Through the seemingly odd confluence of two past lives, one well-known, the other uncelebrated, I am able to write this entry. Tangential to this story are two things, Socialism and baseball. One is a political and social philosophy I subscribe to in many ways, the other the game I love, the game I quite literally learned at my grandfather’s knee and that runs in my bloodline,
It is my belief that Eugene Victor Debs, of Terre Haute, Indiana, is one of the most under-appreciated socio-political thinkers and activists in American history. In an age when even the term “liberal” is an epithet to many, to be called a “socialist” can, in the fevered minds of some, place one on a continuum somewhere between heretic and puppy-slayer. Those who think that way have never studied Debs ore the roots of socialist thought. This is not the time to digress on the history of that thought. This is a human story about a friendship.
Debs left school at 14 to work in the large Vandalia Railroad shops in Terre Haute. Later he rode the Vandalia’s rails as a locomotive fireman, shoveling coal into the fiery maw of engines that drove the American economy in so many ways. He joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman, which was essentially a fraternal, not, political organization. But over the years this deep thinker from the heartland more and more saw the inequities that all but shackled the working man and became more political. He was not alone in this transition to awareness of inequities. Again, this is not the place to detail Debs long career, suffice it to say he became a five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist party (and scored what is still today, one of the highest percentage of vote for a third party candidate), and was jailed during WW1 for supposedly violating the Espionage A for the “intention and act” of obstructing the draft. He was to serve over two years in federal prison While in prison he received nearly one million votes as a presidential candidate in 1920.
But my story takes place long before this.
John McKenzie was born somewhere in Ohio in 1871 to an Irish mother and a father whose birthplace was listed only as the “United States.” When he came to Indiana and West Terre Haute is unclear. He worked as a miner like so many others in the town. In 1900, he married Ada Long. Ada was the granddaughter of David Marion Arthur. This made her the cousin of my grandmother, Hilda Hants Chrisman. Though cousins, Ada’s husband John was “Uncle Mac” to my grandmother.
John had something in common with my grandmother’s future husband’s family, the Chrismans. As I have mentioned in earlier entries, the Chrisman boys were all baseball players. My grandfather and his 4 brothers all played baseball as either minor leaguers or as semi-pros for various town teams. “Uncle Mac” loved the game and played five years of minor league baseball.
He began his short and rather inglorious career with the Terre Haute team in the Indiana-Illinois league in 1899. The next year he was briefly a member of the famed Terre Haute Hottentots in the Central League (unluckily for him, the year before the “Tots” were part of the famed Three I league and featured future Hall of Famer “Three Finger” Brown). He played in only 7 games, hitting .310 (a fine batting average for a modern major leaguer, but barely respectable for a turnoff the century minor league batsman). But, he persevered out of love for the game.
After a summer of playing local ball, he found himself back in the minors. From 1902 to 1904 he carried his glove and bat further west and played with the Flandreau Indians, Sioux City Soos, and Marshalltown Grays in the Iowa-South Dakota League. Once again, his ability did not equal his desires. His batting average did not rise above .274 for the rest of his career.
Like so many, John McKenzie could not get baseball out of his blood. After his playing days he became an umpire, and a damn good one by all accounts. He was known as perhaps the best umpire in the Three I (for Indiana-Illinois-Iowa) league. The Three I was a step below the highest level of minor leagues, but it was a good one that saw many players leave their diamonds to grace Major League fields.
So, how did this minor league umpire and the famous Socialist happen to come together? I do not know. Debs was known to speak before or after baseball games in West Terre Haute, spreading the word about his cause. Perhaps, “Uncle Mac” and “Gene” met then. At any rate, according to my grandmother, they became friends. And hunting buddies. Before WW1, Debs and Mackenzie would head to the woods around West Terre Haute to go squirrel hunting. After bagging their prey, they would head back to Mac’s house on National Avenue in West Terre Haute and clean the game. Walking triumphantly into the kitchen they would sit down to talk. As they did, “Aunt” Ada would fix them a favorite breakfast: squirrel brains and scrambled eggs.
How often, and for how long, Mac and Gene did this is uncertain. Debs fame spread and Mac had his own life. He was a miner, a laborer and a cigar maker. His shop, which featured his hand-rolled specialty called a “John Mac” was located just below the railroad tracks on Market Street in West Terre Haute.
John McKenzie outlived his friend Gene Debs by 49 weeks. “Uncle Mac” died on October 2, 1927, just days after the close of the epochal baseball season that saw Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and the New York Yankees win the World Series.