Frank Duncan’s legendary Negro League career lasted 27 years and his unquenchable zest for life was etched across each and every one of them. A consummate winner, Duncan captured titles all over the world as a dominant defensive force behind the plate and later as a well-respected manager. Monarchs star pitcher William Bell said of his well-traveled teammate: “Dunk was an excellent catcher. Every owner wanted him. He played in nearly as many places as Hamlet: The Philippines, Japan, Hawaii, Cuba, South America and North America.”2 It’s true Frank Duncan never shied away from a challenge, but wherever his travels took him, all roads eventually led back to his hometown, Kansas City, and his beloved Monarchs.
Frank Lee Duncan Jr. was born on February 14, 1901, in Kansas City, Missouri. He was the only child of Frank Duncan Sr. and Elizabeth Hansberg.3 Duncan Sr. was born on June 3, 1872, in Warrensburg, Missouri, seven years after the end of the Civil War.4 He was well known as a coal and block-ice salesman and the 1940 census lists his occupation as peddler.5 Elizabeth was born in Virginia in 1865 and referred to herself as a homemaker in the 1930 census. They were married until 1941, when Elizabeth, sometimes referred to as Lizzie, died. Duncan Sr. died on May 26, 1954, at the age of 81.
Duncan grew up in Kansas City playing sandlot baseball with childhood friends and fellow future Negro League standouts, Newt Allen and Rube Curry. Newt talked about their early days together: “Frank Duncan and I were boys together on the Paseo at 17th St. We were in the same school together, lived in the same neighborhood for years, and we were friends throughout our childhood days. Another fellow with us was Rube Curry. He and Frank Duncan lived almost next door to one another. We used to play sandlot ball in school. We’d put in 20 cents apiece and the winner take the pot.”6
Duncan and his buddies went to Lincoln High School, an exemplary African American school that fought hard to give its students an education that produced more than just trade laborers. Roy Wilkins, a reporter for the Kansas City Call, explained, “The black schools in Kansas City were much better than they had any right to be, partly because they were full of talented teachers who would have been teaching in college had they been white, and partly because Negro parents and children simply refused to be licked by segregation.”7
It was at Lincoln High School that Duncan met his first wife, Julia Lee.8 Julia’s older brother, George E. Lee, fronted one of the most popular jazz bands in Kansas City in the 1920s and early ’30s, George E. Lee’s Novelty Singing Orchestra. Duncan occasionally drove the bus for a rival Kansas City jazz band, the Bennie Moten Orchestra.9 Julia soon followed in her brother’s footsteps by becoming one of the most popular jazz and blues vocalists of the time. She was a true pioneer and the first Kansas City jazz artist to record. She was known as the “Princess of the Boogie Woogie” and her hits included “Come On Over to My House Baby,” “Snatch and Grab It,” and, “Gotta Gimme Whatcha Got.”10 Frank carried an empty instrument case, sat in the orchestra pit, and pretended to be a musician in order to watch her perform at the all-White music halls.11 Seventeen-year-old Julia and 18-year-old Frank were married on September 27, 1919.12 Less than a year later, on June 1, 1920, Frank III, their only son, was born.
It was about this time that Duncan hooked up with a local team known as Floyd “Baby” Webb’s teenage Kansas City Tigers.13 The Tigers traveled around Kansas City and the Midwest and featured five players besides Duncan who made it to the Negro Leagues: Henry “Dimp” Miller, Herlen Bagland, Eddie “Pee Wee” Dwight, Roosevelt “Chappie” Gray, and Duncan’s childhood pal, Rube Curry.14
Duncan was playing for the Swift Packing House in St. Joseph, Missouri, when he received his big break. As he recalled, “[It was] Easter Sunday 1920, the snow was that deep. Joe Greene’s Chicago Giants sent me $20 for a ticket to Chicago, so I jumped on the freight train and came on to Chicago, and I felt just like I was gong to the New York Yankees.”15 Duncan had the chance to catch thanks to slugger John Beckwith’s move to shortstop.16 He appeared in 20 games but started off slowly, hitting just .161 in 62 at-bats.
At some point after his arrival in Chicago, Duncan ran into the father of the Negro National League, Rube Foster. Duncan recalled their conversation. “He said, ‘You a ball player?’ I said, Yeah, I think so. I can catch. He said, ‘You think you can catch like Petway?’ I said, Not now, but one of these days I will. Later on I reminded him of what I said. He said, ‘You stuck to your word.’”17
After another slow start for the 1921 Giants, Duncan was traded to his hometown Kansas City Monarchs. Owner J.L. Wilkinson was looking for a catcher, and although Duncan wasn’t hitting much, he was gaining a reputation for his abilities behind the plate. Wilkinson sent first baseman Lemuel “Hawk” Hawkins, catcher Jay Bird Ray, and $1,000 to the Chicago Giants for Duncan.18 By June, Duncan was being hailed as the find of the 1921 season by the Kansas City Star.19 Duncan was home, and he spent the bulk of his lengthy career with the mighty Kansas City Monarchs.
