Mike Balenti

This article was written by Jack Morris

Mike Balenti was often overshadowed by teammate Jim Thorpe on the powerful Carlisle Indian Industrial School football team. Playing quarterback in the backfield, he combined with Thorpe to give Carlisle a one-two punch that often overwhelmed opponents with their incredible speed. But it was Thorpe who captured most of the headlines with his staggering athleticism. Balenti eventually moved out of Thorpe’s shadow in 1910 when he played for Texas A&M University, leading the football team to an undefeated season, including two wins over its bitter interstate rival, the University of Texas.

Yet while football may have been Balenti’s best sport, he also starred at track and field and baseball while at Carlisle. And it was in baseball that he carved out a career including two stints in the major leagues. Possessing tremendous speed and a strong throwing arm, attributes highly valued in the Deadball Era, Balenti, a right-hander who stood 5-feet-11 and weighed 175 pounds, quickly ascended to the major leagues after his year at Texas A&M. But it was his bat that kept him from staying at that level. First with the 1911 Cincinnati Reds, then with the 1913 St. Louis Browns, Balenti was unable to stick in the majors. But he stuck with baseball, playing regularly in the minors until 1918, then appearing sporadically as he moved from the minors to semipro teams and back again until 1926.

Michael Richard Balenti Jr. was born on July 3, 1886, in Calumet, Oklahoma, the third of six children, to Hungarian-born Mike Balenti and his wife, Belle Rath, or as she was known, Cheyenne Belle. Cheyenne Belle actually was only half Cheyenne, the product of a marriage between a Cheyenne woman, Roadmaker, and Wild West legend Charles Rath.i

Mike Sr. immigrated to America at the age of 20 and joined the Army, eventually finding himself at Fort Reno, where he met Cheyenne Belle. They married in 1879. In 1885, a year before Mike Jr. was born, Cheyenne Belle served as an interpreter for General Philip Sheridan during the Stone Calf uprising of the Cheyenne in Western Oklahoma.ii A government report in 1887 described Cheyenne Belle as “an intelligent half-breed married to a white man.”iii After they were married, Balenti left the Army and become a tailor at Fort Reno.

In 1904 Mike Jr. was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Starting in 1905, and for the next four years, he played both football (quarterback) and baseball (outfielder) and found time to participate on the track team. In 1907 he moved to second base. In the summer, he played semipro baseball for the Hagerstown, Maryland, town team where he was “one of the stars of the Hagerstown Baseball Club.”iv

In 1908 Balenti was elected captain of the baseball team. He moved over to shortstop to take advantage of his strong arm. That summer, he played semipro baseball for the Bridgeton, New Jersey, town team. His manager was Charles “Pop” Kelchner, the Albright College baseball coach and a future scout for Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics. Playing under the name Mike Ball, Balenti had an excellent summer.v

Back at Carlisle, Balenti took over the quarterback position from Frank Mount Pleasant, who had graduated. Mount Pleasant not only was an All-American football player, he was a two-time US Olympian on the track team. Balenti had big shoes to fill. But he more than held his own.

Carlisle won its first five games, then tied the powerful University of Pennsylvania. The following week Carlisle traveled to Annapolis to play the Naval Academy, a perennial powerhouse. With Thorpe unable to dropkick for the game due to injury, Balenti led his team to a 16-6 victory, kicking four goals and causing one sportswriter to claim that it was “the most notable performance in this line against a strong team in the history of the game.”vi

Injuries took their toll on Carlisle as the team lost two of its next three games. However, Carlisle ended the season with a three-game winning streak, leading to a 10-2-1 record with all but two of the games played away from Carlisle.

Toward the end of the football season it was revealed that Balenti had signed with the Athletics. He was quoted as saying he had promised Chief Bender, the Athletics pitching ace and a Carlisle Indian School graduate, that he would sign with the Athletics.vii Kelchner, his coach during the summer, signed him to the contract.viii

But Balenti wouldn’t report to the Athletics until after the Carlisle baseball season. He was again elected captain and played shortstop. In June after the college season, the Athletics sent him to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. The Brewers in turn sent him to the Dayton Veterans of the Class B Central League.ix Balenti, playing center field, started out quickly with the bat but soon cooled off.x By early July he was benched and a couple of weeks later he was released, having played in only 20 games while batting just .214.

