When Jackie Robinson integrated the International League in 1946, there were 52 minor leagues operating in North America. It was up to 51 other strong individuals to be the first in the other 51 leagues. Mickey Stubblefield was one of them.
Mayfield, Kentucky June 26, 1952
Outside the Mayfield Clothiers’ locker room, 1,500 people packed Graves County War Memorial Park. Although Mayfield was mired in last place, the game was completely sold out and the crowd had overflowed into the football stadium bleachers beyond the park’s right field wall. Something big was happening that day, and that something was integration. Mayfield native Mickey Stubblefield was about to become the first Black ballplayer in the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League, affectionately called the “Kitty League.” Buttoning up his home white jersey with “Clothiers” across the front, the team’s new pitcher listened with apprehension to the rumble of the crowd. It wasn’t the size that bothered him; heck, with the Kansas City Monarchs he’d played to Major League-sized crowds. No, it wasn’t the size of the crowd; it was the uncertainty of it. The Kitty League had always been a Whites-only circuit. Even the Negro Leagues, which had teams in all parts of the country including the deep south, had failed to take hold in any of the towns the Kitty League represented. This was Jim Crow territory, and by stepping out onto that field, Mickey Stubblefield was about to deal him a mighty blow.
Mickey was raised not too far from the ballpark he was now scheduled to pitch in. He was born on February 26, 1926, the fifth of Harrison and Mary Stubblefield’s six kids.
Mickey’s real name was Wilker Harrison Thelbert Stubblefield, with “Wilker” being his mother’s maiden name and “Harrison” after his father. Life was tough for the Stubblefield family. His father worked as a highway laborer for a while then took up farming. Money was tight, and the family had to rely on hand-me-downs from older siblings and relatives to keep everyone clothed – and this is how young Wilker became Mickey.
Because he’d become known as a baseball player, it would be easy to think that the nickname came from being a fan of Mickey Cochrane, the Hall of Fame catcher for the great Philadelphia Athletics teams of the 1920s and 30s. In fact, the nickname was given to him because the over-sized hand-me-down shoes he wore reminded people of the shoes worn by Mickey Mouse!
Tragedy struck the Stubblefield’s in 1932 when Mary passed away. Harrison remarried a woman named Mittie Councle, but that would be short-lived. In early November 1937 Harrison took ill and was taken to a hospital in Memphis. Doctors could not save him, and two days after Christmas the patriarch of the Stubblefield family passed away from an aneurism. This left Mickey and his five siblings orphans. The children were passed around between whichever family member had the means to care for them. Despite this transient lifestyle, the one constant in Mickey’s life was baseball. At 11 he became the batboy to the Mayfield Clothiers, the Kitty League team for whom he would one day pitch.
When the war came, Mickey joined the Navy and served at various bases stateside. When he was honorably discharged from the service in 1946, Mickey didn’t have a vocation to return to. When a Navy buddy wrote to him about a spot on a barnstorming baseball team out of Nebraska, and even offered to send money for a ticket, he jumped at the chance.
The Omaha Rockets were an all-black traveling team that covered the dusty plains playing in the small towns professional baseball never reached. Black barnstorming teams were an annual treat for baseball fans living far from the bigger cities, and the Omaha Rockets were one of the last of their kind. Soon the advent of television and the recent lifting of baseball’s color barrier would spell the end of this rural tradition.
In addition to their baseball team, the Rockets also fielded a barnstorming basketball team in the winter months. Showing his all-around athletic prowess, Mickey joined the traveling basketball team as well.
For the organized Negro Leagues too, baseball’s integration marked the beginning of the end. As all the best players were relentlessly signed away, fresh blood was needed to keep this proud Black institution operating. The venerable Kansas City Monarchs, winners of over ten Negro American League pennants, were no exception, and Mickey Stubblefield soon found himself wearing the uniform of black baseball’s premier franchise.