Duncan settled in nicely with his new team to close out the 1921 season, hitting .281 and solidifying the catcher position for the steadily improving Monarchs. The team finished second to Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants and featured future Hall of Famers Bullet Joe Rogan and José Mendéz. This was the beginning of one of the most successful batteries in baseball history as Duncan and Rogan worked together for more than 200 wins.20 Duncan often spoke of Rogan’s fastball: “I’ll tell you how fast Rogan was. I used to buy two steaks before the game when he was going to pitch. You could buy a steak in those days for 10 cents. I’d start the game catching Joe in the first inning with that steak next to my gloved hand. After five innings the steak would be beaten to shreds. So I’d replace it with a second steak.”21 New York Giants manager John McGraw is said to have made this remark about the duo: “I would have given almost any sum if it were possible for the battery of Rogan and Duncan to perform in the major leagues and it’s likely they have gone down in baseball history as one of the finest.”22
The 1922 season brought the Monarchs even closer to their top rival and the class of the league, the Chicago American Giants. The Giants won the first three titles in the newly formed Negro National League, but Kansas City was closing ground, edged out by percentage points, .607 to .603. The Monarchs shared a ballpark with the local White minor-league team, the Kansas City Blues, in those days and played their games there when the Blues were on the road. The Blues were led by star shortstop Glenn Wright and had one of the best teams in the American Association, winning the league championship the very next year in 1923. The battle for Kansas City took place in early October of 1922 and the Monarchs thoroughly dismantled their White rivals, five games to one. The Kansas City Star crowned the Monarchs “The New City Champions.”23 Duncan caught all six games and hit a robust .346 in 26 at-bats. The Monarchs certainly proved they belonged on the field with their White counterparts, so much so that the commissioner of the American Association banned its teams from playing against Negro League squads after this thrashing.24 Wright later became a scout for the Boston Red Sox and must have recalled Duncan’s exploits when he on one occasion proclaimed, “I wish I could find a catcher like Frank Duncan.”25
In February of 1923 the Monarchs traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas, a popular spring-training destination for ballclubs, to train with White major leaguers. Quincy Gilmore, secretary for the Monarchs, told the Kansas City Call, “Oh boy, what a time there will be in that burg when Babe Ruth, Frank Duncan, Carl Mays, Bob Meusel, Bullet Rogan, Waite Hoyt, Bill Gisentaner, Heinie Groh, Tris Speaker, Dobie Moore, Grover Alexander, Hurley McNair, and a few more of the countries’ great stars meet and talk over the great pastime.”26 This was just the beginning of a very eventful year for Duncan.
It is not known exactly when Duncan and Julia Lee were divorced, but it was probably around this time. Duncan had a daughter named Armeda who was born in 1923 in Illinois and the mother was listed as being from Texas, which ruled out Julia as the mother. Duncan was listed as single and living in Kansas City with his parents and Armeda, then 7, in the 1930 census, and Julia had remarried in 1927.27 Duncan and Julia remained friends until her death in 1958.28
Newt Allen was now a full-time member of the Monarchs, joining Rube Curry and Duncan in a reunion that would have been hard for them to imagine as children playing on the sandlots of Kansas City. At the end of Duncan’s career, he reminisced about sharing a field with his friend: “I have watched Newt play for over 20 years and I still get a thrill when I know he’s going to put on that uniform.”29 In addition to the hometown trio, the team featured a who’s who of Negro League greats including Hurley McNair, Heavy Johnson, Bullet Rogan, José Mendéz, and William Bell. It was no surprise that they finally outplayed the Chicago American Giants and captured the Negro National League championship by 3½ games in 1923.
After a train ride to Key West, Florida, and a 90-mile boat trip to Havana, Duncan found himself in Cuba for the first time, playing for the Santa Clara Leopardos during the 1923-24 winter season.30 Many Cubans consider this Santa Clara squad to be the greatest team in the island’s history and they won the pennant by 11½ games. Duncan was joined by Monarchs teammates Curry and Mendéz, and the team was bolstered by superstars Oscar Charleston and Oliver “Ghost” Marcelle.31 Duncan hit .331 in 133 at-bats while the team as a whole hit .329 in winning 36 out of 47 games. After the regular winter season, the Leopardos entered the highly competitive Grand Winter Championship in Cuba and barely edged out the team from Habana by a half-game to win a second title.
The Monarchs kept rolling in 1924 with an imposing 57-22 record that enabled them to finish five games clear of the always competitive Chicago American Giants. Duncan was now a star; the Chicago Defender noted: “A tall, thin kid full of pep, [he is] the greatest catcher in the game.”32 The accolades did not stop there as teammates and opponents chimed in. Chicago Americans Giant Saul Davis proclaimed Duncan “a hard worker behind the plate, the best catcher I ever seen. A sweetheart of a catcher. He had better catching skills than the great Josh Gibson.”33 Cool Papa Bell said, “To this day Frank was one of the greatest catchers ever. He could throw. You had to get a better lead on the pitcher with Frank behind the plate. If you didn’t, you might as well turn right around and go back to first. Nobody could hardly beat him at throwing.”34 Duncan had this to say about his own defensive prowess. “I didn’t let them other fellows catch. They could outhit me, but they couldn’t outcatch me, none of them. I’m not bragging, it’s just facts. I don’t remember dropping five popups in 20 years.”35
The first Negro League World Series was organized and played in 1924, and the Monarchs earned a spot with their first-place finish in the Negro National League. Their opponent was the Hilldale Club, champion of the Eastern Colored League. These were two evenly matched teams at the height of their powers and it took 10 games to decide a champion.
Things looked bleak for the Monarchs when they were down three games to one after five games (Game Three was called because of darkness after 13 innings with the score tied.) Kansas City roared back to win Games Six and Seven, evening the series at three games apiece. This set up a pivotal Game Eight and set the stage for one of Duncan’s early career highlights. He was having a disappointing series so far, with three hits in 29 at-bats, and he came up in the bottom of the ninth with his team trailing, 2-1, with two outs and the bases loaded. Manager José Mendéz considered pinch-hitting for the struggling catcher but decided to leave him in to face his childhood pal, Rube Curry. Curry had jumped ship the previous season and was having a fine series for Hilldale.36 Duncan described what happened next: “I swung and the ball went straight up in the air over catcher Santop’s head. It was an easy out. I was disgusted as I watched him maneuver around rather steadily as the high foul started earthward. He dropped it! I had another chance. Fully confident, I got set up again and up came one to my liking and out went a sharp single to left center scoring the tying and winning run.”37 The crowd poured onto the field and hoisted Duncan onto their shoulders in celebration.38 The 35-year-old Louis Santop faded dramatically after this miscue, playing two more seasons as a backup for Hilldale before closing the book on his illustrious career.
The Monarchs cut their celebration short since they still had to win one more contest. Game Nine was won by Hilldale with a masterful pitching performance turned in by ace lefty Nip Winters; it was his third win of the series. After all the previous drama, the 10th and final game was a bit anticlimatic. Manager Mendéz took the ball himself and shut out Hilldale, 5-0, for the series win.39 Frank Duncan and the Kansas City Monarchs had won the first Negro League World Series.
