Negro League World Series – Part 4

The 2017 Baseball Winter Meetings are scheduled for December 10 – 14 in Orlando, Florida.  Baseball fans will be looking on with anticipation for any trades or free agent signings coming from the meetings that will affect teams in 2018.   Also, Major League Baseball announced the first official exhibition games for Spring Training 2018 will be played February 23.  But this post in not about the upcoming 2018 Major League season.  It is the fourth and final segment about baseball history’s forgotten fall classic; the Negro League World Series.

 

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1944 Homestead Grays

With its fan base having more disposable income and also widening due to the growing northern migration of the black population during World War 2, Negro League game attendance reached new levels.  It experienced a fifth consecutive year of solid growth in 1945.  Negro League baseball grew to become nearly a three million dollar industry and in most cases the largest business operating in   the African-American communities of the cities with Negro National League (NNL) or Negro American League (NAL) franchises.  Another indication of Negro League baseball’s relative stability during this period was the Negro League World Series.

 

Although the Homestead Grays won the NNL pennant again in 1945, the average age of the team’s nucleus (Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, “Cool Papa” Bell, Jud Wilson, etc.) was well above 30 and their skills had begun to erode.  This became more evident when the Grays were swept four games to none by the younger Cleveland Buckeyes in the 1945 Negro League World Series.   Gibson, playing in his last Series before dying in 1947, hit only .123 (2 for 15) and Leonard .200 (3 for 15).  The Grays, scoring only 3 runs the entire Series, were shutout the last two games.

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With Monte Irvin, Leon Day, and Larry Doby returning from military service, the Newark Eagles ended the nine-year reign of the Homestead Grays and won the NNL pennant in 1946.  They faced the NAL’s Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 Series.  Both teams had players who would cross over into Major League baseball:  Newark’s Irvin (1949) and Doby (1947), Kansas City’s “Satchel” Paige (1948), Hank Thompson (1947), Willard Brown (1947), and Connie Johnson (1953).  Led by Irvin’s torrid hitting (3 HRs, 8 RBI, and a .462 BA.), the Eagles won Game Six and Seven to win the Series 4 games to 3.

 

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Monte Irvin (right) and Larry Doby (left)

For almost 30 years Alejandro Pompez had been the “Latin Connection” in Negro League baseball.  He created a pipeline that brought dark-skinned Hispanic players from Cuba and other Caribbean countries to star for his Negro League teams; the Cuban Stars (1916 – 1927) and the New York Cubans (1935 – 1950).  The Cubans won the NNL pennant and faced the Cleveland Buckeyes the NAL   pennant winner in the 1947 Negro League World Series.  The accomplishments of both teams were overshadowed that year by Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century.  Both teams in the Series had players who would later go through the door Robinson opened that year.  New York Cuban players Orestes “Minnie” Minoso (1949), Ray Noble (1951), and Pat Scantlebury (1956) would have careers in the Major Leagues; Minoso being the first dark-skinned Hispanic to play.  The Cleveland Buckeyes’ Sam Jethroe (1950), Sam Jones (1951), Quincy Trouppe (1952), and Al Smith (1953) also would spend time in the Major Leagues; Jethroe being the 1950 National League Rookie of the Year.  The Cubans, with Minoso hitting .426, defeated the Buckeyes four games to one in the Series.

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Orestes “Minnie” Minoso

In 1948, the Homestead Grays were no longer the team it had been since the late 1930s.  The team’s owner Cum Posey died of lung cancer in 1946 and Josh Gibson, considered the greatest home run slugger in Negro League history, died in 1947.  Also gone were team stalwarts Raymond Brown, Roy Partlow, Jerry Benjamin, “Cool Papa’ Bell, and Jud Wilson.  However, Buck Leonard and pitcher Wilmer Fields along with future Major Leaguers Luke Easter (1949) and Bob Thurman (1955) led the Grays to capture the NNL pennant.  The team defeated the Birmingham Black Barons four games to one in the 1948 Negro League World Series.  In Game Three, the only one won by Birmingham, the Grays’ Leonard was thrown out at second base trying to stretch a single into a double by the Black Barons’ 17-year old center fielder; future Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays.  It would be the third time the Grays would win a World Series championship against the Black Barons, also in 1943 and 1944.

