In the late 1920s, all the kids in the neighborhood around Crotona Park in the Bronx knew there was pocket money to be had shagging fly balls for a big high school kid named Hank. The budding ballplayer spent hours pounding balls to the far corners of Crotona Park, honing the skills that he hoped would take him to the majors. That young ballplayer, if you haven’t guessed, grew up to be Detroit Tigers superstar and Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. It’s an origin story that is often told when it comes to the formative years of the first Jewish baseball superstar, but what’s not commonly known is that one of those boys shagging flies went on to play in the majors too and, in turn, became the inspiration for the main character of a great baseball novel.
MILTON RUTNER was the fifth and youngest child of Max and Rose Rutner, immigrants from Lodz, Poland. Max Rutner owned and operated a shirtwaist factory. For those who’ve heard the term “shirtwaist” (as in the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire) and don’t know what one is: a shirtwaist is a woman’s blouse styled like a man’s button-down shirt and worn with a separate skirt. These were all the rage in the Edwardian period. Anyway, the Rutner’s factory was originally in Hempstead on Long Island, where Milton was born, before relocating to Hank Greenberg’s neighborhood in the Bronx. In fact, the young baseball fan was the next door neighbor to the future great.
Recognizing that “Milton” or “Milt” was not much of a baseball name, he became “Mickey” at an early age and began charting a course that he hoped would lead to the majors. Sandlot ball and chasing Greenberg blasts in Crotona Park forged Mickey into a sure-handed fielder. He was stocky but fast, with blue eyes and light hair – a combination that by the time he entered James Monroe High School made him look like the Norman Rockwell version of the young, American ballplayer.
Besides Hank Greenberg, the Bronx’s James Monroe High School already boasted big league alumni in Tigers pitcher Izzy Goldstein, and would produce seventeen more before it was shut down for lousy performance in 1994. Before he graduated in 1937, Mickey led Monroe High to their first Bronx-Manhattan championship since the days of Greenberg.
HE MATRICULATED to Brooklyn’s St. John’s University, Class of ’41. Not taking the expected jock route of majoring in Phys Ed or Communications, Mickey chose the French language as his course of study. He played soccer and basketball as well as baseball, making the varsity nine in the latter sport his sophomore year. Mickey’s usual position was shortstop, but he was converted into an outfielder by coach Joe Lapchick.
Between his junior and senior years at St. John’s, Mickey was invited to play in the Northern N.Y. League, at the time made up of mostly college students and serving as a venue for big league scouts to assess the collegiate talent. Mickey was signed to play outfield for the Plattsburg Majors, managed by former Red Sox outfielder, “Whispering Bill” Barrett. The team’s first baseman was Swarthmore College grad Eliot “Elly” Asinof. Besides both being college students from New York, the two were also Jews, a rarity in professional baseball at the time. Asinof was particularly impressed with his new friend’s personal mantra which he repeated anytime his path to success was blocked with an obstacle beyond his control: “fuck ‘em all, big and small.”
Both became starters on the Plattsburg club and were hitting around the .300 mark when “Whispering Bill” decided there were “one too many Jews” (the actual quote has been reported as much worse) on his team and got rid of his first baseman. Asinof would go on to play a couple seasons in the Phillies organization before hanging up his spikes, but as we will see, he and Mickey would keep in touch.
After his summer in the Northern N.Y. League, Mickey returned to St. John’s for his senior year. He was made team captain and spent most of his time playing second base. By the middle of the college season, newspaper stories about St. John’s ballgames were spending more ink opining about which big league team Mickey was going to sign with than about the actual games. He’d end his college career by winning the Metropolitan College League batting crown with a .460 (some put it at .482) average and leading St. John’s to the championship over Fordham.
While speculation of what team would get the young star abounded, it was a forgone conclusion that Mickey would sign with Detroit. This was due more to his neighbor and hero Hank Greenberg than any allegiance to the Tigers. When Detroit gave Mickey a $3,500 signing bonus, it seemed like it was just the start of a very promising career. But, in reality, it was the beginning of more than a decade of frustration and unfulfilled promises beyond his control.
