Baseball suffered during the depression years of the 1930s and was further affected by the player shortage during World War II. The war ended and veterans returned to a free country with a robust economy. Peace and prosperity meant it was time to fill rosters and take in a game. Joe Mayer was a young veteran just back from overseas when he signed a contract to play in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. It was the system that would develop the pennant-winning 1950 club, affectionately known as the “Whiz Kids.”
Joseph Gerard Mayer was born in Jamaica, New York, on June 30, 1927. His parents, Joseph and Gladys, relocated the family to Howell Township, a suburb of Lakewood, New Jersey, when Joe was a toddler. Joe had two older sisters, Elizabeth and Marie, plus a younger brother, Robert, who rounded out the family unit. Joe grew up in rural South Jersey and became a fan of the mighty New York Yankees; his favorite player was the great Lou Gehrig. Young Joe looked forward to radio broadcasts of Yankee games, listening to announcer Stan Lomax describe the action.
Joe’s dad was a huge baseball fan. The senior Mayer never actually played, but was instrumental in developing his son’s appreciation for the game. In a 1948 interview, sportswriter Jack Van Etten described Mayer as a “genial and handsome 21 year old.” In the story, Joe related how his dad “taught him the finer points of the game and kept after me.” Dad also taught him to abandon his natural right side and learn to hit left-handed.
Sunday afternoons were spent playing pepper with his father. Joe worked hard to strengthen his forearms by exercising with weights rolled around a broomstick handle. One of young Joe’s prized possessions was a book authored by former major leaguer Ethan Allen, which carefully detailed the nuances of the game. He learned to field by studying a picture sequence in the book; he also learned to slide by following similar instructions. The text covered all aspects of the game and essentially was the basis for his becoming a self-taught ballplayer.
As a young man, the two things Joe wanted most were a good education and the opportunity to play professional baseball. The farm fields in rural New Jersey were a rough surface for games; it wasn’t until high school that Joe actually played on a baseball diamond. A friend of his older sister Marie played high school ball. While playing catch in the yard one day, the schoolmate saw legitimate talent. He recommended Joe to Lakewood High coach Larry D’Zio for a tryout. Upon arriving at the practice field, Joe learned the team needed a shortstop, so he told the coach that was his position. Grounder after grounder hit in Joe’s direction was fielded flawlessly; he made the team and ultimately achieved All-State shortstop status in 1945.
While still in high school, Joe was invited to try out with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was exciting for the teenager to be at Ebbets Field with manager Leo Durocher and the rest of the Dodgers. Playing catch with coach Clyde Sukeforth, Joe recalls hearing a booming noise in the background. He learned the rhythmic sound was a fastball hitting leather. The strong-armed young pitcher warming up was Rex Barney – whose fastball would one day produce a no-hitter for the Dodgers.
After graduating from high school with honors, Joe enlisted in the Navy, where he served 13 months in the Pacific toward the end of World War II. He primarily played softball in Manila and was part of a championship team in Okinawa. Discharged in August 1946, Joe played on a local American Legion team in New Jersey, managed by Harold Schank, who was impressed enough to send Rutgers University coach Chuck Ward to see the prospect. Herb Pennock and Hans Lobert of the Phillies later scouted Mayer and Joe subsequently signed a $3,000 bonus contract with Philadelphia.
Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, Joe attended Monmouth Junior College in Long Branch, New Jersey. Phillies management allowed him to finish the semester before reporting to Wilmington in the Class B Interstate League for assignment. In his prime, the trim infielder stood 6’ 2” tall and weighed 170 pounds.
In 1947 he played for the Carbondale (Blues) Pioneers of the Class D North Atlantic League, under manager Pat Colgan. Joe saw duty at shortstop and usually batted in the number 4or 5 slot. He hit .310 as the club finished second in the league. During the ensuing playoff series, Carbondale beat Peekskill 4 games to 1, winning the league championship. Mayer was named number one shortstop in the All-Star balloting.
Phillies General Manager Herb Pennock visited Carbondale to view his charges. In a bases-loaded situation, he saw shortstop Mayer go behind third to field a ground ball and throw home to force a runner at the plate. The next ball hit was behind second base; Mayer started a brilliant double play to end the inning. Pennock was pleased with what he saw. Phillies public-relations director Babe Alexander commented, “He’s a good left-handed hitter and covers ground like a scared rabbit.” The Pittsburgh Pirates unsuccessfully sought to obtain the young prospect, but he remained the property of the Phillies.
With one year of experience under his belt, the rookie was listed as the number six shortstop, in the organization, behind Eddie Millar, Ralph Lapointe, Jackie Albright, Willie (Puddin’ Head) Jones, and Granny Hamner.
In 1948 Joe reported to the Vandergrift Pioneers (Class C) of the Middle Atlantic League, where he hit .285 to help lead the team to a first place finish. Vandergrift won the first round of the playoffs, beating Uniontown 3 games to 1. Erie beat Vandergrift in the finals, 4 games to 1.
