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.
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)
Born on January 7, 1924 in St. Charles, Missouri, James Edward “Jim” Pendleton played shortstop for the Chicago American Giants in 1948 after serving in the military during World War II. At 6’ and 185 pounds, he had speed and range playing the position; plus he could hit. Pendleton missed the desegregation of the US military, an early major step in the civil rights advancement of African Americans. President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which began the process of ending the racial segregation of the Armed Forces after the speedy infielder had returned to civilian life. However, Pendleton would be involved in the concurrent major step in African American civil rights, the integration of Major League baseball.
After the 1948 season, it is said the Brooklyn Dodgers paid the American Giants $7,500 for Pendleton’s contract. Two of his Negro League teammates would also sign with Major League teams; Quincy Trouppe with the Cleveland Indians in 1952 and Roberto Vargas With the Milwaukee Braves in 1955. The “invisible color line” which had kept African Americans and dark-skinned Hispanics out of Major League baseball for nearly half the 20th Century had been erased in 1947 by Jackie Robinson, but the integration process began slowly. Other than the Dodgers, who along with Robinson had Roy Campanella, the Cleveland Indians were the only other Major League team in 1948 with African American players. Larry Doby and “Satchel” Paige were on the World Series Champion Indian team that year.
But with Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese the unmovable fixture as the Dodgers’ shortstop, Pendleton spent four years (1949 – 1952) in the team’s minor league system. Before the 1953 season, he was traded to the Milwaukee Braves and converted into an outfielder. In 120 games he batted .299 that season and hit three straight home runs during a hot streak at the plate. It would be his best Major League season.
The Braves traded for New York Giant star outfielder Bobby Thomson before the 1954 season. He broke his ankle during spring training and opened the door for Pendleton to become a fixture in the Braves’ outfield. However, after failing in his attempt to get a higher paying contract, Pendleton arrived at spring training late and not in top shape. He lost the opportunity to replace Thomson to Henry Aaron; a 21 year old rookie who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career. Pendleton never returned to his 1953 form and spent the remainder of his Major League career as a pinch hitter and reserve outfielder.
After two more seasons with the Braves, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates before the start of the 1957 season and in 1959 traded to the Cincinnati Reds.
Pendleton spent two years in the minor leagues, 1960 -1961, and then resurfaced to play for the Houston Colt 45s in 1962. It was the inaugural season for the National League expansion team. Although 38 years old, he had his best statistical season since 1953 playing in 117 games and batting .246 with a career high eight home runs.
To learn more about Negro League baseball history, read “Last Train to Cooperstown”: http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown.
Calvert, Texas is located between Bryan/College Station and Waco, on State Highway 6. Travelling that route a few times, I remember that the main section of Calvert is slightly east of the highway. In this small town in the central part of the “Lone Star State, Andrew “Rube” Foster was born on September 17, 1879. Considered “the father” of Negro League baseball, Rube Foster is not given the credit deserved for his impact on professional baseball as a whole.
Foster’s success as a league organizer and team manager overshadowed an early career as a dominant pitcher. He was one of the best pitchers on first the Cuban X Giants and then the Philadelphia Giants, two of the best black baseball teams in the “dead ball” era of the early 20th Century. Foster received the nickname “Rube” after defeating the Philadelphia A’s future Hall of Fame pitcher “Rube” Waddell in an exhibition game. He then went on to become owner and manager of the Chicago American Giants, one of the most successful black teams from 1911-1919.
In 1920, Foster formed the first official Negro professional baseball league, the Negro National League (NNL). It was the fulfillment of his vision patterned after Major League baseball which at that period of time due to racism banned African American and dark-skinned Latino ball players. Prior to the NNL, several black leagues were organized, but none operated long enough to be historically significant.
“We are the ship, all else the sea”, is what Foster said to describe the NNL. He saw it as a ship travelling through the sea troubled by the stormy strong winds of racial segregation and discrimination. Long term, Foster hoped the success of the NNL would highlight the talents of African American and Latino ball players; eventually leading to the breaking down of the racial barriers and integrating the Major Leagues.
