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The Best Catcher Ever

By Larry Lester, February 3, 2014
Original artwork by Nancy Valelly

Pound for pound, James “Biz” Mackey was a superstar behind the plate known for his ability to call a game and frame pitches to influence an umpire’s strike zone. Mackey possessed a powerful throwing arm while employing the “snap throw” release, popular with modern catchers. In addition to having school bus speed on the base paths, Mackey had a high on-base percentage.

The son of J. Dee Mackey and Bulah Wright was born between Luling and Prairie Lea, Texas, in Caldwell County, in 1897. Despite claims by other biographers that he was born in Eagle Pass or San Antonio, Mackey proclaimed the oil town of Luling as his birthplace in a 1951 Negro Digest article. Once known as the “toughest town in Texas,” Luling is known today for its watermelon thump contest, barbecue, and decorated oil pump jacks.

Mackey is one of fewer than nine players in Negro League history to play all nine positions. Hilldale scorekeeper Lloyd Thompson once boasted, “If any receiver is entitled to the nonpareil of the wire mask, give the token to Mackey. The smoothest receiver in four decades with an unerring throwing arm, switch-hitting Biz hit the ball hard from both sides of the plate. [He is] also capable of playing any position in the infield and surprisingly agile for a big fellow weighing more than 200 pounds.”

In addition to being considered one of the best catchers of all time, Biz Mackey was also a superb hitter who could play all nine positions.  

After shoplifting some pillows in the off-season, Mackey would sometimes come to spring training weighing a bit more than 250 pounds. He never met a calorie he didn’t like — his best position off the field was at the kitchen table.

When owner Effa Manley ordered uniforms for her 1941 Newark Eagles, she added a note next to the culinary catcher’s name: “There is one particular man who is quite a problem to fit. He is the catcher, weighs 242 pounds and is 6 feet tall. His waist is not so large, but he is very heavy around the legs.”

Outside the kitchen, "Thunder Thighs" was a good-natured player who constantly jabbered at batters, hoping to break their concentration. Biz was known for giving folks the “business.” When he was with the San Antonio Black Aces in 1919, the local paper reported on the club’s league-leading 45-10 won-lost record and added this commentary: “Did you ever hear a magpie chattering and jabbering? Well, Riley Mackey — no, he is not Irish — is the epitome of ‘jah-beration.’ There is not a second when he is behind the bat that he is not chattering and jabbering, exhorting his teammates to show ‘a little peppa gou’ dere.’ ”

A comic relief to teammates, Mackey’s boyish grin with a little giggle in the middle became personal brands. Acknowledged for his laughing, lying and signifying, Biz, with a pinch of smack talk and a dash of competition, became the standard for dugout and locker room gibberish.

In 1920, after the Black Aces defeated the Houston Black Buffaloes 6-0, on the Fourth of July, Mackey began his professional career with C.I. Taylor’s Indianapolis ABCs. When the Eastern Colored League was formed in 1923, Mackey joined Ed Bolden’s Hilldale Club of Darby, Pennsylvania. This stats sheet stuffer led Hilldale to league pennants in 1923, 1924 and 1925, hitting .390, .330 and .346, respectively. In a repeat match-up of league champions in 1925, Mackey’s clutch average of .375 helped Hilldale win its first World Series title, beating the Kansas City Monarchs in six games.

Though the Hilldale Club was defeated by the Kansas City Monarchs in the first Colored World Series in 1924, Biz Mackey helped the team capture their second consecutive Eastern Negro League pennant and a victory in their rematch with the Monarchs in the 1925 Colored World Series.

When Bolden started the independent Philadelphia Stars in 1933, Mackey took his talents there. Although the Stars were not a league member yet, he was voted starting catcher ahead of Josh Gibson to the first East-West All-Star Classic in Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

The following year, the Stars joined the Negro National League. They closed out the season when Mackey delivered the winning hit in Game 7, defeating the Chicago American Giants for the league title.  

Now 36, Mackey was well past his prime whereas Gibson had just won his first home run title the previous season. It was thought that Biz’s superior defensive and overall hitting skills were the keys to gathering more votes than Joltin’ Josh. Mackey would play in four more all-star games (1935, 1936, 1938 and lastly in 1947), when he received a ceremonial walk on his 50th birthday. He was the leading vote-getter for the 1941 game but did not play for unknown reasons.

When Mackey was not delivering clutch hits, he was throwing out base stealers. At the 1935 East-West All-Star Game, Mackey shot down stolen base attempts by Cooperstown speedsters Cool Papa Bell, who attempted to swipe third base in the third inning, and Turkey Stearnes who tried thefts of second in both the fourth and 10th innings. Bell, a teammate of Gibson’s, said in an interview, “As much as I admired [Roy] Campanella as a catcher and Gibson as a hitter, I believe Biz Mackey was the best all-around catcher I ever saw.”

