This article was written by Jim Sargent
In the summer of 1955, Robert Leroy Powell became the first player from Flint, Michigan, to make the major leagues. Bob signed a $36,000 bonus contract with the Chicago White Sox following the spring quarter at Michigan State University, where he starred as a hard-hitting outfielder for the Spartans’ baseball nine. As it happened, Powell appeared in the 1956 Topps set (#144), his only baseball card. “Guess you’d have to say that my major league experience has been limited,” the 22-year-old flychaser told a Flint Journal reporter in March 1956.
“I got in exactly one game,” Powell recollected in a 1993 interview. “We were playing Kansas City and Ron Northey went in to pinch hit. He singled and I was sent in to run for him. “On the very next pitch Minnie Miñoso hit into a force play and I was out at second. They told me I made a good slide, though.”
Powell’s cameo appearance came on September 16, 1955, at Kansas City. The Athletics exploded with seven runs in first inning, ignited by a three-run homer off the bat of Hector López. By the seventh frame, when Chicago pilot Marty Marion called upon Powell, the White Sox trailed, 13-4, but had a rally going. But Miñoso’s ground ball, which led to Powell’s force out at second, turned into an inning-ending double play, and Chicago lost, 13-7.
A collegiate All-American who was blessed with a powerful arm and a potent right-handed swing, Powell had the skills and potential for a major league career. At 6-feet-1 and 190 pounds, he had earned the campus nickname of “Kong” because of his unusual strength. A modest and humble youth, Powell worked while in school and helped support his family beginning at age twelveafter his father’s death in an auto accident. Bob received a partial baseball scholarship in 1951 to Michigan State College (the name was changed to University in 1955). Powell’s friends knew him to be positive, friendly, and personable. But by September 1955, he felt a growing resentment against the manager and team that had allowed him to appear only once in a big league game without even giving him an at-bat.
Powell never pitched in high school or college, but Marty Marion tried to convert him into a pitcher in 1956; Bob often threw batting practice during Chicago’s spring training. Asked if he wanted to pitch, Powell shrugged it off: “I want to play big league baseball. If I can make it as a pitcher, what’s the difference?” However, the Flint native did not get into a White Sox “A” exhibition game during spring training, or into a regular-season game in April. Frustrated, he decided to get permission to complete his military obligation. He had been commissioned a second lieutenant in Michigan State’s ROTC program.
On May 14 the White Sox placed Powell on the National Defense Service list, and he boarded a train for Texas. He reported to the Army’s training camp at Fort Bliss on May 23, finishing his active duty hitch six months later. During that time, Bob often reflected on the varied experiences that finally led him to the major leagues.
Born in Flint on October 17, 1933, Robert Powell, the third of six children, grew up about a mile outside Flint, in Genesee County, Mich. His father, Clarence A. Powell, worked as a foreman at the A.C. Spark Plug Division of General Motors Corp. His mother, Millie, a housewife, raised their four sons and two daughters. The children learned traditional values, notably a strong work ethic and the value of loving your neighbors. Flint, engulfed by the Great Depression, became a hard place to make a living. Unemployment in the city’s automobile factories, including A.C., Chevrolet, and Buick, surpassed one-third of the workforce. But President Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal in 1933, and prosperity gradually returned to Flint and to the nation.
In late 1945, with World War II over and Bob 12 years old, the Powell family suffered a tragedy. Bob’s father, an older brother, one younger sister, their grandmother, and an uncle were killed in an automobile crash. Bob, a junior-high student, became the man of the household. The young man began working part time as a paperboy and, after school, as a grocery clerk. Between jobs, he found time for his one love, playing sandlot baseball. “There was no question about luxuries,” Powell recalled in 1993. “We were always concerned with meeting the basic needs, like buying enough groceries, paying the utility bills, and keeping warm in the winter. Our income came from my mother’s Social Security and my jobs.” Mrs. Powell and her widowed sister-in-law decided to move the family to Flint. Together they bought a two-story house on Flint’s east side, and Aunt Millie’s family lived upstairs.
