CEDAR RAPIDS - When a boys' swimming team graduates 85 percent of its points from a state runner-up squad, one might expect a significant drop-off.
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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 first in a four-part series.
By Bill Johnson, community contributor
“I’m looking for a place to play, and I heard that all through the Midwest, towns have teams, and in some places they’ll find you a day job so you can play ball nights and weekends.”
— Archie Graham, in the movie “Field of Dreams”
Archie Graham’s utopia never existed in total, but there actually was a league in Cedar Rapids, one that played every summer from 1924 to 1962 and in which baseball skill was occasionally the most important part of a job description.
The Manufactures and Jobbers (M&J) League started in 1924 with teams sponsored by some of the most prominent firms in town. The rosters were filled with full-time workers who doubled as after-hours baseball players.
Until the league’s final out in 1962, it played a full schedule every summer at Daniels Park, not even stopping for World War II.
The league has been gone for 50 years, and the last living players are in their 70s and beyond. Few league records were kept, and fewer still retained, so the collective memory of the M&J is fading. That is unfortunate because the M&J narrative is inextricably intertwined with the story of Cedar Rapids.
The talent in the M&J — especially for an industrial, semipro level in a small Iowa city with a short playing season — was tremendous, occasionally dizzying. Dozens of league alumni and supporters played professional baseball.
Former Tigers and Indians star pitcher Earl Whitehill played a few games in the predecessor “Twilight League” and M&J alum Orie Arntzen pitched in 32 games with the 1943 Philadelphia Athletics. Hal Trosky Jr. won a game in two appearances for the White Sox in 1958, Bill Zuber played during the 1932 season before heading off to a long American League career, and Dick Rozek pitched in more than 30 games over a five-year period in the American League.
Art Pennington suited up for Collins Radio after a long professional career in the Negro American League. Others logged significant time in the minors, including Ray Petrezlka and Norway’s contingent of Ray Waychoff, Art Holland and Joe Pickart.
Others never earned a living at professional baseball but were talented enough to garner big league attention.
R.J. Stephan spent spring training in 1955 as a pitching prospect with the Brooklyn Dodgers in Vero Beach, Fla. The Dodgers’ organization had an open spot for a left-hander that year — the year in which it won its first World Series — and Stephan, just out of a stint in the U.S. Air Force (he even pitched in the first game televised by the BBC), had built a terrific local pitching reputation.
By the end of camp, Stephan was beaten out for a roster spot by a 19-year-old prospect from New York named Sandy Koufax. He returned to Cedar Rapids and his uncle Leo’s company, Iowa Midland Supply, and to the mound at Daniels Park.
Bill Quinby, who joined the league as a teenager and later umpired for several years, left the M&J and went on to become an NFL official.
The M&J story is filled with stories of families and the companies that were the engines of Cedar Rapids’ growth.
The league has been gone for half a century, but the legacy remains part of Eastern Iowa’s lore.