Category Archives: African American History

Baseball and Civil Rights 1956 – Part 1

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Roberto Clemente

Jackie Robinson’s erasing of the color line in 1947 to become the first African-American to play Major League in the 20th Century began the process of racially integrating professional baseball.  A slow and reluctant process, it coincided with the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s.  Overcoming racial discrimination and prejudice in a sport did in no way compare to facing physical harm and even death in fighting for equal rights given under the Constitution of the United States.   However due to baseball’s prominence as the “national pastime”, many saw the integration of Major League baseball symbolically as one of the first steps in social progress for African-Americans.   The racial integration of Major League baseball and the Civil Rights Movement were both a part of the massive seismic shift in racial relations occurring after World War II that would forever change the nation.  How they coincided is shown in the story of the scheduled exhibition games in the spring of 1956 between the Kansas City A’s and the Pittsburgh Pirates to be played in Birmingham, Alabama.  On February 15, 1956; they were cancelled.

 

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Vic Power

It had been a tradition for Major League teams at the close of spring training to play exhibition games as they traveled north to begin the season.  The spring “barnstorming circuit” mostly consisted of cities in the southern United States.  These games were an economic boom for them as baseball fans from the surrounding areas came, for what would be the only opportunity for some, to see Major League players.  When Major League teams began to become racially integrated in the 1950s, this tradition clashed with the “Jim Crow” laws that forbade interracial sports competition.  The municipal government of these cities had to choose between receiving the commercial benefits from the games versus upholding their racial separation law.  Most chose the former.  Despite threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan, Atlanta officials overrode the laws to allow the Brooklyn Dodgers who had Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Jackie Robinson to play the all-white Atlanta Crackers a three game series in the spring of 1949.

 

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Harry Simpson

The city of Birmingham, Alabama initially made a different choice and maintained its ban of interracial athletic competition.  However, after being eliminated from the spring exhibition circuit for years due to the ban, the city commissioners lifted it on January 26, 1954.  That spring, the Brooklyn Dodgers played an exhibition game in Birmingham against the Milwaukee Braves.  But the city racial hardliners used the fear that the desegregation of sports would lead to desegregation in other aspects of life in Birmingham (schools, department stores, public accommodations, etc.) to force a voter referendum to reestablish the ban.  On June 1, the referendum passed stating, “It shall be unlawful for a negro or white person to play together or in company with each other   any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, football, softball, basketball, or similar games”.  It was City Ordinance 597, named the “checker ordinance”.

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Hector Lopez

With the ordinance reinstated banning interracial athletic competition in June 1954, how did the two exhibition games between the Kansas City A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates get scheduled for the spring of 1956?  The A’s at that time had American League All-Star and former Negro League outfielder Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, first baseman Vic Power who was from Puerto Rico, and outfielder Hector Lopez from Panama.  Power’s friend and fellow islander future Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente and former Negro League infielder Curt Roberts both played for the Pirates.  The games would have been a violation of the ordinance.  Were they scheduled while the ban had been lifted in 1954?  Had there been talk of overriding or ignoring the ban to play the game? What if any part did the racial tension caused by the bus boycott by African-Americans in Montgomery, 92 miles down state, going on at that time play in the decision to cancel the games?  Come back for Part Two!

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Curt Roberts

*Information for this blog was provided from the book “Carry Me Home:  Birmingham, Alabama:  The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution” by Diane McWhorter (Simon & Schuster 2001)

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“Sweet” Lou Johnson’s 1965 Redemption

It is my hope that long time Dodger fans like James O’Berry will forgive me for failing to acknowledge Lou Johnson last month. Johnson, a former Negro League player born September 22, 1934 in Lexington, Kentucky; after many years in the minor leagues surprisingly emerged to help the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 1965 World Series.

lou-johnsonThe Dodgers began the 1965 National League baseball season with the hope of doing better than the tied for sixth showing of the previous year.

