Saturday, January 2, 2010

Out of the Shadows...

"Doc" Buckner was the Milwaukee Brewers much-loved trainer. He died while on his way to join the team for spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1938. The Milwaukee Brewers mourned his passing, but over the years, the real loss has been our losing sight of who he really was....

by Paul Tenpenny
Copyright 2010 Tencentzports
Printed with permission of the Author

If you are a hamburger fan as I am and live on the south side of Milwaukee, no one needs to tell you about The Nite Owl Drive In. A fixture in the neighborhood of Milwaukee's airport since 1948, it boasts one of the finest tasting hamburgers in the city. It is a righteous boast too, as I highly recommend their Jumbo Bacon Cheeseburger with fried onions. This delicious treat is huge and it won't cost you a "fist full of dollars," but it will require a mitt full of napkins.

Nite Owl Drive In - Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Located at 830 East Layton Avenue, they are open for business, Tuesday through Saturday, from spring until late fall. Operated by Chris Roepke, whose grandfather Ralph started the business over 60 years ago, it retains a lot of the same charm it had during its heyday. The walls are a collectible collage of Milwaukee's storied past. One can get lost and "almost" forget to eat as you take it all in.

Nite Owl Drive In - Interior View

On the north wall near the restrooms, there is a large Coca Cola button sign. Below it is an old newspaper photograph of the 1936 Milwaukee Brewers.

Nite Owl Drive In - Milwaukee Journal Photo

Although the diner's copy of this photo has faded with time, it is a great memento of the Milwaukee Brewer team that won the American Association Championship that year.

1936 Brewer Team Photo - Doc Buckner, top left

The first time I saw this photograph, what struck me the most, was the man in the upper left hand corner. What drew my attention to him was the jersey that he wore, as I had recently acquired one for my collection.

1934 Milwaukee Brewer Road Jersey
(Author's Collection)

The man in the picture was Doc Buckner, the trainer of the Milwaukee Brewers at the time. This was a surprise to me, as the photograph was from 1936, clearly 11 years before Jackie Robinson broke into the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was 10 years before Branch Rickey first brought Jackie to the minor league Montreal Royals of the International League, thus ending the color barrier in baseball.

I was intrigued with this and had to learn more about him.

So begins his story...

Jackie Robinson Framed Autograph
(Author's Collection)

Doc Buckner was the Milwaukee Brewers trainer from 1920 until his death in 1938. Ironically, this was the same position held by his brother William who worked as trainer for the major league Chicago White Sox baseball club from 1908-1916 and again from 1920-1933.

Doc shows up in team photos as early as 1924, during spring training in Florida.

1924 Spring Training, Milwaukee Sentinel
"Washington Jefferson" Buckner - club trainer.
( Top Center Photo )

Known by several names and nicknames, "Washington Jefferson" Buckner, "George Washington" Buckner, "Doctah" Buckner, Doc, Buck, etc.,

Harry E. Buckner, his given name, was always part of what was happening with the American Association Brewers, in spite of his many monikers.

1925 Milwaukee Brewers - Buckner far left-behind screen
(Courtesy Rex Hamann)

Doc Buckner was exceedingly popular with his teammates and the Brewers ball club.

Along with taking care of the usual maladies, sore shoulders, barked shins and the like, he kept the team loose while entertaining them, strumming a guitar, tickling the ivories or just making them laugh.

1926 Milwaukee Brewers - Buckner, top row far left
(Author's Collection)

The Brewers hadn't won an American Association title since the twin victories of 1913 and 1914, so his sense of humor and ability as an entertainer, kept them from being discouraged and made life fun around Borchert field when things didn't go right. There were many examples of this reported.

1929 Milwaukee Brewers - Buckner, top row far left

Friday March 14, 1930 at Fort Pierce Florida Buckner took part in a joke on veteran player Rosy Ryan. While Ryan was out practicing, someone put a bullfrog into one of his socks. When Rosy went to get dressed he didn't notice it right away,

"there was a tremendous uproar when his pink tootsies nosed into the frog. Foot, frog and sock went, all flew in different directions. ...Doc Buckner is now the proud owner of a sportive pair of silk socks that once belonged to Ryan."
(Milwaukee Sentinel)
Doc entertains during 1931 spring training-
Milwaukee Sentinel

Good luck charms, "witching eyes" and rabbits' feet were all part of his repertoire. Doc also helped manage their equipment and was trusted with holding onto special baseballs and mementos for the players while the game was going on.

