“Mickey” Stubblefield died Feb. 19, 2013, a week before his 87th birthday. His brief playing career in Organized Baseball would seem unremarkable, except for the fact that he was the first African-American to play in the Kitty League, a Class D minor league formally known as the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League (the initials KIT led to the more commonly-used name Kitty). I don’t know if Mickey was the last man alive who broke a minor league color barrier, but he may have been, and in any case curiosity has led me to put together some of the information I can find about his life.
This isn’t, for now, a thorough biography, but maybe it can serve as a jumping-off point for others. There is a Mickey Stubblefield website where someone, likely family members, has assembled some photos, a few clippings and other biographical information. Some of the information about Mickey available online is contradictory, so I’ve tried to figure out what’s right.
Wilker Harrison Thelbert Stubblefield was born Feb. 26, 1926. Wilker was his mother’s maiden name, Harrison was his father’s first name. Checking Ancestry.com, it shows the name on his birth certificate as Thelbert W. Stubblefield, citing state of Kentucky records. In the 1930 federal census he is listed as Thelbert, the fifth-oldest of six children. His father Harrison was listed as a highway laborer and was a veteran of World War I.
Mickey was born in Mayfield, Kentucky, a county seat in the extreme western part of the state, the area bordered by the Mississippi River on the west, the Ohio River on the north and the Tennessee River on the east. Mayfield is about 25 miles northwest of the college town of Murray and about 30 miles south of the area’s largest town, Paducah.
According to a story (apparently from Nov. 7, 1983) in the Mayfield Messenger by Jim Abernathy that is partially reproduced on the Stubblefield website, Mary Stubblefield died when Mickey was six, and Harrison Stubblefield died five years later. Harrison’s death certificate found on Ancestry.com shows Harrison had remarried and was living in Paducah, with his occupation listed as farmer. Mickey said he remembered little about either of his parents.
It’s not clear whether Mickey ever lived in Paducah with his father, or with whom Mickey lived after his parents’ deaths, but it appears he stayed in Mayfield, and he told Abernathy he had “a lot of homes.” The article mentions he sometimes had to wait to eat until an older sister could bring home leftovers from the kitchen of a white family she worked for, or he would get leftovers from a downtown cafe just before closing time.
Mickey told Abernathy he started serving as a batboy for Mayfield’s Kitty League team when he was 11, which would have been 1937. It was apparently sometime in his early teen years that he picked up the nickname “Mickey” that he went by for the rest of his life. According to the Stubblefield website, the name refers to Mickey Mouse: “[Stubblefield’s shoes] were always hand-me-downs and usually too big. Mickey Mouse’s shoes closely resembled Stubblefield’s hand-me-downs — thus the name.”
I don’t know what level of schooling Mickey completed, but he was in the Navy from 1944 until 1946 (he did not go overseas). After he was honorably discharged he hooked up with an all-black barnstorming team a friend was playing for, the Omaha Rockets, in 1947. The next year he joined one of the legendary Negro Leagues teams, the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.
This was the year after Jackie Robinson had integrated the white major leagues, and some of the better black players had made the jump to Organized Baseball, but some excellent players remained in the Negro Leagues. Stubblefield’s teammates with the Monarchs included Negro Leagues legends Buck O’Neill and Willard Brown and a number of future major leaguers, including Elston Howard, Hank Thompson, Gene Baker and Connie Johnson. (Brown and Thompson had played briefly for the St. Louis Browns in 1947.) Other future big leaguers in the NAL included Al Smith, Sam Jethroe, Bob Boyd and a 17-year-old with the league champion Birmingham Black Barons, Willie Mays.
(A number of articles over the years have referred to Mickey playing with Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell, but it’s not clear to me how much he did. Paige may have spent a little time with the Monarchs early in 1948 before signing with the Cleveland Indians in early July. Bell appears to have coached with the Monarchs and managed a barnstorming “B” team of theirs, and it could be Stubblefield spent time with that squad.)
