At Yankee Stadium in the top of the ninth inning on September 17, 1949, a Saturday afternoon crowd of 40,758 rooted for New York Yankee southpaw Joe Page to save another win. The Bronx Bombers led the Detroit Tigers, 5-4, and Casey Stengel’s relief ace was trying to protect New York’s two-and-a-half game lead over the Boston Red Sox in the American League pennant race.
After Detroit’s Bob Swift, pinch-hitting for Dizzy Trout, reached first on Phil Rizzuto’s error, Tiger pilot Red Rolfe called for reserve Robert “Bobby” Mavis, a speedy infielder, to pinch-run for the slower Swift.
Detroit’s hopes rose when Page walked the next batter, Eddie Lake, and Mavis trotted to second. That brought Johnny Lipon to the plate. Mavis, leading off second, waited for a chance to score and tie the game. Instead, Lipon hit a grounder to second, and the Yankees turned it into a game-ending double play. Two weeks later New York clinched first place by one game over Boston. Cleveland finished third, and Detroit, a contender most of the season, came in fourth, ten games behind the Yanks.
As the players walked off the diamond on September 17, Mavis, excited about his big league debut, had no idea that he had made his one and only appearance in the majors. Detroit brought him to spring training again in 1950. But having acquired veteran second baseman Jerry Priddy in a December trade, the front office decided against keeping another infielder. Mavis was sold to Toledo, Detroit’s top farm club in the American Association. Discouraged at first, Bob hit .287, his first sub-.300 season in the minors.
Mavis began his professional baseball career with Little Rock of the Southern Association in 1944, where he averaged .301. Considered small at 5’7″ and 160 pounds, Mavis, a steady left-handed batter, couldn’t seem to advance. Partly he was a victim of timing-which happens to many ballplayers. With World War II over in 1946, returning veterans who were major and minor leaguers boosted the intense level of competition for big league roster spots.
The same talent influx, due to the increasing interest in the national pastime, also caused the minors to expand from twelve professional leagues in 1945, to forty-one in 1946, to fifty-eight in 1948, and finally to peak at fifty-nine circuits in more than four hundred cities in 1949.
Cheerful, friendly, and hard-working, Mavis played four more seasons for Little Rock. From 1945 to 1947, he hit for .310, .307, and .315 averages. In 1948, the smooth fielder who played mostly second base had a stellar season where he hit .308 with 24 doubles, 10 triples, 11 home runs, and 77 RBIs, plus leading the league’s second basemen with a .980 fielding percentage. Bob made the all-star team for the third time, having also been honored in 1945 and 1946.
A fine fielder who hit for high averages, Mavis was not a power hitter. In fifteen minor league summers, he enjoyed three seasons with double digits in home runs: 11 with Little Rock in 1948, 12 with Toledo in 1949, and 10 with Idaho Falls in 1954.
In 1948 Billy Evans, general manager of the Tigers, bought Bob’s contract. Detroit sent the popular Mavis to spring training in Lakeland in February 1949. But after getting into a few exhibitions, the hustling infielder was sent to Toledo, where he learned to play third base.
“I remember Bob from spring training in ’49 and later that year, when Detroit brought him up,” recalled Hal White, former Tiger right-hander. “Bob was a good singles hitter, a punch-hitter. Mark Lemke of the Braves reminds me of Bob Mavis.”
Proving his mettle once more, Mavis played every inning of 154 ball games at Toledo in 1949, hitting .301 with 12 homers and a career-best 79 RBIs. The result: the Tigers called him up in September, he traveled with Detroit on the final road trip, and he made his one appearance on September 17.
When reminiscing about his career in 2004, Mavis put it this way: “I got a ‘cup of coffee,’ but I never got any cream. Still, the Lord gave me the opportunity to play baseball, and I have no regrets. I spent forty-seven good years in the game as a player, minor league manager, and scout.”
Born on the south side of Milwaukee on April 8, 1918, the only son of Henry and Freida Mavis, who had three daughters, Bobby always loved baseball. The talented youth once hurled a no-hitter before graduating from Bay View High in 1937. With the Great Depression lingering, he found a job with the Falk Corporation. He also played on the company’s semipro team.
“My manager, Charlie Sanhuber, was a ‘bird dog’ [part-time scout] for the White Sox, and he got permission to send me to Little Rock to try out for the ball club. I made it, and that’s how my career began.”
Married on May 3, 1941, to Viola Grunau, who also grew up in the Bay View area, Bob moved his wife and daughter Karen, who was born two years later, to Little Rock in 1946. They still lived in the capital of Arkansas in 2004.
