Friday, April 3, 2020

This Week In Montgomery Baseball Apr 1-6

The History file is still working, and how! Just a few of the many listings of  exciting events in the past!

APRIL 1st 1904
Boston NL plays exhibition game at Montgomery, game two of a unique series pitting Montgomery against both Boston teams. The NL squad defeats Montgomery 2-1. In the first game, Cy Young pitched three innings for his AL Boston club, winning 3-1.

APRIL 1st 1910
Montgomery plays second of two exhibition games vs Cleveland Indians, losing both. Cy Young is pictured coaching for the Indians while at Montgomery.

APRIL 1 1942
Owner Ben Goltsman confirms Paul Armstrong refused assignment to Dallas, will return to play in Montgomery. Armstrong led team in batting last year.

April 1 1955
Braves vs Dodgers at Montgomery, Paul Hamrick homers

APRIL 1 1977
Rebels sold to Paul Fyffe to a Paintsville Ky radio station owner by Mack McWhorter. The Rebels have won four of the last five SL pennants but won't stay in Montgomery past 1980.

APRIL 2 1948
The Dodgers defeat the hometown Rebels 10-2. Al Gianfroddo homers as Ralph Branca allows 8 hits to the Rebels. Montgomery Pitchers Wendell Davis and Joe Demoran allow 14 hits. Both teams commit a pair of errors, the Dodgers starting nine go the distance with no substitutions in the exhibition game.

APRL 2 1954
RedSox beats Phillies 8-0 in Montgomery exhibition game, Sox pitcher Mel Parnell defeats the Phils Simmons.

April 2 1955 
Pittsburgh Pirates face the Baltimore Orioles at Montgomery, win 5-3

APRIL 3 1911
Montgomery Stars face the Brooklyn Royal Giants in Montgomery

APRIL 3 1935
Dizzy Dean fined before the game at Montgomery for missing the train to the previous days game.

APRIL 3 1941
The Boston RedSox face the Cinci Reds in an exhibition game, Cincinnati's Johnny Vandermeer wins as the Reds down the Red Sox 5-1 at Cramton Bowl.

APRIL 4 1936 
Phillies vs Chicago in MGM exhibition game, Bill Lee to start for Chicago, intends to pitch all nine innings if the weather is warm. Cubs win 11-1 and Lee does indeed pitch a complete game.

APRIL 4 1946 
Tigers 5 Boston Braves 3 in MGM exhibition game, greenberg homered and drove in four runs, missing a triple for the cycle

APRIL 4 1952
Braves vs Dodgers in MGM exhibition game, braves doc donovan beats chris van cuyk 7-0 on the strength of home runs by Dick Williams and Roy Campanella. Jackie Robinson was hitless in four trips.

APRIL 4 1936 
Cubs vs Phillies in Montgomery, the first of two planned games. The Cubs win the game 11-1 in a hitfest for Chicago batters. Stan Hack, Charlie Grimm, Chuck Klein and Frank Demare each had multiple hits in the game for the Cubs. In spite of the drubbing, the Phils only used two pitchers.

APRIL 4 1953 
Red Sox turn triple play vs Phillies in first inning of exhibition game but lose 6-4

APRIL 4 1955 
Giants vs Indians at Montgomery, Johnny Antonelli against Bob Feller. Also featured are future Hall of Fame outfielders Willie Mays and Larry Doby. Ralph Kiner and Vic Wertz each homer as the Indians defeat New York in a rematch of previous World Series, 9-5.

APRIL 5 1936
Rain washes out the second game of the Cubs-Phillies series.

APRIL 5 1946
Detroit v Boston Braves at Montgomery, the future Hall of Famer Tigers Hank Greenberg homers, doubles and singles, driving the Tigers win 5-3. The Detroit Tigers, are the reigning World Champs.

APRIL 5 1949
Rebels host Phillies, get beat 2-1 in rain shortened six inning match. Less than a thousand patrons turned out for the first of a two game exhibition series.

APRIL 5 1969
Cincinnati vs Detroit in exhibition game in Mgm is rained out

APRIL 6 1946
In second game of an exhibition doubleheader, Boston Red Sox loses to Cinci 7-5, after winning the first contest. Both games were seven innings.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Tale of Big Chief and the Twenty-Eight Lions

Once upon a time there was a great chief. He came from the west to lead his twenty eight lions. The chief was strong and sacrificed much to lead his lions to victory. Then the chief disappeared, never to be seen again, leaving only legends behind.