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Willie Mays

Although Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in 1947, racial integration in the Major Leagues went at a slow pace.  However, African-American baseball fans looked at the racial competition in Major League games as social progress and quickly began to lose interest in Negro League baseball.  Game attendance in the Negro Leagues dropped to financially dangerous levels for many teams and the economic stability of Negro League baseball began crumbling; never to recover.   After the 1948 season, the NNL disbanded with the few remaining teams absorbed by the NAL which limped on until the end of Negro League baseball in the early 1960s.

The end of Negro League baseball’s economic stability put a permanent end to the Negro League World Series.  The Homestead Grays, one of the most renowned Negro League franchises, played in four of these fall classics during Negro League baseball’s most profitable years, 1942 – 1945; winning two.  It is only fitting that in 1948 the team won the last Negro League World Series championship.

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Negro League World Series – Part Three

The Houston Astros have been crowned World Series champions bringing to an end the 2017 Major League baseball season.  Now begins the “hot stove league”, the name often referred to the baseball off-season, even though winter does not officially start until December 21.  Baseball fans will be waiting to see what changes will be made by their favorite team for improvement in 2018 season.  Especially those fans of the New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, and Los Angeles Dodgers; teams that made a good run in 2017 but fell short.  With the Astros being young and loaded, it will be an uphill climb for the other teams.  But this post is not my prediction about the 2018 Major League season.  It is the third segment about baseball history’s forgotten fall classic; the Negro League World Series.

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1943 Homestead Grays

After the United States in 1941 became involved in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the continuing operation of both Major League and Negro League baseball for the purpose of maintaining high morale in the country.  The military took such Major League stars as Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Hank Greenberg while Negro League players Monte Irvin, Willard Brown, Leon Day, Larry Doby, and others served also during the War.  There were; however, Negro League stalwarts considered to old (over 30 years old) or with physical exemptions from military service.  This included players such as “Satchel” Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, “Cool Papa” Bell, and others.

The war years became a period of economic prosperity for Negro League baseball.  With an estimated 1.5 million African-Americans by 1944 having jobs in industries producing military weapons, equipment, and supplies; Negro League fans had more disposable income to support their favorite team.  In addition, the fan base widened due to the growing northern migration from southern states of African-Americans seeking the increasing job opportunities.  Negro League game attendance reached new levels far above the previous two decades, experiencing a fifth consecutive year of solid growth in 1945.  With this new economic stability came the rebirth of the Negro League World Series.

In 1942, the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League (NAL) played the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League (NNL) in the first Negro League World Series held since 1927.  The format of attempting to maximum revenue (ticket sales) by playing most of the games in cities with a large African America population remained as before; only one game of the Series would be in Kansas City while the rest in New York, Pittsburgh, Washington D. C., and Philadelphia.  However, the Series changed to be as the Major League’s; first to win four games would be champion.  In the midst of their nine-year reign (1937 – 1945) of winning the NAL pennant, the Grays were favored to defeat the Monarchs.  The Grays’ batting order included Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Jerry Benjamin, Howard Easterling, and Jud Wilson.  But the Monarchs’ pitchers led by “Satchel” Paige, Hilton Smith, and Jack Matchett shut down the powerful Grays’ batters and won the Series four games to none.  Josh Gibson only hit .154 (2 for 14) and Buck Leonard .188 (3 for 16).

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“Satchel” Paige (left) and Josh Gibson (right)

In Game Two of this Series, the pitcher-batter confrontation between the Monarchs’ “Satchel” Paige and the Grays’ Josh Gibson that is a part of Negro League folklore took place.  Wanting to demonstrate proof of being the best pitcher in the Negro Leagues at that time, Paige decided to face Gibson; considered the best hitter.  Leading 2 – 0 with two outs and a man on third base, Paige walks Vic Harris and Howard Easterling intentionally so he could face Josh Gibson.  Paige verbally taunted Gibson, telling before each pitch what he would throw.  Gibson struck out on three Paige fastballs, not quick enough to take a swing at any of them.  The confrontation is so baseball legendary, Monarchs’ first baseman Buck O’Neil gives a narration of it in Ken Burn’s 1994 television documentary miniseries “Baseball”.

