January 13, 2010
Forget Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak: Billy Parker has a baseball record that will NEVER be broken
Baseball players have been lying about their age for almost as long as people have been paid to play. In days of yore players might shave a year off their age; in recent years there have been a number of stories about players from Latin America who took even greater liberties. Miguel Tejada turned out to be two years older than he had said he was, while Rafael Furcal was actually three years older.
But I can’t imagine anyone else ever tried to pull off what Billy Parker did.
You might remember Parker if you were obsessive about baseball in the early ’70s. He played parts of three seasons with the California Angels and had some good years with their Salt Lake City farm club. According to the baseball documents of the time, such as the Baseball Register, Parker was born on January 14, 1947…and that’s the birth date that, until recently, appeared on his Baseball-Reference.com page.
But Billy’s Retrosheet page says he was born in January 14, 1942…and that turns out to be true. Billy Parker passed himself off as FIVE YEARS younger than he actually was. I still have a lot of investigating to do to find out when he started using a different age, and how nobody found out.
When Billy Parker played his first season of minor league baseball, in the Class A Midwest League in 1969, he was actually 27 years old, not 22 as he claimed. And when he made his major league debut in 1971, he was 29, not 24.
Parker was born and raised in the small town of Hayneville, Alabama, the county seat of Lowndes County, just southwest of Montgomery in the southern part of the state. In an article in The Sporting News of August 14, 1971, Parker said, “I was one of 11 sons, and that doesn’t include my sisters.”
He graduated from Central High School in Hayneville; I’ve not yet been able to verify the date. According to Parker’s obituary, he attended what is now known as Alabama State University in Montgomery, on a football scholarship, for one semester; a document in Parker’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library says he attended what was then Tennessee A&I (now known as Tennessee State University) for six months. And a questionnaire that Parker filled out, now in his Hall of Fame file, doesn’t indicate he attended college at all (excerpt below).
Billy Parker would have been 18 in the spring of 1960; perhaps he graduated from high school that spring and attended college that fall. SABR member and Negro Leagues researcher Wayne Stivers tells me he has box scores indicating Parker was an infielder with the Indianapolis Clowns from 1961 to 1964.
The Clowns had been a member of the Negro American League; they are best remembered today as Hank Aaron’s first professional team (1952) and for having three women on their roster at different times later in the ’50s, most notably Toni Stone. By the time Parker joined them, the Clowns were essentially the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball and spent their summers barnstorming; they advertised their availability for fundraisers and offered to bring an opposing team with them (along the lines of the Washington Generals) or play a local team. The item above is from The Sporting News of April 12, 1961, when Parker may have been launching his career with them. The story below is from January 31, 1962:
The Clowns often advertised for players in The Sporting News; the ad at right appeared in the issue of March 28, 1962. I don’t know how Parker got hooked up with the team or why he left them…and right now I don’t know a thing about what Parker was doing from the time he left the Clowns to the time he signed a minor league contract for the 1969 season. So this post is very much a work in progress until these questions are answered. When did Parker start lying about his age? How did Angels scout Kenny Myers find him? What level of baseball could he have been playing to make Myers think he could make it as a professional?
One thing Parker was doing during those years was starting a family. He married Nellie Ann Corbin, and his questionnaire gives their wedding date as March 27, 1962. That would have been shortly after Parker turned 20, but when he changed his age that would have made him 15. Indeed, that 1971 Sporting News story said he married at 15; by the time of the article he had four children, he and Nellie would have a fifth.
While Parker lied about his age, I have no evidence he was lying when he talked about his youth. From that 1971 Sporting News article:
“I was awfully shy and backwards. I couldn’t talk to anyone years ago. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know the right words.
“It was embarrassing…Pretty soon I got to thinking that everybody was laughing at me. How dumb I was. So I decided to do something about it.
“I started a crusade on self-improvement. I wanted to adjust. I would listen to other people talk and then I tried out different speech patterns trying to learn how to be polite and speak effectively.
