Day 18 of 2021 baseball book reviews: A minor-league story told in a major-league way, ‘rice and easy’

“The Best Little Baseball Town in the World:
The Crowley Millers and Minor League Baseball
in the 1950s”

The author:
Gaylon H. White

The publishing info:
Rowman & Littlefield
278 pages
Released on April 21, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At the author’s website
At The Last Book Store in L.A.

The review in 90 feet or less

There’s always a decent chance one might judge the decision to further investigate a book by the blurb on its back cover. Try this one on for size:

“(It) tells the fun, quirky story of Crowley, Louisiana, in the fifties, a story that reads more like fiction than nonfiction. To start, the Crowley Millers’ biggest star was Conklyn Meriwether, a slugger who became infamous after he retired when he killed his in-laws with an axe. Their former manager turned out to be a con man, dying in jail while awaiting trial on embezzlement chargers. The 1951 team was torn to pieces after their young center fielder was struck and killed by lightning – during a game. But aside from the tragedy and turmoil, the Crowley Millers played some great baseball.”

It’s all accurate, for sure. A story that must be told, actually, and a reminder that sometimes truth is more compelling than things that could be made up. But in a way, while that is a lot of what’s going on here and setting the tone for the adventure, it doesn’t fully capture the essence of what Los Angeles-born Gaylon White has actually done here with his latest deep dive into the history of minor-league baseball.

We won’t suggest the reader jumps to the final chapter — after White lays out all the details about the team and this effort to get pro baseball into the community only to have it disappear after a few short years.

But if only for this exercise, consider how White comes to cover the rebirth of historic Miller Stadium, and the pride of the community. This is a ballpark, White notes, located near the railroad tracks used by the rice mills. It earned the nickname of “Rice Capital of American” in this southern Louisiana city just east of Lafayette. It’s a place, they say, where “Life Is Rice and Easy.”

Photo by Gaylon White.

Back in the day, White continues, fans parked along the track, but in the middle of the games the public address announcer would call out the license numbers of cars that had to be moved for a train to pass through.

The town had a population of about 12,500, and they’d sometimes get 7,000 attending games there.

About 20-plus years ago, the ballpark was restored and upgraded as it fell apart from neglect.

From the April, 1952 Crowley Post-Signal.

Richard Pizzolato, known around town as Coach Pizz, said he was at the field one day in 1998, when a man in a heavy Brooklyn accent asked: “Is this Miller Stadium?”

Coach Pizz confirmed it was. In his own Southern drawl, he added: “It’s great to have you back Mr. Scivoletti.”

Mike Scivoletti, a shortstop for the Millers in their glory years of 1952-to-’53, was the visitor, and he was shocked to be recognized.

“How do you know who I am?” asked Sciovletti.

“You were my hero when you played here,” Coach Pizz said.

Pause for one of those “Field of Dreams” crying moments.

At a confounding time when Major League Baseball has decided to compromise its future by streamlining its minor-league organization and eliminating more cities and small towns from the pride of having a pro team, White has fortuitously seized a moment to recall a franchise that once existed, then vanished, and merits just two generic paragraphs on a Wikipedia entry.

Here’s the Millers, and their trenchant story during the 1950s when the city decided to build a ballpark and then hope a team would come. They did, and then came the post-WWII Class C version of the Evangeline League.

The league’s name itself is a thing of literary beauty. It’s the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie,” which focuses on Acadian farmers, descendants of a group of French-speaking settlers who migrated from coastal France in the late sixteenth century to establish a French colony called Acadia in Canada and parts of what is now the state of Maine. Forced out by the British, many resettled in southern Louisiana. They are now more popularly known as Cajuns.

In the Millers’ brief history, perhaps the only name player recognizable to Southern California fans is George Brunet.

Then with the Kansas City A’s organization — which Crowley was aligned — the 21-year-old Brunet breezed through town in 1956 and posted a 7-2 record with a 2.17 ERA and 114 Ks in 87 innings and a no-hitter. He moved quickly to the Athletics’ B- and A-level leagues and then got into six games with the big-league team before the year ended.