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John “Buck” O’Neil

Both the 1943 and 1944 Negro League World Series pitted the Grays against the Birmingham Black Barons.  Paced by pitchers Johnny Wright (two shutouts) and Raymond Brown (two wins and a 2.10 ERA) the Grays won the 1943 Series four games to three.   Behind the hitting of Josh Gibson (.500, 8 for 16) and Buck Leonard (.388, 7 for 18), the Grays won the 1944 Series four games to one.

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Buck Leonard

Despite the war years being an economic boom time for Negro League baseball overall, the Negro League World Series struggled.  The 1944 Negro League East West All Star Game in Chicago drew 51,723 in attendance, the largest to see a Negro League game.  Only 29, 589 fans attended Major League Baseball’s All Star Game that summer held in Pittsburgh.  However in his book, “I Was Right on Time” (Simon & Schuster 1997), Buck O’Neil believed there were less than 5,000 people in stadium that saw the Paige vs Gibson event.  But the overall economic stability of both leagues allowed the Negro League World Series to continue.  Stay tuned for the fourth and final segment.

Last Train to Cooperstown

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A Late Birthday Shout for Cristobal Torriente

One of the many topics of discussion by sportscasters during the recently completed 2017 World Series involved Los Angeles Dodgers’ right fielder Yasiel Puig.  The club is still hoping he will continue to mature and more consistently display his tremendous baseball playing talent.  Puig, a native of Cuba, is one of the most recent in a pipeline of outfielders from that Caribbean nation to successfully play professional baseball in the United States.  Yoenis Cespedes, currently with the New York Mets is also from Cuba.  Former players from the pipeline include Oakland A’s All-Star Jose Canseco, two-time American League batting champion (1964, 1965) Tony Oliva, the defensive star of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1955 World Series Game Seven win over the New York Yankees; Sandy Amoros, and two-time Negro League, seven-time Major League All-Star Orestes “Minnie” Minoso.

I forgot to give a birthday mention last week  for one of the first in the stream of outfielders through the pipeline; Cristobal Torriente, born November 16, 1893 in Cienfuegos, Cuba (same as Puig).  He played with a number of teams in Negro League baseball from 1913 to 1932; including the Chicago American Giants (1918 – 1925), Kansas City Monarchs (1926), and Detroit Stars (1927 – 1928).  In an early 1950’s poll of former Negro League baseball players and sports writers, Cristobal Torriente received high consideration as one of the best outfielders in Negro League history.

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In 2006, Cristobal Torriente and fifteen other individuals from the Negro League baseball era were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  I profile the 2006 inductees in my book “Last Train to Cooperstown:  The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  The following is an excerpt from my profile of Cristobal Torriente:

“At the end of World War I, Chicago was becoming an urban

mecca for African Americans. The lure of the possibility for

economic stability and a better life had fueled the migration of

southern blacks to the city. Rube Foster used the growing aura

Chicago had for African Americans to attract ballplayers to his

Chicago American Giants.  He felt the city gave him an advantage

When  talking to a player about joining his team.  Other owners

accused Foster of using what Chicago was becoming for African

Americans to steal their ballplayers.   Foster’s approach proved

successful with Torriente, who went to play for the American

Giants in 1918.  He had excellent seasons with the Cuban Stars,

however it would be with Foster’s team that Torriente would reach

his peak as a baseball player.

 

Having the most area to cover, centerfield is the most

challenging outfield position. Most managers choose their fastest

outfielder to play it. This was Rube Foster’s thinking in regards to

Cristobal Torriente. Although the Cuban mostly played right field in

his years with the Cuban Stars, his speed and strong arm were a

perfect fit for centerfield in Foster’s mind. With Torriente as the

anchor in centerfield, the American Giants went on to have a

consistently good outfield for many years. Good ballplayers such as

Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, Jimmy Lyons, Floyd “Jelly” Gardner,

and David Malarcher all shared the American Giants’ outfield at one

time or another with Torriente.

