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.
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
This past Monday I acknowledged on Twitter the birthdate of former Negro League pitcher Bob Trice, born 8/28/26 in Newton, Georgia. Bob Trice has a place in baseball history as the first African-American to play in a Major League game for the then Philadelphia A’s, September 13, 1953. He was one of a group of former Negro League players that found success in Canada’s Provincial League during the slow beginning of racial integration in the Major Leagues and the steady demise of Negro League baseball. They were scouted while playing in Canada and signed by Major League teams.
Organized in 1922, the Canadian (Quebec) Provincial League consisted of teams located in Canada’s Quebec Province. Operating independently of any professional baseball governing organization, the league began allowing African-Americans to play in the late 1930s. In 1935 pitcher Alfred Wilson became the first African-American to be in the league, but I could not find information about him or others who played there during that period. When the Provincial League became more recognized by organized professional baseball in the United States, the welcome mat for African American players disappeared. However; when the process of racial integration of Major League baseball began in 1946 and Negro League baseball began to decline, the league in Canada attracted many former Negro League players.
In 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson had erased the “invisible color line” that had kept African-Americans and dark-skinned Hispanic players out of Major League baseball for over 60 years, racial integration in professional baseball had slowly progressed. Along with Robinson (Brooklyn Dodgers), there were eight other African-Americans or dark-skinned Hispanics who had appeared in Major League games that year: Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella (Dodgers), Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin (New York Giants), and Larry Doby, “Satchel” Paige, Luke Easter, and Minnie Minoso (Cleveland Indians). However, the future declining fate of the Negro Leagues had begun. Negro League game attendance dropped dramatically as blackball fans enthusiastically flocked to see African-Americans compete in the Major Leagues. Seen as more than an athletic contest, the games to African-American baseball fans were demonstrations of social progress. As the 1940s concluded, the Negro National League (NNL) disbanded leaving only the Negro American League (NAL) to navigate the troubled water. It was during this time that many Negro League players found refuge in Canada’s Quebec Provincial League.
In 1948, James “Buzz” Clarkson (Pittsburgh Crawfords, Newark Eagles, and Philadelphia Stars) led the Provincial League in home runs with 29 while playing for the St. Jean (Quebec) Braves. He signed with the Boston Braves in 1950. Dave Pope, (Homestead Grays), played for the Provincial League’s Farnham (Quebec) Pirates in 1948, briefly serving as the team’s player/manager. After one more season with Farnham, he signed with the Cleveland Indians.
After a stint in the Navy during World War II, Bob Trice pitched for the Homestead Grays from 1948 – 1950. When the Grays disbanded, he pitched in 1951 with the Provincial League’s Farnham Pirates managed by former Negro League player Sam Bankhead. The team consisted of many former Negro League players such as Joe Scott (Birmingham Black Barons and Kansas City Monarchs), Joe Taylor (Chicago American Giants), Archie Ware (Chicago American Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, and Cleveland Buckeyes), and Josh Gibson, Jr. (Homestead Grays). After playing with Farnham in 1950, Taylor had signed with the Philadelphia A’s who sent him back to the Provincial League. The A’s signed Trice after the 1951 season and then assigned both he and Taylor to play for St. Hyacinthe (Quebec) Saints in the Provincial League the next season.
Hall of Fame (2006) pitcher Raymond Brown whose Negro League career was with the Homestead Grays (1932 – 1945) helped the Sherbrooke (Quebec) Athletics win the Provincial League champion in 1951.
Teammates with the Grays former ace that year included former Negro League players Claro Duany (New York Cubans) and Silvio Garcia (New York Cubans).
Also in 1951, former Kansas City Monarch Connie Johnson led the Provincial League in strikeouts pitching for St. Hyacinthe. After the season, Johnson signed with the Chicago White Sox.
In the late 1940s, Major League scouts considered the Provincial League as a “Class C” level minor league. Many saw it a haven for Negro League players not considered Major League prospects because they were too old or lacked the necessary talent. However, the league performance of a few players could not go unnoticed. They used the Provincial League to get their opportunity to play in the Major Leagues.
