Mackey a true master behind the plate
Negro Leagues catcher up for induction into Cooperstown
Names like Josh Gibson and Roy Campanella might stand out more than Biz Mackey, but Negro League historians say no catcher in the history of black baseball measured up to Mackey in all aspects of the game.
"Biz Mackey was an incredibly talented receiver who remained cool under pressure," wrote historian James A. Riley in "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues." "Considered the master of defense, he possessed all the tools necessary behind the plate, but he gained most acclaim for his powerful and deadly accurate throwing arm."
Mackey is among the 39 players and executives from black baseball that are under consideration for induction into Cooperstown. A panel of 12 baseball historians and Negro League experts will decide which of the 39 will reach the Hall of Fame. The panel will announce its decisions Feb. 27 in Tampa, Fla.
How good a defensive catcher was Mackey?
People who saw him play called him an "artist behind the plate." They claimed he could throw to second from a squatting position harder and faster than other catchers could throw standing up.
But was this just folklore and baseball hyperbole?
Perhaps some of it was exaggeration or tall tales, but to hear those men who followed Mackey at the position speak, few baseball fans can be left with much doubt as to how good Mackey was.
In 1959, Campanella addressed Mackey's greatness during a ceremony at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The event was supposed to be a night to honor Campanella, whose Hall of Fame career came to an abrupt end when he was injured in a car accident. But he used his public forum to pay homage not to himself, but to Mackey, his mentor.
"I couldn't carry his glove or his bat," Campanella said that night.
He wanted everybody at the ballpark to know that Mackey, who attended the event, had been instrumental in turning the raw, but talented teenager into a skilled catcher who went on to star in the Negro Leagues and in the Majors.
"Observers say that watching Campanella was like seeing Mackey behind the plate," Riley wrote.
Unfortunately, not as many people saw Mackey, which is why his career didn't get the fame it deserved. But on that night in '59, he got the loud applause that had eluded him during much of his career.
Like so many of his contemporaries then, Mackey made much of his reputation on the barnstorming circuit. He played baseball in Japan, and he found himself in demand to play against Major Leaguers in postseason All-Star Games.
Mackey began his career with the San Antonio Black Aces in 1918 before he joined the Indianapolis ABCs of the Negro National League. He played for Indianapolis from 1920-22, where his reputation for handling pitchers blossomed.
But to look at Mackey as a one-dimensional ballplayer is to look at him the wrong way -- for his bat was something to marvel at as much as his defensive skills were.
In 1923, the switch-hitting Mackey hit .423 with 20 homers for the Darby Hilldales, and he followed with batting averages ranging from .315 to .400 for the next eight seasons. The team won pennants those first three seasons, including a Negro League World Series in 1925.
Throughout his 30 years in black baseball, Mackey proved a fan favorite. He would play in six All-Star Games, which included the 1947 game when he received a ceremonial intentional walk at age 50.
So how good was Mackey again?
In 1952, The Pittsburgh Courier ran a poll of Mackey's Negro League peers, and they placed him at the top of their all-time list of Negro League catchers.
Homestead Grays owner Cum Posey, one of the Negro League pioneers, agreed with the players. Posey, himself a candidate for induction into Cooperstown, called Mackey the best all-around catcher he ever saw and selected Mackey as the catcher on his all-time Negro League team.
That's high praise indeed, particularly considering Posey had Gibson on several of his Grays teams. But the highest praise of all for Mackey came from his protégé Campanella, whom author John B. Holway quoted in his book "Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers" as saying:
"In my opinion, Biz Mackey was the master of defense of all catchers. When I was a kid in Philadelphia I saw both Mackey and Mickey Cochrane in their primes, but for real catching skills, I didn't think Cochrane was the master of defense that Mackey was."
Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. MLB.com staffer Brian Wilson contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.