Baseball stole Art Pennington’s future. The Cedar River washed away his past.
His house, his car, his clothes, nearly all his pictures, even one of his two dogs — it was all lost to the Midwest floods. “Every damn thing I had just floated down the river,” he said.
He is hardly alone: There are 10,000 or so others totaling up their losses just in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, perhaps 10 times as many across the waterlogged region. But possessions can be replaced.
“A big part of my life is gone for good,” he said.
His skin color cost Pennington a shot at the major leagues as a young man. He flourished instead in the Negro, Cuban, Mexican and Venezuelan leagues in the 1940s and, when baseball in America finally opened the door to blacks, in minor leagues across the country.
Six decades later, the water came and carried off nearly every bit of proof that Pennington was the equal of just about anybody who played anywhere he went.
Newspaper clippings, programs, autographed photos from Mickey Mantle, Sal Maglie and a dozen other big leaguers who assured him he would play alongside them someday, scrapbooks that gave his living room the look and feel of a baseball museum.
Last year, Billy Valencia, Pennington’s agent and his guardian angel, talked the old man into letting him scan some of the albums to create a digital archive. But that was just a small fraction of what he had.
“He used to carry a camera to Negro League get-togethers and he had priceless videos of Cool Papa Bell and some other guys, talking and laughing and horsing around, and now they’re all gone,” Valencia said.
This July 24, 1949 file photo shows Chicago Giants player Art Pennington. His skin color cost Pennington a shot at the major leagues as a young man.
“When you get old, you can’t keep moving. You have to stay where people know you. I’m not doing too good, but I’m lucky to have a few good friends. Without them,” Pennington chuckled, “I’d really be up a creek.”
His neighbors remember the man who won a batting title and hit home runs in bunches for Keokuk and Cedar Rapids in Iowa’s Three-I League as his career was winding down in the mid-1950s.
His own favorite stories were about the time he homered off the great Dizzy Dean when their paths crossed on separate barnstorming tours — about the only chance black ballplayers got to measure themselves against the white stars of the major leagues. And the first time he faced Satchel Paige, issuing his standard warning — “Throw it and duck!” — only to strike out three straight times.
Charlie Neibergall / AP
'I played against the best — Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, Larry Doby, Jackie Robinson — and not just the black ballplayers.'
“They’ll tell you I should have been there,” Pennington added, “but I understand why I wasn’t. ... My grandfather was white and he told me life was going to be tough all the way, so I always tried to be tougher. When I was growing up, my mother was sure I’d get killed.”
With a $5 gift from his aunt to cover the trip, he traveled from Arkansas to Memphis, Tenn., at 17 for a tryout with the Negro League’s Chicago American Giants. And he never looked back. He played every position but catcher, played winter ball most years in Latin America, averaged about .300 at every stop.
Taking a look at some of the greatest catchers off all time.