 in 33 games for the Travelers in 1943. He rejoined them in 1946 after serving in World War II, split the 1947 season between Little Rock and Jackson, Mississippi, in the Southeastern League and, then, played for the Travelers the next four seasons – 1948-1952. As his lifetime batting average of .273 suggests, he was no Duke Snider. But he was the undisputed “Duke of Storytelling.”

“Before I get through, you’ll have enough for 30 books,” Duke told me shortly before Christmas 2012 during our first of several hour-long phone conversations.

Duke was the Christmas gift that kept on giving, providing countless stories on some of baseball’s most colorful characters.

“He was always delighted with your conversations,” Sandy Doolittle wrote in an e-mail informing me of his father’s death. “He would often remark afterwards, ‘I should have told him about…’”

On hearing I was writing about Louis Norman “Bobo” Newsom, a pitcher as famous for his big mouth as his tireless right arm that won 211 games in the majors and 139 more in the minors, Duke said, “Hey, I can tell you all kinds of stuff on Bobo.”

And he did.

Bobo pitched for the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1949-50. Prior to a game in Chattanooga, Bobo was hitting fly balls to the outfield while jawing with Duke standing nearby in the visiting team’s dugout.

“I was always easy going,” Duke explained. “I didn’t get mad at the other players or anything. But Bobo said something and all of a sudden I just blew up.”

Duke shouted: “I could hit you any time you stepped on the mound, even when you were young,”

“You could, huh?”

“Yeah!” Duke said confidently.

They faced each other later in the season in Little Rock.

“I came to the plate. First pitch, he threw for a strike. Next pitch, he buried right in the middle of my back. I didn’t say anything. I knew I had that coming. I expected it because of popping off to him back in Chattanooga.”

When it was Bobo’s turn to bat, he looked at Duke crouched behind the plate and said, “See, ol’ Bobo can hit you, too.”

One of Duke’s teammates at Little Rock was Rosie, an outfielder who played 16 years, all in the minors, for teams in Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Hollywood; Atlanta and Birmingham, to name a few.

This photo of Rosie Cantrell was taken by Duke's wife, a newspaper photographer who went by her maiden name, Norma Jean Hyatt. (Courtesy Duke Doolittle)

This photo of Rosie Cantrell was taken by Duke’s wife, a newspaper photographer who went by her maiden name, Norma Jean Hyatt. (Courtesy Duke Doolittle)

Rosie kept a bottle of Four Roses bourbon stashed inside the Little Rock ballpark’s hand-operated scoreboard in centerfield. If he made the last out in an inning, he’d take a swig or two. “If he wasn’t going to hit during that inning, he didn’t come in,” Duke said. “The more intoxicated he became the better hitter he was.”

Every spring Rosie pledged not to drink any more. “He didn’t drink any more but he didn’t drink any less either.”

It didn’t matter because Duke and his teammates were in awe of how Rosie could hit scorching line drives as easily as he downed a bottle of bourbon.

“How do you do it?” Rosie was asked after smashing four hits in a game.

“You fellows have a problem that I don’t have,” he told his admirers. “When you go to the plate and you’re sober, you only see one ball. You have to hit what you see. When I go to the plate and I’m feeling good or high, I see three or four. I always pick out the one I like the best.”

Rosie was content in Little Rock.  That’s why he responded to Duke’s comment about going to the majors by asking, “Where do you go from there?”

Rosie and Duke weren’t paid much in the minors but most players in the big leagues at the time were making around the minimum annual salary of $6,000. The cost of living was a lot less in Little Rock than New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago or St. Louis where eleven of the sixteen major-league teams were located at the time.

“There were a lot of minor league ballplayers but there were very few major league teams,” Duke said. “The competition was keen.”

Rosie was a star in Little Rock and nearby Pine Bluff where he worked in a cottonseed oil mill during the off-season. If coworkers needed money, he loaned it to them, tacking on a little interest.

“He was happy with his situation,” Doolittle said. “He didn’t require much in life except something to drink.”

Rosie liked women as much as his booze, and he wasn’t all that particular how they looked. When a teammate pointed this out, Rosie replied: “Well, people are all alike. They all need love. I’m taking care of my share.”

A sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times once described Rosie as “not very big but well put together.”

“He was a good-looking man,” Duke added. “I wish that I looked as good as he did.

