SABR

Marv Rackley

This article was written by Rob Neyer.

Marvin Eugene Rackley was born on July 25, 1921, in Seneca, South Carolina, a mill town just up the road from Clemson University in the northwestern corner of the state. (Like many professional players of his time, Rackley would later take a "baseball age," claiming to have been born in 1922). Marv’s parents were Thomas (aka Turp) and Blanche Rackley. Turp was a loom-fixer in the local cotton mill. As of the 1930 US census, there were six children, four girls and two boys. Marv was the fourth child and the second son.

Rackley entered Organized Baseball in 1941 with Valdosta in the Class D Georgia-Florida League, where he batted .322 in 133 games. He opened the 1942 season with Durham in the Class B Piedmont League, but struggled and finished the season with a couple of months as a Dayton Duck in the Class C Mid-Atlantic League.

On October 5, 1942 Rackley entered military service with the Army Air Force at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He spent the next three years stationed at Craig Field, a fighter pilot training base five miles southeast of Selma, Alabama. Rackley played baseball on a regular basis at Craig Field.1

Perhaps as much as any player, Rackley seems to have been helped by his years in the service. Despite having shown just modest talent in the minors, he went to spring training with the Dodgers in 1946. With veteran outfielders Dixie Walker and Pete Reiser both holding out, manager Leo Durocher raved about Marvin Rackley: “Let me tell you about this kid. He's been in the service, and I never heard of him before he reported here. He looks like another Paul Waner—stands at the plate just like Paul—and he's as fast as George Stirnweiss, to give you an idea. If this kid can hit like Waner, he'll be a hell of a ball player.”2

Not many kids hit like Paul Waner, but Rackley won a spot with the Class AAA Montreal Royals, a big jump from his last professional engagement. Despite playing in just 124 games, he still led the International League in both triples (14) and steals (65). One of the league's fastest players, "Rabbit" Rackley was right at home with the Royals, who led the IL in both categories. Rackley was not the Royals' only speedster, nor was he their most famous; when Rackley patrolled right field, he could look toward the infield and see the number nine on the back of second baseman Jackie Robinson.

Thanks to (among others) Robinson and Rackley, the Royals went 100-54 for the league’s best record, smashed Newark and Syracuse in the International League playoffs, and finally topped Louisville, champions of the American Association, in the six-game Little World's Series.

Rackley, however, was not ready to head home to South Carolina. Instead, he and two other white minor leaguers—including Al Campanis, Robinson’s double-play partner in Montreal—joined Jackie on a quick barnstorming tour and battled Honus Wagner’s All-Stars in five cities.

Rackley broke camp with Brooklyn in 1947. But on June 15—cut-down day—he was demoted to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association, the Dodgers’ other Class AAA affiliate. Rackley had played in eighteen games but started just once: on June 10 he played right field and drove in the Dodgers' only run with a ninth-inning single against Reds ace Ewell Blackwell. With the Dodgers in Chicago, it would have been a relatively quick trip to St. Paul. But Rackley, not eager to return to the minors, had another idea. According to Roscoe McGowen in the Times, Rackley said:

I'm going back to Brooklyn to see my wife and find out what she thinks about it. I didn't get a chance with the Dodgers. I was started in one game against the best pitcher in the league, got one hit and drove in a run. If that was a trial, I didn't do so badly, did I?

I have no envy or criticism of some of the other boys, such as Hermanski and Snider. I'm glad they're getting a chance. I'm merely kicking because I don't feel I got the same chance—and I certainly have it over them in experience.

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McGowen reported that Rickey, then with the club in Chicago, would return to New York in his private plane, accompanied by (among others) his wife and Marvin Rackley. "During the ride," McGowen suggested, "it may be that he will convince Rackley it is a good thing to go to St. Paul.

Rackley did go to St. Paul, and batted .316 in sixty games. The records suggest that he was recalled by the Dodgers almost exactly two months after his demotion, but that might have been a paper move because he did not play for Brooklyn the rest of the ’47 season. After the Dodgers lost the World Series that fall, his occasional teammates—whose full losers' shares came to $4,081.18—voted Rackley, Eddie Chandler, and four other minor contributors $300 apiece.

Why hadn't Rackley gotten a real chance to play for the Dodgers in 1947? It probably did not help that he was relatively small—five feet ten and 170 pounds—had very little power and did not throw well. Some years later in Dodger executive Fresco Thompson's memoir, he recalled this conversation with Branch Rickey about Rackley:

"What about Marvin Rackley?" Rickey asked me. Rackley was a whiz at Montreal.

I volunteered, "I think Rackley is a pretty good ballplayer for a little fellow."

He gazed at me searchingly. "Do you know of any league that just uses little fellows?"

"No, sir," I answered.

