Today is the national celebration for the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., what would have been his 92nd. Much will be written giving tributes to his life and the impact his legacy continues to have not only on this country, but also the world. However, in celebrating Dr. King each year on his birthday, I write about his relationship with his favorite baseball player; Jackie Robinson.
When Jackie Robinson crossed the “invisible color line” in 1947 to be the first African American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century, he became the idol of an 18 years old teenager in Atlanta, Georgia; Martin King Jr. Like many other African Americans at that time, whether baseball fans or not, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the young King’s favorite baseball team because of Jackie Robinson. Many of those African American Dodger fans, including King, remained loyal to the team after Robinson retired and it relocated to Los Angeles in 1958. In addressing the 1966 Milwaukee Braves’ move to his hometown of Atlanta, Dr. King indicated it would complicate his personal allegiance that had existed since 1947. “And so I have been a Dodger fan”, he said, “but I’m gonna get with the Braves now”.*
But Dr. King had been more than a fan of the Dodgers; he understood the significance for African Americans of what Jackie Robinson had done in 1947. After becoming a leader in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King knew where his idol as a teenager’s accomplishments fit overall in reference to race relations in this country.
When Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on that Montgomery, Alabama city bus in December of 1955 triggering the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, Jackie Robinson neared the end of his baseball career. He announced his retirement on January 5, 1957; fifteen days after the successful end of the Montgomery bus boycott led by the 26 year old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the 1960s, Robinson became actively involved in the Civil Rights movement with Dr. King. He spoke at Dr. King’s rallies in the South, marched in demonstrations with him, and held fund raisers for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Dr. King and Robinson became co-laborers in the African American struggle for equality. He considered Jackie Robinson a friend.
At a testimonial dinner for Jackie Robinson on July 20, 1962 celebrating his upcoming National Baseball Hall of Fame induction in three days, Dr. King paid tribute to him. He defended Robinson’s right to speak out about segregation and civil rights. “He has the right”, King insisted stoutly, “because back in the days when integration was not fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes from being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways towards the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides. And that is why we honor him tonight.”**
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have liked other sports. However; because of Jackie Robinson, baseball appeared to be his favorite. Since idolizing Robinson while being a teenager in 1947, Dr. King never forgot the significance of the baseball player’s accomplishments in the struggle of African Americans for equality.
*”At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965 – 1968”, Taylor Branch, p.394
**”Jackie Robinson: A Biography”, Arnold Rampersad, p.7
I will teach an online course for the spring session of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Kansas. The course, “Dawning of a New Day: The 1950’s Racial Integration of Major League Baseball”, will be on February 11, 18, & 25; 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm. For registration information, click on the “Available Sessions” link below or call 913 – 897 – 8530.
Pictured above are the New York Giants starting outfielders for the 1951 World Series: Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, & Hank Thomposon
Here is a course description: On April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers became the first African American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century. He erased the racial barrier, called the “invisible color line” that had kept African American and dark-skinned Latinos out due to racial discrimination since the late 1880s. However, by 1950 only three of the 16 Major League clubs had African American or dark-skinned Latinos on the roster. This course will tell story of the slow, yet steady pace of racial integration in professional baseball during the 1950s. It will cover from the beginning of the decade to the last team to integrate in 1959, the Boston Red Sox; all with the growing civil rights movement in the United States as the backdrop.
Pictured above are Chicago Cubs’ shortstop Ernie Banks & Cubs’ second baseman Gene Banks
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, due to the decrease in its talent pool, Negro League baseball had begun 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 Tom Alston, the first African American to appear in a Major League game for the St. Louis Cardinals. On May 2, 1954, in a doubleheader against the New York Giants, the rookie first baseman had the best game of his short Major League career. In the first game Alston had four hits including a home run, his third of the young season, and two RBIs. The second game he hit a bases loaded double (3 RBIs) in the Cardinals’ first inning. He ended the day batting .313.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers erased Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” that had kept out African American and dark-skinned Latino players since the end of the 19th century. Over the next six years, along with the Dodgers, African American and/or dark-skinned Latinos would play with seven other teams; the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, New York Giants, Milwaukee Braves, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, and Philadelphia A’s. In 1954, the color line would be erased on four other teams; the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Senators, and St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals, one of the Major League’s most renowned franchises, had been reluctant to accept the changing winds for racial diversity in professional baseball. The progress of racial integration in St. Louis mirrored that of cities in southern states at that time. Many stores and restaurants refused to serve African American customers. Also, the Cardinals were the last Major League team to abolish racially segregated seating at their home stadium. However after buying the team in 1953, new Cardinals’ owner August A. Busch, Jr. wanted the team to be reflective of the African American target market for his company’s product; Budweiser beer.
