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Frank Duncan

Frank Duncan, Jr.
a.k.a.: Frank Duncan, Sr.

Career: 1920-1948
Positions: c, 1b, of, manager
Teams: Peters' Union Giants (1920), Chicago Giants (1920-1921), Kansas City Monarchs (1921-1934, 1937, 1941-1947), New York Black Yankees (1931), Pittsburgh Crawfords (1932), Homestead Grays (1932), New York Cubans (1935-1937), Chicago American Giants (1938, 1940), Palmer House Stars (1939)
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Height: 6'   Weight: 175
Born: February 14, 1901, Kansas City, Missouri
Died: December 4, 1973, Kansas City, Missouri

Generally regarded as one of the top receivers in black baseball, Frank was a master of handling pop flies, and during his prime years with the Kansas City Monarchs he cut down would-be base stealers with one of the best throwing arms in the league. The durable receiver had a quick release but threw a "heavy" ball. With pitchers such as Satchel Paige, Bullet Rogan, Chet Brewer, John Donaldson, and José Mendez, the Monarchs were always noted for their strong pitching staff. Duncan, a good handler of pitchers, caught them all. He also once caught Dizzy Dean in an exhibition game against the Monarchs after Dean personally hauled him out of a poolroom to catch the game.

A hard-nosed competitor although he was slow on the bases, he ran the bases with reckless abandon and asked no quarter on the playing field. In 1926 he precipitated a bench-clearing brawl when he "jumped" at Chicago American Giants' catcher John Hines. During the melee on the field, a policeman hit Duncan on the back of the head with his pistol butt and knocked him unconscious. While he was on the ground, Jelly Gardner kicked him in the mouth with his spikes.

A line-drive hitter, Duncan was not noted for his batting accomplishments, but he was tough in the clutch. Beginning with the Monarchs in 1921, he hit for averages of .226, .221, .212, .247, .234, and .284 during his first six seasons in league play. In 1929, when the Monarchs won their last Negro National League pennant, he hit .346 and followed with a .372 mark in 1930.

In Cuba during the intervening winter, he batted .250 for the 1929-1930 champion Cienfuegos team. His first winter in the country, he hit .336 with Santa Clara in 1923-1924. Records for his five seasons in the tough Cuban winter league show a .272 average, which was slightly higher than his lifetime average in the Negro Leagues. Duncan was a good bunter and, although having only average power, he could pull the ball, and in general proved to be an asset offensively.

He was playing with the Swift Packing House in St. Joseph, Missouri, when he signed with Peters' Union Giants in Chicago in 1920. After having launched his long professional career, he jumped to Joe Green's Chicago Giants later in the year, with John Beckwith moving to shortstop to make room for Duncan behind the plate. In June 1921 the young prospect was traded to Kansas City for three players and $1,000.

He played with them during their first dynasty period, when they won three consecutive Negro National League pennants (1923-1925) and won the first Negro World Series in 1924, defeating the Eastern Colored League's Hilldale ballclub in a hard-fought Series. Following the 1926 season he played in the California winter league and, after the close of the winter season, joined the Philadelphia Royal Giants in their tour of the Orient, playing in Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan, China, and Russia. The club featured some of the top black talent from the United States and lost only one game during the trip. Upon the team's return to the States, he rejoined Kansas City for the 1928 season.

Although he left the Monarchs on four separate occasions, he always returned to Kansas City after an interlude elsewhere. After the demise of the first Negro National League, the Monarchs disbanded and he began a pilgrimage that ultimately led back to the Monarchs. His time away from the Kansas City domicile included a stint with New York Black Yankees at the beginning of 1931, but he returned to Kansas City for the second half when J.L. Wilkinson reorganized the club. In 1932 he started with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and then went to the Homestead Grays, but was back with Kansas City in 1933. In 1935 he joined the New York Cuban Stars, batting .172 and .234 before returning to Kansas City in 1937.

However, his stay with the Monarchs was short and, when the Chicago American Giants pressed shortstop Ormond Sampson into duty as a catcher only to have him jump the team for Mexico, Duncan left Kansas City in July to fill the Chicago American Giants' receiving void for the latter part of the season. This second trip to Chicago lasted three years, two seasons with the Chicago American Giants sandwiched around a season with Gamble's Palmer House Stars, a Chicago-based independent team that won the 1939 Illinois State semi-pro title.

During this respite from the Monarchs, he was selected to the All Star team in 1938, representing the American Giants. He began the 1940 season with the Chicago American Giants as a backup catcher behind Pepper Basset, but when Monarchs' manager Andy Cooper died, he returned to Kansas City for the fourth and final time to assist Newt Allen in directing the team.

Duncan was appointed manager in 1942 and led his charges to a sweep over the Homestead Grays in the Negro World Series. The wily veteran maintained his enthusiasm and knew how to handle players, directing his team to another pennant in 1946 but losing the World Series to the Newark Eagles in a hotly contested seven-game series. In addition to handling the managerial chores, the veteran receiver continued to take his turn behind the plate when the occasion required his special expertise behind the bat, until turning the managerial reins over to Buck O'Neil in 1948. Duncan's appearances as a player in the latter stages of his career always drew big ovations from the crowd. His career closely approximated that of catcher-manager Al Lopez, who also won two pennants as a manager after a long career as a catcher.

At age forty-two he was drafted into the Army during World War II, and quickly rose to the rank of sergeant in the 371st Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Division. There he set a markmanship record, hitting thirty-one bull's-eyes in thirty-two shots in rapid firing at 200 yards. However, he served in the Army for only six months before being honorably discharged in 1943, and returned to his baseball career.

While earning a "mean" reputation on the field, he was a nice guy off the field. After retiring from baseball, he umpired Monarchs' home games for a couple of years and ran a tavern for several years. He was married to blues singer Julia Lee. His son also played briefly in the Negro Leagues.

Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.