Max Manning: The Honor & Integrity of Dr. Cyclopse

 

There’s no doubt that baseball’s full of stories about guys who got the short end of the stick. When you’re talking about the Negro leagues, the list gets even longer. Even after the majors were integrated there were precious few slots open to the black players and many men of doubtless talent were left languishing in the minors or never received the call they hoped for. Max Manning is one who received that longed-for call. When I learned about the life and career of Manning, known by the frightful nickname of Dr. Cyclopse, from his former teammate Leon Day, I figured if anyone had the right to be bitter, it was this guy. When I was fortunate to sit down with Dr. Cyclopse himself in the summer of 1992, I was pleased to see that he wasn’t in the least bit bitter about the way things shook down for him. On the contrary, I found the former All-Star to be a gracious, friendly man who readily shared his observations of over 10 years in the Negro Leagues with me. 

In the spring of 1948, honor and integrity was the only thing that stood between Max Manning and his shot at the big leagues. Manning was relaxing at his New Jersey home, fresh from another successful winter season in Cuba where he went 10-8 for Cienfiegos. That he had that many losses stemmed from his trying out new pitches, namely a straight change-up taught to him by Carl Erskine of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a few weeks Negro Leagues spring training would start and he and those new pitches were ready to go. Two years earlier Manning got out of the service and had roared back into action with the Newark Eagles, posting a 9-1 record in ’46 and following that up with 15-6 in ’47. 1948 promised to be even better.

Then one chilly spring afternoon the telephone rings. On the other end is Alex Pompez, former owner of the New York Cubans of the Negro National League, now a scout for the New York Giants. Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Dan Bankhead and almost two dozen other black ballplayers have already been signed to play professional ball. Three of his teammates with the Newark Eagles, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin and Ray Dandridge, have been signed to play in the white leagues and now, according to Pompez, it was Manning’s turn.

All the tall, lanky pitcher had to do was go up to the Polo Grounds, add his signature on a contract Pompez had on hand and he was property of the New York Giants. Sounded great, but there was a problem: Manning had already signed a contract to play for the Newark Eagles in 1948. To most black ball players and the white teams that signed them, that little technicality was conveniently overlooked, which was exactly what Alex Pompez and the New York Giants expected Manning to do. 

Suddenly the black Bakelite telephone receiver weighted 100 pounds in Manning’s hand. Sorry, he couldn’t break his word: the Giants would have to negotiate with Newark owners Abe and Effa Manley. No doubt Pompez brought up all the other ball players who jumped their Negro League contracts: Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Willard Brown, Hank Thompson… but those guys weren’t Max Manning. Taken aback, the scout asked again if he wanted to pitch in the major leagues, to which Manning replied “more than you could ever know, but if you don’t have honor, what do you have?”

It wasn’t the first time Max Manning had a cruel brush with the Majors. Back at Pleasentville High, Manning had tossed a couple no-hitters and a 23 strike-out game, he made the papers quite a few times. One day in 1937 a letter arrived from former Athletics star Max Bishop, now a scout for the Detroit Tigers. The letter, accompanied by a questionnaire, told young Max Manning that the Tigers were looking forward to seeing him in the spring for a tryout with the team. Obviously super-scout Max Bishop had just read the sports pages and not looked any further than Manning’s stats. The letter was a mistake. A cruel mistake, but a mistake all the same.

Manning pitched on weekends with a semi-pro outfit out of Atlantic City called the Johnson Stars. His teammates were Pop Lloyd, Rats Henderson and a bunch of other ancient blackball stars. These oldsters taught the teenager how to pitch like a pro. At 18, Manning was a slim 6 foot 4. He possessed a side-arm fastball that would eventually register in the 90’s and he had a streak of wildness. That speed coupled with his thick glasses made his wildness all the more scary to opposing batters. Leary batsmen soon called the skinny kid “Dr. Cyclopse”.

Since a Major League career with the Tigers was not an option, Manning entered his father’s alma mater, Lincoln University. His teammate on the baseball team was Monte Irvin and soon the two had attracted the attention of the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. With his father’s permission, Max Manning embarked on a career in baseball.

The Newark Eagles team Manning and Irvin joined seemed to always be a bridesmaid and never the bride. The powerful Homestead Grays with Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard never failed to swoop in and take the pennant every year, but the Eagles had some good talent. Pitcher Leon Day was the equal of Satchel Paige and also happened to be one of the teams best sluggers as well. Shortstop Willie Wells and third baseman Ray Dandridge anchored what was dubbed the “Million Dollar Infield”, Mule Suttles’ bat added the power hitting pop to the line up and catcher Biz Mackey was a 20-year vet who most consider the best receiver in blackball history. All those men would eventually end up in Cooperstown.

By 1939 Manning was the team’s number-two starter after Leon Day. Though young and as thin as a reed, Dr. Cyclopes earned the respect of opposing batters with a dose of 90 MPH medicine thrown with a side of wild. He broke even his first full season with a 4-4 record. In ’40 he busted out a 14-7 slate and became the Eagles ace after Leon Day jumped ship for Mexico. That he resisted the temptation of the big money Mexico waved in front of black ballplayers should have made Manning popular with the Eagles’ husband-wife owners, Abe and Effa Manley, but it didn’t. Manning, who was a bit more educated than the average ballplayer of the time, knew how much his arm was worth and his annual salary disputes with the Manley’s kept him from being a front office favorite. While Effa’s affections were slathered all over fellow pitcher Terris McDuffie, Manning, who had a better record, was held in contempt by Effa and their relationship never improved.

