This is the second part of my tribute to Frank Robinson, my personal favorite baseball player who died of bone cancer this past February 7th. In remembering him, I will always think about 1966. That year, I got the opportunity to see him play in person. And more importantly, after being defined as “past his prime” and traded, Frank Robinson had the best year of his career.
The Baltimore Orioles did not have a strong history with African-American players since coming into the American League in 1954 when a group of Baltimore investors bought the failing St. Louis Browns franchise and moved it to the city by Chesapeake Bay. The team followed the American League’s slow pace of racial integration in the 1950s. Despite building a strong minor league system, the Orioles’ had not developed an African-American star player. Joe Durham and Jehosie Heard, in 1954, were the first African-Americans to play for the Orioles; both having only brief non-impactful careers. Two former Negro League players had solid seasons with the Orioles in the late 1950s. Pitcher Connie Johnson won 14 games in 1957 and first baseman Bob Boyd hit .300 three consecutive seasons (1956 – 1958). In the early 1960s outfielder Sam Bowens had one good season, 1964, hitting 22 home runs in 139 games. But despite that history, after finishing 3rd the previous two seasons, Baltimore Orioles’ management believed acquiring Frank Robinson could put them over the top in 1966. He hit a double his first At Bat in spring training starting a magical season that would prove them correct.
On May 27th that year, while sitting in the upper deck bleachers far down the right field line at the Kansas City Athletics’ Municipal Stadium, I cheerfully saw Frank Robinson take his right field position; I saw the strut. In his first At Bat, he crowded the plate just as I had seen him do on TV; challenging the pitcher. In the 4th inning he got hit by the pitch, one of the 198 times of his career. The next game I attended when the Orioles came to town Robinson went hitless, but the talk of him winning the Triple Crown had begun. Each day I looked at the newspaper baseball box scores to check his progress. Robinson finished ahead of 4-time American League home run champion Harmon Killebrew 49 to 39. He finished ahead of Tony Oliva, who had won the American League batting title the last two seasons, .316 to .307. With also leading the League with 122 RBI, Robinson won the Triple Crown.
My high school drafting teacher brought a TV to watch the World Series. From my front row drafting desk I saw Frank Robinson’s 1st inning two run home run off Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher Don Drysdale that set the tone for the Orioles’ four games sweeping of the Series. He hit another home run off Drysdale to win Game Four. Named American League Most Valuable Player in 1966, Robinson is the only one to receive MVP honors in both leagues, winning it while with Cincinnati in 1961. During Robinson’s time in Baltimore, the Orioles also won American League pennants in 1969 – 71 and were World Series champions in 1970.
Frank Robinson’s autobiography is called “My Life is Baseball” (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 1975). That title reflects a true picture of his relationship with the game. Near the end of his playing career in 1974, he became the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball. The Cleveland Indians were the first of four teams in Robinson’s 16 year career as a manager, 1,065 wins and 1,176 losses. He had the reputation as having a “hard-nosed”, “old school” approach at managing, although he did mellow in the in the way he handled players as he got older. I remember Robinson’s competitive spirit on display when seeing the Indians play the Kansas City Royals in 1975. Throughout the National Anthem, Robinson jawed back and forth with the home plate umpire while they both looked up at the flag. He had his critics, but also gained the highest respect and esteem in the Major League Baseball community for his overall accomplishments in the sport. During his career, Frank Robinson served as a batting coach, an outfield coach, a consultant for club owners, and held positions in the Office of Major League Baseball.
I will miss my favorite baseball player. Playing on my high school’s first baseball team the spring of 1967 and throughout the amateur summer leagues, I chose # 20 as my uniform number. I still have his 1959, 1960, 1964 Topps baseball cards (lost 1965s) and also the Post Cereal Frank Robinson cards for 1961 – 63. I still have memories of that 1966 season. Also, I still have that vision of my first seeing of him circling the bases after that home run in the 1959 All-Star Game. Frank Robinson had the run, that strut, I will never forget.