Born 1/31/26 in Greensboro, North Carolina; Thomas Edison Alston played baseball at North Carolina A & T following a stint in the military. After two minor league seasons on teams coached by former Negro League pitcher Chet Brewer, he caught the Cardinals’ attention while playing for San Diego (Pacific Coast League) in 1953. With Alston having a power hitters’ body (6’, 5” and 210 lbs.) along with showing agility playing first base, the Cardinals paid $100,000 to obtain his contract.
For the first time in the franchise’s history, the 1954 Cardinal team would have African American players; Alston along with pitcher Brooks Lawrence and former Negro League pitcher Bill Greason. The 28 years old Alston made his Major League debut on April 13 becoming the first African American to play in a game for the St. Louis Cardinals. Although not as historic, his debut occurred a little more than a month before the 1954 landmark US Supreme Court Brown vs Board of Education ruling (May 17) that struck the first blow in making racial segregation against African Americans unconstitutional.
After a slow start, hitting only .211 in April, Alston hit .411 the first 11 days of May which included that May 2 doubleheader against the New York Giants. But, National League pitchers discovered his weakness; the high inside fastball and Alston hit .181 in June with no homes runs. The Cardinals sent him to the minor leagues and moved Hall of Fame outfielder Stan Musial to first base. Alston tried regaining his batting hitting 21 home runs with 80 RBI playing for AAA Omaha in 1956. However, it never resurfaced for him at the Major League level. In 1955 – 1957, he hit .139 in 25 games with the Cardinals.
Alston began a battle with mental illness during the 1957 season. Diagnosed as having schizophrenia in 1958, he would spend the next 11 years in a North Carolina psychiatric institution. It is unclear if Alston’s mental condition played a role in his inability to handle the pressure of being the Cardinals’ first African American player his rookie season. However, what happened on May 2, 1954 is forever clear. On that day, Tom Alston had the best day of his short Major League baseball career.
In November I will teach the following course via Zoom for the University of Kansas Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s Fall Session: The Negro National League: A Journey Through the Stormy Seas of Professional Baseball. The course will consist 3 sessions 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM on November 11, 18, and 25. For registration information, click on “Available Sessions” link below or call 913 – 897 – 8530.
Here is a course description: As a reflection of the harsh racial attitudes in 1920, African American and dark-skinned Latino players were kept out of white professional baseball. Within this difficult racial environment black baseball team owner/manager Andrew “Rube’ Foster birthed the Negro National League on Feb. 13, 1920 in Kansas City, Missouri. It became the first successfully operated African American professional baseball league. 2020 is its 100th anniversary. Foster saw it as a ship travelling through the stormy sea of racial segregation. We will examine how despite closing down in 1931, it produced 13 Hall of Fame inductees and became the blueprint that sustained Negro League baseball until the color barriers in baseball were erased.
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
The focus for my blog posts during this COVID 19 shortened 2020 Major League baseball season is a baseball time capsule 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 Ozzie Virgil, who accomplished two milestones in the integration of the Major Leagues during the 1950s. Virgil became the first Dominican Republic born player in the Major Leagues (1956) and he broke through the Detroit Tigers’ color barrier in 1958.
Born Osvaldo Jose Virgil on May 17, 1933 in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic, Ozzie moved to New York City (The Bronx) when 13 years old. After two years in the US Marine Corp., he signed with the New York Giants in 1953. Versatility became Virgil’s strength, he could play all infield positions including catcher and also in the outfield. Virgil made his Major League debut on September 23, 1956. The next season he made the Sporting News’ All-Rookie team as a utility player; seeing action when needed at four positions, including third base and catcher.
