A True Tragedy

By Mike Hlas
Updated: June 26, 2008

CEDAR RAPIDS, Ia. — The voice on the telephone last Friday night clearly belonged to Art “Superman” Pennington, but it sure didn’t sound like him.

The Art Pennington who has called Cedar Rapids home since he played for the pro baseball team here in 1953 and 1954 has always been talkative, proud, full of life, and never afraid to brag about himself. The Superman on the phone last Friday sounded pretty weary. The flood got his house and he was staying with a good friend in Iowa City.

When The Gazette called for readers to submit their favorite memories of old Veterans Memorial Stadium as it neared its final game in 2001, Pennington sent us this:

No one has broken my batting average record of .345 set in 1954 at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

In my last game at the stadium, we trailed 2-1 when I came to bat with two outs and a man on in the bottom of the ninth inning. Jo Jo White called timeout to put his best pitcher in to face me. I hit the first pitch over the fence in center field to win the game, 3-2.

If you’d been denied a place in the major leagues in the prime of your career because of the color of your skin, as Pennington was in the 1940s, you might want people to know how good you really were. He hit .359 for the Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues as a 20-year-old in 1945. But Jackie Robinson didn’t cross baseball’s color line until 1947, and blacks only trickled into the big leagues for many years after.

Many like Pennington never did make it. He spent most of the 1940s in the Negro Leagues and had a shiny lifetime batting average of .337. He was an All-Star who could have played anywhere with his bat and speed. He homered off Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean in an off-season exhibition game.

But instead of winding up his career a hero in a major-league city, Pennington wound up his playing days in minor-league towns like Keokuk and Cedar Rapids. He was playing with and against whites by then but wasn’t done facing prejudice. Many Cedar Rapids players lived in the downtown Montrose Hotel. Pennington wasn’t allowed to stay there.

But that and little else ever deterred him. He quickly grew to like Cedar Rapids and vice versa and made a home here after he retired from pro ball. He was employed for a quarter-century at Collins Radio mainly because he was a good slugger for the company’s M & J League baseball team. He has been a friend to many people in this city, young and old.

But the last two weeks have been bad ones for Superman. His house on the 900 block of Fifth Street SE was wrecked by the flood.

“All that insurance, it didn’t pay,” Pennington said. “I didn’t have flood insurance, so I don’t get a dime.”

He is staying in Iowa City at the house of his agent, Billy Valencia. Yes, Pennington has an agent. At 85, he still promotes himself.

“I work with Art getting him speaking engagements, autograph signings, DVD presentations, career retrospectives on his time in baseball and as a civil rights pioneer,” Valencia said.

Last week, Pennington signed autographs at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City with other former Negro League stars as the Kansas City Royals hosted a Negro Leagues Salute before their game against San Francisco.

He received $500 for the two-hour signing period, but Pennington hopes to do better than that on the trip.

“The (major-league) players, they’ll chip in, I believe,” Pennington said. “There might be a passing-the-hat in the ballpark.”

Pennington had his house since 1960. He had homeowner’s insurance the whole time, “never making one claim,” according to Valencia.

“Once he gets hit by a disaster, they won’t pay him a penny,” Valencia said. “It’s completely baffling and angers me every time I think about it. He’s an 85-year-old man who’s not in a position to build a house again. He can’t just go out and get a job. I’m trying to get some money raised for him.”

Pennington isn’t pretending to be more deserving of help than anyone else who was in the flood’s way. “I’m not the only one,” he said. “Everybody on the Southeast side got it.”

But Superman has never been shy and said if anyone wants to toss him some help, they can do it via the University of Iowa Community Credit Union. Valencia said he hopes people go to www.artpenningtonbaseball.com, where he hoped to have a PayPal button in place by today to take donations.

“We’re supposed to get 20-some thousand dollars for our houses,” Pennington said. “Hopefully, everything can come out all right and I can get my own home just like I did before.

“The president flew over here yesterday and said there will be two billion dollars for all this. I don’t know how you get some of that. You never can tell how long it will be.”

These days in Iowa City, Superman is sleeping late. He spends some of his evening time sitting in Valencia’s backyard whistling at birds.

“I’m doing the best I can,” he said. “This is a mess. I lost everything.”

NOTE: For more on donations, log on to www.artpenningtonbaseball.com.