From 1959 – 1962 there were two Major League All-Star Games played with most of the revenue from the second going for players’ pension fund. During the telecast of the second All-Star Game in 1959, played on August 3 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, I saw Frank Robinson for the first time. I had only heard about him when my father and older brothers talked about African-American baseball players. However; three days before my 8th birthday, I got my first real look at #20 that afternoon on our RCA black & white TV screen. The 83 years old former outfielder and manager died this past February 7th. I know this post will get lost in the thousands of verbal and written tributes to him and his accomplishments in baseball. But I have to write it. I took the death of Frank Robinson, my favorite all-time baseball player, # 20, personally. In remembering him, the following thoughts come to my mind.
First, I will remember Frank Robinson as the first African-American star Major League baseball player that did not get his start in Negro League baseball. Signed out of McClymonds High School in Oakland, California by the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1953, he faced the existing racial discrimination in professional baseball in the 1950s; in the minor leagues (SALLY League 1955) and in spring training (Tampa, Florida). Before national sportswriters voted Robinson National League Rookie of the Year in 1956 when he hit .293 with 38 home runs, the previous African-American winners were all former Negro League players: Jackie Robinson (1947), Don Newcombe (1949), Sam Jethroe (1950), Willie Mays (1951), Joe Black (1952), and Jim Gilliam (1953). In 1961 Frank Robinson won National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors (.323 BA, 37 HRs, 124 RBI, 22 SB) leading Cincinnati to win the National League pennant. The African- American MVP Award winners up until that time were all former Negro League players: Jackie Robinson (1949), Roy Campanella (1951, 1953, 1955), Willie Mays (1954), Henry Aaron (1957), and Ernie Banks (1958, 1959). Frank Robinson followed the path in the 1950s set by Jackie Robinson and other former Negro League players to have a Hall of Fame (1982 inductee) baseball career.
Secondly, I will always remember how Frank Robinson ran. During that second 1959 Major League All-Star Game, Robinson hit a 5th inning home run off Early Wynn. The way he circled the bases in his sleeveless Cincinnati Redlegs (they were not called the Reds back in 1959) uniform wearing a red short-sleeved jersey underneath, got my attention. To me, Robinson had a distinctive running style; straight-backed, stiff-legged, pumping his arms up and down at his hips. It seemed like a confident strut or pimp, a reflection of his highly competitive aggressive approach to playing baseball, and it stuck in my mind about him. I still have an image of other stars from that era; Mickey Mantle swinging his bat with all his body’s physical strength, Willie Mays running from under his cap, Henry Aaron playing with such ease and grace he hardly seem to break a sweat, and Ernie Banks’ smiling “let’s play two” joy about the game. But Frank Robinson, to me, had the run; the strut.
Then I will always remember Frank Robinson’s best season, 1966. Cincinnati’s trade of him to the Baltimore Orioles on December 9, 1965 turned the American League on its head. The team rosters of that 1959 All-Star Game when I first saw him reflected the slower pace of racial diversity in the junior circuit at that time. The American League All-Star team had three African-American or dark-skinned Latino ball players as compared to nine for the National League. It had been twelve years since Jackie Robinson erased the color line in 1947, but two American League clubs had just become integrated; the Detroit Tigers with Ozzie Virgil in 1958 and the Boston Red Sox with Pumpsie Green in 1959. In 1963, Elston Howard of the New York Yankees, a product of Negro League baseball, became the first African-American to receive MVP honors in the American League. In ten years with Cincinnati, Robinson hit 324 home runs while averaging 100 RBIs and a .301 batting average. However General Manager Bill Dewitt, believing him past his prime and calling him “an old 30 years of age with an old body”, in what would turn out to be one of the worst trades in baseball history sent Frank Robinson to the American League.
My tribute to the late Frank Robinson will continue in my next blog post. Stay tuned!