Of the dark-skinned Latinos who had played in the Major Leagues at that time, most were from Cuba or Puerto Rico. Virgil would be the first of many Major League players from the Dominican Republic including Baseball Hall of Fame inductees Juan Marichal, Vladimir Guerrero, and Pedro Martinez. By the mid-1950s, talented young African American and dark-skinned Latino players were bypassing the Negro Leagues and directly signing with Major League teams. Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Bill White, Curt Flood and others in addition to Virgil who began their Major Leagues careers during that time did not play Negro League baseball.
Before the 1958 season, the Giants moved to San Francisco and traded Virgil to the Detroit Tigers. Eleven years after Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in professional baseball (1947), Detroit and its American League counterpart Boston Red Sox were the only Major League teams never to have an African American or dark-skinned Latino on the roster. It had been a strong Negro League baseball city with the Detroit Stars in the 1920s and 1930s. However, the Tigers’ previous long-time owner Otto Briggs (1935 – 1952) had a bad relationship with African Americans due to the prejudice many of them experienced working at his automotive body factory. Also, African Americans were not allowed to sit in the box seats at Briggs Stadium.
The Tigers were World Series champions in 1945, but had finished no higher than fifth place since 1950 and efforts were being made to build the team around outfielder Al Kaline and pitcher Jim Bunning who would both have Hall of Fame careers. Jake Wood, the first African American to make his way through Detroit’s minor league system, played at the Class B level in 1958 and would not become the Tigers’ starting second baseman until 1961.
On June 6, 1958, at Griffith Stadium against the Washington Senators, Ozzie Virgil became the first nonwhite player to appear in a Major League game for the Detroit Tigers. He played third base and hit a double in the team’s 11 – 5 win. Virgil hit .244 in 49 games.
For the majority of the 1959 season, the Tigers were again at their pre-integration level. Virgil spent the entire season in the team’s minor league system (Double AA level). Newly acquired 35 years old Larry Doby, the first African American or dark-skinned Latino to break through the American League’s color barrier in 1947, played only 18 games before being traded to the Chicago White Sox in July. Also, the Tigers briefly promoted African American pitcher Jim Proctor, who appeared in only 2 games before being sent back to the minor leagues.
But, in 1960 Virgil appeared in 62 games as the Tigers used him as a key utility player. The Tigers traded him to the Kansas City Athletics In 1961 and he would spend the next seven years splitting time between the minor leagues and four major league teams. Virgil finished his playing career with the team that first signed him, the San Francisco Giants.
After retiring Ozzie Virgil coached 19 years in the Major Leagues and his son, two-time All Star catcher Ozzie Virgil Jr, had an eleven year Major League career.
All pictures via Google Images
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell @Lasttraintocoop
It now appears that despite the current COVID-19 pandemic, there will still be a 2020 Major League Baseball season. The number of games that will be played and other details will be announced before July 1, the expected starting date. My weekly blog posts for the season will be a baseball time capsule 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 Roy Campanella.
91,103 fans were at Los Angeles’ Memorial Coliseum on May 7, 1959 for Roy Campanella Night, a special occasion which included a benefit exhibition game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees. On that evening, the Dodgers paid tribute to the 8-time All-Star, former Dodger catcher who did not have an opportunity to play for the team after it moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn. Less than two months before the Dodgers would start 1958 spring training for the team’s first season in Los Angeles, he had a car accident that left him permanently paralyzed from the neck down.
Roy Campanella’s journey through professional baseball began in 1937 when at 15 years old he played for the Washington Elites of the Negro National League. He developed his skills as a backstop under the tutelage of his manager Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, considered one of the best catchers of that era despite not being allowed to play in the Major Leagues because of his skin color.
After nine years in the Negro Leagues, Campanella signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 and became teammates with Jackie Robinson in 1948. Although Robinson had erased the “invisible color line” in 1947, African Americans and dark-skinned Latino ballplayers would be faced with racial discrimination and prejudice in Major League baseball throughout the 1950s.
Campanella became one of the anchors for Brooklyn Dodgers teams that won five National League pennants (1949, 1952 – 1953, 1955 – 1956) and one World Series championship (1955). Named National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) three times (1951, 1953, & 1955), he hit a career 242 home runs with 856 RBIs.
