By George Castle, CBM Historian
The true measure of Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe is not how many doubleheaders he highlighted by catching the first game, then pitching the nightcap; his arm that made both baserunners and batters cry uncle; his clutch bat, or a larger-than-life personality that was ribald and all-welcoming.
Chicago’s No. 1 Negro League superstar and ambassador for the bygone world of black baseball might be best summed up by his own passing of the torch to a teenager worthy of his blessing. The young man, soon known as the “Say Hey Kid,” went where Double Duty, or just “Duty” to his friends and family, did not have the good fortune and timing to go. Just listen to the account of Debra Richards, Duty’s great niece and one of the keepers of his flame.
“It was the 2002 Congressional tribute to the Negro Leagues,” said Richards. “Blair Underwood and a lot of people are there. I spotted Willie Mays. He kept sitting there staring at Duty. I asked, ‘Why is he staring at Duty?’
“Willie got up to speak and looked at all the players. He mentioned Duty. He said he never played on a team with Duty, but recalled a time in the Negro Leagues when he was afraid and ready to go home. This was when Willie played for the Birmingham Black Barons, around 1948. Duty was catching for the opposition, and this was the only time the two men were in the same game.
“First time up to bat, Duty told him you hang in there, young man, you’re going to be a good ballplayer. In Mays’ next at bat, Duty was pitching and threw at Willie’s head.” (Richards let out knowing laugh as she said this). “He knocked him off the plate to tell him to get back. That’s how Willie grew up. That was Duty educating him.”
There were scarcely any more colorful, capable and competitive personalities who have walked on a diamond in Chicago than Duty, who will be referred to by that name in this special tribute by the Chicago Baseball Museum. Certainly no one was as long-lasting.
Despite the harrowing experience of playing border to border in this country in the worst of the Jim Crow Era and suffering myriad injuries that permanently gnarled his fingers, Duty was the Methuselah of athletes. His good soul was blessed with 103 years of a life that spanned one full century and spilled over into the next.
Double Duty Radcliffe loved life and the game of baseball, and no doubt adhered to childhood buddy and sometime-batterymate Satchel Paige’s admonition to “never look back because someone gaining on you.”
Whether catching, pitching, playing on rare integrated teams in the 1930s, managing the Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues a decade later or serving as a raconteur about the game on the cusp of the new millennium, Duty always looked forward. And he never lost sight of the cardinal rule of his craft, the pre-Al Davis command, “Just Win, Baby!”
Nephew Abraham Bunkley, who was seven years old when he first saw Duty play East-West All-Star Game at old Comiskey Park, made the comparison of Duty the ultimate winner to Michael Jordan, the all-time example of that quality in Chicago history. There is no retreating from this position.
Kin compares ‘Duty’ to ‘His Airness’
“If you want to make a comparison of him and Michael Jordan, that would be a good comparison,” Bunkley said. “Dominate. Shut you out.
“He was a winner. He did whatever he had to do to win. He was serious about the game. He was dedicated, serious. If you weren’t like that, you couldn’t play with him.”
Duty summed up his attitude perfectly to biographer-turned-friend Kyle McNary, author of Ted ‘Double Duty’ Radcliffe: 36 Years of Pitching and Catching in Baseball’s Negro Leagues.
“You got to have guts to play ball,” he said.
Bunkley furthers the Jordan comparison by extending Duty’s will to win beyond the playing field.
“He liked to tease and joke with you,” he said. “But he was serious about winning even playing (bridge). He had no problem with his confidence. You couldn’t budge him. He knew what he could do and what he couldn’t do.”
In a 36-year playing and managing career, there wasn’t much Duty couldn’t do, and he performed for a comparative song. His top pay was $850 a month. He was almost singular in the talents that earned him his distinctive nickname from early 20th century wordsmith Damon Runyon. He was an all-Negro Leagues catcher and pitcher, sometimes in the same day. Throughout the history of the game at all levels, very few could regularly play the two most demanding positions, 60 feet 6 inches apart.
Rare catcher and pitcher
“The only other pitcher-catcher was George Britt on the Homestead Grays,” said McNary. “He did it and wasn’t great at either. Duty was an All-Star as both. When he was available and in the (Negro) leagues, he was an All-Star in the East-West game — first in 1937 as a catcher, the next three he was a pitcher and the last two he was a catcher.”
Indeed, Duty burst with pride about his skills behind the plate, at the plate and on the mound. He told McNary, “Satchel Paige was the greatest pitcher in baseball history and Josh Gibson was the greatest hitter in baseball history, and I’m the only man in baseball history to hit a homer off Satchel and strike out Josh!”
Duty had an iron constitution, physically and mentally.
“He was an athlete in superb shape,” said Negro League historian Larry Lester. “He was a stout man, muscular.”
