Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Vintage Brew: "An Inside Pitch" - Mickey Heath

Minor Wilson "Mickey" Heath was the first baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers from 1937 through 1940 (their player/manager for 1939-40), became the voice of the Brewers on local radio stations, and was a willful participant in the promotional antics of Bill Veeck in 1943… but lest we forget, he was also a family man…

"An Inside Pitch" – Mickey Heath
by Paul Tenpenny
Copyright 2020 Tencentzports
Printed with permission of the Author

Author's Note: while has written several stories on Mickey Heath, this one is special because it comes from his family. Nothing pleases us more than to hear from the people associated directly with Milwaukee’s baseball past and I want to personally thank grandson, Robert W. Bigelow for sharing this with us.

Memories of a Baseball Brat
By Dona Heath Bigelow McCauley

*Adapted from a speech about growing up the daughter of a baseball player.

Publicity shot of Dona Heath, Mickey Heath and Stan Heath in Milwaukee

My dad was Mickey Heath, a first baseman born in Toledo, Ohio in 1903. When he was 9 years old, his father died, leaving his mother alone with 8 children. When he was 12, he went fishing with his brothers, rolled into a campfire and was burned severely over half of his body. The doctors told him that he would never walk without crutches as the muscles of his right leg were so badly scarred that his foot couldn’t reach the ground. This man, my dad, went on to play professional baseball.

Dad came from a close-knit family who supported him through an arduous recovery. Though he would wear the scars for the rest of his life, he did recover. It wasn’t long before he was able to play sandlot ball and soon moved on to a local Toledo team called the Daisy Velvet Ice Cream Co.

Daisy Velvet Ice Cream Co. team- Mickey Heath leaning in back-still with physical issues from fire

A scout for the Detroit tigers saw him in a game where he hit a home run, a triple and two doubles. For the sum of $175, the scout signed my dad for the month remaining in the 1923 season. I’m sure he would have signed the contract for $1.00. He felt that baseball was what he was born to do.

Ottumwa Cardinals- (Mississippi Valley League) Mickey still wearing a local Toledo uniform

Dad’s professional baseball career began in Ottumwa and through Birmingham (Barons-Southern Association) and then Toronto.

Mickey Heath (Toronto Maple Leafs -International League)

While playing in Toronto, he married my mother, Mona. She was a Canadian who loved the game of baseball. According to family lore, she never missed a game. They met on a blind date. Dad was tall, red-headed and had a smile that lit up the room. Many of the wives of players stayed at home while their guys played ball. Mom didn’t. Wherever Dad went, Mom went. It wasn’t long before my brother, Stan, was born in Toledo, Ohio. A year later I joined up in Long Beach, CA while Dad was having great success for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League.

Mickey Heath - Cincinnati Reds 1931-1932

In 1931, Dad was sent to Cincinnati, the “big leagues”! He did well enough in spring training and in the first few games of the regular season to win the starting spot at first base. In an away game at Pittsburgh very early in the season, the opposing team’s shortstop hit a slow roller to second base, it was picked up and thrown to Dad at first who caught it, but his arm had gone between the runner’s legs and it was broken just above the wrist. The doctors put on a cast and that was the end of his season with Cincinnati. The club paid for us to drive back to Toledo to stay with Dad’s mother.

In one of my earliest memories, bolstered by family recollection, the family piled in the car, Dad with a cast up to his shoulder, and Mom a nervous wreck, driving too fast because she really didn’t know how to drive. We were pulled over by a cop and Stan and I started crying. The policeman took one look at the scene and walked away. This is a family story and the only real memory I have, being a toddler, is seeing Dad in the car with the cast on his arm and me crying up a storm. So it must be true.

The doctors suggested we go back to Long Beach for the warm climate which we did. Bad luck struck again. Dad pulled the electric cord out of a dried-up Christmas tree and it sparked and set the tree on fire. He started carrying it outside through a laundry room, but it was filled with gas from a blown-out pilot light and the whole tree exploded. I have a distinct memory of Stan and I hosing the burning tree in the front yard and later bringing neighborhood kids in to “show off” my father covered with bandages. Dad went into the next season in very poor health.

The Cincinnati club kept him as long as they could but after a tough start, they traded him to Rochester, who traded him to the Columbus Red Birds during the following season. We were in Columbus all of 1934 and then Indianapolis all of 1935. We started 1936 in Indianapolis, but Dad was traded to Montreal during the season. We moved, a lot.

Columbus Red Birds - American Association

Unlike Navy or Army brats who move maybe every two or three years, baseball brats move every six months and more often if traded. We would move to one city for spring training and another for the season. The ball club would only pay transportation for Dad, not the family, so he would collect the train fare and use it for gas to drive the whole family. The car would be loaded down with us and everything we owned.