In what was almost a carbon copy of the previous regular season, the Monarchs and Hilldale finished the 1925 regular season atop their respective divisions. Before the two clubs could meet in the second World Series, the Monarchs had to get past Cool Papa Bell and the St. Louis Stars. It was a tight seven-game series, and thanks to three complete-game victories by Bullet Joe Rogan, the Monarchs came out on top to set up a World Series rematch. This matchup lacked the suspense of the previous years, as Kansas City was steamrolled by the Hilldale Club, five games to one. Duncan toiled, going 3-for-21 at the plate, and the team hit only .216 in the six contests. Duncan’s old buddy, Rube Curry, came back to bite them, going 2-0 with two complete games and a 1.29 ERA for the champions.
Duncan’s competitive nature occasionally got him into scraps, and none was bigger than the infamous brawl that took place in Chicago on May 10, 1925, against their bitter rivals, the Chicago American Giants. Duncan’s teammate Dink Mothell described the melee:
“We had a big fight in Chicago. Frank Duncan slid into John Hines, and I think he tore his chest protector off. Bingo DeMoss was manager of Chicago. Bingo grabbed Duncan, and Duncan grabbed Bingo. Bingo says, ‘You turn me loose!’ Dunk said, ‘You turn me loose!’ Well they kept rasslin’ around there, and four or five policemen came out on the field. Naturally each ball club was trying to give its player protection. I believe they were colored police, some in uniform, some with plain clothes. This policeman walked up behind Duncan and hit him in the head with the butt of his pistol or a black jack, and knocked him out. Then Jelly Gardner kicked him in the mouth with his spikes. Well, that started everybody swinging at one another.40
“Duncan would do anything to win and Buck O’Neil probably described it best when he said that Duncan was: ‘Mean on the field and sweet off it.’”41
Winning had become commonplace for the Monarchs and 1926 was no different as they finished the year with a 60-22 record. Although they had the better overall record, the Monarchs were forced to play the Chicago American Giants in the Negro National League Championship Series to determine which team would advance to the World Series. The Monarchs had won the first half of the season, but the American Giants edged them out in the second half to set up this playoff. Duncan managed only three hits in 18 at-bats, but he walked seven times for a respectable .400 on-base-percentage. It was not enough, however, as Kansas City dropped the series, five games to four. The Chicago American Giants went on to capture their first World Series title with a five games to four victory over the Eastern Colored League champion Atlantic City Bacharach Giants.
In October of 1926 Duncan joined an all-star squad of players calling themselves the Philadelphia Royal Giants and competed in the California Winter League. His teammates included Turkey Stearnes, Willie Wells, Joe Rogan, Rap Dixon, Newt Allen, and Willie Foster. They made quick work of the league and took the title with a 26-11-1 record. Duncan played well, hitting .276 in 24 games.42 It marked a triumphant winter, but the next move that the team made jeopardized their careers as Negro League players.
In Duncan’s own words:
“In the spring of 1927, I joined the Japan tour team and went to Japan, and we boarded the big Japanese steamship from San Pedro, California, and headed to Yokohama. It took us 19 days. The people were the most wonderful people I ever came in contact with. I loved them, I hated to see them go to war. We played all over, Osaka, Kobe, on into Nagasaki. They had some pretty nice teams, they weren’t strong hitters but pretty good fielders and base runners, and they had some pretty nice looking pitchers. But we didn’t lose any games.”43
The Giants quickly gained the respect of the Japanese players and fans and were referred to as the gentle black giants. Their skills were far superior to those of their opponents, but they never showboated or ran up scores. Duncan and fellow catcher Biz Mackey happily coached the Japanese players on the finer points of the game.44 Duncan played first base and led off; as a 26-year-old, before years of catching took his knees, he was timed circling the bases in 15 seconds flat.45
This goodwill tour was perhaps the inspiration for the inception of professional baseball in Japan, not the 1934 major-league tour as is often given credit. Unlike the Giants, the White major leaguers often disrespected and insulted their Japanese opponents. Babe Ruth took to the field holding an umbrella in a game played in the rain while Lou Gehrig played left field in rubber boots as Al Simmons sprawled on the field during play.46 An article about the Royal Giants in the June 1927 issue of Baseball World said: “The voices they use with each other are calm, and hardly audible. You would hardly know of their existence. When there is no game, they enjoy billiards, or walking in the neighborhood. They show a great love for children and play with them happily.”47 They were greeted by dignitaries and given an escort to the palace of the emperor and generally given the respect and dignity often missing back in the United States.48
Duncan, Lefty Cooper, Biz Mackey, and Rap Dixon were all suspended for 30 days and fined $200 upon their return for not reporting to their respective squads for the start of the 1927 Negro League season. A five-year ban had originally been threatened by the league.49 J.L. Wilkinson of the Monarchs was the only owner to follow through with the league’s punishment, and Duncan missed a large portion of the 1927 season.50 He didn’t see action until early August, and in his first game back he showed the Monarchs what they had been missing by going 3-for-4 with a triple and a double in a 10-3 victory over the Memphis Red Sox.51 It was too little and too late, and Duncan’s absence may have been a factor in the Monarchs finishing behind both the St. Louis Stars and the Chicago American Giants.
At some point in 1927, Duncan’s third child, Sidney Duncan, was born. In the 1940 census, Sidney and another son, Clarence, who was born in 1935, are listed as living with Duncan’s parents, Frank and Lizzie. Sidney certainly tried to emulate his father; he is mentioned as managing the Junior Monarchs, a 17-and-under team in Kansas City’s Jackie Robinson Baseball League, and playing catcher for the Minneapolis Clowns in 1950 with aspirations to play in the major leagues.52 Very little is known about Sidney’s life or fate and even less is known about Clarence. Duncan also had a second wife, Bertha Lewis, but the exact date of their marriage is unknown. Bertha remained with Duncan until his death; she died in 1985 after having lived in Kansas City for 75 years.53
The 1928 Monarchs were no match for Candy Jim Taylor’s St. Louis Stars and they finished eight games behind the champions of the NNL. For the 1929 season, Duncan platooned at catcher with pull-hitting T.J. Young, and the occasional rest must have done wonders for the hard-working catcher: He batted .350 in 45 games. The Monarchs had a tremendous season, tearing up the league with a 63-17 record, winning both the first and second halves of the season. The Monarchs were declared the champions of the NNL, but no World Series was played in 1929; in fact, there would not be another Negro League World Series until 1942, when the Monarchs faced the Homestead Grays.