"Alright then, begin again and tell me what kind of a ballplayer is Rackley?"

"Just fair and of doubtful major league ability," I summed him up.3

Thompson's introduction to this little story includes some questionable details, which makes the recalled-some-years-later conversation with Rickey questionable, too. And while this might tell us something interesting about Rackley’s abbreviated career as a Dodger, the real problem in 1947 was simply that the club had a surfeit of left-handed-hitting outfielders: starters Dixie Walker and Pete Reiser, but also Gene Hermanski, Arky Vaughan, Al Gionfriddo, and rookie Duke Snider. In 1948, with Walker gone, Gionfriddo gone, and Reiser’s role reduced, Rackley would get his shot.

Half a shot, anyway. Hermanski and Snider both deserved (and got) their time, and rookie George “Shotgun” Shuba—yet another lefty-hitting outfielder—won his spurs, too. Aside from a few weeks back in Montreal, Rackley played roughly half the time, sometimes in left field and sometimes in center. Rickey couldn’t have been disappointed when Rackley batted .327, though he might have wondered why Rackley hit zero home runs and stole only eight bases.

It might have been in 1948 when Rackley contributed to the development of rookie pitcher Carl Erskine, who later would write, “Marvin Rackley, my former Dodger roommate, conditioned his thinking by reading Scripture. He got me in the habit of packing my own Bible on road trips.”4

Playing time in 1949 was even more scarce, as Snider took over in center field. For Rackley, there was another complication: the Dodgers traded him to Pittsburgh for Johnny Hopp, another lefty-hitting outfielder (who was actually acquired to play first base if anything should happen to Gil Hodges). The transaction was made on May 17; in addition to Hopp, the Pirates also threw in $25,000. Then things started getting weird.

Not long after joining the Pirates, Rackley complained of a sore throwing arm. His new employers suspected that Rickey had obtained Hopp (and $25,000) under false pretenses. Of course, Rickey claimed that he’d known nothing of a sore arm, telling the New York Herald Tribune’s Harold Rosenthal, “I then spoke in turn to Burt Shotton, my manager, and Clyde Sukeforth, the coach, about the arm. Neither of them knew of any sore arm the boy had when he was with the club. Our trainer, Doc Wendler, said that Rackley had made a report of a sore arm in spring training, but didn’t think it was anything. Everyone had a sore arm in spring training.”5

By June 6 Rickey offered to return Hopp and the $25,000 to Pittsburgh, who accepted even though Rackley had gone 11-for-35 as a Pirate and Hopp was hitless in fourteen at-bats with Brooklyn. (Rackley wasn’t quite finished annoying Rickey. Upon rejoining the Dodgers, he was reported to have said, “My arm’s all right, now that I’m back with the Dodgers.”)

With the Dodgers returning to the World Series in 1949, after a one-year absence, Rackley started Game Two because of Carl Furillo’s groin injury. He went hitless in two at-bats before leaving in the fourth inning with a back injury. Rackley also started Game Five and took the collar again before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the seventh. His last official appearance as a Dodger came in the bottom of the sixth; he grounded out to first base. At that point the Dodgers trailed 10–2, and would eventually lose the game and consequently the World Series.

Along with occasionally giving Rickey a headache, Rackley had hit just one home run and stolen just one base in sixty-three games as a Dodger that season. Rickey had seen enough. Five days after the World Series, he sold Rackley to Cincinnati for $60,000, conditionally; the next April, the Reds decided to keep Rackley (then, the purchase price was reported as just $30,000).6

Rackley played in only five games for the Reds, batting just twice, before they sold him to Seattle in the Pacific Coast League.7 He would not play in the majors again but continued in the high minors through 1955, closing out his career with the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association.

In early 2011, the eighty-eight-year-old Rackley and the former Hazel Cleland, whom he married on November 23, 1946, still lived in his native South Carolina, just a few miles from his birthplace.

 

Notes

1. Bedingfield, Gary. “Marv Rackley Could Fly.” Baseball in Wartime. (http://baseballinwartime.blogspot.com/2010/03/marv-rackley-could-fly.html), March 26, 2010.

2. Gayle Talbot, "Dodger Pilot Says Walker is Out, Reiser May Go." Dothan (Alabama) Eagle, March 7, 1946.

3. Thompson, Fresco, and Rice, Cy. Every Diamond Doesn’t Sparkle. New York: David McKay Co., 1964.

4. Carl Erskine,. “The Inside Pitch.” Wisconsin State Journal, March 3, 1954.

5. Harold Rosenthal, “Pirates Complain of Sore Arm, So Dodgers Take Rackley Back.” New York Herald Tribune, June 9, 1949.

6. “Reds to Keep Rackley.” New York Times, April 18, 1950.

7. “Rackley Sold to Seattle.” New York Times, May 12, 1950.

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