On that special night in 1959, former Dodgers’ teammate Pee Wee Reese pushed a wheelchair bound Campanella out to the infield of the Coliseum in front of a cheering crowd that gave a three minute standing ovation. Also, Biz Mackey received a roaring ovation when introduced that night as Campy’s catching mentor. Mackey did not live to see the crowning acknowledgement of his baseball career that came in 2006 with his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Yankees, who were the 1958 World Series champions, won the game 6 – 2. But it did not turn out to be an omen about the season for the teams. For the first time since 1954, the Yankees did not win the American League pennant in 1959. The Dodgers won the National League pennant that year and defeated the Chicago White Sox 4 games to 2 in the World Series. It would be the last hurrah for Campy’s former long- time Brooklyn Dodgers teammates (“The Boys of Summer”) Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, and Carl Furillo.
As his health permitted, Roy Campanella continued to be a part of the Dodgers’ family (coaching catchers during Spring Training, Community Relations Department, etc.) until his June 23, 1993 death.
All pictures via Google Images
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell@Lasttraintocoop
One way the cable sports networks are trying to help sports fans cope with the cancellation of professional and other sporting events due to the COVID- 19 pandemic is re-broadcasting key games and matches from previous years. While channel surfing I have seen replays from past “March Madness” NCAA men and women’s basketball championship games, Game Sevens of the NBA Playoffs, Super Bowls, Masters’ (golf) Championships, and World Series’ Game Sevens (my favorite).
Following their example, my blog posts during the 2020 Major League baseball season will be a baseball time capsule 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 Henry Aaron and John Irvin Kennedy.
Aaron’s First Major League HR
On April 23, 1954, 24 days before the United States Supreme Court’s May 17th decision that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional, Milwaukee Braves’ rookie outfielder Henry Aaron hit his first Major League career home run. Aaron hit a 6th inning solo 4-bagger off St. Louis Cardinals’ veteran right hand pitcher Vic Rashi at Busch Stadium in the Braves 14 inning 7 – 5 win. He had also gotten his first Major League hit, a double, off Rashi in a game at Milwaukee’s County Stadium on April 15. Rashi had come to the Cardinals after three 20 game winning seasons and six World Series championships with the New York Yankees (1946 – 1953). Braves reserve catcher Charlie White, who played for the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues, hit his one and only home run of his two year Major League career in the Braves April 23rd victory.
Henry Aaron signed with the Braves in 1952 after leading the Negro American League in batting during his one month stint with the Indianapolis Clowns. After one and a half seasons in the minor leagues, he moved into the Braves’ starting line up during spring training in 1954 when outfielder Bobby Thompson broke his ankle. On April 13 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field against the Redlegs, Aaron made his Major League debut going without a hit in five At Bats.
By September of his rookie season, despite suffering the ups and downs of a first year Major League player, he had batted .280 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs. However, his season ended on September 5th. While sliding into third base after hitting a triple, his fourth hit of the game, Aaron broke his ankle. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Wally Moon of the Cardinals, Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, and Braves’ teammate pitcher Gene Conley.
The Phillies First African American Player
On April 22, 1957, John Kennedy became the first African American player to appear in a Major League baseball game wearing a Philadelphia Phillies’ uniform. He entered against the Brooklyn Dodgers as a pinch runner at Roosevelt Field in Jersey City, New Jersey where the Dodgers played eight games in 1957
John Irvin Kennedy wedged his Negro League baseball career between two attempts to play in the Major Leagues. After college (Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida), the slick fielding shortstop played two seasons in Canada on a team managed by former Negro League star Willie Wells. Signed by the Major League’s New York Giants in 1953, Kennedy spent one season in the team’s minor league system before being released. He spent the next three seasons in Negro League baseball; 1954 – 1955 with the Birmingham Black Barons and with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1956.
The talent level in the Negro Leagues had decreased by the mid-1950s, the best African American players were being signed by Major League teams. After appearing in the All-Star Game while with the Monarchs, Kennedy got the attention of the Philadelphia Phillies who in 1957 were the only National League team without an African American player. In the early stages of the Phillies 1957 spring training Kennedy made a big splash with his fielding skills. He made the team as a reserve infielder, but hurt his throwing arm as the regular season began.
After his debut, Kennedy appeared in four other games and then the Phillies sent him to the minor leagues with an injured shoulder. He finished the season hitting 19 home runs while playing at High Point-Thomasville in the Class B-level Carolina League.