After signing with the Boston Braves when 35 years old, “Buzz” Clarkson had two solid years with the team’s Class AAA affiliate. But he was given only 25 plate appearances in 1952 to prove himself in the Major Leagues. Not getting the quick bang from Clarkson they wanted, he hit only five singles, the Braves sent him back to the minor leagues where he played the remainder of his professional career.
Dave Pope had a four-year Major League career (1952, 1954 – 56) as a utility player including an appearance in the 1954 World Series with the Cleveland Indians.
Joe Taylor had a four-year Major League career (1954, 1957 – 59) as a utility player with four different teams: Philadelphia A’s (1954), Cincinnati Reds (1957), St. Louis Cardinals (1958), and Baltimore Orioles (1958 – 59).
The first African-American to play for the A’s, Bob Trice labored for three seasons (1953 – 55) finishing with a career 9 – 9 record with one win being a 1 – 0 shutout of the New York Yankees in 1954. After making his Major League debut when 31 years old, Connie Johnson pitched for the White Sox from 1953 – 56 and then the Baltimore Orioles from 1956 – 58. He had a Major League career ERA of 3.44. He struck out 136 batters in 1956 and 177 in 1957 the year he won 14 games with the Orioles.
The Provincial League disbanded after the 1955 season. It resurfaced again from 1958 – 1971 as an independent league. Used as a path for some Negro League players to the Major Leagues, it has a place in Major League baseball’s racial integration history. The players who took that path were baseball pioneers who prevailed against the racial discrimination and prejudice that existed in the Major Leagues during the early years of integration.
For more information on the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
African-American players were not welcome in professional baseball prior to the beginning of the 20th Century due to racial prejudice and discrimination. However, the “invisible color line” that would keep them out of Major League baseball for nearly half the upcoming 20th Century was not completely drawn prior to 1890. Despite the adverse racial attitudes against them, there were eight known African-American players on white teams at the highest levels of organized professional baseball during the 1880’s; John W. “Bud” Fowler, Moses Fleetwood Walker, Weldy Walker, Robert Higgins, Richard Johnson, George Stovey, Sol White, and Ulysses F. (Frank) Grant.
Born on August 1, 1865 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Frank Grant was not only the best of those eight but also one of the best baseball players of that era. At 5’7” and 155 pounds, he was more than just a singles hitter with speed. He stroked doubles, triples, and even home runs during baseball’s “dead ball” era when the ball did not carry far when hit due to its soft center core. An acrobatic fielder with a strong throwing, Grant played mostly second base but when needed also handled third and shortstop.
In 2006 Grant, along with fifteen others from the Negro League baseball era, were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The following is an excerpt of my profile of Frank Grant from my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”:
“In the early years of professional baseball the attitude towards
black and Hispanic players was grounded in racial prejudice. Both
the National League formed in 1876, and the American League
formed in 1901, would not allow them the opportunity to play
baseball. The “color line” was drawn, but there were cracks in it
that allowed Frank Grant and a few other blacks to play on white
Grant began his professional career playing for Meriden,
Connecticut in the Eastern League at a time when the game was
still evolving. Batting averages were high as the batter had four
strikes and a walk counted as a hit. Teams were built on speed, not
power. The Meriden team broke up in July of 1886 and that’s when
Grant joined the Buffalo Bisons who were in the International
Association, one of the top minor leagues. In his first at bat Grant
hit a triple. He hit .340 for the remaining 45 games and a national
sports magazine called him the best all‐around player to wear a
The next year Grant helped lead Buffalo to a second place finish.
Not only was he the team’s leading hitter at .366, but he also hit
with power. Although only 5’7”, 155 lbs., he was the league’s leading
slugger hitting 11 home runs, 27 doubles, 11 triples, and he stole 40
bases. Grant hit for the cycle (home run, triple, double, & single) in
one game and stole home twice in two others. An acrobatic fielder
with a strong throwing arm, he also played shortstop or third base
In spite of his success on the playing field, Grant had trouble due
to the color of his skin. Fans shouted racially insulting comments
from the grandstands at him, including the Bison fateful who never
believed the claim he was from Spain. Grant was a target for
opposing pitchers when he batted as they constantly hit him.
