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Summoning A Forgotten Slice Of History

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS)—You can almost envision him standing there in his catcher’s gear behind home plate, a large, thick torso, with vice-grip hands and an imposing glare.

His memory has always been there, lurking, hovering. His special stamp on baseball was so significant that it couldn’t be buried by history, nor entombed by the ignorance of a time that almost seems surreal.

On November 10, Raleigh “Biz” Mackey will be channeled again, resurrected from the past as a member of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. Many historians consider Mackey the greatest catcher in the Negro Leagues and he’s certainly one of the greatest baseball players that ever played in this area.

Mackey will join the likes of Bill Bergey, Jimmy Dykes, Ora Washington, Speedy Morris, Curt Simmons, Dawn Staley, Ed & Steve Sabol, Ted Meredith, Moses Malone, Joe McCarthy, Mark Howe and Al Meltzer as inductees of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame’s eighth class.

Mackey, who died September 22, 1965 and was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, will actually be joining a former teammate in the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, Judy Johnson (also a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame).

Mackey and Johnson were stars of the Darby Hilldales, who played the famed Kansas City Monarchs in the first Negro League World Series in 1924. It’s a part of Philadelphia’s baseball past that often gets overlooked.

John Bossong, a former Darby resident, and Ken Avallon, President of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, have made sure that it doesn’t.

“From our perspective, it’s what the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame is all about,” Avallon said. “We cover sports from all different levels and when we put our ballots out, we make sure we find guys like Biz. We see guys like Biz as a no-brainer to be in the Hall of Fame. We can’t forget him.”

One person who hasn’t forgotten Mackey is Bossong, who’s been a constant champion of Mackey’s memory and catalyst behind the Darby Hilldale historic marker that now sits in Darby Borough where the Hilldales once played in the 1920s. Bossong has been a very vocal advocate in getting players like Johnson, Mackey and the Darby Hilldales recognized not only locally, but nationally.

It was all stirred by a college paper on the history of Darby almost 30 years ago.

“I never even heard about this team until I was given a college paper to do,” said Bossong, the Hilldale Memorial Coordinator. “It’s really a shame because no one ever paid attention to them. But I remember taking a trip to Kansas City in 1999 and visiting the Negro League Hall of Fame. It happened to be the 75th anniversary of the Monarchs beating the Hilldales in the first Negro League World Series. I started a letter-writing campaign and no one seemed interested in it, then a local sportswriter picked it up and that put it out there and it grew from there.

“This is a great honor to be recognized locally. I know that the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame gets it right, whereas Cooperstown, and the Baseball Hall of Hall, has not when it comes to Biz Mackey. His Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown reads the team he played for was the Philadelphia Hilldales, when it was actually the Darby Hilldales, which is the name of the neighborhood.”

For Avallon and Bossong, recognition of players like Mackey also serves as vindication. It was Mackey that introduced baseball to Japan, and he is called by some baseball historians the “Father of Japanese Baseball,” something lost in some history books.

“I feel all the hard work from the letter-writing campaigns has come to fruition,” Bossong said. “These guys are actually getting their due, nationally and locally. The crying shame is that they’re all dead, and it’s about time they finally receive the respect they earned those many years ago. People can find out about Biz, and more people will know that a great baseball team once played in this area called the Darby Hilldales.”

It’s a dusty, dog-eared piece of history that on November 10, at the Sheraton Society Hill will be endearingly remembered again.

Reported by Joseph Santoliquito