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The Knuckleballer Who Helped Kids Go Straight

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Emil “Dutch” Leonard
Stories Behind the Signatures#3

Emil "Dutch" Leonard
At the end of his twenty year career as a Major League pitcher, Emil “Dutch” Leonard started coaching at-risk youth. He liked it so much he turned down one pro coaching job after another so he could continue teaching baseball clinics to kids, until he retired at sixty-five.

Dutch Leonard’s knuckleball is legendary.  He racked up 20 years in Major League Baseball throwing his signature pitch, which he developed only as the result of a shoulder injury he suffered during a high school basketball game. His fast ball was never the same again, but oh, his knuckleball…

“It comes up, makes a face at you, then runs away.”
Jackie Robinson, describing “Dutch” Leonard’s knuckleball
The Sporting News, 11/12/1947

Dutch Leonard was the son of a coal miner.  After high school, he worked odd jobs as he played for various industrial leagues, both digging ditches and pitching baseballs for his employers.  He worked his way up to the Majors, but in the early years his stats were unimpressive.  He complained that the catchers weren’t calling for his knuckleball, which left him only his more hittable pitches. He was used in relief or as a “mop up” man, then sent back down to the minors. The press had already made up its mind about Leonard, describing him as a “fat bald man.” A “castoff” at the age of 29.

But my father, growing up in Philadephia in the 1940s and early 50s, remembers Leonard as a “good guy and a gentleman.” What changed?

Autographs of Emil "Dutch" Leonard, Tommy Brown, Caleb Martin
From my father’s collection: Autographs of Emil “Dutch” Leonard (MLB), Tommy Brown (MLB), Caleb Martin (NFL)

Dutch Leonard credits his turnaround to 2 things.

  1. Catcher Paul Richards: Most of the players in the minors had seen better days, but catcher Paul Richards made it his mission to catch Leonard’s knuckleball.  Paul Richards “put me back in the big leagues,” said Leonard. (Washington Post, April 6, 1940). Once Richards started calling for the knuckleball, Leonard started winning, and he was given another chance in the majors.
  2. Clean living: When Leonard signed with the Phillies in 1947, he was pushing forty and he knew he would have to clean up his act if he was to extend his career much further.

“No white bread, no starches, no midnight snacks, no beer, no anything except hard work…
I’m never going to let myself get fat again.”   

— Dutch Leonard
The Sporting News, May 28, 1947

It worked.  Leonard’s knuckleball took National League batters by surprise and his clean living regimen allowed him to pitch seven more seasons, until he was 44 years old.

So, at what point in his career did “Dutch” Leonard sign this autograph? At what point did my father have the face-to-face exchange that gave him such a good impression of the guy?  Consider not just his commitment to clean living, but also who he was with when he signed the page. Tommy Brown.

Tommy Brown

The only time Dutch Leonard and Tommy Brown ever shared a spot in the same roster was in the twilight of Dutch Leonard’s storied 20 year career. They both played for the Chicago Cubs in 1952.  They played in Philadelphia against the Phillies at Shibe Park 11 times over eight days that season. I’m convinced that it was on one of those days that my father obtained those two signatures.

In 1952, Dutch Leonard was the oldest player in the National League and one year shy of retirement. Tommy Brown, although already seven years into his MLB career, was still considered a “perennial prospect”  because of his extreme youth.  A boy of 16 when spotted by the Dodgers scouts and just 17 when he hit his first major league home run (the youngest player ever), Tommy was still only 25 years old in 1952.  He had just been traded to the Cubs with an unacceptable batting average of .160.

“Dutch” Leonard was now the old veteran, the role model with sage advice… and it worked again. During his single season with “Dutch” Leonard, Tommy Brown’s batting average shot up from .160 to .320.  Perhaps the “kind” impression my father received from Dutch Leonard while getting his autograph was also part of the education of young Tommy Brown.

A “Whistle Stop” History of North Philadelphia Train Station”

North PA Train station image with info

Stories Behind the Signatures
Sharing Stories Behind the Signatures
turns collections into connections that tie generations together.

His Reach Exceeded His Glove: Marty Marion

“I’d like to throw you out with the trash.”
    –MARTY “Mr. Shortstop” MARION , to the young autograph seeker, 1948

Of course he had bigger things on his mind than signing autographs.
By 1948, Marty “Mr. Shortstop” Marion was in the middle of what would become eight All-Star years with the St. Louis Cardinals. He had already been voted MVP and won three World Series championships. Also by 1948, Marion was suffering from the knee and back problems that would shorten his career. Worried about his future and those of his fellow ballplayers, Marion put his blunt temperament and crackerjack business mind to use, leading the successful fight for Major League Baseball’s first ever Players Pension Plan.

Marty Marion makes Pension Deal
Policy Conference, 1946: Left to Right: Marty Marion (ST. Louis), Dixie Walker (Brookyln) and Bill Herman (Boston)

I was very outspoken in my opinions,” said Marion.

When he was on the team, Marty Marion always put the players first, but it was a different story after he retired. At his posthumous 2014 induction onto the Cardinals Hall of Fame, Marion’s daughter Martina Dill made a revealing comment about his relationship to his fans. “Since his playing days,” she said, “he always had time to answer fan mail and autographs, and even add a little extra postage if necessary.”

“Since” his playing days he had time for his fans. Perhaps he went a little overboard after that, trying to repent for how he may have treated them when he was on the roster.

There are Marty Marion autographs aplenty on eBay written in his shaky, elderly script. These autographs had to have been written slowly. Marion would have had to take some time and concentration. He would have had to care. Even if he had started showing up to baseball card shows primarily out of financial need, Marty Marion could not have remained as “outspoken” anymore.

Marty Marion autograph for sale on eBay ($19.99)

Marion attended a baseball card show with his old double-play partner, second baseman Red Schoendienst, about six months before he died. Imagine Marty Marion, over 90 years old, with a pen in one hand and a brand new baseball in the other. Watch him slowly placing his signature within the ball’s laces, wobbling a big open circle to dot in the “i” in Marion, then carefully scrawling “ ’44 M.V.P.” under that.  How could he have been dismissive with these signatures or his fans?  He could not. In the time it took for him to sign each ball, each fan at the baseball show would have ample opportunity to snap a few pictures and plenty of time to ask “Mr. Shortstop” a long unanswered question.

Then, perhaps somewhere between gawking at his famously long, “Octopus” arms and the now old, gnarled hands that could once turn a double-play in the blink of an eye, you stop wondering about the motivations behind Marion’s late-in-life fan appreciation, and you start liking that he barked at you back in 1948.

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