Beginning with the tenth grade, Bob enrolled at Flint Technical, a small high school that specialized in math and science. At Tech he came in contact with the popular football and baseball coach, Jerry Udell. Observing that Bob often seemed unhappy, Udell drew him aside and asked about his family’s past. They talked, and as a result, the coach became Powell’s mentor and father figure. Today Powell credits Udell as well as his own faith in God for giving him the strength to make so many accomplishments. “I never really had much fun in high school,” Bob reminisced. “I didn’t have the spare time to have fun with the guys, go out and date, or go to dances. I had to keep working and studying.”
But he made time to play on Coach Udell’s varsity football and baseball teams for three years, in between his jobs. Bob excelled in baseball, particularly at bat. He earned letters as a sophomore and a junior, averaging over .300 in 1949 and 1950. In his senior year, the spring of 1951, Bob led the team in hitting at .380 and in home runs with four. By then Coach Udell had instilled in his protégé a dream: going to college and playing baseball. But Powell’s family had no money for college. Udell persisted, and he knew Michigan State baseball coach John Kobs. In June 1951, Powell, surprised and excited, was invited to East Lansing for a tryout. Impressed with Powell, Coach Kobs offered the serious-minded young man a tuition-and-books scholarship. Bob entered State in September 1951, thanks in part to a student loan.
In March 1952, Powell made the freshman team. His desire, competitiveness, and raw talent allowed him to beat out nearly 200 students vying for outfield spots. Later, he started in the weekly freshman-varsity scrimmages. During February of his sophomore year, the Flint star made the varsity for Michigan State’s annual southern trip. A March tradition since 1926, the Kobs “spring training” odyssey was a rambling 10-day bus journey to North Carolina and South Carolina.
Given the opportunity, Powell played varsity baseball for three seasons. Although not a regular as a sophomore, he played in several games as Kobs platooned the outfielders. Bob batted .240 overall, demonstrated his powerful throwing arm, and hustled whenever he took the field. His teammates, who loved nicknames, dubbed him “Kong,” from the popular movie King Kong. While Michigan State finished 11-17 overall and in seventh place with a 6-7 Big Ten record, Powell produced some big hits. One of the biggest came when he delivered a pinch-hit two-run home run against Wisconsin. That clutch blast sealed a 5-1 MSC win and a doubleheader split on Saturday, May 23.
As a junior in the fall of 1953, Powell received a full scholarship. Also, the coach found him a job cleaning cars for an auto dealer. That eased Bob’s frugal lifestyle, and he began paying back the student loans. As a senior he added a second part-time job. He also carried a full load of mechanical engineering courses for the second straight year and kept a B average.
Powell’s friends, many of who played baseball, liked and respected him. “Bob Powell was a man of few words, but when he did speak,” recalled good-hitting Flint outfielder Ray Collard, “he made an impression on you. When Bob spoke, we all listened.” Dick Idzkowski, the fireballing Spartan righthander, said, “They don’t come any finer than Bobby Powell. I don’t know anybody who feels differently about him.”
Although Coach Kobs’ teams had posted only four losing records since 1925, his 1954 Spartans enjoyed an exceptional season. Overall, the Spartans won 25, lost 10, and captured their first Big Ten championship with an 11-2-1 conference record. Also, MSC hitters led the league in batting with a .310 team average, and State qualified for the NCAA College World Series. The Spartans ultimately took third place, after a season-ending loss to eventual champion Missouri, 4-3. While the fine season was based on an excellent team effort, Powell, who batted .264 overall, contributed important hits in several games.
For example, playing the final doubleheader at home against Ohio State, the Spartans needed one win to tie for the Big Ten title. MSC took the opener, 6-4, as OSU shortstop Howard Cassaday (who would win the Heisman Trophy that fall as a Buckeye halfback) committed four errors. In the second game, State rallied behind two home runs by backup first baseman Bob Williams, who replaced Chuck Mathews the team’s top hitter after Mathews was hurt. Trailing 5-3 going into the bottom of the seventh inning, Michigan State scored twice to tie the game. Ohio State failed to score in the top of the eighth, the first extra inning. In the bottom of that frame, Powell stepped to the plate with runners on first and second. Kong looped a Texas League single into left field, driving home the winning run and giving MSC the championship!
