The night a minor league game was suspended when the manager was shot

This was one of those filler items in the minor league stats section of the 1958 Sporting News Baseball Guide:


Fans attending a Sooner State League game at Ponca City, August 8, 1957, witnessed a bizarre incident.  In the second inning that evening one of the spectators, a hotel porter, pulled out a .38 pistol and fired several shots at a member of the visiting Ardmore team.  The shots missed the player for whom they were intended, but two struck Player-Manager J.C.Dunn of the Cardinals, one in the ribs under his left arm and the other in his right leg.  The game was suspended immediately and Dunn was taken to a hospital.  With their hard-hitting manager out of action, the Cardinals saw their ten-game lead begin to evaporate.  Dunn limped back into the lineup 18 days later, but Ardmore lost the flag to Paris by half a game.  However, Dunn made up for lost time in the playoffs, batting a phenomenal .592 in seven games to lead his club to the post-season title.

Ummm, somebody got shot ON the field DURING a game, and that’s all you have to say about it?  This has the potential to make the Eddie Waitkus shooting look kind of tame by comparison.  Inquiring minds need to know more…

A United Press version of the story made the New York Times on August 10:

That account said the porter, a 32-year-old black man named James Johnson, fired five shots from behind a screen that separated the stands from the dugout and was arrested immediately on suspicion of assault with intent to kill.  Dunn was reportedly struck when he entered the dugout after scoring a run.  The article also said there were 400 spectators at the game.  It also added this tidbit:

The police investigated a report that Mr. Dunn and Johnson [note the white guy is a “Mr.” but not the black guy] had been in an argument Wednesday night [the night before the shooting] in the Jens Marie Hotel, where Johnson was employed and the Ardmore team was staying.  They said that they had also received a report that Johnson had been in a fight with three Ardmore players.

I came across another account of the incident, told years later, in a book called “Brushing Back Jim Crow” by Bruce Adelson.  It’s a very interesting and well-researched book about the first black players to integrate minor leagues in the South.

Adelson includes a chunk of a conversation with Billy Williams, the future Hall of Famer who would go on to spend a long career with the Cubs.  Billy turned 19 in the summer of 1957 and was in his first full year of professional baseball as a member of the Ponca City Cubs, the home team the night J.C. Dunn was shot.  Williams said the seeds of the shooting were sewn the night before, when he drove in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth to defeat Ardmore.

There was this one black gentleman who was running the elevator at the hotel where the [Ardmore] Cardinals were staying.  I guess those guys [the Cardinals] were mad and pissed off after the game.  They just hated everybody and everything.  They got into an argument on the elevator.  There were two or three guys who beat this guy up.  He was hurt pretty bad.  They kicked him in the groin.  Through all of this, he said, “I’ll get you tomorrow.”

The next night, this one guy came to the ballpark and stood at the side of Ardmore’s dugout.  He asked where were the guys from the elevator the night before.  One of them looked up, and he knew the guy looked angry.  He knew what he had done.  The ballplayer took off and started running.  This guy took out his .38 and started shooting at this player.  You could see the dust flying from the bullets.  The center fielder jumped over the fence.  The second baseman was trying to hide behind second base.  I’m standing in left field.  The manager got up, and I think he shot him in the side.  They called the game.  I hadn’t seen anything like this before.

…That guy [the shooter] had never been in any trouble.  This guy is a preacher now.  He told me, “You know, Billy, you were the cause of that because they were mad they had lost the game.”

This tidbit comes from Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League authority John Hall:

Don Biebel [former K-O-M League player] managed Ponca City that year and when word got out that a manager had been shot at Ponca City, Biebel’s parents thought it was him.  The guy who shot Dunn wound up being a minister and the last I heard he’s still living.

This is all I have on the shooting so far; I don’t even know what happened to the charges against Johnson.  But I’ve made some contacts in Oklahoma to try to learn more.  At any rate, have you ever heard of any other incident in which shots have been fired at someone in uniform during a game in professional baseball?

