Mel Kerr (COURTESY OF MEL ROSENBAUM)

Mel Kerr

This article was written by Brad Benedict

Mel Kerr (COURTESY OF MEL ROSENBAUM)Swift Canadian Mel Kerr made just one major-league appearance. It came with the Chicago Cubs as a pinch-runner in September 1925 as the team utilized the multi-sport athlete’s world-class foot speed. Yet, as is often the case, there is more to the story than that solitary moment in his life.

Indeed, Kerr was ranked with a pair of legends for his excellence in a wide variety of athletic endeavors. Newspaper accounts of the day compared him to both American Jim Thorpe1 and Canadian Lionel Conacher2, who have each since been named their country’s greatest all-around athlete for the first half of the 20th century.

The Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, which inducted Kerr in 1977, notes that he “was a superb baseball player and an all-round athlete,” listing his track and field, tennis, and rugby titles.3 The Hall also noted that his activities branched out to include basketball, swimming, and diving.4

John Melville “Mel” Kerr was born May 22, 1903, in Souris, Manitoba, Canada. His parents, Fred Kerr and Gertrude Brook, were both originally from St. Vincent, Ontario, where Fred was an accomplished athlete noted for his own success in curling and bowling.5 Mel was the third in the family, with older siblings Harold (born 1900) and Gladys (born 1901). The Kerr family moved around in Canada for the first part of Mel’s life. Initially they moved to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, before returning to Ontario, where Fred sold real estate as of 1911.6 Mel was still a teenager when his family moved back to Saskatoon, and this city is where he would make his mark and be considered as one of the “greatest all-round athletes” that city had ever seen.7

The Kerr family expanded to five children with the additions of younger brother Jack (born 1915) and sister Phyllis (born 1917). But tragedy struck with the death of eight-month-old Phyllis in August 1918 and mother Gertrude in January 1919. Both were victims of the worldwide flu pandemic.8

Mel Kerr first started generating headlines as a 16-year-old when he was awarded a gold and silver medal in the Cairns’ Steeplechase — an annual three-mile road race that drew competitors from across the province.9 Over the next couple of years, newspaper accounts continued to trumpet his victories in track and field events, which now included not only running in both single and relay events but also field events such as high and long jump.10

Basketball brought Kerr’s next string of successes, and as the captain and center on the Nutana Collegiate high school team, he was considered “one of the best basketball players in the city.”11 He helped his club win three successive city titles as well as one provincial championship.12 Tennis champion was a further addition to his resume after winning city titles in both 1923 and 1924.13 He was also a high scorer for his collegiate hockey team.14

The 1924 Summer Olympics were to be held in Paris, France. In August 1922 Kerr was pegged as a good possibility to be on the Canadian Olympic track team.15 He had won the Saskatchewan provincial title as the best overall competitor at the province’s track and field championship that year, which was awarded based on a combination of track and throwing events — similar to a decathlon. He had led the competition with two first-place finishes, two seconds, and one third, which included a dramatic win in the 220-yard hurdles and a close second in the high jump.16 Kerr’s success continued with winning a Canadian high hurdles event,17 and into 1923 with another provincial track championship title.18

Unfortunately, however, Kerr’s multi-sport versatility and success precluded his Olympic dream. While starring on a rugby team, he suffered a serious knee injury.

Mel had joined the Saskwanis Rugby Club, based in Saskatoon. He used his speed and skill playing in the backfield and handling the kicking duties. Heading into the Western Canada Junior Rugby final in November of 1923, he was considered one of the two “best broken-field runners in the west, either senior or junior.”19 He had rushed for seven touchdowns and scored six kicking points in a single league game versus North Battleford. In the championship game against St. John’s College of Winnipeg, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix gave a glimpse of the grit Kerr could bring to a team: “Mel Kerr, the top scorer of the team, suffered an injured leg, and although he gamely kept going when he should have been on the sidelines, he could not do the work he usually does. Kerr is one of the main cogs in a fine little machine and the whole team suffered.”20

A week later it was revealed that his “badly wrenched knee” had torn ligaments.21 In May of 1924 — nearly seven months later — the Winnipeg Tribune carried the news that Kerr would not take part in the Olympic Trials because of that knee injury.22

After this injury and the loss of his Olympic dream, it was possibly baseball that provided the inspiration during his knee rehabilitation leading into 1924. Over the previous three seasons, Kerr had made a name for himself playing in the Saskatoon Senior Amateur Baseball League. The summer of 1924, while pitching and playing center field for the C. N. R. team, he won the batting title by hitting a hefty .429.23

In January 1925, The Sporting News reported that the Chicago Cubs had signed Kerr, after a scout had recommended Kerr to Cubs president William Veeck Sr.24 This marked the beginning of a lengthy professional career that saw him travel all over the United States. It also changed his personal life in a very positive way.