It's a true story, a sad tale, of what some call Montgomery's greatest team and its forgotten hero. 

Todays post took a little longer to write and research, and ended up hitting a little closer to home than I anticipated. As a result its a little longer than usual, grab a beverage and take it in. Then let me know what you think in the comments section.

Or two. A couple of photos show up on eBay that catch my eye. In a pair of aged snapshots people are posing with a player in a jersey that says "MONTGOMERY" across the chest.

It's an afternoon, told by the shadows at their feet. The two young women in the images are wearing distinct 1920's fashions - cloche hats, silk stockings and a long string of beads.

The player's face is dark and sunworn, his uniform dirty, perhaps the game just finished or maybe infield dirt has become woven permanently into the fabric. The center figure is a bright young lady in a white dress and wide smile. Another couple poses alongside them, standing on the field with the grandstand behind them.

She holds his bat, he holds her purse.

The other men in the photos have very short neckties and one sports a floppy newsboy cap. Behind them uniformed players pass a nearly empty grandstand over which looms a bulky wooden roof. The carefree attitude of the roaring twenties emanates from the snapshots, inspired in part by the jaunty angle of the camera and perhaps prohibition-era bathtub gin.

Questions rush like a streetcar on a Madison Avenue hill, begging the circumstances of this window in time. This moment from the past is frozen, yet offers few explanations to a viewer now so distant.

As ballparks go, Cramton Bowl was a fine venue for baseball, known among MLB players as one of the finest parks in the south. In photos it is usually easy to identify, due to the landmarks both on the field and nearby. The left field slope and very deep center field is unique, as is the architecture of the building next door, still extant as "The Armory Learning Arts Center".

However, few of those features can be seen in the snapshots. Yet the angles of the walls and the roofing appear to be none other than the home park of Montgomery teams from 1921-1950. By looking at the angle of the photo, the third base bleachers and the rear wall look to be matches in both images with this picture of Cramton Bowl.

Perhaps a better view of the area shown in the background of the photos...

In order to learn the identity of the player, I compared his uniform to those of other player images I had seen. It matched the togs worn in a picture of "Goat" Walker, who pitched for Montgomery in two different stints nearly twenty years apart. The match comes from the mid-1920's era.

So far it looks like we have a photo of a Montgomery player taken at Cramton Bowl in about 1927. Knowing the year, I went through the newspapers from that season and among the photos on the sports pages that summer was a face that I recognized from the photos.

Our posing player is "Chief" Rodrigues.

Freddy Rodrigues came to Montgomery in 1927 in a midseason makeover that included replacing outgoing veteran skipper Nig Leonard with even more veteran Bill Pierre as manager, as well as a flurry of player moves.

Sold by the Charlotte Hornets as an infielder, Rodrigues became the left fielder for the Montgomery Lions.

Freddy insisted that his name ends with an s and not a z, his first name is Fred but is more often dubbed in the press by any of a variety of ethnic slurs/nicknames such as Indian, Big Chief or Wampam (sic).

The Big Chief is often listed as being from Mexico and plays his winter ball south of the border. Rodrigues is a powerhitting lefthanded batter who handles the position change from infield to the Montgomery outfield easily in 1927.

The roster rebuild is more effective than expected, turning the fourth place Montgomery club into the Lions their namesake implies. Led by the strong play of Rodrigues and the other new players, Montgomery moves into second place by the end of the season, much to the surprise of everyone.

In those days, teams would hold a promotional day to honor their best player, usually at the end of the year. Often these included giving gifts and passing the hat to provide a cash bonus as a reward. This Montgomery team did so well in the second half of the year, fans held a "WHOLE DAMN TEAM DAY" and gave all the players gifts and cash.

Returning in 1928, expectations were a little higher.

It started well, with an exhibition game against the New York Yankees, who brought back their legendary '27 roster. Of course the Yankees won, but the Lions picked up a pair of runs on six hits and made a respectable showing. Fans did enjoy Babe Ruth's triple and Lou Gehrig had two hits and two runs scored.

Then the local boys prevailed in an exhibition game against the major league Indians, shutting out the Cleveland club and winning 4-0.

It was a boost to morale, to say the least.

The local paper and its staff were among the staunchest boosters, offering more info and images on this club than usual. Among those pictures is a view of the Lions spring training at Cramton Bowl, which gives another view of the third base bleachers and clubhouse seen in the pair of eBay pictures.
Montgomery Lions Spring Training 1928

The Montgomery Lions roster has the attention of the southern sportswriters. The rookie pitching leaves some question marks and the outfielders are also somewhat unproven. Using three converted infielders to patrol the grassy fields, manager Bill Pierre is taking a chance that they will hit well enough to overcome defensive issues.