Opposing base runners tried to hurt him on put out plays at second
base. Instead of the previously customary head first slide, they
started sliding feet first to cut Grant’s legs with the metal spikes on
their baseball shoes. When he began wearing wooden leg castings
for protection, the white players sharpened their spikes in order to
split the wood when their feet hit his legs.”
To read more about Frank Grant and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
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, which contains a profile of the Hall of Fame catcher James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, born 7/27/1897:
“Eagle Pass, Texas is a small town south of Del Rio near the
Mexican border. Here on July 27, 1897 James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey
opened his eyes the first time. This makes him another member of
the Texas fraternity of Negro League ball players from the Lone Star
state; that includes Andy Cooper, Willie Wells, Rube Foster, Louis
Santop, and others. Before becoming a teenager he moved with his
family to Luling which is east of San Antonio on the road to
Houston. The Mackeys were sharecroppers. Biz, along with his
brothers, worked on the farm most of the day and then played
baseball until dark. They used boards as bats and anything they
could find as a ball. By 1916 the black amateur baseball team in
Luling, the Oilers, had three Mackey brothers on its roster; Ray,
Ernest, and Biz.
The San Antonio Aces, a black minor league team, signed Biz in
- Charlie Bellinger, the Aces’ owner, had a friendship with
Indianapolis ABCs’ manager CI Taylor. Bellinger always looked for
good ball players in Texas that would help Taylor’s team. After the
Aces folded in 1919, he sold Mackey and five other players to the
Biz arrived in Indianapolis at the perfect time. The first official
African-American baseball league, the Negro National League
(NNL), formed in 1920 with the ABCs one of the charter teams.
The twenty‐three year old Texan shared the dugout his first year
with Hall of Famers Oscar Charleston and Ben Taylor, along with
“Cannonball” Dick Reading. Used as a utility infielder and outfielder,
Mackey also began to learn the craft of playing the game under the
master teacher, CI Taylor. With his manager’s help, Biz became a
switch hitter and developed into one of the team’s top run
producers. Some records show he hit over .300 each of his three
years in Indianapolis, helping the team finish second in 1921.
CI Taylor died before that year ended, replaced by his brother
Ben as the ABCs’ manager. However, with his mentor CI gone,
Mackey’s ties to the team were loosened. The owners of the newly
formed Eastern Colored League (ECL) in 1923 looked to lure away
NNL players. Accepting an offer from Ed Bolden, owner of the
Hilldale Club, Biz headed east without hesitation.”
Mackey’s Hall of Fame induction solidified him with the white contemporaries his era, Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane, and Bill Dickey, as one of the best catchers in baseball history.
To read more about “Biz” Mackey and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary; July 5, 1947, of former Negro League star and baseball Hall of Fame center fielder Larry Doby’s Major League debut. Less than three months earlier, April 14, Jackie Robinson had become the first African-American to play Major League baseball. Robinson started the season playing first base for the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers. As the second African American in Major League baseball, the first to play in the American League, Doby’s status is overshadowed by Robinson. Although not as well-known or revered, Larry Doby’s accomplishments in baseball are still of historical significance.
At Comiskey Park against the Chicago White Sox in the top of the seventh inning, Doby pinch hit for Cleveland Indians pitcher Bryan Stephens. He had started the season playing with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League (NNL). Doby joined the Indians three days prior to the game (July 2) when Eagles’ owner Effa Manley sold his contract to Indians’ owner Bill Veeck for $15,000; the first substantial price a Major League team would pay for a Negro League player. After returning from military service in 1946, Doby played second baseman alongside shortstop Monte Irvin on the Eagles’ 1946 Negro League Baseball World Series Championship team. When Robinson erased the “invisible color line” that had kept African-Americans and dark-skinned Hispanics out of Major League baseball for more than 50 years, Manley sold Doby in a last attempt to keep her team operating. She sold it after the 1948 season when the NNL disbanded. In his first Major League plate appearance against White Sox pitcher Earl Harrist, Doby struck out. He played in 29 games and batted .156 the remainder of the season.
