Monday, October 26, 2015

Johnny Kling: Of baseballs and cue balls

Kansas Citian Johnny Kling was a star catcher and a billiards champ.

Last night the Royals became World Series champions for the first time in 30 years. This at the expense of the New York Mets, who won the National League pennant by sweeping the Chicago Cubs. Mets fans no doubt feel great sadness today, but in reaching the Series their team continued the 107-year sadness of Cubs fans.

So here's maybe a small consolation for those transplanted Chicagoans in Kansas City: The star catcher for the 1908 Cubs – think Tinker to Evers to Chance, until 2016 the most recent World Series champs in Cubs uniforms – was a Kansas Citian. His name was John G. Kling.

Johnny Kling was considered a top defensive catcher of the so-called "dead-ball era." As such, his statistics are modest by today's standards. Yet some think him the best of his day. And perhaps the first great Jewish star in Major League Baseball. I won't dwell here on his playing days, and instead recall his business career in Kansas City, where he was born in 1875 and where he died 71 years later.

 Kling was also a champion billiards player, as was his nephew, Bennie Allen. The two of them became business partners in a Kansas City pool hall at 1016 Walnut downtown. After that building burned, Kling built the Dixon Hotel at 12th and Baltimore, across from the Hotel Muehlebach.  The second and third floors housed the Kling & Allen pool hall for decades and was known as one of the country's finest, attracting top players such as Willie Mosconi.

Hotel Dixon, 12th and Baltimore.

Kling's pool hall occupied two floors in the Dixon.
In 1933, long after his baseball retirement, Kling bought controlling interest of the minor league Kansas City Blues, and was responsible for desegregating the fans at Muehlebach Field. In 1937 he sold the team to Col. Jacob Ruppert, owner of the New York Yankees. Kling died in 1947.

Kling is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame, though some think him deserving. If his baseball pedigree isn't in question, the reason could have been the presence in the basement of the Hotel Dixon of a gambling joint known as Baltimore Recreation, a place in which Kling was a partner. It was said to have paid protection money to Johnny Lazia, Boss Tom Pendergast's associate and enforcer.

Gambling and Cooperstown don't mix well, as Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson learned.

A matchbook cover from the 1940s.

Still, Kling remains a Kansas City link to faded Cubs glory.

And now, for Mets fans everywhere, something to perhaps make you smile through your sorrow. Recall the manager of the very first Mets team, the hapless 1962 model that won 40 games and lost 120, was another Kansas Citian: Charles Dillion "Casey" (as in KC)  Stengel.

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