There’s no question Kansas City native and lifelong resident Frank Duncan Jr. wrote an impressive baseball resumé for himself.
Duncan, who starred in the Negro Leagues before Jackie Robinson integrated organized baseball, became one of the most sought-after defensive catchers in the black ball world in the 1920s and ’30s, and he won multiple Negro National League and Negro World Series crowns as both a player and a manager with his hometown Kansas City Monarchs. With Duncan serving as an on-field general, the Monarchs established one of African-American baseball’s greatest dynasties.
But it’s another, singular accomplishment that perhaps engenders the most pride in Frank Duncan from his family, including his grandson, Julian Duncan.
In 1941, Frank Jr. helped welcome his own son, Frank Duncan III, into the Negro Leagues when the latter was a fresh-faced star-in-the-making with those same Monarchs. That year, with Frank Jr. anchoring the backstop position and Frank III on the mound, the pair became what is believed to be the first father-son battery in professional baseball history.
“Out of all the things that they accomplished, that’s what I’m most proud of, because no one else had done it,” says Julian Duncan, who lives in Detroit.
The black press of the day made sure to note the feat as well.
“Frank (Jr.) is having one of his best years this season and is tickled pink to be on the same team with his 21-year-old son, who is a rookie Monarch pitcher,” reported the New York Amsterdam News’ Dan Burley in July 1941.
Kansas City resident Larry Lester, the co-chair of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Negro Leagues Committee, noted that, a half-century before Ken Griffey and Ken Griffey Jr. both played for the Seattle Mariners in 1990, the Duncans accomplished the feat for the Monarchs.
Lester said Frank Jr., especially, remains a significant figure in Negro Leagues history.
“He was probably one of the most outstanding catchers in Negro Leagues baseball,” Lester said. “He caught several no-hitters in his illustrious career, and he was Jackie Robinson’s first manager in 1945 (with the Monarchs).”
But unfortunately, Frank Duncan Jr. — despite his stellar hardball career — will never, as of now, even be considered for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
That’s because the Hall no longer admits segregation-era, African-American figures, following a policy that was established after a special Negro Leagues committee voted 17 players, managers and owners into its hallowed corridors in 2006, a move designed, say Hall officials, to close the book on Negro Leagues admissions.
Now, especially with the celebration of Black History Month, and with a decade passed since that ’06 class, many in the world of Negro Leagues researchers and enthusiasts are pushing for the Hall to adjust its policy and once again admit black ball figures.
And Julian Duncan, for one, believes his grandfather, Frank Duncan Jr., merits such consideration. But Frank Jr. isn’t the only one endorsed by Julian, who, thanks to his father’s sterling baseball career, grew up around some of Kansas City’s greatest Negro Leaguers, including Satchel Paige, Newt Allen and Buck O’Neil, whom Julian believes is the player/manager/baseball ambassador most deserving of admission to the Hall.
Julian should know — he cherishes the countless memories from a childhood steeped in Negro Leagues tradition.
“I called Buck O’Neil ‘Uncle Buck,’ ” Julian says. “That’s how close our families were, and we were close for our whole lives.
“I remember the first time I went to Kansas City, in 1964,” he adds. “We’d go every couple years, and I’d see Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil, Newt Allen. We were treated as family, and I couldn’t figure out why.”
But now he knows, just like Frank Duncan Jr.’s contemporaries knew decades ago. In a 1930 syndicated newspaper column, legendary long-time Negro Leagues pitcher/manager/executive Dizzy Dismukes included Duncan in his list of greatest African-American catchers up to that point, calling him “(a) great receiver (and) thrower, fast on the bases and a dangerous hitter.”
Fortunately, both Frank Duncan Jr. and Frank III recorded their remembrances of their crackerjack baseball exploits. Duncan Jr., for example, spoke to the Pittsburgh Courier at length in a July 1943 article, in which he chronicled some of his most treasured baseball memories. He regaled Courier correspondent Hugh S. Gardner with tales of aiding the Monarchs in their 1924 victory over the Hilldale Club in the 1924 Colored World Series, grinding out wins over the famed Homestead Grays, and traversing the globe in an effort to spread the baseball gospel during his 23 years in the professional game.
“I have played ball in 17 different foreign countries,” Duncan told Gardner. “I think I can still name them — Japan, China, Korea, Russia, Brazil, Australia, Philippines, Hawaiian Islands, Mexico, Cuba, Porto Rico (sic), Panama, Santo Domingo, Jamaica, Canada, Bahamas and Argentina.”
Then, in the Brent Kelley’s 1998 book, “Voices from the Negro Leagues: Conversations with 52 Baseball Standouts of the period 1925-1960,” Frank Duncan III related his experiences in the professional game, including forming one-half of the famed father-son battery. During the interview with Kelley, Duncan downplayed the achievement.
“Yeah, but that was a more or less experimental thing,” Duncan said. “It wasn’t that I was a regular member of the Monarchs pitchin’ staff. It was just one or two ballgames we did that and the newspapers made a big thing out of it. I was just playin’ out the time ’til I went in the (A)rmy.”
(Actually, Frank Duncan Jr. and his son posted another admirable accomplishment — they both served in the Army during World War II.)
Lester, who met Frank Duncan III in Detroit in 1990, said his conversations with the former player illuminated the importance of baseball in the Duncan family.
“He was a very outgoing, friendly, gregarious type of person,” Lester said. “He was very engaged when I was talking with him about his father’s importance playing the sport.”
Frank III’s modesty was perhaps inherited from his father; Julian Duncan said his grandfather, Frank Jr., was humble to a tee. Frank Jr., as well as Frank III, were more focused on nurturing their family running smoothly.
“He was quiet. He didn’t talk a whole lot about his career,” Julian said of his grandfather. “He didn’t talk about accolades.”
But Julian Duncan speaks passionately about the legacy of both his family and the Negro Leagues in general. In addition to pressing the Hall of Fame to change its policy toward admission of Negro Leaguers, Julian Duncan said it’s crucial that those who savored the blackball experience firsthand to hand down the tradition to new generations of fans.
“There’s not a lot of Negro League players left,” he says. “It’s my job to tell everybody I know, to keep it alive as much as I can.”