“Rosie could step to the plate and hang a line drive out against anybody,” Duke raved. “I mean anybody.”

Cantrell was tagged with the nickname Rosie as a young boy playing baseball in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. “You know,” he said, “I turn red when I get hot in the summer.”

“He was well liked because he could hit the ball,” Duke said. “I don’t know if people knew he had a drinking problem.  They couldn’t tell the difference whether he was half-loaded when he was playing or completely sober because he hit the same.”

Rosie’s biggest fan was Willie Bunch, described by Little Rock baseball historian Terry Turner as “a guest of a nearby hospital that brought patients to the game.”

Part of the Little Rock ballpark, Travelers Field, was located on the grounds of the state mental hospital where Willie was a long-time guest.

Willie was the team mascot long before there were such things. He was at the ballpark when Traveler players arrived for games, hung out with them in the clubhouse and dugout and used a glove given him by Rosie to play catch and show off his fastball. “What do you think of it?” he asked.

The biggest impression the left-handed Willie had on Duke was his left foot dragging across the ground as he threw the ball. “He left a trail with the toe of his shoe.”

Willie was as proud of his fastball as he was the two dollars Rosie gave him every now and then. “Any time Willie talked about Rosie, he reached into his pocket and pulled out those two dollars to show you.”

Rosie Cantrell_Judges Scorecard_1951

Rosie Cantrell as pictured on a scorecard for the Pine Bluff Judges.

Willie wore a baseball cap, overalls, high-top work shoes and always carried an old green raincoat with him. “If it’s going to rain,” he reasoned, “I’m not going to get wet. I never get wet.”

At game time Willie moved to the left-field bleachers to be with some of his buddies from the hospital.

One of them was called Sheriff because he claimed to be the sheriff of Paragould, a city in northeast Arkansas about 150 miles from Little Rock.

“Did you arrest anybody last night?” Sheriff was often asked.

“A hundred and fourteen,” he replied.

“What did you arrest them for?”

“I arrested them for drinkin’, fightin’ and scratchin’.”

The number arrested was always the same: 114.

Sheriff was a slightly smaller version of the movie character, Pa Kettles. He wore overalls just like Willie. As he walked through the ballpark gate, he hollered, “Oh-h, you ol’ buzzard! You ol’ Buzzard!”

Close behind Sheriff was his shadow, Herman, wearing a corduroy cap with matching khaki shirt and pants. He echoed Sheriff, “Oh-h, you ol’ buzzard! You ol’ buzzard!”

They chanted this all the way to their seats. Approximately sixty hospital patients regularly attended the games, played mostly at night.

If the Travelers were behind at the end of seven innings and the patients got up in unison to return to the hospital, the game was considered over.

“You just as well forget it,” Duke said. “Little Rock wasn’t coming back. They never made any mistakes in that regard. I don’t know how they knew but obviously they didn’t have much faith in us. They never left as long as they thought we had a chance of winning.”

The Travelers didn’t exactly have a winning tradition. From 1946 through 1956, they finished last in the Southern Association six times and next-to-last twice. They lost more than a hundred games three of those seasons.

Duke recalled a twenty-one game losing streak by the Travelers in 1950. “We went into the bottom half of the ninth not once, not twice, not three times but four times with a five-run lead and couldn’t win. It didn’t matter who was pitching, who was playing or what, we managed to lose those ballgames.”

Travelers’ manager Otto “Jack” Saltzgaver figured a curfew wouldn’t stop the players from staying out late at night so he handed out meal money every morning at nine o’clock. “I may not know when you get in at night but I’m going to know when you get up in the morning,” he said.

“It didn’t get anybody in any sooner,” Duke said. “I don’t know where they went but they were out until two or three o’clock in the morning. Not too many of them left their day’s meal money on the table either.

“I played with a lot of ballplayers that didn’t have as good a sense as Willie did,” Duke said.

Rosie moved from Little Rock to Birmingham, Alabama, late in the 1948 season and, then, played five more years, three for the hometown Pine Bluff Judges, before quitting baseball in 1953. The same year Duke left Little Rock to manage the Jackson, Mississippi, entry in the Class C Cotton States League. He quickly found himself in the middle of a racial storm that threatened to break up a league that, according to one newspaper, “survived three wars, floods, pestilence and a depression to keep going in forty of its fifty-two years.”

