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
Based on the historical information I have read, many times on this blog I have stated it appears the slow progress of integration in Major League baseball during the 1950s hindered the careers of many good African-American players. A prime example of this is Gene Baker. After two seasons in Negro League baseball, Baker became the first African American player signed by the Chicago Cubs. However, it would be three years before he took the field in a Cubs’ uniform.
Born on June 15, 1925 in Davenport, Iowa, Eugene Walter Baker in 1948 and 1949 played shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs; who were managed by John “Buck” O’Neill. After signing with the Cubs before the 1950 season when 25 years old, Baker stayed in the team’s minor league system for four years. The top shortstop in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) for the Cubs’ Los Angeles Angels Triple AAA affiliate, he averaged 12 home runs, 62 RBIs, and a .284 batting average during those years. At that time the Cubs were getting less than mediocre play from their shortstops, but the team dragged its feet promoting Baker. Even the Cubs owner, P. K. Wrigley, began to question how Baker could still be in the minor leagues.
On September 20, 1953, Baker made his Major League debut as a pinch hitter. Ernie Banks, who the Cubs had signed from the Kansas City Monarchs on September 3, played shortstop that day and hit his first Major League home run. After Baker had left the Monarchs in 1950 to sign with the Cubs, Banks followed as “Buck” O’Neill’s new shortstop. He had made his Major League debut on September 17 and beat Baker by three days to be the first African-American to play a Major League game for the Cubs.
The Cubs moved Baker to second base the next season making he and Banks the first African-American double play combination in the Major Leagues. Baker is credited with helping Banks develop into an All Star fielding shortstop; while he was himself selected to play in the 1955 All Star Game.
After the 1957 season began the Cubs believed they needed more power in their line up. They also had a 22-year-old second baseman, Tony Taylor, ready for the Major Leagues. A month and a half before his 32nd birthday, the team traded Baker to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Dale Long and Lee Walls who combined to hit 44 home runs for them the following year. The Pirates were a young upcoming team who had only four players 30 or older. Baker became a utility infielder backing up 20-year-old second baseman Bill Mazeroski, 26-year-old shortstop Dick Groat, and 23-year-old third baseman Gene Freese. After missing most of the 1958 season due to severely injured knee, the team released him after the season and he ended up out of the Major Leagues in 1959.
However, needing a reliable utility infielder and pinch hitter, the Pirates signed Baker at the beginning of the 1960 season. The team won the National League pennant and defeated the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Baker got the opportunity to be on a championship team, something his former double play partner Ernie Banks never experienced.
Gene Baker gained the reputation of being a “smart ballplayer”. In 1961, the Pirates named him manager of their Class D minor league team.