At the conclusion of the season, Duncan made the journey back to Cuba, where he had enjoyed so much success in the winter of 1923-24. He suited up for Cienfuegos, hitting .265 and getting what was possibly his first taste of managing as the team struggled to a fourth-place finish.54 The following winter proved much more fruitful for Cienfuegos as the team took the Cuban Winter League championship.55 Duncan recalled his experience at leading the team: “Molina was managing the team, used to bring the Cuban Stars here. He got in a little something over there with the people in his hometown and gave me the ball club. We won the championship by 10-11 games, ran away from Rube Foster and all of them.”56 It took more than a decade before Duncan got his chance to manage in the Negro Leagues.
The year 1930 turned out to be the final season for the Kansas City Monarchs in the NNL. The league itself survived only one more year and disbanded after 1931 under the financial strains of the Great Depression, though a second incarnation of the league came into being in 1933. Duncan was moved to right field for the 1930 campaign and once again tore the cover off the ball to the tune of a .360 average. The team failed to follow his lead and fell to 42-38, a distant second to the champion St. Louis Stars.
Duncan’s defensive abilities were so spectacular that his hitting was often overlooked. He could not compete with the likes of Josh Gibson and Biz Mackey with the lumber, but he certainly was no slouch. Monarchs teammate and future Hall of Famer Willard “Home Run” Brown put it this way: “You couldn’t fool around with him none with men on base, because he’d choke up and be right on that plate. He was a good clutch hitter. He was a line-drive hitter, and when he went up there with men on bases, he hit a whole lot of doubles.”57
Between 1931 and 1936 the Monarchs were an independent team that barnstormed against a combination of league, independent, pro, and semipro teams.58 One of their top competitors was the bearded House of David team, made up of an Israelite community that stressed physical and spiritual discipline. Ringers like Satchel Paige, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, and Grover Cleveland Alexander were known to have played for the team, sometimes even sporting fake beards.59 Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson had just introduced his new system of lights enabling him to play more games and attract more fans with the novelty of a night game.60 This was the most nomadic portion of Duncan’s Negro League career as he began the 1931 season with the New York Harlem Stars but later jumped back to the independent Monarchs to finish out the season.
Duncan began 1932 with another independent club, the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The team was overloaded with catchers with Duncan, Bill Perkins, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, and budding superstar Josh Gibson on the team. Perkins and Duncan left the Crawfords in midseason.61 Duncan also played six games for the Homestead Grays in the East-West League, a league that was created by Grays owner Cum Posey but that did not even last one entire season. Duncan, along with Grays Cool Papa Bell, Newt Allen, Willie Wells, and others, left the team after not having been paid by Posey in over a month.62 Duncan once again finished out the year with the Monarchs.
At season’s end, on October 20, the Monarchs met for a series of games in Mexico City against the Mexico City Aztecs, Mexico’s top baseball team.63 Duncan, Cool Papa Bell, Newt Allen, Willie Wells, George Giles, Turkey Stearnes, Chet Brewer, and Bullet Joe Rogan all made the trip, and the Monarchs team left with a 14-2 record. Longtime traveling secretary and promotional wizard, Quincy Gilmore reported to the Kansas City Call: “Just as soon as we crossed the border, we were treated as real men.” Gilmore also wrote: “We have been told that the Monarchs are the best behaved baseball club that has ever visited the Republic of Mexico.”64 It’s no wonder that star players like Bell and Josh Gibson were so often lured by the respect offered them to play south of the border.
Very few statistics exist for Duncan and the Monarchs for the 1933 and 1934 seasons. In an effort to keep turning a profit, Wilkinson continued his brutal barnstorming tours. From Texas to Seattle to Denver and Winnipeg, the Monarchs traveled to all points north, south, east, and west in search of a game.65 In 1933 Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee resurrected the Negro National League. However, when the Monarchs were asked to join, Wilkinson turned the new league down. The 1933 season also witnessed the first Negro League East-West All-Star Game; the independent Monarchs were not represented.