A week later Balenti caught on with El Reno of the Class C Western Association.xi He played well for the Packers and stuck for the rest of the season with the team. The Dallas Morning News remarked that Balenti was “making good as a heavy hitter and swift man on the bases.”xii

After the season, Balenti enrolled in Texas A&M University, taking an agricultural course.xiii He quarterbacked the A&M football team, playing for coach Charlie Moran, a former major leaguer for the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite protestations of playing professionals by several opponents, Balenti led A&M to a 7-0-1 record, including two wins over archrival University of Texas, and was named to the All-Southwestern team.xiv

In 1910 Balenti was signed by Savannah of the Class C South Atlantic League. By June he was having such a good year that he attracted the attention of Washington Senators scout Dick Padden.xv On June 25 his considerable speed helped break up future major league Roy Radebaugh’s bid for a no-hitter when he beat out an infield single with two out in the ninth.xvi For the season Balenti batted .254, playing 97 games at third base and 12 at shortstop.xvii Though the Senators didn’t sign Balenti, the Atlanta Crackers of the Class A Southern Association were impressed, drafting him in November from Savannah.xviii

Balenti held out and didn’t sign with Atlanta until April 6, 1911, as a utility infielder.xix Eleven days later, Atlanta sold Balenti to Macon of the South Atlantic League.xx

Playing in the South Atlantic League for a second straight year, Balenti had a great season. The Charleston News & Courier wrote, “That Balenti is certainly a beautiful ball player. He starred on a team which, in this circuit, is scintillating with baseball stuff.”xxi In late May, when he was batting .371, Chattanooga of the Southern Association tried to purchase him.xxii Macon, however, held onto Balenti.

Finally, on July 13, on the recommendation of scout Hugh Nicol, the Cincinnati Reds bought Balenti from Macon for $12,500.xxiii He reported immediately to Philadelphia, where the Reds were playing. His first major-league appearance came on July 19 in New York against the Giants. He entered the game in the bottom of the second after Reds shortstop Tom Downey was thrown out for arguing balls and strikes. Balenti showed his great speed by stealing a base in the sixth, then got his first major-league base hit, off Red Ames, in the eighth. His successful debut earned him his only start of the season, two days later. But Balenti got into only six more games, five as a pinch-runner, before the Reds sold Balenti to Chattanooga of the Southern Association after his final appearance of the season on September 13.xxiv

While there had been a handful of Native Americans who had played in the major leagues, Balenti was still a novelty based on his looks – not because he looked like a Native American but the opposite. One sportswriter wrote that “Balenti, the new Indian outfielder of the Cincinnati club, isn’t as dark as [Chief] Bender or [Chief] Meyers, and is hardly to be taken as an Indian even on close inspection.”xxv

After the season Balenti married his college sweetheart, Cecilia Barovich, a Hydah Indian from Alaska, in Cincinnati on October 10.xxvi

Balenti played the entire 1912 season with Chattanooga, batting .288 in 139 games. In July Cincinnati waived its option on Balenti and he was sold outright to Chattanooga for $750.xxvii Chattanooga turned its $750 investment into $1,200 when it sold Balenti to the St. Louis Browns on September 16.xxviii

In the offseason Balenti lived in Kasaan, Alaska, on Prince of Wales Island with his wife’s tribe. Newspapers reported that it cost nearly $200 for Balenti to travel to the Browns spring-training camp in Dallas, Texas. He left on March 11 and arrived in Dallas on March 23 and was a holdout. Balenti claimed that Chattanooga was offering him more than the Browns. Eventually he signed with the Browns and found himself in a competition for the starting shortstop job with Dee Walsh and Bobby Wallace.