 

When Rube Foster’s vision became a reality in 1920 and the

Negro National League (NNL) was formed, his Chicago American

Giants became its premier team from the start. They won the league

championship the first three years (1920 – 1922).  The lack of

documented league statistics prevents a true picture from being

given of Torriente’s performance on the field during the American

Giants’ years of dominance.  Research indicates he finished those

seasons hitting from .342 to as high as .411.  Clearly, they were his

best seasons in the Negro Leagues.”

 

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To read the entire profile of Torriente and the other 2006 inductees Last Train to Cooperstown

Negro League World Series – Part Two

The Houston Astros are the 2017 World Series champions!!!  After all the adversity the residents of Houston and the surrounding communities have  experienced due to Hurricane Harvey, it is great that the city can now add “home of the World Champion Houston Astros’ to its many names promoting it.  Congratulations to long-time Astros fans like John McDonald who suffered with the franchise through the years of being the Houston Colt 45’s, the JR Richard and Enos Cabell years, the Killer B’s, and the 2005 Astros being swept in the World Series by the Chicago White Sox.  It is the 55-year-old franchise’s first World Series championship.  For the Dodgers, sorry long-time fan James O”Berry, this adds to the franchise’s World Series history frustration.  Although the Dodgers have won nineteen National League pennants, their six World Series titles fall short of their fans’ expectations.

This blog post is however not a final commentary of this year’s World Series.  It is the second part of last week’s post about the Negro League World Series which is an overlooked part of baseball history.

Negro League baseball held its first World Series in 1924 with the Kansas City Monarchs of Negro National League (NNL) defeating the Hilldale Club of Darby Pennsylvania from the Eastern Colored League (ECL).  Hilldale avenged its lost in the 1925 Series defeating the Monarchs.  In both the 1926 and 1927 Negro League World Series the Chicago American Giants (NNL) defeated the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants (ECL).  When extreme economic times hit African-Americans in the mid-1920’s, Negro League game attendance declined sharply forcing many teams to go out of business.   The ECL disbanded after the 1927 season.  It tried to reorganize in 1929 as the American Negro League, but failed after one season.  The NNL economically limped into the new decade.  With only one official professional Negro baseball league operating and facing the beginning of the greatest economic depression in America’s history, the Negro League World Series went on hiatus.

Negro National League founder Rube Foster died in December of 1930 and his league disbanded at the end of the 1931 season.  Two leagues were started in 1932, but without long-term success.  The East-West League lasted only two months into the season and the Negro Southern League dissolved at the season’s end.

However in 1933 Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburg Crawfords, organized a new  league consisting of teams in the Upper Midwest and Northeastern United States; and called it the Negro National League (NNL).  From 1933 – 1936, the Crawfords were a dominant force in Negro League baseball.  Hall of Fame players Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson, “Cool Papa” Bell, and Josh Gibson all played with the Crawfords during those years.  They won the NNL pennant in 1933 and 1935.  In 1936, the NNL’s make-up changed to being teams in the Northeast and along the Eastern Seaboard.  The next season, Cum Posey’s Homestead Grays won it’s first of nine straight NNL pennants.

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Also in 1937, the Negro American League (NAL) began operations consisting of teams in the Upper Midwest and Southern United States.  The Kansas City Monarchs emerged as the most dominant team in the league.  Starting in 1938, Buck O’Neil’s second year with the team, the Monarch’s won four straight NAL pennants.

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Kansas City Monarchs 1936

Despite the existence by the late 1930’s of again two Negro professional baseball leagues, the Negro League World Series did not return.  The economics of Negro League baseball worked against the year to year stability of both leagues as African-Americans continued to feel the effects of the economic depression.  However, this changed due to the United States involvement in World War II beginning in 1941. The war led to the improvement of economic conditions for some African Americans over the previous decade because of the country’s desperate need for factory workers.   Due to the labor shortage in industries with federal contracts to produce military weapons, supplies, and equipment; an estimated 1.5 million African Americans had jobs in those industries by 1944. In addition, large numbers of African Americans migrated from the rural South to cities in the Upper Midwest and Northeast seeking employment in those industries.