It’s hard to know how big a role Stubblefield played for the 1948 Monarchs. In an interview with Brent Kelley for Kelley’s 2000 book “The Negro Leagues Revisited,” Stubblefield said his pitching record was “maybe 15-10”; an obituary stated he won 20 games that year. But what stats from league games that have been found indicate Stubblefield played a very much secondary role on the pitching staff behind players including Jim LaMarque, John Ford Smith, Gene Collins and Johnson. Negro Leagues historian John Holway’s 2001 book “The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues” has linescores for all four games of the Monarchs’ playoff series against Birmingham and doesn’t show Stubblefield as pitching in any of them. The Monarchs played an extensive barnstorming schedule against non-league teams in addition to their league schedule; it’s possible Stubblefield saw more frequent action in those games.
Stubblefield said he returned to the Monarchs in 1949. (The 2007 book “Satchel Paige and Company,” edited by Leslie Heaphy, lists Stubblefield on the Monarchs in both 1948 and ’49. Janet Bruce’s 1985 book “The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball” does not list him on the team’s roster for either season; James A. Riley’s “Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues” has him on the team in 1948 only.) But in late 1949 he went to McCook, Nebraska, to play for an integrated team in the Nebraska Independent League, a fast semi-pro league. (McCook is best known, at least to me, as the place where Pat Jordan broke into the minor leagues, as he wrote about in his classic book “A False Spring.”) Stubblefield spent the 1950 season with the McCook Cats, and stories published in later years say he posted a record of 13-6.
It’s not clear exactly when, but sometime after that 1950 season Stubblefield returned home to Mayfield where he got a job at the Dr. Pepper bottling plant and pitched for a black semi-pro team. That put him in a position to integrate the Kitty League.
Mayfield first had a team in the Kitty League from 1922-24, known as the Pantsmakers, in honor of the town’s most prominent business, the Mayfield Woolen Mills, a leading manufacturer of–you guessed it–pants. (The third edition of the “Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball” lists the nickname as Pantmakers, but every other source I’ve found says Pantsmakers.) The team folded late in the 1924 season, but Mayfield returned to the league in 1936, this time with a team named the Clothiers, and would stay in the loop until the entire league closed up shop after the 1955 season.
The Clothiers were off to a slow start in 1952, on their way to a last-place finish, when two scouts from the parent Pittsburgh Pirates signed Stubblefield. (An unidentified clipping on Stubblefield’s website said one of the scouts was Branch Rickey, Jr., but the bio on the site said the scout was Frank Rickey, a brother of Branch Sr. The senior Branch Rickey was the Pirates’ general manager at the time.) The Sporting News made note of Stubblefield’s arrival in the issue of July 9: “Mickey Stubblefield, the first Negro to play in the Kitty League, pitched Mayfield to a 5 to 4 victory over Paducah in his debut, June 26.”
I have not found a contemporaneous account of Stubblefield’s first game. It seems the best source available online is from Kevin McCann’s Kitty League website page about Stubblefield, listing Stubblefield’s daughter Mary as his source:
About 1,500 fans — black and white — packed War Memorial Park and overflowed into the adjacent football grandstand in right field for Stubblefield’s historic Kitty League debut. They gave him a standing ovation to start the game and he struck out the first batter he faced, Paducah third baseman Russ Davis [who finished third in the league with a .353 batting average]. He struck out six batters, walked five, and scattered six hits in the complete game victory, winning 5-4.
But while Stubblefield was popular in his hometown (and the team finished third in the league in attendance despite its last-place finish), he wasn’t welcome in most of the rest of the league, which in those days consisted of Paducah; Fulton, Ky.; Madisonville, Ky.; Owensboro, Ky.; Hopkinsville, Ky.; Union City, Tenn.; and Jackson, Tenn. (There were no Illinois cities in the Kitty League at that time.) McCann writes that Stubblefield pitched only in home games except for an Aug. 2 game at Paducah; he was scheduled to pitch an Aug. 6 game at Jackson that was rained out. (A recent article in the Kansas City Star says the crowd for his game in Paducah was the largest in league history; I have no reason to doubt it, but I have not found any other reference to that.) McCann also shares a quote from Kitty League president Shelby Peace that is credited to the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the major black newspapers: “None of the club owners are in favor of Negroes in the league, but there is no law that would prevent it, except in parks that are municipally owned.” (Today you think it would be government that could require integration; in those days it was government that could prohibit it.)
