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Emlen Tunnell, A Minor League Less-Than
Written by Steve Smith   
Wednesday, 20 October 2010 09:11

To paraphrase the immortal Forest Gump, “Baseball research is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna come across."  In my case, it was the discovery of an all too brief minor league baseball career of a pro football Hall-of-Famer.  Furthermore, it turns out that in all likelihood he was the first black to play minor league baseball in Iowa after Jackie Robinson’s 1947 major league debut.


Emlen Tunnell, the great Hall-of-Fame defensive back with the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers, came to the University of Iowa (located in Iowa City 25 miles from Cedar Rapids) after the war to play football (he had played at Toledo prior to the war).  He wore the Hawkeye Black & Gold in 1946 & 1947 but after the 1947 season was over, he decided to sign with the New York Football Giants with whom he played in 1948.  In the spring of 1947, while still in Iowa, he played semi-pro baseball with the Amana Freezers, a team sponsored by the Amana Refrigeration Company.  The Amana team also included former University of Iowa and major league player Jack Dittmer. 


While researching the 1947-1949 Central Association Keokuk Pirates in the Cedar Rapids Gazette using, I came across a picture with the caption: “The Gremlin Flies Back; Tunnell Makes Debut.”  Pursuing this lead, I found that the Tunnell referred to in the headline was indeed Emlen (Gremlin was the clue that caught my attention as I knew that had been Tunnell’s nickname) and with further research I discovered that he was one of the dreaded minor league “less-thans.”  Tunnell’s name had never appeared in a baseball guide nor did it appear in the SABR Minor League Encyclopedia nor did it appear in Pat Doyle’s baseball database since he had a minor league career of “less-than” ten games.


The mystery was explained in Gus Schrader’s June 16, 1949, Cedar Rapids Gazette column “Red Peppers”:


“Emlen Tunnell didn’t want to come to Cedar Rapids because of what people might think of him for leaving the University of Iowa football team. 


For three weeks the (Cedar Rapids) Rockets had been trying to get him and he finally surrendered Wednesday.  He stepped off a plane at 6 P.M. and was playing left field two hours later.


‘I didn’t know if I’d be welcome if I came back to Iowa’ he explained.  ‘Some folks out here gave me a hard time because I quit the university before my eligibility was used up.  I got some letters from them last year when I was with the Giants but they didn’t sign any names.’


Tunnell had quit the football squad during the 1947 football season, rejoined it for the last two games and then left school for good.


That Tunnell was in a Cedar Rapids uniform Wednesday, the first Negro to play in the Central Association, was due to George Foerstner of Amana.


It was Foerstner who first suggested to the Rockets, through this writer, that they contact Tunnell.  He had used Tunnell on the famous Amana Freezers managed by Hal Trosky in 1947.  He felt that Tunnell could help the Rockets.”


Tunnell played 5 games for Cedar Rapids, got five hits in 18 trips to the plate and committed one error.  He played left field and center field for the Class C Cedar Rapids Rockets.  According to the Gazette, in that first game 2 hours after he got off the plane, he was 2 for 5 with 2 Texas League singles and 2 strikeouts.  After the game of June 18, 1949, Adam Pratt, the Rockets owner said “(Emlen) came to us after the game and said he was going home, his bag was already packed.  He said he hadn’t been doing as well as he should and since he would have to leave before the season was over anyway to join the (New York Giants) football club, he had decided to go.  He is leaving Sunday afternoon.”  So Emlen Tunnell’s minor league baseball career ended after 4 days and 5 games.


This was an interesting discovery in that about a year ago I had read Tunnell’s 1966 autobiography “Footsteps of a Giant” and he never mentioned that he had played minor league baseball.  Nor did he mention that he was the first black to play in the Central Association.  Although he did mention that he had played semi-pro ball with the Amana Freezers and that baseball had been a big part of his life. 


Members of Iowa’s Field of Dreams SABR Chapter had previously thought that Davenport, Iowa’s Gene Baker (future Chicago Cub and Pittsburgh Pirate) who played with the Des Moines Bruins of the Western League in 1950 was the first black to play minor league ball in Iowa after Jackie Robinson’s debut in 1947.  Now we know it was Emlen Tunnell.  Of course, that is, unless another diligent researcher makes another unexpected discovery!


Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 October 2010 09:13