After The “Color Line” Broke – “Groundhog” Johnson and Joe Durham

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Donald “Groundhog” Johnson, born July 31, 1926 in Covington, Kentucky, and Joseph (Joe) Durham, born July 31, 1931 in Newport News, Virginia, were almost Chicago American Giant teammates in 1952. After playing with Chicago the three previous years (1949 – 1951), Johnson left to play with the Philadelphia Stars while Durham that year was a Negro League baseball rookie. Their careers were two typical examples of what happened to Negro League players after the “invisible color line” was broken and Negro League baseball began its decline into oblivion in the 1950s.

Named “groundhog” because how low he positioned his body to field ground balls while playing shortstop, Johnson was not signed by a Major League team. He  retired from professional baseball after the 1952 season as it was quickly becoming an unstable, unprofitable profession for those stuck in the Negro Leagues.  After retiring, he played in amateur baseball leagues and coached youth league teams while living in Cincinnati.

Durham was signed by the St. Louis Browns after the 1952 season. In 1953, he became one of the first African American players in the Piedmont League which consisted of teams in segregated southern cities. The Browns became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954 and called Durham up from the minor leagues the last month of the season. He made his Major League debut on September 10 and two days later became the first African American player to hit a home run in an Orioles’ uniform.

After spending two years doing military service, Durham returned to the Orioles in 1957 and hit .185 (four home runs and nineteen RBI in 77 games), being used mostly as a pinch hitter. The Orioles sent him back to the minor leagues, but the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him (Rule 5 draft) after the 1958 season. Durham played in six games for the Cardinals in 1959. He spent the remainder of his career playing in the minor leagues where he compiled a ten year batting average of .288.

What former Negro League pitcher also made his Major League debut with the Baltimore Orioles in 1954?


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