Remembering Arkansas Ties of Dickey Kerr, Hero of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal

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It’s early October, 1919, Paragould.

Baseball fans gather around Thompson’s Drug Store and eagerly await to hear news about one of the best players to ever throw a curveball in the area. Dickey Kerr,

Courtesy Arkansas Baseball Encyclopedia Dickey Kerr, who’d pitched for Paragould’s minor league team in 1910 and 1911 as a teen, had broken into the big leagues was taking the spotlight on the biggest stage imaginable.

He was starting for the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.

The Sox, one of the best teams of the era, had shockingly lost their first two series games against Cincinnati. It was up to Kerr – all 5-7, 155 pounds of him – to make sure the Reds didn’t go up 3-0.

Before the game, the rookie’s former Paragould team owners sent him a telegraph:  ”"Paragould fans are with you and betting on you. Hope you will be the sensation of the series and win your game .”

Mission accomplished. While the fans cheered phoned-in news of each strikeout the lefty threw, Kerr held Cincinnati to three hits in a 3-0 home win.

In a flash the St. Louis native became a national darling, the “new Napoleon” who’d seemingly put an entire team on his back. Quite an achievement for someone mistaken for a batboy before pitching his first game in the Northeast Arkansas League, according to the Blythevile Courier‘s former sports editor Ed Hayes.

Kerr’s old boss, P.C. Ritter, sent another telegram after the rousing Chicago win: ” Best pitcher in the world! Congratulations from all Paragould Fans !” Had ol’ P.C. known about Twitter, you can almost bet he would have tacked on #GreeneCountyProud to the message.

Kerr’s reputation continued to rise in the World Series even as his team struggled. After that Game 3 win, the Sox dropped the next two games to fall behind 4-1 in the best-of-nine series. In Game 6, on the road, Kerr wasn’t as dominant but still pitched a 5-4 win.

In the end, despite Kerr’s heroics, Chicago lost the series 5-3. The reason came out the following year:  eight White Sox had allegedly conspired with gamblers to lose  on purpose. Kerr was innocent; indeed, his innocence given the circumstances made him even more of a hero to much of the nation.

Still, the 1919 “Black Sox Scandal” ultimately destroyed the core of the team, as the alleged conspirators were banned from pro baseball for life. Kerr, who won 40 games and threw 560 innings in 1920-21, left the Sox after miserly owner Charles Comiskey refused to raise his $4,800 salary in 1921.

After six more years playing baseball at various levels – exhibition, minor and major – Kerr started managing minor league teams and scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals.

By the late 1930s, possibly earlier, Kerr had made a return to northeast Arkansas. He lived in Blytheville during the winters when he wasn’t managing in Florida. By some accounts, he worked in the cotton industry. According to Ed Hayes, he also worked a few years for Federal Compress in Blytheville.

In 1940, as manager of the Class-D Daytona Beach Islanders, Kerr did something else that would eventually make plenty of Arkansans cheer again and again.

On his team was a 19-year-old southpaw pitcher named Stan Musial, according to The Baseball Historian blog:

Musial had gone 18-5 with a 2.62 ERA, and despite some wildness (145 walks) looked to have a bright career on the mound. Toward the end of the season Musial had a freak accident where he fell on and injured his pitching arm. Although he was also a gifted hitter who had frequently been used in the field on days he was not pitching, he thought his career might be over.

Kerr stepped in to encourage the beleaguered youngster, who was making less than $100 a month and had a pregnant wife, to keep playing and focus on being a position player…

The manager invited the Musial and his wife to live with him and his family as he transitioned into a full time hitter. It was an extremely generous gesture, as Kerr was not making much money himself, but saw something special in Musial. The families grew so close that when the Musial’s son was born they named him Dickey in honor of their benefactor and friend.

… Kerr later said “I convinced him that he wasn’t much of a pitcher anyway. And as a batter he was a natural. You might say Stan’s was a million dollar accident.”

By 1941, Musial was playing for St. Louis.

Musial, of course, would lead Arkansas’ most beloved major league baseball team to three World Series wins and etch a legacy as one of the sport’s greatest hitters. The Baseball Historian continues the story:

By the spring of 1958 Kerr was out of baseball and working at the age of 65 for an electric company in Houston, Texas, while Musial was 43 hits away from the magical career total of 3,000. By happenstance Musial came to Houston to play a spring exhibition game and saw his old friend. Before leaving he made sure that his aging former manager was provided with a little more comfort, by purchasing him a white frame bungalow in a sub-division as a birthday present.

The houses in Kerr’s new neighborhood were being sold for $10,000 to $20,000 at the time, representing a significant portion of the $100,000 player’s salary Musial drew that year. Kerr, who once claimed that he “never got anything out of the game but what it paid me,” was blown away by the gift. He later told reporters “this is the luckiest thing that ever happened to me in my life. I couldn’t be happier.”

Fifty years ago, on May 4, 1963, Kerr was still living in that home when he died. His place in history, and time in Arkansas, should not be forgotten.

 

H/t to Caleb Hardwick of the Arkansas Baseball Encyclopedia for research help. Demirel Tweets about typically more modern events here, and blogs about baseball here

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