All images used for this post were taken from internet web sites
A BELATED HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Before getting further into 2019, I need to briefly mention the Negro League players who took the field for the last inning of life’s game in 2018. Of the five listed, one briefly played Major League baseball and another in the minor leagues after Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in 1947. The others played during the rapid decline of the Negro Leagues in the 1950’s or on teams in the Negro minor leagues. Neither of the ex-players in the post is considered a “famous name”, but the lives of each are a chapter in the Negro League baseball story.
I may not have been aware of the death in 2018 of others from the Negro League baseball era, so the list could be incomplete.
Roosevelt Jackson – May 5, 2018
Born 12/20/17 in Gay, Georgia; Jackson became known at events honoring Negro League baseball during the last years of his life as the “oldest player from the Negro League era”. He played both infield (2B) and outfield during the 1930’s and 1940’s with Negro minor leagues teams in Florida; Miami Globetrotters, Hollywood (Fla.) Redbirds, Miami Red Sox, Belle Glade Redwings. These teams were on the Florida spring barnstorming circuit of the major Negro League clubs. After integration, Jackson did scouting for the Philadelphia Phillies.
William “Youngblood” McCrary – July 21, 2018
While attending high school in Beloit, Wisconsin; McCrary drew interest from the St. Louis Cardinals. However, with African-Americans still barred from organized white baseball, the team referred him to the Kansas City Monarchs. Beginning as a 17 years old reserve shortstop, McCrary played for the Monarchs from 1946 – 1948. Because of his young age, “Satchel” Paige called him “Youngblood”. McCrary signed with the New York Yankees in 1949 and spent two years in its minor league system.
Jose Santiago – October 9, 2018
Born September 4, 1928 in Coamo, Puerto Rico, Santiago pitched for the 1947 Negro League World Series champion New York Cubans. Before the next season, Cubans’ owner Alex Pompez sold a number of his players to Major League franchises for money to keep his team operating. Santiago went to the Cleveland Indians. He stayed in the team’s minor league system for six years before making his Major League debut on April 17, 1954. He became the second player from Puerto Rico to be in the American League. After he had a 2 – 0 record in 1955, the Indians traded Santiago to the Kansas City A’s who released him halfway through the 1956 season. He never again pitched for another Major League team.
Edward Burton – October 18, 2018
The Harrisburg Giants were a strong team in the Eastern Colored League (ECL) from 1925 – 1927. Famous Negro League players such as Oscar Charleston, Rap Dixon, Clarence “Fat” Jenkins, and John Beckwith played with the team at one time during the period. The ECL disbanded in 1928 and by the time Edward Burton joined the Giants in 1947, it had become a low-level, Negro minor league team. A second baseman, Burton played against Negro American League teams barnstorming though Harrisburg until 1955. For the last few years he had participated in activities honoring Negro League baseball in Charlotte, NC; where he died.
Frank “Bubba” King – December 8, 2018
Born 6/23/23 in East Point, GA., King played professional/semi-professional baseball from 1936 – 1958 with local black teams in the Atlanta area; East Point Bears, Atlanta Cards, College Park Indians. These teams kept black baseball alive in Atlanta down through the Negro League era. In the 1940’s King, an outfielder, played with the Atlanta Black Crackers of the Negro Southern League (NSL); a Negro minor league team.
I need to mention five former players not from the Negro League baseball era who died in 2018. For each I have my own personal reflection which will be in my next post. Stay tuned!
As I mentioned in my last blog post, many times I have been the fan of the team that lost the World Series. I called those painfully disappointing losses my World Series nightmares. One of those nightmares involved Hall of Fame slugger Willie McCovey who died this past October 31.
The 1962 World Series would be the seventh “Yankees vs Giants”, but with a huge difference. After being a New York franchise since 1883, first the Gothams then in 1885 the Giants, the New York Giants moved to the west coast after the 1957 season to become the San Francisco Giants. By 1962, center fielder Willie Mays and manager Alvin Dark were the only Giants who had played with the team in New York. They were on the Giants’ team that lost the 1951 World Series to the New York Yankees.