Yet in the span of his nine-team, 15-year big-league career, Brunet’s longest stay was six seasons with the Los Angeles/California Angels, which included the honor as the Opening Day pitcher in 1967 — a season that ended with a league-worst 19 losses, followed up with 17 more in ’68 despite a 3.38 ERA.

More historic is that the “hard-throwing, beer-guzzling” Brunet became the all-time leader in minor league strikeouts with what is reported to be 3,175 over 16 seasons (although his stats on Baseball-Reference show it to be far different). He played 33 straight pro seasons from 1953 to ’85 – including 10 in Mexico (where he made the country’s Hall of Fame). It simply leads us to believe how someone called “the most interesting player you’ve never heard of” and a character in Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” for his non-choice of underwear wearing, could be the inspiration for the character Kenny Powers from HBO’s “East Bound and Down.”

White, whose previous work that crossed our radar with delight was “Left on Base in the Bush Leagues: Legends, Near Greats and Unknowns in the Minors” from 2019 as well as “The Bilko Athletic Club: The Story of the 1956 Los Angeles” in 2014, explains in this introduction that he first visited Crowley in 2013, which alerted the local newspaper, the Crowley Post-Signal, to do its own historical series on the franchise.

Through his connection to Coach Pizz, White was able to find 24 former players to interview, including the team’s radio voice, Ed “Oh Happy Day” Keim.

As a result, White not only puts is back in the time machine for what feels like something we’d hear spun from Garrison Keillor about a much simpler time in life and sports. But it also shows how the future can come into play — how a town’s pride can result in looking forward. Inspired by White’s book project, Coach Pizz was able to activate a refurbishment of the stadium for youth sports. In effect, the town moves the narrative beyond how a team and a league could survive a World War, a racial ban and a game-fixing scandal, only to be done in Hurricane Audrey, one of the deadliest tropical cyclones in U.S. history that devastated the Louisiana coast in ’57.

Now, a place that once had noteworthy visits from Booker T. Washington, Babe Ruth and presidential candidate John Kennedy and wife Jackie can polish off its claim as the “Best Little Baseball Town in the World.” After this read, it would be hard to convince us there is any competition.

Our author Q&A

Gaylon White, during an appearance on the MLB Network in 2018.

White is touring key parts of Louisiana this week to celebrate the book’s release with a variety of appearances, media interviews and book signings. We caught up with him midway through the journey:

Q: In some of our previous correspondence, you’ve said this book wasn’t intended to be a commentary on today’s minor-league downsizing, but it now happens to be very relevant. How do you process what Major League Baseball has decided to do with its minor-league organizations? Does it make the legacy of the Crowley Millers even more relevant?

A: You might say, it’s déjà vu all over again. I started working on this book in 2013 and at that time new minor league ballparks were popping up around the country and the future looked good. And, then, before the pandemic, MLB announced a major restructuring that was to be revealed later. Well, we found out this year that one-fourth of the 160 teams were being deep-sixed, leagues shut down and others realigned. The Appalachian League, which produced Kirby Puckett and Daryl Strawberry, has been turned into a collegiate summer league. The PCL, which I wrote about in “The Bilko Athletic Club,” “Singles and Smiles,” and “Left On Base in the Bush Leagues,” no longer exists. You wonder what MLB is smoking.

A photo inside Miller Stadium taken by Gaylon White.

When the Crowley Millers made their pro debut in 1950, there were 58 leagues. By the end of the decade there were 21. Soon after pro ball died in Crowley, after the 1957 season, the baseball budget at Crowley High School was slashed.

Fortunately, baseball has seen a resurgence in Crowley since the restoration of Miller Stadium in 1998 and a $5 million enhancement with artificial turf this year — during the pandemic, and the book has been cited as a reason to do this.  Out of all this, I’ve concluded that MLB left Crowley and other small towns in America but they still love the game and cherish their history when they had pro teams.  The minors are the lifeblood of baseball. They produce both future big league players and fans. Folks in Crowley paid extra attention to pitchers George Brunet and Dan Pfister when they played there because they saw them first and took pride in what they accomplished.