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Homestead Grays 1939

As a result of the improved economic condition of many African-American baseball fans, Negro League baseball peaked as a business during the 1940s.  With the fan base having more disposable income and also widening due to the growing northern migration of the black population, Negro League game attendance reached new levels far above the previous two decades.

With the greater stability for Negro League baseball, what about the Negro League World Series?  Stay tuned for Part 3.

For more on the history of Negro League baseball, read Last Train to Cooperstown

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The Negro League Baseball World Series – Part One

The World Series is the most anticipated event and the most exciting time of the season for baseball fans.  The American and National League pennant winners clash in what is traditionally referred to as the “Fall Classic” to determine who will get the crown of World Series Champion.  It is a huge part of baseball history.  This year’s Series, the 113th, began last Tuesday.  The Los Angeles Dodgers, a long time National League franchise which began as the Brooklyn Grays in 1890, is going against the Houston Astros who began as a National League franchise in 1962 (Houston Colt 45s) and were switched to the American League in 2013.  The Dodgers are after their fifth World Series title (Brooklyn Dodgers 1955, Los Angeles Dodgers 1959, 1963, 1965, 1981, and 1988), while the Astros their first.

But this blog post is not a commentary on the 2017 World Series.  It is to give attention to the other World Series also a part of baseball history.  On October 3, 1924; the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League (NNL) took on the Hilldale Club of Darby, Pennsylvania of the Eastern Colored League (ECL) in the first game of the initial Negro League Baseball World Series.  Although never the financial success of the Negro League East-West All Star Game (1933 – 1948), the Negro League World Series gave an indication of Negro League baseball’s attempt at relative stability in the face of its economic and racial discrimination barriers.  Held for eleven years, 1924 – 1927 and 1942 – 1948, it is the “forgotten” World Series.

By 1924, the acrimony between the two primary Negro professional baseball leagues had subsided to a level favorable to begin a championship series with the pennant winners of each.  Chicago American Giant owner/manager Andrew “Rube” Foster had formed the Negro National League (NNL) in 1920 consisting of teams in mid America (Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, etc.).  Organized of teams along the eastern seaboard (New York, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, etc.), the Eastern Colored League (ECL) began operating in 1923.  Many NNL players broke their contracts to play for more money in the ECL angering Foster.  In addition, he had other financial feuds with some owners of ECL teams.  However, the leagues were able to forgo their differences to pursue the potential benefits from a championship series.

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1924 Negro League World Series

In an attempt to maximize revenue (ticket sales), league officials decided on a best five out of nine series format; same as the Major League’s World Series in 1919 – 1921.  Also, in addition to the cities of the participating teams, some games would be played in cities with a large African-American population.

In the inaugural Negro League World Series in 1924 there were a number of players who now have plaques in the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Cooperstown, New York).  The Kansas City Monarchs had pitchers Wilber “Bullet” Rogan, a 1998 Hall of Fame inductee, and Jose Mendez (2006), who also was the team’s manager.  Third baseman Judy Johnson inducted in 1975, catcher Biz Mackey (2006) and catcher Louis Santop (2006) were on the Hilldale club.  The latter two were involved in one of the key plays in the Series.  In Game Seven with the Series tied three games apiece, the Monarchs trailed 3 -2 in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and the bases loaded.  The Monarch’s batter Frank Duncan hit a foul ball behind home plate within the reach of Santop which should have resulted in a Hilldale victory.  But the catcher dropped it, giving Duncan another swing.  On the next pitch Duncan hit a ground ball that got past Biz Mackey who was playing shortstop to give the Monarchs a 4 – 2 win.

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Louis Santop

Hilldale recovered to win Game Eight to tie the Series.  Monarch’s manager Jose Mendez, supposedly past his prime at 37 years old, pitched  a 5 – 0 shutout in Game Nine for Kansas City to be the first Negro League World Series champion.  The teams played the Series in four cities; two games in Philadelphia, one in Baltimore, three in Kansas City, and three in Chicago.

