On July 14, 1953, the National League defeated the American League, 5-1, in the major-league All-Star Game at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. On that same date in another Midwest town, Decatur, Illinois, the All-Star game for a Class D minor league, the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League,1 was played at Decatur’s Fans Field.
The game featured the 1952 league playoff champion Decatur Commodores, known in the local media as the Commies, hosting a team of All-Stars from the other five clubs in the league. Decatur, which did not have a major-league affiliation,2 faced the All-Stars because it was the league’s first-place team on July 4.3
Chosen by sportswriters, the All-Star roster had 17 players, five of them pitchers, and included four players each from the Danville (Illinois) Dans and the Mattoon (Illinois) Phillies, three from the Paris (Illinois) Lakers and the Mt. Vernon (Illinois) Kings, and two players from the Hannibal (Missouri) Cardinals.4 They were coached by two of the league’s managers: Danville’s Virl Minnis and Hannibal’s Tince Leonard. Decatur player-manager Ray Taylor was assisted by Paris manager Tom Sunkel.5
The game was attended by the governor of Illinois, William G. Stratton; league officials, including President Clarence “Dutch” Hoffman; local officials, including Decatur Mayor Robert Willis; and 2,609 other fans.6 In a pregame ceremony, Hoffman passed the 1952 Shaughnessy playoff trophy to Governor Stratton, who in turn presented it to Mayor Willis. The mayor was pinch-hitting for Decatur owner Arturo Gonzalez, who was unable to make the 1,000-mile trip from his home in Del Rio, Texas.7
The starting pitcher for Decatur was Robert Appleby, a 30-year-old “husky lefty” who was having “a mediocre season due to a lack of control.”8 The All-Stars countered with Mattoon’s Dennis “Pete” Hamilton, a 19-year-old right-handed curveball expert and strikeout artist. Hamilton’s batterymate was his Phillies teammate, Alex Sirota.9
Appleby gave up two hits in the first inning but kept the All-Stars off the scoreboard, helping himself out of the jam by picking Danville’s Jim Partin off first.
The game was all but decided in the bottom of the first as Decatur scored four runs. The leadoff hitter, shortstop Gonzalo “Gus” Chenard, lined a single to left and raced to second when Mattoon’s Robert “Sam” Hunter fumbled the ball. Chenard moved to third on a groundout and, after a walk to right fielder Herman Niehaus, scored on a wild pitch.
Catcher Andy Smith also walked and left fielder Jim Freeman followed with a double to the wall in left. Niehaus scored and Smith held up at third. First baseman Sergio “Marty” Martinez’s single drove in Freeman and Smith for a 4-0 Decatur lead.
After a scoreless top of the second, Decatur had a great chance to pile up the score in its half of the inning against Hamilton. Appleby and Chenard walked. Second baseman/manager Taylor bunted to first; when All-Star first baseman Bob Oefinger of Danville found Hamilton in the way of a possible throw to second baseman Hancks covering first, everyone was safe, loading the bases.
Niehaus struck out, but Appleby scored on a force out at second. The inning ended when Chenard was tagged out trying to steal home as part of a double-steal attempt, but by then Decatur had a 5-0 lead.
The All-Stars tried to come back in the third when Appleby walked the first two batters, but center fielder Hoover “Creed” Nance speared Partin’s low liner and doubled Hamilton off first.
After Decatur’s early offense, pitching dominated the game. George Case of Paris hurled the third through the fifth for the All-Stars, giving up only a single by Niehaus in the fifth. Carl Lutz of Danville, Milford Bridges of Mt. Vernon, and John Wills of Hannibal each pitched an inning after that and the only Commie to reach base was Taylor, who worked Bridges for a walk in the seventh.
For Decatur, Appleby went into the ninth with a four-hit shutout, aided by outstanding defense, including the double play in the third. Martinez made the fielding play of the night in the fourth, chasing Sirota’s fly ball deep into the right-field foul area, then sticking his glove out at the last minute and snaring it. Second baseman Taylor made a similar play in the eighth, racing back into right field to snag a fly ball.
In the top of the ninth, Jim Partin singled to center on an 0-and-2 count for his second hit of the game. He took second when third baseman Joe Henry of Mt. Vernon dumped a Texas Leaguer into right. Appleby struck out Mattoon shortstop Don Strichek, but backup catcher Clarence Hall let the third strike get by him and the runners advanced to second and third.
Nick Starasta of Mt. Vernon, who had taken over the catching duties from Sirota, hit a sharp grounder to Chenard, whose throw to first went into the dirt and Martinez was not able to come up with it. Two runs scored on the throwing error, but that was all Appleby would give up, making the final score 5-2, Decatur. The game took two hours to play.