Q: As the book launches this week, you’re in Louisiana reconnecting with fans there and doing interviews. We can imagine they’re asking all sorts of local-specific questions about the Millers, the former players, the ballpark. Do any of them wonder if minor league baseball will ever come through their part of the country again? What’s the closest outlet they have?

A: The pride and interest in the Millers is still there — 64 years after they played their last game. A number of sons and daughters of Crowley Miller players have showed up at the book signing. A former bat boy bought a book for his brother named Fuzzy, who was also a ball boy. Meeting the kids of the players I was writing about was pretty emotional. One man brought a notebook filled with photos and news articles about his father — Art Edinger, one of biggest stars of the Miller teams and most overlooked (hitting well over .300 in the three-plus years he played at Crowley from 1951-to-’54, from age 24 to 27. Edinger is also has the distinction of playing in a game in July, ’51 when he went to the plate seven times without an official at-bat — he was hit by a pitch in his first appearance, walked five times, and finished with a sacrifice.)
The only pro team left in Louisiana is the Triple-A New Orleans Baby Cakes. Crowley is counting on the spruced-up Miller Stadium to attract regional and national youth tournaments to the area. This is a reasonable expectation. Personally, I don’t like artificial turf but it makes a lot of sense in Southwest Louisiana where rain can wreak havoc during the summer. Near the end of the 1955 season, the Millers played 15 doubleheaders, eight during one 10-day stretch.

Q: How did the Crowley Millers even get on your radar? Was it something that came up while touring minor-league towns like Roswell, New Mexico and Big Spring, Texas when you were out with your most recent book, “Left On Base in the Bush Leagues?”

A: In “Left On Base in the Bush Leagues,” I write about Al Pinkston, a six-time batting champ in the minors who played with pitcher Hugh Blanton at Amarillo in the Western League. Near the end of a 2012 interview I did with Hugh (a 21-game winner for Crowley in 1952), he said: “I hate to even mention this guy to you. Did you ever hear of Conk Meriwether?” He went on to say: “He (Conk) was one of the sorriest people that I’ve ever seen but he was the greatest hitter that I’ve ever seen in the minor leagues.” He added: “I wouldn’t walk down the street with him because I was afraid somebody would shoot at him and hit me.” Obviously I wanted to know more about Meriwether and, as a result, I learned that Crowley, with a population of only 12,700 people, topped the 100,000 mark in attendance three straight years to earn the nickname, “The Greatest Little Baseball Town in the World” and the “Cooperstown of Dixie.” I found out Babe Ruth played an exhibition game in Crowley in 1921 and JFK & Jackie visited in 1959, a throng of 90,000 packing the main thoroughfare, Parkerson Avenue, to hear JFK say he would eat rice the rest of his life – Crowley is known as the Rice Capital of America – and Jackie make her remarks in fluent French. In 1951, center fielder Andy Strong was struck by lightning and killed during a game. The play-by-play announcer who called the game – Ed Keim – recounted the broadcast for me. In the end, I had a book that reads more like a novel.  

Q: Can you discuss how poignant it is you got the forward written by Hy Cohen? We know him in these parts as the former Birmingham High baseball coach in Van Nuys. But it’s worth looking at his career again as he has passed away this last February at age 90 with COVID-related issues. He pitched seven games total for the Chicago Cubs in 1955. Was born in Brooklyn. Experienced anti-Semitism as a Jewish player going through his minor-league career, ends up with the L.A. Angels of the Pacific Coast League after military service in the ‘50s, has his baseball experience in New Orleans, then ends up winning L.A. City baseball titles in the 1960s. How did his contribution to the book take you back to the Steve Bilko book as well as set a tone for this one? 

A: Hy and I became friends after I wrote about him in “The Bilko Athletic Club.” We talked regularly so it was a no-brainer to ask him to write the foreword. The two most discriminated groups of people in the South during the 1950s were Blacks and Jews. Hy was Jewish and he broke into pro ball at LaGrange, Georgia in the Class D Georgia-Alabama League. After baseball, he was a history teacher and coach. I wanted him to describe what it was like playing in the Deep South at that time. Hy was looking forward to seeing the book. He didn’t quite make it but I like to think of the foreword as a tribute to him as a wonderful man and very special friend. 