John Kennedy spent the remainder of his career in the Phillies minor league system (1958 – 1961), never to play in another Major League game.
All pictures via Google Images
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell@Lasttraintocoop
Due to the current global COVID- 19 pandemic, I have been reluctant to post on my blog. A blog post about baseball history seems very trivial when compared to the spread of the deadly virus that has at least for now changed our lives. The voluntary and mandatory shelter in place and quarantines, recommended social distancing, and business shutdowns have been more than an inconvenience to everyone. This is especially true for sports fans who have had to accept the cancellation of NCAA college basketball’s “March Madness”, the indefinite suspension of the both the NBA and NHL seasons, and the Masters Golf Tournament being postponed. As for my favorite, baseball, the Major League Baseball season will not start until maybe June; if then.
However, I think a post about a milestone in baseball history would be a good change of pace from the constant serious life messages we are receiving about COVID-19 from MSNBC, CNN, FOX NEWS, and other media outlets. The professional baseball historic milestone I am referring is the Centennial (100 years) Anniversary of organized Negro League professional baseball; the formation of the first Negro National League.
As the new decade of the 1920’s began, equality and justice for African Americans seemed an impossible dream. African American soldiers returning from World War I battlefields did not receive a hero’s welcome, but instead a harsh slap of racial reality. There were a number of African Americans lynched not only in the south, but throughout the country. Racial violence prevailed in 1919 with deadly riots in East St. Louis, Tulsa, and Chicago. This toxic national racial attitude spilled over into the sport of baseball, “the national pastime”. Due to racial discrimination, African American and dark-skinned Latino baseball players were kept out of white professional baseball.
It is within this difficult racial environment that Andrew “Rube” Foster, African American team owner and manager of the Chicago American Giants birthed the Negro National League (NNL) on February 13, 1920 at the YMCA Building on 18th and The Paseo in Kansas City, Missouri. The NNL has the distinction of being the first African American professional baseball league.
There had been a little more than a hand full of African American players in white professional baseball in the late 1880s. However, by the beginning of the 20th Century, the racially discriminating “invisible color line” had been solidly formed. In response to this, African Americans formed their own professional baseball teams. The Cuban Giants, Cuban X Giants, Chicago Union Giants, Philadelphia Giants, and Pittsburgh Keystones were a few of the African American professional baseball teams at the dawning of the new century. “Rube” Foster first gained fame as a star pitcher for the Philadelphia Giants. Before 1920 there were a few Negro pro baseball leagues formed, but they either quickly folded or had no impact on the structure of black baseball. However, the Negro National League (NNL) operated from 1920 – 1931.
The NNL consisted of eight teams its first year: the Chicago American Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Detroit Stars, St. Louis Giants, Chicago Giants, Dayton Marcos, Indianapolis ABCs, and Cuban Stars. Due to the financial and racial obstacles African American pro baseball franchises faced, the league make up changed from season to season as some teams folded and new ones added. Foster’s American Giants along with the Kansas City Monarchs, Detroit Stars, and the St. Louis Stars (new owners changed name from Giants to Stars in 1922) were the only teams in the league every NNL season. At one time or another during its duration, the NNL showcased 14 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In addition, it is acknowledged as the successful forerunner and blueprint for the leagues formed that kept Negro League professional baseball alive before finally ending in the early 1960s; the Negro National League (1933 – 1948) and Negro American League (1937 – 1962).
This past February 13, 2020, the centennial celebration of this baseball historic milestone began with Major League Commissioner Rob Manfred making a $1 million joint donation from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association to the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. The funds are to support the museum’s continuous effort to keep highlighting the historical impact Negro League professional baseball had on the sport and on American society as a whole.
Also, that ceremony included the unveiling of the Centennial Anniversary’s logo.
Once the 2020 Major League Baseball season hopefully begins, the centennial celebration will continue to be recognized. During all MLB games, the Negro League 100th anniversary logo will be worn on the uniforms of all players, managers, coaches, and umpires. Also, many clubs have planned centennial anniversary activities such as Negro Leagues tribute games with throwback uniforms, pregame panels with special guests, and game day giveaways. The timing of these activities is now pending on the adjustments that will be made to the MLB season based on the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were three former Major League baseball players I need to mention who died in 2019.
