Thursday, March 15, 2018

Vintage Brew: “Playing it Forward… James Buster Clarkson”

James "Buster" Clarkson was known mostly as a Negro League ball player, he played with his fellow soldiers during World War 2 and his minor league career included the 1950-1952 seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers. He had a short cup of Joe in the majors with the Boston Braves, but the well-traveled Clarkson was much more to those who really knew him and caught the "Bus."

"Playing it Forward…James Buster Clarkson"
by Paul Tenpenny
Copyright 2018 Tencentzports
Printed with permission of the Author

In the summer of 2016 I was invited to attend a ballgame at Miller Park by my good friend and author Bob Buege. Seated with us was the family of the newly inducted member of the Milwaukee Braves Wall of Fame, Bill Bruton. I had met the late Bruton at a signing years ago and had the privilege to talk at length with him during a break. He was a great player and a very friendly man. To get a chance to sit with his daughter and grandsons was an honor. It allowed me the time to get to know them and also afforded me an opportunity to return a "lost" passport to his family that I had acquired. It was an emotional experience for myself and the family. I was able to share with them a photo of him as a Milwaukee Brewer that they apparently had never seen.

Bill Bruton as a Milwaukee Brewer in 1952 (Author's Collection)

Our conversation led to his early experiences in baseball and the overwhelming impact that another player had on his career and life. That player was James Clarkson. "Bus, Buzz" or "Buster" Clarkson was a veteran Negro League star and a Milwaukee Brewer from 1950-1952. He was a solid hitter for the Brews during that time hitting over .300 in the three years with the team. Here are a couple of comments from teammates I had contact with for a previous article.

Teammate Charlie Gorin:
"I remember Clarkson on fielding a ground ball would make the throw and holler 'Do something with it George.' Bus was older, and his arm was a little weak, but Crowe (1st) would dig it out of the dirt. Bus made up for his arm with a strong bat."
Teammate Bert Thiel:
"Nobody knew his age but he could swing the bat with power."
Buster Clarkson as a Milwaukee Brewer in 1951 (Author's Collection)

His stats can be found on Baseball and some very good research has been done and is available online, particularly "A Long Ride to the Majors: The Story of James 'Bus' Clarkson" by Nick Diunte. This is a must read and gives us a window to the times as to how many great players were overlooked. For most, it was too late for them by the time Jackie Robinson broke down the barrier. He was undeniably a great ballplayer, but we will never get a chance to really know how great. Like longtime Brewer trainer Harry "Doc" Buckner, we can only think of the "What If"s.

By the time he arrived in Milwaukee, James Clarkson was older than most of his teammates and he became a coach and a mentor to players like Bill Bruton who were new to the game.

John Stahl in his SABR bio on Bruton tells us:
On May 31 the Braves fired manager Tommy Holmes and hired Grimm. He quickly made several roster moves, including optioning outfielder Jim "Buster" Clarkson to the Brewers. Bruton became friends with Clarkson, a veteran Braves minor-league player who had also played in the Negro Leagues. A college graduate in physical education, Clarkson began schooling Bruton on how to improve his game.

Bruton quickly turned his disastrous season around. He ended up playing in all 154 games and hit .325 for the season. His 211 hits led the American Association. In the last six weeks of the season, he stole 20 bases.

Bruton gave all the credit to Clarkson. "All I know about baseball, I owe to Bus Clarkson," he said. "He taught me a lot." After the season, Clarkson invited Bruton to play winter ball for a team he managed in the Puerto Rico League. Again, Clarkson provided Bruton with more baseball insight. This time they focused on his bunting."
Clarkson also helped players navigate life as a person of color during the 1950's as he was a "veteran" of these times too.

Milwaukee Brewers Buster Clarkson, Bill Bruton and Luis Marquez outside of Borchert Field in 1952 (Author's Collection)

Clarkson never lost sight of the future, he reached out to those younger than himself, seen here, sharing baseball with the eager children of Milwaukee. Just look at the face of the little boy being held by two of the local heroes. I wonder if Matthew Huff of Milwaukee saved this baseball? I'd love to hear from you. You'd be 71 years young today.

From May 30, 1951:
"Autograph seekers had a field day at Lapham Park playground the other day when George Crowe and Jim Clarkson of the Brewers visited the field…"
George Crowe and James Clarkson visit Milwaukee's Lapham Park playground in 1951 (Author's Collection)

James Clarkson went on to live a quiet life after his career in baseball ended in 1956.

This signature as a 1952 Brewer from a young fan's autograph book is one of my most treasured possessions.

He played his heart out, lived life well and unselfishly gave back to those younger than him in so many ways.

He paid it and played it forward.