After growing up in the Twin Cities, McNary likened Duty to a local Hall of Famer.
“Duty in his prime was built like Kirby Puckett, short and thick,” he said. “You could also say his (build) was like Tom Seaver’s (known for powerful legs as a pitcher).
Duty and Paige were the leading wave from that fertile incubator of baseball talent in the Mobile, Alabama area. Later surges were led by the likes of Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey and Billy Williams. More talent came forth at below the Hall of Fame level like 1969 Mets heroes Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones, and well-traveled pitcher Mudcat Grant. Radcliffe shared the same positive fate as Williams: a career marked by both production and unparalleled endurance, and transplantation to a near-lifelong home in Chicago.
Duty started his century-plus journey on July 7, 1902 in Mobile, one of 10 children and the son of a shipyard contractor. He had a white grandfather married to a woman who was half-black, half Native American. Both lived well into their 90s, a gene pool Duty claimed helped with his own long life.
Duty was named for the sitting president — Theodore Roosevelt Radcliffe. Eventually, Duty dropped all references to his middle name because he did not want to share it with a president.
Paige also was born on July 7, exactly two years earlier than Duty. The future pitcher lived five blocks away. Along with eventual Negro Leaguer Bobby Robinson, the trio began playing sandlot games with a rag ball when they were around 8 or 9.
Rag ball lit up at night
“We used to make a rag ball, tie it up with tape and soak it with kerosene – then light it and play night ball with it,” Duty told McNary.
Duty began pitching at 12 and recalled catching Paige at 15. In the roundabout competition in the Mobile area, the battery might split $15 for their labors. But the catcher didn’t stick around the port city much longer.
He and brother Alex, a superb third baseman, soon got caught up in the great black migration to the North. Their oldest brother encouraged them to join him in Chicago. Collecting $18 playing craps, the Radcliffes “hoboed” their way to Chicago in 1919, a hazardous year for people of color, due to the city’s worst-ever race rioting that summer.
Duty stayed away from that kind of trouble and got close to baseball, watching Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants games from his aunt’s third-floor window next to Comiskey Park. Soon the majority of the family joined them on the South Side, settling in at 3511 S. Wentworth. Sometimes when he’d work his way into the ballpark, Duty shagged fly balls, and his strong arm was noted. He pitched some batting practice to the Giants, receiving a bottle of Coca-Cola as his pay.
Soon after arriving in Chicago, the teenage Duty pitched in an industrial league. When his sandlot team at 33rd and Wentworth played a practice game against the semi-pro, all-black Illinois Giants, Duty pitched and mowed down his opponents, earning an invitation to join the Giants in 1920.
He settled in for a six-year stay, making $250 a month barnstorming through the Midwest and Rocky Mountain region. Duty received 50 cents a day for meal money. He told McNary the Giants played in a fairground in Minneapolis in 1921 while Quarter Horses ran around their field.
As an Illinois Giant, Duty learned how to cut the ball with sandpaper to make it move more — the “dry” spitter.
“I was the best Emery ball pitcher who ever lived,” he told an interviewer later in life.
Duty made his Negro League debut for a month for the Detroit Stars in 1926. The same season, he was recruited to catch Paige with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts. He finally settled in for his first long run in the Negro Leagues with the St. Louis Stars in 1930. By now, his pitching prowess was discovered, which complemented his superb catching resume. In a four-season run through 1932, Duty compiled a record of 56-17 on the mound.
His lasting image began to take shape in ‘32. Ted Radcliffe got his nickname at Yankee Stadium. After catching Paige at the Stadium in the first game of a doubleheader, winning 5-0, he did not plan on pitching the nightcap after working the opener on only two days rest. But his owner offered him $100 to pitch the second game. He won, 4-0. Runyon, writing about Duty in the New York American, branded him Double Duty Radcliffe, the name sticking for the remaining 73 years of his life.
Runyon ‘greatest sportswriter:’ Duty
“He was the greatest sportswriter who ever lived…He said I was the most colorful player in baseball history,” Duty told McNary.
Unlike Babe Ruth, Duty did not give up one specialty to concentrate on the other. Always with an eye for a good paycheck that often exceeded other star Negro Leaguers, pitching and catching each was an insurance policy.
“I think he enjoyed doing both,” said Lester.
“If he had been in the majors, he would have been (a quality) catcher in my opinion,” McNary said. “He was a stronger catcher than pitcher, but still was a great pitcher. When he pitched in the East-West games, he was one of the better pitchers.
“He wasn’t a [Johnny] Bench-type catcher,” McNary added while diverging from Abraham Bunkley’s analysis. “He was more of a Gary Carter-type. He wasn’t going to hit .350 with 40 homers [had he made the majors]. He would be a great defensive catcher who could throw guys out, bat .280 with 18 to 20 homers and 90 RBIs. He’d be worth $15 million now. He’d be an All-Star catcher.”