Before the boom in television coverage of sporting events, all World Series games were played in the afternoon. In grade school, I could only watch the first innings during my lunch break. The games were over by the time school ended. I would have to wait until the weekends to see a complete game.
In Game One at Candlestick Park the Giants’ stopped pitcher Whitey Ford’s World Series scoreless streak at 33 2/3 innings, but still lost to the Yankees 6-2. With Ford being a left-handed pitcher, left-handed hitting Willie McCovey did not play.
The Giants’ continued the World Series miseries of Yankees’ pitcher Ralph Terry in Game Two, winning 2 – 0. Willie McCovey hit a seventh inning home run. Terry, who won 23 games during the 1962 regular season, had been the goat of the 1960 World Series surrendering the walk-off Seventh Game winning home run to Bill Mazeroski of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the 1961 World Series Terry dropped Game Two; New York’s only loss to the Cincinnati Reds.
The Series switched to Yankee Stadium for Game Three that Sunday and I got to watch it all on TV. However, New York won 3 – 2. McCovey played right field, zero for three at the plate.
When I came home for lunch during Game Four the next day, the Giants were ahead 2 – 0. Juan Marichal had held the Yankees scoreless the first four innings, but left the game with a sore hand. After my lunch break, the Yankees tied the score. But later, from a friend who missed school due to a stomach ache, I learned the Giants scored five runs the last three innings to win 7 – 3. Claiming to have the same type of stomach ache the next morning, I stayed home to watch Game Five. However, it rained in New York forcing the game to be cancelled! My mother told me though the expression on her face, “You got what you deserved for your stunt”. Returning home from school the next day, I had no more “sick day” options, I painfully learned the Yankees had won Game Five behind Ralph Terry’s sound pitching 5 – 3. McCovey, playing first base, got one hit.
A Northern California rain storm cancelled Game Six a Series’ record three times, including during the weekend when I would have been able to watch. When play resumed, the Giants won 5 – 2 tying the Series at three games apiece.
My school’s janitor had a bet with my teacher that New York would win the World Series. After listening to Game Seven on his transistor radio, he came into my classroom to collect on his bet. I learned the details on the game after school. With Ralph Terry pitching, the Yankees led 1 – 0 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Matty Alou singled to lead-off for the Giants. With two outs, Willie Mays doubled. Willie McCovey, who had tripled in the seventh inning, then hit a line drive to second baseman Bobby Richardson to end the Series.
The 1962 World Series brought triumphant vindication to Ralph Terry, but disappointment to Willie McCovey. For the remainder of his great career, McCovey did not get another opportunity for World Series success. For me, due to the rainouts, I only saw one entire game and my stunt to see another failed. Also, in the words spoken by Charlie Brown in the newspaper comic strip Peanuts on 11/22/62; “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just 3 feet higher?” It probably needed to be more than three feet, but that tells how painfully I still think about it now. What a nightmare!
Being a fan of the team that loses the baseball World Series is a disappointing experience. It is a deeper frustration than your favorite football team losing the Super Bowl. That is just one game. But with the World Series, you have the emotionally draining ebb and flow of four to possibly seven games. I could see this emotional frustration on the faces of Los Angeles Dodgers’ fans during this year’s World Series. The Boston Red Sox defeated the Dodgers 5 – 1 at Dodger Stadium this past October 28 to win the 2018 Series 4 games to 1. It would be the second straight year Dodger fans had to watch the opposing team celebrate winning the World Series at the Dodgers’ home field. The Houston Astros won Game Seven of the 2017 Series 5 – 1 in front of the frustrated Dodger fateful. The last two World Series have been horrible experiences for Dodger fans. Both have been like nightmares.