Thanks, Bus.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Modest Proposal for 2019, Part III: Topping It Off

We've looked at my modest proposal for a "Turn Back the Clock" event honoring the 1944 Milwaukee Chicks on their anniversary. we've discussed the potential uniforms. now let's top it off, if you will, with a look at their caps.

Let's start with the pictures we've seen of Sylvia Wronski and Vivian Anderson:

These are the best views I've seen so far. Dark crown, lighter brim and button. Sans-serif M in a light circle with two borders. That motif seems to have been a common one in the early AAGPBL, as seen in this display from the National Baseball Hall of Fame:

Photo credit: Flickr user NJ Baseball

That's the Fort Wayne Daisies in gold and Peoria Redwings in red, both with the initial/circle/borders pattern.

Back to the Chicks, the general consensus is that their cap's crown was black, the brim and button red. I don't know how that was decided, what references were used. The circle appears to be a lighter color than the brim, but that could possibly be chalked up to either photographic exposure or different materials.

K & P Weaver's interpretation of this cap encloses the M in a red circle.

That doesn't look quite right to me. The erstwhile Cooperstown Baseball Cap Company made a reproduction with a circle of athletic gold.

I believe that's the cap Vivian (Anderson) Sheriffs was wearing when she was photographed at an AAGPBL event shortly before her death in 2012. Looking at a picture of her in uniform, you can see how inaccurate the CBCC cap really is.

The colors look like they could be correct; the gold would visually set itself apart from the red brim. But the M is all wrong, too thick and narrow. The circle is missing its two outlines, one dark and the next light.

Here's my best interpretation of the authentic cap logo:

So, if we are successful, and the Brewers do agree to hold a Turn Back the Clock event at Miller Park next year, we might see them take the field wearing something like this:

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Modest Proposal for 2019, Part II: What Would They Wear?

In a recent post, I suggested that the Brewers should hold a "Turn Back the Clock" event next year honoring the Milwaukee Chicks, who won the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League championship in 1944, their only year of existence.

I further suggested that our Brew Crew could naturally wear the men's version of the uniform, as seen on manager Max Carey at the right edge of that photo. But what exactly did those uniforms look like?

I don't yet have good photos of the uniforms, much less color photos, but we can start by reviewing what we know about the AAGPBL and its æsthetics.

The AAGPBL's uniforms were designed by Otis Shepard. Shepard had worked for Philip Wrigley in his family business, and went on to define the Cubs' look for decades. His upbeat, bright style is unmistakeable today.

Shepard worked with Chicago softball star Ann Harnett to develop the uniforms. He settled on a "tunic" approach, a combination double-breasted shirt and short skirt.

Photo credit: Northern Indiana Center for History Collection
The first four players signed to the AAGPBL in 1943:
Back,L-R: Clara Schillace, Ann Harnett and Edie Perlick. Front, seated: Shirley Jameson.
Each team would have its own signature-colored tunic. Each tunic which was decorated with a circular patch representing the home city. This design was often adapted from the city seal.

Photo credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame

As an aside, the costume designer for A League of Their Own made a small modification to those patches for the film; in reality, each club was identified by their city and state. The film costumes changed the state name to the name of the team.

In this particular example, "CITY OF RACINE • WISCONSIN" became "CITY OF RACINE • BELLES".

I don't know why this change was made. Perhaps it was an attempt to universalize the characters, get them out of their Midwest origins into a more "Anytown, America" feeling. But regardless of why it was done, remember this point; it's going to come up again soon.

So that's what the league's players wore. But what about the specific Milwaukee iteration?

Hometown Milwaukee players Sylvia Wronski (l) and Vivian Anderson (r) give us a glimpse of the uniforms.
The general consensus seems to be that the Chicks wore gray as their signature color.

And as for the symbol? Milwaukee's city seal is a four-lobed design around a central image, as seen in this gorgeous Works Progress Administration stained-glass window in City Hall.

Sure seems a match for Ms. Anderson's tunic.

K & P Weaver, LLC makes reprodutions of historical baseball uniforms, and their version of the Chicks' duds includes a gray tunic with black details.

That cap has its own issues, but we'll talk about those at a later date.

There is a Milwaukee Chicks display at Miller Park, complete with a different reproduction tunic. But having looked at what we've seen so far, you'll understand why I have serious questions as to its authenticity.

The seal is the real giveaway.

That's Milwaukee's unmistakable city seal, all right. But the text? "CITY OF MILWAUKEE ★ THE CHICKS"? I don't think so.

The best reason to doubt that is that the Chicks weren't really the Chicks. Or rather they might have been, but they weren't always.

In those days, baseball nicknames were much less official than they are today. They were often informal, and changed frequently. Heck, even a stable team like the Brewers, which had been "the Brewers" for nearly all of its forty-year history to that point, had only put the nickname on uniforms in 1942, two seasons before.