The team wanted to resurrect the caliber of play that netted them the 1963 World Series Championship. However, when their two-time National League Batting Champion outfielder Tommy Davis broke his ankle that spring, the chances of achieving their goal seemed remote.  In response to Davis’ injury, the team brought up Lou Johnson from their Spokane AAA minor league team. The Dodgers had traded pitcher Larry Sherry, its 1959 World Series Championship Most Valuable Player, to the Detroit Tigers at the end of the 1964 season for Johnson.  They were the fifth Major League team of his baseball career.

Although the all-white face of Major League baseball began adding color after Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in 1947, African-American and dark-skinned Latino players were confronted with racially prejudiced and discriminatory attitudes.  Unless they were extremely more talented than their white counterparts, they lingered in the team’s minor league system.  There were limits (1 – 3) as to the number of them on a ball club as Major League team owners were afraid of alienating white fans.  This is what Louis Brown Johnson faced after being signed off the Kentucky State University campus by the New York Yankees in 1953.

Johnson responded to what he encountered in playing professional baseball with anger and got the reputation, fair or not, as a player with a “bad” attitude. After short stints in the minor league systems of the Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates, he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1955.  Negro League baseball by then had become only a remnant of its former self.  The best players had been stripped by Major League teams and young African-American talented prospects bypassed it going directly to white organized baseball. Observing Johnson’s potential, Monarchs’ manager Buck O’Neil advised him to channel his anger in ways to become a better player.  Through the signing of Gene Baker and Ernie Banks a few years earlier, the Chicago Cubs had developed a pipeline with the Monarchs.  Before the next season Johnson along with fellow Monarchs George Altman and JC Hartman were signed by the Cubs.

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On April 17, 1960, Johnson made his Major League debut in the Cubs’ 14 innings 4 – 3 loss to the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. He appeared in only 34 games and they traded him to the Los Angeles Angels after season.  With the Cubs having superstar Ernie Banks, George Altman, Billy Williams, and newly signed prospect Lou Brock, they saw Johnson as expendable.  The Angels sent him back to the minor leagues and then in a trade on to the Milwaukee Braves.  In 1962, Johnson hit .282 in 61 games for the Braves.  However, it appeared he became a victim of the numbers game again.  With superstar Henry Aaron, Mack Jones, Lee Maye, Tommie Aaron, and Amado Samuel on the team’s roster along with hot prospect Rico Carty in the minor league system, the Braves traded Johnson to the Detroit Tigers in 1963.

Why would the Dodgers turn to what appeared as nothing but a journeyman outfielder after Davis’ injury. Despite his controversial attitude, Major League scouts still viewed Lou Johnson as a good hitting outfielder.  In each of the seven minor league years he played over 100 games, five seasons at the AAA level, he hit over .300 and averaged 14 home runs.  Also, Johnson still played the game with an enthusiasm and a flair that brought him the nickname, “Sweet Lou”.

The Dodgers gamble on Johnson paid off as he took advantage of what may have been his last opportunity to showcase his baseball talent. Not a high-octane power hitting team, the Dodgers built a winning formula around speed on the base paths, clutch hitting, and solid defense supporting the excellent pitching of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale; both now in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.  It became a perfect fit for Johnson.  In 131 games, he tied for the team lead in home runs (12), third in RBI (59), and fourth in batting average (.259).  For baseball sabermetric geeks, he led team in slugging percentage (.391) and tied for third in OPS (.706).  Also importantly for the Dodgers, Johnson stole 15 bases, placing third behind teammates Willie Davis (25) and Maury Wills (a league leading 94).  His enthusiasm inspired the club.  I remember seeing news footage of him broadly smiling and clapping his hands circling the bases after hitting a key home run as the Dodgers went 20 – 7 in September to win the National League pennant.

In the team’s four games to three World Series triumph over the Minnesota Twins, Johnson hit .296 with eight hits and four RBI. His second home run of the fall classic came in the 4th inning of Game Seven giving Sandy Koufax all the runs he needed in beating the Twins 2 – 0 and making the Dodgers 1965 World Series champions.

