As with most things, the truth becomes legend, legend becomes myth, and the sport of baseball has its share.
But John Miorandi, rural Great Bend, remembers it like it was yesterday — when a husky young catcher looking to move up got his tryout call that led to his own piece of history.
It was late winter in 1967 when Miorandi, a Coffeyville, Kansas, high school athlete, said his call came from a scout in Baltimore.
The scout had seen him at the 1966 NBC state tournament in Wichita playing for Independence St. Andrews.
The scout represented the Indianapolis Clowns. Those that follow baseball may recall the Clowns as a professional baseball team in the Negro American League dating back to the 1930s. Their association with Indianapolis began in 1946, and they were the last team to disband; after the league disbanded in 1966, the Clowns played a traveling exhibition “barnstorming” schedule into the 1980s. Notable professional players included Hank Aaron, Hubert “Big Daddy” Wooten, John Wyatt, Paul Casanova, Hal King and Choo-Choo Coleman.
The color line was still deeply drawn on the baseball diamond in the late ’60s, even after the Los Angeles Dodgers called up Jackie Robinson in 1947.
Twenty years hence, the Clowns wanted to cross it in reverse, with Miorandi as the first of five eventual white athletes to play for them that year.
“He said he wanted to integrate the team,” Miorandi recalled. “I met the team in Indianapolis the first of June; they’d already played a couple of months.”
The tryout lasted 15 days, and then, Miorandi finished out the season with the team.
While the schedule took the Clowns through the South, the Midwest and both the East and West coasts, the baseball being played was competitive, Miorandi said. “These guys were all really good athletes and we played some really good local Class A, AA and AAA teams,” he said. Miorandi became the team’s regular catcher, starting in 54 consecutive games that were mostly doubleheaders.
On the road
While there are baseball stars on the mound and various positions “around the horn,” the “catcher is the quarterback of baseball,” Miorandi said. Even as his weight dropped from 207 to about 175 pounds during the stretch, he still managed to hit a solid .314 with seven home runs and “between 70-80” RBI.
There were times, though, when the tour took its toll.
“A pitcher gets to rest every four to five days because of the rotation,” Miorandi noted. “A catcher is out there throwing just as much as a pitcher, not as hard, but as much.
“I caught in the NBC tournament the year before,” he said. “But then you played a couple three games a week and got to go home, sleep in your own bed. We played every day, most doubleheaders. It takes its toll on your arm. I’d get cortisone shots and sleep on the left side of the bus so I could rest my right shoulder,” he said.
While the baseball was legitimately competitive, the Clowns were also known as entertainers. After six hard innings, they’d relax in the seventh, with “hidden baseball” tricks, “shadow baseball,” which is a perfectly-executed pantomime of infield play with an imaginary ball, and the like.
In addition to their notables, the Clowns were the first professional team to hire female athletes such as Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, who pitched to a record of 33-8 while batting .284 on the team.
But the team’s real draw — and the reason the crowd was gathered — was to see the ageless Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige on the mound.
From his official date of birth to the source of his nickname, Satchel Paige had amassed a considerable amount of stories and legends to add to his baseball stats by the time he toured as player-pitcher-manager-coach of the Clowns.
“He wouldn’t ride the bus or stay with the team; he’d fly in or come early and stay with friends,” Miorandi said. “He had lots of friends, everywhere.”
A typical game would play serious for the first six innings, then Paige would come on in the seventh and pitch to a couple of batters and make his exit. After the game, though, there would be a crowd of people gathered around Satch as he and his notable buddies, like James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, Wooten and the locals. “We just doted on Satch,” Miorandi said.
Miorandi was the youngest player on the team; Paige was by far the oldest, then well into his 60s. Paige would work with the pitchers and catchers during batting practice and he also shared his wisdom with Miorandi, who as a youngster, was still honing his skills to MLB standards. “He taught me that the most important thing for a catcher was to get rid of the ball as fast as possible,” Miorandi said.
After Miorandi had hit one of his seven home runs, Satch hunted down the kid who shagged the ball and paid him $5 to get it back. He then gave the ball to Miorandi, who still has the ball to this day. Though the writing is now faded, it still reads: “To my best friend, Big John /signed/ Satchel Paige.”
Bringing the heat
Paige had many names for his pitches, such as “Long Tom,” for a hot fastball, with “bloopers,” loopers, droopers, “whipsy-dipsy-dos” and “bat dodgers.” Technically, they were all fastballs, of a sort, but real heat from the mound during a Clowns’ exhibition was rare by the time Miorandi was behind the plate.
But there was one time, late in the 1967 season, when the turbulent times, the game, and Paige’s arm came all together, Miorandi noted.
“Mostly, Satch wouldn’t have much on a pitch, but he could still get that leg up high,” Miorandi said. “We were playing a AA or AAA team in El Paso. The crowd was heckling us and their leadoff batter was giving us the business after he’d hit a couple home runs.
“When this guy went up to bat, Satch wanted in. I never gave him signals,” Miorandi recalled. “The guy fouled one off; Satch threw a ball, then another called strike. It was 2-2, and then he tapped his leg with his glove.
“I knew then that there would be a fastball coming. I’d caught some heat; we had a kid that could throw 90s,” Miorandi said.
“Nobody knows what that next pitch was, but it was heat and every bit of 95 (mph),” Miorandi noted. “He was 60-plus years old, and he brought it and hit the corner. Called third strike.
“Our guys just go nuts, along with the stadium, but the beauty of it was, when the guy walked out of the batter’s box, Satch walked off the mound with just the biggest grin. Just a phenomenal athlete and a great man.”
Miorandi, now in his 70s, figures that was one of the last really hot fastballs coming out of Paige’s hand. He is one of three surviving members from the 1967 team; his own home run ball and a clipping from the Coffeyville newspaper about his experience are his only real mementos remaining.
The rest — like the unrecorded scores of games and stats never kept — are carefully folded into memory.