He is sitting at a table in a tiny mall in Elkhart, Indiana. Fingers broken numerous times, they hurt to even look at. He doesn't have the fame and lore of other greats from the 50's and 60's. He doesn't have the pension either.
He sits at his table waiting to tell his story to whoever wants to listen. A story that most would ignore, but any true baseball fan would pay to hear.
I was blessed as a young boy to meet and converse with many baseball stars. I had already met Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins, all stars from his era. I was just making the turn as a teenager, but even then, I knew this man had a great baseball story to tell.
Ira McKnight is his name. My guess is that most of you have never heard of him. He isn't a Negro League super hero like Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige. Even though he played after 1945, the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, he never played for a Major League team. Ira was a member of the Kansas City Monarchs from '56-'60.
As he began to tell his story, you could see the passion in his eyes. There was nothing that this man loved more than baseball. Since he could no longer play, telling his story was the next best thing.
He started off by asking who my favorite professional team was. After I answered, "The Chicago Cubs", he told me two separate stories. Not about great Chicago Cub players, but their siblings instead. He said, while he did know Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, it was their brothers that he knew best. Eddie Banks and Frank Williams, both Negro League players, that didn’t reach the popularity of their siblings.
Eddie was a member of the Newark Eagles from '58 to '60 and Frank was a member of Kansas City Monarchs from '57-'60. He told stories about Frank being a great hitter, but was older than his brother Billy, so he never got a chance to play in the Majors. Eddie on the other hand, was not the best talent, but he played hard and loved the game the same way as his brother Ernie did.
McKnight went on to tell stories of long bus rides before night games. It was normal for them to drive all day, 500-600 miles to get to their game. He didn't complain though, he continued to smile as he told the story. The smile didn't even budge when he announced that he only made $3 a day meal money and $250 a month. The $3 was once matched when he caught three full games in one day. He was happy with it, because he got to travel and play baseball. That was what was important then.
Ira was a catcher, and from what information I have found online, a pretty good one. He also had the benefit of catching Satchel Paige. His stories about Satchel are some of the stories that made Paige a legend. Yes, Paige was known for his pitching ability, but he was also known for his longevity. See, he was 42 when he signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948. This was before Ira played his first season in the Negro Leagues, 1952, as a 15 year old boy.
To put his longevity into perspective, Paige was playing in St. Louis for the Browns from '51-'53 (age 45 to 47). McKnight then took '53-'55 (Paige was age 47-49) off to finish high school before returning to the Negro Leagues in '56.
The story about Satchel Paige happened in 1961 (at age 55) while the pair was playing for a touring team. Satchel started and pitched the first three innings of a game that McKnight was catching. Two other pitchers contributed three innings a piece to combine on a no-hitter.
He told many more stories. Stories about players you and I have never heard of. The story that hit me hardest wasn't a story about a legendary teammate or an opponent. It was the story about how he lost his chance to play in Major League Baseball.
He was catching in the New York Yankee's farm system. He was already facing adversity, at the time Yogi Bera and Elston Howard were manning the pitching staff for the big league club.
During a game, he was hit in the hand by a bat. The injury led to his release by the Yankee's. He admitted that the release may have happened anyway, it seemed odd to him that he was released after hitting somewhere near .315, an average that a good portion of modern day catchers would love to hit, even in the minors.
So, as I looked at his hands that he proudly showed off. I thought to myself, "How can this man continue to smile when his dream was stolen from him?"
I didn't have to ask, he answered it as if he read my mind.
"I smile everyday. I look at my hands and smile. I got to play baseball. I got to play with and against great baseball players. I wouldn't trade it for anything. Not even for perfect hands."