However, in 1948 Doby became the Indians starting center fielder. In his first full Major League season, he hit .301 with 14 home runs and 66 runs batted in to help the Indians win the American League pennant. He batted .318 in the 1948 World Series and his home run, the first of an African-American in a World Series, was the winning run in Game Four. The widely publicized photo taken after that game of Doby and Indian winning pitcher Steve Gromek was the first of an African-American and white player embracing each other. The Indians defeated the Boston Braves in the Series four games to two making Doby and his teammate on the 1948 Indians, Satchel Paige, the first African-Americans to play on a Major League World Series champion. Doby led the American League in home runs with 32 in 1954, helping the Indians again win the American League pennant. In Doby’s thirteen year career (1947 – 1959), he hit 253 homeruns and played in six All Star Games.
After years of being overlooked, Larry Doby’s baseball talent and his importance in the racial integration of Major League baseball received recognition by his 1998 induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Although not as outspoken or charismatic as Jackie Robinson, Doby still overcame the same racism to be a successful Major League player. He, like Robinson, successfully carried on his shoulders the hopes of his race in the face of failure’s dire consequences.
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
Willard Brown, born 6/26/15, is said to have fit the bill of what is called a “five tool” baseball player. A superb fielding outfielder; Brown ran the bases with blazing speed, had a strong throwing arm, and could hit for a high average with home run power. Many ascribed to him by the nickname “Home Run” Brown. He played for the Kansas City Monarchs mostly throughout his Negro League career (1935 – 1950). He served in the military (1944 – 1945) during World War II and briefly played Major League baseball in 1947 with the St. Louis Browns. On August 13, 1947 Brown became the first African-American to hit a home run in the American League.
In 2006, Willard Brown 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 a brief book exert from my profile of Willard Brown:
“Brown had a tendency to appear bored during games. When
that happened it is said he would take a magazine with him to the
outfield to read between pitches. And sometimes he would walk
instead of running to his outfield position, holding up the start of an
inning. This gave an impression of Brown by some as having a
“prima donna” attitude.
But former teammate and manager Buck O’Neil said, “Willard
was so talented, he did not look as if he was hustling. Everything
looked so easy for him.” Brown’s extreme talent made it appear he
did things effortlessly. While most players ran around the bases, he
seemed to glide. The exhaustion of the game would be evident on
most players, but it appeared Brown hardly broke a sweat. O’Neil
felt that no matter what “Home Run” Brown did, people thought he
could do a little more because of his enormous talent.
But Negro League fans appreciated the play of Willard Brown.
They selected him to participate in six Negro League East‐West All
Star Games. In ten All Star plate appearances Brown had five hits.
As an indication of Negro League baseball’s relative prosperity
after surviving the economic depression of the late 1920s and
1930s, the Negro League World Series was played in 1942. There
had not been one since 1927. The 1942 fall classic saw the two
most recognized Negro League franchises tangle, the Kansas City
Monarchs against the Homestead Grays. Willard Brown was one of
the series’ hitting stars as the Monarchs swept the Grays four
games to none. He batted .412 (7 hits in 17 at bats) with one double,
one triple, and of course one home run.”
To read more about Willard Brown and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
Cumberland “Cum” Willis Posey, born June 20, 1891 began his baseball career playing with a black team in his hometown of Homestead, Pennsylvania; the Homestead Grays in 1911. After becoming the team’s owner in 1920, Posey had turned the Homestead Grays into one of the most renowned and successful Negro League Baseball franchises by the time he died in 1946. From 1937 – 1945, the Grays finished first in the Negro National League eight times and played in four Negro League World Series, winning two: 1943 and 1944.