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Johnson hits HR Game 7 1965 World Series

 

Proving it not an aberration, Lou Johnson hit .272 the next season with 17 home runs and 73 RBI as the Dodgers again won the National League pennant.  However, they lost the World Series in four straight games to the Baltimore Orioles. After he hit .270 with a team leading 11 home runs in 1967, the Dodgers traded Johnson to the Chicago Cubs.  After two more trades, to the Cleveland Indians in 1968 and then to the California Angels in 1969, Johnson’s baseball career ended.  In 17 years of professional baseball, the 35-year-old had played with eight Major League teams.  In recent years, Lou Johnson has worked in the Dodgers’ Community Relations Department.

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Maury Wills (left) and Lou Johnson

 

One definition of redemption is the state of being converted into something of value. The baseball career of “Sweet” Lou Johnson was not only one of endurance and determination, but also redemption.  After 13 years of feature appearances in the baseball trade section of newspaper sport pages, Johnson got redemption in 1965.  No, he did not have superstar type hitting statistics.  But he proved to be something of great value for the Dodgers that helped them become World Series champions.

To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  To order go to (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown) http://www.klmitchell.com

Bill Blair – Ballplayer and Newspaper Publisher

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After an injury cut short his time on the fields of Negro League baseball, William “Bill” Blair became a newspaper publisher and prominent community activist in his hometown of Dallas, Texas.

Born on October 17, 1921, Blair left Prairie View College to join the military and became the youngest black first sergeant in the United States Army during World War II. After the war in 1946, he began his Negro League baseball career pitching first for the Cincinnati Crescents and then the Indianapolis Clowns.  He retired from baseball after the 1951 season due to an injured pitching arm.

Blair’s Elite News, first published in 1951, is now the longest existing African American newspaper in North Texas. It covers issues of political, social, economic, and religious importance for African Americans in the North Texas area.  In 1985, Blair was instrumental in organizing Dallas’ first Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade which is today one of the largest such tribute to Dr. King attracting thousands each year.

To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  To order go to (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown)

Pete Hill: Contemporary of Ty Cobb

hill-1                                                   Pete Hill Blog picture

Today is the birth date of Negro League baseball player John Preston “Pete” Hill; born on October 12, around 1882 or 1884 in Virginia (Culpeper County).

The following is an excerpt from my book, Last Train to Cooperstown:  The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era, which profiles the Hall of Fame outfielder: 

“A star in Negro League baseball during the first quarter of the 20thCentury, Pete Hill was called the black Ty Cobb. Major League owners and executives futilely denied that it was not racism that kept African-Americans like Hill and others out of white organized baseball during that time. This implied that black players did not have the skills and abilities for big league baseball, which was not true and why the “color line” that kept black players out was invisible. If it were true, Negro League players would not have been compared to the Major League ones as they commonly were before the “color line” was erased. John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, one of the best pre‐1920 players in Negro League baseball, was referred to as the “black” Honus Wagner; his contemporary at shortstop that played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1900 –1917)and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. Pete Hill’ accomplishments on the field were compared to Ty Cobb; who in his Major League career (1905 ‐ 1928) hit over .400 three times, finished with a .366 career batting average, and was also inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. It is a comparison painted by racism, but it gives an indication of Hill’ talents as a ballplayer. As Cobb was making life miserable for opposing American League pitchers, Pete Hill was the hitting superstar on three pre‐1920 era premier African American teams.”

“At 6” 1”, 215 lbs., Hill was a left-handed line drive hitter that was hard to defend because he hit the ball to all fields. A contact hitter that seldom swung and missed, he was a “tough out” for right handed and left-handed pitchers. Cum Posey, the long‐time owner of Negro League baseball’ Homestead Grays called Pete Hill, “he most consistent hitter of his time.” Negro League first baseman Ben Taylor who played on teams that were opponents of Hill called him “one of the most dangerous hitters a pitcher could ever face in a tough situation.” A 1910 article in the African-American Chicago Defender newspaper stated, “ete Hill would be a star in the Major Leagues if he were white. He can do anything a white player can do. He can hit, run, throw, and is what can be termed a wise, heady ballplayer.”

To learn more about Pete Hill who was one of best hitters in baseball history, read Last Train to Cooperstown:  The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.    http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown.

