A family photo of Frank Duncan Jr., Julian Duncan’s grandfather (photos courtesy Julian Duncan)
If any family associated with the Negro Leagues — with the exception of the Taylor brothers and the Bankhead bunch — has a strong bloodline in baseball, it’s the successive generations of Duncans.
The first generation was Frank Duncan Sr., who, while not playing professionally, was always around the game in the decades before and after the start of the 20th century.
Frank Sr.’s involvement was perhaps most passionate when it came to encouraging his kids in their careers. And that leads us forward …
The tradition began in full with Frank Jr., who had the most successful hardball career of the bunch, blossoming into one of the most respected catchers and playing managers for about 15 years in the 1920s and ’30s. He spent the majority of his time with his hometown team, the legendary Kansas City Monarchs, helping the franchise to three straight pennants in the 20s’, then guiding them to a league title and a Negro World Series crown in 1942 as a player/manager.
Frank Sr. supported Junior in the latter’s athletic pursuits, even occasionally keeping Junior company in the dugout.
After serving honorably in the Army during WWII — he excelled as a marksman — Frank Jr. returned to the Monarchs, with whom he won another league crown and helped tutor a young Jackie Robinson. Duncan Jr. turned the managerial reins over to the great Buck O’Neil, then worked as an umpire in the NAL for a while before passing away in his hometown at age 72.
Then came Frank Duncan III, who competed in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s and ’50s, where he and his father performed one of the most unique feats in baseball history — with Frank III as pitcher and his dad behind the plate for the Monarchs, they formed what is believed to be the first father-son battery in professional baseball history in 1941.
Frank III continued his career in the American pastime after, like his father, serving in the Army during WWII, playing largely with the Baltimore Elite Giants. He retired around 1945 or so.
Three generations, three blackball players, three different positions, all for the famed KC Monarchs. It’s a legacy that ensuing generations of Duncans embrace and preserve.
That includes Frank Duncan III’s son, Julian Duncan, who is eminently proud of what his forbears accomplished in the national pastime during the tragic era of segregation.
“I’m extremely proud,” Julian says. “I have an 18-year-old son, and I just try to stress to him how important [baseball] was for the family.”
Although Julian wasn’t born in Kansas City — he grew up in the Motor City — he and his family frequently returned to Kansas City to spend time with several Monarchs legends. As a result, Julian was raised steeped in the ongoing tradition of African-American baseball.
“I called Buck O’Neil Uncle Buck,” Julian says. “That’s how close our families were, and we were close for our whole lives.
“I remember the first time I went to Kansas City, in 1964,” he adds. “We’d go every couple years, and I’d see Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil, Newt Allen. We were treated as family, and I couldn’t figure out why.”
Frank Duncan Jr. and Bob Feller
He laughs a bit as he says that, because he eventually understood why — because the Monarchs, and the Negro Leagues as a whole, were a tight fraternity, bonded by trial and tribulation, but also pride and success.
Julian says he played a little baseball himself as a kid, but he didn’t acclimate to it like his ancestors and family. But Julian still knows … He knows how important the legacy is.
For example, when he and his son attended the Major League All Star Game in Detroit’s Comerica Park in 2005, they found the special section of the concourse set aside for an impressive Negro League display. There, front and center, was a photo of Frank Duncan Jr.
The sight touched Julian Duncan deeply, especially because his grandfather had participated in multiple East-West All Star games, which back in the day were the jewels of the Negro Leagues season.
In fact, Julian believes his grandfather compiled a hardball resume — especially as a manager — that could be Hall of Fame-worthy.
However, as of now, Frank Jr. won’t be inducted into the Hall of Fame anytime soon, because the Cooperstown institution retains its closed-door policy on Negro Leaguers and pre-Negro League African-American baseball figures.
Julian acknowledges that he’s a bit biased when it comes to his grandfather, but he firmly believes that Frank Jr. — and especially Buck O’Neil — deserve a shot at the hallowed halls.
But if Frank Jr. was alive today, Julian believes he would modestly and quietly eschew and such praise. Frank Jr., as well as Frank III, were more focused on nurturing their family running smoothly.
“He was quiet. He didn’t talk a whole lot about his career,” Julian says of his grandfather. “He didn’t talk about accolades.”
But, once Julian was schooled in the family’s baseball legacy — and the legacy and importance of the Negro Leagues as a whole — he immediately believed that his grandfather has gotten short shrift by the modern baseball community. It’s a faith that continues to this day.
“There’s not a lot of Negro League players left,” he says. “It’s my job to tell everybody I know, to keep it alive as much as I can.”