Meanwhile, there’s an odd twist to the story.  Sixteen years later, Dunn was shot to death at the age of 47.  The story is told on the Unsolved Mysteries page of the Carter County Sheriff’s Department web site (Ardmore is the seat of Carter County):

Wednesday, October 24, 1973 – Person or persons unknown entered the home of Ardmore High School Coach J.C. Dunn at 500 Campbell Street Northwest in Ardmore.  Sometime that Wednesday afternoon, J.C. Dunn was killed with a single blast from a 12 gauge shotgun in the bathroom of his home.  The murder has never been solved.

Dunn’s obituary is in the November 17, 1973, issue of The Sporting News, which I can’t access electronically at this time.

J.C. Dunn never reached the major leagues, but he had a successful 12-year minor league career, most of it at the Class D level.  He finished with a .321 career batting average and 161 home runs.

His first year was his best; in 1949, with Lebanon (Pa.) of the Class D North Atlantic League, he led the league in batting average (.384), hits (216), runs (141, in 134 games), doubles (42) and RBI (137).  His 16 homers were two short of the league lead, and he stole 35 bases to boot.  The only caution here is that Dunn was already 23 years old.  (Dunn’s teammates included an 18-year-old who was also in his first year of pro ball, a pitcher named Ken Boyer, who went 5-1 with a 3.42 ERA and also hit .455, with three homers in just 33 at-bats.  He’s the same Ken Boyer who went on to hit 282 homers in the majors and win National league MVP honors in 1964.)

Dunn’s performance earned him a bump to Class B the next year, where his teammates at Winston-Salem included a teenage second baseman named Earl Weaver.  In 1952 Dunn got a taste of the highest minor league level with Columbus in the American Association, but a 3-for-25 performance there led to a change in career focus.

In 1953, the 27-year-old Dunn took over as manager of the Cardinals’ Class D Florida State League affiliate at Sanford.  He managed teams in five different Class D leagues over the next eight seasons, winning one regular season pennant and three league playoffs in the process.  Dunn hit .300 or better in seven of those seasons and .294 in the other one.  Along the way he

  • led the Florida State League in homers in 1953 with 20 and batted .347
  • led the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League in homers in 1954 with 26 and batted .332
  • led the Georgia-Florida League in RBI in 1955 with 125 and batted .300
  • led the Sooner State League in RBI in 1956 with 134 and batted .335 with 27 home runs (teammate Gene Oliver, a future big leaguer, led the league with 39)
  • hit .323 in his shooting-shortened season to finish third in the Sooner State League in 1957
  • hit .330 in the Alabama-Florida League in 1958

Dunn left the Cardinals’ organization after a second year in the Alabama-Florida League in 1959 and managed the White Sox’ affiliate in that same league in 1960, his last year as a professional manager.  He apparently played in four games in the Class AA Texas League in 1961; perhaps he was a coach, but it was the franchise that moved to Ardmore in late May, maybe he was living there and signed on for a stretch.  After that, all I know is eventually he coached at Ardmore High and was shot to death.

Above is an undated photo of an Ardmore Cardinals team; J.C. Dunn is fifth from the left in the back row, smack in the middle.

Okay, I’m officially curious to know more.  Chime in if you know anything, and as I learn more I’ll update this post.

UPDATE (3/4/10): I’ve tracked down some of the newspaper reporting about both shootings, and details are in this post.

3 thoughts on “The night a minor league game was suspended when the manager was shot

  1. Pingback: The shootings of J.C. Dunn « The J.G. Preston Experience

  2. Sandy Stangel-Bjerke

    I believe this team photo date to be 1956. I have the same photograph. My father Bob Stangel played with JC Dunn that year, and is pictured in the front row, 4th from the left. What an incredible time for baseball. Thank you for your articles. My Dad is deceased so this really is interesting information!

  3. Charlie Webber

    hey amazing article and yes i can confirm that biebel’s parents thought that he had been shot because Donald Biebel is my grandfather! he’s told me many amazing baseball stories with him , billy , and the cubs


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