“Finally, I got confidence in myself. I now feel free and easy with people.”
A story in The Sporting News issue of August 18, 1973, said Parker “grew up in poverty and semi-illiteracy.”
Parker may have had a chance to play in Organized Baseball when he was still a teenager. An item in the Summer 2002 issue of Surprise Progress (published by the city of Surprise, Arizona) told the story this way:
Parker was set to sign with the Detroit Tigers because their farm team was close to his home, but race issues arose. “When I got to the ballpark, they told me no blacks were allowed in the stadium,” he recalled. “So I quit.”
The experience turned him against the organization, but not baseball. Parker kept playing pickup games until 1959 when the Chicago White Socks [sic] signed him as a pitcher. But pitching wasn’t his passion.
The story of Parker signing with the White Sox (as a 5’7-1/2″ pitcher?) must be a complete fabrication. The story about the Tigers? It’s true they had a farm team at Montgomery, in the Class D Alabama-Florida League, in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The story as told above doesn’t sound like there was any kind of a contract offer involved, but it’s told a little differently in the Winter 2007 issue of the same publication:
“Billy had an earlier offer to play for a Detroit Tigers farm team in Alabama, but he remembered being turned away from southern ballparks because he was black, and he turned the Tigers down,” said Matt Coronado, Surprise Community and Recreation Services Director and close friend of Parker’s.
At any rate, when Billy Parker finally broke into minor league ball, in 1969, the Angels thought he was 22 years old. He was actually 27, and there’s no way he would have been signed to his first professional contract at that age. He probably couldn’t have caught on if he were thought to be 23.
His 1969 numbers at Quad Cities in the Class A Midwest League don’t look overwhelming at first glance; he hit .274, with 17 homers and 67 RBI in 111 games. But he tied for the league lead in RBI, was second in total bases, missed tying for the home run championship by one, and was seventh in batting average. He was also voted the team’s most popular player, an honor he won several more times in his career.
Parker was primarily a third baseman at Quad Cities. The next year, he was promoted to El Paso in the Class AA Texas League and converted to shortstop. He got off to a fine start; three weeks into June, he was leading the league in home runs and batting cleanup. He finished with 21 homers (tied with future major league all-star Jose Cruz for second in the league) and led the league’s shortstops in double plays. Alas, he also led in errors and strikeouts.
But the performance earned Parker another promotion in 1971, to the Angels’ Class AAA farm club at Salt Lake City, and again he was among the league’s best players–this time at yet another position, second base. He made headlines with three homers on May 29 against Hawaii, in consecutive at-bats, each to a different field: a two-run homer to center to tie the game in the 7th, a three-run homer to right in the 8th, and a two-run walk-off homer to left in the 10th. At that time he was batting eighth in the lineup.
When Parker was profiled in the August 14 issue of The Sporting News, the accompanying league stats showed him with 22 homers: tied with Ron Cey, one behind Dave Kingman and two behind Greg Luzinski. He finished the season with 27 homers, seventh in the league; ranked third in RBI with 115; batted .308; set a modern Pacific Coast League record for double plays by a second baseman and also led the league’s second sackers in putouts and assists. It was a performance that earned him a spot on the postseason Class AAA all-star team, drawn from all 24 AAA teams. And he was voted Salt Lake City’s most popular player.
It was enough to earn him a trip to the majors after Salt Lake City won the PCL playoffs. On September 9, Billy Parker made history, becoming the first player to hit a game-ending homer in his major league debut.
And at age 29 (although the Angels thought he was 24), Parker had reached the pinnacle of his career. He hit only .229 in 20 games for the Angels in 1971, and did not hit any other home runs. Then he broke his wrist playing winter ball.
