Big-league shot eluded 'Lightning Len'

Tucker never let snub get him down during electrifying career

(Jay-Dell Mah/Western Canada Baseball)

By Kevin T. Czerwinski / | February 29, 2008 5:00 AM ET

Len Tucker had his moments, many of which were breathtaking, to say the least. He thrilled crowds throughout the United States and Canada for nearly a dozen years, playing a brand of baseball that, had he arrived two decades later, would have earned him millions.

Yet unless you lived in towns like Peoria, Pampa and Modesto throughout the '50s and early '60s, the chance to appreciate what Tucker had to offer wasn't available. Though the speedy power hitter earned rave reviews for his performance in the Three-I, Southwestern and California leagues, the closest he ever got to the Major Leagues was a brief tryout with Washington in 1959.

The zeitgeist of 1950s middle America had as much to do with keeping Tucker out of the Majors as did the many owners, managers and general managers who still carried racial agendas. While there are many who believe that Tucker -- who also garnered headlines in 1953 as the first African-American ever signed by the Cardinals -- was never given the proper chance, he's long past feeling bitter or angry about the power brokers who kept him from realizing his dream. He channeled those feelings of disappointment into a teaching career after retiring from baseball in 1963, likely having more of a positive impact in the classroom then he ever would have had had he made it big on the diamond.

"I never played the race card," said Tucker, now 78 and living in Fresno, Calif. "I never tried to take advantage of that. I let that be the last thing I thought about. And if I did mention it, it was only to my close friends or my wife. I never wanted to comment or go public with the race thing. If you backed me up against a wall, I'd probably make a comment. You can't control a person's mind, though."

While Tucker never thought to use his race as a means to get ahead or gain attention, the Cardinals and the media certainly had no problem issuing great proclamations in the spring of '53 when they signed the Air Force veteran -- for $3,000 -- who was closing in on a teaching degree from Fresno State. His signing was news around the country with even The New York Times declaring "Card Farm Gets Negro."

"I never looked upon it as anything but a guy who was signing," said Tucker, who hit .385 with nine homers and 41 RBIs in 148 at-bats during his final season at Fresno State. "They brought attention to me by saying I was black. And I thought, 'What are you trying to say, that a black shouldn't be here or that it's a miracle?'

"If they were so concerned that I was black, and [then Cardinals president August] Busch got a lot of publicity from it the night I signed, then why didn't I ever go further with them? I didn't disgrace them out of college. And that was worth something. But after a while, they just let me go."

No, Tucker certainly did nothing to disgrace himself or the Cards after they assigned him to Fresno of the then Class C California League. He went 6-for-17 in his first series, stealing a pair of bases and playing flawlessly in the outfield against Ventura. He played only home games for the first several weeks because he was finishing up his semester in school. But once Tucker got onto the field full-time, he was impressive.

Tucker hit a ninth-inning grand slam to beat San Jose on June 14. By July 16, he had connected for 11 homers, including capping off a three-in-three-games stretch to again power the Cards past Ventura. All seemed well for the Illinois native. He finished the season by hitting .285 with 55 RBIs and 16 steals in 379-at-bats before Peoria acquired him the following January.

Peoria proved to be no great challenge for Tucker, who earned the moniker of "Lightning Len" while playing for the Chiefs. He spent two seasons in the Class B circuit, playing against the likes of future All-Stars Earl Battey and Roger Maris. Tucker combined to bat .291 while hitting 23 and 26 homers, respectively. The latter total set the Peoria franchise record. He also led the league in steals twice, with 47 and 31, yet was released following the 1955 season.

"I did the best I could and I thought I was credible, but they didn't" Tucker said. "Guys like Maris and all those other guys in the Three-I league at the time, I didn't see any more from them than I had to offer.

"There was one night in '54 that [St. Louis manager Eddie] Stanky came down to watch us play an exhibition against St. Paul, a team in the Triple-A American Association. I hit two homers and drove in four runs and we tied them, 4-4. The St. Paul manager said I looked good and Stanky came back to watch a few times, and I did well. When they sent me back to Peoria in '55, I didn't want to go. It was a letdown."

Though Tucker was disappointed, he didn't let it impact his performance on the field. He signed with Pampa of the Class B Southwestern League, which had previously been known as the Class C and D Longhorn League, and proceeded to have a season that can be counted among the greatest ever produced by a Minor Leaguer.

Tucker hit a career-best .404 to lead the league. He was one of two players in organized ball to hit over .400 that season, with Dubuque's Grover Jones leading the Midwest League with a .409 mark. Tucker's 181 runs scored also were tops in the Southwestern circuit. He had 51 homers and 181 RBIs but failed to lead the league in either category; Plainview's Frosty Kennedy had 61 homers and 184 RBIs that season.

"Frosty Kennedy had played in that league for five or six years, so he was a mainstay, a bit of an older guy," Tucker recalled. "Joe Bauman was in that league, too. He was a mainstay. I was just an upstart. The league had mostly older pitchers who didn't overpower you with a fastball; it was just common sense pitching.

"I figured if I could get through that I'd have a pretty good year, and I did. The wind there helped, too. I guess you could say it was a hitters' league."

Tucker bounced between Mexico and Canada during the next two seasons, learning to play first base while hoping his dream of reaching the Major Leagues hadn't died. He finished second in the batting race in 1957, hitting .394 for Saskatoon of the Western Canadian League. He also led the league with 18 homers and 68 RBIs in only 198 at-bats. Meanwhile, his .506 on-base percentage and .776 slugging percentage earned him the title of Mr. Fabulous around the league.

That ultimately led to his being traded by Poza Rica of the Mexican League to Washington in 1959. He spent most of the spring on the bench until one day shortly before the club broke camp and headed north. Tucker finally got a start against the Reds and in his first at-bat, he connected for a long home run.

Senators manager Cookie Lavagetto appeared interested enough to have Tucker work out at first base the following day while the club was on a road trip. The day after that, however, Lavagetto informed him that he had been sold to Miami of the International League.

"I stayed behind to work at first base and picked up everything but the earth," Tucker said. "I looked good and now they sell me to the Marlins after one game. Lavagetto told me he didn't think I was better than anyone he already had. [Former All-Star Roy] Sievers was playing first at the time and they had a Cuban guy backing him up.

"From that time on, I got depressed. I went to Miami and played for Pepper Martin. He liked me, but I didn't have the heart to keep it going. I think that took the spark out of me. I was ready to give it up, so Miami sold me to Vancouver of the Pacific Coast League and then I was sold down to Portland."

Tucker combined to hit .211 with five homers and 29 RBIs in 218 at-bats for Miami, Vancouver and Portland. He went to Yakima of the then full-season Class B Northwest League in 1960, hitting .337 with 24 homers and 117 RBIs while leading the circuit with 126 runs scored.

He split the following season between Yakima and Lethbridge of the Western Canadian League before returning to school as a teacher in northern California. Tucker was back in the Cal League in 1962 and '63, playing half-seasons once school let out. And he was stellar yet again, hitting .294 with 30 homers and 101 RBIs in 347 at-bats in 1962. The following season, his last, he batted .326 with 26 homers and 113 RBIs in 353 at-bats, teaming with future Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan to lead Modesto to the league championship series.

"After Washington, I gave up," said Tucker, who taught for 20 years and still serves as a substitute from time to time. "I was going to be 31 years old. But I did all right for a poor boy. In the final analysis, I saw what was in the Major Leagues at the time and in my heart I knew they were no better than what I could do. It just wasn't for me. I couldn't get a shot."

That's too bad because Lightning Len likely would have done in the Major Leagues what he always did -- electrify a crowd.

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

View More