 

Gene Collins: Pitched Last Negro League “No-hitter”

After viewing my previous post on Negro League baseball’s ambidextrous pitcher Larry Kimbrough, Wanda Weatherspoon wanted information shared about her relative who played with the Kansas City Monarchs; Eugene “Gene” Collins. If you have consistently read my blog posts, you know how strongly I believe Negro League baseball is forever woven into the fabric of 20th Century American History.  Wanda is proud her relative is a part of the Negro League story.

collinsBorn January 7, 1925 in Kansas City, Gene Collins came to the Monarchs in 1947 when the face of Major League baseball began to change and the Negro Leagues’ swan song started its tune. That year Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play in the Major Leagues. A 5’8”, 168 pound left-handed pitcher, Collins joined a pitching staff that included Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith, both now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  A good hitter, Collins also spent time playing with Hall of Fame outfielder Willard Brown who along with Monarch teammate Hank Thompson would briefly play for the St. Louis Brown in 1947.  By mid-summer of the next year, Paige would be pitching for the Cleveland Indians.  Buck O’Neil, Ted Strong, Joe Greene, and Manager Frank Duncan were all Monarch veterans that help break in Gene Collins to the life of Negro League baseball.

For seven innings on May 22, 1949 Collins gave up no hits to the Houston (formerly Newark) Eagles. With Kansas City leading 14 – 0, the game ended after the seventh inning and some credit Collins with pitching the last no-hitter in Negro League baseball.  Some research indicates without detail he had pitched a no-hitter earlier while with the Monarchs.

Five of Gene Collins’ young Monarch teammates during his 1947 – 1949 time with the club went on to play in the Major Leagues as racial integration continued in professional baseball; Gene Baker, Elston Howard, Hank Thompson, Curt Roberts, and Connie Johnson. Collins himself began his minor league career with the Chicago White Sox in 1951.  Similar to other teams in the American League, the White Sox took a slow approach to racial integration.  Although the “invisible color line” had been erased, there were still racial barriers that African-American and dark-skinned Latino ball players had to face (quota for number on a team, utility player roster spots for white players only) that hindered many of their careers.  The only African American pitchers in the American League until the late 1950s were two of Collins’ former Monarch teammates:  Satchel Paige who pitched for the Indians (1948 -1949) and the St. Louis Browns (1951 – 1953) and Connie Johnson (White Sox 1953 – 1955 and Baltimore 1955 – 1958).  After spending two years in the lower minor league levels of the White Sox organization, Collins played the remainder of his career in Mexican and Caribbean leagues.  He never played a game in Major League baseball.

The second book I am currently writing deals with the plight of former Negro League players like Gene Collins. With the Civil Rights Movement’s initial beginnings as its backdrop, the book tells of the final demise of Negro League teams as the integration of Major League baseball gained unstoppable momentum in the 1950s.

I invite Wanda and anyone else who knew Gene Collins and would want to add more about his life to provide me your information and I will do another post about him.

To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  To order go to (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown) http://www.klmitchell.com

Larry Kimbrough: The Ambidextrous Negro League Pitcher

Due to a childhood injury of his left arm, naturally left-handed Larry Nathaniel Kimbrough learned to equally use his right hand. Born, September 23, 1923 in Philadelphia, PA., Kimbrough went on to become one of the few ambidextrous pitchers in Negro League baseball.  He pitched mainly with his right hand, but did throw some games left-handed.  He never switched between the two during a game.

larry-kimbroughAfter refusing to accept offers to sign with Negro League teams while in high school, Kimbrough began pitching for the Philadelphia Stars in 1942 after one year at Wilberforce University (Wilberforce, Ohio). He got the nickname “Schoolboy”.  He started with a flash pitching a shutout against the Newark Eagles.

Following two seasons, Kimbrough received his draft notice for military service and did not return to the Stars until 1946.  But he did not regain his pre-military magic on the mound and never became a star pitcher.

Although being only 23 years old at the time, Kimbrough retired from professional baseball after 1946 and had a long distinguished career with the US Postal Service.