Historian Lester actually has a slot for Duty among the all-time Negro League catchers.
“He was fourth best catcher behind [Josh] Gibson, Biz Mackey and Louis Santop,” he said. “They’re all in the Hall of Fame. What may have hurt [Duty’s reputation] is he was a pitcher, too. It was hard to figure out which category to put him in, because he was probably a better catcher than pitcher. He had a rifle arm and, as a younger player, the manager probably thought, ‘some days we can put him on the mound.’”
Richards contributed a story about the supreme confidence Duty had in his throwing arm and what happened to anyone who dared challenge it.
Urged Satchel to walk player so he could throw him out
“He heard of a white player who bragged he could run,” Richards said. “Duty told Paige to walk this guy. Paige wanted to strike him out.”
So Paige gave in and walked the braggart. Duty dutifully gunned him down. The entire scenario was repeated the next at-bat with the same results.
That same arm, of course, was a very effective weapon against batters. In his prime, Duty mixed high-90 mph fastballs with curves and the Emery pitches. McNary has two apt modern-day comparisons for Duty’s pitching prowess.
“As a pitcher when he was younger, he was like John Smoltz,” he said. “When he was older, he was like Gaylord Perry
“From 1920 to 1935 he was known as a real hard thrower. When got older, he cheated, he cut the ball. When I interviewed guys who faced him only in the 1940s, they say he cheated. Guys who batted against him in the 1930s said, Oh, God, he could throw hard and had a great curveball.”
Duty journeyed to the northern Great Plains from 1934 to 1936, his reputation solid enough to earn good wages on integrated semi-pro teams in Jamestown and Bismarck, N.D. See related story here. From 1937 to 1941, he played in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Memphis. Finally, in 1942, he had a chance to come home as player-manager of the American Giants, adding yet another duty to his daily rounds.
“Was I a strict manager?” Duty told McNary. “Hell, I managed 22 years — you know I must’ve done something right…When I said something I meant it.”
Sam Hairston got break thanks to Duty
Dovetailing with Duty meant midwifing another legendary career. Sam Hairston, patriarch of the five-member, three-generation family of Hairston big leaguers, first became a catcher when Duty was sidelined by one of his numerous broken fingers on the Birmingham Black Barons in 1944.
Strapped for a catcher, manager Winfield Welch asked for volunteers. Third baseman Hairston raised his hand, and from that point on, he was a catcher. The change in positions led to Hairston’s 47-year career as a beloved White Sox player, scout and coach.
In 1945, Duty moved on to the Kansas City Monarchs, where shortstop Jackie Robinson was a teammate. He was an eyewitness to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ final scouting of Robinson. The breaking of the color line two years later signaled the beginning of the end of the summer lifestyle of Duty and scores of Negro Leaguers.
“Jackie was a good hitter and he was fast, but Jackie couldn’t field like some of the shortstops we had and his arm wasn’t very good,” Duty told McNary. “We were all glad for him, but it killed our league. It broke up the league ‘cause nobody was going to see us play when Jackie was on TV and the radio. But it helped in the long run.”
By now, Duty was too old to be considered to follow Robinson into big-league organizations. He must have been conflicted, though, watching Robinson — not an elite Negro Leaguer — get the big break. A year later, all he could do was watch as old chum Paige, 48 and with his best fastball a memory, helped pitch the Cleveland Indians to the World Series title over the Boston Braves.
Double duty as secretary of Globetrotters
Duty also became close to Abe Saperstein, who had booked black talent and operated traveling baseball teams — several integrated — in addition to his trademark Harlem Globetrotters. Saperstein recruited Duty to manage for him, goosed by a $5,000 bonus. In a new “double-duty” helped by his Chicago residency, the outgoing and funny player also served as secretary of the ‘Trotters.
“He was the best friend we ever had,” Duty said of the color-line-busting Saperstein.
The baseball road finally finished for Duty in 1952 as a 50-year-old player-manager of the Winnipeg Elwood Giants. In his final at-bat, he inserted himself as a pinch-hitter, doubling to left- center.
His remembrance to McNary: “I couldn’t hardly make it to second base — my legs hurt so. Pitching and catching for 36 years takes a toll on your legs. I could have played longer, but you go to the water trough too many times and it runs dry. So I had enough.”
Though all the travels, all the cities, all the dodging of the worst of Jim Crow, Duty finished with an estimated 430 homers and .303 lifetime average. He batted against big-league pitchers ranging from Willis Hudlin to Sal Maglie. But the numbers weren’t the defining measure of Chicago’s own Negro League superstar.
The cliché may be embedded: It’s not if you win or lose, but how you play the game. Duty did it expertly behind the plate and on the mound, and was one of the Negro League’s best spokesman. Can’t ask for a more complete package than that.