Being a rabid baseball fan for just over 60 years, I can relate to what the Dodgers’ fans experienced; I have had more than a few World Series nightmares. The Milwaukee Braves losing three straight to the New York Yankees after being ahead three games to one in the 1958 World Series and the St. Louis Cardinals blowing their three games to one lead to the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 Series were two of my nightmares. I still cringe remembering Curt Flood misplaying Detroit’s Jim Northup’s long fly ball as the Cards’ lost Game Seven.
Another of my World Series nightmares involved Hall of Fame first baseman Willie McCovey who died October 31, three days after the end of this year’s Series. Eighty years old, the six-time National League All-Star lost his battle with an infection and other on-going health issues at the Stanford University Medical Center. Tributes from both inside and outside of professional baseball are still continuing to come for the big (6’4”, 198 lbs.) left-handed slugger who my older brother and I along with others called “Stretch”. Born January 10, 1938 in Mobile, Alabama; McCovey made his Major League debut with the San Francisco Giants July 30, 1959 getting four hits against Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts of the Philadelphia Phillies. He finished the season hitting .354 with 13 HRs in 54 games and received the National League Rookie of the Year award.
After his sensational 1959 rookie season, McCovey fought a batting slump through the summer of 1960 hitting .238 in 101 games with 13 HRs and even spent time back in the minor leagues. He regained his hitting stroke in 1961(18 HRs, 50 RBIs, .271 BA in 106 games) and created a dilemma for the Giants. Both McCovey and 1999 Hall of Fame inductee Orlando Cepeda were first basemen. In order to get both their bats in the line-up one of them had to play in the outfield, not the strongest position for either. However, with Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Mays covering ground in center field, it worked in 1962 as the Giants won the National League pennant with McCovey and Cepeda splitting time between playing first base and right or left field.
That set the 1962 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the defending champion New York Yankees. The main reason for my World Series nightmares at that time, the Yankees had won 8 Series in the prior 13 years and were favored to win in 1962 for their ninth. Be sure to read Part Two of this post to see how my hope for a World Series win by the Giants turned into another nightmare for me.
From March through June on Twitter, follow me at Kevin L. Mitchell @LastTraintocoop, I wrote about Negro League Baseball catchers.
Currently there are four former Negro League catchers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Roy Campanella (1969), Josh Gibson (1972), James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey (2006), and Louis Santop (2006). However, there were others who developed the skills necessary to handle the responsibilities of the position and who made outstanding contributions to the success of their teams.
I listed ten of my Negro League catcher Tweets in the May 28th blog post, “Negro League Baseball Catchers – Part One”. Following is listed another ten. They all came before the erasing of the “invisible color line” and did not play Major League baseball. But, they helped to build the legacy of the Negro Leagues.
John Hines, Chicago American Giants 1924 – 1930, 1932, 1934. Negro League World Series champs 1926 and 1927, attended Wiley College.
John Walter Burch, Negro League baseball 1934 – 1946, teams included Atlantic City Bacharach Giants 1931, Homestead Grays 1936, Cleveland Buckeyes 1943 – 1944, 1946. Buckeyes manager in 1942.
Leon “Pepper” Daniels, Detroit Stars 1921 – 1927, battery mate of Hall of Fame pitcher Andy Cooper, Chicago American Giants 1931.
Bob Clarke, Negro League career 1923 – 1948. Played mainly with Baltimore Black Sox 1923 – 1928, New York Black Yankees 1933 – 1940, Baltimore Elite Giants 1941 – 1946.
Pete Booker, Negro League 1905 – 1919, teams included Philadelphia Giants, Leland Giants, New York Lincoln Giants, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Chicago American Giants, Indianapolis ABCs, Also played 1B
Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett, Negro League career 1935 – 1946, played with several teams including Pittsburgh Crawfords and Birmingham Black Barons (1943 & 1944 Negro American League champions)
WG “Bill” Perkins, Negro League career 1928 – 1948, 2-time Negro League All-Star, best years 1931 – 1936 Pittsburgh Crawfords, frequent battery mate of Satchel Paige.
