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.
Born 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
My March 10th post titled, “My public apology to Elston Howard”, ended with the following question; “Who was the African American catcher that finished eighth in the American League Most Valuable Player Award voting in 1963”. Congratulations to James O’Berry for giving the correct answer, Earl Battey! 1963 turned out to be a good year for African American catchers.
Hitting .285 with 26 home runs and 84 Runs Batted In (RBIs), Battey helped the Minnesota Twins to a third place finish in the American League. But the national sports writers chose Howard, who hit .287 with 28 home runs and 85 RBIs leading the New York Yankees to the American League pennant, as the American League’s Most Valuable Player (MVP). The first time an African American player won the award in the American League. In the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the pennant and defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series with an African American behind the plate; John Roseboro. He hit a home run off Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford to help the Dodgers win Game One of the Series. In addition that year, I was the catcher for the championship team in the 9 – 11 little league age group at the Athletic Field in Kansas City, Kansas. It was a good year for African American catchers!
In 1963 Battey had the best season of his 13 year Major League career. He signed with the Chicago White Sox after leaving high school in 1953 and made his Major League debut in 1955. But he spent the next five years with as a backup to White Sox veteran catcher Sherman Lollar. Battey got his break after the 1959 season when the team traded him to the Washington Senators, a sub-.500 ball club throughout the 1950s that had begun to rebuild by the end of the decade. He became the Senators # 1 catcher and hit .270 with 15 home runs and 60 RBIs in 1960. But it was after the franchise relocated to Minneapolis the next year, becoming the Minnesota Twins, when Battey’s career took flight.
While in a Twins’ uniform, Battey was a four time American League All Star catcher (1962, 1963, 1965, and 1966) and a two time Glove Award winner (1961, 1962). He became a part of the power laden batting lineup of the early 1960s Minnesota Twins, the favorite team of my friends Mighty Mouse and Gary T. Along with Battey on the 1963 team, Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew hit 44 home runs, Bob Allison 35, and Jimmie Hall 33. Battey was the steady hand for the Twins’ pitchers which included All Stars Jim Kaat, Jim “Mudcat” Grant and Camilo Pascual. With Battey behind the plate, the Twins won their first American League pennant in 1965, but lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As an eleven year old little league catcher in 1963, I identified with Earl Battey. No, I did not show any signs at that age I would have the skills when older to hit 26 homes runs against Major League pitching as Battey did that year. Nor was there any indication of me potentially having his ability to throw out base stealers as he did. I did however have Battey’s lack of foot speed and some people felt I had started the journey of evidently developing his 200 pound plus body frame due to my love at that time for food; especially peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Fortunately, I would not complete that journey. I did play well enough in 1963 for our team, the only all black team in the league, to go undefeated and win the championship. It was a good year for African American catchers!
After Earl Battey retired following the 1967 season, who was the Twins’ # 1 catcher the next season? (You should know this James O’Berry!)
Last Train to Cooperstown:The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. For more information, go to http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown.
The purpose of this blog has been to promote the unshakable, enduring historical connection African Americans have to the sport of baseball. One way I have tried doing this is highlighting former Negro League players and the pioneers from the early stages of Major League baseball integration on their birthdays.
Two weeks ago I missed the birthday of Elston Howard, born February 23, 1929 in St. Louis, Missouri. With Howard being a product of Negro League baseball and then breaking into the Major Leagues in 1955, there should be a post about him on this blog every February 23. I could say due to my busy schedule, I forgot to do a birthday blog post honoring him. However, this explanation does not satisfy my conscious which suggests the omission lends to an attitude I had as a young baseball fan about Elston Howard. It is not that I disliked him, but I thoroughly disliked the team of the uniform he wore; the New York Yankees.
From 1955 through 1964 the Yankees won nine American League pennants. My friends and I would always root against them come World Series time because they did not have as many African American and dark-skinned Latino players on the team as their National League opponents. For the majority of those years, Howard was the lone black face on the Yankees.
Some may call the attitude I had along with my friends about the Yankees racist. With Howard’s career coinciding with the evolving civil rights movement, I will call our attitude a part of the growing sense of black identification and black pride among African Americans during that period. Also, it was still a part of the “root for Jackie Robinson” attitude passed on to us by our parents. Remember, baseball had banned African American and dark- skinned Latino players for nearly half the 20th Century.
Howard won four World Series championships as a Yankee. I can still remember the feelings of disappointment from their victories. But I now understand that my attitude about the team blinded me to his accomplishments. Elston Howard was a courageous African American pioneer in Major League baseball that I did not give the credit and the respect he deserved.
Purchased by the Yankees from the Kansas City Monarchs in 1950, Howard consistently met the high character expectations the team put on him while it tolerated the off field low character behavior of their stars Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin. He had to put up with segregated hotel facilities in Florida during spring training like other African American Major League ballplayers in the 1950s. They stayed at black hotels or rooming houses separate from the team’s hotel. Being the only black Yankee for most of those years, Howard had to endure those racial segregation practices by himself.
In referring to Howard, Yankee manager Casey Stengel said, “When I finally get a nigger, I get the only one who can’t run”. The Yankees were not a team built on speed, but power. Ignoring Stengel’s racially stereotyped attempt to be comical with sportswriters, Howard became a perfect fit for the team.
Hitting .290 with 10 home runs his 1955 rookie season, Howard spent the first six years splitting time between playing left field and sharing the catching duties with Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. In 1961, when he became the Yankees main catcher, Howard hit .348 with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs and in 1962 hit .279 with 21 home runs and 91 RBIs. Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were both slowed by injuries during the 1963 season. But Howard provided the offensive punch the team needed. He batted fourth, the “clean-up” spot in the batting order, for most of the season and led the team in home runs (28), batting average (.287), and was second in RBIs (85) as it won another pennant. For his efforts, Howard was the first African American to be named Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the American League.
In 1969, Howard became the first African American coach in the American League. However, during his 11 year stint as a Yankee coach (1969 – 1980), the team overlooked him four times in choosing a new manager.
Even though Elston Howard died December 4, 1980, this post is still my public apology to him. I do not apologize for my dislike of those New York Yankee teams he played with, but I apologize for not giving him more respect during those times as an African American baseball pioneer.
Who was the African American catcher that finished eighth in the American League MVP voting in 1963?
For a historical journey to get prepared for the upcoming baseball season, read Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. For more information, go to http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown.