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
Talk about a coincidence. I travelled to Wichita, Kansas with my wife who had a speaking engagement a week ago this past November 2. Upon arriving at our hotel the afternoon before, I discovered that in my haste to pack for the trip, I did not bring the current book I was reading; Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line by Tim Dunkel (Atlantic Press, New York, 2013). The inner self-scolding I was giving myself for leaving the book was interrupted by my wife. She wanted to determine the travel time to where she was to speak the next morning.
A little more than a block from the hotel on our exploratory search for Wichita’s Exploration Place, we drove passed Lawrence-Dumont Stadium; home field of the annual National Baseball Congress. Coincidentally, Dunkel’s book is about the NBC’s first tournament in 1935 won by a mixed raced team from Bismarck, North Dakota whose star pitcher was Satchel Paige.
Major League baseball’s “invisible color line”, which kept out African American and dark-skinned Latino ball players, was solidly adhered to in 1935. However, there was competition at baseball’s semi-professional level between white and African American teams. During that time, many Negro League teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs, Homestead Grays, and others travelled in cars and busses throughout the upper Midwest, Eastern seaboard, and the Great Plains to play white teams in rural towns. The games were a source of entertainment for the small town baseball fans and it generated needed income for the Negro League teams.
But baseball racial integration took another step at the semi-pro level during the early 1930s in rural North Dakota. Negro League players were being recruited to improve the previously all white semi-professional team in many towns. The city of Bismarck, the North Dakota capital, had six players with Negro League baseball experience on its team in 1935; Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Red Haley, Barney Morris, Quincy Troupe, and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe. It was the best semi-professional team in the state.
Through creating the National Baseball Congress, Wichita sports promoter Raymond Harry “Hap” Dumont wanted to have a tournament for the top semi-professional teams in the country that year. He invited not only teams from rural and metropolitan cities, but also industrial corporation teams that were organized to boost employee morale and build company loyalty. The tournament fielded a collection of players with varied experiences in the game. Former Major League players past their prime, former minor league players who never made it to the Major League level, and the “good but not quite good enough for professional baseball” amateur players all participated in that first NBC competition.
But to get more attention for his initial tournament Dumont invited four African American teams, the Memphis Red Sox, Monroe (La.) Monarchs, Austin (Texas) Centennials, and San Angelo (Texas) Sheepherders. He also invited the mixed race team from North Dakota, who added Negro League pitcher Chet Brewer to its tournament roster. Many white teams, especially those from southern cities, complained about having to play against African Americans, but Dumont kept to his plan for that first tournament.
Behind the pitching of Satchel Paige and the overall excellent performances by the other African American players, Bismarck won the double elimination tournament without losing a game. Paige won four games, struck out 66 batters in 39 innings, walking only five, and surrendering only five runs. But what was more important than Bismarck’s triumph on the field was how the African American and white players coexisted as teammates and in harmony worked together for the team to become tournament champions. One excuse white professional baseball executives used for maintaining “the color line” was that African Americans, dark-skinned Latinos, and whites could not as teammates play together in peace. The team from North Dakota’s capital in 1935 proved they were wrong.
Bismarck’s success in that first NBC tournament made no dent in the racial policies of professional baseball. The Major Leagues remained “all white” for 12 more years. Even “Hap” Dumont gave in to complaints from white participants in the tournament and by 1940 the NBC affiliate leagues eliminated African American teams from participation.
African Americans did not return to the NBC tournament until the 1950s and it by then had changed its focus to players of amateur status, primarily college age players. Today the NBC has one of the oldest and biggest amateur baseball tournaments in the country with African American alumni such as Barry Bonds, Dave Winfield, Tony Gwynn, and Joe Carter.
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