The Chicago Cubs had moved their spring training to Catalina Island — off the shores of Los Angeles — in 1921. Cubs owner William Wrigley Jr. had bought a controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1919, and with that came the island.25 In 1921 Wrigley started to bring his Cubs to this island paradise for preseason workouts — and in 1925 that included Mel Kerr.

Kerr turned a few heads while training with the Cubs on Catalina. The Chicago American reported, “Mel Kerr is socking the apple with vigor in batting practice. He is very fast on his feet.”26 The Chicago Tribune added that Kerr had “scored from second on a single and displayed the greatest burst of speed of any of the Cubs to date.”27

Kerr later commented on his experience at spring training: “We are called out by Manager Bill Killefer every morning at 9:30 and work for two hours, then again in the afternoon from 1:30 until 5 o’clock. The training includes ‘pepper’ practice, batting and fielding. Then we climb mountains that seem miles high with a blistering sun to face. I played in the outfield with Tony Kaufman and Grover Alexander yesterday. While lumbering up the mountain the other day I passed Alexander and he said “Well, this is a lot different from 20 below zero weather” and I agreed with him. Down here they think snowshoes are an oversized oxford. They are treating me fine and it certainly is much different from my idea of a big-league camp. Everybody seems ready to give you a helping hand.28

Mel Kerr (Harrisburg Evening News, March 10, 1925)On April 20, 1925, Kerr was assigned to the Cubs farm team at Saginaw of the Michigan-Ontario League (Class B). Cubs manager Killefer stated that he didn’t want Kerr to ride the bench, so Kerr was sent to the minors for “lack of experience.” However, he was under a Cubs option and could be recalled at any point.29 Injuries may also have played a part. In a 1950 Montreal Gazette article, sportswriter Vern DeGeer pointed out that although Kerr had “batted over .300 in spring training games, a trick knee picked up in football, and a southpaw throwing arm kink developed tossing round-house curves as a high school student kept him from sticking in the majors.”30

Kerr had a solid rookie pro season at Saginaw, hitting a respectable .283 along with 31 doubles, eight triples, and a home run, in 136 games. At the end of the Saginaw season on September 12, he was recalled to the Cubs. Saginaw had tried to purchase Kerr outright with an eye to selling him to Kansas City of the American Association, which had been interested in Kerr — but the Cubs turned the offers down.31

The 1925 season had been tumultuous for the big club. Manager Killefer, with a record of 33-42, was replaced on July 7 by Rabbit Maranville, whose record was a touch worse (23-30). Maranville in turn was replaced by Canadian George Gibson on September 3. When Kerr joined the team in mid-September, the Cubs were battling to stay out of last place. The second game of a doubleheader on September 16 versus the Boston Braves would have huge significance to Mel Kerr, albeit little impact on the Cubs’ season.

Kerr’s contribution to the game was minor — but it made him a “major leaguer” for life. As reported the next day in the Chicago Tribune, “Outfielder Kerr went out as pinch runner for Tommy] Griffith in the ninth and made his way around the circuit from first base.”32 Kerr had advanced to second on a single by Gale Staley and scored on a single by Cliff Heathcote. Even with his run, the Cubs lost 8-6. They finished the season in last place.

On September 22, 1925, Kerr had been released by the Cubs to their Class-A affiliate in Wichita Falls of the Texas League, with plans to report to the Cubs again the following spring.33 That move ended Kerr’s major-league service time. Still only 22 years old, he must certainly have hoped that there would be more opportunities to return to the majors, but it was not to be.

In the spring of 1926, Kerr — reported as being 165 pounds then, along with his 5-foot-11 frame — was assigned by Wichita Falls to Bloomington of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League (a Class-B circuit also known as the “Three-I League”). Bloomington finished last in the standings; but Kerr paced the team with a .315 batting average.34

Kerr started the following season with the Okmulgee (Oklahoma) Drillers of the Western Association (Class C), before moving to the Elmira (New York) Colonels of the New York-Pennsylvania League (Class B). Both stops were successful: he batted .292 in 26 games at Okmulgee and .288 in 99 games at Elmira. The move to Elmira changed his life in a significant way off the field, for it was there, during his three-season stint, that he met his future wife. Kathryn Harriet Edgar — affectionately called “Ted” by family and friends — was a nurse from nearby Horseheads, New York. Their daughter, Betty Kerr Rosenbaum, recalled in May 2021 that it was a blind date.

