Editor’s note: Bill Johnson is a Cedar Rapids historian who began researching the M&J League in 2009. After 30 years working for the U.S. Navy, he spends his time researching and writing for the Norway (Iowa) Baseball Museum. He is working on a larger narrative about Cedar Rapids baseball history, a story in which the M&J plays a large role, and also on a full-length biography of Hal Trosky. This is the last in a four-part series.
By Bill Johnson, community contributor
By 1961 the age of the industrial baseball league, and semipro baseball in general, was waning.
Though league president Jack Ogden used every tool in his box to keep the M&J League afloat, the writing was — literally — on the wall.
“M&J League In Danger After 37 Years of Play” announced a Gazette story on April 6, 1961, and the league barely held on for two more seasons. Despite an impressive pool of talent, including sluggers like Dick Stanford, Art Pennington and Horace Garner, the need for the company baseball teams evaporated.
At the end of the 1962 campaign, won by Midwest Janitors, and after 38 uninterrupted seasons, the Manufacturers-and-Jobbers League closed up shop for the last time.
The league held a reunion in 1978. There were several other reunions over the next few years but, as players died, the collective memory of the league faded. Former Wilson High School and M&J star Bob Lana recorded about one of the reunions
“The championships came more often, the ERAs got lower and the batting averages higher,” wrote Bob Lana, a former Wilson High School and M&J star. “ ... Everyone got a laugh out of finding their names (and) how could one forget the likes of the late Tait Cummins and Jack Ogden, perched in the scorer’s booth in the old wooden grandstands night after night; Obie Peal and Carl Kane passing the cigar box for donations, the John Beck Sporting Goods scoreboard down the left-field line where future M&Jers used to hang up the totals; the usual ‘every night’ umpires like Joe Bailey, Howdy Michael, Roy Howard, Art Holland and Bob Vrbicek. ...”
As time has passed, however, many of those players no longer are around to keep the league alive in the collective memory of Cedar Rapids. Today, the youngest living M&J players are, at best, 70 years old, and most much older.
The M&J League was, arguably, one of the stronger semipro baseball leagues in America during its heyday in the first half of the 20th Century, and the catalog of former players includes major and minor league standouts.
From the father-son pitching legacy of Guy and Wayne Bruce, who actually faced each other in league play, to the list of former professionals — like the soft-spoken seed thrower Darrell “Rocky” Rothrock, as well as those named Charipar, Green, Happel, Mueller, Simanovsky, Schoof and De Woody — along with the larger-than-life Bill Rucker, and to the local stars who labored during the day and stepped onto the diamond in the twilight, the Manufacturers and Jobbers League comprises a collection of names and families who not only built Cedar Rapids into the city that it is today, but who were the community leaders who have made it one of the great communities in the nation.
Baseball was Cedar Rapids’ pastime — and the city played it well.