Category Archives: Los Angeles Dodgers

LA Dodgers’ Dave Roberts is C. I. Taylor -type Manager

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Last week, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) named Los Angeles Dodger skipper Dave Roberts as the 2016 National League Manager of the Year. In his first season, I watched him manage the team with a low-key approach.  Even doing pressure situations in the National League Championship Series (NLCS) against the Chicago Cubs, Roberts kept an even keel and did not appear to get rattled.  To me that is what I would call the C. I. Taylor style of managing.  Now the question you may be asking is, “Who is C. I. Taylor”?

During the Negro League baseball era, African-American teams faced constant criticism for being unstructured and undisciplined. Most of it came from Major League team owners as a way of justifying the “invisible color line” that kept African American and dark-skinned Latinos out of Major League baseball.  The criticism also came from African American sportswriters in their ongoing battle with Negro League team owners in trying to improve the status and condition of black baseball.  Negro League players in reality were no more undisciplined than white ones in the Major Leagues.  Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and many others had problems, but they were not publicized.  There were no 24 hour Cable TV sports networks or social media around to spotlight an athlete’s off field activities.  Although some of the criticism may have been valid, it unfairly stereotyped many Negro League teams.  However, none of it could be applied to teams handled by Charles Isham Taylor; one of the best managers in Negro League baseball.

A native of Andersonville, South Carolina, C. I. Taylor like Dave Roberts did not have a standout playing career. Neither he a weak hitting second baseman, nor Roberts an outfielder with a below average throwing arm was considered an All-Star caliber player.  Both of their baseball careers were odysseys that had several stops.   After first being drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 1984, Roberts went on to play with five other Major League franchises (Indians, Dodgers, Red Sox, Padres, and Giants) while developing a reputation of being a good teammate who played the game with hustle and enthusiasm.  After retiring in 2009 he first worked as a baseball TV analyst and broadcaster before holding several administrative and coaching positions with the San Diego Padres.

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C. I. Taylor began as the player/manager for the Birmingham Giants, one of that city’s first black professional baseball teams, in 1904. His three younger brothers were also with him; “Candy” Jim, “Steel Armed” Johnny, and Ben the youngest. As a part of the African-American migration north during that time, Taylor took his brothers in 1910 and became manager of the West Baden Sprudels, a team sponsored by a resort in West Baden, Indiana. Although located in the remote area of southern Indiana, the Sprudels became one of the best African American teams in the country’s heartland.  In 1914, Taylor became co-owner and manager of the Indianapolis ABC’s; named after the American Brewing Company.

His teams did not fit the Negro League stereotype. A strict disciplinarian, Taylor’s players had a dress code on the field and when they traveled.  The son of a Methodist minister, C. I. demonstrated a manner different from most of his contemporaries, black or white.  He did not curse, nor rant and rave at his players.  He had a sense of calm and composure about him rarely seen on a baseball field during those times.  Described as being fair, honest, and patient; C. I. taught his players the fundamentals of the game while having their admiration and respect. Always having an eye for good talent, he discovered an 18-year-old center fielder from Indianapolis who became a Hall of Fame player; Oscar Charleston.  C. I. also helped younger brother Ben to become a Hall of Fame first baseman.  His list of former players that went on to be managers or coaches includes Charleston, Hall of Fame catcher Biz Mackey, Dizzy Dismukes, David Malarcher, Bingo DeMoss, and each of the other Taylor brothers.

Most importantly, C. I. Taylor’s teams won. From 1914 – 1916, his ABCs would battle the Chicago American Giants in a season ending series to determine Negro League supremacy.  The Giants were managed by Andrew “Rube” Foster, considered the father of Negro League baseball.  The two managers respected each other, but the contests between the teams were heated. Taylor’s team won in 1916.

When Foster formed the first official Negro League in 1920, C. I. Taylor played a key role.  The ABCs were a charter member of the Negro National League (NNL) and he served as Vice-President.  However, Taylor unexpectedly died in 1922 at age 47, a setback for Negro League baseball.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have not played in a World Series since 1987.  Dodger fans are hoping Dave Roberts can lead the team to soon ending its 28 year drought.  It is my hope the National Baseball Hall of Fame will realize that only one of the two best managers in Negro League baseball has a plaque at the museum in Cooperstown; Andrew “Rube” Foster (1981).  Hopefully C. I. Taylor will someday get his.

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Rube Foster and C. I. Taylor

 

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

“Sweet” Lou Johnson’s 1965 Redemption

It is my hope that long time Dodger fans like James O’Berry will forgive me for failing to acknowledge Lou Johnson last month. Johnson, a former Negro League player born September 22, 1934 in Lexington, Kentucky; after many years in the minor leagues surprisingly emerged to help the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 1965 World Series.

lou-johnsonThe Dodgers began the 1965 National League baseball season with the hope of doing better than the tied for sixth showing of the previous year.

