The weather is perfect on this spring evening at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. Before heading to an Arkansas Travelers game, I look at plaques outside the ballpark honoring the four men who gave the facility its name.
Bill and George “Skeeter” (sometimes “Skeets”) Dickey worked with Witt and Jack Stephens at the Stephens Inc. investment firm after the Dickey brothers’ professional baseball careers ended. The name of the stadium, where I spend so much time these spring evenings, is a mixture of business and sports, which intersect so often in this small state.
Jack Stephens has had far more athletic involvement over the years than his older brother. Witt preferred to talk politics and did so enthusiastically at the luncheons he hosted Monday through Friday. Guest lists and topics varied. The only certain thing was that Stephens Inc.’s famous cornbread would be on the menu. Witt’s weekends were usually spent at the family farm in Prattsville in Grant County.
Jack, meanwhile, was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 for his many contributions to advancing sports culture in the state. He became only the fourth president of the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia in 1991 and served in that role until 1998. He had become a member in 1962 and joined the executive committee in 1975. In November 1999, Jack Stephens donated $5 million. at First Tee, a national youth golf organization.
Younger brother Stephens also donated $20.4 million to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to build the Stephens Center, the university’s on-campus basketball complex that is still among the best facilities. of this type in the country.
With all due respect to former Baltimore Orioles great Brooks Robinson, Bill Dickey might just be the best baseball player to come from Arkansas. Dickey was a member of the inaugural class of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1959. Other members of that inaugural class were Lonoke native New York Giants football player and coach Jim Lee Howell, La Hendrix College coaching legend, women’s basketball star Ivan Grove. Hazel Walker and University of Arkansas Football All-American Wear Schoonover.
Some baseball historians consider Bill Dickey the greatest catcher in baseball history. Sportswriter Dan Daniel once said, “Bill Dickey isn’t just a catcher. He’s a ball club.”
Dickey was not born in Arkansas, but he always considered himself an Arkansan. He was born near the Arkansas line in Bastrop, Louisiana. When he was 3, the Dickey family moved to Kensett in White County, a community that produced another notable Arkansan, Congressman Wilbur Mills, longtime chairman of the powerful U.S. House Ways and Means Committee. .
The Dickey family moved to Little Rock when Bill was 15. He played baseball for Little Rock College, a Catholic school, and also played for a semi-pro team in Hot Springs. A scout for the St. Louis Cardinals was sent to sign Dickey.
“The scout’s car had a flat tire,” writes Arkansas baseball historian Bob Razer. “The delay allowed Little Rock Travelers manager Lena Blackburne to sign Dickey before the scout arrived. This was a time when any team – not just major league teams – could sign contracts with Dickey split the 1926 season between the Class C Muskogee Athletics in the Western Association and the Travelers in the Class A Southern Association. Class D Cotton States League.
“Because the Little Rock club had a working agreement with the White Sox, most major league teams assumed that Dickey signed a contract that gave the White Sox the option to buy him. Such arrangements were common for much of baseball history. But Dickey hadn’t signed such a deal, and Chicago failed to press the advantage he might have had. A New Yankees scout York wasn’t so hesitant. After watching Dickey play, the scout urged his bosses to buy out Dickey’s contract, saying, ‘I’ll quit scouting if that boy doesn’t make it.'”
The scout needn’t have worried. Dickey was assigned by the Yankees to the Travelers for the 1928 season and moved to New York later that year. He became the Yankees’ regular catcher in 1929 and hit .324. His longevity from then on was incredible. Dickey played for the Yankees until 1946. He was an All-Star in 1933, ’34, ’36, ’37, ’38, ’40, ’41, ’42, ’43 and ’46.
Dickey hit over 20 homers with over 100 RBIs in four consecutive seasons from 1936 to 1939. Dickey’s lifetime batting average was .313. He only struck 16 times in 1936.
“While Dickey excelled in two of the skills sought in a catcher – durability and hitting – he was also known for his defense, his throwing arm and the art of knowing how to throw hitters out,” Razer writes. “In 1931, he became the first receiver in history to go an entire season without a past ball.”
Dickey’s best friend in the Yankees was Lou Gehrig. Dickey was the only Yankee teammate invited to Gehrig’s wedding and first teammate Gehrig spoke about the illness that would end his life. Dickey played himself in the movie “Pride of the Yankees,” which starred Gary Cooper.
Dickey’s brother “Skeeter” played for the Boston Red Sox in 1935-36 as a backup catcher. He was also a pinch receiver for the White Sox in 1941-42 and 1946-47. His best season was 1947, when he appeared in 83 games while hitting .223 with one home run, six doubles and 27 RBIs. He had a career average of .206 in six major league seasons.
Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.