American baseball player James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey received recognition as one of the greatest Negro League catchers of all time in a poll conducted by the Pittsburgh Courier and published in its April 19, 1952, edition, in which he (along with catcher Josh Gibson) earned the highest number of votes. Most sources list Mackey as a native of Eagle Pass, Texas. He was born on July 27, 1897, to John D. Mackey and Beulah (Wright) Mackey. Both parents worked as sharecroppers. By the time of the 1900 census, the family was living in Caldwell County, and Mackey’s mother was listed as the head of the household. The 1910 census listed the family in nearby Guadalupe County, and Beulah Mackey had remarried—to Montgomery Merriweather. On October 20, 1917, James Mackey married Ora L. Dorn in Luling, Texas. It is not known if they had children.
Mackey (who received the nickname “Biz” as a shortened version of “business,” due to his “busy-body” tactics regarding his opponents) first played organized baseball in Luling, Texas, with his brothers, Ray and Ernest, on the semi-professional Luling Oilers of the Prairie League. At the time that Mackey registered for the draft during World War I in August 1918, he listed that he was working in a warehouse for the MKT railroad in Dallas, but sometime that year Mackey had also joined the more prominent semi-professional team, the San Antonio Black Aces. Playing with the Black Aces allowed Mackey to catch the eye of professional black baseball teams. In 1920, following a game in San Antonio, the Indianapolis ABCs signed away six Black Aces, including Mackey. The ABCs already had a catcher under contract, and the veteran served as the team’s captain. Because of this established position, the team used Mackey as a utility player.
When the opportunity to switch teams came up in 1923, Mackey left the ABCs and was picked up by the Hilldale club (also referred to as the Hilldale Giants) of Pennsylvania of the new Eastern Colored League. Mackey received a higher salary from his new team, but he also hoped for the chance to play catcher. Unfortunately, Hilldale already had a star catcher, fellow Texan Louis Santop. So, Mackey continued playing any open position. In 1925 Mackey won the position outright and never relinquished it for the next twenty years.
Mackey led Hilldale to the Eastern Colored League crowns in 1923, 1924, and 1925. He also helped his team win the Negro League World Series in 1925 against the Kansas City Monarchs. Furthermore, he played in five East-West All-Star games, including the inaugural game in 1933.
Mackey’s reputation as an outstanding catcher included his skill at calling pitches and handling pitchers. He also possessed a powerful throwing arm. So strong and accurate were his throws to second base, much of the time Mackey chose to throw from the crouched position when throwing out attempted base stealers. Once, he decided to test his arm against James “Cool Papa” Bell, the man regarded as the fastest to ever play baseball. Mackey called three straight pitchouts and taunted Bell to try to steal second base. When Bell eventually broke for second, Mackey threw him out with ease.
In 1927 Mackey went with a team of black all-stars, dubbed the Royal Giants, on a barnstorming tour of Japan. The trip occurred seven years before Babe Ruth and a team of white all-stars embarked on their famous tour of the Asian country and marked the first time many Japanese citizens ever saw an African American baseball player. Playing against Japanese college teams and a group of Japanese American players known as the Fresno Athletic Club, the team only lost one game. On the tour, Mackey showed off his ability to throw to second base from a squatting position. He also became the first player to hit a baseball out of Japan’s new Meiji Shrine Stadium. He made two more trips to Japan in the 1930s.
By the early 1930s the Eastern Colored League and the Hilldale Giants both folded. Mackey bounced around between teams for the next few years. Then in 1933 he joined the Philadelphia Stars of the new Negro National League. With Mackey’s leadership, the Stars won the Negro National League championship in 1934. With the Stars, Mackey made another lasting contribution to baseball through his discovery and training of a local teenager named Roy Campanella. Mackey took the future member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame under his wing and taught everything he knew about catching to Campanella. After Mackey left Philadelphia to serve as player/manager of the Washington Elite Giants (later known as the Baltimore Elite Giants after their relocation in 1938) in 1936, he signed young Campanella to a contract.
Mackey continued to serve as a tutor to future major league stars. He joined the Newark Eagles in 1939. With the Eagles, he continued to catch and manage, and his list of pupils included future stars of integrated baseball Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, and Don Newcombe. Furthermore, Mackey led the Eagles to a 1946 Negro World Series championship over the Kansas City Monarchs.
In 1950 Mackey retired from baseball after thirty years. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he retired with a career .328 lifetime batting average. He also hit .326 in fourteen games against white major league players.
Mackey moved to Los Angeles where he lived the remainder of his years. On May 7, 1959, when the Los Angeles Dodgers held “Roy Campanella Night” at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Mackey accompanied Campanella onto the field. Campanella acknowledged Mackey as his mentor and teacher. A few years later, Mackey passed away on September 22, 1965, in Los Angeles. He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. In recognition of all of his accomplishments in baseball, Mackey received election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.