 

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Jose Mendez

They met again in the 1926 Series, but with a different outcome.  accidentally punctured with a needle in the knee by his son, Monarchs pitcher and best hitter “Bullet” Rogan could not play.   Hilldale won the Series four games to one.  Biz Mackey, who had replaced the aging Louis Santop at catcher, hit .360 including three hits in the Series clinching Game Five.

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Biz Mackey

Both the 1926 and 1927 Negro League World Series featured the NNL’s Chicago American Giants against the ECL’s Atlantic City Bacharach Giants.  Due to a debilitating illness to “Rube” Foster, Dave Malarcher took over as manager for Chicago.  Excellent pitching highlighted the Series both years.  In 1926, Atlantic City left-handed pitcher Red Grier hurled a no-hitter in Game Three.  However, Chicago’s Bill Foster, Rube’s brother, was the pitching star for the Series.  Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996 and considered the best left-handed pitcher in Negro League baseball history, Foster won two games as his team took the Series five games to three.  In Game Eight, the Series clincher, he pitched a five hit shutout winning 1 – 0.  In the 1927 Series, Atlantic City beat Foster twice.  However, he still won Game 1 and Game 8 as Chicago won the Series again five games to three.

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Bill Foster

In most written accounts of the “Great Depression”, it does not officially start until the New York Stock Market crashes in 1929.  However, economic hard times had hit African-Americans by the mid-1920s.  Negro League baseball game attendance dramatically declined as fans had no money to support the teams.  As a result many Negro League teams, low on capital from the start, went out of business.  After the 1927 season, the ECL disbanded and the NNL economically limped to the end of the decade.  With only one official league operating and facing extremely difficult economic times, the Negro League World Series disappeared after those four years, 1924 – 1927.   However, this is not the end of its story.  Stay tuned.

To read more about Negro League baseball history Last Train to Cooperstown

 

Pete Hill: One of the Best Outfielders of “Deadball” Baseball Era

I did not totally forget to acknowledge the birthday of Negro League outfielder Pete Hill last week, born October 12, 1882 – 84.  If you follow me on Twitter, @Lasttraintocoop, you saw my tweet acknowledging it.  Please excuse my unintended slight of him on this blog.  Hill, a fine fielder and consistent .300 plus hitter, is now considered one of the best outfielders in baseball during the “Deadball Era” (1900 – 1919).

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The National Baseball Hall of Fame agreed in 2006 with that assessment of Pete Hill.   He along with eleven other players and five executives all from Negro League baseball were inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown that year.  Hill’s induction gave him overdue recognition as a contemporary of Ty Cobb (1936 Hall of Fame inductee) and Tris Speaker (1937 Hall of Fame inductee), the best Major League outfielders of the early 20th Century.

The following is an excerpt from my book Last Train in Cooperstown:  The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era, in which I profile Pete Hill and the other 2006 inductees from Negro League baseball.

“In 1901, Hill left Pittsburgh for New York to play for the Cuban X

Giants.  Being only 21, he could not break into the starting lineup to

play regularly.  But, the young outfielder caught the eye of Sol White,

manager of the X Giants’ main rival, the Philadelphia Giants.  White

recruited Hill to play for his team in 1903.

 

With the Philadelphia Giants, he began to mature as a ballplayer.

In 1904, he was the center fielder for what many say was the best

black team of the early 20th century era.  With Hill leading the way,

the Giants were proclaimed winners of the “Colored Championship

of the World” in 1904, 1905, and 1906.  This was the title given to

the top black team on the east coast.  Charles “Kid” Carter, James

Booker, Charlie Grant, Emmett Bowman, and Dan McClellan were

other good players on the Giants with Hill.

 

Another teammate of Hill was Andrew “Rube” Foster. Foster at

that time was one of the best pitchers in black baseball.  He would

later become the “father” of Negro League baseball and a member

of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  The friendship with Foster would have

a major influence on the remainder of Pete Hill’s baseball career.

After the 1906 season, Foster left the Philadelphia Giants to

become the manager for the Chicago Leland Giants.  He took six of

his Philadelphia Giants teammates with him, including Pete Hill.

 

Under the leadership of Rube Foster, Hill’s career blossomed

with the Chicago team.  He was the team captain and was taught the

ins and outs of managing by his friend.  Hill continued to build on

his reputation as a great hitter and the Leland Giants became one of

the most dominant African-American teams in the country’s

heartland.”

