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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.