 

To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  To order go to (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown) http://www.klmitchell.com

 

Cum Posey: In Both the Baseball and Basketball Halls of Fame

Cumberland “Cum” Posey made his mark in sports history as the architect and owner of the Homestead Grays, one of the most renown and successful franchises in Negro League baseball. One of the seventeen individuals from the Negro League baseball era inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Cooperstown, New York) in 2006, Posey helped to provide the opportunity for African-American and dark-skinned Latino baseball players to exhibit their God-given talent during the time racial discrimination kept them out of the Major Leagues.

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Cum Posey as owner of the Homestead Grays

However, Cum Posey received another distinction last week by being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. The other inductees with Posey were; former National Basketball Association (NBA) players Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Yao Ming, and Zelmo Beaty; former Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Sheryl Swopes, Michigan State Basketball Coach Tom Izzo, Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, former NBA referee Darell Garretson, and former NBA and college coach John McLendon.  Long before the existence of the NBA or National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), Posey received acclaim as one of the best basketball guards in the country when he graduated from high school in 1908.

A super quick point guard (5’ 4” – 5’9”, depending on the source), he went on to become the first African-American student athlete at Penn State (1909 – 1911). After leaving school, Posey and his brother organized a basketball team in his hometown of Homestead across the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh; The Monticello Rifles. Not only the team’s star player, Cum also operated the business and promotional functions for it.  The team changed its name to the Loendi Big Five in 1913 and became for years one of the best in what was the black professional basketball circuit.

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Posey at Penn State (first row on the right)

 

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Posey with Monticello Rifles (second from left on first row)

Posey returned to college in 1916 and under the name Charles Cumbert became the first African-American student athlete at Duquesne. Leading the team in scoring from 1916 – 1919), he wanted to get an additional year of eligibility so he successfully used an assumed name.

 

After playing baseball in the summer with the Homestead Grays since 1911, Posey bought the team in 1920 and by 1925 baseball became his main focus until he died of lung cancer in 1947.

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Posey with the Homestead Grays (first on the left, back row)

Cum Posey is the first to be recognized at the Hall of Fame in both Cooperstown and Springfield.

Here is an excerpt from my book, “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era” (Black Rose Writing – 2015), with more information about Cum Posey:

“Homestead was the birthplace of Cumberland Willis Posey, Jr.

on June 20, 1890. However, Posey’s destiny would not be tied to

steel. His parents were educated. His mother a teacher and his

father was an entrepreneur. An engineer that built boats and

operated a coal and ore business, Cum Sr. had the distinction of

being possibly the richest African American in the area. In college

Cum Jr. studied chemistry leaning towards becoming a pharmacist.

But sports had such a hold of his heart he could not ignore it.

 

A star athlete at Homestead High School, Posey played football,

basketball, and baseball as a teenager. Named Pittsburgh area’s top

high school basketball player in 1909, Posey (5’9”, 140 pounds) also

received national attention as one of the best guards in the country.

He played college basketball at Penn State and Duquesne.

However, baseball was a more popular sport in Posey’s

hometown of Homestead. The black steel workers passionately

played it every weekend from spring through fall. There were many

sandlot baseball teams sponsored by Pittsburgh area steel mills and

companies in the steel industry. These teams would be opponents

for a Homestead black team organized in 1900 called the Blue

Ribbons. The Blue Ribbons also played against local white semiprofessional

teams. By the time Posey began playing for the team

in 1911, its name had been changed to the Murdock Grays. Shortly

afterwards the team became the Homestead Grays.

Posey used the speed he exhibited on the basketball court to

develop into a decent centerfielder in baseball. He still played local

semi‐professional basketball during the winter in his early years

with the Grays. It was during his involvement with basketball that

the skills Posey used when he owned and operated the Grays were

first exhibited. Along with his brother Seward, he organized and

operated a basketball team that was successful for many years in

the black semi‐professional circuit. He continued to operate the

team for 14 years after he began playing with the Grays.

Posey’ status with Grays steadily increased as he was the team

captain in 1916, the field manager in 1917, and in 1918 was also

handling many of the team’ business operations. Finally, Posey

and a local businessman (Charles Walker) bought the Grays in

1920.”

To learn more about Cum Posey, read “Last Train to Cooperstown”.  To order, go to http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown.

