The little-known but awesome story of professional baseball's first father-son battery
Ah, playing catch with your dad -- the dream of every kid who's ever picked up a glove, and the reason the end of "Field of Dreams" will never not hit home.
Even now, it's a sacred American institution, immune to whatever cynicism you can throw at it. And a full 75 years ago, Frank Duncan Jr. and Frank Duncan III managed to live that dream on a massive stage: While playing for the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs in 1941, the Duncans became the first father-son battery in the history of professional baseball.
Long before Jackie Robinson broke the big league color barrier, the elder Duncan established himself as one of the best backstops in baseball over two decades playing mostly in Kansas City. Duncan never hit for much power, but he made up for that with leadership, amazing receiving skills and a lightning-quick arm. Larry Lester, co-chair of the Society of American Baseball Research's Negro Leagues Committee, even called him "one of the most outstanding catchers in Negro Leagues baseball."
If you're wondering how much of an impact a guy with a career slash line of .243/.320/.309 can have, consider: Duncan led the Negro Leagues in defensive win shares every year from 1921-1925, and he managed a Monarchs pitching staff that featured three future Hall of Famers -- Bullet Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith and even Satchel Paige, who once even claimed that "no one was a better catcher than Frank outside of [Hall of Famer Josh] Gibson."
By the early 1940s, Duncan was nearing the end of his career. Before he retired as a player, he wanted to help shepherd the next generation of Negro Leaguers -- especially his son, Frank III, a 21-year-old utilityman with the Monarchs who happened to have a very live right arm. (You can see Frank Jr. in the bottom left corner of the photo below, while Frank III is the bat boy in the middle of the front row.)
Early in the 1941 season, Frank Jr. arranged for Frank III to start a game on the mound for the Monarchs -- "more or less an experimental thing," he would later admit. Still, it would forever be a piece of history, future throwing to past, father catching son. Frank III acquitted himself pretty well that day, going all nine innings in a 2-1 loss.
Just a year later (while his dad was managing the Monarchs to a Negro Leagues championship) Frank III went off to the military, where he'd serve for two years -- but that hardly derailed his playing career. He continued playing with the team at his Army base, becoming a full-time pitcher. The team would often play exhibitions against Negro League teams, and after a particularly impressive start, Duncan got word that somebody wanted to talk to him: It was Roy Campanella, then the catcher for the Baltimore Elite Giants, and he wanted to know if Duncan had any interest in helping out the rotation on weekends.
Duncan of course said yes, and would wind up pitching for Baltimore until 1947. He faced some of the all-time Negro Leagues legends -- Cool Papa Bell, Bill Wright, Gibson and more -- and he even had a cup of coffee in the then-Class A Texas League and the Mexican League in the 1950s.
Frank Jr. passed away in 1973, but his family legacy lives on. When the Kansas City Star tracked down Frank III's son Julian back in February, he remembered their place in baseball's record books: "Out of all the things they accomplished, that's what I'm most proud of."