Tyson, Turkey

Position: Pinch hitter
Birthplace: Elm City

First, Middle Names: Cecil Washington        Nicknames: Turkey
Date of Birth: Dec. 6, 1914     Date and Place of Death: Feb. 17, 2000
Burial: Cedar Grove Cemetery, Elm City

High School: Undetermined
College: Oak Ridge Military Institute, Oak Ridge, NC

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-5, 225
Debut Year: 1944       Final Year: 1944          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Philadelphia Phillies, 1944

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1          1          0          0          0          0        .000     .000     .000     0.0

Turkey Tyson had one day in the big leagues. He pinch hit in the ninth inning of a meaningless game and popped out to third. It was a brief interlude to a 15-year career down on the farms. Tyson bounced around minor-league clubs, from Tallahassee, Florida, to Utica, New York, accumulating a .300 career batting average and acquiring a reputation as a boisterous, fan favorite. After a very public feud with Cuban opponents that had a nasty, racial overtone, Tyson wore out his welcome up North and returned to North Carolina where he became a minor-league legend as a player and manager.

George and Jennie Tyson named the first of their two children Cecil when he was born in December 1914 in Elm City in Wilson County, but everybody called him Turkey most of his adult life. Some said it was because he once visited the country of that name with a baseball team. Others claimed it was the gobbling sound he made whenever he got a hit.[I]

Tyson began playing baseball at an early age on teams representing Elm City. “We would play teams from different communities, and a lot of times the teams would end up fighting among themselves,” he remembered many years later.[II]

The games certainly got more structured and less violent when he entered Oak Ridge Military Institute in Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1932, probably to finish high school and then to enter the junior-college program that the school offered. His real motivation, however, was to play ball. The private school was something of a baseball factory, having sent a number of its students to the major leagues.[1]

A year after graduating in 1936, Tyson was chosen to play and teach baseball in England.[2] The now-defunct U.S. Baseball Congress, which supported amateur baseball, sponsored the trip as a way to lobby for the sport’s addition to the Olympics

Signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers when he returned home, Tyson played his first professional ball for Dodgers’ farm teams in Tallahassee and Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938. They were the first of the nine different minor-league clubs that he would play first base and manage over the coming decade. His solid hitting, all that gobbling as he ran up the first base line, and his full-throated arguments with umpires made him a favorite of hometown fans wherever he went.

Tyson was in Utica in 1944, playing for the Phillies’ Class A Blue Sox, when he was called up to Philadelphia. The 29-year-old rookie had his one at bat on April 23 and was back in a Utica uniform a couple of days later.

The Blue Sox won the Eastern League pennant the following season but not without controversy. Many ballplayers were in military uniforms that year, America’s third in World War II. To fill rosters, the league had encouraged the signing of players from Cuba. Their numbers had increased dramatically since the start of the war, creating tension with some American players and coaches in the league. Resentment toward the Cubans was becoming a major problem, noted Louis Pickelner, the sports’ editor of the newspaper in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a league city. “Abuse of Cuban players is reaching a point which requires drastic action to save the game we reverently call our ‘National Pastime’ from being smeared by unsportsmanship ,” he wrote in July 1945.[III]

If the problem had a face, it would have looked a lot like Turkey Tyson’s. It’s hard to know how it all started and who should shoulder the burden of blame from 70-year-old newspaper accounts. Clearly, though, the Cubans were a bit brash. Maybe they thought they had something to prove to these Yanquis, but they played a brand of ball that Ty Cobb would have found familiar. They slid hard into bases, sometimes with spikes high. They barreled into catchers on plays at home and, when pitching, threw at batters.

Tyson seems to have been a favorite target, probably because he griped and complained to umpires and angrily confronted the offenders. The league’s owners fined and suspended him twice for his public displays. His second and longest suspension of 15 games came after he charged the mound with a bat during a game with Williamsport’s Rebels. Constrained by teammates, Tyson returned to the dugout without inflicting any physical harm, though he may have shouted the “N” word at the Cubans several times during the short journey. At the end of the inning, Dan Parra, a Rebels’ Cuban pitcher, charged across infield with two bats to confront Tyson. Again, teammates interceded and a truce was called with no one getting hurt.

Parra’s more lenient sentence from the league – a three-day suspension – triggered even more resentment among some of the league’s American players, coaches, and sportswriters who publicly proclaimed their support for Tyson, one of their own, while ridiculing the foreigners’ faulty English and even their food preferences. Pickelner, however, wasn’t among them. “A guy like Turkey Tyson, a double offender of the code of fair play, can very well wreck the entire structure of the Eastern League if not put in his place once and for all,” he wrote.[IV]

Little wonder, then, that Tyson expressed relief when he signed with the Durham, North Carolina, Bulls in 1947. The Class C club was a couple of steps down from the Blue Sox, but he was home again. “I didn’t like it up there, and I wanted to get back down home,” he said.[V]

He had his best year with the Bulls that season, hitting .349 and driving in 105 runs. He also set a Carolina League record with 74 assists at first base. It formed the foundation of a reputation Tyson would build over the next five years playing or managing four different minor-league clubs in North Carolina. He was colorful, quotable and considered a smart baseball man. At the end of his career when he was old enough to be the father of many of the youngsters he managed, Tyson was the wizened sage of the diamond.

He returned to Elm City in the offseasons where he was the most-famous man in the town of 800. He hawked tobacco as an auctioneer and swapped mules. “I’m a mule trader in the winter months,” he said in 1948. “I’ll buy mules and I’ll trade mules.” Most farmers around Elm City told reporters that Turkey could drive a hard bargain.[VI]

There was no reason to leave town after 1952, the year Tyson quit as manager of the local Leafs in Rocky Mount, a Class D team that occupied the lowest rung in the minor-league hierarchy. The team wasn’t very good and was going nowhere and the old mule trader couldn’t inspire them to do better. He abruptly quit in the middle of the season.

Tyson settled in with Hester, whom he had married in 1950, as Elm City’s famous son. He was elected as a town alderman in 1963 and served five terms. His brother, George, was mayor for much of that time.

He died in 2000 at age 85.


Footnotes
[1] What’s now called Oak Ridge Academy occupies an important place in the history of baseball in North Carolina.  The school, which traces its roots to the 1850s, was considered one of the best prep schools in the state in the late 19th century. Under coach Earl Holt, the school’s baseball program during the first decades of the 20th century developed more than a dozen major-league players, including Jackie Mayo, Dick Burrus, Al Evans, Pete Shields, Chubby Dean, Max Wilson, and the Hayworth brothers (Red and Ray).
[2] Pitcher Max Wilson of Haw River, North Carolina, also made the trip. He made brief appearances in the major leagues in 1940 and 1946. See his profile for a more information.

References
[I] Temple, Bob. “Elm City, 1,000 in Population, has many Distinguishing Features.” Sunday Telegram (Rocky Mount, NC), February 12, 1950.
[II] Cockrell, Bennett. “Cecil ‘Turkey’ Tyson Has Fond Memories.” Nashville (NC) Graphic, November 16, 1990.
[III] Pickelner, Louis, “A Little Extra.” Williamsport (PA) Sun-Gazette, July 20, 1945.
[IV] Ibid.
[V] Quincy, Bob. “Leafs’ New Pilot Stopped Show at Coronation of Britain’s King.” Evening Telegram (Rocky Mount, NC), January 30, 1948.
[VI] Ibid.