I used to meet friends and colleagues, mostly from out of town at Bill Meyer Stadium to watch a baseball game. We'd have a great time. "I bet you had a lot of fun here when you were a kid," they said.
But I just didn't remember it. I knew pro baseball was shut down here for several years of my youth. When I was researching the history of Knoxville pro baseball a few years ago, I was surprised to learn the old Smokies were still playing there as late as 1967.
That year I was an outfielder for a team called the Dodgers. We played in an organization of boys who weren't good enough for Little League, on a riverside diamond we called the Polo Field. Our pitcher, in fact the pitcher for every team, was an eerie headless robot run by visible gears and bicycle chains. It jerked as it catapulted baseballs toward home plate. The high point of my career with the Dodgers was the time when I got a good solid hit off the robot. I remember being surprised by the sound of the breeze as I rounded first, toward second, still wearing a plastic batter's helmet. After playing for two years, the whistle of air flowing through a batter's helmet was a sound I'd never heard before. I was left on second base, but having gotten that far was a signal moment. That day I was Roger Maris.
I don't remember anyone ever talking about Knoxville pro baseball. And I never knew why we didn't until historian Steve Cotham passed me a photocopy of a 34-year-old magazine article from Harper's. It's called "Down and Out In the Minor Leagues." I read it, and found out what I was missing. It's a pitiless profile of a baseball program in its death throes. It's painful reading.
At 34, writer J. Anthony Lukas had just returned to America after five years in Africa and India as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. For reasons of his own, he came to Knoxville and began hanging out at Bill Meyer Stadium. In the article he spelled the name of it, more than a little condescendingly, as Billa Maahr. "On nights like this, with the grass bathed in golden glow from the tall steel light stanchions, Billa Maahr was a nice little ball park.... It was a good-sized field—330 feet down the foul lines and 430 feet to straightaway center where the wooden fence was covered with bright-colored signs reading, 'Rebel Yell, Bottled Exclusively In the Deep South,' 'Bankin' On the Smokies—Hamilton National Bank....'"
Few fans showed up to root for the Smokies in 1967. On special promotion nights, like Pony Night, maybe 1,000 would come out; otherwise, as few as 59 fans would show up. (By contrast, two years ago the Smokies were averaging about 2,000 fans per game in the same stadium. Despite the management's complaints about the site, pro baseball was a lot more popular at Bill Meyer Stadium in the 1990s than it was in the 1960s.)
Lukas blamed Knoxville's lack of interest in baseball, in part, on TVA. The agency's recreational lakes were proving a distraction. "The sporting stores of Knoxville, which once used to sell chiefly bats and gloves, are now filled with outboard motors and water skis," wrote Lukas. "Many a man who used to go out to see the Smokies at night can be found these summer evenings lolling by a beer cooler in the back of his boat on Norris Lake trolling for walleyes and bluegills." (A New Yorker story six years earlier had blamed the decline of downtown Knoxville on TVA lakes.)
Lukas also mentioned other Knoxville diversions like "bowling, at several new neon-and-chrome bowling palaces."
Lukas also blamed TV, quoting sportswriter Tom Siler: "When you can watch Carl Yastrzemski on TV who wants to watch Arleigh Burge?" Burge, new at right field, was the best player on the team, with a batting average of .300.
At Bill Meyer and at the American Legion hall—one of the few places in town that could get away with serving liquor by the drink in 1967—Lukas got to know this cast of misfits:
The tobacco-chewing manager, Lou Fitzgerald, a country boy who denied his black players' charges that he was harder on them than the whites. The owner, Joe Buzas, who'd briefly been catcher for the Yankees back in '45. And several of the players. Like Wayne Meadows, shortstop; "the players call him 'Toro,' because he waves at so many balls as they go past him into left field." Steve "Fly" Mingori, relief pitcher, who got his nickname when he was swarmed by insects on a road trip in Florida. John "Cyclops" Noriega, six-four pitcher from Utah; they said he'd have been the Smokies best pitcher if only he'd had two useful eyes.
Bernie Carbo was the once-promising third baseman, who a local sportswriter described as "just hopeless around the sack...hasn't got the reflexes of a third baseman."
Lukas happened to be on hand when Fitzgerald fired Ed "Mondo" Moxey, the black left fielder, after the two got in a fight about a $25 fine for loafing. Moxey told Fitzgerald, "You can take your uniform and stuff it up..." and that was it.
The team ladies' man was Dan McGinn, once a star Notre Dame punter, now pitching for the Smokies. He'd spot girls he liked in the stands and finagle ways to meet them. "Hey, Fitz," he said. "Let me coach third base...I got a little beaver work to do."
Lukas patiently explains that "beaver [is] the team's euphemism for buxom Southern belles.... Beaver work entailed swiveling in the coaching box and fixing the target beaver with a long, soulful look. Having established eye contact, the coach would usually send a bat boy up to ask the beaver for a date. She rarely refused."
Scoring on the board was another matter. Fitzgerald told Carbo that he had never had a worse team than the Smokies.
"We may not be able to hit," admitted McGinn, "but we can't field, either."
Lukas rode along with the boys for a disheartening trip in a decrepit bus with a noisy air conditioner they called the Iron Lung. The Smokies lost games across Georgia and Alabama, visiting some stadiums where, even in 1967, the Smokies' three black players weren't welcome.
The insult was complete when they arrived home and found Bill Meyer's parking lot jammed with cars. Inside, 3,000 fans were watching a wrestling match in the infield. "Corsica Joe picked up a huge bell and gave a good imitation of crushing Bull Montana's head," wrote Lukas. "'Kill the sonofabitch,' shouted a young woman with a baby in her arms."
Fitzgerald leveled with Lukas: "There isn't more than two or three boys on this team who got a chance at the majors."
The Smokies finished the season 36 games down, on the very bottom of the AA Southern League. They didn't know it, but that season would turn out to be the last pro baseball season in the Knoxville area for years.
Fitzgerald sold his boys a little short. Several of the bottom-feeding 1967 Smokies went on to have significant careers in the majors. "Hopeless" Bernie Carbo became a star at Cincinnati. In 1970, he was batting .310; he later played for the Red Sox, and was still guarding third base in the majors as late as 1980.
The Smokies' pitchers fared best. "Fly" Mingori played in the American League for a decade, pitching for the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Royals with a solid overall ERA of 3.03. Dan McGinn found plenty of opportunities for beaver in his six-year big-league career, pitching for the Reds, the Expos, and the Cubs. "Tish" Tischinski pitched for the Twins for three years.
Even "Cyclops" Noriega pitched a couple of seasons for the Reds.
The epilogue of the intense young writer who once lurked in the dugouts of Bill Meyer Stadium is more dramatic. The year that his article about the Smokies came out in Harper's, Lukas won his first Pulitzer Prize for a story about the murder of a Greenwich Village teenager who was linked to the new hippie movement. Drawn toward stories of political tension, Lukas covered the Chicago 7 trial and wrote books like Don't Shoot—We Are Your Children about the counterculture, and Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years, which some consider the definitive account of Watergate.
Lukas wrote several more books, including the much-praised Common Ground, about Boston's incendiary busing crisis. It won the Pulitzer in 1986, and suddenly critics were comparing Lukas to James Agee. It became a PBS miniseries in the '90s.
Almost four years ago, in New York, Lukas strangled himself with a cord. They say the double-Pulitzer winner was unsatisfied with his recent work.