In 2006, Cum Posey 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 exert from my book with a preview of the chapter about Posey:
“As the country’s economic condition worsened, Posey struggled
to pay the salaries of his ball players in 1932. He also faced a major
challenge from the new black team in Pittsburgh started by Gus
Greenlee a night club/restaurant owner and numbers operator, the
Pittsburgh Crawfords. He used a tactic Posey himself employed to
steal players from other teams. Greenlee offered the Grays’ best
players more money than Posey could pay them. Josh Gibson, Oscar
Charleston, and three other players took Greenlee’s offer and
signed with the Crawfords. Other players for the Grays also left for
Determined to not let his team die, Cum Posey formed a
business partnership in 1934 with Rufus “Sonnyman” Jackson,
Homestead’s main black numbers operator. Posey operated the
club while Jackson provided the financial backing. Many black
sportswriters thought partnering with whom some called “black
mobsters” hurt Negro League baseball’s image with the fans. But
Posey and the other black owners said financial backing from
those men did not influence the teams’ performance on the field.
The numbers bosses were just fans who loved the game. The truth
was that if it were not for their investment Negro professional
baseball may not have survived.
Jackson’s financial backing allowed Posey to step away from
being the field manager and devote all his time to rebuilding the
team. He brought on Buck Leonard in 1934 as the first step of
putting together what would be the most dominant Negro League
team in the late 1930s and 1940s. The next year the Grays joined
the Negro National League (NNL). Despite Posey’s rebuilding
efforts, the team could not finish ahead of the Pittsburgh Crawfords.
In 1937 Posey got Josh Gibson back in a trade with his crosstown
rival. Part of the trade, as rumored, included “Sonnyman” Jackson
paying off a gambling debt of the Crawfords’ owner. By getting back
Gibson, Posey had the final piece to add to Leonard and the other players he assembled to
begin the Grays’ winning tradition.”
To read more about Cum Posey and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
King Solomon “Sol” White wrote about the plight of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century African-American professional baseball player, of which he himself experienced. Born June 12, 1868 in Bellaire, Ohio, White played with teams in the minor league system of white professional baseball in the 1880s. In the 1890s when the color line became solidified banning African-American and dark-skinned Hispanics, he then played with a number of the best Negro baseball teams and later the co-owner/manager of the Philadelphia Giants, one of the best black teams of the early 1900s. His book written in 1907, “History of Colored Baseball”, gives a picture of obstacles he and other African-American professional baseball players faced as the game began its journey to become “the National Pastime”.
In 2006, Sol White 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 a book exert from my profile of Sol White:
“In 1890 Sol White played for the Monarchs of York,
Pennsylvania. The team’s owner, J. Monroe Kreiter, had also
attracted many of the players from the previous year’s Cuban
Giants. Failing in their attempt to get higher salaries from the
Giants’ owner, John M. Bright, the players were easily lured away by
the money that Kreiter offered. The Monarchs represented the city
of York in the Eastern Interstate League. It would be one of the last
breaks in the color line.
White played briefly in 1895 with Fort Wayne, Indiana of the
Western Interstate League. It would be the last time he played on an
integrated team. As the 1890s came to a close there were no black
players in organized white baseball. The ‘invisible color line” had
been set and would stay intact for over 40 years.
With the door to Major League professional baseball closed for
African-American players, Sol White continued his career in the
1890s with teams that were a part of Negro League baseball’s
early beginnings. They were African-American teams that played
small town white semi‐pro teams, other black teams, and anyone
that wanted to play them. No official Negro League existed at that
time. He played for the Cuban Giants in 1893 –1894, the Page
Fence Giants in 1895, the Cuban X Giants in 1896 –1899, and the
Chicago Columbia Giants in 1900. All of which were top African
American professional teams of that period.
In 1902 White joined forces with white sportswriter H. Walter
Schlichter to start a new black team, the Philadelphia Giants. As co-owner,
team manager, and one of the team’ top players, White
built what some called one of the best black teams of the new
century’ first ten years. Some of the best black players of that time
such as Frank Grant, Pete Hill, Charlie Grant, Grant “Home Run Johnson”
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
Due to my efforts towards organizing the youth baseball team for 10 – 12 year olds I will coach this summer, I failed to timely recognize the birthdate of former Negro League and Major League player Robert (Bob) Burns Thurman, May 14, 1917. This post is a belated “Happy Birthday” recognition of him. The mystery that existed about the age of “Satchel” Paige when he signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 is a well-known story in both Negro League and baseball history. It is now known Paige made his Major League debut when 42 years old and became an American League All-Star his final season with the St. Louis Browns at age 47. But there is less mystery to Bob Thurman having his best Major League season when 40 years old.