He went back to Salt Lake City to start the 1972 season and hit well again (.298, 18 HR, 67 RBI in 103 games), but after he was called back up to California in late July he hit just .213 for the Angels the rest of the way. (He did finish second, to Salt Lake native Doug Howard, in Salt Lake City’s most popular player vote.)
Salt Lake City was Parker’s home again in 1973, with more of the same results: 25 homers, 87 RBI and a .298 average in 113 games. (Yes, Coast League hitters tended to put up gaudy stats in those years, with a number of high-altitude parks in the league.) Even though he was recalled to Anaheim with a month to go in the PCL season he still finished tied for third in the league in homers. Despite his small stature, he swung a huge bat…literally: 36 inches long, 38 ounces.
“Undoubtedly, Parker will go down as one of the all-time greats in Salt Lake baseball history,” Ray Herbat wrote in The Sporting News of August 18, 1973.
Parker got his best shot in the big leagues over the final two months of the ’73 season, starting at second base in 30 of California’s last 58 games. But again it didn’t go well; he hit .225 with no homers and just three extra-base hits in 102 at-bats. That lifted his career major league average to .222.
And that’s where it stayed. Parker was drafted by the Yankees in that December’s Rule 5 draft, but he never returned to the majors. He hit .301 in 65 games at Syracuse in 1974, .313 in 39 games there in 1975. His obituary says he had major knee surgery and a broken leg during those years, without giving dates. After he hit .216 in 29 games at Syracuse in 1976, he went to the Mexican League, batting .264 with seven homers in 140 at-bats for Monterrey. After the season he retired as a player at the age of 34.
From his obituary, we pick up the rest of his life…
1976: Went to work for an electrical equipment company in Phoenix.
1981: Married Dortha Groves, whom he had met in 1977.
*1984: Moved to Texas to work in home construction.
(* I have since heard from Billy’s widow, who tells me they were married in January 1981 but never lived in Texas. I see I misunderstood the obituary; it was the company that moved to Texas in 1984, not the Parkers. My apologies.)
1984: Went into the construction business, building custom homes.
1987: Took a job with the city of Surprise as a park-time dial-a-ride driver and part-time parks and recreation supervisor.
1990: Became full-time parks and rec director.
Parker stayed involved in sports in Surprise for the rest of his life. He took over the youth t-ball program, then started baseball programs for older kids, then added other youth sports, then started an adult sports program. He moved from parks and rec director to adults sports coordinator, the job he held when he was forced to retire because of cancer in 2002.
“Billy would tell me that the biggest lift and compliment he could ever receive was to see kids grow up through the city’s sports programs and come back to thank him and tell him how much fun they had,” said his friend and colleague Mark Coronado.
Parker’s cancer was advancing when the city voted in February 2002 to name the baseball field at Surprise Stadium “Billy Parker Field,” in appreciation for his years of dedication to the city. “He didn’t do it for the love of a paycheck,” said mayor Joan Shafer, “but for the love of the job. We wouldn’t have a [recreation] program without him.”
Billy Parker died on February 9, 2003, at age 61, just a few weeks before the first Cactus League game was played on the field that bears his name.
Surprise Stadium today is the spring training home to both the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals.
Parker was the father of 11, although it appears some of them were step-children. There was also a nephew he raised as a foster son. His obituary says he was preceded in death by twin sons. His sons who survived him were William David Marcus Parker, Will Anthony Parker, and William David Parker, Jr. (see a pattern there?). His first great-grandchild was due to be born two months after his death.
Billy Parker led a rich life. “I always tell people that Billy Parker was a major league baseball player and a major league person,” Mark Coronado said in 2007.
Now, if I can find out about his life between his high school graduation and the start of his minor league career…If you beat me to it, please share the story with me.
By the way, while Parker’s shaving five years off his age may be the major league record, Wayne Stivers tells me he learned George “Chappie” Johnson, who played for top-level Negro teams from 1896 to 1914, was actually six years older than he claimed to be. Wayne says he learned that from Johnson’s death certificate.