State star Tucker had speed, energy
Fresno's Len Tucker, the first African-American signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, never reached the major leagues but earned a reputation as a speedy base stealer with punch in his bat.
Mr. Tucker died July 25 at age 81.
"Tuck was a warm-hearted guy with a beautiful, effervescent personality," said Jack Hannah, who played with Tucker at Fresno State College in 1953.
Mr. Tucker was born in Mounds, Ill., and his family migrated to Fresno when he was young. He played sports at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, then transferred to Fresno State, where he became a star in baseball and basketball.
Mr. Tucker was a 23-year-old Air Force veteran working on a teaching degree at Fresno State in 1953 when the St. Louis Cardinals signed him for $3,000, six years after Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. A day later, he made his professional debut with the Fresno Cardinals.
Mr. Tucker's signing made national news and news stories at the time made a big deal that he was the "first Negro" in the Cardinals organization.
"It's kind of an insult, in a way," Mr. Tucker responded. "The first this or the first that. Who cares?"
Mr. Tucker, who reportedly ran a 100-yard dash in 9.8 seconds in the Air Force, played 11 years in the minor leagues as an outfielder and first baseman and reached as high as Triple-A baseball. Along the way, he had to deal with segregation – being told to stay at different hotels than his white teammates.
But he did have his brush with the big time.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Tucker joined the Washington Senators as a 29-year-old rookie in spring training in 1959. In his lone game, the left-handed swinging Tucker smashed a home run against Cincinnati. A few day later, the club sold his contract to the Miami Marlins of the International League.
Years later, Mr. Tucker told baseball historian Jim Rygelski that he gave it his best shot.
"I've always said that when your fate is in someone else's hands, they can squash you or let you go, and they did both to me," Mr. Tucker said. "With all the miles I traveled and the people I met, I learned how to deal with people. I'm thankful for that."
Mr. Tucker was inducted into the Fresno State Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995 along with Tom Goodwin, Dan Gladden, Jerry White and Eddie Zosky.
Former Bulldogs coach Bob Bennett played alongside Tucker in 1953 and remembers him as a dapper dresser and a player who could "run like a deer."
"He was older than us and I told someone: 'I don't know how good he is,' " Bennett said of his initial impression of Tucker. "Well, in his first time up for us he breaks his bat and hits the ball over the fence."
Mr. Tucker batted .385 with nine homers, 42 RBIs and 22 steals in his one Bulldogs season. On the basketball court, he set a then-school record with 459 points.
"He was an electrifying athlete, a fan favorite," said Tom Sommers, a member of the Bulldogs' baseball Hall of Fame. "He was pigeon-toed and quick, and his helmet would always fly off when he ran the bases."
Mr. Tucker nearly quit baseball in 1956 when his Sacramento team sent him to a lower class in Amarillo, Texas. But he caught on with independent Pampa, Texas, of the Southwestern League, where he had an astounding year: .404 average, 51 homers, 181 RBIs and 47 stolen bases.
Mr. Tucker retired from baseball in 1963 after batting .326 with 26 homers for Modesto in the California League.
With his teaching degree in hand, he worked as a substitute for years and taught full-time at several local middle schools. Mr. Tucker also officiated high school and college basketball games and bred thoroughbred race horses.
"I remember how he encouraged me and others to not be afraid to try different things," said grandson Chester Prince III. "He was a big dreamer, too. He always wanted to have a horse run in the Kentucky Derby."
Mr. Tucker was married twice and for years helped second wife Madge run M&L Beauty Supply at Fresno and F streets.
He is survived by Chester Prince III of Fresno, daughter Lynnette Hurks and her son Karron Hurks of Chicago; and granddaughter Donna Prince of Fresno.