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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William “Bill” Greason played professional baseball in many different places and at several different levels during his career. Born on September 3, 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia, Greason applied his talent as a right-handed pitcher in both Negro and Major League baseball; in addition to high and lower levels in the minor leagues. He pitched in cities across the United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Like other African American ballplayers of his era (1947 -1958) Greason saw the final demise of Negro League baseball, participated in the integration of the minor leagues, and experienced racism in the Major Leagues after the “invisible color line” had been erased.
The 5’ 10’’ and 170 pound ex-Marine first pitched in 1947 with the Nashville Black Vols and Ashville (North Carolina) Blues, both considered minor league African American teams. It was the year Jackie Robinson became the first African American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. Greason was a power pitcher with a fastball and a sharp breaking pitch that he could throw sidearm. By the end of that season he had pitched his way onto the roster of the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League (NAL).
1948 was his breakout year. Greason pitched three scoreless innings in that year’s Negro League Baseball East-West All-Star game. Also, with him as one of its top pitchers, the Black Barons beat out Buck O’Neil’s Kansas City Monarchs to win the NAL pennant. Both Negro League stars Lorenzo “Piper” Davis and Arte Wilson were also on the Black Barons that year. In addition, a 17-year-old kid named Willie Mays played centerfield for the team. In what would be the last Negro League World Series, Greason pitched the Black Barons to their only victory against the Homestead Grays winning 4 – 3.
After leaving the Black Barons following the 1950 season, Greason pitched in the Class AAA and A levels in the minor leagues. He also pitched in the Mexican League and spent a short second stint in the Marines. When he returned to baseball in 1953, he became the third African American to play in the Class AA Texas League.
In 1954, Greason along with Brooks Lawrence and Tom Alston were the first African American players invited to a spring training camp by the St. Louis Cardinals. He made his Major League debut on May 31 at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs. In three innings, Greason gave up five runs on six hits in the Cards 14 – 4 lost. Three of the hits off Greason were home runs, one by the Cubs young shortstop and former Negro League player Ernie Banks. After appearing briefly in two more games, Greason at the end of June was sent to the minor leagues.
For the remainder of the decade he pitched with the Houston Buffs (Class AA Texas League), the Rochester Red Wings (Class AAA International League), and winter league baseball in the Caribbean. He never again played in the Major Leagues, getting only that one chance like a number of former Negro League players in the 1950s.
Greason retired in 1959 and was called into Christian ministry. He was pastor of a church in Birmingham, Alabama for 30 years and was cited by the Alabama State Legislature in 2001 for outstanding ministry achievement.
The Birmingham Black Barons won three Negro American League (NAL) pennants in the 1940s. The heart and acknowledged leader of those strong Black Baron teams was Lorenzo Davis. The nickname that stuck with him throughout his career, “Piper”, came from the coal mining town near Birmingham where he was born on July 3, 1917; Piper, Alabama.
After graduating high school, Davis played basketball on scholarship one year at Alabama State (Montgomery, Alabama) and for a few winters was a Harlem Globetrotter in the early 1940s. But Piper knew that baseball was his escape from the coal mining work of his father’s generation.
He established his reputation as a ballplayer first in the all black Industrial League sponsored by Birmingham’s steel and mining industry companies. At 6’3”, 188 pounds, Davis could play every infield and outfield position. He did not hit with home run power or have blazing speed, but was fundamentally sound. Davis was an excellent fielder with an accurate, strong throwing arm and a high “baseball” IQ.
He started playing second base with the Black Barons in 1942 and would form one of the best double play combo’s in Negro League baseball history with shortstop Arte Wilson who came to the team in 1944. Davis was also selected four times by fans (1946 -1949) to play in the Negro League East-West All Star Game.
In 1948, Davis was the Black Barons’ player/manager and led them to their third NAL pennant only to lose to the Homestead Grays in what would be the final Negro League World Series. He played an important role that year as mentor for the Barons’ 16 year old outfielder, Willie Mays.
Davis was wrongly labelled an undesirable prospect by some Major League scouts due to his intensely competitive approach to playing the game. In 1950, he became the first African American player signed by the Boston Red Sox. Released after one season in the Red Sox minor league system, Davis spent the next eight years integrating the minor leagues. For seven years he played in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), Triple AAA minor league baseball. His final year, 1958, he was a player/coach in the Texas League (Double AA).
Davis never played in the Major Leagues, but his ability to evaluate a player’s talent was well known. After retiring, he spent many years as a Major League scout.
Who was the first African American to play for the Boston Red Sox?
Otha Bailey experienced Negro League baseball die up close. Born on June 30, 1920 in Huntsville, Alabama, Bailey started his career by first playing with the Cleveland Buckeyes, Houston Eagles, and Birmingham Black Barons in 1950. By 1952 he was signed again by the Black Barons and stayed with them until he retired in 1959. African American players by then had firmly established themselves in the Major Leagues and Negro League baseball was no more than a semi-pro organization.
After Jackie Robinson successfully erased the “invisible color line” in 1947, Major league teams began to sign the most talented Negro League players. African American and Latino players still encountered racism and discrimination after integration. However; former Negro League players such as Robinson, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, and others went on to have stellar Major League careers.
Others like Otha Bailey, a 5’6”, 150 pound catcher whose nickname was “Little Catch”, never signed with a Major League team. Despite his size, he was one of the best catchers in the talent diluted Negro Leagues in the 1950s.
Who was Otha Bailey’s battery mate with the Black Barons in the late 1950s that went on to country and western music fame?
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?