Joe Greene, Kansas City Monarchs 1939 – 1943, 1946 – 1947. Handled pitching staff that included “Satchel” Paige, Connie Johnson, Hilton Smith, Jack Matchett, etc.
Frazier Robinson, Kansas City Monarchs 1942 – 1943, New York Black Yankees 1943, Baltimore Elite Giants 1943, 1946 – 1950.
Bill “Ready” Cash, 2-time Negro League All-Star, Philadelphia Stars 1943 – 1949. Briefly played in Chicago White Sox minor league systems 1950s.
All photos for this post the courtesy of numerous internet sites via Google Images
This is the second part of my tribute to Ed Charles a baseball player I admired during the 1960s when he played with the Kansas City A’s. I discovered this summer Charles died earlier this year on March 15.
Although he did not receive any votes for 1962 American League Rookie of the Year, Ed Charles had a solid initial year in the Major Leagues. He hit .288 with 17 HRs, 74 RBI, and 20 stolen bases. Playing for the 9th place Kansas City A’s did not give him much help in the voting despite his statistics. However, he did make the 1962 Topps All-Star Rookie team.
In Ed Charles’ five full seasons with the A’s (1962 – 1966), the team finished no higher than 7th place. On average per year for that period, he hit 13 HRs, had 62 RBI, batting .270 with 14 stolen bases. These offensive statistics were not equal to the best third baseman in the American League during that time, Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles, who averaged 20 HRs, 90 RBI, and a .287 batting mark. However, Charles’ per year offensive averages for the period were compatible with other American League top “hot corner” men:
Pete Ward (Chicago White Sox) 14 HRs, 65 RBIs, hit .260
Rich Rollins (Minnesota Twins) 11 HRs, 59 RBI, hit .273
Clete Boyer (New York Yankees) 14 HRS, 57 RBI, hit .246
Max Alvis (Cleveland Indians) 19 HRs, 59 RBI, hit .257
Frank Malzone (Boston Red Sox) 13 HRS, 63 RBI, hit .269
The way he consistently hit in the minor leagues, it is no surprise when given the opportunity Charles would be a capable Major League hitter.
Defensively, Brooks Robinson won five Gold Gloves at third base from 1962 – 1966. He averaged 12 errors per year with a .974 fielding percentage. Charles, during this period, averaged 16 errors per year with a .960 fielding percentage making him statistically above par in terms of defense with the other top American League third basemen who averaged 19 errors and had a .954 fielding percentage.
But Ed Charles’ running style is what first captured my attention of him. Most fans called it a glide. He turned his elbows outward, pumping his arms up and down together in coordination with his stride. Seeing it more like a prideful strut or pimp, I loved it. To me, Frank Robinson had the only other distinctive running style at that time.
The way Charles swung his bat also got my attention. He had a slight hitch in his swing, but used strong wrists and forearms that still allowed him to hit with power. On July 31, 1964, my neighborhood friends and I went to see an A’s and Baltimore Orioles doubleheader. After losing the first game, the A’s rallied to tie the nightcap 6 – 6 in the eighth inning. In the late innings, the stadium ushers allowed kids from the bleachers to go down to the box seats which would then be empty. This gave us the opportunity to see and hear Major League players up close. The O’s brought in pitcher Steve Barber to face the A’s in the ninth and Charles greeted him with a home run to win the game. I saw Ed Charles up close one other time that summer when he turned the switch on the new lighting for the inner-city baseball field in my neighborhood.
Charles’ poetry began to get notice during his time with the A’s. I remember him reciting the one called “An Athlete’s Prayer” on the radio or TV dugout show a number of times.
In 1967, the Kansas City A’s were building the team that would become World Series Champions in 1972, 1973,and 1974 after owner Charlie Finley moved it to Oakland when that season ended. But 34 years old Ed Charles did not fit into the team’s plans. On May 10 the A’s traded him to the last place New York Mets. I did not totally lose track of Charles’ career after the trade. In 1968, he proved to still be a suitable Major League hitter for again a bottom rug team, 15 HRs, 53 RBI, and a .276 batting average. This is what he had done his entire Major League career.