Obviously one of the gang, he is seen here in their midst while waiting for the train in this 1932 vintage photo:

1932 Milwaukee Brewers - Buckner, middle 2nd row
Original Photo (Author's Collection)

Hat cocked and a mile wide smile, everyone on this team was enjoying themselves in this spring training photo from 1933:

1933 Milwaukee Brewers - Buckner, 3rd row far left
(Author's Collection-courtesy Baseball Hall of Fame)

This color team photo shows Doc in the front row, right hand corner with Manager Al "Fidge" Sothoron directly behind him:

1934 Milwaukee Brewers - Buckner, front row far right
(Author's Collection)

The 1936 Champion Brewers with Doc Buckner in a more serious pose in this portrait taken at Borchert Field, showing its unusual wooden outfield wall:

1936 Milwaukee Brewers - Buckner is on the far right
(Author's Collection)

Here is a hilarious photo from 1936:

"Club Trainer is shown roasting a black bass in the club house.

The fish was caught by Jack Hallett, rookie pitcher while expert anglers Sothoron and President Bendinger couldn't get a nibble."
(Milwaukee Sentinel - March 12, 1936)

Doc Buckner taking care of Milwaukee Brewer pitcher Allan Johnson
(Author's Collection)

The players loved "good, old Doc Buckner."

Beyond his usual duties of taking care of their aches and pains he kept up the morale of the team. No matter how they were doing, good or bad, he kept them in the best of humor. Keeping them laughing, he actually had players coming in early to get in on the fun, including playing "cops and robbers" in the clubhouse.

1937 Milwaukee Brewers - Buckner, front row far right
(Author's Collection)

In what would be his last team photo, A healthy looking Buckner is seen sitting in the front row.

The 3rd player seated to his right is future major league all star Ken Keltner.

In the spring of 1938, Harry Buckner went to join the team in Hot Springs Arkansas, but on March 26th, he became seriously ill and was sent back to his home in Chicago. The Doc had been dealing with an ailing heart for the last few years and had been hospitalized the past summer. Fearing that his heart had weakened, he was advised to return home at once. It was a sad time as the Doc was forced to say goodbye and head back home.

The outpouring of the affection the team had for Harry Buckner was immediate. Expecting him to retire, the local papers were full of well wishes and assurances that Milwaukee would take care of their beloved trainer for the rest of his life.

... Manager Al Sothoron said he would remain on the payroll as long as he lives. "Buck was a faithful old fellow, and we are going to play out the string with him. He will never be in want and if his health does improve, we are going to take him along with us, with no work for him to do."
(Milwaukee Sentinel - March 27, 1938)
Unfortunately, Buckner never made it back home, he died en route at 10pm that evening.

Local newspapers spread the sad news that he had passed away and the story was picked up later by other newspapers.
"Myron Esler is the new trainer of the Milwaukee Brewers being named following the death of Harry Buckner March 26."
(The Sporting News - March 31, 1938)
"Harry (Doc) Buckner- 60 year old negro trainer of the Milwaukee American Association club since 1920, died while on route to Chicago, Ill. March 26. He had been ill for some time and left Hot Springs Ark. where the Brewers are training. In the afternoon for treatment in Chicago, but death overtook him at 10 o'clock in the evening. The widow survives."
(The Sporting News - March 31, 1938)
BUCKNER-Harry E. Fond husband of Dora Buckner. Of Milwaukee Assoc. baseball club. Died suddenly March 26 on route from Hot Springs Ark. Body will arrive Chicago Tuesday. Funeral Thursday, 2 p.m. from 3800 S. Michigan av. Fond brother of William Buckner, formerly of White Sox baseball club.
(Chicago Herald Examiner - Monday March 28, 1938)
That Milwaukee loved and appreciated the many years Harry Buckner was their trainer was apparent, as it was expressed locally and vocally. Rudy Schaffer represented the team at his funeral in Chicago and the team provided a huge wreath of flowers along with their condolences. They would genuinely miss the man who had been with them for almost 20 years.
"Every one of the Brewer ball players who were with the club last season will miss good, old "Doc" Buckner...because Buckner was one of the most lovable old gentlemen you'd ever wish to know." "...he kept the players in the best of humor. No matter how badly things might be going, Buckner could always humor the players and get them laughing."
It is interesting to note that when they reported his death, the Sporting News began the report with his being replaced by Myron Esler and then spoke of his death in more detail, later in the issue. The story seemed to end there. But there was so much more that could have been written about this man, perhaps it was overlooked, or simply forgotten.