Michigan State hosted the NCAA District IV playoffs and won two of three from Ohio University, the Mid-American Conference champs. Traveling to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series, the Spartans played well but finished third. MSC beat Arizona, 2-1, lost to Rollins College, 5-4, defeated Rollins in a second game, 3-2, and then lost a heart-breaker to Missouri, 4-3. After playing a major part in State’s 1954 season, Powell was named left fielder on the All-Big Ten third team.
When Michigan State resumed winter drills and took the Southern trip in 1955, the players hoped for a repeat championship, to no avail. While State hit .311 as a team, Spartan fielders committed too many errors, finishing ninth in the Big Ten with a .926 fielding mark. Still, MSU finished 21-11 overall and posted a 10-5 conference record, good for second place. Powell enjoyed his finest season in 1955. He batted .439 in the Big Ten. Bob also blasted the University of Michigan in all three games the two teams played. If the Spartans had not lost both ends of a twin bill to Illinois in the third weekend of the season, dropping the team’s conference record to 3-3, State would have repeated as the Big Ten champion.
At Michigan’s Ferry Field on Friday, May 13, Walt Godfrey pitched a five-hit shutout and batted in State’s first run with a seventh inning double. Powell, who got his second single in the seventh, scored the second run on a sacrifice fly. In the top of the ninth, Powell slammed a long home run to left, capping the 3-0 win. Back home at Old College Field for Saturday’s doubleheader, Powell enjoyed his greatest single day in baseball. State won both contests, 8-5 and 4-3, and Kong slugged a double and a triple in the first game.
In the second game, Powell accounted for all four runs. In the fourth inning, with two runners aboard, he connected for a long home run to left field to give the Spartans a 3-0 lead. Michigan rallied for three runs in the top of the seventh to tie. In State’s half of that inning, Powell stepped to the plate with George Smith (not the 1960s major leaguer) on second and Ray Collard on first, as both had walked. Powell lined the first pitch into left center for a base hit, and the speedy Smith scored the game-winning run. In the three games, Kong connected for two home runs, one triple, two doubles, and three singles, and he drove in the final State run in both ends of the twin bill.
After the 1955 season, Powell was voted MSU’s Most Improved Player award, thanks in part to his .439 batting mark. Bob was also voted first team All-Big Ten and second team All-American. By then Powell dreamed of further baseball achievements, because several major league teams had contacted him. According to press accounts, 15 of the 16 big league teams had indicated an interest.
In the end, the young man decided to sign with the Chicago White Sox, who offered the largest bonus contract, over his favorite team, the Detroit Tigers. Why did he sign with Chicago? Powell remembered that he analyzed the outfielders on the teams expressing serious interest, and he narrowed his choices to Detroit and Chicago. “But Detroit had Al Kaline,” Bob remembered, “and nobody could beat him out. He was leading the American League in hitting that year (Kaline hit .340 in 1955). Also, the Tigers had other bonus players, including Reno Bertoia.”
Chicago had just one bonus player, 6-foot-7 first baseman Ron Jackson, who signed in June 1954. Also, Chicago’s outfield was made up of older veterans: Minnie Miñoso in left, speedy Jim Busby in center, and Jim Rivera in right field, with veterans Bob Nieman and Bob Kennedy on the bench. Powell reasoned that age might work against such proven veterans: “In a year or two, I felt I would be able to compete against those guys, if it was meant to be.” But all three starters were in the fourth or fifth year of careers that lasted more ten years for each. Plus, they held down regular positions on a team battling for the pennant.
Chicago contended all season in 1955, finally finishing in third place with a 91-63 record. That left the Pale Hose five games behind the champion New York Yankees and one game back of the runner-up Cleveland Indians. The White Sox were not mathematically eliminated from the pennant race until the season’s last week. Speaking in a 1993 interview, Ron Jackson pointed out that manager Marty Marion had a well-deserved reputation for using veterans: “Marion would rather lose with a proven player than take a chance of winning with an unproven rookie.”