According to Hall of Famer, Monte Irvin, “Mackey was the dean of teachers. He taught Campanella how to think like a catcher, how to set a hitter up — he’d throw a hitter his favorite pitch at a time when the hitter was not expecting it.”

Shortstop Country Jake Stephens agreed. “Mackey was the greatest, smartest catcher. In 1925, I think [actually 1926], Snooks Dowd of Newark was the best base-runner in the International League — set a record that I think still stands. We played the Newark club three games, and seven times Mackey threw him out — seven times! He’d shoot you out. Listen, please believe me, nobody — nobody — could catch as much baseball as Mackey. [Philadelphia Athletics star] Mickey Cochrane couldn’t carry his glove.”     

As a result of combat on the field, Mackey had visual badges of honor. Ric Roberts, a Pittsburgh Courier writer, said of Mackey: “He was sharp of eye, pugnacious of spirit and enormous in the clutch. No better handler of pitchers ever lived. Take a gander at his gnarled right hand — broken a dozen times, not one finger is free of smashed bones.” 

After three seasons with the Stars, the original big Mack joined the Washington Elite Giants as manager. The next year, 1937, as a member of the Negro National All-Stars, he played against the Trujillo All-Stars (from the Dominican Republic) before 22,500 at the Polo Grounds in New York. The Dragones of Ciudad Trujillo were stacked with superstars like Bell, Gibson and Sam Bankhead. With Satchel Paige pitching for Trujillo, “Schoolboy” Johnny Taylor took the mound for the National All-Stars. Thanks to Mackey’s tutelage, Taylor stunned the house by pitching a no-hitter against the talented tan aggregation.

In early 1936, a young, promising New York Yankee prospect — Joe DiMaggio — played against a group of African-American players including Biz Mackey.

Max Manning of the Newark Eagles, a pitcher and later an educator, said, “In my mind, Biz Mackey was the smartest catcher that I’ve ever had the pleasure of pitching to. He was smart, he could throw, even with the bad fingers and all the injuries he had. With so many fingers broken on his hands, you wonder how he would be able to get the ball to second base. It was his ability to know hitters. He would tell me I’m gonna put my glove in a certain place and just throw at the target, and that’s what I would do. When I pitched to him it was a learning situation.”

Campanella was an aspiring 15-year old protege when he joined the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1937 and spoke highly of his mentor: 

“He caught as many as 10 games a week,” Campy recalled  “He was tough. He’d catch a game on Monday, another on Tuesday, doubleheader on Wednesday, one on Friday, two on Saturday and another doubleheader on Sunday — and then do the same thing all over again . . . I couldn’t carry his glove or his bat.” 

In 1939, Baltimore owner Tom Wilson, satisfied with the progress of a young Campanella, shipped 41-year old Mackey off to Manley’s Eagles. Although past his prime, Mackey was still a bona fide force, often hitting more than .300 as a part-time player. In 1946, he became the Eagles’ manager, leading them to a NNL pennant and the right to challenge the Negro American League champion Kansas City Monarchs. They defeated the highly favored Monarchs in a hard-fought seven-game series. 

Following the 1947 season, Mackey ended a three-decade career with an unofficial .353 average. Arguably the most feared hitter on any team, Mackey often dined on mistake pitches. Slugging first baseman Lenny Pearson, who played with Mackey towards the end of his career recalled, “He couldn’t run a lick. He’d get a single and sort of wobble to first base. But he was an inspiration to us guys, because he was old enough to be our father and he made all of us get up and hustle a little bit more.”

In a 1952 poll conducted by the Courier, Mackey was voted the greatest catcher in black baseball by his peers, edging out as well as Louis “Big Bertha” Santop and Bruce Petway. 

“For combined hitting, thinking and physical endowment, there has never been another Biz Mackey,” recalled Cumberland Posey, who managed the great Gibson. Posey rated Mackey as his No. 1 catcher on his all-time all-star team because “he was a tremendous hitter, a fierce competitor although slow afoot [and ] the standout among catchers who have shown their wares in this nation.”

Amiable and cherubic with a softer-than-Charmin personality, Raleigh “Biz” Mackey was the finest catcher to ever play in the black leagues. In 2006, he joined Josh Gibson and Louis Santop as the perfect trio of Negro League catchers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. It was a well-deserved honor for a well-respected man.

 

THE BIZ MACKEY FILE

James Raleigh Mackey (Biz, McKey, Riley)

Bat/Throw: Switch/Right

Born: Tuesday, 27 July 1897, Caldwell County, TX

Died: Wednesday, 22 September 1965, Los Angeles, CA

Cemetery: Evergreen Cemetery, Section G, Lot 293, Los Angeles, CA

 

COLLECTIBLES

1924/25 Aguilitas Segundes - #871

1974 Laughlin Old Time Black Stars - #27

1986 Negro League Fritsch - #91

1990 Negro League Stars - #4

1991 Pomegranate Black Ball Postcard Book - #23

1999 Greg Stokesberry Bobblehead Doll

2011 Infinite Baseball Card Set - #160

 

 

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