But the baseball fate of Ed Charles made a remarkable turnaround in 1969 when the New York Mets won the World Series. He went 2 for 4 in Game 2 with a double in New York’s 2 – 1 win. A picture of the celebrating Mets after the final out to close out the Series shows a smiling, jubilant Ed Charles. After toiling nine years in the minor leagues and seven with bottom rug Major League teams, Charles reached the top of pro baseball’s world; a place where some Hall of Fame players never reached.
This summer I have juggled coaching a baseball team of eight to twelve years old kids while teaching a course on the history of Negro League baseball; “Negro League Baseball: The Deep Roots of African-Americans in America’s National Pastime”, and visiting grandchildren in Texas.
Included in the summer curriculum of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Kansas, the course discussed the deep historical roots African-Americans have in the sport due to the Negro League baseball era. Although he did not play in the Negro Leagues, I briefly mentioned former Major League player Ed Charles in the introductory section of the course. I wanted to give the students a brief history of how as a kid I fell in love with baseball. Edwin Douglas Charles had a part in that history. In my research preparing for the course I discovered Charles had died last March 15th in the East Elmhurst section of the New York City borough of Queens. The former third baseman was 84 years old.
A baby boomer born and raised in the Kansas City area, I became a baseball fan through following the Kansas City A’s in the late 1950s; a team that consistently finished near the bottom of the American League standings. Much to the chagrin of Kansas City baseball fans, the A’s functioned as a player development team for the New York Yankees at that time. They would trade their best players to New York; Hector Lopez, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, Roger Maris, Bob Cerv, Ralph Terry, and Clete Boyer, in exchange for utility players or those past their prime. I saw Hank Bauer, Don Larson, Marv Throneberry, Johnny Kucks, Norm Siebern, and other former Yankees dawn an Athletics’ uniform. The A’s finished the 1960 season in last place and were the only Major League team without an African-American or dark-skinned Latino ballplayer.
In 1961, Charlie Finley purchased the team and the next season racially diversified it adding to the roster John Wyatt, Jose Tartabull, Diego Segui, Orlando Pena, Manny Jimenez, and Ed Charles. A product of the depression era and post-World War II “Jim Crow” south, born April 29, 1933 in Daytona Beach, Florida, Charles had been obtained in a trade with the Milwaukee Braves. The team signed him in 1952 while still the Boston Braves, but for 10 seasons he labored in its minor league system. That included stops at the A to AAA levels in places such as Jacksonville, Louisville, Wichita, and Vancouver.
Although the “invisible color line” had been erased, Charles along with other African-American and dark-skinned Latino players in the 1950s experienced the open racial prejudice that existed in professional baseball’s minor league systems. Overall he hit .291 in the minor leagues and showed occasional home run power. But Charles played 3rd base, the position manned during that period for the Braves by 2-time National League home run champion and future Hall of Fame inductee (1978) Eddie Mathews. Charles had the versatility to play 2nd base, but there is no evidence the Braves thought about a shift despite the inconsistent performances at the position in 1959 and 1960 during Red Schoendienst’s absence due to illness. The A’s would finally give Charles, at 29 years old, the opportunity to prove himself as a Major League player.
Given that opportunity, Ed Charles over the next five years became an above average, solid ballplayer on a team that consistently finished near last in the American League. Also; he caught the eye of a ten-years old baseball fan that would keep a love for the game that would not just extend beyond the trading card collection years, but would continue for more than half a century.
Part Two of my tribute to Ed Charles is in my next blog post. I promise it will not be three months before it appears!
Nate Colbert of the San Diego Padres tied a Major League record on August 1, 1972 by hitting five home runs in doubleheader. The story surrounding the first baseman’s feat reflects how the baseball dreams of African-American boys changed as a result of Jackie Robinson erasing Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” in 1947.