The All-Stars used all 17 players on their roster. In addition, since the coaches for the All-Star team were both player-managers,10 a rule added before the game allowed them to participate. Virl Minnis took advantage of the rule to insert himself into the lineup as a pinch-hitter for Bridges in the eighth. He hit the fly ball on which second baseman Taylor made the fine running catch.
Undoubtedly the star of the game was Decatur’s Appleby, who scattered six hits and gave up just the two unearned runs in the ninth. (Hamilton got the loss.) After spending 1947 in the minor leagues, Appleby had embarked on a career coaching high-school and college football and baseball, with stints at Milliken University in Decatur in 1952 and 1953. He returned to professional baseball with the Commies in 1953 and finished the season with a 2-4 record in 14 appearances, a 5.90 ERA, a WHIP of 1.655, and two complete games in eight starts. It was Appleby’s last professional season, as he resumed his coaching career, becoming the varsity baseball coach and freshman football coach for the University of Toledo in August 1953.11
Although this was a game that featured “the best of the best” in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League, only one of the players ever played in a league regarded as a major league. Paris Lakers outfielder Quincy Smith, who entered the game in right field and batted twice, had played in the Negro American League for six games in 1943 and five games in 1945.
The author was inspired to write about this game from his wife’s memories of attending Mississippi-Ohio Valley League games in her hometown of Mattoon, Illinois, in 1953. She sat behind home plate with her father and remembered watching Hamilton and Sirota as Mattoon’s battery.
This article was fact-checked by Kevin Larkin and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org for pertinent information. The game account was compiled from the July 15, 1953, editions of the Decatur Herald, Decatur Daily Review, Mt. Vernon Register-News, and Mattoon Journal-Gazette. It should be noted that the description of the game in the latter two newspapers included statements about All-Stars from their local teams (Starasta and Strichek, respectively) getting hits in the game, but each statement is refuted by the box score.
1 The Mississippi-Ohio Valley League operated from 1949 through 1955 as a Class D minor league, which at the time was the lowest classification of the affiliated minor-league system. In 1956 the league was renamed the Midwest League, which remained a part of the minor leagues as of 2023.
2 In 1953 only three of the six teams in the league had a major-league affiliation. Danville was affiliated with the Chicago White Sox, Hannibal with the St. Louis Cardinals, and Mattoon with the Philadelphia Phillies.
3 Decatur, which was still in first place at the All-Star Game, went on to win the regular-season championship and then in the playoffs defeated Hannibal three games to none in the semifinals and Paris three games to two in the finals.
4 The selectees were Bob Oefinger (Danville) 1B; Warren “Sonny” Hancks (Hannibal) 2B: Don Strichek (Mattoon) SS; Rudy Stanzel (Danville) 3B; Robert “Sam” Hunter (Mattoon) LF; Jim Partin (Danville) CF; Ken Payne (Paris) RF; Alex Sirota (Mattoon) C; Nick Starasta (Mt. Vernon) C; with Quincy Smith (Paris) and Joe Henry (Mt. Vernon) as utility players. The pitchers were Milford Bridges (Mt. Vernon), George Case (Paris), Dennis “Pete” Hamilton (Mattoon), Carl Lutz (Danville), and John Wills (Hannibal).
5 Howard V. Millard, “Commies Meet League Stars Here Tonight,” Decatur Daily Review, July 14, 1953: 18. Mt. Vernon manager Joe Schmidt was scheduled to help coach the All-Stars, but he was home celebrating the arrival of a new baby. Similarly, Mattoon’s Jim Deery was scheduled to work with Decatur manager Taylor, but he went to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati instead.
6 Even though this was an All-Star game, there was no increase in prices, so the cost of a box seat stayed at $1 and of standing room or bleachers at 65 cents. Decatur led the league in attendance (96,337) in 1953 by more than 30,000, averaging 1,633 a game.
7 Howard V. Millard, “Commies, Appleby Whip All-Stars 5-2,” Decatur Daily Review, July 15, 1953: 14.
8 “Commies, Appleby Whip All-Stars 5-2.”
9 As with every midseason exhibition game, the use of pitchers was an issue, not only because the league’s All-Star “break” was one day with a full schedule of games starting the next night, but also because Decatur could use the tail-end of its staff whereas the five pitchers on the All-Star staff included the aces of the teams chasing them.
10 Given the shoestring budgets of these teams, it is not surprising that five of the six managers, with the lone exception of Tom Sunkel, were player-managers.
11 Appleby Gets Toledo U Post,” Decatur Daily Review, July 23, 1953: 12; “Robert William Appleby: July 20, 1922-July 11, 2006,” NormanTranscript.com, accessed February 7, 2023, https://obituaries.normantranscript.com/obituary/robert-appleby-744914352.
Decatur Commodores 5
Mississippi-Ohio Valley All-Stars 2
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