To honor Ernie “Mr. Cub” Banks who died in January last year, I hope the Chicago Cubs will overcome decades of frustration and defeat the Cleveland Indians in this year’s World Series. However, if Cleveland does win Indian fans will celebrate the team’s third World Series Championship. The Indians defeated the Brooklyn Robins (changed its name to Dodgers in 1932) in 1920 and the Boston (now Atlanta) Braves in 1948. However, there is another Cleveland baseball championship that fans of the game in “the Land” should not overlook. In 1945, the Cleveland Buckeyes defeated the Homestead Grays to win the Negro League World Series.
At the end of the 1941 Negro League season, Erie, Pennsylvania businessman Ernie Wright purchased the semi-pro African-American Cleveland White Sox baseball team and the St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League (NAL). He merged the teams to organize the Buckeyes who played most of its games next season in Cincinnati and other cities throughout Ohio, but relocated to Cleveland in 1943. Being a large industrial northern city with a substantial African American population, 71,899 in 1930, “the Land” was no stranger to Negro League baseball. The Buckeyes were the eleventh Negro League team to call Cleveland home since 1922, the only one to survive more than one season. Their home games were played in League Park.
The 1945 baseball season began as the most destructive world war in history approached an end. Many ball players had lost time from their professional baseball careers due to military service. Major League players Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and others had gone into the armed forces after the War began in 1941. Negro League players Monte Irvin, Leon Day, Willard Brown, and others also served in the military to help preserve the nation’s freedom even though racial discrimination deprived them of the opportunity to play Major League baseball. But this shortage of quality players due to the war does not tarnish what the Cleveland Buckeyes accomplished.
The team had no iconic player of Negro League lore or destined for the Hall of Fame. After the “invisible color line” was erased by Jackie Robinson in 1947, the Buckeyes’ best player Sam Jethroe went on to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1950. The speedy outfielder led the league in stolen bases (35) and hit .273 playing for the Boston Braves. Veteran Negro League catcher Quincy Trouppe, the Buckeyes’ manager, played briefly for the Cleveland Indians in 1952 when 39 years old. The remainder of the team consisted of solid Negro League players such infielders Parnell Woods and Archie Ware, outfielders Buddy Armour and Willie Grace, and pitchers Eugene (Gene) Bremmer, and the Jefferson brothers; Willie and George. After integration, they all briefly played in the lower levels of Minor League baseball. Since its inception in 1937, the Negro American League (NAL) had been dominated by the Kansas City Monarchs (NAL pennants in 1937, 1939 – 1942) and Birmingham Black Barons (NAL pennants in 1942 and 1943). But, the Buckeyes prevailed in 1945 and advanced to the World Series against one of the most renown franchises in the history of Negro League baseball; the Homestead Grays.
Going into the Series, the Buckeyes were overwhelmingly the underdog. The Grays were the reigning Negro League World Series champion, beating the Black Barons in 1943 and 1944. They had extended their run of consecutive Negro National League (NNL) pennants to nine in 1945. Their roster included five players who would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame: outfielder James “Cool Papa” Bell (1974), pitcher Raymond Brown (2006), first baseman Buck Leonard (1972), catcher and Negro League icon Josh Gibson (1972), and third baseman Jud “Boojum” Wilson (2006). But Hall of Fame team owner Cum Posey (2006) had allowed his “long Gray line” to get old and worn down. With Wilson being 49, Bell 42, and the Grays other top players in their mid to late 30s, the team went into the Series depending on skills being eroded by time. But they still had hard-hitting Gibson and Leonard, and they were still the mighty Homestead Grays.
In a huge upset, the Cleveland Buckeyes won the 1945 Negro League World Series in a four game sweep. That they were a younger and faster team played a big part in their victory. But the dominance of Cleveland’s pitchers turned out to be the most shocking factor. After winning Game One 2 – 1 and Game Two 3 -2, the Buckeye pitching shutout the Grays the final two games. Willie Jefferson threw a 3 – 0 shutout in Game Three winning 4 – 0 and Frank Carswell a 5 – 0 win in Game Four. The Grays scored only three runs the entire Series, none the last 18 innings. Cleveland’s Willie Grace hit the only Series home run. The Buckeyes also won the NAL pennant in 1947, but lost in the World Series to the New York Cubans four games to one. Because of financial deficits due to a declining fan base, the team disbanded after the first half of the 1950 season.
The entire city of Cleveland will go wild if the Indians win the World Series this year. It only had a small banquet with no parade in 1945 acknowledging the Buckeyes’ Championship. But hopefully there will be fans at Progressive Field this World Series wearing Cleveland Buckeye Negro League gear to show the team’s 1945 triumph is not totally forgotten. Lebron, JR Smith, Kyrie, Richard Jefferson, let me see you!
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