Youngblood McCrary: Beloit's Negro Leagues star
- Article by: JIM FRANZ
- Associated Press
- October 5, 2013 - 12:48 AM
BELOIT, Wis. — Bill "Youngblood" McCrary's photo has hung in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
In his hometown, though, he's still a relative unknown, the Beloit Daily News reported.
It would probably have stayed that way, too, if not for former Beloit Police Chief Dick Thomas stopping into a sports-themed restaurant in Hot Springs Village, Ark.
"The restaurant is called The Home Plate and has photos of old baseball players all over," Thomas said in a telephone call. "I noticed one had a name under it as well as his hometown. Beloit, Wis. That really caught my eye."
A little investigating by the former police officer revealed the young ballplayer in the Kansas City Monarchs uniform was not only a fellow former Beloiter, but also alive and well and living in the town.
Thomas wrote to McCrary and followed up with a telephone call, learning a whole lot about his exploits in the Negro Leagues. Thomas decided it was time the rest of Beloit knew it, too.
McCrary was born in Beloit on Nov. 5, 1929. He grew up living in Apartment 2 in the Fairbanks Flats and learned the fundamentals of baseball from legendary Beloit coach Harry Pohlman.
"My baseball career took off in Legion ball when I was coached by Mr. Pohlman," McCrary said.
In fact, if it wasn't for Pohlman's persistence, McCrary's tenure with the Monarchs likely never would have happened.
"The St. Louis Cardinals were having a tryout in Beloit when I was 17," McCrary said. "That was 1946. Mr. Pohlman asked if I was going and I told him I wasn't because they weren't taking black players back then. Why waste my time? He came over to my house and made me get on my bike and ride over to the tryout. He followed me in his car
"There were about 50 players and I was the only black. After the tryout was over they called everybody to the center of the diamond. I just got on my bike and pedaled home. I didn't see why I should stick around. At 6 that night we got a knock on the door and it was Mr. Pohlman and the Cardinals scout and they wanted to speak to me and my dad. They asked me if I wanted to play baseball.
"The scout told me I was the most talented player at the tryout. He wanted to take me to St. Louis, but he couldn't do that. So he told me he'd send me to a really good team in the Negro League."
McCrary not only picked up a spot on the team after a tryout in Kansas City, he also earned a nickname that would follow him even today.
"Satchel Paige looked around at all the new, young players and said, 'Now we have some young blood," McCrary said. "Pretty soon they were calling me 'Youngblood' and it stuck.'
That replaced an earlier nickname of "Bootch" he'd picked up in Beloit.
"I don't even know who gave that one to me or why," he said with a laugh. "I liked Youngblood better anyway."
After graduating from high school, McCrary returned to Kansas City and found himself playing alongside or against players he had idolized, like "Cool Papa" Bell, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, Josh Gibson and Paige.
Jackie Robinson had played for the Monarchs in 1945, but he was already headed to the Brooklyn Dodgers' farm team in Montreal.
"To be honest, there were better players in the league, but (Dodgers owner) Branch Rickey knew Jackie was the right guy to break the color barrier," McCrary said. "Jackie had been in college at UCLA and had played sports there. He was intelligent and he had the right personality to do it."
McCrary was no stranger to racism growing up.
"When I was playing Legion ball, there were places we played that wouldn't serve (blacks)," he said. "But Mr. Pohlman always said you either feed everybody or you don't feed anybody."
Beloit's baseball had been segregated since the 1920s. For decades, the all-black Beloit Red Sox, Tigers and Phillies played their games at Edgewater Park. White teams played across town at Summitt Park.
When the Daily News published a story in 1997 about sandlot baseball at Edgewater Park, McCrary's name was front and center.
"He played third, short, he could run, hit and throw," Carl Edwards of the 1940s Phillies said. "I think everyone agrees he was the best."
Lawrence Hoskins, another ex-Phillie, said, "McCrary was amazing. Of all the guys I played with, he was the one I thought could have been a big league player. Even in the 1950s, it was hard for a black guy to make it to the majors. If you weren't a sure-fire star you usually were let go."
With the Monarchs, McCrary roomed at the Streets Hotel, which was owned by J.L. Wilkinson, the owner of the team.
"Satchel took me in and he treated me like I was his son," McCrary said.
McCrary mostly sat the bench his first season while the Monarchs went on to win the league championship. With 10 overall pennants, they tied the Homestead Grays as the most successful of the Negro League teams.
McCrary became the Monarch's regular shortstop in 1948. The 5-foot-10, 175-pounder ended up playing with the team two seasons and finished with a lifetime batting average of .341.
"We were one of the league's better teams throughout the years," he said. "We drew nice crowds. When we played at Comiskey and the Cubs played at Wrigley we outdrew them. Over half the crowd was white for our games. They wanted to come out and see our stars."
The money was OK, too.
"The most I ever made playing ball was $850 a month," McCrary said. "It doesn't sound like much now, but back then that was a lot of money."
In the off-season, McCrary played for the barnstorming Satchel Paige All-Stars.
"We traveled all around," McCrary said. "The team traveled by bus, but Satchel usually flew in. We played the Western League All-Stars in Des Moines with (Ernie) Banks playing for the All-Stars. Satchel got there 15 minutes before game time, threw three warmup pitches and said he was ready to go. He got through six innings of no-hit ball and in the seventh he told everybody to sit down except the catcher. He struck out the side."
Jackson's breakthrough in major league baseball ultimately killed the Negro League. Its stars were signed away by the big league teams and the league gradually lost its following.
"I ended up signing with the Yankees and then I moved around the minors some," McCrary said. "I played in Fargo, N.D., and there were only two blacks in town, me and some older fella. The other players all lived with families. I had to stay in a hotel. But there was a guy named Tracy who would pick me up and take me places. He was a really good guy. After I got married and we had a son I named him after him."
McCrary hung up his spikes after playing for several minor league teams, including the Janesville Cubs in 1950, as well as the semi-pro Omaha Rockets.
Tired of the grind of minor-league ball, McCrary went on to work at Alcoa and General Motors. He moved to Naperville, Ill., before finally relocating to Hot Springs.
While he is "in pretty good health," McCrary rarely visits Beloit these days, admitting his most recent visit was "five or 10 years ago."
"I used to have a lot of family and friends there, but a lot have passed," he said.
McCrary does see his old Negro League teammates occasionally. In 2000, McCrary and his wife were invited to Kansas City for a reunion sponsored by the Negro League Museum.
"My wife came up to me, grabbed my arm and said, 'Come here, I want to show you something," McCrary said. "We walked around a corner and she pointed at a picture of me. It brought tears to my eyes."
McCrary's wife passed away two years ago and he believes many of his teammates have also died.
"They say there still could be as many as 100 former players out there," he said. "They should know, but I just can't see it. I would think 40 or 50 would be closer. I hope we have another reunion sometime soon."
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Beloit Daily News
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