Most researchers have found this part of Mickey’s career a little tough to fully understand. The reason being is that there is no “Mickey Stubblefield” listed as playing for the Kansas City Monarchs during the years 1948-49 in which he is reported to have pitched for the team. However, this doesn’t mean he wasn’t with the Monarchs – he was – it’s just that the explanation is a bit complicated.
The Kansas City Monarchs are one of the most well-documented Blackball teams. Their perennial success and popularity with fans meant that their games were covered in a wide variety of newspapers across the country. Keeping track of the players and statistics of a team like the Monarchs becomes a challenge because of the nature of the Negro Leagues as an industry. Unlike the White major and minor leagues whose profits came solely from official league games, the Negro Leagues played a much more varied schedule. For example, in 1948 the Kansas City Monarchs played 104 official games against teams in the Negro American League. However, the team also played many more games against both town and industrial teams but also “unofficial” contests against teams from the Negro American League that did not count in the standings. The reason for this was because the unofficial exhibition games in smaller towns and cities were very lucrative and allowed many a Blackball team to make a profit. So, where does Mickey fit into this?
Because the Monarchs played so many games that didn’t count in the standings against lesser talented opponents, the team often fielded their younger players and reserves and held their starters back for the more important official league games. This meant that even if a player got into dozens of games, if it wasn’t a Negro American League game, his statistics were not counted in the official records of the team. Because the Negro Leagues didn’t have a minor league or farm system like the White major leagues, many Black players got their start appearing in the non-league games to gain experience and prove their talents.
The Monarchs organization, which Mickey Stubblefield joined in 1948, boasted one of the best pitching staffs in Blackball. The rotation was of All-Star caliber: Hilton Smith, Lefty LaMarque, Connie Johnson and of course, the legendary Satchel Paige. With just a summer of semi-pro ball under his belt, it would have been a longshot at best for Mickey to have cracked that rotation. Though it is undocumented, it would have been likely Mickey would have joined the Monarchs for spring training down south. Their manager Buck O’Neil would have evaluated his squad and decided who to use as his starters as well as additional players who could stay with the club to be used in the less important non-league games. The Kansas City Monarchs were unique in that besides the team Buck O’Neil managed, which competed in the Negro American League, there was a SECOND Kansas City Monarchs team.
This second club was an exclusively on the road traveling team. This was due to the popularity of the Monarchs name, especially west of the Mississippi. The Monarchs had fielded this second team since the late 1930s and it often featured the great Satchel Paige as its main attraction. Besides giving the organization a second revenue stream, it helped develop the younger players and give them a path to advance to the main Monarchs club. It is for this second traveling Monarchs team that Mickey Stubblefield pitched.
Mickey, being chosen for the traveling Monarchs, turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to his career. The team was managed by James “Cool Papa” Bell, a legendary Negro Leagues star whose clutch hitting and blinding speed on the bases eventually earned him a plaque in Cooperstown. In 1948 Bell was at the end of his long career, but his name still brought people to the ballpark to see him play. However, the team’s biggest attraction was Satchel Paige. Satchel was the most recognized ballplayer outside the major leagues, and many believed it was Paige who would have been chosen to break baseball’s color line, not the relatively unknown Jackie Robinson. Paige would get his chance in the majors, but in the spring of 1948, he was still pitching for the Monarchs.
Luckily for Mickey Stubblefield, the great pitcher took a shine to him. Paige taught his young protégé how to throw a curve as well as a multitude of baffling windups and delivery styles. With Mickey being a diminutive 5’ 9” to his elongated 6’ 3”, Paige dubbed Mickey “Lil’ Satch” or “Little Satchel” and told reporters that “if he was a foot taller he could use him as a double on the mound.” The Monarchs seized on this ready-made marketing gimmick and billed Mickey as “Little Satchel” in their press releases. The pair pitched together until July 7 when Paige was signed by the Cleveland Indians.