The new owners of the Hot Springs Bathers announced in early April they were going to use two African-American pitchers, Jim “Schoolboy” Tugerson and his, brother, Leander.

The previous year they played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League.  Jim roomed with a shortstop for the Clowns, future Hall of Famer Henry Aaron, posted a 14-2 won-loss record and batted .325. “We rapped the ball, and then we’d go home,” Jim said.

He also starred for the Clowns in 1951, notching an 18-4 record, a miniscule 1.92 earned run average and hitting .343.

Blacks had never played in the league made up of Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and El Dorado in Arkansas, Monroe in Louisiana, and Jackson, Greenville, Natchez and Meridian in Mississippi. Segregation laws in Mississippi prohibited interracial teams from playing in the state.

Hot Springs promised to play the brothers only where home teams approved but this didn’t prevent the firestorm that followed.

“We are not convinced that a third rate baseball league is any place to fight for equal rights because entertainment, and not need, is involved,” the editors of the Greenville newspaper, The Delta Democrat-Times, commented in an editorial. “In other words, why can’t we realize we’re living in a world which is a lot more concerned about saving mankind’s undeserving skin than in the color of baseball players?”

Hot Springs was kicked out of the league, its president, Al Haraway claiming the issue at stake was a “matter of survival of the league.”

The Tugerson brothers were promptly reinstated by the head of the minors, George Trautman, who ruled the agreement among the league’s club directors not to use black players was illegal and “at war with the concept that the national pastime offers equal opportunity to all.”

A showdown was averted when Hot Springs optioned Jim and Leander to Knoxville in the Class D Mountain States League. Jim was recalled a month later to “lift attendance and boost the club from its seventh-place standing.”

On May 20, 1953 in Hot Springs, a crowd of 1,500, the largest of the season, turned out to see Jim break the league’s color barrier and perhaps teach segregationists a lesson in the process. The Bathers were scheduled to face Duke’s Jackson Senators.

Duke was one of two managers in the league who said his team would play against Jim. He had played against blacks in Panama. “It didn’t matter to me what color they were. We weren’t playing a game with color; we were playing it with bats and balls.”

As Tugerson warmed up in the bullpen, Bathers’ co-owner Lewis Goltz received a telegram from Haraway warning that the game would be forfeited to Jackson if Jim pitched. The league’s umpires had already been ordered “to forfeit every game to the opposing club when Tugerson’s name appears on the roster.”

When Jim was officially announced as the pitcher, Duke walked to home plate so the umpires could tell him what they both already knew – the game was being forfeited to Jackson.

“The orders from the league president to all of the managers were that if Jim Tugerson’s name was in the starting lineup and he was the pitcher that took the mound for the opening pitch, which was never made, then, we were not to play,” Duke said. “That’s exactly the way it happened.”

 

The one and only Bobo Newsom.

Bobo Newsom could hit, too.

Some 500 fans were still waiting to get in the ballpark when the game was called off. Tugerson never made it to the mound. A wire-service photo shows him standing shoulder-to-shoulder with four white teammates, a blank expression on his face as the forfeit was announced. “I hope I land in the majors someday,” Jim said. “I want to be in a league where they will let me play ball.”

Jim returned to Knoxville, won an amazing thirty-three games, including four in the playoffs, and filed a $50,000 civil rights suit against Haraway and other league officials that was eventually dismissed at his request. In six minor league seasons, he compiled an 86-71 mark. He got to the top of the minors, the American Association, a triple-A league, but never made it to the majors.

That night in Hot Springs was the closest Duke came to seeing Schoolboy Tugerson pitch. “I was half-way excited about the moment because I was ready to play the game,” Duke said. “But I had nothing to say about it. I just happened to have a ball club that was playing at Hot Springs that night and I did as I was told.”

Duke had another shot at managing in 1954, this time the Tallahassee, Florida, Rebels in the Class B Florida International League. “I know this situation is bad here,” he said on taking over in early May. “But I knew of a ball club once that won only two of its first twenty-one. What are we now? Three and twenty-four? This ball club, even as it is, is not that bad.”

Actually, it was worse.

After watching the Rebels make seven errors in a game, a Tallahassee Democrat sportswriter observed: “What it was, was NOT baseball…I believe I will have another big orange.”

“We had a couple of fellows down there that couldn’t catch the ball and those that caught it, couldn’t throw it,” Duke said.