The league structure Foster set up for black baseball continued despite his death in 1930. Through the racially oppressive 1920s, the worst economic depression in this country’s history during the 1930s, and the largest global military war in world history from 1939 – 1945; Negro League baseball survived. And just as Foster hoped, it gave African Americans and dark-skinned Latinos ball players the opportunity to professionally express their God-given talent; the opportunity not given them by white organized baseball.
Also; what Foster hoped became reality when Jackie Robinson, a former Negro League player, in 1947 became the first African American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century. Fifty other former Negro League players had Major League baseball careers after Robinson erased the “invisible color line”.
Andrew “Rube” Foster was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.
Read more about the journey of Negro League baseball in my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. For more information, go to www.klmitchell.com or http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown.
There is no dispute that Alvin “Al” Spearman was born August 26 in Chicago, Illinois. However, where most records show 1931 as the year, some conflicting information says 1926. Spearman cut his baseball teeth in the semi-professional Chicago industrial leagues before joining the Chicago American Giants of the Negro American League (NAL) after the 1949 season.
Physically at 6’1” and 185 pounds, he was a right handed pitcher that threw side armed. Unlike some of the best Negro League hurlers, Spearman did not have a blazing fast ball to overpower and strikeout batters. Instead, his best pitch was a sinkerball. When he threw it with excellent control he was a good pitcher as opponents would hit the ball on the ground to his infielders and be thrown out.
During his time with American Giants, 1950 and 1951, Spearman also briefly played with the Kansas City Monarchs. In Spearman’s short stay with the team, Elston Howard of future New York Yankee fame was his roommate.
The Chicago White Sox signed Spearman after the 1951 season. He then encountered the obstacles faced by many of the African American and dark skinned Latino players signed by Major League teams in the 1950s. The pace of integration was slow and most of the players signed were not steadily progressed through the teams’ minor league systems. In addition, although not formerly stated, there existed a specific limit (quota) as to the number of them on each Major League roster. Feeling lost in the White Sox minor league system, Spearman left after the 1954 season to play in Japan.
He returned in 1956 and continued his career in the minor leagues. At the Class C level Spearman had his best years winning 18 games in 1956 and 20 games in 1958. In 1960 he was signed by his hometown Chicago Cubs Class AAA minor league team, the Houston Buffs. However, Spearman had confrontations with the team management in which he felt had racial overtones. In addition, he had to encounter “Jim Crow” racial discrimination laws while in Houston. Before the season ended, Spearman left the team and did not return to playing professional baseball.
What three other former Negro League players were on the 1959 Houston Buff’s team with Al Spearman?
Donald “Groundhog” Johnson, born July 31, 1926 in Covington, Kentucky, and Joseph (Joe) Durham, born July 31, 1931 in Newport News, Virginia, were almost Chicago American Giant teammates in 1952. After playing with Chicago the three previous years (1949 – 1951), Johnson left to play with the Philadelphia Stars while Durham that year was a Negro League baseball rookie. Their careers were two typical examples of what happened to Negro League players after the “invisible color line” was broken and Negro League baseball began its decline into oblivion in the 1950s.
Named “groundhog” because how low he positioned his body to field ground balls while playing shortstop, Johnson was not signed by a Major League team. He retired from professional baseball after the 1952 season as it was quickly becoming an unstable, unprofitable profession for those stuck in the Negro Leagues. After retiring, he played in amateur baseball leagues and coached youth league teams while living in Cincinnati.
Durham was signed by the St. Louis Browns after the 1952 season. In 1953, he became one of the first African American players in the Piedmont League which consisted of teams in segregated southern cities. The Browns became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954 and called Durham up from the minor leagues the last month of the season. He made his Major League debut on September 10 and two days later became the first African American player to hit a home run in an Orioles’ uniform.
After spending two years doing military service, Durham returned to the Orioles in 1957 and hit .185 (four home runs and nineteen RBI in 77 games), being used mostly as a pinch hitter. The Orioles sent him back to the minor leagues, but the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him (Rule 5 draft) after the 1958 season. Durham played in six games for the Cardinals in 1959. He spent the remainder of his career playing in the minor leagues where he compiled a ten year batting average of .288.
What former Negro League pitcher also made his Major League debut with the Baltimore Orioles in 1954?