 

“Sug” Cornelius: A battletested Negro League career

William McKinley Cornelius was not a famous Negro League baseball player. Born September 3, 1906 in Atlanta, Georgia; Cornelius said his mother gave him the nickname “Sugar” because he loved eating sugar as a baby.  As he got older, it was shortened to “Sug” and stayed with him all his life.  The right-handed pitcher did not play on the more renowned Negro League teams such as the Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles, or Pittsburgh Crawfords. After short stints with the Nashville Elite Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, and Memphis Red Sox, Cornelius had his best years with the Chicago American Giants from 1931 – 1946.  His exploits on the field were not legendary, but “Sug” Cornelius’ had an established pro baseball career in the Negro Leagues.

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Many former Negro League players said “Sug” could throw a curve around a barrel; it was his signature pitch. He battled with many of the Negro League’s greatest hitters with his curveball.  His mound opponents included Hall of Famers Leon Day, Raymond Brown, and of course Satchel Paige.  Also, he successfully pitched against Major League batters in exhibition games after the season and in the California winter leagues.

Negro League fans voted him to participate in three Negro League East West All Star Games. Cornelius pitched a scoreless top of the 11th inning for the West squad in the 1935 East-West All Star Game and became the winning pitcher after “Mule” Suttles’ home run in the bottom of the ending.  But in the 1936 All Star Game “Sug” gave up two runs in the first three innings as the losing pitcher in the West squad’s 10 – 2 defeat.  He received over 63,000 votes from fans, the second highest for all pitchers that year, for the 1938 game.  But he had another rocky outing, giving up three runs in the first inning.  The West squad rallied to win the game 5 – 4.

Past his prime years when Jackie Robinson erased Major League baseball’s “invisible color line”, “Sug” regretfully accepted the fact he had missed his chance. He said, “It was just one of those things.  My skin was black and that denied me the right to play in the majors”.

“Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues by John Holway (1992, Da Capo Press – New York) was used as a source material for quotes and some other information for this article.

 

To read more on the history of Negro League baseball, order “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”, at (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown)

In Memory of “Choo Choo” Coleman

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On August 25 last year, I posted an article on this blog entitled: “Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman: Seeing both a baseball sunset and a new dawning”.  It celebrated Coleman’s 78th birthday (born August 25, 1937 in Orlando, Florida). 

I received an email from Coleman’s niece who saw my blog post. She indicated his family had begun the process keeping his name and his story alive for baseball fans. A web site was in the making and other activities were being planned.

However on August 15th, ten days before his 79th birthday, Coleman died in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

In memory of “Choo Choo” Coleman, I have re-posted last year’s article. To me his baseball life was unique.  He experienced the sunset of Negro League baseball in the 1950s and had a role in the history of a Major League franchise’s new dawning.

 

Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman: Seeing a Sunset and a New Dawning

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The on field statistics of Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman; born August 25, 1937 in Orlando, Florida, do not make his baseball career anything special. But it is the timing of when he played and the teams in which he was on that draws interest when his name is mentioned.  He experienced the sunset of Negro League baseball and the dawning of a new Major League franchise.

Coleman was first signed in 1955 by the Washington Senators who had their Class D minor league team in Orlando. The Senators were in the American League which as a whole by 1955 as compared to the National League was slower in signing African-American and dark- skinned Latino ball players. The “invisible color line” which kept Major League baseball segregated for nearly half the 20th Century had been erased in 1947, but there were still two American League teams without Black or Latino players the year Coleman was signed; the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers.

Going nowhere in the Senators’ minor league organization, Coleman signed with the Indianapolis Clowns midway through the 1956 season. By the mid-1950s, integration had killed Negro League baseball by draining it of the best players and stealing the interest of black baseball fans.  The Clowns had become the “Harlem Globetrotters” of baseball when Coleman joined them.  The former Negro American League (NAL) team travelled from city to city to compete against semi-professional and amateur squads while performing on field antics designed to generate laughs for fan entertainment.