On May 2, 1954 in a doubleheader against the New York Giants; St. Louis Cardinal right fielder Stan Musial hit five home runs. There were 26,662 in attendance that Sunday afternoon at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium to see him do what no other Major League player had accomplished. In the first game, Musial hit three home runs and drove in six runs in the Cardinal’s 10 – 6 victory. He hit 2 homers and drove in three runs in the nightcap, but the Giants won 9 – 7.
In the stadium that spring afternoon with his father was eight year old African-American Nate Colbert. I can visualize the excitement on little Nate’s face in seeing his favorite Cardinal ballplayer, “Stan the Man”, hit those five home runs. But Colbert that day also saw Cardinal rookie first baseman Tom Alston, the first African-American to appear in a Major League game for the St. Louis Cardinals.
For the first time in the franchise’s history, the 1954 Cardinal team had African-American players. The 28-year-old Alston made his Major League debut on April 13, earlier than Brooks Lawrence (June 24) and Bill Greason (May 31), the other two African-Americans on the team. A good defensive first baseman, he had a hot bat against the Giants in the doubleheader witnessed by little Nate. In the first game Alston got four hits including a home run, his third of the young season, and two RBIs. The second game he hit a bases loaded double (3 RBIs) in the Cardinals’ first inning. He ended the day batting .313.
Little Nate also saw that day three former Negro League baseball players who appeared in both games for the Giants: Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson. Irvin and Thompson in 1949 were the first African-Americans to play for the Giants.
Fast forward this story to 1964. 18-year-old Nate Colbert is signed by the Cardinals, but they lose him to the Houston Astros in the 1965 Rule Five draft and he never plays a game in the uniform of his hometown team. The Astros then traded him to the San Diego Padres in 1969.
On August 1, 1972; in Colbert’s fourth season with the Padres, he ties the record he saw Stan Musial set in 1954. Colbert hits five home runs in a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. He hits two home runs and drives in five runs as the Padres win the first game 9-0 and hits three homers driving in eight runs in his team’s 11 -7 victory in the nightcap. For the second time in his six years with the Padres, Colbert hits 38 home runs in 1972.
Little Nate Colbert’s Major League career did not come close to that of Stan Musial who is a 1969 Hall of Fame inductee. To tie or break a record in baseball; however, is considered a great accomplishment. And Colbert being present to see the record set that he would eventually tie makes this a unique circumstance. In addition, Colbert got the opportunity to be able to do what he saw his childhood favorite Cardinal ballplayer do because of what he also witnessed that May afternoon.
By seeing Tom Alston, Willie Mays, Hank Thompson, and Monte Irvin play that day; Colbert witnessed the new day in Major League baseball that was occurring. It had dawned in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. It was a new day in which the baseball dreams of little Nate Colbert and other African-American boys were no longer confined to Negro League baseball. A new day that would produce stories like Nate Colbert’s and others as the racial barriers in professional baseball were pulled down in the 1950s and 1960s.
Last month, I taught a course for the summer 2018 session of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Kansas. Entitled, ” Negro League Baseball: The Deep Roots of African-Americans in America’s National Pastime”, the course examined the deep roots African-Americans have in America’s great game because of the Negro League baseball era. It explained how the Negro Leagues provided a vehicle for African Americans and dark-skinned Latino players to showcase their baseball talents despite racial and economic obstacles, painting a true picture of how Negro League baseball is embedded into the fabric of 20th-century American History.
Those attending the course were baseball fans of baby-boomer age and older. Some had very little knowledge of the Negro League era while others were familiar with Negro League lore about “Satchel” Paige, Josh Gibson, and “Cool Papa” Bell. However, they all saw Negro League baseball as a neglected part of the sport’s history and wanted to know more about it. This led to course sessions full of questions and lively discussions about not just Negro League baseball, but also the history of race relations in America.
I want to thank KU’s Osher Institute Director Jim Peters for including my course in this summer’s session. Also, I thank the 17 baseball fans who took six hours from their summer activities to attend the course.