With Mickey gone, the Kitty League went back to whites-only until 1955, which would be the league’s final season. This passage comes from a website devoted to the Kitty League’s Union City team:
The reason generally given for not including black players in the league was because “there were no proper facilities available.” These were days when there were still separate drinking fountains, rest rooms, and eating facilities. Blacks could not stay in the same hotels as the other players, nor could white players be expected to necessarily use the same dressing rooms and showers. As a consequence Stubblefield only accompanied the Clothiers on road trips when the home team agreed. He beat Union City 3-0 in Mayfield and the UC club management wanted him to travel to Union City to pitch the next week because they thought he would be a draw. Eight hundred fans turned out to see the Greyhounds beat him 8-5. For most of the 800 it was the first time they had seen a “Negro” play against white boys. Probably more than 800 stayed away because they did not approve of the mixing of the races on the diamond. There was an understanding the next year that there would be no black players assigned to any Kitty League franchise by the major league teams, because “facilities were not available to accommodate them.”
Well, note that passage says Stubblefield pitched in Union City (without giving a date), while no other source I’ve found says he pitched anywhere but Mayfield or Paducah. Hmmm…
Stubblefield started 13 games for the Clothiers, completing seven, and relieved twice. He had a 7-6 record for a team that was 40-64 in other games. His 3.71 ERA was not among the league leaders, but it was a good ERA in a league where the weakest-hitting team averaged more than five runs a game and the best-hitting club averaged nearly eight. That performance as a 26-year-old in Class D did not mark him as a major league prospect, but it was more than acceptable.
I don’t know exactly how Stubblefield’s association with the Mayfield team ended, but according to a United Press story that was published March 28, 1953 it appears to be because he wasn’t being allowed to pitch in most of the league’s cities. “The club said it couldn’t afford players who could not play without restriction,” according to the unidentified author of the piece.
I also don’t know how Stubblefield wound up pitching the next season for Duluth in the Class C Northern League, a team that was not affiliated with a major league club. Mickey pitched in six games (less than 15 innings, the exact number is not known) and had a 2-0 record. He told Kelley, “I left when my arm got bad. I run [sic] out of gas.” (Stubblefield also told Kelley his record at Duluth was “’bout 10-8, something like that”; for that matter he said at Mayfield “I won most all of my games.” Old ballplayers don’t always get this stuff right.)
At any rate, while Stubblefield was done with Organized Baseball when he left Duluth, he continued to play ball, moving back to McCook and rejoining the Cats. He got a job working in the garage at Hormel Chevrolet and told Brent Kelley his was the only black family in town. In 1970 he divorced (having gotten married in 1948 while with the Monarchs) and moved back to Mayfield, where he went to work at General Tire and stayed there until he retired in 1992. He stayed in Mayfield until May 2011 when he moved to Smyrna, Ga., in suburban Atlanta, to live with his daughter Mary. That’s where he died.
Stubblefield was only 5’9″ and wasn’t a hard thrower. He told Kelley he relied on “a lot of junk stuff” including a curveball that he could also throw sidearm or underhand (“I could curve it either way”). “I take pretty good care of myself,” he told Kelley. “I didn’t drink a lot or nothing like that. I never smoked. I’m a good guy. I think by being good, you live a long time.”
Stubblefield told Kelley he had eight daughters and three sons; his obituary says he was survived by seven daughters, three sons and an adopted daughter. All his children but Mary lived in Lincoln, Nebraska. His six oldest children graduated from high school in McCook and Mickey remained very popular there. In 2011 he was invited back to be grand marshal of McCook’s annual Heritage Days celebration, after event organizers saw an article about him in the Omaha World-Herald.
I’d love to be able to see some of the newspaper coverage of Mickey’s time with the Mayfield Clothiers. If I get time I’ll call libraries in Mayfield and Paducah and see if some librarian is intrigued enough to look at some microfilm for me.
Finally, here’s a video with Mickey that was produced in 2009 (this shows Mickey in a vehicle with a Kentucky license plate that says MICKEY):