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”:
“Jackie Robinson broke through the color line in 1947 and began his successful Major League playing career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. With the line erased by Robinson and as more African Americans began playing in the Major Leagues, the eventual future end of Negro League baseball became obvious by the early 1950s. Instead of attending Negro League games, more and black baseball fans began following former Negro League players in the Major Leagues. By the middle of the decade talented young African American players were bypassing the Negro Leagues and directly signing with Major League teams. The death of Negro League baseball came by the early 1960s due to economic problems caused by a declining fan base and a decreasing level of talent.”
Born on November 30, 1939 in Cleveland, Tennessee; Ernest Westfield was the starting pitcher for the East squad in the last Negro League Baseball East-West All Star Game. The contest was held on August 21, 1960 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, the same as where the first was played in 1933.
A 6’3”, 160 pound right-handed pitcher, Westfield spent the 1958 season in the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system. The next year he signed with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League (NAL). In spite of the league’s decline, it was still an honor to be chosen to participate in the All Star Game. Ike Brown, the West squad’s shortstop, went on to play for the Detroit Tigers in 1969 and was the last player from the Negro Leagues signed by a Major League team.
Westfield gave up three runs in the first three innings and the West squad won the game 8 – 4.
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Although professional baseball’s color line that kept it segregated had been erased by Jackie Robinson in 1947, African American and Hispanic ballplayers still faced difficulties due to racial discrimination that hindered their development in the Major Leagues. The career of Frank Samuel “Pee Wee” Austin, born on May 22, 1917, is an example of the difficulties they faced.
Considered one of the best baseball players born and raised in Panama, Austin began his Negro League career in 1944 with the Philadelphia Stars. An excellent fielding shortstop who hit over .300 his first two seasons, the 5’7” and 168 pound speedster was the starting shortstop for the East squad in the 1945 Negro League All Star Game. Jackie Robinson was the West squad’s starting shortstop that year. Austin also made All Star Game appearances in 1947 and 1948.
After the color line was broken, the skills he displayed on the baseball diamond got the attention of Major League scouts. Austin was signed by the New York Yankees in 1949, but never played with the team due to a racially motivated decision. The Yankees and Cleveland Indians were involved in a contract dispute over two other Negro League players; shortstop Artie Wilson of the Birmingham Black Barons and Luis Marquez of the Baltimore Elite Giants. Believing the Indians would get Wilson, the Yankees signed Austin. But, Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler settled the dispute by allowing the Yankees to keep Wilson and gave Marquez to the Indians. This left New York with two African American prospects at shortstop.
With future Hall of Famer (1994) Phil Rizzuto the starting Yankee shortstop at that time, the team did not need two prospects at the position. But instead of choosing between the two, the Yankees sold both players to Pacific Coast League (PCL), Triple AAA minor league teams. Wilson went to the Oakland Oaks and Austin to the Portland Beavers.
In the early years of Major League integration, teams that signed African American players did not want them to room together with white players on road trips. If there were not two or more African Americans on the team, the one roomed alone which made him even more ostracized by the majority of his white teammates. The Yankees took it a step further and unloaded them both. It is a compliment to the fortitude of African American players in the early years of integration that they had success on the field despite these obstacles.
Austin and Marquez, who had been sent to the Beavers by the Indians, became the first black players in the Portland franchise’s history. A fan favorite, “Pee Wee” Austin played seven seasons (1949 – 1955) with the team; including 659 consecutive games. But he never hit over .300 as he had done with the Philadelphia Stars; he never got another chance to play in the Major Leagues before retiring in 1957.
Negro League baseball statistics are hard to verify. They were not consistently recorded by the teams. African American newspapers did not have the resources to report on every Negro League game and white newspapers blatantly ignored them. However, based on what researched has discovered at least 29 no-hitters were thrown in Negro League baseball. Most notably there were two by Satchel Paige and one each by Hilton Smith, Andy Cooper, “Smoky” Joe Williams, and Leon Day; all Hall of Fame pitchers.
According to reports from the New York Amsterdam News and the Baltimore Afro American, a no-hitter was thrown on May 15, 1927 by Layman Yokely.
A native of Winston Salem, North Carolina, Yokely had an eighteen year Negro League baseball career mostly with the Baltimore Black Sox (1926 – 1933). The 6”2’, 210 pound hurler threw with a right hand side arm, submarine pitching style. In 1929, he was a part of the pitching rotation that led the Black Sox to the American Negro League pennant. Comprised mainly of former teams from the Eastern Color (ECL) which had disbanded, the league discontinued after one year.
Like most Negro League pitchers, Yokely started games and also pitched in relief. On the day he threw his no-hitter, he had pitched briefly in relief the first game of a doubleheader against the Cuban Stars. The Black Sox won that game 8 – 6. Then in the second game he beat the Stars 8 – 0, giving them no hits.
Supposedly, Yokely pitched more no-hitters in his career. However, there is no documentation to verify any of them. He no longer was a dominant pitcher after 1930 due to chronic arm soreness.
Who were Laymon Yokely’s Baltimore Black Sox teammates that black sportswriters dubbed the “Million Dollar Infield” in 1929?
Born May 8, 1901 in Nashville, Tennessee, Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes did not have the typical built of a home run hitter. But the 6 feet, 175 pound left handed hitting center fielder swung with such power he became one of the most prolific sluggers in Negro League baseball during his career (1920 – 1940). Stearnes was the league leading home run hitter a reportedly six times.