Perhaps the greatest barnstorming tour of all time took place at the conclusion of the 1934 season. Fresh off a World Series victory against the Detroit Tigers, Dizzy Dean and his brother Paul of the St. Louis Cardinals agreed to a series of games against Negro League teams. Duncan, Newt Allen, George Giles, Dink Mothell, John Donaldson, and Steel Arm Davis all suited up for manager Bullet Joe Rogan’s Kansas City Monarchs to play the first six games of the schedule.66 The Monarchs got off to a slow start as they lost the first two games in Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kansas. They came back to shut out the Deans in games three and four in Kansas City and Des Moines respectively. The Monarchs were blown out in game five in Chicago, setting up a sixth and final game in Milwaukee. Duncan had his best showing in this final contest, blasting a three-run triple in the top of the ninth and giving his team a 7-5 lead. The Monarchs could not hold the lead and the game was called because of darkness with the score tied, 8-8.67 The tour continued with the Deans facing the Philadelphia Stars, New York Black Yankees, and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Negro League teams finished with an 8-5-1 record that included a three-game sweep by Satchel Paige and the Crawfords to close out the tour.68
Dizzy Dean and Frank Duncan had an obvious fondness for each other as evidenced by a story Duncan told to Negro League historian John Holway:
“I caught Dizzy in 1934, right after he beat the Detroit Tigers in that World Series. They took a plane, we got on a bus, we went to Oklahoma City to meet Dizzy Dean and all his stars, him and Pepper Martin, Paul Dean, Curt Davis from the Brooklyn Dodgers, Walker Cooper was catching, and they used quite a few of those boys out of the Texas League in Tulsa and Oklahoma. They didn’t want me to catch him on account of that time they didn’t allow the white and the colored players like they are now on the same team in the south. But Dizzy went down town to the Chamber of Commerce, got me out of the pool hall, said, “Now if you want me to play, if I’m good enough to pitch, he’s good enough to catch me.” He said, “Now that’s the way it’s going to be.” I just kept my Monarch uniform on and I caught Dizzy.”69
Dizzy had this to say about his batterymate: “I can’t say enough about him. I sure got a kick out of Duncan. One time when Duncan catches me, he has a glove that makes the ball pop, and it makes my pitch sound like a rifle shot and Duncan keeps telling them hitters, ‘boy, don’t get near that plate. Don’t let that ball hit you or it’ll kill you.’”70 Dizzy’s fondness and respect for Duncan didn’t stop there. “That fellow Duncan which catches for Kansas City is almost as good a catcher as Gabby Hartnett, and I can’t say no more than that about a catcher.”71
The 34-year-old Duncan jumped to the New York Cubans for the 1935 season and once again found himself fighting for a championship. The Cubans won the second half of the Negro National League season and faced the legendary first-half champion Pittsburgh Crawfords in the championship series. The Crawfords were a juggernaut and featured four future Hall of Famers on their squad. They had finished the league season with a 51-27-3 record that far surpassed the 31-25-5 mark of the Cubans. The Crawfords were a heavy favorite, but the Cubans fought hard and took them to a deciding seventh game. At one point the Cubans led the series three games to two, but the potent Crawfords, led by manager Oscar Charleston, took the next two games to take the series and the championship.72
In the autumn of 1935, Duncan formed an all-star team that played visiting teams from Mexico and Cuba in the Puerto Rican Winter League.73 In early March of the following year, the All-Stars trounced the Cincinnati Reds, who were training in Puerto Rico, three games to one. Duncan and Buck Leonard, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Vic Harris, and Ray Brown all played for the victorious All-Stars.74 Duncan said, “The Cincinnati Reds came down there training. Chuck Dressen was managing, Chuck and I used to play ball in Cuba against each other. They had Bucky Walters, Ival Goodman playing right, McQuinn first base, a Greek playing second, I forgot his name,75 Ernie Lombardi catching. We hung Cincinnati. Shoot, we hung ’em. Couldn’t win a game. Nope.”76
Duncan remained with the New York Cubans for the 1936 campaign, but the team struggled, plummeting to the bottom of the standings. He rejoined the Monarchs in 1937, and the team went 52-19-1 to capture the Negro American League title. Duncan didn’t see the finish as he was traded to the Chicago American Giants before the season ended.77
Duncan backed up catcher Stubby Byas for the 1938 American Giants and turned in one of his best seasons, hitting .368 and appearing in his only East-West All-Star Game. Duncan received 72,122 votes, more than any other player for the 1938 contest, hitting seventh and going 0-for-1 with a walk for the victorious West team.78
Although Duncan participated in only one East-West game as a player, he was no stranger to the annual jewel of the Negro Leagues. It is a bit of a mystery as to why he did not appear in more all-star games as a player. He was third in the voting at catcher in 1934 and fourth in 1937, when he was listed as a member of the West team.79 Duncan did manage or coach in the game from 1943 through 1947, and he listed this five-year stretch as his most outstanding achievement in baseball in a 1972 questionnaire filled out for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Duncan was on the winning side in all five of these games.80
Duncan did not play in the Negro Leagues in 1939, instead opting to play for the Palmer House Hotel Team, a semipro team playing out of Chicago that featured a lineup made up almost exclusively of former Chicago American Giants.81 Teammate Maurice Wiggins described a beaning that Duncan took while playing for Palmer House: “Duncan dropped like a rock and had to spend three days in the hospital.”82
It was back to Mexico in 1940, where Duncan played for what was undeniably the worst team of his career. The Gallos de Santa Rosa finished 14-67 and in last place, 42 games out of first. Duncan fared no better than most of his teammates; he batted .238 (10-for-42) in 12 games.83 He also played in at least one game for the Chicago American Giants, but otherwise seems to have had a rather uneventful year.
One of Duncan’s proudest moments took place in 1941 when he caught his son, Frank III, in a game for the Monarchs, becoming the first and only father-son battery in professional baseball history. Duncan’s son was a promising pitcher who spent some time with the Baltimore Elite Giants and played for the San Angelo team in the Texas League. Frank III injured his arm and his career never came to fulfillment.84
As Duncan’s own playing career began to wind down, he again latched on to his hometown team, the Kansas City Monarchs, and never played or managed for another Negro League franchise. In a prelude to the great teams to come, the 1941 Monarchs finished atop the NAL with a 25-11 record. A 40-year-old Duncan backed up Joe Greene and got into 11 games, hitting .212. No World Series was played, but in an interview with John Holway, Duncan mentioned a matchup with the NNL champion Homestead Grays at season’s end. “The Monarchs won the pennant in our league in ’41 and played the Washington Homestead Grays a series of games. It wasn’t exactly a world series, more like a series of games.” Duncan did not mention the outcome of these contests.85
Submariner Dizzy Dismukes took over the reins as manager of the Monarchs to begin the 1942 season after star second baseman Newt Allen stepped down.86 In the June 5 issue of the Kansas City Call, Duncan is mentioned as taking over managerial duties as Dismukes switched to being the team’s business manager. The 41-year-old Duncan rarely penciled himself into the lineup, though he occasionally spelled Joe Greene at catcher, and he began a very successful run as the Monarchs’ skipper.
Buck O’Neil often exclaimed, “The ’42 Monarchs club was one of blackball’s most luminous.”87 He called them the best team he ever played for and the equal of the New York Yankees of the time.88 In Duncan’s first season at the helm, he led the Monarchs to a 27-12 record and a four-game sweep over Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and the heavily favored Homestead Grays. In 1924, the young receiver had played a vital role in helping the Monarchs to win the very first Negro League World Series and now, 18 years later, Duncan was back on top as the leader of the 1942 World Series champion Kansas City Monarchs.