Four Montgomery players of this club would get to the majors. Pete Susko, pitcher Orin Collier, Joe Hutcheson, Joe Palmisano were on their way up, each would appear in just a handful of MLB games, each with different big league teams.

Veteran infielder Dan Seremba is a reliable shortstop and one of the more steady players on the Montgomery roster in the late 1920's, though he never gets to the big leagues.

The Lions' pitching staff is led by the aforementioned Roy "Goat" Walker, who is at the height of his first tenure in Montgomery and easily the clubs most dependable moundsman.

In a ten day stretch, Goat wins six out of seven games for the Lions and in one of the contests hits two home runs to win the game singlehandedly.

Pitchers Floyd Van Pelt and Shovel Hodge are deployed to fill out
the starting rotation, though neither is yet a proven pitcher. Ralph Stewart is bought from Birmingham to bolster the staff.

With the strong finish to the previous season and the new additions, fans are looking forward to big things from the Montgomery team in 1928. Even the cartoonist for the local paper started including the team, often landing on the editorial page.

The Montgomery Lions begin the season on the road in Selma, playing at Rowell Field on April 11th, as seen in this rare shot of the 1928 Opening Day ceremonies.

The Lions play well in the first half of the season, which was divided much as modern minor leagues employ a split season. The club experiences the normal ups and downs of the season, fighting with the Pensacola Flyers for the top spot.

The rules of the league dictate that if the same team wins both halves of the season, they win the pennant and no playoffs will take place. So when Pensacola edges Montgomery for the first half flag, Montgomery must win to force a playoff series.

In the second half, the Lions roar.

Pitching is the Lions strength and Montgomery hurlers pepper the league leaderboards.

Floyd Van Pelt wins 26 games, ties for the league lead. Ralph Stewart, brought in as insurance, pays off by winning twenty five contests. Goat Walker wins eighteen games.

Stewart takes the league title with a stellar 2.24 ERA, just edging teammate Van Pelt's 2.37 ERA.
Let that sink in... combined 51 wins and ERA under 2.35 for two guys not considered as the team ace.

On the batting side, Big Chief Rodrigues is credited with six homers and eleven triples, leading the team in both stats and good for fourth in the league triples category.

The Lions top hitter is Pete Susko who bats .353, good for a top five showing in the circuit.

The Montgomery Lions handle Pensacola in the playoffs, beating them in five games to win the Southeastern League title, the first pennant winner in Montgomery history.

As a bonus, for winning the Southeastern League, the Montgomery Lions get to face the SALLY League champion Asheville Tourists, touted as the championship series of the south.

The underdog Lions rose to the task, beating the favored Tourists in a series capped by pitcher Van Pelt's masterful one-hit shutout in the deciding final game.
Montgomery wins rare minor league title!

After improving in 1927 and winning it all in 1928, the Montgomery Lions have a budding dynasty. The following season saw the team return most of its players and started strong, winning the first half flag with a 45-29 record.

However the team would see its fortunes changes quickly, falling to the basement and have its heart broken.

Just a few days before the end of the first half of the season, there is a big surprise in the newspaper.

Chief Rodrigues married his sweetheart, nineteen year old Ruth Mungo in a quiet ceremony.

Ruthie was born in north Alabama, she lives in Nashville and Chattanooga before coming to Montgomery in 1926. Ruth Mungo is a popular girl and enjoys traveling widely around the south, appearing on the society pages in cities like Jacksonville, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina.

A well-bred girl, Ruth Mungo is known for her charity work and church activities. Being well connected from a small town family might be the reason she and Freddy kept it quiet, until they couldn't anymore. (what with the newspaper article coming out and all...)

Unfortunately, the Big Chief and his young bride are thrown into the hands of fate, just a few short weeks later.

A terrible tragedy during the 4th of July, with the team on the road, occurs when Ruth drowns while learning to swim during a picnic outing. Rodrigues is crushed, telling young batboy Bobby Bonifay (father of future MLB GM Cam Bonifay) "You're all I've got now, Bobby."

The fans rally behind the team, helping Rodrigues in any way they can, passing the hat for donations, which are plentiful. The team wore black armbands and the flag at Cramton Bowl was flown at half staff, the mood around the club somber and reserved. The press no longer refers to Rodrigues as Chief or any other ethnic slur/nickname, going with Roddy instead.

