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 second in a four-part series.
By Bill Johnson, community
While baseball likely spread throughout Iowa after the Civil War and emerged in Eastern Iowa in the late 1860s, professional baseball began in Cedar Rapids in 1890 with the entry of the Cedar Rapids “Canaries” in the Iowa-Illinois League.
From that time forward, with a few breaks, the game became the predominant sport in the town and in the region. While Belden Hill nurtured the sport throughout Eastern Iowa and into Illinois, the increasing national popularity of the game spurred interest in local baseball teams and leagues to support the burgeoning community’s need for recreational outlets.
Amateur baseball was organized in town even before 1890, with teams like the Rough and Readys, B.C.R. & N. Railroad, Farmer’s Insurance and T.M. Sinclair. A 1915 article in the Cedar Rapids Republican headlines the “Sixteenth Ave. Industrial Club voted to challenge the South Side Business Men’s Club to a five game baseball series.”
It was amateur baseball, certainly, but in a private club setting. It was played more for the members’ entertainment, but not truly available to the general population. Then there was the Twilight League, whose membership included Denecke’s (an early department store in town) and featured future star pitcher and favorite son Earl Whitehill. Those teams played local, town teams from Norway, Atkins and outlying communities, all of which further underlined the value and importance of baseball in the area.
Following the end of World War I, through the mid-1920s, a national trend developed among larger businesses to offer their employees opportunities for recreation as one more tool in keeping unions from creeping into the workplace. In 1924, in Cedar Rapids, this trend manifested itself in the form of the Manufacturers and Jobbers League, a group of teams that played a published schedule at a common site. The M&J rules required a certain quota on each team’s roster be filled by actual employees of the respective sponsor, but the teams were allowed to recruit outsiders on a limited basis.
Those original company teams included Wilson Foods, a firm that had begun as the T.M. Sinclair Packing Company in 1870 but later merged with Wilson and Company in 1913; heavy equipment producer LaPlant-Choate Manufacturing, which later became Allis-Chalmers; and Quaker Oats. Over the years, the size of the league varied between four and 10 teams.
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There is no complete set of records regarding the M&J, but the roster of companies, those that sponsored at least one team in the league, are synonymous with the economic survival of Cedar Rapids during and after the Great Depression:
l Cedar Rapids Engineering
l Civilian Conservation Corps
l Ed’s Yankee Cutrate
l Fruehaf Trailers
l Hall’s Clothes
l Iowa Electric Power and Light
l Iowa Manufacturing
l Iowa Steel
l John Beck’s (sporting goods)
l Kilborn Photo
l Link-Belt Speeder
l Niles (Anamosa, during WW II)
l Me Too Foods
l Iowa Midland Supply
l Midwest Janitors
l Penick and Ford
l Peoples’ Bank
l Quaker Oats
l Rock Island Shops
l Sanitary Dairy
l Swab Motors
l Universal Crusher
l Wilson Foods
l The VFW
There may have been others, as well. During the Depression era, teams might last only a season before dropping out of the league. As an example, the burgeoning local firm “Penick and Ford” opted not to play in 1936, likely for financial reasons, and was replaced by a team from the federally-sponsored Civilian Conservation Corps for that year. In 1938 only five teams played, but that number returned to six the following season.
There were some terrific players in the M&J in those first two decades.
Robert “Pinky” Fuller, for example, moved to Cedar Rapids in 1932 after a stint in the Army and by the next year was starring on the Wilson Packing squad. The St. Louis Cardinals took note of his ability and signed him to their Class D Sioux Falls (Nebraska State League) team for the 1935 season. Fuller returned to Cedar Rapids following a severe shoulder injury that kept him from climbing the professional baseball ladder, but he switched to pitcher and returned to the M&J almost immediately. He managed in the 1950.