Mel and Kathryn were married on March 10, 1928. They had four daughters: Margaret (born 1929), Mary (born 1931), Elizabeth “Betty” (born 1933), and Phyllis — named for Mel’s younger sister (born 1943).35

Betty (as of 2021 a sharp-witted 87-year-old living in Charlotte, North Carolina) remembered Mel as a wonderful father and dedicated family man who was immensely proud of his wife and daughters. “He adored my mother,” Betty recalled, “Dad called her his ‘little Irish biddy.’ He said something to my mother one time, ‘Well that wasn’t a very smart thing to do,’ and she said right back to him, ‘I showed how smart I was the day I married you.’ He told that story for years.”36

Betty also recalled her parents attending a party one night, and the next day asking her father how it went. Kerr replied, “Your mother was the prettiest girl there!”37

After two more seasons with Elmira, 1930 was perhaps Kerr’s peak in professional baseball. Playing center field for the Cedar Rapids Bunnies in the Mississippi Valley League (Class D), he hit .345, scored 102 runs, and stole 80 bases. That stolen base total was declared an all-time league record, and also the high mark of that season in Organized Baseball. 38

At the end of the season, Cedar Rapids organized a “field day” in which the players competed in a variety of baseball-related events for prize money donated by local merchants. Kerr won two of the events. The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that he “drew down $10 for winning the 100-yard dash in 10.4 and another $10 for circling the bases in 14.1.”39 In relaying this account, Betty laughed and said, “Daddy was so competitive in everything he did.” She also remembered a similar story from that Cubs spring training camp in 1925: “They had to run around the track and Daddy came in about half way. Then they said ‘OK, we’re going to run again and whoever wins gets $5.’ And of course, Daddy won.40

For a modern-day comparison of Kerr’s winning time of 14.1 seconds, we now have the advantage of game measurements by Statcast. In 2016 Byron Buxton established the top mark of that season, and the fastest time in Statcast history to that point, taking 14.05 seconds to circle the bases against the White Sox on October 2.41

Kerr’s speed exploits were also noted in a variety of newspaper articles. A 1941 piece recounting his baseball career mentioned that he had “appeared in a dozen challenge sprints in a baseball uniform and defeated Maurice Archdeacon, the International League speed merchant; Scott, the American Association star from Kansas City; and others.”42 During Kerr’s brief time in spring training with the Cubs, “Chicago players set up a betting fund and matched him with the fastest sprinters teams they opposed in pre-season games could dig up.”43

His on-field success also captured the eye of the famed “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” newspaper cartoon. which published a drawing of Kerr capturing 11 outfield putouts in a single minor-league game.44

In 1931 Kerr returned to the Mississippi Valley League. He split the season between Cedar Rapids and Rock Island, and enjoyed another impressive campaign. In July of that year, the Windsor Star reported, “The baseball writers of the Mississippi Valley League are at a loss to understand why Mel Kerr is unable to hold a job in faster company. Kerr is back with the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, club for a second term after failing to catch a berth with Buffalo Bisons of the International League. And he’s leading the circuit with a batting average of .410 — which is fair clubbing in any company.”45 Kerr finished the season with a .330 batting average and 47 stolen bases. Although he did not win the league’s batting title, these numbers still placed him among the league leaders in both categories.46

After another season in the Mississippi Valley League with Burlington, Kerr continued to play semiprofessional baseball with a variety of club and company teams in New York in the 1930s. He also spent winters playing basketball for the Eclipse Machine Company in Elmira, where he “became a star forward with that firm’s Northern New York State championship semi-professional basketball club. Opponents included the celebrated New York Celtics and the Renaissance Five, outstanding pro teams of the period.”47 To put the caliber of competition into perspective, the Renaissance Five (based in Harlem, New York) were the first all-Black professional basketball team. They won the World Professional Tournament Championship in 1939 and were enshrined in the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963.48

Kerr made a return to the sports page in 1941, while living in Ogdensburg, New York, by winning the city’s 10-pin bowling championship with a league average of 191.49 His daughter Betty mentioned he also once bowled a perfect game.50

In 1940 Kerr worked as a salesman for the Kraft cheese company. He continued with Kraft first as a salesman and then later as a district supervisor, right up until his retirement in 1968. His time with the company included stops in Ogdensburg and Richmond, Virginia, eventually settling in Baltimore, Maryland. According to his daughter Betty, “He was manager of the branch in Richmond, and then they closed that branch and that is when they moved to Baltimore. He would get a promotion about every five years, which is why we moved as much as we did. Each place that we moved he kept those friends. He had a wonderful personality. Just a very loyal friend and he kept up with everybody. His correspondence was unbelievable.”51