Soon after the 1942 season, Duncan was drafted into the US Army, which was a bit of a surprise for the 41-year-old player-manager. J.L. Wilkinson explained Duncan’s circumstance in the March 3, 1943, edition of the Kansas City Star: “Duncan is past 41 but that early draft caught him before the 38-year-old ruling became effective.” As it turned out, Duncan was honorably discharged five months and 16 days later. He explained, “I was just getting ready to go off to Officer Candidate School for second lieutenant, I was top sergeant, see when they let me out. I was over 38, over the age limit. I came out in ’43.”89 Duncan set a marksmanship record during his short stint in the Army when he hit 31 out of 32 bull’s eyes from 200 yards.”90
Duncan led Kansas City’s 1943 squad to a respectable 43-27 record, but the Monarchs fell short, losing out to the first- and second-half winners Birmingham Black Barons and Chicago American Giants respectively, despite having a better overall record than both teams. The following season, decimated by player losses due to the war, the team fell to fourth place with a 30-38 mark; amazingly, it was the only losing season in Duncan’s 23 years with the Kansas City club.
Duncan’s managerial duties went well beyond the scope of field manager, and he often drove the team bus. As Buck O’Neil explained, “Most of your bus conversation would be with the person that sat beside you. I did a lot of talking with Frank Duncan. I set right up in front of the bus and Frank would drive a lot.”91 O’Neil also had this to say about his friend and manager: “In our baseball, our manager had to be the one to go in and see if we could eat. He also went in to see if we could sleep. Frank could talk-that-talk and he had to be able to. Because if Frank didn’t, we were not going to get in and out of some of the spots we were in.”92 Duncan was considered an authority on navigating highways and finding hotels and places to eat.93 Teammate George Giles recognized his manager’s special abilities: “He knew the white farmers on the back roads.”94 Duncan was also known for his show-stopping skills with a fungo bat and his ability as a gymnastics instructor during spring training.95
Manager Frank Duncan was feeling optimistic heading into the 1945 season, especially with a new addition to the team. Duncan pronounced, “With Jackie Robinson, the crack Pacific Coast athlete, now playing short, that he has a championship team.”96 Duncan was so impressed with his trailblazing shortstop that he recommended him for the annual East-West All-Star Game.97 Robinson pounded the ball at a .375 clip that season, but it was not enough as the Monarchs finished in third place with a 43-32-3 record. Although the season was not the success for which he had hoped, Duncan could take pride in the fact that he was Jackie Robinson’s first professional manager.
A 45-year-old Duncan finally put away his shinguards in 1946 and concentrated exclusively on managing the club. This was to be the iconic Monarchs’ last hurrah. They ran away with both the first- and second-half titles with a blistering 50-16-2 record and lined up to face Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and the Negro National League champion Newark Eagles in the Negro League World Series. The back-and-forth series took the full seven games to decide. Eventually, due in part to a Satchel Paige no-show in the pivotal seventh game, the Monarchs dropped Game Seven, 3-2, and Newark claimed the championship of Black baseball.98
The 1947 season was Duncan’s last as the skipper of the fabled Monarchs, and the team finished second with a respectable 52-32 record. In his six years (1942-47) at the helm, he led the team to a 288-216-7 record, including two NAL titles and one World Series title with the storied 1942 team. Sportswriter Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier wrote of Duncan’s managerial skills: “Although he is regarded as a taskmaster and a tough hombre by ball players, his record establishes him as one of the game’s shrewdest managers.”99 Dick Wilkinson, owner J.L. Wilkinson’s son, frustrated after a late-season loss to the lowly Indianapolis Clowns, tried to fire Duncan by taking his bus keys away and giving them to Buck O’Neil. O’Neil refused them and the proud manager was able to finish out the season.100 O’Neil took the reins the next season and Duncan called it quits on his remarkable 27-year career, 23 of which had been spent with the Monarchs.
Duncan did not stay out of baseball for long. Beginning in 1948 he hooked up with former batterymate Bullet Joe Rogan to umpire in the Negro American League. Duncan quickly rose to the rank of chief umpire of the NAL and was responsible for giving pioneering umpire Bob Motley his first job.101 Motley loved to talk about his outgoing mentor, saying, “Duncan was without a doubt the most personable of the crew. A very gregarious person, he always had something to say, which meant there was barely a quiet moment in the dressing room. Sometimes when he started to ramble on too much, Rogan would call him ‘motor mouth.’ But that wouldn’t stop Duncan. He’d chuckle and keep right on blabbing.”102 Motley likened them to a Black version of Laurel and Hardy and thoroughly enjoyed the laughter and banter that came with these two baseball legends. Motley recalled, “Their faces would light up as they reminisced about their playing days.”103
Duncan’s knees finally let him down at the end of the 1949 season and he was unable to crouch any longer. Motley sadly witnessed the end of Duncan’s distinguished career and declared, “I would have gladly carried Duncan on my back if necessary just for the joy of sharing the diamond with him.”104 Duncan and Rogan hung on until the midpoint of the 1950 season before finally retiring. The old friends frequently visited the park as spectators and Duncan often had a kind word for his protégé, Bob Motley.105
Duncan also had planned for his post-baseball future, as his many side businesses attest. In 1946 he owned some tiny kitchenette apartments on Prospect Avenue in Kansas City. Newlyweds Buck and Ora O’Neil spent their first year of marriage in one.106 After retiring from baseball, Duncan owned a taxi stand called the Paseo Taxi Company, with former teammate Newt Joseph at the popular Kansas City crossroads of 18th and Vine, a place where jazz and baseball came together.107 He also owned a popular tavern, the Lone Star Tavern, and placed an ad in the December 25, 1957, issue of the Kansas City Star that wished everyone “joy on Christmas, happiness throughout the year.”108 Later, the always-busy Duncan worked as a bail bondsman for the Passantio Bonding Company.109
