The focus for my blog posts during this COVID 19 shortened 2020 Major League baseball season has been baseball time capsules from the 1950s. During that decade, the pace of integration in the Major Leagues slowly, but steadily went forward. As a consequence, the talent pool for the Negro Leagues decreased setting it on a journey towards extinction by the early 1960s. All of this with the early Civil Rights movement as a back drop.
This week’s post is about former Negro League outfielder Bob Thurman. On August 18, 1956 while playing for the Cincinnati Redlegs, Thurman hit three home runs. The make-up of his team, still called Redlegs and not Reds in 1956, gave an indication of racial integration in the Major Leagues nine years after the color line had been erased.
Drafted into the military while playing in the semi-professional baseball leagues of Wichita, Kansas, Bob Thurman saw combat duty during World War ll in New Guinea and the Philippines. After leaving military service in 1946, he 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; 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 centerfielder. 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, the Grays defeated the Birmingham Black Barons in the last Negro League World Series.
With the Negro National League disbanding after the 1948 season, Thurman signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Monarchs’ 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.
However, the Yankees were not serious about integration. Although Thurman batted .317 at Triple AAA minor league Newark Bears for the remainder of that season, the Yankees traded him to the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were also slow embracing integration and released Thurman in 1952 despite him having respectable years in the team’s minor league system. It would not be until 1954 before Ernie Banks became the first African-American to play for Chicago’s north side team.
Thurman spent the next two years playing summer and winter Caribbean league baseball. After a tremendous winter league season in 1955, he signed with the Cincinnati Redlegs mainly as a 34 years old reserve outfielder/pinch hitter and made his Major League debut on April 14, 1955; a little more than a month before his actual 38th birthday.
On August 18, 1956, the Redlegs hit eight home runs in a 13 – 4 victory over the Milwaukee Braves. After hitting a double in the third inning, Bob Thurman hit home runs in the fifth, seventh, and eighth.
In addition to Thurman, the other former Negro League players on the Redlegs’ roster that season were George Crowe, Chuck Harmon, Joe Black, and Pat Scantlebury. All were thirty-plus years old and nearing the end of their playing careers. However, with Major League scouts draining the Negro League talent pool by 1956, more African-American and dark-skinned Latino players were being signed who never played Negro League baseball. Twenty years old Frank Robinson hit two of the eight home runs for the Redlegs in that August 18 game. The 1956 National League Rookie of the Year and 1986 Hall of Fame inductee did not play in the Negro Leagues. Neither had eighteen years old Redlegs’ outfielder Curt Flood. He appeared in five games that season and later played 12 years with the St. Louis Cardinals.
If the New York Yankees in 1949 had known Bob Thurman’s real age of 32, they would not have signed him. Neither would the Redlegs in 1955 had they known him being almost 38! But finally given the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues, Bob Thurman certainly proved in that game on August 18, 1956 that his time for hitting a baseball had not passed him by. He hit 35 home runs in his five seasons (1955 – 1959) with Cincinnati.
All pictures via Google Images
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell @Lasttraintocoop