In 1968 Mel and Kathryn Kerr retired to Vero Beach, Florida — which he had picked because the Dodgers had their spring training base there.52 They bought a house right on the 18th tee of a golf course. Mel would spend his mornings golfing and afternoons playing bridge. He would tell family members during that period about how much he loved everything about his life in Vero Beach.53

Mel Kerr’s grandson — and namesake — Mel Rosenbaum, who was 20 when his grandfather died, recalled Kerr fondly as well. “Grandpa was a big tease. When I was probably 10 or 12, he said, ‘Come on, we’ll go to the par-three golf course here in town and if you’ll caddy for me, I’ll give you a quarter.’ So, I did, and we had a nice afternoon. When we got back home, he peeled an apple and cut it into four pieces, then gave me a ‘quarter’ of it! He would laugh and tell that story for years!”54

Though not a smoker, Kerr contracted lung disease — COPD — and passed away on August 9, 1980, at the age of 77. His daughter Betty recalled that he “continued to play golf and tennis right up until a month before he died. When we had the funeral for Daddy, they closed the Vero Beach Country Club because he knew everybody there and had been very involved in setting up the schedules and all of that. Just so that they all could come to his funeral.”55

Mel Kerr was buried just outside Baltimore, which had been his last stop with Kraft before he retired, and where his youngest daughter Phyllis still lived. Mel’s wife Kathryn passed away eight years later and was buried beside him. “Together Forever” is inscribed on their stone.

The parallel between Kerr and the archetypal one-game major-leaguer — “Moonlight/Doc” Graham (who also didn’t have a chance to bat) — extends from real life to the film Field of Dreams. When “Doc” Graham, portrayed as an old man by Burt Lancaster, was presented with the offer to “magically” get his chance to have that missing major-league at-bat, he declined. He was, after all, extremely happy with the way his life had turned out. “Doc” had found a wonderful wife, and along with a satisfying career as a doctor, didn’t want to change anything about what had led him to that point in his life.

In a Montreal Gazette interview in 1963, Mel Kerr looked back fondly on his brief time with the Cubs during spring training in 1925: “It was a great experience while it lasted. My roommate was Gabby Hartnett. Grover Cleveland Alexander, his battery mate, was at the height of his career. I was plain lucky to get to a training camp in that kind of company and in a place like Catalina. I sure was green. I didn’t even know how to slide, had a bad left arm from throwing too many curve balls as a kid pitcher, and had a trick knee. But I could hit that old apple and stayed nine years in the minors, thanks to what I learned in the Cubs camp.”56

Between the written words of Mel Kerr and the current voices of his family members, it seems that he, too, would have been unlikely to change how his life turned out. As his daughter Betty recalled, “He was a good father, and a good provider. And he had so many friends.”57

 

Acknowledgments

A huge thank you to Mel Kerr’s grandson Mel Rosenbaum for providing family info, reviewing the bio, and for setting up the phone interview with his mother Betty.

Thanks to SABR member Bob Muldoon for his encouragement on this project and for his initial review of the bio, which was also reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

Baseball-Reference.com — league classifications and batting stats unless otherwise noted.

Thanks to the book by Jim Shearon, Canada’s Baseball Legends (Kanata, Ontario: Malin Head Press, 1994), for originally introducing me to the story of Mel Kerr.

Photo credits: Mel Rosenbaum, Harrisburg Evening News.

 

Notes

1 “Cub Recruit Is Versatile,” Winnipeg Tribune, March 13, 1925: 20.

2 Cam McKenzie, “Cam’s Corner,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, January 21, 1978: 18.

3 Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame website, https://sasksportshalloffame.com/inductees/john-mel-kerr/, accessed May 26, 2021.

4 “Hall to Induct Kerr,” Regina Leader-Post, March 16, 1977: 29.

5 “For an all-round athlete of class,” Ottawa Citizen, April 21, 1931: 10.

6 Census of Canada, 1911.

7 “Driller Rookie Has Good Record,” Okmulgee Daily Democrat, March 15, 1927: 7.

8 Author interview with Mel Kerr’s daughter Betty Rosenbaum, May 14, 2021.

9 “Cairns’ Steeplechase Well Contested,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, October 18, 1919: 5.

10 “Some Exceptional Feats”, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, January 24, 1921: 7.

11 “Basketball Growing in Popularity,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, March 10, 1921: 9.