To start, by putting his signature on a contract, Mickey became eternally bound by baseball’s hated Reserve Clause. Abolished in 1975, the Reserve Clause bound a player to whichever team owned his contract. The player could be traded, reassigned, sold or released at the whim of the team who owned his contract, and to break it meant bannishment from organized baseball.
Then, according to The Big Book of Jewish Baseball by Peter S. Horvitz and Joachim Horvitz, Mickey was cheated out of his bonus “by the machinations of the Detroit organization.” However, Mickey also said that he used his bonus to buy a blue convertible, so he at least received some of his bonus.
He also took time to marry his girlfriend, Leona Schiff. “Lee” danced on Broadway and in nightclubs and was a member of the famed Radio City Rockettes. They were each other’s hero and, as Lee later put it, “He would be my stage-door Johnny, and I would watch him play baseball with the other wives.”
THE TIGERS assigned Mickey to their Class B team in the Piedmont League, the Winston-Salem Twins. Upon reporting in June, the rookie got another dose of religious bias when his manager, Jake Atz, told him that his name “Mickey” and his degree from St. John’s must have fooled the Detroit management into signing him – if they knew he was Jewish he wouldn’t have been offered a contract. The Tigers already had one Jew on the team, Hank Greenberg.
The college phenom started off slowly and rumors quickly circulated that he was going to be shipped to a lower-level club. Fortunately, Mickey’s bat heated up to save him from being ticketed for the bushes. Playing exclusively at shortstop, Mickey hit .202 and made 13 errors in 78 games. In the off-season, problems arose with his Detroit contract, and he was declared a free agent. In normal times, Mickey might have had a problem trying to get a contract based on his .202 1941 record, but this was now 1942, and world events conspired to make this a whole new ballgame.
THE JAPANESE ATTACK on Pearl Harbor accelerated the nationwide draft and, overnight, ballplayers were trading in their bats for rifles. The lower minor leagues were hit particularly hard as clubs tried to fill their rosters with warm bodies. Mickey happened to be friends with two players on the Wilmington Blue Bombers basketball team, and it is likely through their suggestion that he secured a contract from the Wilmington Blue Rocks baseball team. The Blue Rocks were classified at the same level as Winston-Salem, but they played in the Inter-State League, considered a slightly faster circuit.
Nothing much was expected from the college grad, and his poor showing in spring training made his future look dim. However, shortly after the season began, Mickey was thrust into a starting role when Wilmington’s regular third baseman was drafted. He started the season hot, batting well above the .300 mark until a slump in mid-June leveled him out to .280 for the rest of the summer. Mickey quickly took to the alien third base position and carved out a place as the team’s clutch man, rapping out timely hits when the Blue Rocks needed it most. He also was a first rate trash talker and entertained his teammates with what was described as his “keen and ready wit.” He made the Inter-State League All-Star team, and Wilmington papers began calling him “probably the best third baseman to wear a Blue Rock uniform since the team was organized.”
Just when his career seemed to be headed in the right direction, Mickey went to war. Private Rutner’s French language skills made him a staff translator and he was shipped out to North Africa. In late summer 1943, it was rumored that Mickey had been killed in action, but this was proven false when he wrote home that he was safe and sound in Sicily. A bout of malaria sidelined him for a spell, but he was soon in action again, slogging up the Italian boot and on into France and Germany. According to a biographical article by Tom Hawthorne, Mickey’s most harrowing wartime experience came not at the hands of gun-toting Nazi’s, but when Japanese-American troops on the lookout for spies dressed as US GI’s mistook the blond, blue eyed ballplayer for a German infiltrator. The situation was diffused after he correctly answered questions about American subjects, including, thankfully, baseball.