One is Hall of Fame (1986) outfielder Frank Robinson, the first African American baseball superstar who did not get his start in the Negro Leagues. Robinson died on February 7 last year in Los Angeles, California.
Another is Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, the first African American to play for the Boston Red Sox. He died on July 12 in San Leandro, California.
Finally, there is Jim Archer. He has no place in baseball history as the previous two. However, as one of the starting pitchers in the first Major League game I attended, Archer has a place in my personal history with baseball. He died on September 9 in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
If you read my two March 2019 blog posts, you would know what I think about Frank Robinson; born August 31, 1935 in Beaumont, Texas. I took his death from bone cancer personally. When the first time I saw him on television circling the bases after hitting a home run in the second Major League Baseball All-Star Game in 1959, he became my favorite professional baseball player.
Frank Robinson’s autobiography is called “My Life is Baseball” (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 1975). That title reflects a true picture of his accomplishments in the game. National League Rookie of the Year in 1956, he hit 38 home runs. Robinson is the only one to receive the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in both leagues; in the National League with the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1961 (they went by the Redlegs, not Reds back then) and in the American League in 1966 with the Baltimore Orioles. Hitting 586 career home runs, he played on five pennant winning teams and two World Series Champions; 1966 and 1970 Baltimore Orioles.
Robinson became the first African American Major League manager in 1974 with the Cleveland Indians; first of the four teams in his 16 year career as a manager (1,065 wins and 1,176 losses). He had the reputation as having a “hardnosed”, “old school” approach, although he did mellow in the in the way he handled players as he got older. During his career, he also served as a batting coach, an outfield coach, a consultant for club owners, and held positions in the Office of Major League Baseball.
I will miss my favorite baseball player. However, I still have his 1959, 1960, 1964 Topps baseball cards (lost the 1965) and also the Post Cereal Frank Robinson cards for 1961 – 63.
On July 21, 1959 when he entered the game against the Chicago White Sox in Comiskey Park as a pinch runner, Elijah “Pumpsie” Green became the first African American to play for the Boston Red Sox. Twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke into Major League baseball, the Red Sox were the last Major League team pre-expansion (existing before 1969) to have an African American or dark-skinned Latino player on the Major League roster.
Born on October 27, 1933 in Boley, Oklahoma, Green’s family moved to Richmond, California when he turned eight years old where he became a three sport star (baseball, football, and basketball) in high school. At 6’ and 175 pounds, he became a switch hitting shortstop that played baseball in junior college. While playing in the California League (Class C minor leagues) Green signed with the Red Sox in 1955.
He made his Major League debut after four years in the team’s minor league system. In his four years, (1959 – 1962) with the Red Sox, the team used Green as a utility infielder and outfielder. In 1961, he played 69 games at shortstop and 41 at second base. After the 1962 season, the Red Sox traded Green to the New York Mets. After his one season with New York, Green played two more years in the minor leagues and then retired. In 344 Major League games, Green batted .246 with 13 home runs and 74 RBIs.
On August 20, 1961 I attended my first Major League baseball game at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. I saw the Kansas City A’s play the Chicago White Sox. Seven-time All Star left-hander Billy Pierce started for the White Sox. The starting pitcher for the A’s that game, Jim Archer.
Born May 25, 1932 in Max Meadows, Virginia, Archer signed with the New York Yankees in 1951. In 1961, he came to the Kansas City A’s as a rookie southpaw in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles. By that August, he had become one of the A’s front line pitchers.
On the field for the White Sox that day were two former Negro League players; outfielders Orestes Minnie” Minoso and Al Smith. Also, the White Sox had Hall of Famers Luis Aparico at shortstop and Nelson Fox at second base.
Scoring three runs in the sixth, the White Sox won 5 – 3. It would be the ninth of Archer’s fifteen losses for the season. He won nine games and had a 3.20 ERA. The A’s were 61 – 100, finishing in ninth place. Problems developed in Archer’s left shoulder in 1962. He pitched only 27 innings and the A’s sent him to the minor leagues. He never again appeared in a Major League game.
Historical notices from week of January 5: Birthday for Jim Pendleton former Negro League and Major League player born January 7, 1924 and Earl Battey former All-Star catcher for the Minnesota Twins (1960 – 1967); born January 5, 1935.
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell@Lasttraintocoop