The league was in equally bad shape financially, two of its six teams dropping out the day Duke arrived in Tallahassee. The entire league collapsed in late July. “They had no money. I’d take a check for meal money and go on the road with it. When I got to the hotel, they didn’t want to cash the check. They said, ‘We’ve got your check from the last time.’ It got that way all around the league.”

Duke finished his career at Memphis in the Southern Association in 1955 and, then, went home to Orlando, Florida, to become a pipe-fitter.

He didn’t return to Little Rock and Travelers Field until 1975. On the way there, he and his wife, Norma, picked up their son, Sandy, in Dallas, Texas.  They stopped in New Boston, Texas, to visit Hal Simpson, the Travelers’ biggest star from 1949-54 when he hit 106 home runs, a team record that still stands.

Duke and Hal roomed together on the road for four years so they got to know each other better than most players do. They swapped stories that with the passing of time got better.

A popular saying in the 1950s was, “Home run hitters drive Cadillacs and singles hitters drive Fords.”

Hal slugged 263 career homers, Duke 27.

Duke was driving a new Cadillac when he pulled into a gas station operated by Hal. “He didn’t say anything but his eyes were real wide,” Duke said with a chuckle.

Hal was another character that makes the lore of the minors so rich for a storyteller like Duke. In eighteen seasons, all in the minors, Hal batted .305.  “The guy that would get him out was just a thrower.  Anybody he could hit was a good pitcher.”

Simpson was a reformed alcoholic. “But he continued to use Geritol,” Duke noted.

An iron and vitamin supplement advertised as a remedy for tired blood, the original liquid formulation of Geritol contained about 12 percent alcohol. “He was crazy about that Geritol.”

Before Little Rock, Simpson played in Texarkana, Texas, with George Washington, a minor-league legend who won four batting titles, including three straight after he turned 39 years old. His first name wasn’t really George. It was Sloan. His middle name was Vernon but everybody called him George.

When the left-handed hitting Washington played for Shreveport, Louisiana, in the Texas League, a special screen was raised when he batted to protect fans from possible injury. “If he swung and missed, the bat was coming right over the first base dugout and into the stands.”

Fortunately, George didn’t miss that much, batting .347 over fifteen years in the minors. He hit a respectable .283 his only full season in the majors. “He had all kinds of power. He could hit line drives that would plaster the second baseman against the right-field fence.”

George was known to get a little plastered himself.  “I think he may have been one of the fellows that got Hal started to drinking.”

Hal and George were going to dinner one night after a game when they spotted a hungry-looking dog. They decided to take the dog into the café with them and feed him a steak just like the one they were going to eat. The owner of the café protested.

“Well, if you can’t serve him, you won’t serve us,” George growled.

As Hal and George got up to leave, the owner relented and agreed to fix the dog a steak.

Duke Doolittle in 1950 when the Little Rock Travelers lost 21 straight games. (Courtesy Duke Doolittle)

Duke Doolittle in 1950 when the Little Rock Travelers lost 21 straight games. (Courtesy Duke Doolittle)

That was Hal’s favorite story and one Duke faithfully passed on to others. “We were both loaded to the gills,” he told Duke, “but we saw this dog and he looked hungry and we just decided to feed him.”

On arriving in Little Rock, Duke went to the ballpark to see the Travelers, a St. Louis Cardinals farm club in the Texas League in 1975. Duke was surprised to learn that Willie, in his late fifties or early sixties when he played for the Travelers, was still alive and hanging around the ballpark. He found Willie in his usual spot in the left-field bleachers, sitting with other hospital guests. The Sheriff and Herman were not among them.

“Hey, Willie!” Duke said as he sat down beside Willie.

“How you doing, Duke?”

“Fine.”

“Rosie’s dead! Rosie’s dead! Rosie’s dead!”

“What are you talking about?”

Duke lost contact with Rosie after he quit baseball.

“Rosie died! He died in Pine Bluff! Rosie’s gone! Rosie’s gone!”

Rosie died the year before at the age of fifty-six.

It had been twenty-three years since Duke wore a Travelers uniform, even more for Rosie. “After all those years Willie recognized me and still had Rosie on his mind,” Duke marveled.

It wasn’t all that surprising really. Duke and Rosie always treated Willie with kindness and respect and took time to talk and play catch with him. Willie remembered them because, in his eyes, they were always big leaguers.

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