MARION — Melvin “Buck” Duncan will return to familiar territory when he steps onto the field to throw out the first pitch Friday at Rent One Park.
Duncan, 85, spent much of his early life on ball fields as a pitcher for the U.S. Army baseball team and later with the Kansas City Monarchs and Detroit Stars, part of the Negro Leagues formed before the major leagues were integrated.
The right-hander’s fastball may not pack the punch it once did, but it will have the weight of history behind it as he makes the toss before the start of the Southern Illinois Miners game against the Rockford Aviators.
“Those were great days. It was an interesting career and I enjoyed it,” he said. “The treatment we got at the games was ridiculous, but we played through it. If you really want to do something, no one can stop you. We wanted to play ball, and we did.”
Duncan, born in Michigan but raised in Centralia, said his love of baseball started at an early age.
“I played baseball as a little tot in Centralia. Whenever someone mentioned baseball, I would get up from the table or wherever I was and go play,” he said.
He enlisted in the Army in 1947 and played for the team based at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
“I was supposed to be a cook, but I ended up a ball player,” he said.
He had a 19-1 record while pitching for the team before moving on to pitch for the Monarchs and, later, the Stars from 1949 to 1956.
After leaving the Negro Leagues, Duncan played with the Kansas City Giants and was selected for the 1959 All-Star team. Over the years, he was on the field with some of history’s greatest players, like Satchel Page, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron.
“The United States was accepting ballplayers from this country or that country, but if you were born in the States and you were black, you couldn’t play. We had an awful lot of good players who never got the chance,” he said. “I didn’t care about color. I just wanted to play ball.”
After his retirement from baseball and a 27-year career at a Michigan hospital, Duncan returned to Centralia.
“I stayed gone for about 65 years, but I’m sure glad to be back,” he said.
Duncan was invited to throw out the first pitch at the Miners game by the Marion VA, sponsors of Military Appreciation Night at Rent One Park.
“We met him when he came in for a procedure. One of my coworkers asked him abut a letter jacket he was wearing that had patches from every single team in the Negro League and he told us about his career,” said Paul Swiatkowski, a radiology health technician at the VA.
When the Marion VA was picking out a veteran to throw out the first pitch at the game, Duncan was a natural choice.
“He’s a part of history,” said MRI technician Julie Roye. “I’m taking my 10-year-old son to meet him because I know he will appreciate it some day. Not too many people get to see a player from the Kansas City Monarchs.”
Duncan said he is excited to make the trip to the ball park, where he will appear on the Miners pre-game show before throwing out the first pitch.
“I’m going to try anyway,” he laughed. “I may have to kick the ball over home plate.”