Traveling through minor league cities in the late 1940s could be an adventure. Trips were long and hot; teams rode hundreds of miles a day on rural back roads in what reasonably could be called a dilapidated school bus. Meal money was $2.00 a day; accommodations ranged from private homes to the YMCA or small town hotels. The basement of the YMCA in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania was open and accessible to wandering stray animals; one night a wayward skunk greeted the team. In the higher-level minor leagues, accommodations and transportation improved.
In 1949, Joe moved up to the (Class B) affiliate Portland Pilots, in the New England League. Ex-major leaguer Lamar “Skeeter” Newsome managed the club. Since the skipper was also the shortstop, Mayer was moved to second base and taught the intricacies of his new position by the player-manager. Mayer ended up on the All-Star team, hitting .273. Early in the season, Joe’s first six hits produced seven runs batted in. He drove in three runs with a ninth inning (bases loaded) double, giving his Portland club a 6-5 victory over Providence. The Providence defense shifted, anticipating that the left-handed hitter would pull the ball to the right side of the diamond. The crafty Mayer poked a pitch to left field, just inside the foul line, for the two-base hit that provided the margin of victory. The crowd left the park cheering for Joe. After the performance, Bud Cornish, sports editor of the Portland Evening Star, dubbed the clutch-hitting second baseman: “The Mayor of Portland.”
The bat that served Joe so well was a Louisville Slugger model, manufactured by the Hillerich & Bradbury Company. Joe was offered either $200 or a set of new golf clubs for the exclusive use of his signature on the 34-ounce bat; Joe opted to take the golf clubs. The bat was a former L-16 model, previously endorsed by Tony Lazzeri. In June, Joe batted over .400 during a 14-game hitting streak. The Pilots finished third and proceeded to win the playoff finals and ultimately the Governors Cup Trophy, beating Springfield 4 games to 3. Mayer learned his new position well enough to earn All-Star honors as the top second baseman in the league.
In 1950, Mayer played for the Utica Blue Sox, a Class A affiliate in the Eastern League, managed by Leon Riley. Joe played second base and hit .264. Hartford’s George Crowe was the All-Star first baseman and led the league in batting average, runs, and hits. Mayer remembered the college-educated Crowe as a great ballplayer and a wonderful gentleman. Dale Long of Binghamton led the loop in home runs. Another future major leaguer in the circuit was catcher Clint Courtney. Sam Jones of Wilkes-Barre led the loop in strikeouts, throwing heat with his trademark toothpick securely clenched between his teeth. Despite his blazing fastball, Mayer had a lot of success hitting against Sad Sam.
In 1951, Joe did not attend spring training, opting to continue his studies at Rutgers University. He later joined the single-A Wilmington Blue Rocks of the Interstate League; this time as third baseman. The Rocks were managed by Dan Carnevale and finished third during the season, but streaked to win the Governors Cup by defeating Sunbury in the finals, four games to zip. The Blue Rocks ended the season on a hot streak, winning 14 of their last 16 games. Instrumental in the team’s success was left fielder Pete Kousagan, a mountain of a man from Akron, Ohio, who hit three home runs during the playoff finals. Kousagan was so big, he once physically lifted Mayer by one hand to coerce his teammate into accompanying him on a shopping spree for new jeans. During the playoffs, Big Pete accidentally altered Sunbury Stadium by running into an outfield fence and leveling it.
In 1952, Joe graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers. Just prior to the start of the season, he seriously injured his right arm and shoulder playing basketball. The extent of the injury clouded his future in baseball. His aspirations to further progress in the Phillies organization seemed unsure at best. He could have waited for the arm to heal, but looking toward the future, he wisely decided to take a steady position.
Joe accepted a coveted job teaching at Lakewood High School. Along with the position came the opportunity to coach the varsity basketball squad and the JV baseball team. Although not proficient in basketball, Joe once again taught himself the intricacies of the game from a book. Within three years, his team captured the championship.
Mayer taught and coached at the school for seven years; he later became a junior-high principal, a high school principal, and Assistant Superintendent of Schools. Joe was a member of the Lions Club and served as Little League umpire-in-chief. His philosophy to students and athletes alike: “Make the most of your opportunities while in school. You only pass this way once. What you are to be, you are now becoming.”
Joe still played baseball during the 1950s. He delighted in overhearing the whispers of opposing players about how he had to have played ball at a higher level. He declined an offer by the Phillies to suit up and return to Wilmington as a shortstop. Later he was offered a managerial position in the Phillies system, but Joe again decided to stick with the security of the school system.
Mayer married the former Carol Cronemeyer, a New York native, on August 18, 1956. The couple had three children and five grandchildren. Mrs. Mayer was quite the athlete herself. When the children played Little League ball, Carol competed on a softball team for mothers.
The couple resides in Toms River, New Jersey, their headquarters while traveling to visit family and friends. In his leisure time, Joe enjoys reading and golf. He regularly follows baseball and the New York Yankees are still his favorite team. A clipping in Joe’s scrapbook refers to the young player as: “the classy shortstop.” The description fits.
The quoted material is sourced from the personal scrapbook of Joseph G. Mayer. Most clippings in the scrapbook are undated and unaccredited. The scrapbook and stories were shared with the author during a personal interview on July 28, 2007 and follow-up phone conversation on August 4, 2007.