November 8, 2010

Unsung hero Mickey Rutner: Levittown dad, war veteran, major league baseball player

Mickey wasn't the only star in the Rutner family; Mrs. Rutner was a Rockette

Some of the boys who played baseball in Levittown in the 1950s had the privilege of being coached by the father of the class of 1960's Toby Rutner. What set Mickey Rutner apart from other dads was that he had played in the major leagues. Toby's dad, passed away on October 17, 2007. The following story appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail s few days later.


VICTORIA, British Columbia -- Mickey Rutner was an infielder for the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club who inspired a novel about an athlete whose dreams of diamond glory turn to dust.

Mr. Rutner patrolled third base - baseball's hot corner - for Toronto's International League team in 1950. At 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, with ruddy cheeks and piercing blue eyes, he looked every inch the professional ball player he desired to be. Leafs manager Jack Sanford rearranged the batting lineup to have him bat fourth, the all-important clean-up position. Mr. Rutner responded by knocking in six runs in the first 11 games in which he hit in the No. 4 slot.

He had a decent campaign in Toronto, as he did on his many stops in baseball's minor leagues. The essence of the novel he inspired was that a player's wish to play in the major leagues could be thwarted by considerations other than talent.

It was Mr. Rutner's burden that he was good enough to pursue a wish of baseball glory, though not so talented as to make him indispensable. He would spend a single month in what players call The Show, the big leagues which bring with them greater acclaim, not to mention larger paycheques. He did well in his brief sojourn in the American League, but not so well as to avoid a return to the minors.

Milton Rutner was born at Hempstead, N.Y., a Long Island town in which his father owned a shirtwaist factory. He was the youngest of five children. The plant and the family soon after moved to the Bronx.

As a boy, he shagged fly balls at Crotona Park for a teenager eight years older. The neighbourhood cheered Hank Greenberg as he went on to star in the American League. For his part, young Mickey won attention as a soccer player at James Monroe High School, leading his team to championships and earning a scholarship to St. John's University in Brooklyn.

Yet, it would be on the baseball diamond and not the soccer pitch on which he would enjoy his greatest campus success. He played second base for the university's baseball team and was named captain in 1940. Just before he graduated with a degree in French, he was signed to a professional baseball contract by the Detroit Tigers.

He spent the bonus money on a blue convertible with which he eloped with Leona (Lee) Schiff, a friend's little sister. She became a Radio City Rockette dancer who also performed on Broadway and in Manhattan nightclubs. "He would be my stage-door Johnny," she said, "and I would watch him play baseball with the other wives."

In 1942, he was an all-star in the Inter-State League while playing for the Wilmington, Del. Blue Rocks before leaving in August to report to his draft board back home.
Mr. Rutner served overseas during the Second World War in the U.S. Army's 45th Infantry Division, seeing action in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. (The Thunderbird Division had once used the swastika as an emblem, replacing one aboriginal icon for another in 1939.) He worked as a translator in France and it was his division that liberated the Dachau concentration camp.

His most harrowing experience came at the gun barrel of Japanese-American troops in France, who, warned of German infiltrators wearing U.S. uniforms, challenged the blue-eyed soldier. He proved his Americanism by correctly answering questions about pop culture, several of them with baseball, happily, as the subject. The dark irony of a Jewish-American soldier being mistaken for a German by Japanese-American soldiers went unremarked in the encounter.
This story will conclude in our next blog entry


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