Harry E. Buckner was not just the trainer of Milwaukee's minor league baseball team. He in fact, had a long career as one of baseball's premiere players in the early days of African American baseball.

Buckner played during the period known as the time of the great independents, playing on several different teams, as was the norm during that time.

His career spanned the years 1896-1918. He was a contemporary of Hall of Famers Andrew "Rube" Foster and Sol White. His ability was prominently mentioned in White's classic history of Colored Baseball, "Sol White's Official Baseball Guide" written in 1907:
1899 "...The Columbia Giants with their additional pitcher, Buckner, from the Chicago Unions, were stronger in points at that time than any colored team. ...Wilson, Miller and Buckner formed a trio of twirlers hard to duplicate."

1903 "...The Philadelphia Giants had some of the hardest hitters of the colored profession, Robert Foots, William Bell, Charles Carter, Harry Buckner, Sol White, Frank Grant, ..."

Author James Riley presents this bio on Buckner.
Buckner, Harry (nickname: Green River)

Career: 1896-1918 Positions: p, of, c, ss.

Teams: Chicago Unions ('96-'98), Columbia Giants (03'),
Cuban X Giants('04-'05), Quaker Giants,
Brooklyn Royal Giants ('09-'10), New York
Lincoln Giants ('11-'12), Smart Set ('12),
Mohawk Giants ('13), Chicago Giants ('14-'18)

One of the leading players during the early years of black baseball, this talented and versatile athlete could pitch, catch, and play both infield and outfield. He was one of only a few Americans who played in Cuba during the first decade of the century, pitching for Almendares in the Cuban winter league of 1907. He began his career as a pitcher with W. S. Peter's Chicago Unions in 1896 and after three years joined the Columbia Giants for another two seasons on the mound. In 1901 Frank Leland combined the Unions and the Columbia Giants into a single team, the Chicago Union Giants, but Buckner opted to play in the East. He was a smart pitcher and was called the "speed marvel" of the Brooklyn Royal Giants in 1910. That season the Royals won the eastern championship for the second consecutive year and, along with Rube Foster, Dan McClellan and Walter Ball, Buckner was considered to be "head and shoulders above" all other pitchers. In 1909 he also was a regular behind the plate, when not pitching, and in 1917 he was the regular right fielder and batted third in the lineup. In 1911, playing with the New York Lincoln Giants, he split a pair of decisions while batting .336. He pitched the next two seasons with the Smart Set and the Mohawk Giants of Schenectady, New York, before returning to Chicago to finish his career with the Chicago Giants.

During his 23 years in black baseball, he was associated with numerous teams in both the East and Midwest. Buckner also was a keen judge of talent; he, Rube Foster, and Sol White discovered the great John Henry Lloyd in 1905.
(Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues)
Close up of Harry Buckner - 1913 Mohawk Giants

Harry Buckner could, and did, do it all. He was one of the leading players of the era. Besides being one of the great pitchers, he also could be called upon to catch, play the infield as well as the outfield. He could hit well and was quick on the base paths. In 1909, when he joined the Brooklyn Royal Giants, their pitchers dominated the league with Buckner, Andrew "Rube" Foster, Dan McClellan and Walter Bell during his two years on the team.

Comparison: Harry E. Buckner in 1913 & 1932

Here is a rare interview with Harry Buckner discussing his playing days. It affords us a glimpse of how good he really was and it is a priceless introduction to the intelligence, memory and humor of the man.

Maybe I'm Wrong - Milwaukee Journal
(Author's Collection)

The teasing he got from the players shows the affection and respect they had for him as a fellow player. Yes, even manager Al Sothoron was pitching to him.

One should note that he fended off the implication that baseball during his time was anything but tough, professional baseball.