Pete Hill Blog picture

To read more about Pete Hill and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown

John I. Kennedy: First African American Philadelphia Philly

The purpose of the postings on my blog and website is to promote the unshakable historical connection of African-Americans to the sport of baseball.  Although I earnestly try to verify information I use on the posts through multiple sources, there are at times errors in the content I write.  Dates may be incorrect, outdated or undocumented information may appear, or important facts not included.  In those occasional instances, the post needs to be updated with the necessary corrections.  My post on November 24, 2015, John Kennedy: First African-American to Play for the Philadelphia Phillies fits into this category; it needs updating for corrections.  Kennedy is an unsung pioneer who has a place in baseball history as the first African-American to play for the Philadelphia Phillies (April 22, 1957).

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Based on a number of internet sources, I indicated in the original post that Kennedy attended Edward Waters College in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. This is not correct; he attended Edward Waters High School.  Former Negro League player John “Buck” O’Neil indicates in his book, “I Was Right on Time” that during the times of racial segregation in the south there were only four white high schools in Florida that would allow African-Americans to attend.  With none of them being in his hometown of Sarasota, O’Neil said he went to the high school at Edward Waters College.  In learning John Kennedy attended Edward Waters; researchers mistakenly assumed college not knowing it had a high school branch/division also.

In the original post, I referenced Kennedy’s time in Negro League baseball with the Birmingham Black Barons and Kansas City Monarchs. However, I have discovered he also had a stint with the Indianapolis Clowns.  His All-Star season with the Monarchs got the attention of both the Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals.  Kennedy signed with Philadelphia on October 4, 1956.

Also missing from the first post; a description about the “buzz” Kennedy created during spring training for the Phillies in 1957.  “Philadelphia Bulletin” sports writer Ray Kelly reported Phillies’ Manager Mayo Smith referring to Kennedy as, “the most exciting newcomer in the Southland”, that spring.  Smith praised him for having confidence in his ability and showing poise.  He also complimented Kennedy’s hitting and excellent reflexes.  “Pittsburg Courier” sports writer Al Dunmore said Kennedy was considered one of the “four top Negro rookies” discussed that spring training in Florida.  Brooks Lawrence, African-American pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, described Kennedy to Dunmore as “a man verby tough to get out”. Although they had considered Kennedy a good player prior to that spring, the African-American Major League players who had battled against him in past fall barnstorming seasons could see his improvement.  His backhanded fielding of a hard hit ground ball off the bat of Cincinnati Reds’ slugger Frank Robinson many considered the best defensive play seen in all the training camps that spring.  To go along with his strong defensive performances, Kennedy batted .385 and for the first time the Philadelphia Phillies had an African-American on the regular season roster.

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John Kennedy (far right) with Philly teammates 1957

After Jackie Robinson erased the color line in 1947, the process of integrating Major League baseball went at a slow pace. Major League teams used age as one excuse to not sign or advance in their minor league systems former Negro League players.  To improve their chances, some African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic baseball players said they were younger than their actual age when signed by a Major League team.  Their actions did not denigrate or taint their Major League careers.  It is what they believed had to be done in fighting the racial discrimination that still existed in professional baseball.  Erroneously in my 2015 blog post about John I. Kennedy, I implied his Major League career fit into that category.  That is not true!  There is no documented evidence or proof that John Kennedy misled the Phillies about his age.  There is nothing to indicate that the team did not know 30-year-old John Kennedy came to spring training in 1957.

There was some confusion about Kennedy’s age. In my earlier blog I indicate Kennedy’s birthdate as November 12, 1926 which is the one given of him by most sources and the accurate one.  However, I also state another birthdate of November 11, 1934 for Kennedy from the book, “Crossing the Line:  Black Major Leaguers 1947 – 1959” (University of Nebraska Press – 2006).  Also, below is an excerpt from his profile in the 2000 Florida Times Union “Athletes of the Century” on-line article where Kennedy is listed as the 85th greatest athlete from the Jacksonville area:

On Kennedy: “John was a beautiful fielder with a good arm. I don’t think the Phillies intended to bring him up until he did so well in spring training. I don’t know this for fact, but I believe they released him quickly because they found out he lied about his age. He was 30, but he told them he was 21.” — Eugene “Stank” White, Kennedy’s teammate on several Negro League teams.