Consider also how the club had marketed itself around town, such as this ad in the Milwaukee Sentinel advertising the first-ever game:

Not "the Chicks", but only "Our Milwaukee Team".

"Brewerettes" or "Brewettes" was floated as a possible name, playing off the established tenants at Borchert Field. This is what the league did in Minneapolis that same season with the "Millerettes". But the name didn't catch on in Milwaukee. Some sources, including the Sentinel in its coverage, called them the "Chicks" and that is the name that has stuck until today. Certainly the club used it at least occasionally, and made it official after they moved to Grand Rapids in 1945.

Photo credit: Flickr user islespunkfan
Grand Rapids Chicks pennant and cap in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
But in Milwaukee? It was much less clear. The Milwaukee Journal eschewed both "Brewettes" and "Chicks" in favor of their own nickname, the "Schnitts".

Wives of ballplayers usually sit in the stand, but in the case shown above the situation was reversed Thursday night at Borchert field. Staff Sergt. Richard Keagle of the army air forces came from Lyke field, Phoenix, Ariz., to visit his wife, Merle, and attended the game between the Milwaukee Schnitts and Rockford. His wife, who plays right field for the Schnitts, got two hits and scored two runs to help win, 9-6. The Keagles were married a year ago.
The reference may be a little lost on many of us today, but in Bavaria a "schnitt" is a glass of beer filled quickly from a tap, resulting in it being filled somewhere around one-third to one-half with beer and the rest with foam. It's often intended to be a top-off at the end of a night, something to drink if you've finished before your friends. So this nickname was a kid-sister diminutive of the Brewers, or "Brews" as they were colloquially known.

Given all this, it seems very unlikely that players wore a team nickname on their tunics, be it "Brewerettes", "Chicks", "Schnitts" or something else entirely. I'm almost positive that the Miller Park recreation is an entirely modern creation, and shouldn't be considered a basis for any possible throwback uniform.

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Modest Proposal for 2019

It has occurred to me that 2019 will be the 75th Anniversary of the Milwaukee Chicks, the Cream's City's entry in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. And so I would like to revive a notion I pitched to the Milwaukee Brewers way back in 2013:
My modest proposal; a "Turn Back the Clock" event at Miller Park honoring the 1944 Milwaukee Chicks.

Anyone who has ever watched A League of Their Own (and if you haven't, go right now and watch it on Hulu) knows the basic story of the AAGPBL; wartime restrictions, male ballplayers in the service, fears the 1943 season might be cancelled, young women recruited for a new Midwestern baseball league. The film is fictionalized on the details (substitute "Philip K. Wrigley" for "Walter Harvey" and "chewing gum" for "candy bar") but gets the overall spirit correct.

The film details the story of women who made up the Rockford Peaches, and the men who support/oppose them, as they take on the Racine Belles, Kenosha Comets, and South Bend Blue Sox. Not to mention the weight of a society that cares more about how they look than how well they can play the game. People who are only familiar with the film are missing some key elements of the league's story, though, including the fact that in its second year they tried expanding into larger markets in Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

Pitcher Sylvia Wronski (l) and 3B Vivian Anderson (r) were hometown heroes for the Chicks
This big-city experiment was doomed to failure, but along the way it brought us an interesting chapter in Borchert Field history; a one-year club that won the AAGPBL championship but couldn't survive in its home city.

We'll be talking about that club over the next couple weeks, and again next year for the anniversary. But in the meantime, I'd like to bring back this modest proposal that I pitched to the Brewers way back in 2013; a TBTC event honoring the Chicks. Now, this is new ground. No Major League Baseball club has ever done such a thing, and I think the reason is pretty obvious; it's the uniform.

"That's a dress!"

"That's half a dress!"

"Excuse me, that's not a baseball uniform."
The objections posed by the women in the film must also loom large in the mind of any baseball executive even considering such a tribute. The very notion of dressing men up in short skirts would open them up to such ridicule.

But that obvious problem has an equally obvious, not to mention elegant, solution. Each team was coached by men, each team had male uniforms, and that's what our Brewers could wear to honor the Chicks. Think Tom Hanks:

In the film, hanks plays Jimmy Dugan, former hard-hitting third baseman whose career ended early due to heavy drinking. He's an important character in the film, learning to respect the women as ballplayers and people, and he wears the men's version of their uniforms.

The Brewers could easily wear the Milwaukee version of this uniform, as modeled by their manager, future Hall of Famer Max Carey.

Supplement this with tributes to the surviving ballplayers, period advertisements and concession specials, maybe even a screening of the film afterwards, and it could be an amazing time at the old ballpark. Not to mention a tremendous opportunity to shed light on a chapter of Milwaukee's history that has largely been forgotten.

If you agree, let the Brewers know. Call them, email, @ them on social media. We can get this done, get these women their due recognition.