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Friday, March 1, 2024

Iconic Ira McKnight still feels blessed

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Like a lot of us here in Indianapolis, I was feeling cooped up this past Saturday after all the snow and ice of late. A severe case of spring fever coupled with mild temperatures set me in motion to the local Walmart, where I could undoubtedly find the essentials. (You know, Gatorade and potato chips.)

But when I entered the store, I found something you just cannot buy, a brush with true greatness. I first looked from a distance, asking myself if it could possibly be him. Then as I got closer and saw the sign, I realized it indeed was the man himself. Seated in the main aisle, front and center, was the legendary Ira McKnight, arguably the best catcher that major league baseball fans never got a chance to see.

McKnight was making an appearance in conjunction with Black History Month and was more than willing to sit and spend time with an inquisitive fan like myself, who really could not fathom meeting a baseball icon in such a unexpected, yet thrilling manner.

I waited for the crowd to thin out a bit and then introduced myself to him. He smiled and seemed genuinely pleased that I recognized him and knew a lot about both his personal career as well as the legendary Negro Baseball League.

As a young catcher with a cannon for an arm, McKnight began his career in 1952 with the Memphis Red Sox, and he reflected on the joys of baseball in a way that made me feel like we were back in that era at the ballpark. “We would ride all day in a bus to play a double header and get right back on that bus” stated the polite and humble McKnight, who is now 75 years young. “We were just happy to be playing ball.”

After a stint with Memphis, and returning to South Bend to finish high school, McKnight became a member of one of the greatest baseball teams in the history of the game – the Kansas City Monarchs. He played brilliantly and in return received just $250 a month and $3 a day for meals. But the real compensation was the opportunity to catch the legendary Satchel Paige, a distinction that he had for several seasons, including one that produced a no hitter, one of two that he caught in his career.

But McKnight was not just a defensive whiz, as he once hit over .400 and could hit the ball out of the park on a regular basis. His opportunity to play in the majors in 1958 for the New York Yankees was cut short due to a severely broken hand, leaving him unable to earn a spot on the roster, and forcing him to return to the Monarchs and continue his career on stages that were much smaller than his talent level warranted. He would finish out his playing days touring with the Satchel Paige All Stars and  playing in the Canadian professional league.

McKnight expressed candid views regarding the game of baseball today. Like myself, he does not care for the designated hitter and also feels the home field advantage for the World Series should not be determined by the outcome of the All Star game. He also feels steroids will not help you hit a baseball any better.

Despite being discriminated against for years during his playing days, he harbors no resentment or hard feelings towards those who would not give him the opportunity to play at the major league level. “It used to eat at me, but that was long ago, and I do not let it bother me now,” he added as he signed a picture and his baseball card for me. One thing is for certain, Ira McKnight is terribly modest regarding his place in baseball history and seems genuinely content with his life today. That in itself seems to be all that matters to this proud man who was a phenomenal player and is one of the most accomplished athletes I have ever met.

Who would have ever dreamed that a trip for snacks would lead me to a meeting with one of baseball’s all-time finest catchers?

Danny Bridges, who felt like a kid in a candy store when he was photographed with the legendary Ira McKnight, can be reached at (317) 578-1780 or at Bridgeshd@aol.com.

NOTES: You, too, can meet Ira McKnight, as he will appear again in observance of Black History Month at the Walmart store, 8300 E. 96th St. from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Feb. 19 and again on Feb. 26. He also appears regularly at the Irvington Flea Market where he operates, a souvenir and memorabilia booth, one that features some fantastic baseball artifacts.

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