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Bill Monroe, Other Musicians Sponsored Teams in 1930-40s

By Jay Feldman

BASEBALL AND BLUEGRASS music are both about as American as you can get - right up there with July 4th picnics, hot dogs and apple pie. Indeed, to "The Father of Bluegrass," Bill Monroe, the affiliation between these two forms of American entertainment was so natural that, for half a dozen years in the 1940s, he sponsored two baseball teams - the Bluegrass All-Stars, which toured with his band, and the Bluegrass Ballclub, which played in Nashville.

Monroe was not the first musician to underwrite a baseball team. In the 1930s Louis Armstrong had a club called Armstrong's Secret Nine, and the Cab Calloway Band's team included bass player Milt Hilton and Cab himself. Both of those, of course, were black teams backed by black jazzmen. Monroe was possibly the only white country musician to sponsor baseball teams.

Bill Monroe was a Southern farm boy whose passions were music and baseball. After the death of his parents in the 1920s, he left Kentucky as a teenager to join his brothers in Chicago, where he worked in a factory for five years. In the early `30s he left Chicago to hit the music trail, thereby turning a boyhood love into a livelihood.

By the mid-1940s Monroe had distilled elements of rural Southern stringband music, black country blues and both white and black Southern church music and blended them together into a new band sound. The sound was characterized by Monroe's soaring, lonesome tenor voice and syncopated mandolin playing, adventurous harmony singing, bluesy fiddling and a driving new style of five-string banjo playing, developed to a large extent by Earl Scruggs, who joined Monroe's band in 1945. This distinctive new musical form came to be known as "bluegrass" after Bill Monroe and His

Blue Grass Boys, the band which changed the face of country music and set the standard for all subsequent bluegrass bands.

The Blue Grass Boys were immensely popular and toured extensively throughout the Southeast, driving as much as 3,000 miles in one week. (Time was measured in weeks because every Saturday the band returned to Nashville to appear on the Grand Ole Opry.)

According to Monroe, now 73 and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the idea of forming a baseball team was a natural outgrowth of the road life of the band. "The Blue Grass Boys played a lot of towns all over the country," he relates, "and back then, you know, every town had a ball club. A lot of times we'd play our show at the local ballpark, and then after the music their game would start. Well, I always really liked baseball myself, and a lot of the boys that were with me then also wanted to play ball, so we wound up with a ball club."

Of course, they could hardly field a baseball team out of a five-piece band, so to fill out the roster Monroe hired about a dozen baseball players out of Nashville, many of whom had minor league and/or semi-pro experience. They traveled with the band and, besides playing baseball, also set up and took down the music show.

In the course of the half-decade the Bluegrass All-Stars existed, many well-known musicians also doubled as ballplayers. Bluegrass and country music luminaries such as Clyde Moody, "Stringbean" (Dave Akeman), Charlie Cline, Chubby Wise, Cedric Rainwater, Don Reno, Jackie Phelps and G.W. Wilkerson all played, and Monroe himself, an ultra-dignified, impeccably well-dressed man, happily donned the flannels and took the field.

Some of these musicians were pretty good ballplayers. Moody, for instance, as a young man with a blazing fastball (and control problems) had pitched two minor league seasons for Asheville, N.C., before pursuing music full time. Phelps was a first-rate shortstop and a bat-control artist who, according to Monroe, struck out only three times one season, and "Stringbean," the best player among the musicians, could play "just about any position." Monroe played "first base and the field."

By Monroe's account, the All-Stars were a strong team. "When we would come to bat, we had two men that could, mind you, get on base. They was hard to get out. The third man, you couldn't strike him out hardly at all - he could hit that ball. The cleanup man and the fifth man was mighty at drivin' in runs. It was hard to get by them first five men up there. And we also had two men who could steal home." The first half of the lineup was so potent that some of the players would customarily bet, not only on the outcome of the game, but that the All-Stars would score in the first inning.

The All-Stars, who tended to be a younger group than the later-formed, Nashville-based Bluegrass Ballclub, usually played five or six games a week. Don Reno, who succeeded Earl Scruggs as banjo player for the Blue Grass Boys, has said, "Bill was more interested in ball than he was in music at this time. I reckon this was a way of resting his mind from music. But he liked to kill me playing ball. We would work a show one night and drive to the next town and usually get in at an early morning hour, and he'd have a ball game set up by ten o'clock with the local team." (From Bossmen: Bill Monroe & Muddy Waters, by James Rooney, The Dial Press, 1971.)

With the music preceding the ball game, fans were provided with what is today called a "total entertainment package." The music started about 7:30 p.m. and lasted 30-45 minutes; then the game was played under the lights. The All-Stars played whatever team was available - semi-pro, minor league (as high as teams from the Eastern and Kentucky Leagues) and once, in Cairo, Ill., they played a black team.

Like "the one that got away" in the old fish story, the game that Monroe laments is the one that was never played. "This team that I had in Nashville, the Bluegrass Ballclub, we had a game scheduled with the House of David," he recalls. "I was payin' them a thousand dollars to play us. Believe this or not, Dizzy Dean was gonna pitch the first three innings for us. It's the truth of it. Well, the House of David, they called and cancelled, said they couldn't make it . . . I don't know why. That would have been a great ball game. That House of David, they had a powerful lineup, but Dizzy Dean would have been hard for them to have pulled down."

Dean was not the only player with big league experience to make his services available. Jim Kirby, who played for the Chicago Cubs in 1949, had a cup of coffee with the Bluegrass All-Stars. Monroe recounts the circumstances: "They was all through, and we was playin' late in the fall. We needed a center fielder for this one game, so some of the boys who knew Kirby got in touch with him, and he came and played for us."

As things turned out, it was a memorable game. "We had a pitcher that had played for Chattanooga in the Southern League who pitched for us that day," Monroe remembers.

"And we had a man by the name of Hildebrand playing second base that had been a major league pitcher. And this MacPherson was playin' right field. Kirby's in center field. And that Charlie Cline was playin' third, and he was a real third baseman. The score was 2 and 2, and they had a runner on third and one out. This man came to bat, and hit this ball back in right field where MacPherson was playin', and MacPherson caught the ball and throwed this man out at home plate. And the score still stands there at 2 and 2, on account of darkness," says Monroe, as if somewhere in the universe of cosmic baseball the suspended game is yet on hold, simply waiting for the players to be reassembled, whereupon it will be resumed and played to completion.

You could look it up - if, that is, the records which were faithfully kept by one of the club members had survived. Unfortunately, Monroe has now forgotten which player kept those records and has no idea what may have become of them.

As the 1950s dawned, Monroe was forced by circumstances to give up his teams. For one thing, the Blue Grass Boys were in ever-increasing demand all over the United States, and it would have been difficult to take a ball club along. Also, the minor leagues and semi-pro baseball were beginning a period of decline as the effects of television began to be felt, and it was no longer so easy to find teams to play. As Monroe sees it, "It seemed like baseball kinda played out. I don't really know what happened to it right there, but in a lot of cities it just about stopped."

And so Bill Monroe gave up his active involvement with baseball. His love for the game, however, never wavered, and now nearly 35 years later, he offers a simple, yet profound explanation of why baseball and bluegrass formed such a natural partnership: "They're a lot alike - it seems like the people that loves baseball are the people that loves bluegrass music."