Balenti had a good camp. He was in excellent condition when he reported, telling reporters that he had rowed an average of 15 miles a day in a canoe while fishing for salmon in the offseason.xxix He was described in camp as “a rare combination of phenomenal fielding and hard-hitting infielder at the same time.”xxx Based on his camp, he made the Browns team.

But Balenti’s excellent camp didn’t transfer to the regular season. In 70 games, he batted only .180. And equally disappointing, he stole only three bases the entire season – the same total he had in eight games in 1911 for the Reds. In October the Browns sent Balenti back to Chattanooga. He never played in another major-league game.

Balenti’s original plans for the offseason were to work as an assistant football coach at the University of St. Louis.xxxi Instead, he decided to winter in Alaska again.xxxii

The following season, Balenti played in only 40 games for Chattanooga after breaking his leg sliding into second on May 25. He was in the midst of another poor season, batting only .157 and was dead last in the league in fielding percentage for shortstops.xxxiii In July Balenti was appointed athletic director at the University of Chattanooga. His duties included assisting with the football team.xxxiv

Not only was Balenti busy with his duties with the university but he also found time to develop an apparatus to help measure jumping heights in the high jump and pole vault. He submitted a patent with his brother George on April 14, 1915, to the US Patent and Trademark Office. It was approved in August 1916.xxxv The apparatus was used by the Southwestern Conference for its track meet at College Station, Texas, in May 1916.xxxvi

Meanwhile, Chattanooga sold Balenti to San Antonio of the Class B Texas League for the 1915 season. In 148 games, he batted .259 for the Bronchos. In September he accepted a position as the backfield coach for Baylor University. The Baylor head coach was C.P. Mosely, a minor-league baseball player as well.xxxvii

Balenti was back with San Antonio for the 1916 season but he got off to a slow start. By May 2 he was batting only .219. Later in the month, he was benched in favor of Shorty Dee. On June 1 San Antonio sold Balenti to league rival Galveston. Balenti found his hitting stroke and was batting .262 in July. He finished the season with Galveston batting .242.

In addition to his football coaching duties at Baylor, Balenti also helped out with the baseball team in the spring of 1917. In the meantime, he signed with Galveston after threatening to retire from baseball. While Balenti was leading the league in steals, he was batting only .180 in 39 games before he was let go.xxxviii He caught on with Tulsa of the Class D Western Association. He played well enough that he was selected to the Western Association all-stars, who played Texas League champion Dallas in a postseason series.

Balenti was out of Organized Baseball in 1918 and didn’t return to it until 1922. After not coaching at Baylor in 1918, he was brought back for one more season as an assistant football coach in 1919.

He did patent another invention in 1920. This time, with brother John, he patented a design for a pancake machine for commercial restaurants.xxxix

After playing for a semipro team in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1921, Balenti returned to Organized Baseball in the Class D Oklahoma State League in 1922. He started out as the manager of Guthrie and then moved to Clinton as a player-manager later in the season.xl The following year Balenti played a few games for Sioux City in the Class A Western League, then moved to Henryetta of the Class C Western Association.xli He played 39 games for Henryetta, batting .265.

Balenti played one more year in Organized Baseball. In 1926, at the age of 40, while playing for the powerful Tonkawa Comar semipro team, he was asked to step in as player-manager of Blackwell in the Class D Southwestern League.xlii He took over the club on June 26 and held the position for a month before he was released.xliii Balenti went back to Tonkawa Comar in time to play in the prestigious Denver Post Tournament.xliv

With his playing career behind him, Balenti kept his hand in sports. He refereed high-school football games and managed a semipro team in his hometown of Altus, Oklahoma.

When he wasn’t busy with sports, Balenti farmed his 160 acres in Oklahoma.xlv In the 1930 US Census, he listed his occupation as bookkeeper at a garage. Ten years later, he was a foreman for a highway construction firm. He eventually found employment at the Altus Air Force Base in the 1950s.xlvi

In 1950 Balenti consented to let himself be portrayed in the movie Jim Thorpe – All American.xlvii It’s unclear who portrayed him or even if his character made it into the movie, since there is no one credited as portraying Mike Balenti.

