The Negro Leagues' Great Catcher
By; David Adler | @_dadler
There were three great catchers of the Negro Leagues era: Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella and Biz Mackey.
Gibson was called “The Black Babe Ruth.” Campanella won three MVP Awards in the Major Leagues.
But Mackey was just as great as his legendary peers.
An unparalleled all-around catcher whom the great Negro Leagues hurlers loved to pitch to, Mackey could do it all behind the plate. He was sensational defensively and threw out baserunners with ease even from a crouch. In the minds of many of his peers, none topped Mackey at his position.
Here are some facts, figures and stories to know about Mackey, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
• Mackey’s playing career lasted nearly 30 years, from the late 1910s well into the 1940s. The Texas native, born James Raleigh Mackey, spent his early days with the San Antonio Black Aces and played the prime of his Negro Leagues career for the Hilldale Giants.
Mackey led his Hilldale club to the Eastern Colored League pennant in 1924 and the Negro Leagues World Series championship in 1925. In addition to his skills as a catcher, Mackey was also a great hitter, a switch-hitter whose batting average at his peak was always well above .300, sometimes even .400.
In the 1925 Negro Leagues World Series – a rematch of the inaugural '24 series against the Kansas City Monarchs – Mackey had three hits in Hilldale’s championship-clinching Game 6 win, including the home run that put the series away in the seventh inning. He led his team with a .375 average for the series.
• One of the most important parts of Mackey’s legacy was that he mentored a young Campanella, teaching him the catcher position beginning when the future Brooklyn Dodgers great was just a teenager in the late 1930s. Campanella credited Mackey with teaching him the nuances of catching – from pitch receiving to blocking to footwork to throwing – long before he became an MLB star with the Dodgers in the late '40s and '50s.
Campanella said of Mackey: “In my opinion, Biz Mackey was the master of defense of all catchers. When I was a kid in Philadelphia, I saw both Mackey and Mickey Cochrane in their primes, but for real catching skills, I don’t think Cochrane was the master of defense that Mackey was.”
The Hall of Famer even paid homage to Mackey by introducing him at his 1959 farewell speech at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“I couldn’t carry his glove or his bat,” Campanella said.
Later, Campanella would recall of that day: “I invited him out to the game, and I had him stand up, and I told them, ‘This is the man that gave me all of the techniques in my catching ability, that started me out at a young age.’ He was there, and he felt so proud.”
• Mackey’s Hall of Fame contemporaries often sung his praises. Many considered him the greatest Negro Leagues catcher of them all.
Longtime Monarchs pitcher Hilton Smith said: “I’ve pitched to some great catchers, but my goodness, that Mackey was to my idea the best one I pitched to. The way he handled you, the way he just built you up, believing in yourself. He was marvelous.”
• Mackey was named to five Negro Leagues East-West All-Star Games during his career, including the first East-West classic in 1933. For that game, Mackey earned the nod as the East’s starting catcher over a young Gibson.
Mackey’s All-Star legacy was so great that he even received a ceremonial intentional walk on his 50th birthday at the July 27, 1947, East-West game. Mackey was the manager for the East in that All-Star Game, the year after he managed the Larry Doby-led Newark Eagles (as a player-manager) to the club’s only Negro Leagues World Series title in 1946.
• Like many great Negro Leaguers, Mackey also starred on the barnstorming circuit.
In October of 1926, Mackey’s Hilldale team faced an All-Star team of Major Leaguers with a young Lefty Grove on the mound. Hilldale beat the Philadelphia Athletics Hall of Famer’s squad, 6-1, and Mackey notched a hit off Grove himself. He knocked hits off other Major Leaguers like Bullet Joe Bush, and played against the likes of Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons.
In 1927, Mackey traveled to Japan for an extensive barnstorming tour. While there, he became the first player to belt a home run out of the newly constructed Meiji Shrine Stadium in Tokyo … which is still used today as the home field of Nippon Professional Baseball’s Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Mackey returned to Japan in 1934 and '35, the year before the Japanese Baseball League – the predecessor to NPB – began play.
• Mackey had the personal connection to Campanella, but he draws just as many comparisons to Gibson when it comes to discussion of the Negro Leagues catching icons.
There were plenty who thought the title of the best belonged to Mackey, despite Gibson’s prodigious home run power.
In a 1954 Pittsburgh Courier poll, for example, Mackey was voted the greatest catcher in Negro Leagues history, ahead of Gibson.
Even Hall of Fame Negro Leagues executive Cum Posey, the owner of the Homestead Grays – Gibson’s own longtime team – said: “For combined hitting, thinking, throwing and physical endowment, there has never been another like Biz Mackey. A tremendous hitter, a fierce competitor … he is the standout among catchers.”