Despite this contrary information that has led to different a conclusion with some sources, there is no documented evidence Kennedy misled the Phillies about his age. In spite of Kennedy’s fantastic performances during spring training, the Phillies traded with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 5 for Chico Fernandez.  Five years younger and with more Major League experience than Kennedy, Fernandez began the regular season as the #1 shortstop.  Kennedy had played third base and second base in Negro League baseball, but the Phillies made no effort to use him at either position; even though the team’s 30-year-old 2nd baseman Granny Hamner (.227) and 31-year-old 3rd baseman Willie Jones (.218) were having a sub-par season.

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The Phillies also that season traded for Chuck Harmon, an African-American outfielder, who had been in the Major Leagues three years. With Harmon, the team appeared to have gone over its quota for African American and/or dark-skinned Hispanic players (no more than two) which the majority of Major League teams set in the 1950s.  The owners were afraid having too many players of color would drive away white baseball fans.  This made Kennedy, who according to some sources also had a sore shoulder and a seriously ill mother, the odd minority out.  Gone from the Phillies before mid-season, Kennedy played in only five games and had only two AT-BATS.  He spent three more full years in the Phillies minor league system (1958 – 1960) before retiring from professional baseball.  The team did not give him another opportunity to make its Major League roster.

If my original post about John Irvin Kennedy implied he misled the Phillies organization about his true age, I stand corrected. A talented African-American baseball player whose career was stymied by discrimination that existed during the slow process of Major League baseball racial integration in the 1950s, John Irvin Kennedy has an untainted place in baseball history.

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For more information on the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown

 

 

Edsall Walker: Part of “the Long Gray Line”

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Last Friday I failed to give notice of Edsall Walker’s birthday.   Born September 15, 1913 in Catskill, New York, “Big” Walker pitched for the Homestead Grays from 1937 – 1940 and 1943 – 1946.  He received the nickname because of his 6’0, 215 pounds physical stature.  They nicknamed George Walker, 5’11”, 185 pounds who also pitched for the Grays during that time “Little”.

A left-handed pitcher, “Big” Walker had what opposing hitters called a wickedly sinking fastball that he consistently threw at 100 miles per hour.  However, he could not consistently get it in the strike zone.  Wild enough with his pitches to caused batters to fear being hit, Walker still threw enough strikes when needed to get them out.   That combination made him an effective pitcher.  With Hall of Fame left handed pitchers Willie Foster and Andy Cooper past their primes, “Big” Walker was one of the best southpaw pitchers in the Negro Leagues during his time.

Walker came to the Grays in 1937 after playing with a minor league team; the Albany Colored Giants.  Slugger Josh Gibson had returned to the Grays that same year in a trade after playing five years with the Pittsburgh Crawfords.  Starting with that season the Homestead Grays would win nine straight Negro National League pennants (1937 – 1945).  With the team known mainly during this stretch for its powerful offense due to Gibson, Buck Leonard, Jerry Benjamin, and others in the batting order, the pitching staff does not get the credit it deserved.  Hall of Fame pitcher Raymond Brown was the team’s ace with “Big” Walker one of the other key starters and its top reliever.  The Grays traded “Big” to the Philadelphia Stars in 1941.   After the United States became embroiled in World War II, he sat out the 1942 season to work fulltime in the Baltimore shipping yards and then returned to the Grays.

Walker’s only Negro League East-West All Star Game appearance came in 1938 as the starting pitcher for the East squad.  In the first three innings, he gave up five runs on four hits, three walks, and was the losing pitcher in the West’s squad 5 – 4 win.  It was a performance Walker hesitated discussing later in life because he was a better pitcher than he showed that day.

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The winning tradition established by the Homestead Grays has been called “the long gray line”. Although not a Hall of Fame or perennial All Star pitcher, Edsall “Big” Walker for seven years helped keep the line moving.

For more information on the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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