AFTER THREE baseball seasons lost to war, Mickey returned home to find that his Wilmington contract was now owned by the Philadelphia Phillies. The 27 year-old reported to the Phillies farm club spring training in April of 1946 and was assigned back to Wilmington. As if to make up for his lost seasons, Mickey had a spectacular year, batting .310 with 15 home runs, the only time in his career he’d record double digits in dingers. He also was voted to the Inter-State League All-Star team. However, at twenty-seven, the window for advancement to the majors was getting narrower.
Mickey’s contract was picked up by the Birmingham Barons, who were in the Southern League, a rung higher than Wilmington. The Barons were loaded with talent, with more than a dozen players with big league experience. Mickey won the third base job easily and played in every Barons game, hitting .327. He also adapted to the rough and tumble style of play in the Southern League, demonstrating his moxie in an early season brawl with Atlanta’s Red Mathis when the latter crashed into Mickey trying to stretch a double into a triple. Mickey came up swinging and floored Mathis before coach Kiki Cuyler grabbed him and prevented an all-out riot. His clutch hitting and defensive abilities were heralded around the league and, for the third season in a row, he was rewarded with a place on the all-star team. Most importantly, the big leagues finally took notice of Mickey Rutner.
IN AUGUST it was reported that the Philadelphia Athletics, who had a working relationship with Birmingham, selected Mickey on a conditional basis. This meant that the Athletics would put a down payment on his contract and give him a tryout as a late-season call up or spring training invitee. If he made the grade, the Athletics owed the Barons $12,000. If not, he’d be returned to Birmingham. On the surface this looked like a huge step in the right direction, but in reality it would prove detrimental to any hope he had of a major league career. Connie Mack’s Athletics had fallen on hard times in the 1930s and were now perennial cellar dwellers. Pretty much every position on the team was open for improvement – all except third base. The hot corner was owned by Hank Majeski, a veteran with four big league seasons under his belt who swung a solid .280 bat and sucked up any ball that came close to the hot corner.
Nonetheless, Mickey petitioned Mack to bring him up for a late season tryout instead of waiting for the spring. He was already twenty-eight, and time was running out. Connie Mack agreed and Mickey made his big league debut on September 11 against the White Sox. The rookie went 2 for 4, impressing Mack enough that he put him in the next day’s game, too. Mickey went 2 for 6 and scored a run, then followed it up the following afternoon with a 2 for 5 day. Clearly Mickey was making the most of his opportunity. The rookie cooled off over the next week and was batting .220 when the Athletics came into Yankee Stadium for the last weekend of the season.
Saturday, September 27 would be the high point of Mickey’s career. Facing the World Series-bound Yanks, Mickey knocked in a run in the 6th, which was evened up in the bottom half of the inning. The game went into extra innings tied at 1-1. Philadelphia loaded up the bases in their half of the 10th. With one out, Mickey faced the Yanks relief ace, Joe Page. The rookie worked the count to 1 and 1 and then lined a sharp single to short, dramatically scoring the go ahead run. The Athletics would hold on to win, 2-1, with all Philly’s runs courtesy of Mickey Rutner. The next afternoon was the last game of the ’47 season. Mickey went 1 for 4 to put his major league batting average at .250 in the 12 games he played.
The next spring Mickey impressed during training camp but, just before the season opened, he was returned to Birmingham. It can’t be said that he did not have the chops to stay in the majors – he had proven that – what it really came down to was the double M’s: Money and Majeski. The Athletics were on the hook $12,000 to Birmingham if Mickey made the club, and many teams would have gladly shelled out that kind of cash for a starting third baseman of Mickey’s talent. But twelve grand for a backup reserve was too much, and that was exactly what he would be if he played for Philadelphia. Mickey Rutner was damn good, but he was no Hank Majeski.
MICKEY TOOK his return to Birmingham in stride. On the bright side, the team was now in the Red Sox farm system, so he was out from under the Majeski shadow. The bad part was Johnny Pesky was Boston’s third baseman. The Red Sox star had just led the AL in hits two years in a row and would be a Fenway fixture at third for the next five years. Undeterred, Mickey hit .312, made the all-star team again and led the Barons to the pennant. In the playoffs against Nashville, Mickey busted up a double play by crashing into second baseman Buster Boguskie. The collision allowed the winning run to score, but Mickey broke his right collar bone and Boguskie ripped up the ligaments and cartilage in his knee. Mickey had to watch from his hospital bed as the Barons went on to win the Dixie Series, which was played between the champs from the Southern and Texas leagues.
His back-to-back career seasons in Birmingham earned him a promotion to Boston’s top farm club, the Louisville Colonels. Halfway through the summer he was sent to Tulsa in a three-team trade, which made him part of the Cincinnati Reds organization. I know what you’re about to ask: who was the Reds third baseman? That would be Grady Hatton. The 26 year-old already had three full seasons with the Reds and, while he was a proven .270-range hitter, he wasn’t a Pesky or Majeski. In Tulsa, Mickey hit .287 and won a second Dixie Series championship ring.
Now fate and irony conspired even more against Mickey. His showing in Tulsa made it look like he had a slim possibility to break in with the Reds, and when he was picked up by Toronto of the International League in 1950, he was now just a single rung from the majors. That’s where irony slips in. Toronto was the top farm club of the Philadelphia Phillies. 1950 was their “Whiz Kids” pennant winning season. The “Kids” part should clue you in that the Phillies would have no need for a 31 year-old third baseman. Mickey continued to hit .300 through 1953 when a pulled leg muscle convinced him to hang up his spikes.
HE RETURNED to New York and opened up a dry cleaners on Long Island called “Big League Cleaners.” It was around this time that he had a visit from his old Plattsburg teammate, Elly Asinof. After a couple seasons in the low minors, Asinof served in the army, where his commanding officer was famed detective novelist Dashiel Hammett. He encouraged Asinof to pursue writing and, in 1954, he was hungry for a story to tell. He found it in his old friend’s frustrating baseball career.
The novel Man on Spikes tells the story of “Mike Kutner,” a ballplayer whose journey to the majors is foiled at every turn through circumstances he can’t control: dishonest owners, the slave-like shackles of the reserve clause, slightly more talented players above him, and most interestingly, having to wear glasses. This latter impairment is thought to be a stand-in for the real Mickey Rutner’s Judaism. Asinof himself elaborated in the preface to the 1998 reissue of Man on Spikes, “Is there anti-Semitism present in baseball? Does a bear dump in the woods? But the real story was much larger than that. To make my hero a Jew would distort the impact that all ballplayers were victimized.” Asinof even appropriated his old pal’s blue mantra of “fuck ‘em all, big and small,” though he modified it to the less caustic, “Frig ‘em all, big and small.”
Released in 1955, Man on Spikes was Asinof’s first success and was made into a television movie later that same year. Of course Eliot Asinof would return to baseball a few years later with the classic Eight Men Out, the first attempt to tell the story of the 1919 World Series Fix.
The Rutner family had by now grown to include three boys, Toby, Richard and Paul. They settled in Levittown on Long Island where Mickey spent his spare time coaching baseball, instilling a love of the game in the legion of kids he mentored. When it came time for retirement, Mickey and Lee moved to Austin, Texas. To keep active, Mickey took a job with Nolan Ryan’s Round Rock Express baseball team as the official luxury suites greeter. Shaking hands and telling baseball stories, the Man On Spikes wound down his last years working around the game he loved. While undergoing surgery for a torn rotator cuff, Mickey developed a staph infection and passed away at the age of 88.
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Back in 2002, my buddy Charlie Vascellaro and I were taking a traveling Babe Ruth Museum exhibit to minor league ballparks across the country. While in Round Rock, Texas, we were greeted by none other than Mickey Rutner. He was a gracious man and terrific storyteller. The ball he autographed for me sits on the shelf holding the books by my favorite baseball authors.
This week’s story is Number 28 in a series of collectible booklets.
Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 2 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 018 and will be active through October of 2020. Booklets 1-17 can be purchased as a group, too.