12 Vern DeGeer, “Remember Kerr?,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, May 10, 1941: 11.

13 “Saskatonians to be honored,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, March 16, 1977: 40.

14 DeGeer, “Remember Kerr?”

15 “Eclectics to Send Runner to Calgary,” Saskatoon Daily Star, August 9, 1922: 3.

16 “Saskatoon Athlete is Individual Champion,” Saskatoon Daily Star, June 26, 1922: 7.

17 DeGeer, “Remember Kerr?”

18 Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame website bio: https://sasksportshalloffame.com/inductees/john-mel-kerr

19 “St John’s Juniors Will Find Stiff Opposition in Grid Final Monday,” Winnipeg Tribune, November 10, 1923: 15.

20 “St John’s College Wins,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, November 13, 1923: 13.

21 “Kerr Still Nursing Knee,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, November 16, 1923: 13.

22 “Sport Salad,” Winnipeg Tribune, May 23, 1924: 14.

23 “Mel Kerr Top Hitter,” Saskatoon Daily Star, August 18, 1924: 7.

24 “Caught on the Fly,” The Sporting News, January 12, 1925: 8.

25 Santa Catalina Island Website, https://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/about-the-island/history/historical-information/, accessed May 26, 2021.

26 “Mel Kerr Socking Apple in Chicago Camp Down South,” Regina Leader-Post, March 13, 1925: 8.

27 “Chicago Cubs Impressed as Mel Kerr Steps Out,” Regina Leader-Post, March 17, 1925: 8.

28 Percy Vere, “Broadcasting,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, March 11, 1925: 9.

29 “Mel Kerr Goes to Nunamaker,” Winnipeg Tribune, April 20, 1925: 10.

30 Vern DeGeer, “From Another Angle, Montreal Gazette, December 16, 1950: 21.

31 “Kerr to Report to Cubs’ Camp,” Winnipeg Tribune, August 11, 1925: 12.

32 “Piedmont Player Performs,” Chicago Tribune, September 17, 1925: 21.

33 “Chicago Cubs Release Kerr,” Minneapolis Star, September 23, 1925: 9.

34 “Driller Rookie Has Good Record,” Okmulgee Daily Democrat, March 15, 1927: 7. This season is missing from Kerr’s Baseball-Reference minor-league stats. Looking at the Bloomington team record for that year, it lists a ‘Kerr?’ with a .311 batting average.

35 Betty Rosenbaum interview.

36 Betty Rosenbaum interview.

37 Betty Rosenbaum interview.

38 “Mel Kerr May Go to Majors,” Winnipeg Tribune, September 23, 1930: 14. This is the second minor-league season missing on Kerr’s Baseball Reference page. The Cedar Rapids Bunnies page for 1930 does list a ‘Kerr?’ with a batting average of .340 — not the .345 mark referenced in two different newspaper accounts. The stolen base total has also been reported as 82 and 84 in other contemporary newspaper accounts.

39 “Mel Kerr Takes Two 1st Places in Field Meet,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 7, 1930: 10.

40 Betty Rosenbaum interview.

41 Brad Rempel, “MLB: Byron Buxton Leads The 2016 Statcast Superstars,” Fox Sports, June 30, 2017, https://www.foxsports.com/stories/mlb/mlb-byron-buxton-leads-the-2016-statcast-superstars/ , accessed May 26, 2021.

42 DeGeer, “Remember Kerr?”

43 DeGeer, “From Another Angle.”

44 DeGeer, “From Another Angle.” There are at least four references in articles to this newspaper drawing. Two list the total as 11 putouts and two list it as 10. Unfortunately, the author has yet to find the drawing itself to confirm.

45 Vern DeGeer, “Broadcasting Sport Gossip,” Windsor Star, July 14, 1931: 14.

46 “Mississippi Valley League Averages,” Quad City Times, September 20, 1931: 32.

47 DeGeer, “From Another Angle.”

48 The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Website, https://www.hoophall.com/hall-of-famers/new-york-renaissance/, accessed May 26, 2021.

49 DeGeer, “Remember Kerr?”

50Betty Rosenbaum interview.

51 Betty Rosenbaum interview.

52 Author interview with Kerr’s grandson Mel Rosenbaum, May 14, 2021.

53 Betty Rosenbaum interview.

54 Mel Rosenbaum interview.

55 Betty Rosenbaum interview.

56 “Couldn’t Beat the Company,” Montreal Gazette, July 27, 1963: 27.

57 Betty Rosenbaum interview.

Full Name

John Melville Kerr

Born

May 22, 1903 at Souris, MB (CAN)

Died

August 9, 1980 at Vero Beach, FL (USA)

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