Duncan never received the attention he deserved, during or after his playing days, but his contemporaries recognized his greatness. A player with his résumé between the lines, and as a manager and umpire, should have a plaque reserved for him in Cooperstown. Satchel Paige certainly thought so. After being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Satch had this to say about his friend and teammate: “Frank was one we were kickin’ on to get in the Hall of Fame. Campanella got a break, I got a break, but nobody was a better catcher than Frank outside of Josh. It was like clockwork pitchin’ to that man. I guess I could throw harder than anybody. I musta thrown hard because no one ever hit me hard. But Frank was the man who kept me going when I wanted to quit in 1938 (bad arm), Frank kept tellin’ me, keep at it, keep at it, keep at it. If it hadn’t been for him, I never would have gone to Cleveland.”110
In 1950 Monarchs owners, J.L. Wilkinson and Tom Baird, along with a group of fans, chose Duncan as the catcher for the all-time Kansas City Monarchs team.111 He also received strong support in the 1952 Pittsburgh Courier poll that selected the greatest Negro League players to ever put on a uniform.112
In retirement, Duncan still enjoyed taking in the occasional ballgame, and he listed Stan Musial as the greatest hitter in baseball after attending the 1950 All-Star Game in Chicago.113 He also spoke about Willie Mays and expressed displeasure about his being traded from the San Francisco Giants to the New York Mets. According to Duncan, “Mays is the greatest ballplayer that ever lived and he deserved better than to be traded.”114
Buck O’Neil remained close to Duncan and his family and often spoke about his teammate and close friend. As O’Neil remembered, “Frank could catch and throw, a shotgun arm and a great memory. Before Frank died he would talk about a ball game, he would tell you the inning, the pitch the guy hit and how the score ended. He had a wonderful memory.”115
In 1965 Duncan was one of the few Negro Leaguers to pay his respects to Branch Rickey when he attended Rickey’s funeral. Cool Papa Bell expressed disappointment when speaking of the turnout, noting, “Besides Jackie and myself, Frank Duncan, the old Kansas City Monarchs catcher, was the only other black player there. We should have given Mr. Rickey more respect, but I guess some of our people just didn’t want to make the effort.”116 On a lighter note, Duncan made an appearance with his old batterymate, Satchel Paige on the TV show This Is Your Life, on January 26, 1972.117
In his final years, Duncan did not speak much about his playing days. Instead, he was often overcome with tears of joy while watching his grandchildren, Julian and Frank IV, play.118 Frank Duncan died on December 4, 1973, at the age of 72 after a bout with colon cancer. He was survived by his wife, Bertha, his son, Frank III, his daughter, Armeda Walker, stepson George Solomon, stepdaughter Bertha Thatcher, and two grandsons, Julian and Frank IV.119 Sidney and Clarence were not mentioned in the obituary, adding to the mystery of their relationship with their father. Duncan — who was an Army veteran, a Mason, and a Shriner — was buried next to his mother at Highland Cemetery in Kansas City.
Duncan was an entrepreneur, a devoted family man, and he obviously had a love for his hometown of Kansas City. He was also one of the giants of baseball history, whose accomplishments were wide and varied. Once, when talking about the game he loved, he asserted, “We went into every town with two ideas. We would give the people our very best and we wanted to be their friends. We played in all the great cities of the Orient: Tokyo, Yokohama, Manila. We played in Rio, New York, everywhere. But we liked playing in our own little American towns best. We loved the kids and we liked the folks. Those were great and wonderful days.”120
Duncan summed up his life and career in baseball by saying, “I have a good reputation, a good name. I’m proud of that, to be one of them. So I have nothing to regret. Lived a great life, thankful still to be living. Now you see the boys getting the breaks, holding on and playing good ball up there. We were among the pioneers that paved the way for them.”121
Special thanks to Julian Duncan, Frank Duncan’s grandson, for our many conversations about his grandfather, grandmother, and father. His openness and dedication to keeping their legacies alive is truly inspiring.
All statistics, unless otherwise noted, are from seamheads.com.
1 Larry Lester, Baseball’s First Colored World Series: The 1924 Meeting of the Hilldale Giants and Kansas City Monarchs (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006), 62.
2 Lester, Baseball’s First Colored World Series, 63.
3 Conversations with grandson, Julian Duncan, October 23, 2020.
4 1940 US census.
5 Phil S. Dixon, John “Buck” O’Neil: The Rookie, the Man, the Legacy 1938 (Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2009), 118.
6 John Holway, Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1992), 91.
7 Megan Dennis, “‘The Castle on the Hill’: Lincoln High, Racial Uplift, and Community Development During Segregation,” Kansas City Public Library,
8 Larry Lester and Sammy J. Miller, Black Baseball in Kansas City (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2000), 120.
9 Janet Bruce, The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1985), 86.
10 Lester and Miller, Black Baseball in Kansas City, 120.
11 Phil Dixon and Patrick J. Hannigan, The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History (Mattituck, New York: Amereon Ltd., 1992), 105.
12 Lester and Miller, Black Baseball in Kansas City, 120.
13 Phil S. Dixon, The Dizzy and Daffy Dean Barnstorming Tour: Race, Media, and America’s National Pastime (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 73.
14 Phil S. Dixon, The Monarchs 1920-1938: Featuring Wilber “Bullet” Rogan the Greatest Ballplayer in Cooperstown (Sioux Falls, South Dakota: Mariah Press, 2002), 41.
15 Dixon, The Dizzy and Daffy Dean Barnstorming Tour, 75.
16 John Holway interview of Frank Duncan, National Baseball Hall of Fame archives, 4.
17 Holway interview of Duncan, 3.
18 William A. Young, J.L. Wilkinson and the Kansas City Monarchs: Trailblazers in Black Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2016), 34.
19 Kansas City Star, June 11, 1921: 12.
20 Dixon, The Monarchs 1920-1938, 133.
21 Lester, Baseball’s First Colored World Series, 91.
22 Kansas City Star, May 28, 1946: 14.
23 Jason Roe, “Monarchs Defeat the Blues, “https://pendergastkc.org/article/events/monarchs-defeat-blues.
25 Kansas City Star, September 27, 1971: 14.
26 Young, J.L. Wilkinson and the Kansas City Monarchs, 41.
27 Marv Goldberg, “Julia Lee,” uncamarvy.com, 2020. http://www.uncamarvy.com/JuliaLee/julialee.html.
28 Conversations with Julian Duncan.
29 Dixon and Hannigan, 226.
30 John B. Holway, Black Diamonds: Life in the Negro Leagues from the Men Who Lived It (New York: Stadium Books, 1991), 64.