While running, Stearnes’ head bobbed up and down, his neck stretched, and his arms flailed. Someone said he looked like a “wild turkey” and the nickname stuck with him throughout his career. But, he was an excellent fielder with base stealing speed.
Also, he had an unorthodox batting stance in which he pointed his front foot towards the pitcher with the heel down and toes up. He looked awkward standing at home plate, but it proved productive for him and nightmarish for pitchers. Stearnes was the marquee player for the Detroit Stars (1923 – 1931, 1933, and 1937). But, he also played for other teams including the New York Lincolns (1930), Cole’s (Chicago) American Giants (1932 – 1935), and the Kansas City Monarchs (1938 – 1941).
Stearnes received the most votes from fans for the first Negro League East – West All Star Game in 1933 and he got two hits in the contest. The yearly game became the national showcase for Negro League baseball and Stearnes was chosen by fans to play in it five times; 1933, 1934, 1935, 1937, and 1939.
He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.
At the front of what current Major League baseball stadium is there a statue of Turkey Stearnes?
Last Friday May 1, Alex Rodriguez hit his 660 career home run to tie Willie Mays as the fourth leading Major League All-time Home Run hitter. Before having an illustrious 22 year Hall of Fame career in Major League baseball which began in 1951, Mays played Negro League baseball.
Willie Howard Mays, Jr. was born on May 6 in Westfield, Alabama; 1931. As a 17 year old teenager, Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons. He was the center fielder on the Black Barons’ 1948 Negro American League pennant winning team. In the last Negro League World Series, the Black Barons lost to the Homestead Grays that year four games to one.
After playing for the Barons in 1949, Willie Mays was signed as an amateur free agent by the New York Giants in 1950. After Willie Mays, which former Negro League player is next on the Major League All-time Home Run list?
Alfred Allen “Buddy” Armour played with four teams in his 13 year (1936 – 1948) Negro League baseball career. Born in Jackson, Mississippi on April 27, 1927, the left handed hitting outfielder was a three time All Star and a member of a Negro League World Series winning team.
As a shortstop with the St. Louis Stars, Armour made his first Negro League East West All Star Game appearance in 1941. Chosen as an All Star again in 1944 after becoming an outfielder and playing with the Cleveland Buckeyes, he got two hits in the West squad’s 7 – 4 victory. While with the Chicago American Giants in 1947, Armour was chosen again an All Star by the votes of Negro League fans. In the first of the two All Star Games played that year, he hit two doubles to help the West squad win 5 – 2.
Armour hit .307 in the 1945 Cleveland Buckeyes’ four game sweep of the Homestead Grays for the Negro League World Series Championship.
By the time professional baseball became integrated in 1947, Armour was 32 years old and was never signed by a Major League club. He played in the Canadian minor leagues from 1949 – 1951 before retiring.
Which of Armour’s teammates on the Cleveland Buckeyes would go on to win “Rookie of the Year” honors in the Major Leagues?
Theodore Roosevelt “Ted” Page was a graceful left handed hitting outfielder that played fifteen years (1923 – 1937) in Negro League baseball. Born according to most accounts on April 22, 1903 in Glasgow, Kentucky, Page however lived the early part of his life in Youngstown, Ohio where became a high school baseball and football star athlete. He used the football mentality he developed on the baseball field. A consistent .300 hitter, Page was a tough aggressive player whose speed on the base paths drove opponents crazy. Nicknamed “Terrible Ted”, he was not afraid to fight opponents; or teammates when he felt it necessary.
Page played with what is considered two of the best teams in Negro League baseball history. In 1931, he played with the Homestead Grays, a team that included Hall of Famers “Smokey” Joe Williams, Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson, and Jud Wilson. The next year, Pittsburgh Crawfords’ owner Gus Greenlee added Charleston, Johnson, Wilson, and Page to his team which already had Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.
In 1984, Page was beaten to death in his Pittsburgh home with a baseball bat.
When Page played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords (1932 – 1934), what job did he perform for team owner Gus Greenlee during the winter months?
Aaron, who was twenty years old, had doubts about making it on the Braves roster that spring. Purchased from Negro League baseball’s Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, he spent two years destroying pitchers in the Braves’ minor league system. While one of the first African Americans in the Southern Atlantic League (Sally League) in 1953, he hit .362 with 22 home runs and won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. However, Aaron thought at best he would be assigned to the Braves’ Triple A team in Toledo, Ohio.
However, Braves’ veteran outfielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle during an exhibition game in March and the team turned to Aaron. Exceeding his expectations, the rookie left spring training as the Braves opening day left fielder.
In his first Major League game, Aaron went hitless in five at bats against Reds’ pitchers Bud Podbielan, Joe Nuxhall, and Frank Smith as the Braves lost 9 – 8. However, two days later in the Braves’ 7 – 6 home opening victory against the St. Louis Cardinals he got the first of his 3,771 Major League hits; a first inning double off pitcher Vic Raschi. In St. Louis on April 23, Raschi was also the pitching victim for the first of Aaron’s 755 Major League career home runs. Henry Aaron finished his rookie season batting .282 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs.
In his first Major League game, Aaron played in the outfield next to what other African American?