Jackson also said he thought most managers played it that way, including Al López, who became Chicago’s pilot in 1957. Powell misjudged his prospects with Chicago, but no bonus rookie had good prospects with any major league team. Powell would have to display impressive stats in the minor leagues, as Ron Jackson did after 1956, before the Flint native could hope to crack a veteran lineup. After two tryouts with Chicago, Powell signed on June 8, 1955, for $36,000. During the mid-1950s, the majors were using a revised version of the bonus rule adopted in 1947: a player signing for more than $4,000 had to spend two years in the big leagues on the club’s 25-man roster.
Concerned about being a rookie under tough circumstances, Powell asked for, and received, assurances from Marty Marion and from Chuck Comiskey, part of the franchise’s ownership family, that he would “get a chance to compete.” Kong felt good about those promises, particularly after hitting and throwing well in his two tryouts. A White Sox press release, also dated June 8, described the club’s second bonus player: “He is 21 years of age, weighs 192 pounds and stands 6’1″ tall. A right-handed hitter and thrower, Powell has displayed exceptional power and is an outstanding outfielder with a strong throwing arm. He collected 19 hits for 35 total bases and did not commit an error in Big Ten competition this season and was selected to the ‘All Big Ten’ team. He was [also] selected to the District Four NCAA All Star Team.”
After completing Michigan State’s spring quarter exams, Powell embarked on his dream: a major league career: “I still remember Coach Udell reminding me, ‘Bob, regardless of what happens, make sure you finish your schooling. Something can always happen to end your sports career. But nothing can take away your education and your college degree.’” Udell’s advice not only proved sound: in retrospect, it was prophetic.
On June 17, the newest rookie joined the White Sox at Yankee Stadium during a road trip. “When I arrived in New York and walked into the stadium, my heart just skipped a few beats,” Powell later said, with a laugh. “Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and other great Yankees were playing at that time. I just couldn’t believe where I was. It took me a few days to come to reality.” Powell never expected to play much in 1955. He recalled learning a lot about major league baseball by just watching from the bench. But most of the club’s veterans were either hostile or indifferent to Powell, including outfielders like Jim Rivera.
Rookies, Powell came to realize, posed a threat to established players, and bonus rookies often earned more money than some regulars. But management held all the cards. Rookies were expected to keep quiet and wait for their chance, usually after toiling for years in the minors. Powell did get to know Ron Jackson, as they shared the same problems and roomed together on road trips. As the weeks passed, they shared a similar frustration: too little playing time. Jackson, who had signed in June 1954, played in 40 games that season and batted 93 times, hitting .280. But the White Sox, chasing Cleveland and New York in a three-way pennant race, shuffled through three managers, ending the season with Marty Marion in the dugout.
By September Powell had approached Marty Marion more than once and asked when he would get his chance. He remembered receiving the same reply: just wait, be patient, you will get your chance. When he pressed Marion about needing to get off the bench to prove his potential, Powell got no real response. “If you asked questions and made forthright statements to management about your abilities and your prospects,” Powell recalled recently, “you became a marked person. At that time management expected you to be a clone, or a chess piece, in the overall strategy. You did not count as a person.” In any event, Powell remained on the bench until September 16, when he was inserted as a pinch-runner in Chicago’s 13-7 loss to Kansas City. The defeat kept the club four games behind the league-leading Yankees. A week later the Sox finished in third place by the same margin.
After his fruitless 1955 season, Powell attended Michigan State’s winter quarter. He also confided his frustration about his lack of prospects with Chicago to some former Spartan teammates. But by the time spring training began, Bob was mentally prepared to give the White Sox his best shot.
When he arrived in Tampa, Florida, for the first day of workouts in late February 1956, Powell learned more about reality in the majors. Marty Marion posted two lists: the A team was made up of veterans, while everybody else including reserve players, rookies, and minor leaguers worked out with the B squad. “You did not really get a chance,” Powell reflected. “You were just a number. The decisions had already been made. I could see right then I had no chance to play with the regulars. So being on the big league roster really didn’t mean much.”