Dad would wake us up at 4:30 a.m., pack us all into the car, and off we’d go, stopping only to eat and look for a motel when it was dark. A motel in those days was a group of small cabins outside of town, just like the cabin stayed in by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in the movie “It Happened One Night”. Depending on our next ball club, the road trip would take from 4 to 5 days. Mom would sleep the whole way as she hadn’t learned to drive, and Stan and I would take turns teasing each other. We played games and tried not to be like kids stuck in a car for hours. No iPads, no TV to watch, no cell phones. We played “In My Trunk” , “License Plate Poker” and a favorite of mine “Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral “ Our only distraction was when we stopped at gas stations as there was always something out of the ordinary on display, like an anteater or a two-headed snake. On one occasion, I saw the sign advertising the snake a few miles out of town, I couldn’t wait to see it. It had two heads all right, but it was in a jar. I thought it was a dirty trick to play on a kid, but it enticed people to stop and buy their gas, which was the whole idea.

During our grade school years, Stan and I averaged three schools a year. I loved the nomadic life. As we arrived at the new schools at odd times of the year, we received special treatment and caused a stir. The Eastern schools were usually more advanced, so we’d repeat classes, making it easier to get good grades. We’d be moved up a grade when we went West and were also given mini-celebrity status by the kids. We’d shine in geography since we’d lived in or passed through most of the states. Of course, it didn’t hurt having a ball player for a father.

During the season, we lived mostly in hotels. My mother managed to carry a few things to make each hotel room a bit homey. The rooms usually included a small kitchen, but she didn’t like to cook so our meals were simple.

My brother Stan frequently had the job of ballboy, so he was on the field with the players. I was pretty jealous so at all the ballparks I’d pester Dad to let me have a tour of the clubhouse locker room when the players had all left. He always said no as it was off limits to a girl. I did manage to see it, though… the hard way. We were at one of the ballparks and the seats in the family section had folding chairs. During one game, I tilted my chair back and was daydreaming, looking up at the clouds, when suddenly I saw a ball three feet away coming straight for my head. Too late to duck, the foul ball landed on my cheek bone and knocked me out cold. I woke up to see the ball club trainer hovering over me. I sat up, looked around and started laughing. Yep! I had made it into the… locker room.

My most vivid memories begin when we settled in with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Milwaukee Brewers Spring Training – Biloxi Mississippi, 1937

Mickey Fielding at First Base

1937 team photo - Mickey in 2nd row, behind Ken Keltner

When we first moved there, we lived at the Ambassador Hotel.

Years later, we rented a house in Shorewood, a suburb just outside of Milwaukee. We lived there through our high school years; it was the longest time we had ever stayed in one place. Dad played ball for the Brewers for 4 years.

I became a hotel brat both home and away. I would sneak into the hotel’s parties sometime joining the staff serving, and sometime mingling with the guests until someone figured out that I didn’t belong. I helped in the hotel drug store and one day I stole a pack of gum. I had the nickel, but I guess I just wanted to see if I could pull it off.... I didn’t. Mom took me back to the store, I paid the nickel, and believe me I never wanted to be that sorry about anything again. I did figure out how to find kids. I would do this by going to the nearest church in whatever town we were in. It didn’t matter the denomination, because all of them had Sunday school. I’d find the right room and join in the fun crafts and listen.

On the road, I think Mom would get bored or lonely. Sometimes, she and I would get in the car and drive to the busiest part of town and park. We’d sit for hours just watching the people walk by. We’d be doing what she called “people watching.” I don’t remember talking, so I don’t know what she got out of it unless it was to just be out of the hotel for a few hours.

The craziest thing I ever did was while we were living at the Ambassador Hotel in Milwaukee. I climbed the tall neon sign on top of the hotel roof spelling out the name of the hotel. I had given myself the challenge to climb it and I did …, but that sign was really tall, old, and the ladder to the top was rusted metal. The point was to look at the city from the top, but when I got there, I was too scared to look.

Dona Heath on the balcony of the Ambassador Hotel, Milwaukee

Early on, one of the local newspapers wanted a shot of Dad, Stan and me. Stan looks like a budding ball player, Dad a proud father, and me a funny looking kid with burnt hair. Mom heard it was going to be a publicity shoot and she thought I’d look better with curly hair, So she bundled me off to the beauty parlor, where they put rollers in my hair and put me under a dome-like contraption that had clamps on the ends of wires, like a giant jelly fish. They attached the clamps onto the rollers and turned on the heat. I don’t remember it, but Mom said I cried the whole time. I couldn’t hold my head up; it was all so heavy. She held my head up with her hand under my chin. That I remember. When the rollers came off… burnt hair. Mom was horrified, but I didn’t care. When the photographers showed up, I was happy to be with my Dad on the field.

One year, Dad hit 30 home runs and for each home run he was given a case of Wheaties, the “breakfast of champions”. A case of those little individual packets. We had Wheaties for breakfast, Wheaties for lunch and Wheaties for dinner. Sometimes a steak. Ballplayers are extremely superstitious and one of Dad’s was - If he had a good day on the field, we had the same dinner every night…. Great if it was steak, but not so great if it was Wheaties. We lived with the usual superstitions, no black cat crossing your path, no hat on the bed, no walking under ladders, spill salt…throw it over your left shoulder. Added to those, we had superstitions like a day without Dad getting a hit, no talking when he came home, and we’d have to wear the same clothes every day until he got a hit. Saved Mom from a lot of laundry.

As manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, setting the lineup in 1939

Dad would go on to become manager of the team. Once, while Dad was managing the Milwaukee team, Stan came up with the idea of making money by cleaning up the trash at the ballpark, Borchert Field. The idea was that Stan would get his buddies together and after a night game, about 10 pm, they would gather up all the empty beer bottles, paper plates with half eaten hot dogs, peanut shells and candy wrappers. Real trash and plenty of it. Stan and his buddies started out ok but by about midnight they found it wasn’t fun, and no matter what Stan was going to pay them, they all left. Stan came home and woke up Dad, who woke up Mom, and the three of them went out to Borchert Field and worked until the job was done. I was just coming down for breakfast when they got home. Stan headed for bed, but Dad steered him right out the door again. It was time for school. Stan never asked for the job again, and he learned that if you accepted a job, you finished it.

Dad would play catch with Stan every chance he could, hoping he would become a ball player but in Stan’s Sophomore year of High School he played football, as quarterback, and it was plain for everyone to see that he was going to be one of the great passers. I hated watching the games, as I’d have to see my brother being tackled, with the other team’s fans chanting “kill the quarterback”. After high school he had a stint in the Navy, came home and went to the University of Nevada in Reno, where he became the Wolf Pack’s first ever All-American. One year, he led the nation in passing. Stan would become an inaugural member of the University of Nevada Athletic Hall of Fame and one of the quarterbacks on Nevada’s Team of the Century. In other words, he was a star. The Green Bay Packers hired him, but his success did not continue. Stan did poorly, lasting only one year. He moved on to play ball in the Canadian League.

After his stint as manager, Dad was hired to broadcast the games on the radio.

Broadcasting on WISN Radio

At the mic - WEMP Radio

He would broadcast the home games from a small booth on top of the ballpark's roof. Sometimes I’d sneak past the guards and go up and watch the game with him. It was special, as I had a bird’s eye view of the game and listened to Dad describing it at the same time.

No TV for the out of town games, so he came up with the idea to make it fun for the fans by setting up a glass booth in the basement of a local movie theater where the fans could come and watch him broadcast He would get the bare facts of the game on a ticker tape and would then invent the action. He made the game come alive, and the fans loved him for it.

Glass booth in basement of movie theater, broadcasting game off ticker tape for WEMP

He became so popular they named a bread after him: “Heath’s”. I spent many a night doing my homework in the studio listening and watching Dad.

In Milwaukee, our lives changed when Bill Veeck bought the Brewers. That’s when the fun began. Veeck hired Dad to coach and do promotional work while keeping up his broadcasting.

Mickey and Red Smith packing up Manager Charlie Grimm for Spring Training April 4, 1943 (Author’s Collection)

Veeck was a showman and his sole focus was to fill the seats at the ballpark. I loved going to the games, since I never knew what he and Dad would cook up to entertain the fans. Veeck declared every day a special occasion where baskets of food, live chickens, live piglets, and cakes of ice were given out to the fans by calling out a seat number. The lucky ones would carry the "prize" back to their seats. Even the live ones. The fans ate it up and filled the stands.

1943 “Band Practice” before a game
(Author’s collection)

They formed a “band” with Charlie Grimm (manager) on banjo, Herschel Martin (outfielder) on an upright piano, and pitcher Hank Oana on ukulele. Veeck would play a sliding whistle, Rudy Schaffer (club secretary) on a single string base wash tub, and a real set of drums for Dad. They would set the band up at home plate before the games and people would come just to see them having fun. Veeck gave Dad a “Mickey Heath Night” because he knew that the fans loved Dad and it would fill the stands. It did. That night Veeck presented Dad with a trophy that was taller than me and we used it as a doorstop.

Dad would broadcast the Brewers’ games until 1950, when his baseball career ended. He was, what I called, a minor celebrity. We’d walk down a Milwaukee street and people would yell “Hi Mickey!” They would come up to him, shake his hand and tell him how much they loved his broadcast of the games. Until he died, he would receive envelopes in the mail every week with an index card and a self-addressed envelope… asking for his autograph. He signed them all.

After retiring Dad played golf with a 5 handicap and was a bit of a hustler at 8-ball pool. Like father, like daughter, but I don’t hustle, not yet. We moved to California, and Dad wrote a book titled “Baseball Before Money”. His highest salary was $6,000. Now the salaries are in the multi-millions. I never heard him say he would have preferred to do anything else, though. He loved the game and I loved living it with him. I guess if you asked me now, I’d have to say that my childhood was anything but normal.

He taught me to play by the rules, play fair, and always, always play to win.

As Dad would say, “Thanks for listening.”


Editor's Note: I am so thrilled to present this family history to you; this is exactly the kind of tale was founded to tell. Thank you so much, Dona and Robert, for sharing your memories with us! We will do our best to tell Mickey's stories and keep his legacy alive.

And thank you again to our amazing collaborator Paul Tenpenny, for recording this story and making it available for all baseball fans to enjoy.

For more on Mickey Heath, please check out SABR’s bio on Mickey, written by Robert W. Bigelow JD, PHD.

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