Q: Tell us more about your Los Angeles connections and roots that led you to discover baseball.

A: I was born in L.A. in 1946 and my father was a minister with Foursquare Church with its headquarters at Angeles Temple in Echo Park. He pastored churches in Redondo Beach, Santa Paula, Ontario and El Monte while I was growing up, and I ended up at Arroyo High in El Monte and then Ventura College before going to the University of Oklahoma for a degree in journalism-broadcasting in 1965. My dad was a big L.A. Angels fan of the Pacific Coast League. He actually once said to a minister friend and a fan of the rival Hollywood Stars: “How can you be a Christian and pull against the Angels?” I was an Angels fan, too, and Gene Baker, a black shortstop for the Angels, was my first hero followed by Buzz Clarkson and Steve Bilko. I had always been curious how a minor league superstar like Bilko didn’t do better in the majors (which led to a book on the subject). Since the Angels were affiliated with the Cubs, I continued to pull for the Cubs after the Dodgers came to L.A. in 1958. In fact, I didn’t like the Dodgers or the Coliseum where they played until 1962. I loved Wrigley Field in L.A. and I wished the ballpark would’ve been refurbished the way Bill Veeck proposed in 1954. That was a real ballpark — the Coliseum with the Chinese Wall in left was a joke.

N.Y. Times, June 17, 1951

Q: What was to you the most compelling part of this book writing experience?

A: The chapter, “Lightning Has Hit This Ballpark,” was the most compelling because of the emotions that Ed Keim, The Voice of the Crowley Millers, conveyed in telling the story. Keim fought in the Battle of the Bulge and he had an experience that he eventually connected with what happened to Andy Strong. Keim believed Andy had a premonition that something terrible was going to take place the night he was struck by lightning. He elaborates on this in the chapter. Andy was to leave immediately after the game and drive to the Shreveport area to pick up his wife and six-month-old son and, then, take them to Crowley for the rest of the summer. It was tough to write this chapter and it’s still tough to read it. 

(It may be even more difficult to hear: White has included the audio file of Keim describing Strong being struck and killed by lightning during a game at Alexandria on June 16, 1951. In December of 2018, Keim passed away at age 95.)

How it goes in the scorebook

With the best little baseball book of 2021, White has put the biscuit in the basket.

Gaylon White found this ad in the 1951 Crowley Post-Signal

Also, because this will likely be the only baseball-related book you’ll discover with an important biscuit recipe.

Go to Appendix B, page 221, to see if you can recreate the famous Crowley biscuits made at the Greyhound bus station coffee shop and popular with the Millers players.

Note: It takes only a half-stick of butter and the not-so-secret ingredient may be the two heaping teaspoons of Clabber Girl baking powder.

“I’ve had Bus Station Biscuits twice – the first time Coach Pizz made a batch for me to sample,” White says. “They were so good I got the recipe from him and had my wife make them. They taste like cake. And, yes, they are as incredible as they sound. As far as I know, this is the first baseball book with a biscuit recipe.”

White also adds in a follow up email: “My wife reminded me this morning that on two different occasions she made pans of the Bus Station biscuits and they were delicious.”

Just as we need, and kneed, this kind of comfort book right now.

More to cover

* Compare George Brunet’s SABR biography to the one done for The Hardball Times called “The wild life of George Brunet” in 2013.

* For a short remembrance of the Evangeline League, Lafayette-based ESPN Sports Radio 1420-AM did a series on it, starting with the 1951 season, Crowley’s championship of 1952, Conk Meriwether’s league-best 42 homers and 134 RBIs for the repeat league champs in 1953, more changes in ’54, Crowley’s James Moore leading the league with a .354 average in 1955, the playoffs cancelled “due to a lack of interest” in 1956, and how it ended in 1957.

* White appears with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap for a 2019 interview on the show “The Sporting Life” to talk about his research.

2 thoughts on “Day 18 of 2021 baseball book reviews: A minor-league story told in a major-league way, ‘rice and easy’”

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