Atypical Lives: JGallery Features Son of Rockette, MLB Player
Leona and Mickey followed their children to Texas in 2000. Photo courtesy of the Rutner family.
By Paul Rutner
Major league baseball player, Rockette, soldier in World War II, liberator of concentration camps, child star, original residents in the first major suburban development after World War II, retirees at Sun City, Texas—these are all iconic touchstones for what people might consider Americana. But they are probably not the first things that come to mind when envisioning of a pair of Jewish kids who grew up together in the shadow of Crotona Park in the Bronx during the 1920s and 30s.
Mickey and Leona Rutner achieved all these things during their long and diverse lives together. Besides being married for more than 60 years and having three sons, their paths led them on a wonderful, unique journey. High school sweethearts, they ran off to South Carolina and eloped when Mickey signed for bonus money with the Detroit Tigers organization after college. He graduated from St. John’s University in New York City, where he set batting records for their baseball team.
Leona, meanwhile, had previously enjoyed a career in show business as a dancer that took her to the most famous nightclubs and theaters in New York and across the big cities of the United States. Her doctor recommended dance as a physical exercise to recover from a childhood illness, and Lee never stopped dancing her entire life, including teaching line dancing at Sun City well into her eighties. Lee’s career included Broadway, movie shorts and working with the likes of Georgie Jessel, Sophie Tucker and Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the New York World’s Fair.
Mickey pursued a successful career in professional baseball and was able to make it to the major leagues and the Philadelphia Athletics, where he was managed by the legendary Connie Mack. Mickey’s pursuit of this career was interrupted by his lengthy service in the U.S. Army 45th Division Rangers during World War II. In the Thunderbird Division, he served for six campaign that included North Africa, the D-Day invasion and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau. Once the war was over, he returned to his family and to baseball. This continued until the birth of his third son and, after years of pursuing the dream, he retired from baseball and opened a dry cleaning business, “Big League Cleaners.”
Mickey’s career did not go unnoticed, however. Eliot Asinof, well known author most famous for having penned “Eight Men Out,” the story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox and their scandal of throwing the World Series, began his career by writing “Man on Spikes,” the story of an underdog athlete trying to make it in the world of professional baseball. Based on Mickey, the character’s name was Mike Kutner. In the book, instead of the prejudice of having to battle anti-Semitism in the South during the 40s and 50s, the player battled being small in stature and wearing glasses. For a new novelist, it was apparently too controversial to tackle anti-Semitism at that time.
Mickey and Leona settled in Levittown and were one of its first citizens. Levittown was developed as a cheap housing option for returning soldiers from WWII. The original homes were 750 square feet, fully equipped with household appliances, with a second, unfinished floor or attic. The going price was $8,500 - $10,000. Mickey and Lee lived there with their family until they moved to Texas, following their kids, in 2000.
“Biblical Inspirations,” featured at J Gallery through Oct. 22, will showcase artwork by three Austin artists, including Richard Rutner, son of Mickey and Leona Rutner, as well as Melanie Lewis and Harold Liebowitz.
The exhibition includes Richard Rutner’s abstracted pen and ink drawings inspired by the ancient Aleppo Codex; Melanie Lewis’ acrylic and pastel paintings portraying the stories and attributes of the biblical matriarchs; and Harold Liebowitz’s paintings depicting narratives from the Book of Genesis and Exodus. ■
For more information on JGallery, visit shalomaustin.org/JGallery.