He could more than hold his own against those who played in the major leagues. He was a great ballplayer.

Yes, Suh! The Doctah Could Hit That Ball!

"Yes, Suh! Right ovah the center field bleachers!"

It was Doc Buckner Broadcasting. With a couple of shots of high powered hooch under his belt and a bat in his big paws, the presiding genius of the Brewers rubbing table was living in the old days over again, while some of the Brewers sat around in the shade of the left field stand and ribbed the "Doctah."

"Show us your swing, Doc." "Let's see how you used to hit 'em." "Shucks, I bet you couldn't hit the ball out of the infield."

"Shuah could." chuckled Doc, giving the bat a vicious swing. "I could hit boy!"

"Come on, show us, " suggested one of the players, and the idea took hold immediately.

A couple of players seized the maestro of the arnica bottle and, like a balky mule with his feet sliding, he was hustled up to the plate, where Manager Al Sothoron was pitching for batting practise.(sic)

Once there, Doc was game. He cocked his faded old cap over one eye, spread his feet and fell into a batting crouch.

"All right, boss," he called to Fidge.

"Put one ovah and ah'll knock it out of the pahk." In came the ball low. Doc was not biting on bad ones. The next one was over the plate and Doc fouled it.

"Gimme a good one, boss," he urged, making the bat whistle.

"What could you do with a good one?"

yelled one of the players. "Bet you can't get a safe hit."

Crack! The ball went sizzling down the third base line and out to the fence, a hit in anybody's ball game, and Doc trudged back to the clubhouse dragging his bat behind.

Played 21 Years

The youngsters on the Brewer club can kid the old "Doctah" all they want to, but the chances are that few of them will ever be the ballplayer he was in his day. Buckner was a good pitcher and a great hitter.

He still has a pair of powerful shoulders. Records are not available, but I believe he hit .380 or better in the old Colored All-Star league, and had a .390 average on season in the Cuban winter league. He played professional ball 21 years. He was a member of the Cuban-X team, the first all star negro line up, and he played with the Lincoln Giants of New York, the Philadelphia Colored Giants and Rube Foster's American Giants of Chicago in the Colored All Star league. He admits he's 51 now, but Lou Nahin says he's more likely 60.

"Where was it that you hit a ball over the center field bleachers?" I asked after following Buckner back to the clubhouse.

"Barre, Vt.," he replied.

"Small park, I suppose."

"Not so small," said Doc. "Big as this one."

"Do you mean to say you could hit one over the center field bleachers her in Borchert field?"

"Sure. Boy, I could hit that ball. I hit one over the left field stand in the Polo Grounds. Park wasn't as big as it is now, but it was plenty big. And I hit one at Harrisburg, Pa., past the flagpole.

And I hit one they're still talking about down in Havana. That's an awful big park, boss, Almendares park.

You could set this one down inside of it and have enough room left over to play a ball game outside. I hit one so far, right inside the park, that the center fielder never went after it. He just turned around and watched it go."

Beat Big Train

"How about the pitching? Did you ever hit against a real pitcher?"

"Say boss, you remember Breckenridge, used to be with Washington? Use to have some great games against him. And Joe Moore-you see that piece in the paper about him the other day, how he only pitched 38 balls in a whole game?

That was Williamsport against the Philadelphia Colored Giants. We only got three hits off him and I got one of them. And we beat Walter Johnson one time in 1914. Was playing at Schenectady, N.Y. then and we used to pull 'em in from all around. Last game of the season, we played Montreal. We beat him 1-0 in 14 innings."

"How about your own pitching, Doc?"

"I could pitch plenty. Underhand, like this, and plenty of stuff.

Used to walk over to the other fellows' bench and say,

'Go ahead, boys, get your base hits today, 'cause you goin' to starve tomorrow. I'm goin' to pitch.

Blackie O'Rourke, he remembered me. Played against me when he was a kid.

"Pitched against Brown college one time.

Goin' hot.

Coach he told his college boys, 'Ne' mind.

We get to this fellow along about the eight inning.

He can't keep going' like this.'

Well boss, when I walk out there in the ninth I say to that coach, 'Keep yo' eyes peeled, You goin' to see nine of the fastes' balls you ever did see!

"Then I laid 'em in.




