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.
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.
If the Kansas City Royals defeat the New York Mets in the 2015 World Series which begins this week, it will be the city’s ninth professional baseball World Series championship since 1900. The Royals won their first in 1985. The Kansas City Blues, a minor league franchise that was in the city from 1888 – 1954 won three Double-A and two Triple-A Junior World Series championships.
The Kansas City Monarchs, one of the most well-known Negro League baseball franchises, must also be included in the World Series championship baseball history of the city. The Monarchs won the Negro League World Series in 1924 and 1942.
Due to racial discrimination that kept them out of Major League baseball for nearly the first half of the Twentieth Century, African Americans formed their own professional baseball leagues. The Negro National League (NNL) was formed in 1920, followed by the Eastern Colored League (ECL) in 1923. The first Negro League World Series was held in 1924 between the Kansas City Monarchs (NNL) and the Hilldale Club of Darby, Pennsylvania (ECL). It was a best five out of nine Series and it featured five players now with plaques in the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Jose Mendez and Wilber “Bullet” Rogan for the Monarchs; Judy Johnson, Biz Mackey, and Louis Santop for Hilldale.
In Game 7 with the Series tied three games apiece, Hilldale had a 3 -2 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning. The following excerpt from my book, Last Train to Cooperstown, tells what then happened:
“The Monarchs rallied to have the bases loaded, but with two outs. Hilldale was one out from going ahead in the Series four games to three. The Monarchs batter, Frank Duncan, hit a foul fly ball behind home plate within the reach of Santop. All the normally sure handed backstop had to do was catch it and Hilldale would win. He dropped the ball! Given another swing, Duncan hit a ground ball that got through third baseman Biz Mackey driving in two runs to give Kansas City a 4 – 3 victory”.
Although Hilldale rebounded to win Game Eight, the Monarchs got a stellar pitching performance in Game Nine from their aging manager Jose Mendez to win 2 – 0. They were the first Negro League World Series Champions. Hilldale revenged their lost the next year defeating Kansas City in the 1925 Series five games to one.
To learn more about the Negro League baseball careers of Jose Mendez, Louis Santop, and Biz Mackey; read 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.
Both Raydell Maddix and Henry Presswood played Negro League baseball after the “invisible color line” was broken and Major League teams began signing African Americans. Maddix and Presswood were opponents and teammates of Negro League players that went on to play in the Major Leagues. However, neither of the two went beyond playing in the Negro Leagues.
A left handed pitcher who was born in Tampa, Florida on October 7, 1928, Raydell Maddix played for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1947 – 1953. Like most Negro League players in the late 1940s and in the 1950s, he was hoping to catch the eye of Major League scouts. His teammate, Sam Hairston, was signed by the Chicago White Sox in 1950. However, military service interrupted Maddix’s career for two years; 1951 and 1952.
A power pitcher nicknamed “Lefty Bo”, Maddix twice lead the Negro American League in strikeouts; 1948 and 1949. He pitched against Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Elston Howard, Jim “Junior” Gilliam and others who went on to play in the Major Leagues. However, Maddix at times was inconsistent with the command of his pitches and walked batters. He had potential, but integration at that time had not progressed to the point that many Major League teams were willing to invest the time and money on developing African American players; especially pitchers.
Henry “Hank” Presswood was born on October 7, 1921 in Electric Mills, Mississippi. A light hitting infielder, his five year Negro League career ran parallel to that of Raydell Maddix. After coming out of the military in 1947, Presswood played with the Cleveland Buckeyes from 1948 – 1950. His 1948 Buckeye teammates Sam Jethroe, Sam Jones, and Al Smith went on to play in the Major Leagues. Presswood finished his Negro League career playing for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1951 – 1952. Ernie Banks was his teammate.
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
As one of the most renowned franchises in Negro League baseball history, the Kansas City Monarchs were Negro League World Series Champions twice. In 1924, the Monarchs of the Negro National League (NNL) defeated the Hilldale Club of Darby, Pennsylvania who represented the Eastern Colored League (ECL) in the inaugural Negro League fall classic. And it was during this week in 1942, on September 29th, the franchise won its second.
After the Chicago American Giants (NNL) defeated the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City (ECL) in the 1927, the Negro League fall classic was discontinued. The ECL‘s financial problems became fatal and it went out of business before the next season. Also, the NNL had administrative problems due to the lengthy illness of founder Andrew “Rube” Walker. By the time Foster died in 1930 and the country was in the midst of the worst economic depression in history, Negro League baseball began the new decade having no formal functioning league.
However, by 1942 the state of black baseball had improved to the point that the Negro League World Series was reinstated. The Negro NNL was resurrected in 1933, this time consisting of teams along the eastern seaboard. The Negro American League (NAL) was established in 1937 consisting of teams in the upper midsection and the southern segments of the country. With the beginning of World War II in 1941, the overall economic condition for African Americans in northern and eastern cities of Negro League franchises improved due to the rise of military defense industry jobs. It was the beginning of the best years financially for Negro League teams as game attendance increased.