After his mentor departed for the majors, Mickey Stubblefield took over as the team’s marquee pitcher. Paige must have also tutored “Little Satchel” in showmanship because one can find Mickey’s playful quips being quoted in local newspapers as the traveling Monarchs toured the country. One article from Yuba City, California tells of how Mickey told the local team before the game, “if you get any hits, Brother, you’ll work for them.” True to his word, Mickey went on to pitch a 2-hitter. Another story from Regina, Saskatchewan has Mickey taking in a sportswriter’s (presumably loud) sport jacket and proclaiming, “That’s what I been waiting for, Brother, where can I get one of those?”
Life with the traveling Monarchs was hard. The team was on the road for the entirely of the summer, covering upwards of thirty states plus Canada. Racism was a hazard that could rear up at any time and at any moment. In a very poignant interview with Mickey Stubblefield filmed by Todd Spoth for an exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Mickey tells of an incident when he was with the Monarchs in Canada. A White man in the stands kept calling out “N*gg*r!, N*gg*r!, N*gg*r!” Mickey continues, “It didn’t bother us at all, you know, because we’d been called “N*gg*r!, N*gg*r!, N*gg*r!” all over the world at the time back then, but anyway, his wife smacked him, and the cops took him outta the park. So he was embarrassed more than we were, because we were men, and we prayed for the people that didn’t understand.” At this point in the interview Mickey wells up and sobs into his hand for a moment before saying, “I said it didn’t bother us, but it did.”
Besides the racism they often faced, the team sometimes played two games a day in different towns. When they slept in hotels it was usually a second-rate rooming house, and meals were either eaten on the bus in transit or at a rare Black-friendly roadside diner. It was a tough life and many players succumbed to the temptations of the road. Mickey was more disciplined than many his age and he avoided drinking much and never took up smoking. He even got married and began a family.
No concrete records survive from Mickey’s 1948 and 1949 seasons with the Monarchs. In the 2000 book The Negro Leagues Revisited, Stubblefield told author Brent Kelley that his record was “maybe 15-10.” Mickey’s 2013 obituary in the McCook Gazette has him winning 20 games in 1948. The Seamheads.com Negro League Database, the best source for up-to-date Blackball stats, does not show Stubblefield appearing in any official Negro American League games, though their database does not extend beyond the 1948 season.
Towards the end of the summer of 1949, the Monarchs were in McCook, Nebraska where Mickey caught the attention of Dr. Dennis, president of the Nebraska Independent League, a top-notch integrated semi-pro circuit. According to the biography on mickeystubblefield.com, Dennis purchased “Little Satchel” from the Monarchs and assigned him to the McCook Cats. Mickey finished out the season with the Cats and returned for the next year. Records for 1950 are all over the place, with various sources placing Mickey’s record at 15-3, 13-6 and even 2-4. By now Mickey was 24 and a married family man. Thinking about his future, he gave up pro ball and returned to Mayfield, Kentucky. To keep his love of the game alive he played semi-pro ball for the Dr. Pepper bottling plant he worked at. For a veteran barnstormer and protégé of Satchel Paige, playing industrial league ball was a piece of cake, and his advanced level of play with the Dr. Pepper nine and other local teams soon attracted attention.
Mayfield was still home to the Mayfield Clothiers, the team Mickey had been a batboy for back in the 1930s. The Clothiers played in the still-segregated Kitty League and were part of the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system. The Pirates had barely limped through the war years and were consistently stuck at the bottom of the National League standings. To change their fortunes, the Pirates brought in Branch Rickey as their general manager. Rickey had previously revitalized the St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers franchises, and in 1946 signed Jackie Robinson to break baseball’s color line. With him in Pittsburgh was his son, Branch Rickey, Jr., who ran the team’s farm system.