At the height of his career, Manning was drafted into the Army. With his couple years of college, Manning would have been ushered into officer training had he been white, but as it were, he became a truck driver. As part of the famed “Red Ball Express”, Manning drove ammo round the clock to Patton’s Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge. Manning’s reaction to Army racism earned him a stint in the brig and his time in the service left him with a bad taste in mouth. Honorably discharged in January of 1946, Manning was ready to re-start his baseball career. 

After dropping his first decision, Manning went on a tear that had him winning every other game he pitched that year. He and Leon Day led the Eagles to the Negro National League pennant and he took home the Champion Pitcher Award, the blackball version of the Cy Young. Facing the fabled Kansas City Monarchs in the World Series, Manning beat Satchel Paige in Game 2 to even the series at a game a piece. Starting Game 5, Manning lost to Hilton Smith and the series was again even up at two games each. Newark eventually won in seven games and the 1946 edition of the Eagles have gone down as one of the best teams before integration. Two of his teammates, Monte Irvin and Larry Doby would make it to the majors and the Hall of Fame, and Johnny Davis, Pat Patterson, Rufus Lewis and Jimmy Wilkes would play in the minors. Leon Day and Biz Mackey would also eventually have a plaque in Cooperstown. It was a heck of a team and for that very reason it was quickly destroyed. Among the thousands of fans in the stands at the 1946 World Series was a whole corps of major league scouts. With Jackie Robinson, Johnny Wright and Roy Partlow already in the minor leagues, the big leagues were scouring the Negro Leagues trying to figure out the best talent they could grab. Not only were the two teams that played in the series that year stocked with great talent, as far as the majors were concerned, it was free for the taking.

Since black ballplayers for generations had taken the contracts they signed each spring with a grain of salt, “jumping” became common in the Negro leagues. Ball players were used to looking out for themselves and following the money and the owners very rarely had to money or legal staff to fight contract disputes. Since many of the owners, including Newark’s Abe Manley, were gangsters who did not want to attract the kind of attention a court battle would bring, they grudgingly let the players jump from team to team with little retribution other than a small fine at best.

So, as the white teams came calling, black ball players didn’t hesitate to jump. When Branch Rickey signed Robinson, Wright and Partlow, the Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles and Homestead Grays, their respective ball clubs, were not compensated a single cent. While the Monarchs and Grays let the matter drop, the Manley’s were angered. Effa in particular was incensed. With Rickey being given God-like status for his racial sensitivity, Manley made as much of a stink as she could protesting what she considered stealing from the Negro Leagues. No one cared; white newspapers loved the controversy black ballplayers would unleash and the black press were ecstatic about the doors being opened for the first time in almost 50 years. When the Bill Veeck plucked Larry Doby for his Indians and then Horace Stoneham pulled Monte Irvin for the Giants, Effa swore to fight any other white owner who took any of her boys. Didn’t really matter: there was only so many slots available for the influx of black talent and there were plenty of other teams to raid. That was why when Alex Pompez hung up the phone after Max Manning told him to negotiate his contract with the Manley’s, the smart scout knew to look elsewhere. No one who knew Effa Manley wanted to negotiate with her.

For Max Manning, in the spring of 1948 he was in great shape, a young 29 and at the prime of his game. Sure he’d stood on his moral ground and it would keep him from going to spring training with the Giants, but his word was his word and that had to mean something. Of all the Newark players, Manning could especially make a case of jumping the club. Unlike Irvin and Doby, who were Effa’s personal favorites, Dr. Cyclopse wasn’t shown any particular love from the Manley’s, but at least he could look himself in the eye every time he shaved. He was confident another team would come knocking. That winter in Cuba, many of the white major leaguers he played with and against told him he was of big league caliber, but he already knew that – white, black or brown skin, his fastball set ’em on their asses. He’d post another good season, augmented by that Erskine change-up, and then see what kind of offers came in.

But things don’t always work out the way they should. It was a few weeks into the 1948 season that Manning separated his shoulder, and just like that, his baseball career was over. Manning consulted doctors and tried to hang on, pitching in Venezuela and Canada as the Negro leagues collapsed, but the fastball left and the pain was too intense. Now married, his wife talked him into going back to college. With help from the G.I. Bill, he graduated from Glassboro State and began a teaching career that would last for 28 years, retiring as Pleasentville’s most beloved 6th grade teacher.

Perhaps it’s this second career that kept Manning from being bitter. Or, more likely it’s the fact that until the day he died in 2003 at the age of 84 that every time he ran a razor across his chin, he could look himself straight in the eyes, knowing his honor was intact.

SOURCES

  • Author’s meeting with Max Manning, Baltimore circa 1992
  • 1946 Negro Baseball Yearbook (Sepia Publications, 1946)
  • Holway, John B., Black Diamonds (Stadium Books, 1991)
  • Holway, John B., Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Hastings House, 2001)
  • Martin, Alfred M. & Martin, Alfred T., The Negro Leagues in New Jersey (McFarland, 2009)
  • The Press of Atlantic City (June 25, 2003)

 

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