Saturday, May 12, 2012

Chronicling Charley Pride's Panther days

For more than 20 years, ever since I learned in a trivia book that country singer Charley Pride had played two games of minor league baseball in 1953 for my hometown of Fond du Lac, Wis., I've wanted to learn more.

Unfortunately, if a player appeared in fewer than 10 games for a team, his stats generally weren't recorded in the "bible" for such things, the annual Sporting News Guide. Today's new standard the internet site, which drew much of its data from the old Guides, also can be very lean on stats for short-term players.

Knowing that scratching that itch for Pride's FDL stats was only 75 miles away in the microfilms of the Fond du Lac Commonwealth Reporter at the public library there, it still took me two decades to find the time and make the effort to dig up that data.

Finally, while returning from Milwaukee from my six-month knee replacement follow-up doctor's visit on May 4, I detoured onto familiar streets in Fond du Lac and sat down at one of those new-generation microfilm readers that allows not only viewing, but also printing and downloading onto a flash drive.

I spent about three and a half hours scanning the old sports pages, often finding myself distracted by other hometown news and ads from my childhood.

Fortunately, the local paper provided excellent coverage of the Fond du Lac Panthers in 1953. That was the final season of the Class D Wisconsin State League, an eight-team circuit that was killed by television and the arrival of the Milwaukee Braves.

Fond du Lac, which had been a farm team of the New York Yankees for several seasons, operated independently in 1953. Attendance boomed and the team was able to finish in the black, even selling a few prospects at the close of the season. (I'll have more about one of those prospects in a future column.)

Because I had seen an ad in the Aug. 12, 1953, issue of The Sporting News, in which the team was looking for a second baseman and a pitcher, I incorrectly guessed that Pride, who had begun the 1953 season with the Yankees' Class C Pioneer League team at Boise, Idaho, had come to Fond du Lac late in the season.

Thus I began my microfilm scanning at the end of the season in early September, and working backward. Finding that rather clumsy, after a couple of hours I jumped to the start of the season.

One of the surprising things I discovered is that, operating on a shoestring, the Fond du Lac team didn't have the money to go South for spring training. They worked out in the cold, wet Wisconsin April at home, playing a few intrasquad games and a tune-up match with the University of Wisconsin freshman team as the season opener approached in early May.

I found what I was looking for in the Friday, May 13, issue of the paper. There in the center of the sports page was a portrait photo labeled "PRIDE".

Datelined Appleton, the article led with, "Pride of the Yankees--Charley Pride, that is--gave up only eight hits but his Fond du Lac mates could collect only six themselves here Thursday here Thursday night as the Panthers lost their first outing of the current road trip 7-1 to the Appleton Braves."

The article detailed that Pride pitched the complete game but got off to a shaky start, giving up five runs in the first three innings. Besides the eight hits (one was a home run), Pride walked three, struck out six and had a wild pitch. Generally a good hitter, Pride was 0-for-3 at the plate in his Wisconsin State League debut.

It was mentioned in the article that Pride was with the Fond du Lac club on option from Boise.

Pride's second and final appearance for Fond du Lac was on May 18, again facing the Braves when Appleton visited. Pride pitched 4.1 innings, giving up two runs on three hits and six walks, while striking out three. He left after loading the bases in the fifth inning with one out, though he had a 5-2 lead. Perhaps I was a little groggy after more than three hours staring at the screen, but I neglected to record the game's outcome. All I know is that Pride got a no-decision. He singled in two at-bats. The unnamed sportswriter commented that Pride, "looked in good form except for momentary streaks of wildness."

I found no mention of Pride's release from the team. I did find that he was gone before the June 1 cutdown date when the roster had to be reduced to 16; he was not among the four players named as being cut.

Pride returned to Memphis after his stint in Fond du Lac, and pitched for the Red Sox of the Negro American League.

Based on the box scores and game accounts in the Reporter, I was finally able to satisfy my curiosity about the time that C&W legend Charley Pride pitched pro ball for Fond du Lac.

Another of the assumptions I'd held about Pride's short stay in Fond du Lac was partially disabused by my perusal of the papers. I assumed he had been the only black player on the team, but I was way wrong. During the 1953 season, the Panthers also fielded at least one other American black, two black players from Panama and one black Cuban.

I guess my assumption had been based on my perception from growing up in Fond du  Lac in the late 1950s that the town was as racist as any city its size in Alabama or Georgia. Perhaps my recollection of that is also faulty. Maybe I'll explore that topic in a future entry.

I did find in reading game accounts and columns in the FDL papers that the Panthers had been the target of considerable racial baiting while playing at Green Bay during the 1953 season, despite the fact that the Green Bay Blue Jays had fielded its first black player that season.

Something else I found on that May 13 sports page was also a memory jog. An article just to the right of the Panthers' game piece is headlined "Father Fox Set / To Compete in / A.B.C. Masters'".

Father Ray Fox was the pastor of my parish, Sacred Heart, when that church/school was founded about 1960. I'm not sure where he was stationed in 1953, but the article did bring to mind a recollection that Father Fox was an accomplished bowler, though he may have given up competitive bowling by the time I knew him.

Finding the stats of Charley Pride's record with Fond du Lac was a big step in allowing me to "complete" the 1954 Topps-style custom card I created two years ago. You can read about that card and more about Pride's pro ball career on my blog from Feb. 14, 2010. My 1954 Bowman-style custom was covered on my blog on Aug. 18, 2009.

In my next entry, I'll tell you about finding the Boise stats I needed to update my '54T card. 

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