Nine of 'em.

I had control, boss.

I set them college boys down before they even knew what they was up there for!"
Doc in his batting stance-1936-37
(Author's Collection)


One thing was clear to me when I searched for images of Harry Buckner while with the Milwaukee Brewers, he was often pictured with the players in the team photos. In all aspects of his duties with Milwaukee, he was openly treated as part of the team. Once I started looking, I was able to find him easily from local sources.

While searching for more photos, I had access to a complete set of early Spalding guides from the period that Doc was with the team.

I was hoping to fill in some of the gaps for the years that I was missing.

What I found was distressing.

While the American Association Milwaukee Brewers were always pictured as a team in the guides, only one year, 1936 had him pictured with the Brewers. I shot a quick digital photo of the small picture and looked at what I had.

1937 Spalding Guide Photo

Something caught my eye immediately, even though it was a small photo and difficult to see.

Upon magnification I became very upset with what I found.

All the players shown were listed with their formal first and last names.

Doc Buckner was not, he was mentioned by his last name only. "Buckner, (Trainer)"

1937 Spalding Guide Photo - Close-up

What was worse, was what was done to the image itself, his face was obliterated so you couldn't tell who he was or more to the point, "what" he looked like.

This was not done post publishing by some angry reader, it was printed this way.

I shouldn't have been so shocked. This is how baseball was during those days.

But I was and am still outraged 62 years later after the dust of many years has settled on that past.

Where the Milwaukee Brewers had him in most of their team photos, he wasn't welcome in the Spalding Guides.


While the ever-deepening sands of time obscure their neglected records, hopefully continued research and due diligence given to available newspaper reports and written records of interviews of Black baseball and its players, researchers can blow back some of those sands. More research is needed so we can piece together this marvelous history of their times.

African American players, especially those from the late 19th and early 20th century need more scrutiny. Clearly a force in baseball at the time of the great independent teams, Harry E. Buckner had the respect of his peers, among them, Hall of Famers Rube Foster and Sol White.

Major league baseball really needs to revisit how it treats Black Baseball and needs to recognize the early era players along with the later, more recognizable players.

Surely Harry E. Buckner should be considered for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame when baseball deliberates future nominations to the hall.

I feel it is time for a separate committee to deal with the Negro Leagues, similar to the Veterans committee. It is time to shine a focused light on the men who played in the shadows of baseball by no fault of their own. Their recognition is long over due.

Like those before him and the many, many fine baseball men of the past since his days (Buck O'Neil included), Harry E. Buckner stayed close to the game he loved in spite of its poor treatment of people of color.

A testament to the "game" of baseball's effect on society in spite of itself.

They loved the sport of baseball, its competition, its camaraderie, the community it provided and maybe even sensed that it was through baseball that change could and would eventually come.

"Baseball should be taken seriously by the colored player, by his effort of his great ability, will open the avenue in the near future wherein he may walk hand in hand with the opposite race in the greatest of all American games, baseball."
Sol White - Hall of Fame Player, Historian
The Midwest and Milwaukee seemed to be ahead of the curve when it came to that forward thinking.
"Buc was a faithful old fellow, and we are going to play out the string with him, He will never be in want..."
Al Sothoron- Milwaukee Brewer Manager 1938

"Buzz & George & all colored were not treated well at this time but they were fine gentlemen and I was proud to have them as teammates."
Bert Thiel - Milwaukee Brewers 1951-52
(Speaking of race and teammates James
Clarkson and George Crowe)

Milwaukee was "A (relatively) color-blind team in a sport and society that was anything but."
Chance Michaels -

Yes, Suh! The "Doctah" Should Be In ... The Baseball Hall of Fame

"Shuah could." ... "I could hit boy!"

"Put one ovah and ah'll knock it out of the pahk."...

"Yes, Suh! Right ovah the center field bleachers!"...

"I could pitch plenty. ... Used to walk over to the other fellows' bench and say, 'Go ahead, boys, get your base hits today, 'cause you goin' to starve tomorrow. I'm goin' to pitch."

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post!

    On an unrelated note - You don't happen to have any interesting notes on Wid Matthews, who played for the Brewers in 1921, '22 and '24, do you? He's a relative of mine, and I'm doing research on him. Thanks!