Grave Story: Mickey Kreitner (1922-2003)

Mickey Kreitner never gained fame as a major league ballplayer. However, as a restaurateur in his hometown of Nashville, be became a beloved character in a city filled with characters. Kreitner was a catcher for the Chicago Cubs in 1943-44.

Albert Joseph Kreitner was born in Nashville on October 10, 1922. He started in baseball early – very early – as a bat boy for the Tennessee Volunteers of the Southern Association. Kreitner served as a bullpen catcher when he wasn’t working as a bat boy and ball boy. He was just 12 years old and catching the likes of future MLB star Paul Derringer. One time, according to Kreitner, Derringer walked away from a catching session with the 12-year-old Kreitner and told manager Charley Dressen, “That Kreitner kid may be catching me in the Big Show some day.”

Kreitner tried out for the Vols as a player after graduating from Hume-Fogg High School, and the 18-year-old impressed the team enough to send him to a Vols farm team. In two seasons as a minor leaguer, he didn’t do much to impress any MLB team. He hit .232 with the Americus (Ga.) Pioneers in 1941 and .173 with the Volunteers the following season as a backup catcher.

Source: The Tennessean, December 7, 1943.

Kreitner had blossomed into a good catcher in 1943, following a brief stay in the armed forces that was cut short due to a baseball-related injury. Playing pretty much every day, Kreitner hit .248 for the Vols in the regular season, hit .500 in the playoffs and was named a Southern League All-Star. How did he get called to the majors with the Cubs? Curiosity.

The way Kreitner told it years later, he went from Nashville to Chicago one day to watch some former Vols teammates on the Cubs play the Phillies in Wrigley Field. The Cubs GM Jim Gallagher remembered him as a bat boy and asked Kreitner why he was there, and the youngster said he wanted to watch how big leaguers play the game. Gallagher was so impressed by the response that he called the Vols and acquired the catcher. At 20 years old, Kreitner was a Cub.

One of his teammates was none other than Paul Derringer, who was trying to get his 200th MLB win. Sure enough, Kreitner was the catcher for Derringer’s milestone win, and he got his first MLB hit in that game. In 8 at-bats in 1943, Kreitner got 3 hits and drove in 2 runs.

So did Derringer really make a prediction in 1934 that came true eight years later, or was it a tall tale spun by Kreitner? Old ballplayers are prone to exaggeration, but it’s much more fun to assume that Derringer was psychic.

Kreitner suffered a scare in November 1943, when he collapsed on a street in downtown Nashville and was rushed to St. Thomas Hospital. He was diagnosed with a ruptured blood vessel and lost about 25 pounds from the initial injury and resulting complications.

“There were times during those two weeks when I was flat on my back that the doctors thought I was down for the count but I pulled through in typical Kreitner style,” he told The Tennessean.

Kreitner played in 39 games for the Cubs in 1944 and hit just .153, but his fielding was quite excellent. He had a .992 fielding percentage and threw out 46% of base runners. The Cubs released him after the season, ending his major-league career. Kreitner spent 1945 with the Los Angeles Angels, then a minor-league team, and hit a strong .277 in what ended up as his final season. His obit states that he was struck on the head by a baseball bat, ending his professional baseball career at the age of 22. His MLB totals were a .172 average, with 16 hits in 98 at-bats. He hit 2 doubles, scored 3 runs and had 3 RBI. In four seasons in the minors, he batted .247 in 351 games.

Kreitner returned to Nashville and his burgeoning restaurant empire. He got his first liquor license in 1944, while he was still playing, for Mickey’s Dug Out on 4th Ave. in Nashville. He had three popular restaurants in the city by the time he left Los Angeles at the end of 1945, so he wasn’t in a hurry to get back into baseball.

“I am making more money out of my business here than I ever did or can out of baseball and as long as the customers keep coming, I’ll think twice, or even three times, before leaving here to pay baseball,” he said.

According to his obituary, Kreitner owned and operated 39 restaurants in 43 years. He ran Mickey’s in the historic Maxwell House Hotel, and in December 1961, he opened Mickey’s Jr., called the South’s finest oyster bar, inside the hotel as well. Less than two weeks later, the Maxwell House burned down in a fire. In 1964, Kreitner was involved in a trial of Davidson County Sheriff Leslie Jett and denied under oath that he gave Jett protection money in exchange for leaving his mixing bar alone. Kreitner stated that his bar had been raided by Jett’s men three times and had almost driven him out of business.

Despite those mishaps, Kreitner’s restaurateur business prospered. Sports legends routinely stopped by his restaurants, and his 55th birthday party included guests like Mickey Mantle and Ernie Banks. On one occasion, Don Zimmer and Kreitner drank more than a few before Zim had to fly to Little Rock. Zimmer was worried about missing his flight, but Kreitner assured his friend that he’d make it. Sure enough, Kreitner got Zimmer to the airport and put him on a plane – to Louisville.

A 1961 ad for Mickey Kreitner’s latest restaurant, Mickey’s Jr., operating in the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville. Less than two weeks after Mickey’s Jr. opened, the hotel was destroyed in a Christmas Day fire. Source: The Tennessean, December 16, 1961.

Kreitner ran the Captain’s Table on Printer’s Alley in the era before Nashville became sanitized for tourists’ protection. The Nashville Scene wrote a tribute to the street’s gritty roots, noting that you could find an upscale restaurant like the Captain’s Table right next to country music clubs and burlesque shows like the Black Poodle or Skull’s Rainbow Room. Kreitner was a part of the larger-than-life group of businessmen who found the right formula for success in Music City: “a combination of fine dining, live music and artful appreciation of female flesh.”

“Show me a city that dies after dark and I’ll show you a town that is half dead or dying,” Kreitner said. “Today Nashville has a strong heartbeat, day and night.”

Kreitner sold his last restaurant, The Captain’s Table, in 1989. He sold a farm in Bellevue in 2000, which became a development known as The Bellevue Highlands. If you drive through that neighborhood today, you may find a Kreitner Drive, named after the former landowner.

Mickey Kreitner died on March 6, 2003 from complications following open-heart surgery. He was 80 years old. He is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville.

(A version of this story originally ran at the Hall of Very Good.)

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