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Mudville: July 23, 2024 1:29 am PDT

It’s Millers Time

You need to know about Crowley, Louisiana, which sounds like a place out of a Randy Newman song. Crowley is the Best Little Baseball Town in the World.

Crowley earned that title in the 1950s with the tremendous support the city gave its minor league team, the Crowley Millers who played in the Evangeline League. This was a love for baseball that only Small Town, America could show and was evident in so many ways in the ‘50s, a love that remains today.

Consider that Crowley built a ballpark, 2,200 seat Miller Stadium in 1948 before it had secured the rights to a team, eventually the Crowley Millers came into being. The townspeople ran the team. They were the stockholders. This little town produced big crowds that loved every aspect about the game and their players.

When tragedy struck in 1951 as young centerfielder Andy Strong was struck by lightning and killed during a game, the town raised a substantial amount of money for Strong’s widow and his six-month-old son.

In essence, Crowley is everything that is good about the minor leagues and to this day still shows that love for baseball.

There is another reason you need to know about the Crowley Millers. I would hope that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and his strategist Morgan Sword, VP of baseball operations – who is implementing this new policy – would take the time to learn as well, but I don’t hold out much hope for that.

The Crowley Millers All-Stars, 1952.

They can start by reading a copy of baseball historian Gaylon White’s latest book The Best Little Baseball Town In The World, published by Roman & Littlefield, to understand such truths. White, who was born in Los Angeles and in 1967 graduated from the University of Oklahoma, started out as a sportswriter before entering the corporate world. For 40 years he worked for such companies as Hallmark Cards Inc., the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, Control Data Corporate and Eastman Chemical Company. At Eastman he worked closely with industrial designers.

Now he is writing books about minor leagues and the people who played in those leagues, the twists and turns that occurred, all the while offering a historical perspective with a human touch. White is bringing the minor leagues of a bygone era out of the shadows and his work has a Ken Burns-like feel to understanding the history of the game.

White, 75, was a child of the great days of the Pacific Coast League, a wonderful league that is now called AAA West by Manfred and his minions, who don’t have an ounce of romanticism in their bones.

In the end, the minor leagues are all about a sense of community and that is something that is sadly going by the wayside in America.

“Teams in various minor leagues around the country give fans in these cities a sense of belonging to something bigger than they are,’’ White told BallNine. “It’s a bond formed early on in a fan’s life and, in many cases, lasts a lifetime.’’

Yes it does and to further his point, White noted, “I’m a diehard Cubs fans but I never lived in Chicago. I grew up in L.A. and was an Angels fan when they were in the old PCL. The Angels were a farm team of the Cubs so when my favorite players moved up to the Cubs, I followed them as closely as I would a family member. I had this sense of belonging to something much bigger than me – first, the Angels, and then, the Cubs. My youth was spent watching the Los Angeles Angels and the Hollywood Stars and that great rivalry.

April 22, 2021: Author Gaylon White (far left) with Terry Fox, ace reliever for the Detroit Tigers in 1961-62 with ERAs of 1.41 and 1.71, and Brent Indest, host of the Bayou Sports Show on KANE radio in New Iberia, LA. Fox was 18 when he broke into pro ball in 1954 with the New Iberia Pelicans. He also pitched for the Pelicans in 1955, winning 21 games. Like many Evangeline League players, Terry married a local girl and still lives in New Iberia.

“I was not happy when the Dodgers came to L.A. They played in the monstrosity of a ballpark, the Coliseum, where you needed a transistor radio for Vin Scully to tell you what was going on.’’

Being close to the action in a minor league ballpark makes the experience more personal.

“The Angels played in Wrigley Field in L.A., almost a replica of the one in Chicago,’’ White noted of the little ballpark that stood as the baseball set for the TV series Home Run Derby. “In fact, it was the original Wrigley Field. Cubs Park in Chicago was later renamed Wrigley Field.’’

Those feelings last a lifetime and mold us as baseball fans. So what does White feel about this new minor league world that is being forced upon us?

“By tinkering with the minors and their great tradition, MLB is messing with the heart and soul of small-town Americans and depriving them of that sense of belonging, so important in these days when the pandemic has people feeling detached from their families, friends and their favorite things in life,’’ he said.

That is what I call a legacy point.

The timing is perfect for this book considering what’s happening currently with the minors. White can be the voice for baseball in small town America.