During the training camp, Marty Marion experimented with using Powell as a pitcher, because of his strong arm. But Bob mostly pitched batting practice for the B team. Powell did get to know pitchers such as Billy Pierce, Dick Donovan, and Jack Harshman. Those veterans gave the rookie pointers about what to expect in the spring as well as life in the “Big Show.” They also took him on fishing trips in the Tampa Bay area. Generally speaking, their message was the same: keep hanging in there, and your time will come.
While he has fond memories of the camaraderie with a few players, Powell’s frustration about not getting to prove himself grew. He remembers talking to the manager more than once in 1956, asking, in effect, Why don’t you give me a chance? The answer was: Show us what you can do as a pitcher, and you will get your opportunity. But Powell never got a chance. After the season opened in April, he spent two months on the bench watching others get their chances. When he challenged older players such as Jim Rivera, who claimed he lacked the ability to play, Bob remembered being told he was “wet behind the ears” and had a “bad attitude.”
Consequently, by mid-May Powell decided to complete his military obligation. The Army used his talents from May 23 through November 22, 1956. Moreover, during his service at Fort Bliss, Texas, he met and fell in love with his future wife, Joan. They were married as soon as his active duty ended. The couple had two sons, David, born on December 14, 1957, and Mike, born on October 26, 1959.
During spring training in 1957, Powell received even less encouragement. Again he did not get into an exhibition game with the A team. He did appear in the White Sox team picture printed by the Chicago Sunday Tribune in mid-April 1957. The published roster listed him on military service for the 1956 season.
When the regular season began, the former Spartan star was angry. But on April 20, in Chicago’s third game, he got the call. New manager Al López, who kept Chicago contending for the pennant all year (the Sox finally finished second to the Yankees), used Powell as a pinch-runner. Chicago was trailing Kansas City in a Saturday afternoon game at Comiskey Park. With the A’s ahead, 6-0, after the top of the second inning, Chicago rallied. Right fielder Jim Landis started the outburst with a single, and Jim Rivera, playing first base, singled. López sent in veteran Walt Dropo, who batted for pitcher Jim McDonald. Dropo got a base hit to left field, driving home Landis and sending Rivera to second base. Powell trotted out to run for Dropo. Shortstop Luis Aparicio then drove in Rivera with a base hit, and second baseman Nellie Fox completed the rally with another single, scoring Powell with the third Chisox run. The Chicago Tribune‘s box score shows Powell’s run, but the story does not name him. Still, after Chicago posted the 11-7 victory, Kong thought opportunity was about to knock.
Instead, Bob remained on the bench. Thinking it over night after night, he asked the White Sox to be given a chance to play ball, or be released. The club placed him on waivers, which he cleared, and released him on May 8, 1957. Chicago then assigned Powell to Colorado Springs, the White Sox affiliate in the class A Western League. There he worked hard, practiced well, and made the starting lineup. For the remainder of the season, Bob played 73 games and averaged .308 (fourth best on the team) with 13 doubles, three triples, and eight home runs, and he produced 32 RBI.
Giving baseball one more shot in 1958, Powell returned to Colorado Springs. But as he happened with Chicago in 1956, the right-hander was asked to pitch. With no previous experience, Bob struggled, going 0-2 in two starts with a 5.62 ERA. He got into only 12 games, mostly as a reserve, and batted .118 (2-for-17). Discouraged, he looked for alternatives.
At that point, fortune smiled on Powell: he found his real career in Colorado Springs. The team’s announcer directed him to the Air Force Academy, then under construction. Powell got an interview with Ken Simmons, who worked for Robert E. McKee General Contractors. Simmons offered him a civil engineering position. While college baseball helped him earn a degree, Powell’s limited sojourn in the major leagues proved to be the only obstacle in life that he could not overcome.
Baseball is a game in which players must keep battling to overcome failure. A .300 hitter has hit safely in three of ten at-bats. To succeed, therefore, the person needs outstanding skills, great determination, and some luck. One way or the other, the player has to get into the lineup to have a chance. Being on the right team with the right manager and the right combination of personnel is critical. How many other excellent college or minor league players have ended up with similar experiences, feeling like a failure after getting a “cup of coffee” in the majors, or after spending years in the minors?