After Jackie Robinson erased the color line in 1947 and Major League teams began looking to sign African-Americans and dark-skinned Hispanics, many Negro League players lowered their stated age to be a more attractive prospect. They knew that younger players had the best chance of getting to the Major Leagues. Thurman and other Negro League players felt no hesitancy claiming to be a younger age in order to walk through the now open door of opportunity that had been shut since the end of the 19th Century due to racial discrimination.
The cry grew louder after World War II for an end to racial discrimination in Major League baseball. Former Kentucky U. S. Senator Albert “Happy” Chandler became the new Major League Baseball Commissioner in 1945 following the sudden death the previous year of Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner. Landis had worked with team owners since taking office in 1920 to perpetuate the “invisible color line” that kept African-American or dark-skinned Hispanic players out of Major League baseball. When asked his opinion about African-Americans playing in the Major Leagues, Chandler surprisingly said, “If they can fight and die in Okinawa and Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, they can play in America”. Although his response went against the existing racial discriminatory policy of Major League baseball, it added to the chorus for change sounding for Bob Thurman and other Negro League players.
Although born in Kellyville, Oklahoma, Thurman grew up in Wichita, Kansas. Drafted into the military while playing in the city’s semi-professional baseball leagues at the start of World War II, he saw combat duty in New Guinea and the Philippines. After leaving military service in 1946, he turned to his only option to play professional baseball in United States, the Negro Leagues. Thurman played with the Homestead Grays during the last years of owner Cum Posey’s “long gray line”. Long time Negro League veterans Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, “Cool Papa” Bell and others were still with the Grays when Thurman arrived; however, Posey died before the season started. Signed as a left-handed pitcher, Thurman proved to be a better power hitter and became the team’s regular center fielder. With the veteran players approaching the end of their baseball careers, Josh Gibson died in 1947, the Grays mixed in Thurman along with future Major League players Luke Easter and Luis Marquez to help the team remain competitive. In 1948, Thurman hit over .300 as the Grays won the last Negro League World Series Championship defeating the Birmingham Black Barons.
With both the Negro National League and the Homestead Grays disbanding after the 1948 season, Thurman signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League (NAL). Monarch Manager Buck O’Neil had a team that included future Major League players Elston Howard, Connie Johnson, Gene Baker, Hank Thompson, and Curt Roberts. The Monarchs were looking to sell their best players to Major League teams in order to remain operating profitably. On July 29, 1949 the New York Yankees purchased Thurman’s contract and he became the first African-American signed by the team. He walked through the door of opportunity given him stated as a 26-year-old outfielder, but in reality being 32.
However, the Yankees were not serious about integration. Although Thurman batted .317 and hit with power while with the team’s Triple AAA minor league affiliate (Newark Bears) for the remainder of that season, the team traded him to the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were also slow embracing integration. It would be four years, 1954, before Ernie Banks became the first African-American to play for Chicago’s north side team. After three respectable years in the Cubs minor league system, Thurman was released. The Cubs did not renew his contract.
He spent the next two years playing summer and winter league baseball in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Thurman had several successful seasons in the Caribbean leagues and had become a fan favorite. He is a member of the Puerto Rican League Baseball Hall of Fame and the league’s all-time home run leader. After a tremendous winter league season in 1955, Thurman signed with the Cincinnati Reds mainly as a reserve outfielder and pinch hitter with the team believing him to be 32 years old. He made his Major League debut on April 14, 1955; a little more than a month before his actual 38th birthday.
Thurman hit 35 home runs and drove in 106 runs in his five years with the Reds (1955 – 1959). On August 18, 1956, the Reds hit eight home runs in a 13 – 4 victory over the Milwaukee Braves; which tied the Major League record at that time. Three of the Reds’ home runs in that game were hit by Bob Thurman. After hitting a double in the third inning, he hit home runs in the fifth, seventh, and eighth innings. In 1957 at 40 years old, Thurman had his best season in the Major Leagues hitting 18 home runs. While with the Reds he, along with former Negro League player and Reds teammate George Crowe, became mentors for young African-American players coming into the National League in the late 1950s; Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, Bill White, etc.