32 Holway, Black Ball Tales: Rollicking, All New, True Adventures of the Negro Leagues by the Men Who Lived and Loved Them (Springfield, Virginia: Scorpio Books, 2008), 69.
33 Lester, Baseball’s First Colored World Series, 62.
34 Lester, Baseball’s First Colored World Series, 62.
35 Holway, Black Ball Tales, 71.
36 Lester, Baseball’s First Colored World Series, 185.
37 Pittsburgh Courier, July 17, 1943: 19.
38 Young, 52.
39 Lester, Baseball’s First Colored World Series, 178.
40 Holway, Black Ball Tales, 63.
41 Young, 103.
42 William F. McNeil, The California Winter League: America’s First Integrated Professional Baseball League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2002), 120-121.
43 Kazuo Sayama and Bill Staples Jr., Gentle Black Giants: A History of Negro League Baseball in Japan (Fresno, California: Nisei Baseball Research Project Press, 2019), 94.
44 Rich Westcott, Biz Mackey: A Giant Behind the Plate (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018), 107.
45 Sayama and Staples, 17.
46 Sayama and Staples, 16-17.
47 Sayama and Staples, 14.
48 Sayama and Staples, 201.
49 Neil Lanctot, Fair Dealing & Clean Playing: The Hilldale Club and the Development of Black Professional Baseball, 1910-1932 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994), 155.
50 Sayama and Staples, 258.
51 Kansas City Times, August 9, 1927: 10.
52 Janet Bruce, 120; Alliance (Nebraska) Times-Herald, July 4, 1950: 13.
53 Kansas City Times, March 19, 1985: 16.
54 Jorge S. Figueredo, Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball: 1878-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2003), 351.
55 Dixon and Hannigan, 150.
56 Holway interview of Frank Duncan.
57 Lester, Baseball’s First Colored World Series, 61.
58 Young, 69.
60 Young, 68-69.
61 Kyle P. McNary, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe: 36 Years of Pitching & Catching in Baseball’s Negro Leagues (St. Louis Park, Minnesota: McNary Publishing, 1994), 69.
62 Phil S. Dixon, The Monarchs 1920-1938, 161.
63 http://www.cnlbr.org/Portals/0/Hero/Chet-Brewer.pdf, 13.
64 Young, 86.
65 Young, 88.
66 Dixon, The Dizzy and Daffy Dean Barnstorming Tour, 33.
67 The Dizzy and Daffy Dean Barnstorming Tour, 102.
68 Dixon, The Dizzy and Daffy Dean Barnstorming Tour, 23, 208.
69 Holway interview of Frank Duncan.
70 Lester, Baseball’s First Colored World Series, 61.
71 Dixon and Hannigan, 246.
72 Mark Whitaker, The Untold Story of Smoketown: The Other Great Black Renaissance (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 294.
73 Larry Lester, Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game 1933-1962, Expanded Version (Kansas City, Missouri: NoirTech Research Inc., 2020), 64.
74 William F. McNeil, Black Baseball Out of Season: Pay for Play Outside of the Negro Leagues (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2007), 115-117.
76 Holway interview of Frank Duncan, 14.
77 Paul Debono, The Chicago American Giants (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2007), 146.
78 Lester, Black Baseball’s National Showcase, 110, 113.
79 Lester, Black Baseball’s National Showcase, 60, 97; Young, 100.
80 Frank Duncan questionnaire returned to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, May 1972.
81 Debono, 151.
82 Dixon and Hannigan, 124.
83 Pedro Treto Cisneros, The Mexican League: Comprehensive Player Statistics, 1937-2001 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002), 289.
84 Brent Kelley, Voices from the Negro Leagues: Conversations with 52 Baseball Standouts (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 1998), 99, 101.
85 Holway interview of Frank Duncan, 14.
86 Chicago Defender, April 4, 1942: 19.
87 Timothy M. Gay, Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 4.
88 Young, 125.
89 Pittsburgh Courier, July 17, 1943; Holway interview of Frank Duncan, 17.
91 Dixon, John “Buck” O’Neil, 159.
92 Lester, Baseball’s First Colored World Series, 62.
93 Kansas City Star, August 14, 1950: 12.
94 Dixon, The Dizzy and Daffy Dean Barnstorming Tour, 44.
95 Holway, Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues, 340; Kansas City Star, May 28, 1946: 14.
96 Leslie A. Heaphy, 158.
97 Dixon and Hannigan, 255.
99 Pittsburgh Courier, July 26, 1947: 14.
100 Young, 169.
101 Bob Motley and Byron Motley, Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants & Stars: True Tales of Breaking Barriers, Umpiring Baseball Legends, and Wild Adventures in the Negro Leagues (New York: Sports Publishing, 2012), 67.
102 Motley and Motley, 68, 69.
103 Motley and Motley, 71.
104 Motley and Motley, 72
105 Motley and Motley, 74.
106 Buck O’Neil, with Steve Wulf, and David Conrads, I Was Right on Time: My Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 172-173.
107 Motley and Motley, B159.
108 Kansas City Star, December 25, 1957: 17.
109 Kansas City Star, December 6, 1973: 29.
110 Lester, Baseball’s First Colored World Series, 62.
111 William H. Young and Nathan B. Young Jr., Your Kansas City and Mine (Kansas City, Missouri: Midwest Afro-American Genealogy Interest Coalition, 1997), 127.
112 Steven R. Greenes, Negro Leaguers and the Hall of Fame: The Case for Inducting 24 Overlooked Ballplayers (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2020), 235.
113 Kansas City Star. August 14, 1950: 12.
114 Kansas City Star, July 16, 1972: 192.
115 Dixon, The Monarchs 1920-1938, 40.
116 Jim Bankes, The Pittsburgh Crawfords (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2001), 123-124.
117 Heaphy, 11.
118 Conversation with Julian Duncan.
119 Kansas City Star, December 6, 1973: 29.
120 Kansas City Times, March 10, 1967: 21.
121 Holway interview of Frank Duncan, 19.