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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 on 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 third in a four-part series.
By Bill Johnson, community contributor
Of all the teams in the M&J League, one generally is regarded as Goliath.
Iowa Manufacturing was the face of the league for most of its time in the organization, due in part to the talent on the field, but also to the support from the firm’s owner, Howard Hall.
Hall and a business partner purchased control of a foundry in 1919 and renamed the enterprise Iowa Steel and Iron Works. Aware that, as of the early 1920s, less than 300 miles of all the roads in Iowa were paved, Hall shifted his company’s focus to building equipment that supported road construction and improvement and renamed the firm Iowa Manufacturing in 1923. The spread of the automobile led to a general demand for better roads and Hall’s firm became a leader in rock crushing and road paving.
In 1940, the company began sponsoring a team in the M&J. Cedar Rapids’ sole site protected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Brucemore estate, might as well be subtitled “the baseball estate.” It was home to both Thomas Sinclair (who’s firm sponsored baseball teams and the Twilight League, and which later became M&J powerhouse Wilson Packing) and Hall, the driving force behind Iowa Manufacturing and the M&J League after World War II.
Brucemore is just one more example of the connection of the league, and of baseball, to the community’s historical narrative.
“Howard Hall just loved baseball,” said league veteran and star Harold “Pinky” Primrose.
Hall was the kind of businessman who genuinely cared about his employees and spared no expense in supporting Iowa Manufacturing on the diamond, even bringing in the a few players whose day jobs amounted to little more than showing up for work. As long as those workers played ball in the evenings, the labor/salary exchange worked well for both sides.
“Iowa Man” essentially dominated the league throughout the 1940s, but found stiffer competition in the 1950s with Kilborn Photo, Iowa Midland Supply, Hall Clothes and Midwest Janitors all competing for the championship in various seasons.
Between 1943 and 1948, there was no professional baseball in Cedar Rapids. The war effort had taken a number of young men from higher leagues and there simply wasn’t the talent to keep some of the smaller, minor leagues alive.
There still was, however, competitive baseball in Cedar Rapids. Former Gazette editor Tait Cummins and sportscaster Bob Brooks presided over the league during that period. By reporting on M&J games, and offering readers and listeners the same sorts of box scores previously reserved for the professionals, they gave the M&J games credibility they’d never before enjoyed.
For the local baseball fan, the games offered a legitimate baseball “fix,” a chance to watch a high caliber of baseball in an era before television.