Bob Thurman had to verbally set back the hands of time in order to get the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. If the New York Yankees in 1949 had known his real age of 32, would they have signed him? Probably not! Surely, the Reds would not have signed Thurman in 1955 had they known his real age of 38! But given the opportunity, he proved his time for hitting a baseball had not passed him by.
To read more about the Negro Baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
John L. Gray and Haley Young, Jr. both played baseball one season with the Indianapolis Clowns during the final years of the Negro League baseball era. Last month on April 7, I was the main speaker (“Negro League Baseball: The Deep Roots of African-Americans in America’s Great Game”) at a tribute given to both players at the Old Dillard Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (See pictures under the “Events” tab above)
The museum is located in the building that housed the first school for African-Americans students in Fort Lauderdale, named “The Colored School” and later Dillard High School. An important educational and cultural center for African-Americans in Fort Lauderdale, the Old Dillard Museum serves as a constant reminder of the community’s proud and rich heritage.
Both Gray (1955) and Young (1957) were graduates of Dillard High School, As part of their tribute that evening, they became the first baseball players added to the museum’s Sports Wall of Fame which is for alumni of the school.
Gray attended Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio and then signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1956 as a catcher and outfielder. Jackie Robinson had erased the “invisible color line” to begin the racial integration of Major League baseball nine years earlier in 1947, but attitudes of prejudice and discrimination still existed. The Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, and Philadelphia Phillies still had no African-American or dark-skinned Hispanic players on their Major League rosters the year Gray signed. He played that first year with the Indians’ Class D minor league affiliate the Daytona Beach Islanders (Florida State League). In 1958 after some dissatisfaction with the Indian’s minor league system, Gray signed with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League (NAL). By then, Negro League baseball had declined since its peak in the 1940s due to losing its best players and fan base due to the racial integration of the Major Leagues. While with the Clowns, Gray hit a home run at Yankee Stadium which he frequently mentioned to his children and grandchildren in his golden years. In 1959, he went back into the Major League system signing with the Chicago Cubs. He played with the team’s Class D affiliate, the Paris (Illinois) Lakers, in the Midwest League. The next season Gray signed with the Chicago White Sox and played with its Class C minor league affiliate the Idaho Falls Russets in the Pioneer League. Reaching his frustration limit with the unfair treatment and broken agreements he encountered with Major League teams, Gray did not return to professional the next season.
After graduating from high school, Haley Young, Jr. signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. Being only 16 years old, he played shortstop and outfield in the Class D Appalachian League for the team’s Johnson City, Tennessee affiliate. In 1958, he seriously damaged his knee and did not fully recover until 1961 when he signed with the Indianapolis Clowns. The Chicago White Sox signed Young in 1962, but he got no further than the team’s Class A minor league level. He led his Clinton, Iowa (Class A – Midwest League) team in home runs (16) and RBI (51) while batting .254 in 1965, but it got him no closer to getting on the White Sox’s Major League roster even though the team needed power hitters. From the 1965 through 1967 seasons, only four White Sox players hit more than the 16 home runs Young smashed in 1965. The White Sox were in the American League where the promotion of African-American players had been less aggressive than in the National League since the days of Jackie Robinson. After the 1966 and 1967 seasons with the White Sox’s Class A minor league affiliate in Lynchburg (VA.), Young played in Canada’s independent league in 1968 and retired from baseball in 1970.
I want to thank More Than a Game, Inc. (Danny Phillips) and the Old Dillard Museum (Derrick Davis) for inviting me to be a part of the memorable event for Haley Young, Jr. and John L. Gray. The honorees were not there to receive their accolades; Haley Young died in 2015 and John L. Gray too sick to attend. Sadly, last week he too passed away. However, their achievements in baseball are honored on the Old Dillard Museum’s Wall of Fame. They were in the group of unsung African-American pioneers that stood up against racism and prejudice to integrate minor league professional baseball during the Civil Rights era.
For more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown