The Last Negro League World Series Champions -Part Two

A major mews media story line about the Washington Nationals’ 2019 World Series is the team’s ending of a 95 year drought of no World Series championship for Washington D. C. baseball fans. However, as I discussed in my previous blog post, the 1924 Washington Senators were not the last professional baseball team in Washington, D. C. to win a World Series.  The last professional baseball champions from Washington D. C. were the 1948 Homestead Grays.

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Buck Leronard

The 1948 Negro League World Series pitted the Homestead Grays against the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League, a third Series re-match.  The Grays had defeated the Black Barons in the 1943 and 1944 Series.

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Birmingham Black Barons

The teams played the 1948 Series as aftershocks from the racial integration of Major League baseball were just beginning.  Jackie Robinson’s 1947 successful season erased the “invisible color line” opening the door for the initially slow but eventual flow of African American and dark-skinned Hispanics into the Major Leagues.  The erasing of the color line had come too late for 40 years old Homestead Grays first baseman Buck Leonard and the Grays’ power-hitting catcher Josh Gibson who had died in early 1947.  However, 1948 Grays’ players first baseman Luke Easter, pitcher/outfielder Bob Thurman, pitcher Bob Trice, and outfielder Luis Marquez, all went on to play in the Major Leagues.  For the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons infielder Artie Wilson, pitchers Bill Greason and Jehosie Heard would briefly play in the Major Leagues.  But the Black Barons’ 17 years old center fielder, Willie Mays, would have a Hall of Fame Major League career.

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Willie Mays

Having to rent playing facilities for their games, Negro League teams had to adjust game schedules to field rental availability.  Griffith Stadium had been booked for Washington Redskins football games, so the Grays did not play any home games in the Series.  Three of the games had to be played at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, home of the Birmingham Barons Southern League team.

Not all the Negro League World Series games were played in the cities of the participating teams.  World Series games were played also in other cities with a large population of African Americans.  Negro League officials saw playing the Series in multiple cities would afford more African American baseball fans the opportunity to see the games and hopefully maximize ticket sales.  For the 1948 Series in addition to the games played in Birmingham, Kansas City and New Orleans also hosted games.

The Grays won the first two games of the Series, 4 – 3 and 5 – 3.  The Black Barons rebounded to win Game Three. The Grays outscored the Black Barons 25 – 7 to win the final two games of the Series.

The shift in the interest of African American baseball fans clearly revealed itself during the 1948 Series.  The fans were more interested in following the few African American players in the Major Leagues.  They saw the integrated Major League games as racial and social progress.  African American baseball fans were focused on the 1948 Major League World Series contest between the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Braves.  Former Negro League players Larry Doby and Leroy “Satchel” Paige played for the Indians.

The October 16, 1948 issue of the Baltimore Afro American, one of the leading national black newspapers at that time, is an example of the fan interest shift. The weekly paper’s front page headline that day:  “DOBY SERIES HERO, Young Fielder Is Brilliant.  Single in Sixth Game Beats Boston.  Slams First Homer Over CenterField.”  The adjoining front page article highlights Larry Doby’s contributions, his leading .318 Series Batting Average with 1 home run, in the Cleveland Indians’ four games to two games victory over the Boston Braves.  Also on the front page, the photo of teammates Doby and Cleveland pitcher Steve Gromek in a smiling embrace after the Indians’ 2 – 1 win in Game 5.  The photo of Doby whose third inning homer broke a 1-1 tie and Gromek the winning pitcher sent a new visual message across the country of racial harmony in Major League Baseball.  On the front page also, an article questioning  “Satchel” Paige’s role with the Indians for 1949.  He had only pitched two-thirds of an inning in the Series.

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On the Sports Page, buried under additional headlines, articles, and pictures about Doby, and Paige, the paper had a brief article about the Homestead Grays’ 11 – 6 win over the Birmingham Black Barons in Game Five to be the 1948 Negro League World Series champion.             

The Negro League World Series ended after 1948.  The Negro National League disbanded before the next season began.  The Homestead Grays stopped functioning as a professional baseball team.  Negro League baseball limped through the 1950s selling their best players to the Major Leagues before fading away in the early 1960s.

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Luke Easter

In 2009 the Washington Nationals paid tribute to the Homestead Grays by placing a statue of Grays’ Hall of Fame catcher Josh Gibson in the Center Field Plaza at Nationals’ Park.  Negro League baseball operated in the shadow of the Major Leagues for nearly half of the 20th Century.  However, the Washington Nationals’ 2019 World Series triumph shined a larger spotlight on the Homestead Grays.  The Nationals’ 2019 World Series championship brought the Homestead Grays from behind that shadow to show the teams’ place in Washington D. C. professional baseball history.

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