The team wanted to resurrect the caliber of play that netted them the 1963 World Series Championship. However, when their two-time National League Batting Champion outfielder Tommy Davis broke his ankle that spring, the chances of achieving their goal seemed remote.  In response to Davis’ injury, the team brought up Lou Johnson from their Spokane AAA minor league team. The Dodgers had traded pitcher Larry Sherry, its 1959 World Series Championship Most Valuable Player, to the Detroit Tigers at the end of the 1964 season for Johnson.  They were the fifth Major League team of his baseball career.

Although the all-white face of Major League baseball began adding color after Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in 1947, African-American and dark-skinned Latino players were confronted with racially prejudiced and discriminatory attitudes.  Unless they were extremely more talented than their white counterparts, they lingered in the team’s minor league system.  There were limits (1 – 3) as to the number of them on a ball club as Major League team owners were afraid of alienating white fans.  This is what Louis Brown Johnson faced after being signed off the Kentucky State University campus by the New York Yankees in 1953.

Johnson responded to what he encountered in playing professional baseball with anger and got the reputation, fair or not, as a player with a “bad” attitude. After short stints in the minor league systems of the Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates, he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1955.  Negro League baseball by then had become only a remnant of its former self.  The best players had been stripped by Major League teams and young African-American talented prospects bypassed it going directly to white organized baseball. Observing Johnson’s potential, Monarchs’ manager Buck O’Neil advised him to channel his anger in ways to become a better player.  Through the signing of Gene Baker and Ernie Banks a few years earlier, the Chicago Cubs had developed a pipeline with the Monarchs.  Before the next season Johnson along with fellow Monarchs George Altman and JC Hartman were signed by the Cubs.

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On April 17, 1960, Johnson made his Major League debut in the Cubs’ 14 innings 4 – 3 loss to the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. He appeared in only 34 games and they traded him to the Los Angeles Angels after season.  With the Cubs having superstar Ernie Banks, George Altman, Billy Williams, and newly signed prospect Lou Brock, they saw Johnson as expendable.  The Angels sent him back to the minor leagues and then in a trade on to the Milwaukee Braves.  In 1962, Johnson hit .282 in 61 games for the Braves.  However, it appeared he became a victim of the numbers game again.  With superstar Henry Aaron, Mack Jones, Lee Maye, Tommie Aaron, and Amado Samuel on the team’s roster along with hot prospect Rico Carty in the minor league system, the Braves traded Johnson to the Detroit Tigers in 1963.

Why would the Dodgers turn to what appeared as nothing but a journeyman outfielder after Davis’ injury. Despite his controversial attitude, Major League scouts still viewed Lou Johnson as a good hitting outfielder.  In each of the seven minor league years he played over 100 games, five seasons at the AAA level, he hit over .300 and averaged 14 home runs.  Also, Johnson still played the game with an enthusiasm and a flair that brought him the nickname, “Sweet Lou”.

The Dodgers gamble on Johnson paid off as he took advantage of what may have been his last opportunity to showcase his baseball talent. Not a high-octane power hitting team, the Dodgers built a winning formula around speed on the base paths, clutch hitting, and solid defense supporting the excellent pitching of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale; both now in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.  It became a perfect fit for Johnson.  In 131 games, he tied for the team lead in home runs (12), third in RBI (59), and fourth in batting average (.259).  For baseball sabermetric geeks, he led team in slugging percentage (.391) and tied for third in OPS (.706).  Also importantly for the Dodgers, Johnson stole 15 bases, placing third behind teammates Willie Davis (25) and Maury Wills (a league leading 94).  His enthusiasm inspired the club.  I remember seeing news footage of him broadly smiling and clapping his hands circling the bases after hitting a key home run as the Dodgers went 20 – 7 in September to win the National League pennant.

In the team’s four games to three World Series triumph over the Minnesota Twins, Johnson hit .296 with eight hits and four RBI. His second home run of the fall classic came in the 4th inning of Game Seven giving Sandy Koufax all the runs he needed in beating the Twins 2 – 0 and making the Dodgers 1965 World Series champions.

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Johnson hits HR Game 7 1965 World Series

 

Proving it not an aberration, Lou Johnson hit .272 the next season with 17 home runs and 73 RBI as the Dodgers again won the National League pennant.  However, they lost the World Series in four straight games to the Baltimore Orioles. After he hit .270 with a team leading 11 home runs in 1967, the Dodgers traded Johnson to the Chicago Cubs.  After two more trades, to the Cleveland Indians in 1968 and then to the California Angels in 1969, Johnson’s baseball career ended.  In 17 years of professional baseball, the 35-year-old had played with eight Major League teams.  In recent years, Lou Johnson has worked in the Dodgers’ Community Relations Department.

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Maury Wills (left) and Lou Johnson

 

One definition of redemption is the state of being converted into something of value. The baseball career of “Sweet” Lou Johnson was not only one of endurance and determination, but also redemption.  After 13 years of feature appearances in the baseball trade section of newspaper sport pages, Johnson got redemption in 1965.  No, he did not have superstar type hitting statistics.  But he proved to be something of great value for the Dodgers that helped them become World Series champions.

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

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