The stage was set in 1942 for the Kansas City Monarchs of the NAL to battle the Homestead Grays of the NNL for the Negro League World Series championship. Each had consistently dominated their league during recent years. Since the NAL’s beginning in 1937, the Kansas City Monarchs had won five of the first six league pennants only losing it in 1938 to the Memphis Red Sox. The Homestead Grays also had won five NNL pennants since 1937. Although professional baseball was segregated at the time, seven of the players in this Series would eventually be enshrined into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York: Satchel Paige, Willard Brown, and Hilton Smith of the Monarchs and Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Raymond Brown, and Jud Wilson of the Grays.
The Monarchs won the Series 4 games to 0. Monarch pitchers Paige, Smith, and Jack Matchett stymied the powerful bats of the Grays. For the Series, Leonard hit .250 and Gibson .206. Willard Brown, Buck O’Neil, and other Monarch hitters hammered the Grays starting pitchers; Ray Brown, Roy Partlow, and Roy Welmaker. They outhit the Grays .345 to .206 and scored 34 runs to the Grays’ 12.
After the Monarchs were ahead three games to none, Grays’ owner Cum Posey took drastic action. For Game Four, his team’s line up included three players from the Newark Eagles; including Hall of Fame pitcher Leon Day, and one from the Philadelphia Stars. With Day pitching for his team, Posey’s Grays won 4 – 1. But, the Monarch’s filed an official protest because the Grays used players from other teams. Posey claimed he had prior approval from the Monarch’s for the roster changes because the sudden loss of players due to injury and the military draft had decimated the Grays. Monarch owner J. L. Wilkinson denied he gave Posey such approval and the protest was upheld; the Grays victory was voided.
After arriving at the ballpark late for Game Four supposedly due to being stopped and given a traffic ticket, Paige was not the Monarch’s starting pitcher. However, he entered the game in the bottom of the fourth inning with the Grays winning 5 – 4. He held them scoreless the final five innings and the Monarchs rallied to win the game 9 – 5 and complete the Series sweep.
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
Enrique “Ricky” Maroto, born on September 7, 1935, saw firsthand the societal and political changes that occurred in professional baseball during the 1950s.
The 5’6”, 165 pound dark skinned native of Havana, Cuba was a left handed pitcher that first played for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1954. Although small of a pitcher, Maroto was nickname “workhouse” because he pitched several times in both games of a doubleheader. He pitched in both the 1954 and 1955 Negro League All Star Games.
Players like Maroto still in Negro League baseball during its demise in the 1950s due to the integration of professional baseball were hoping to be signed by a Major League team. He was signed by the Washington Senators in 1957 and helped integrate the South Atlantic League (Class A minor league level) the next two years. The Senators never advance him any further.
He returned home to Havana in 1959 to play for the Havana Sugar Kings of the Class AAA International League. A minor league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, the Sugar Kings that year had Mike Cuellar, Cookie Rojas, Tony Gonzalez, and Leo (Chico) Cardenas who had solid Major League careers in the 1960s and 1970s.
Maroto’s second season with the Sugar Kings was disrupted by international politics. Communist rebel Fidel Castro had overthrown the Cuba government in 1959. With diplomatic relations between the island and the United States deteriorating to a point of being cut off, the team moved to New Jersey in the middle of the 1960 season.
After two seasons playing in Mexico and then going back to Cuba, Maroto retired from professional baseball.
For profiles on two former Kansas City Monarchs who are considered two of the greatest Cuban players, Jose Mendez and Cristobal Torriente, read my new book Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era. For more information go to klmitchell.com or Book Launch (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown)
William “Bill” Greason played professional baseball in many different places and at several different levels during his career. Born on September 3, 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia, Greason applied his talent as a right-handed pitcher in both Negro and Major League baseball; in addition to high and lower levels in the minor leagues. He pitched in cities across the United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Like other African American ballplayers of his era (1947 -1958) Greason saw the final demise of Negro League baseball, participated in the integration of the minor leagues, and experienced racism in the Major Leagues after the “invisible color line” had been erased.
The 5’ 10’’ and 170 pound ex-Marine first pitched in 1947 with the Nashville Black Vols and Ashville (North Carolina) Blues, both considered minor league African American teams. It was the year Jackie Robinson became the first African American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. Greason was a power pitcher with a fastball and a sharp breaking pitch that he could throw sidearm. By the end of that season he had pitched his way onto the roster of the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League (NAL).