By 1960, however, there were Major League teams still interested in Coleman. The 5’9”, 165 pounds undersized catcher was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers that year and was then drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1961.  Coleman made it to the Major Leagues in time to be on the worst team in baseball that season.  The Phillies lost 107 games.  Making his debut on April 16, 1961, Coleman hit .128 playing in 34 games

Choo rookie

The next season “Choo Choo” would become a part of baseball history for the wrong reason as he was chosen by the National League expansion team New York Mets. The team was 40 – 120 its first season.  And although Coleman had his best year statistically; batting .250 with six home runs and 17 RBIs in 55 games, he became a part of the popular baseball lore about the hapless 1962 Mets.  His nickname “Choo Choo”, that Coleman says he got being a fast runner as a child, made him a fan favorite.

Choo met

He was demoted to the minor leagues after he hit .178 in 1963; 3 home runs, 9 RBIs in 106 games. Coleman returned to play briefly for the team in 1966, which would be his last season in the Major Leagues.

The story of former Major League player Nate Colbert reflects how the baseball dreams of African-American boys changed as a result of Jackie Robinson erasing Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” in 1947.

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Nate Colbert (right) after game on August 1, 1972

 

On May 2, 1954 in a doubleheader against the New York Giants; St. Louis Cardinal right fielder Stan Musial hit five home runs.  There were 26,662 in attendance that Sunday afternoon at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium to see him do what no other Major League player had accomplished.   In the first game, Musial hit three home runs and drove in six runs in the Cardinal’s 10 – 6 victory.  He hit 2 homers and drove in three runs in the nightcap, but the Giants won 9 – 7.

In the stadium that spring afternoon with his father was eight year old African-American Nate Colbert.  I am sure little Nate was excited about seeing his favorite Cardinal ballplayer, “Stan the Man”, set a Major League record with those five home runs. But Colbert that day also saw Cardinal rookie first baseman Tom Alston, the first African American to appear in a Major League game for the St. Louis Cardinals.

For the first time in the franchise’s history, the 1954 Cardinal team had African-Americans players. The 28-year-old Alston made his Major League debut on April 13, earlier than Brooks Lawrence (June 24) and Bill Greason (May 31), the other two African Americans on the team.  A good defensive first baseman, he had a hot bat against the Giants in the doubleheader witnessed by little Nate.  In the first game Alston got 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

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St. Louis Cardinals Wally Moon (left), Stan Musial (center), and Tom Alston (right) after May 2, 1954 game

Little Nate also saw that day three former Negro League baseball players who appeared in both games for the Giants: Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Hank Thompson. Irvin and Thompson in 1949 were the first African-Americans to play for the Giants.

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New York Giants Monte Irvin (left), Willie Mays (center), and Hank Thompson (right)

Fast forward this story to 1964. 18 year old Nate Colbert is signed by the Cardinals, but they lose him to the Houston Astros in the 1965 Rule Five draft and he never plays a game in the uniform of his hometown team.  The Astros then trade him to the San Diego Padres in 1969.

On August 1, 1972; in Colbert’s fourth season with the Padres, he ties the record he saw Stan Musial set in 1954.  Colbert hits five home runs in a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta.  He hits two home runs and drives in five runs as the Padres win the first game 9-0 and hits three homers driving in eight runs in his team’s 11 -7 victory in the nightcap.  For the second time in his six years with the Padres, Colbert hits 38 home runs in 1972.

nate colbert

Nate Colbert gets congratulation from Padres’ batboy after hitting home run on August 1, 1972

Little Nate Colbert’s Major League career did not come close to that of Hall of Famer Stan Musial.  To tie or break a record in baseball; however, is considered a great accomplishment.   And Colbert being present to see the record set that he would eventually tie makes this a unique circumstance.   However, Colbert got the opportunity to be able to do what he saw his childhood favorite Cardinal ballplayer do because of what he also witnessed that May afternoon.

By seeing Tom Alston, Willie Mays, Hank Thompson, and Monte Irvin play that day; Colbert witnessed the new day in Major League baseball that was occurring. It had dawned in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball.  It was a new day in which the baseball dreams of little Nate Colbert and other African-American boys were no longer confined to Negro League baseball.  A new day that would produce stories like Nate Colbert’s and others as the racial barriers in professional baseball were pulled down in the 1950s and 1960s.

All photos provided by Google Images

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