Rodrigues leaves the team for two days to attend the funeral, then returns to the club and begins a long streak of multi hit games.

Fred Rodrigues pushes through the anguish, perhaps relieving his grief through his work on the ballfield or perhaps just using his natural ability to guide him as he sleepwalks through games. Whatever the reason, Rodrigues, batting .317 at the end of June, finished with a .283 average for the season and he doesn't miss a game after returning from Ruth's funeral in Nashville.

The Lions as a team are rocked by the event. From a hot 5-0 record to start the second half of the season the Lions fall all the way to last place by the end of July. Ace hurler Goat Walker is struck by a comebacker, earning a broken finger in the first of a rash of injuries. Then there is a ten game losing streak.

Montgomery won the first half easily but their last place second half showing offers little hope for the playoff bound Lions and their fans. In the postseason series against the Tampa Smokers, Montgomery quickly dropped into a deep hole by losing two of the first three playoff games.

The Lions, called the Monarchs in local press after winning the Class B title the previous year, refuse to give up. They win the must-win game, but still need two more victories.

The next day is a rain out, but not simply a rain out. With Tampa ahead 4-2 in the fourth inning, an error by Montgomery shortstop Seremba extended the inning when the skies opened up and rain stopped play for the day.

How a shortstops error saves his teams season!
It was called the first break of the series to go the Lions way - stopping the game was a call questionable enough that one Tampa pitcher punched the lead umpire during a fracas over the decision to wash out a game with Tampa leading. The next day the Lions handily won the make-up game, forcing a winner-take-all game seven.

In the seventh game, Montgomery led three to nothing going into the eighth inning. After a lengthy rain delay, Tampa scores three runs on a muddy field to tie the game.

Fred Rodrigues makes a huge play by throwing out a runner at the plate to keep the game tied. Umpires call the game due to darkness, resulting in a tie game and requiring the two clubs to face off in an unusual game eight (or nine, if you count the rain-out as a game played!).

The Tampa Smokers are overwhelmed by Lions pitcher Buck Kirsch, who masterfully shuts them out on four hits. Montgomery wins the game 6-0 and takes the Southeastern League championship for the second consecutive year.


 Montgomery is the first team to repeat as Southeastern League champions, earning the league flag in back to back seasons.

Chief Rodrigues had seven hits in the series and played solid defense in left field, including a crucial throwing play to save a run and a game.

The Lions best hitter in the series is Pete Kloza, he bats .280 with four runs batted in.

Pitcher Goat Walker gets five at bats, has three hits and two runs driven in.

Doc Seremba steals seven bases but makes fourteen errors in the rain soaked series, including one that saved the entire season.

There is no cross-league challenge this season, so after the game the champion Montgomery Lions disperse for the winter.

The Chief Returns to Montgomery but many of the players from the previous year do not. Six of the players in the championship game, including Kloza, Holt, Abernathy, Kirsch and Pickett are with other teams.

Freddy Rodrigues arrives for spring camp in mid-March but by April Rodrigues is reportedly having arm troubles and falls out of the lineup after the middle of the month. A sore throwing arm sends him to the injured/suspended list at the end of May.

Fred "Big Chief" Rodrigues never plays organized ball again.

The trail goes cold after Roddy is released. Baseball Reference lists Roddy on two different pages, F.S. Rodrigues and F. Rodrigues, obviously they are one and the same. One business related piece of paperwork from the mid-1930's pops up in Fort Worth, then nothing.

Its tough to track Rodrigues, being a common name in Texas, so there is room for improvement on this bio.

This reporter discovered a contact card left with the Sporting News, now in the collection of the Los Angeles Olympics archives, which gives the most complete detail of his career as a ballplayer.

It suggests he was born in San Antonio (not Mexico) on May 18, 1905. He bats left and throws right, weighs 185 and stands just under six feet tall.

It implies Fred Rodrigues became a plumber after baseball. It also looks to be mis-labeled as basketball-football. From semi-pro teams in San Antonio to Okmulgee to Charlotte to Montgomery over the course of four seasons, Roddy has a pretty short career. He had a three year contract with Montgomery and was released at the end of May in 1930.

The place for indicating "married" is left blank.

The images found on eBay are of Fred Rodrigues and his young June bride, Ruth Mungo-Rodrigues. While tough to see in the image, she is displaying her wedding band in one photo. The images were taken in the month of June, 1929, shortly after the wedding. The number 19 is printed on the back of both photos, likely placing the date June 19th as when the prints were made.