On August 4, 1955, Balenti died, at the age of 69, in Jackson County Memorial Hospital in Altus after having a heart attack at home.xlviii He was buried in Altus Cemetery. Balenti was survived by his wife, Cecilia, three sons, and two daughters.

 

Notes

i Rath eventually divorced Roadmaker, also known as Making-Out-Roads, when tensions rose between settlers and the Cheyenne. He had two more wives after Roadmaker. With his third wife he had a son, Morris Charles Rath, who went on to play major-league baseball. Rath and his nephew Balenti played against each other in 1913 in the American League. It’s unclear if Rath and Balenti knew they were related but chances are likely they didn’t.

ii Muriel H. Wright, “A Cheyenne Peace Pipe Smoked and Betrayed by Custer,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring 1958, 89-92.

iii U.S. Government, A Brief Statement of the Object, Achievements and Needs of the Indian Rights Association, Philadelphia, 1887.

iv Hagerstown (Maryland) Mail, September 13, 1907.

v Bridgeton (New Jersey) Evening News, June 22, 1908.

vi Boston Herald, September 15, 1925; Arthur P. Young, “The Big Eight,” Baseball Magazine, December 1908, 21-23.

vii Boston Herald, November 11, 1908.

viii The Sporting News, January 3, 1935.

ix Fort Wayne Sentinel, June 18, 1909.

x Evansville Courier, July 11, 1909.

xi Daily Oklahoman, July 23, 1909.

xii Dallas Morning News, August 1, 1909.

xiii Dallas Morning News, November 14, 1909.

xiv Dallas Morning News, November 10, 1909; Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 1, 1909.

xv Washington Post, June 2, 1910.

xvi The State (Columbia, South Carolina), June 26, 1910.

xvii Sporting Life, November 26, 1910.

xviii Charleston (South Carolina) Evening Post, November 28, 1910.

xix Charleston (South Carolina) Evening Post, March 8, 1911; Atlanta Constitution, April 7, 1911.

xx Macon Telegraph, April 18, 1911.

xxi Charleston (South Carolina) News & Courier, May 25, 1911.

xxii Augusta Chronicle, May 22, 1911.

xxiii Columbus Ledger, July 13, 1911, Boston Post, August 6, 1911.

xxiv Charleston (South Carolina) Evening Post, September 13, 1911.

xxv Clyde H. Hoss, Spitting on Diamonds (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2005), 27.

xxvi Daily Oklahoman, October 11, 1911, Washington Post, June 23, 1913.

xxvii Sporting Life, July 20, 1912, and August 24, 1912.

xxviii New Orleans Item, September 16, 1912; Sporting Life, November 23, 1912.

xxix Dallas Morning News, March 26, 1913.

xxx Montgomery Advertiser, April 11, 1913.

xxxi Cincinnati Post, September 6, 1913.

xxxii Syracuse Herald, October 18, 1913.

xxxiii Sporting Life, January 2, 1915.

xxxiv Cincinnati Post, July 13, 1914; Macon Telegraph, July 31, 1914, and September 30, 1914.

xxxv US Patent number 1,193,972.

xxxvi San Antonio Light, May 5, 1916.

xxxvii Balenti coached at Baylor in 1915-1917 and again in 1919.

xxxviii Dallas Morning News, May 6, 1917.

xxxix US Patent number 1,363,706.

xl The Sporting News, May 18, 1922, and July 13, 1922.

xli Omaha World-Herald, May 6, 1923; Joplin (Missouri) Globe, June 17, 1923.

xlii Perry (Oklahoma) Daily Journal, May 20, 1926.

xliii Appleton (Wisconsin) Post-Crescent, June 26, 1926, and July 31, 1926; Kansas City Star, July 24, 1926.

xliv Lubbock Morning Avalanche, September 7, 1926.

xlv Washington Post, June 23, 1913; 1920 U.S. Census.

xlvi Wichita Daily Times, August 6, 1955.

xlvii Long Beach Press-Telegram, April 25, 1950.

xlviii Wichita Daily Times, August 6, 1955; Bill Lee, The Baseball Necrology (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2003), 18.