More importantly, Bob launched a successful second career. Beginning in 1958, he enjoyed a rewarding career as a civil engineer with McKee Contractors. After the Air Force Academy was completed in 1959, the McKee firm sent Powell to Los Angeles to work on the Los Angeles International Airport project. For two years he supervised the surveying units there. In 1961 McKee transferred Powell to Las Vegas, where he still lives, to work at the Nevada Operations Office of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Until he retired December 31, 1993, he had worked for several years on a secret project involving McKee’s personnel and several experts from the Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Company.
In the meantime, Powell’s wife divorced him in 1970, preferring to take up a lifestyle usually associated with the Las Vegas casinos. Bob continued on with his career and raised two young sons. In 1975 Bob met and courted Mary Ann, who had a 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. The couple was married August 8, 1975.
Powell no longer has regrets about his baseball career. As tough as it was to watch from the bench for two years, he believes the experience helped make him a stronger person. Among his other community activities, Bob speaks before local seminars and at high schools, cautioning young people about the dangers of drug use. He has remained in touch with the diamond sport, officiating a few games for the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He also has good memories about being able to rub elbows with and talk to great players such as Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, along with dozens of other major leaguers.
In retrospect, playing baseball at Michigan State proved to be the high point in Powell’s athletic experiences. A power-hitting and good-fielding player who won All-American honors in 1955, his record remains among the best of MSU players. The many friendships and memories which Powell formed, notably with members of Michigan State’s 1954 Big Ten championship team, have lasted to this day. Also, his college degree opened the door to a professional career far beyond what he could have hoped for in 1949, when he began studying math and science at Flint Tech. “About two or three times a month I receive letters from fans, along with a baseball card to sign,” Powell observed in 2005. “I always sign and return the cards, and usually I write a note and share my faith. It feels good to be remembered by fans after all these years.”
What about his bonus? Bob helped his family, all of whom had supported him throughout his baseball career. For example, he paid off the mortgage on his mother’s house. For his brothers, Bob purchased a new wardrobe of clothes. None of the boys were able to have new clothes while they went through school. Finally, Bob bought himself a new 1955 Oldsmobile, because he had never owned a car. “Bobby Powell and I roomed together during our last year at MSU,” recalled former Spartan great Chuck Mathews. “He is truly a gem of a person, and one of those fine ballplayers that graces the diamond only a few times during a career.”
Ironically, the Topps 1956 card of Robert Powell (which mistakenly lists his middle name, Leroy, as his given name) was the only baseball card of a first-class person whose talent, hard work, and inner strength helped him become a collegiate star an All-American who was good enough to earn a shot in the big leagues.
For several years Michigan State’s baseball team, coached by Tom Mahan, traveled to Las Vegas to play the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels for a three-game series in late February. Coach Mahan used to contact Bob and invite him to see State play UNLV. “Coach Mahan invited me to speak to his team in the dugout before a game,” Powell explained in 2004, “and I talked to them in down-to-earth fashion. I tell them, ‘Get your education. Sure, we all love to be out on the diamond and show our skills. Playing baseball is a lot of fun. But finish your college education.’”
Powell, who loves reminiscing about his college years and his longtime friendships with other Spartans, observed, I thank Michigan State for that opportunity. My college degree got me the good jobs I have enjoyed over the years. My education is what really opened the doors of life for me.”
Bob Powell passed away on April 26, 2014, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
This essay is based on statistics from The Baseball Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 8th edition, 1990); minor league stats from complete statistical profile furnished by Pat Doyle, creator of the Professional Baseball Player Database (version 5); Powell’s file in the National Baseball Hall of Fame; Powell’s file in the archives of Michigan State University’s Sports Information Department (thanks to Paulette Martis for this information); various stories from the Lansing State Journal dated from 1953 to 1955, MSU’s State News for 1952-55, and the Flint Journal for 1954-55; MSU Baseball Media Guides from the 1950s; Chicago Tribune articles dated September 16, 17, 1955, and April 20, 21, 1957, and Bob Vanderberg, “He had his Own Dream Field,” July 8, 2004; and more than two dozen interviews with Powell, starting in 1993 and continuing into 2005.