Recently I purchased the Topps baseball app, Pennant, for my iPhone. The app is $.99 and contains over 117,000 box scores dating back to 1952, the first year Topps printed baseball cards.
What interested me about the app is a story of family. My great-uncle, Joe Presko, was a pitcher on the 1951-54 Cardinals and split 22 innings between 57 and 58 with the Tigers. Joe is also featured in the first release of Topps baseball cards in 1952, card # 220.
I grew up always dreaming of playing baseball professionally one day. I always knew that great-uncle Joe played for the Cardinals and what I knew of Joe was told to me by grandmother who was Joe’s sister, and by my great-grandmother until her her death in the mid 1990’s. I still see Joe to this day at family gatherings but one thing that I never did was ask him about his time in baseball. I’m not sure he ever knew about my passion for the sport. Most of what I know about Joe’s today has to do with thumbing through old Cardinals yearbooks, perusing through sites like baseball almanac, fangraphs or baseball-reference.
When my great-grandmother died very few things were passed on to me. However, in my large Catholic family that I was surprised to receive even the things I did. My love of baseball was well known throughout my family and so I was given a copy of the 1951 Cardinals yearbook my great-grandmother had collected. A book that featured my uncle as well as several All Stars and Hall of Fame teammates such as; Stan Musial, Joe Garagiola, Red Scheondist, Peanuts Lowery, Enos Slaughter, Harvey Haddix, and Del Rice amoung others. It even included Harry Carey as the play by play man. Other items I received were a Mickey Mantle baseball card cut from the side of a post cereal box, a Mickey Mantle plastic coin and newspaper clippings and photos of Joe.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s only hard copies of baseball almanacs or encyclopedias were my only sources for stats. Having not yet been exposed to advanced metrics I found my great-uncles career numbers to be less than stellar. In 490 innings pitched Joe had amassed a 4.61 ERA with a record of 25-37 to go along with 202 strike outs and 5 saves. I was often looking for way to bring glamour to a career that was not mine but that I had found a connection to.
When I latched on to advanced metrics I was able to give my uncle career some meaning in my perspective. I am sure that Joe’s career always meant more to him and was not viewed as disappointing, save for the injuries that derailed it. But for myself I was looking to glorify it. As a youngster who dreamed of playing big league ball I had always dreamed of big league success. So having a very average career was not in my thoughts. How I would love to know have only a glint of underwhelming success in Independent baseball let along a day in the majors.
The advanced metric sites and the Pennant app helped me to find some of this glory. In his 6 year career Joe totaled a respectable 2.8 WAR. Had he not pitched through injury in 1954 that WAR would have surely surpassed 4.0. Looking through the Box scores I found that Joe had some very impressive single games that in themselves must have brought joy to many fans in attendance and excited the city of St. Louis at times.
Admittedly, without thumbing through most of the box scores in Joe’s career, I did stumble across what I feel is likely his best game ever pitched. Facing 4 future hall of famers and a roster littered with all star appearances, Joe took on the first place Brooklyn Dodgers on June 10th 1952. Joe got the 1-0 complete game win, pitching 10 innings, allowing 5 hits and 1 walk, while striking out 2. Both strikeouts recorded against Roy Campanella.
Other box score of note I found that impressed me are;
His first appearance came May 3, 1951 and he records 4 innings to get the win in relief also striking out 2 batters, Willie Jones and Del Ennis.
May 6, 1952 and Aug. 29, 1954 he strikesout Willie Mays.
Aug. 10, 1954 he strikeouts out Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews. Two days later he would get Aaron again.
Multiple games recorded strikeouts against Roy Campanella.
After Joe’s playing career he went on to coach American Legion baseball back in Kansas City, mentoring David Cone along the way.
I personally have never spoken to Joe about his career and often wish I had, but ultimately I never really came to know him all that well that I felt comfortable starting the conversation. Once while a Royals game was on in the background and we had a brief and forgettable discussion on Gary Gaetti’s plate approach. I was about 10 years old and I don’t even recall my opinion at the time.
Maybe at the next family gathering I’ll ask Joe about what he remembers most and report back.
Major League Baseballs color barrier has long been claimed to have been broken by Jackie Robinson. However, without denigration to the story of ole 42, there may be an even more amazing story to be told that predates Jackie Robinson by over 60 years.
For years before 1947 there were colored ball players who made money to play the game of baseball. Many passed themselves off as Hispanic or Latino of some decent and never played above the minor league levels. There is some evidence that in 1879, William Edward White, may have played a single MLB game substituting for an injured player on the Providence Grays.
However the most amazing story may be that of Moses Fleetwood Walker. Historians are of no dispute that Walker, and his brother Weldy, played Major League Baseball. For 42 games in the 1884 season Fleetwood was a participant of the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association.
For those not familiar with the AA it was a league considered to be a “Major League at the time.” Several teams from the AA joined the National League upon the league’s disbanding in 1891. Today the Reds, Pirates, Cardinals and Dodgers all remain MLB clubs today that began play in the AA.
Fleetwood was a catcher and was well regarded defensively. However, due to his race some pitchers would refuse to throw the pitch Walker called for. This led to many pass ball errors being charged to Walker. In addition to the errors the unknown break of the ball caused much toll on Walker as he was oft injured from balls striking his body.
For Toledo, 1884 would be their only season as a Major League team. They left the league at the end of the 1884 season and the team disbanded following an 1885 year back in the minors. After the 1884 season the Major Leagues put a ban on color players. Walker saw himself bounce around in the minor leagues for a few more seasons and finally hung ‘em up in 1889.
Following his retirement from baseball Walker had a pretty unusual twilight for an African American of that time period. In 1891 he invented and patented an exploding artillery shell and in the same year purchased the Union Hotel in Steubenville, OH and a silent film theatre in the nearby town of Cadiz.
Mr. Walker’s incredible life did not brake there however. Still in 1891 Fleetwood claimed to have been attacked in Syracuse, NY by a white man. Walker stabbed his attacker in his giblets and saw the man, Patrick Murray, bleed to death. Walker then was able to escape an approaching mob until he was arrested and charged with second degree murder. Facing an all-white jury at the time Walker was acquitted of the charge and freed, returning to Ohio somewhat of a hero.
Walker then became a supporter of Black Nationalism and believed that segregation in America would fail. In 1908 he published Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America. The contents being a 47 page short that encouraged blacks to return to Africa.
It is worth noting as well that Walker’s brother Weldy, (pictured below) had also become a support of Black Nationalism, penned open letters on racism and won a civil rights lawsuit on racial discrimination against an Ohio bowling alley owner who refused his admittance. In 1898 Weldy assisted Fleetwood with the operation of the Union Hotel after Fleetwood had been convicted and sentenced to one year in prison for stealing the contents of registered mail. Weldy had many successful business ventures in his own right that included owning an oyster and fish store, running a black issues newspaper with Fleetwood called, The Equator, and operating as a bootlegger during prohibition.
The brothers lived until 1924 for Fleetwood and 1937 for Weldy, having never known the name Jackie Robinson and sadly being overlooked and largely forgotten as a part of baseball history.