1948 was his breakout year. Greason pitched three scoreless innings in that year’s Negro League Baseball East-West All-Star game. Also, with him as one of its top pitchers, the Black Barons beat out Buck O’Neil’s Kansas City Monarchs to win the NAL pennant. Both Negro League stars Lorenzo “Piper” Davis and Arte Wilson were also on the Black Barons that year. In addition, a 17-year-old kid named Willie Mays played centerfield for the team. In what would be the last Negro League World Series, Greason pitched the Black Barons to their only victory against the Homestead Grays winning 4 – 3.
After leaving the Black Barons following the 1950 season, Greason pitched in the Class AAA and A levels in the minor leagues. He also pitched in the Mexican League and spent a short second stint in the Marines. When he returned to baseball in 1953, he became the third African American to play in the Class AA Texas League.
In 1954, Greason along with Brooks Lawrence and Tom Alston were the first African American players invited to a spring training camp by the St. Louis Cardinals. He made his Major League debut on May 31 at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs. In three innings, Greason gave up five runs on six hits in the Cards 14 – 4 lost. Three of the hits off Greason were home runs, one by the Cubs young shortstop and former Negro League player Ernie Banks. After appearing briefly in two more games, Greason at the end of June was sent to the minor leagues.
For the remainder of the decade he pitched with the Houston Buffs (Class AA Texas League), the Rochester Red Wings (Class AAA International League), and winter league baseball in the Caribbean. He never again played in the Major Leagues, getting only that one chance like a number of former Negro League players in the 1950s.
Greason retired in 1959 and was called into Christian ministry. He was pastor of a church in Birmingham, Alabama for 30 years and was cited by the Alabama State Legislature in 2001 for outstanding ministry achievement.
There is no dispute that Alvin “Al” Spearman was born August 26 in Chicago, Illinois. However, where most records show 1931 as the year, some conflicting information says 1926. Spearman cut his baseball teeth in the semi-professional Chicago industrial leagues before joining the Chicago American Giants of the Negro American League (NAL) after the 1949 season.
Physically at 6’1” and 185 pounds, he was a right handed pitcher that threw side armed. Unlike some of the best Negro League hurlers, Spearman did not have a blazing fast ball to overpower and strikeout batters. Instead, his best pitch was a sinkerball. When he threw it with excellent control he was a good pitcher as opponents would hit the ball on the ground to his infielders and be thrown out.
During his time with American Giants, 1950 and 1951, Spearman also briefly played with the Kansas City Monarchs. In Spearman’s short stay with the team, Elston Howard of future New York Yankee fame was his roommate.
The Chicago White Sox signed Spearman after the 1951 season. He then encountered the obstacles faced by many of the African American and dark skinned Latino players signed by Major League teams in the 1950s. The pace of integration was slow and most of the players signed were not steadily progressed through the teams’ minor league systems. In addition, although not formerly stated, there existed a specific limit (quota) as to the number of them on each Major League roster. Feeling lost in the White Sox minor league system, Spearman left after the 1954 season to play in Japan.
He returned in 1956 and continued his career in the minor leagues. At the Class C level Spearman had his best years winning 18 games in 1956 and 20 games in 1958. In 1960 he was signed by his hometown Chicago Cubs Class AAA minor league team, the Houston Buffs. However, Spearman had confrontations with the team management in which he felt had racial overtones. In addition, he had to encounter “Jim Crow” racial discrimination laws while in Houston. Before the season ended, Spearman left the team and did not return to playing professional baseball.
What three other former Negro League players were on the 1959 Houston Buff’s team with Al Spearman?
The baseball story of Neale “Bobo” Henderson is one of a childhood dream coming true but falling short of adult aspiration.
Born on June 24, 1930 in Fort Smith, Arkansas; Henderson was exposed to Negro League baseball at an early age. On the Kansas City Monarchs’ frequent trips to Fort Smith, a favorite Negro League barnstorming stop, he was the team’s batboy. This allowed him to see Josh Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell, and other Negro League stars up close. It was his childhood dream to someday play with the Monarchs.
After moving to San Diego, California “Bobo” became a football and baseball star in high school. The nearly six feet, speedy switch hitting outfielder played against Eddie Matthews and other white future Major League players who attended high school in Southern California. Although the “invisible color line” had been erased, no Major League team pursued Henderson after graduation. However, his childhood dream came true when he signed in 1949 with the Kansas City Monarchs.
He began with the Monarchs at the time Negro League baseball was declining. Despite a quote system that kept many of them in the minor leagues, the best African American players were being signed by Major League teams. In Henderson’s 1949 – 1953 years with the Monarchs, which included time he spent in military service, six of his teammates signed with Major League clubs: Ernie Banks, Elston Howard, Gene Baker, Connie Johnson, Frank Barnes, and Bob Thurman.
But despite his obvious talent, Henderson never played in the Major Leagues.
Which one of Neale Henderson’s former teammates on the Monarchs pitched two no-hitters in the minor leagues?