We need more of a sense of community now more than ever, and for baseball fans it begins with going to games. It is connection with the players. For minor league fans who have had entire teams and leagues ripped away, there is only 108 stitches of a baseball scab now.

Some leagues have been transformed into college leagues and baseball is telling those fans to fall in love with the game at a much different level and with college kids who are just passing through town, hitting with wooden bats for the first time.

It’s as if they are arrogantly saying, “Be quiet and pay up. You should be thankful we are allowing you to have this brand of baseball.’’

“It’s mindless,’’ White said of all the changes in the minor leagues. “I don’t know what they are smoking and I don’t even give them credit for thinking.’’

“Teams in various minor leagues around the country give fans in these cities a sense of belonging to something bigger than they are. It’s a bond formed early on in a fan’s life and, in many cases, lasts a lifetime.’’

White lives in Kingsport, Tennessee. “One of the things they’ve done is destroy the Appalachian League. It has a great history. Darryl Strawberry came through Kingsport. Kirby Puckett came through nearby Elizabethton.’’

Minor league teams are a collection of story lines and given the gift of time we see how those stories age. For the Crowley Millers, the stories never end. There was slugging first baseman Conk Meriwether. He played 15 seasons in the minors in 21 different cities. His three years in Crowley were three of his most impressive. In 1951 he hit 19 home runs, 33 home runs in ’52 and 42 in ’53. His fights were legendary and he went completely off the rails soon after his career ended but we’ll save that for the book… It’s bloody.

Conk Meriwether

As White wrote: “The Story of baseball in Crowley goes beyond any one player. The Millers played in the Evangeline League, also known as the Tabasco and Pepper Pot League. It survived a world war, a game-fixing scandal, and a racial ban, only to be done in by Mother Nature — Hurricane Audrey.’’

And yes, the Evangeline League was named after the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem.

“Last week I was in Crowley, I had three different book signings,’’ White told me, “and I’m going back in May because of the demand, but what I’ve found while pro baseball abandoned Crowley a long time ago, Crowley still has a passion for baseball and they cherish their heritage. The ballpark was restored in 1998, it had been destroyed in Hurricane Audrey in 1957 and that led to the demise of the Crowley Millers.’’

In his research White struck up a friendship with Richard Pizzolatto, the former recreation director in town, who grew up at the ballpark and was a baseball encyclopedia for White. “Everybody calls him Coach Pizz,’’ White said. “Last week we did a piece out at the ballpark with a local news guy and Coach Pizz, who’s 85 years old.’’

There is a cemetery behind the scoreboard beyond left field. There is a headstone already in place for Coach Pizz with his birthdate. There is also the fleur-de-lis logo of his beloved New Orleans Saints. In the book he told White: “I put the headstone there like I’m still living. I figure by not having the date of death on there, people will see it and say, ‘I can’t believe Coach Pizz is still there.’ ’’

The headstone for the legendary - and very much alive - ``Coach Pizz``outside Miller Stadium. (Photo: Spirit of Arcadiana/KATC)

Crowley also recently spent $5 million to update the ballpark and complex, including adding artificial turf to avoid rainouts. “I did color commentary on a high school game when I was there,’’ White said, “and it was fascinating to be at this ballpark that looks better than ever, got new lights, new surface, new seating and to see high school kids playing on this field with such a great history. And that heritage kept coming up when I signed books for people.’’

Baseball is a heritage sport. “These people haven’t forgotten, but baseball has forgotten them,’’ White said.

The stories live on generation after generation. In a way there is a Friday Night Lights feel, only baseball instead of football. Stories good and bad, whether it be the shady business dealings of successful manager Johnny George or the escapades of pitcher George Brunet, who pitched for the Angels and was featured in Jim Bouton‘s classic “Ball Four.’’ Noted White, “George Brunet played for 32 teams. He came through Crowley and pitched a no-hitter while he was there. He went all the way from Class C, the Evangeline League to the A’s by the end of the year. He’s got a couple pages in Jim Bouton’s book for not wearing underwear.’’

The year was 1956 and that was the Kansas City A’s.

Brunet must have been on to something. In all, he pitched 30 pro seasons, 15 in the majors and threw a total of 4,639 innings. He started in Shelby, North Carolina in 1953 and finished in 1984 in Monterrey, Mexico. When Bouton asked about his clothing style, Brunet said, “I never wear undershorts. The only time you need them is if you get into a car wreck.’’

Yes, he was a left-hander.

