HAPPY NEW YEAR!
It is not only the start of a new year, 2020; but also a new decade. Whether you are continuing the weekend celebration of the beginning of both or putting the finishing touches on your 2020 goals and objectives; take a moment to pay tribute with me to a group of former Negro League and Major League baseball players who died in 2019.
Due to their advancing ages, the number of surviving former Negro League baseball players decreases each year. Most of those who played before Jackie Robinson erased “the invisible color line” in 1947 opening the door for the racial integration of Major League baseball have died. The remaining former Negro League players began their careers in the late 1940s and 1950s. Some played only in the remaining Negro Leagues; others spent their career integrating professional baseball’s minor league system and only briefly played in the Major Leagues, while others had productive Major League careers.
Of the five former Negro League players listed below, three played only in the Negro Leagues, one played briefly in the Major Leagues, and one had a stellar Major League career.
There may be other former Negro League baseball players whose deaths in 2019 I missed, so this list could be incomplete.
Don Newcombe – February 19, 2019
Born 6/14/26 in Madison, New Jersey. Newcombe began his career with the Negro League baseball Newark Eagles in 1944. Starting in 1949, “Big Newk” (6’4”, 220 pounds) became the workhorse pitcher of the Brooklyn Dodgers “Boys of Summer” era winning 138 games between 1949 – 1956 despite missing 2 two seasons due to military service (1952 & 1953). On average, he pitched 215 innings per year. Named National League Rookie of the Year in 1949, the 3-time National League All-Star won 20 games three times. In 1956 when he won 27 games, “Big Newk” became the first recipient of the Cy Young Award and also received National League Most Valuable Player honors. World Series horrors: 0 – 4 with 8.22 ERA in five Series starts against New York Yankees. Plagued by alcohol abuse his entire career, Newcombe retired from baseball at age 34. He worked many years after retirement in programs providing support for individuals suffering from alcoholism and in community relations for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Charles “Chuck” Harmon – March 19, 2019
Born May 23, 1924 in Washington, Indiana, Harmon earned All-American basketball honors at the University of Toledo in 1943. After three years of military service, Harmon signed with the Indianapolis Clowns in the summer of 1947 to make extra money before returning to school. He used a different name in order to keep his NCAA college basketball eligibility. After just a one week road trip, the St. Louis Browns offered him a contract. Although he had good offensive years, the slow pace of Major League baseball racial integration kept him stuck in the Browns’ minor league system. However, the Browns traded Harmon to the Cincinnati Reds in 1952. In 1954, he and Nino Escalera became the first African American and the first dark-skinned Latino players to appear in a Major League game for the Cincinnati Reds. Used as a utility player, Harmon spent 1954 – 56 with Cincinnati and 1957 with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Bob Mitchell – June 12, 2019
Born November 18, 1932 in West Palm Beach, Florida, Mitchell pitched in the Negro baseball minor leagues in Florida after high school. In 1954, he pitched for the Florida Cubans against the barnstorming Kansas City Monarchs managed by Buck O’Neil. O’Neil liked the talent he saw in Mitchell and offered him a contract. Mitchell played for the Monarchs from 1954 – 1957 and then retired from baseball to spend more time with his wife and young children. He had a 30 – 14 career pitching record.
Lee Vester Spann – October 19, 2019
Spann, born June 4, 1948 in St. Louis , Missouri, played with Indianapolis Clowns in 1965 after coming out of Hadley Tech High School . Not much else is known about him. His name came in the news when his insurance claim failed and the family had to make attempts to raise money for his funeral this fall.
Paul Jones – December 12, 2019
Born October 11, 1927 in New Iberia, Louisiana, Jones first played in the Louisiana network of Negro amateur/semi-professional baseball barnstorming teams after coming out of the military in 1946. From 1949 – 1951, Jones caught for the New Orleans Black Pelicans; the top Negro minor league team in Louisiana.
In my next blog post, I will make note of 3 former Major League players who died in 2019.
Historical notices from last week: Birthday for Ted Strong former Kansas City Monarchs INF/OF (1939 – 1942, 1946 – 1947) born January 2, 1914, in South Bend, Indiana and Tito Fuentes 2nd baseman for San Francisco Giants (1965 – 1974) born January 4, 1944, in La Habana, Cuba.
All photos for this post the courtesy of numerous internet sites via Google Images