One way the cable sports networks are trying to help sports fans cope with the cancellation of professional and other sporting events due to the COVID- 19 pandemic is re-broadcasting key games and matches from previous years. While channel surfing I have seen replays from past “March Madness” NCAA men and women’s basketball championship games, Game Sevens of the NBA Playoffs, Super Bowls, Masters’ (golf) Championships, and World Series’ Game Sevens (my favorite).
Following their example, my blog posts during the 2020 Major League baseball season will be a baseball time capsule from the 1950s. During that decade, the pace of integration in the Major Leagues slowly, but steadily went forward. As a consequence, the talent pool for the Negro Leagues decreased setting it on a journey towards extinction by the early 1960s. All of this with the early Civil Rights movement as a back drop.
This week’s post is about Henry Aaron and John Irvin Kennedy.
Aaron’s First Major League HR
On April 23, 1954, 24 days before the United States Supreme Court’s May 17th decision that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional, Milwaukee Braves’ rookie outfielder Henry Aaron hit his first Major League career home run. Aaron hit a 6th inning solo 4-bagger off St. Louis Cardinals’ veteran right hand pitcher Vic Rashi at Busch Stadium in the Braves 14 inning 7 – 5 win. He had also gotten his first Major League hit, a double, off Rashi in a game at Milwaukee’s County Stadium on April 15. Rashi had come to the Cardinals after three 20 game winning seasons and six World Series championships with the New York Yankees (1946 – 1953). Braves reserve catcher Charlie White, who played for the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues, hit his one and only home run of his two year Major League career in the Braves April 23rd victory.
Henry Aaron signed with the Braves in 1952 after leading the Negro American League in batting during his one month stint with the Indianapolis Clowns. After one and a half seasons in the minor leagues, he moved into the Braves’ starting line up during spring training in 1954 when outfielder Bobby Thompson broke his ankle. On April 13 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field against the Redlegs, Aaron made his Major League debut going without a hit in five At Bats.
By September of his rookie season, despite suffering the ups and downs of a first year Major League player, he had batted .280 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs. However, his season ended on September 5th. While sliding into third base after hitting a triple, his fourth hit of the game, Aaron broke his ankle. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Wally Moon of the Cardinals, Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, and Braves’ teammate pitcher Gene Conley.
The Phillies First African American Player
On April 22, 1957, John Kennedy became the first African American player to appear in a Major League baseball game wearing a Philadelphia Phillies’ uniform. He entered against the Brooklyn Dodgers as a pinch runner at Roosevelt Field in Jersey City, New Jersey where the Dodgers played eight games in 1957
John Irvin Kennedy wedged his Negro League baseball career between two attempts to play in the Major Leagues. After college (Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida), the slick fielding shortstop played two seasons in Canada on a team managed by former Negro League star Willie Wells. Signed by the Major League’s New York Giants in 1953, Kennedy spent one season in the team’s minor league system before being released. He spent the next three seasons in Negro League baseball; 1954 – 1955 with the Birmingham Black Barons and with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1956.
The talent level in the Negro Leagues had decreased by the mid-1950s, the best African American players were being signed by Major League teams. After appearing in the All-Star Game while with the Monarchs, Kennedy got the attention of the Philadelphia Phillies who in 1957 were the only National League team without an African American player. In the early stages of the Phillies 1957 spring training Kennedy made a big splash with his fielding skills. He made the team as a reserve infielder, but hurt his throwing arm as the regular season began.
After his debut, Kennedy appeared in four other games and then the Phillies sent him to the minor leagues with an injured shoulder. He finished the season hitting 19 home runs while playing at High Point-Thomasville in the Class B-level Carolina League.
John Kennedy spent the remainder of his career in the Phillies minor league system (1958 – 1961), never to play in another Major League game.
All pictures via Google Images
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell@Lasttraintocoop
I first published this post in 2014. It is an example of how one quirk of fate can have tremendous impact on baseball careers.
On March 13, 1954 during an exhibition game in Florida; Milwaukee Braves outfielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle sliding into second base on a force play. Three years after his pennant clinching home run for the New York Giants, Thomson had come to the Braves in a trade to add power to their line-up. It was a forgone conclusion when spring training began that the Braves’ opening day outfield would be Thomson along with Billy Bruton, and Andy Pafko. But with Thomson injured, a triple fractured ankle, the Braves had to change their plan.
Twenty-year old Henry Aaron had doubts about making it on the Braves roster that spring. Purchased from Negro League baseball’s Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, Aaron had spent two years destroying pitchers in the Braves’ minor league system. While one of the first African-Americans in the Southern Atlantic League (Sally League) in 1953, he hit .362 with 22 home runs and won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. However, Aaron thought at best he would be assigned to the Braves’ Triple A team in Toledo, Ohio.
But, with Thomson breaking his ankle and reserve outfielder Jim Pendleton (also a former Negro League player) not reporting due to a salary dispute, the Braves’ turned to Aaron. The next day (March 14) in his first time in the starting outfield, he hit a home run. Exceeding his expectations, Aaron left spring training as the Braves opening day left fielder.
He went hitless in five at bats during the season opener in Cincinnati on April 13, but got two hits in the Braves home opener on April 15. In St. Louis on April 23 against Cardinal pitcher Vic Raschi, Aaron hit his first Major League home run. He finished 1954, his rookie season, batting .282 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs.
Happy Birthday Henry Aaron!
Today marks the eighty-third birthday of the Hall of Fame (inducted in 1982) outfielder. Born February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama; Aaron signed with the Boston Braves in 1952 after playing half of a season with the Negro League baseball Indianapolis Clowns. Aaron spent two years destroying pitchers in the Braves’ minor league system. While one of the first African Americans in the Southern Atlantic League (Sally League) in 1953, he hit .362 with 22 home runs and won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. However, Aaron thought at best he would be assigned to the Braves’ Triple A team in Toledo, Ohio.
On March 3, 1954 during an exhibition game in Florida; Milwaukee Braves outfielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle sliding into second base on a force play. Three years after his pennant clinching home run for the New York Giants, Thomson had come to the Braves in a trade to add power to their line-up. It was a forgone conclusion when spring training began that the Braves’ opening day outfield would be Thomson along with Billy Bruton, and Andy Pafko. But with Thomson out for with a triple fractured ankle, the Braves had to change their plan.
With the previous year’s reserve outfielder Jim Pendleton not reporting to spring training in an effort to get a salary increase, the Braves’ turned to Aaron. The next day in his first time in the starting outfield, he hit a home run. Exceeding his expectations, Aaron left spring training as the Braves opening day left fielder.
Aaron went hitless in five at bats during the season opener in Cincinnati on April 13, but got two hits in the Braves home opener on April 15. In St. Louis on April 23 against Cardinal pitcher Vic Raschi, Aaron hit his first Major League home run. He finished 1954, his rookie season, batting .282 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year award voting behind Gene Conley, Ernie Banks, and Wally Moon.
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.