One afternoon in late June 1952, Mickey was making a delivery of Dr. Pepper to the Graves County War Memorial Park, the Mayfield Clothiers ballpark. It turned out that this stop was no ordinary pop delivery. In a 1952 article in the Louisville Defender, Mickey said he was carrying the bottles to the concession stand when two men called out to him. “These two told me they were representatives of the Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball organization, Branch Rickey, Jr., and scout Bill Burrell. After an introduction an appointment was made to talk terms of a contract in playing ball with the Mayfield Clothiers.”
Whether Mickey’s signing was looked at by the Rickey’s as the acquisition of a promising prospect or a shrewd way to pack the stands with Black fans, or a combination of both, is not known. What is documented is that until June 26, 1952, the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League was an all-white affair. Which brings us back to Mickey and the sold out game at Mayfield’s Graves County War Memorial Park.
Grabbing his glove, Mickey emerged from the dugout and ran onto the field to start the game against the Paducah Indians. All apprehension subsided when he quickly realized the crowd was cheering for, not against him. Standing atop the mound, he could see that 1,500 Black and White fans were on their feet giving him a standing ovation. When he struck out the first batter, Mickey also struck out Jim Crow.
He won the game 5-4, giving up 6 hits and striking out six Indians. While it would be great to write that the addition of Mickey was the spark that ignited the Mayfield Clothiers to make a pennant run, it was not to be. The Clothiers still had a terrible team despite Mickey’s decent pitching, finishing dead last. A check of the 1952 Kitty League record book shows that Mickey Stubblefield won 7 and lost 6. His 3.71 ERA was pretty good considering that even the lousiest team in the league scored an average of five runs a game that summer.
Hampering his usefulness was that only one other Kitty League team, the Paducah Indians, would allow Mickey to pitch in their ballparks. Most of the cities which fielded Kitty League teams still imposed segregation laws prohibiting the races from mixing in publicly owned stadiums. Jackson, Tennessee was willing to allow Mickey to play in their park, but the game he was scheduled to pitch was rained out.
Mixing of the races also played into why 1952 was Mickey’s only year in the Kitty League. The league agreed that beginning in 1953 no other Black ballplayer would be signed because of the difficulty finding facilities that would accommodate them. While finding separate hotels and restaurants that would serve Blacks proved a problem, it was a technical way of saying that except for Mayfield, Paducah, and Jackson, no other city was willing to change their Jim Crow laws just yet.
But Mickey Stubblefield’s year as a racial pioneer had deeper repercussions in the Civil Rights movement. His appearance in the previous all-White league joined with all the other individual strides made against segregation. Right there in Mayfield, the tide of integration once again swept into the little town in 1956. Ten black students enrolled in the all-White Mayfield High instead of the all-Black Dunbar High, Mickey’s alma mater. It was a brave move and one that ended peacefully as the ten teens attended class without anything more serious happening than a meager walk-out demonstration. Within two years, segregated education in Mayfield was a thing of the past.
As for Mickey, after the 1952 season he moved on to the Duluth Dukes of the Northern League. He was 2-0 when his arm went bad. Again, trying to mix a career with baseball, Mickey rejoined the McCook Cats and worked in a Chevy dealership. He liked Nebraska and made it his home, raising ten kids. His days as a star ballplayer with the Cats made him a popular figure after he retired from the game, and he even had his own radio show on WKTM called “Kick with Mick.” With his kids grown, Mickey moved back to Mayfield, Kentucky in 1970, but returned to Nebraska in 2011 as the Grand Marshall of McCook’s “Heritage Days Festival.”
When he passed away in 2013, Mickey Stubblefield could look back with pride at the modest but important part he played in making baseball truly the National Pastime.
* * *
For more about Lil’ Satch check out the website mickeystubblefield.com and J.G. Preston’s article “On Mickey Stubblefield, who broke the color barrier in the Kitty League” on his website prestonjg.wordpress.com
* * *
This week’s story is Number 45 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 4 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 042 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-41 can be purchased as a group, too.