Why did he have to spend so long at Little Rock?
“It’s just one of those things,” Mavis observed. “The only break I got was at the end of 1948. Little Rock was working with the Detroit organization, and Detroit bought my contract, and the contract of Joe Ginsberg, after our season was over. And I went with Detroit. That’s how it worked out. I thought I had some pretty good averages, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
“But we made the ‘eastern swing’ with them,” Mavis remembered. “We went to Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and that’s where I made my appearance, and we wound up at Cleveland. Then we went back and finished up the season at Detroit. But I only ever got into that one game.”
Asked if he had a copy of his fine minor league record, in which he batted .305 lifetime over 14 seasons, Mavis said he has it on a baseball. In 1950 an umpire in Lakeland painted his record, along with his uniform number, on the ball-and then shellacked it.
Mavis played the 1951 season for Toledo. But in 1952 he was purchased by Buffalo, and he hit .241 for the Bisons. He also spent 24 games with Williamsport, filling in at second base. In 1953 he was asked to return to Little Rock as a player-coach.
Tired of the minors, the endless bus trips, and the many adjustments to new teams and new teammates, Bob went home to Little Rock and worked as a full-time toy buyer for Pfeifer’s Department Store. He had been part-time toy manager during the previous three winters.
Detroit coaxed the 36-year-old Mavis back in 1954 as player-manager for Idaho Falls of the Pioneer League. His club finished third at 74-58, four and one-half games out of first, and Bob contributed a .334 average with 10 homers and 79 RBIs.
In 1955 Detroit sent Mavis to Little Rock again as player-manager. But the club was weak and finished last, and the Tigers later replaced him with Steve Souchock. Mavis signed with Buffalo, but he hit only .211 in 44 games.
Starting in 1956, Bobby embarked on a new career in baseball-he scouted for the Tigers through the 1968 season.
In between, the versatile Mavis managed three seasons: first with Durham of the Carolina League in 1957 (where he went 1-for-2 as a pinch-hitter); Duluth of the Northern League in 1963, where he fashioned a 77-43 record and his club won first place; and Knoxville of the Southern League in 1964 (67-73, fifth place).
The players Mavis managed who later made the majors (many for Detroit) included Phil Regan, Bubba Morton, and Frank Kostro at Durham; Denny McLain, Ike Brown, Joe Sparma, Jim Rooker, and Pat Jarvis at Duluth; and Mickey Stanley at Knoxville.
Shortly after Detroit won the 1968 World Series, Mavis accepted a better offer with the Seattle Pilots, soon to become the Milwaukee Brewers.
“Loyalty doesn’t buy groceries,” Bobby remarked. In 1969, he scouted and, beginning in June, managed Billings of the Pioneer League, where his club included slugger Gorman Thomas.
Mavis spent four seasons scouting for the Brewers, with Darrell Porter of Oklahoma City
being his major “find.” Tired of traveling through his four-state area by 1974, he returned home and worked as the assistant manager of Stifft’s Jewelers. Bobby also enjoyed bowling and golfing (he sank a hole-in-one during Detroit’s 1959 spring camp).
Coaxed out of private life by Atlanta, Mavis began scouting again in 1977. He worked for the Braves through the 1990 season. During those years his signees who made the majors included Brett Butler, Craig McMurtry, and Jose Alvarez.
“Atlanta really treated me right,” Bob said in 2004. “I would have liked to play ball for that organization. The Braves were the best people I worked for.”
Retired in 1990 after forty-seven years in the game, Mavis always enjoyed hearing from fans.
“It’s nice to be remembered,” Bobby says.
“Bob Mavis was a good ballplayer,” commented Harvey Riebe, the backup catcher with Detroit in 1948 and 1949. “Detroit thought so, and look at how many never reach the majors. He did, and he can be proud of that, even if he didn’t get any ‘cream.’ I liked him and I remember him well, and so will many others.”
The baseball career of Bobby Mavis shows the remarkable talent level of the ballplayers competing to play in the major leagues during the postwar years. Bob’s “cup of coffee” also illustrates the long odds stacked against even a very good minor league hitter-unless he had solid power-trying to make the “Big Show,” particularly when making the roster meant beating an established major leaguer out of a position.
Bob Mavis passed away on March 1, 2005.
Mavis, Bob, interviews with author in September 1996 and August 2004; correspondence with author September-October 1996, including a 3-page career summary, and January 1998.
National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Mavis player file.
New York Times, “Bombers Score, 5-4,” September 18, 1949.
Professional Baseball Player Database (version 5), statistical profile of minor league statistics furnished by Pat Doyle.