In 1955 the Crowley player-manager got in a fight with the centerfielder and fractured his  centerfielder’s jaw. Pitcher Rusty Walters, a knuckleballer, won 30 games for Crowley in 1950.

“They call themselves the Rice Capital of America, so the ballpark is right there among the rice mills that are left,’’ White explained. In the ‘50s there would be local car nights, where cars were given away and it was crazy. “The turnout would be huge and people would park on the railroad tracks used by the rice mills and during the game they would call out cars, saying, ‘You got to move your car, you are parked on the train tracks where the train has to go by.’ And people would go move their car, but that’s just the way it was. It was community, everybody knew everybody and you don’t have that anymore.’’

The original Miller Stadium

The ballpark was built in 1948, the team arrived in 1950 and lasted through 1957, the final season.

This book was a baseball journey for White, too.

“When I started to work on this book I didn’t know where Crowley was,’’ White said. “The only thing I knew was that a ballplayer, Hugh Blanton, a 21-game winner in 1952, had mentioned Conk Meriwether and I didn’t know who Conk Meriwether was – but when I began to research him, I became fascinated with him, a home run king in two leagues prior to the Evangeline League. When he got to Crowley in late ’51, the next two years he won home run titles there.

“In the course of that I found out about Crowley and their attendance figures for three straight years were over 100,000, being called The Best Little Baseball Town in the World and the Cooperstown of Dixie, so it was a happy discovery. Every turn I would make, something quirky would come up.’’

Like the story of former Cuban-born pitcher Juan Izaguirre, a fan favorite who pitched the first no-hitter in Millers history. A complete player, he could also pay the infield and hit. His father-in-law had owned a trucking business in Cuba, a business that was taken by the communists in 1959. The story went that Izaguirre went back to Cuba to play baseball in 1957-58, and later confronted Fidel Castro about the trucking business. Izaguirre, who had played baseball with Castro, was executed by a firing squad. That was the story making the rounds at Millers reunions.

White’s research found the truth. Izaguirre went on to manage and mentor players in Cuba, where he was a great player leading the 1950 Cuban national team to the Amateur World Series and a gold medal in the Pan American games. In that World Series he knocked in a record 21 runs while scoring 16. As a coach and mentor he had a hand in shaping Orlando “El Duque’’ Hernandez into the World Champion pitcher he became, winning three World Series with the Yankees. El Duque pitched 19 postseason games over his career, compiling a 9-3 record with a 2.55 ERA.

White noted Izaguirre died in 2017, living the later years of his life in Miami and outliving Castro by five months.

Juan Izaguirre

Andy Strong was killed June 16, 1951 when lightning struck at the game in Alexandria, Louisiana, where the Millers were visiting the Aces. In researching the book, which began in 2013, White spoke at length with Ed Keim, voice of the Millers. Keim was in his first year of broadcasting games for KSIG Radio in Crowley in 1951. Keim survived the Battle of the Bulge.

“He of course never had forgotten calling that game and basically re-lived that whole experience,’’ White explained. “I have a sound clip, and if you listen to that sound clip it will affect you, he talks about what it was like when lightning hit the ballpark, what he tried to describe and what he saw.’’

Ballcaps had a metal button on top. After Strong was struck down: “That’s the first thing they got rid of,’’ White said. “Their caps and their cleats, they thought it was the metal. That became part of the education. If you get any bad weather out there, get rid of the cap and get rid of those shoes.

“They are very proud people,’’ White said of the people of Crowley. “Proud of their food and that area, and they should be. It is a charming area. Babe Ruth passed through there in 1921 and his signature is on the dressing room wall of the opera house, which was restored a number of years ago and is magnificent.’’

There is even a biscuit recipe in the book. The biscuits at the Greyhound bus station coffee shop were legendary. Little Richard always got his biscuits there when he was in the area.

“My wife Mary has made those biscuits,’’ White said, “and they are quite good.’’

John F. Kennedy gave a speech in Crowley in October of 1959 before 90,000 people. They say all roads pass through Crowley. JFK was magnetic, but it was Jackie who won over the crowd, speaking French. “She upstaged Jack,’’ White said. “He said in his speech he would eat rice the rest of his life, but she gets up there and she talks about how it reminded her of being in Southern France with her father. She won their hearts with the remarks she made in French.’’

Hearts in Crowley are won over by baseball still to this day.

Mr. White’s latest book, The Best Little Baseball Town in the World can be purchased through the publisher’s website, Amazon.com, or at major bookstores everywhere.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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