Thursday, May 17, 2012

119. Mickey Rutner: Man On Spikes

When I first started this blog a little over two years ago, I started receiving many requests for players to be profiled on here and given The Infinite Baseball Card Set "treatment." Out of all the emails I began to notice that it was not one particular player that was asked for the most, but rather a whole ethnic group: Jewish ballplayers. I did cards and stories on here of Sandy Koufax and Moe Berg, but I began slowly researching different players of the Jewish faith, trying to find characters who would fit in with the kind of stories I like to write. Guys with interesting stories who may not be known to the casual fan of baseball history. Mickey Rutner was one of those guys, and in fact he appears on page 15 of the Premier Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball." Ron Kaplan, founder of the highly informative baseball book review site Kaplan's Baseball Bookshelf, told me that no feature on Jewish ballplayers was complete without including Mickey. As far as I was concerned, including Mickey was a pleasure because not only was he the inspiration for a fine baseball novel and made-for-TV movie, but I had actually met him back in 2002 and had a nice talk with him while taking in a minor league ballgame in Round Rock, Texas.

Mickey Rutner wasn’t a great ballplayer, but he was a darn good one. His entire major league career consisted of 12 games with Connie Mack’s 1947 Philadelphia Athletics but it was his long, bittersweet minor league experience that inspired author Eliot Asinof to make him the hero of his best selling 1955 novel “Man On Spikes”. The novel follows hero “Mike Kutner” as he winds his way through the minor league system battling prejudices and the exploitation of the players toiling in its farm system. In Asinof’s novel the prejudice faced by the main character was due to his wearing of glasses - the real “Mike Kutner”- Mickey Rutner, faced anti-Semitism.

Mickey grew up in Hempstead, New York and after starring on his high school baseball team went on to play the sport at St. John’s University. In 1939 while playing in a semi-pro league sponsored by major league clubs and made up of college players, Rutner was teammates with another Jew from New York named Eliot Asinof. The team was run by manager Bill Barrett and after a losing streak approached Asinof telling him “there’s too many Heebs on this club. You’re fired.” Rutner got to stay.

After graduation Mickey was signed by the Detroit Tigers. Given a $3,000 signing bonus which he was later cheated out of, he was sent to play in their minor league system. While playing for Winston-Salem in 1941 Rutner’s manager was none other than Jake Atz, famed Texas League manager now in the last year of his long and successful career. Atz, also a Jew, told Rutner that his name Mickey and degree from St. John’s must have fooled the Detroit management into signing him. If they knew he was Jewish he wouldn’t have been offered a contract. The Tigers already had one Jew on the team, Hank Greenberg.

Mickey moved up a rung to Wilmington in 1942 and batted .277 along with a spot on the league All-Star team. His career seemed to be headed in the right direction when he was drafted. Mickey spent 3 prime years serving in Europe with the 45th Division before rejoining Wilmington in the Spring of 1946. Now playing third base, Rutner exploded batting .310, 126 RBI’s and his 36 doubles lead the league. He made his second All-Star game appearance that year as well. Moving up to the Birmingham Barons in 1947 Mickey responded by hitting .327, earning his promotion to the major leagues.

Playing his first game in an Athletics uniform on September 11th, Mickey went 2 for 4 against the White Sox. In his first appearance at Yankee Stadium, Mickey had the thrill of getting a game-winning base hit off ace Yankee relief pitcher Joe Page. All told Mickey played in 12 games for Philadelphia and hit .250 including a double and home run. He was invited take spring training with the Athletics the next year but by the start of the season he was sent back to Birmingham. Veteran Hank Majeski was the regular third baseman and although Mickey was good, he wasn’t better than Majeski.

Rutner continued to post good numbers playing in the high minors- .312 for Birmingham in 1948, .287 for Tulsa in ‘49, .286 for Toronto in ‘50 - but the majors never called again. The parent team of every club he played for had a good player already manning third base. First it was Majeski in Philly then Vern Stephens in Boston, then Grady Hatton in Cincinnati and finally Willie “Puddin' Head” Jones on the Phillies. As he grew older he slipped back down the ladder into the depths of the minor league system. After 10 years in the minors he hung up his spikes for good after the 1953 season ended. His lifetime average was just shy of .300. It was two years later that Mickey Rutner’s futile plight in the minor leagues was made famous by his former teammate now novelist Eliot Asinof. The book was further popularized when it was made into a television movie later that year.

In his later years Mickey retired to Texas where he took up a job with the Roundrock Express baseball club as the team’s official luxury suites greeter. Shaking hands and telling baseball stories, the old Man On Spikes wound down his last years again working around the game he loved. While undergoing surgery for a torn rotator cuff, Mickey developed a fatal staph infection and passed away at the age of 88.

The Premier Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball" is finally released and can be purchased by clicking on the tab right below the arrow on the main header of this blog.

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