Seven former players from the Negro League baseball era are on the ballot that will be considered by the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Early Baseball Era Committee on this coming Sunday, December 5th. If any of the players receive a vote from at least 75% of the 16-member Committee (12 votes), he will be a part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Class for 2022. The induction ceremony will be July 24 at the Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown New York.
This will be the first-time former Negro League players have been given Hall of Fame consideration since 2006. Prior to that year, 24 former players from the Negro Leagues were in the Hall of Fame. Realizing that number not being a true representation of Negro League baseball’s contribution to the game, Major League Baseball commissioned a group of Negro League historians to make recommendations for addition potential inductees. As a result, 12 ballplayers and 5 owners/executives were a part of the Hall of Fame Class for 2006: the Hall of Fame’s largest number of inductees from Negro League baseball in one year.
However, a concern arose as to whether the number inducted in 2006 indicated there were no others from the Negro Leagues worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. To address this and other issues concerning past eras, the Hall of Fame switched to an Era Committee format to select potential inductees. One of the Era Committees, the Early Baseball Era, considers candidates whose contributions to baseball were realized prior to 1950. This committee will vote on candidates for Hall of Fame induction once every 10 years.
The former Negro League players/managers this year on the Early Baseball Era Committee ballot for Hall of Fame induction are as follows:
John “Bud” Fowler (Infielder, Pitcher)
The first African American professional baseball player, Fowler played with several minor league white professional teams beginning in 1877. After the establishment of the “invisible color line” in the late 1880’s which barred African American and dark-skinned Latinos from white professional baseball, he played with many of the early African American professional baseball teams.
Grant “Home Run” Johnson (Shortstop)
One of the best hitters in black professional baseball during the dead-ball era (1900 – 1920), Johnson wore the uniform of top African American teams during that era such as the Philadelphia Giants, Brooklyn Royal Giants, and Chicago Leland Giants. He received the nickname from his clutch timing of hitting home runs, not the quantity.
Richard “Cannonball Dick” Redding – Pitcher
One of the best pitchers in black professional baseball in the dead-ball era and the early 1920’s. The blazing speed of his fastball made Redding a contemporary of Walter Johnson, Major League baseball’s ace during that period.
John Donaldson – Pitcher
Starting in 1913, Donaldson spent over 20 years in black professional baseball. The left-hander pitched for black independent teams that born-stormed through the country during 1913 – 1919. He also pitched with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League (1920 – 1924), the first African American professional baseball league.
George “Tubby” Scales – Infielder
A career .319 hitter, Scales spent 27 years in the Negro Leagues (1921 – 1948) with teams including the New York Lincoln Giants 1923 – 29 and Homestead Grays 1925 – 26, 1929 – 31, 1935. He also led the Baltimore Elite Giants as player/manager in 1938, 1943, and 1947.
Vic Harris – Manager
A career .305 hitter, Harris spent most of his entire Negro League career as left fielder and then manager with the Homestead Grays (1925 – 1933, 1935 – 1948); one of the most renown franchises in Negro League baseball. As manager, he led the Grays to nine consecutive Negro National League pennants (1937 – 1945).
John “Buck” O’Neil – 1B/Manager
The three-time All Star played first base for the Kansas City Monarchs, another of the most renown Negro League franchises, during the periods 1938 – 1943 and 1946 – 1955. He became the team’s manager in 1948. The first African American to become a Major League coach (Chicago Cubs 1962), O’Neil is one of the co-founders for the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
It will be 2032 before the Early Baseball Era Committee will next consider candidates for Hall of Fame induction.
The Hall of Fame’s Golden Days Era Committee considers candidates for induction who made contributions to the game from 1950 – 1969. Saturnino Orestes “Minnie” Minoso, who had a 17 year, nine-time All Star career in Major League baseball is on the ballot in which this committee will vote Sunday. Minoso, who got his start in the Negro Leagues, played on the 1947 Negro League World Series champion New York Cubans.
I will teach an online course for the spring session of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Kansas. The course, “Dawning of a New Day: The 1950’s Racial Integration of Major League Baseball”, will be on February 11, 18, & 25; 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm. For registration information, click on the “Available Sessions” link below or call 913 – 897 – 8530.
Pictured above are the New York Giants starting outfielders for the 1951 World Series: Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, & Hank Thomposon
Here is a course description: On April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers became the first African American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century. He erased the racial barrier, called the “invisible color line” that had kept African American and dark-skinned Latinos out due to racial discrimination since the late 1880s. However, by 1950 only three of the 16 Major League clubs had African American or dark-skinned Latinos on the roster. This course will tell story of the slow, yet steady pace of racial integration in professional baseball during the 1950s. It will cover from the beginning of the decade to the last team to integrate in 1959, the Boston Red Sox; all with the growing civil rights movement in the United States as the backdrop.
Pictured above are Chicago Cubs’ shortstop Ernie Banks & Cubs’ second baseman Gene Banks
In November I will teach the following course via Zoom for the University of Kansas Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s Fall Session: The Negro National League: A Journey Through the Stormy Seas of Professional Baseball. The course will consist 3 sessions 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM on November 11, 18, and 25. For registration information, click on “Available Sessions” link below or call 913 – 897 – 8530.
Here is a course description: As a reflection of the harsh racial attitudes in 1920, African American and dark-skinned Latino players were kept out of white professional baseball. Within this difficult racial environment black baseball team owner/manager Andrew “Rube’ Foster birthed the Negro National League on Feb. 13, 1920 in Kansas City, Missouri. It became the first successfully operated African American professional baseball league. 2020 is its 100th anniversary. Foster saw it as a ship travelling through the stormy sea of racial segregation. We will examine how despite closing down in 1931, it produced 13 Hall of Fame inductees and became the blueprint that sustained Negro League baseball until the color barriers in baseball were erased.
Due to the current global COVID- 19 pandemic, I have been reluctant to post on my blog. A blog post about baseball history seems very trivial when compared to the spread of the deadly virus that has at least for now changed our lives. The voluntary and mandatory shelter in place and quarantines, recommended social distancing, and business shutdowns have been more than an inconvenience to everyone. This is especially true for sports fans who have had to accept the cancellation of NCAA college basketball’s “March Madness”, the indefinite suspension of the both the NBA and NHL seasons, and the Masters Golf Tournament being postponed. As for my favorite, baseball, the Major League Baseball season will not start until maybe June; if then.
However, I think a post about a milestone in baseball history would be a good change of pace from the constant serious life messages we are receiving about COVID-19 from MSNBC, CNN, FOX NEWS, and other media outlets. The professional baseball historic milestone I am referring is the Centennial (100 years) Anniversary of organized Negro League professional baseball; the formation of the first Negro National League.
As the new decade of the 1920’s began, equality and justice for African Americans seemed an impossible dream. African American soldiers returning from World War I battlefields did not receive a hero’s welcome, but instead a harsh slap of racial reality. There were a number of African Americans lynched not only in the south, but throughout the country. Racial violence prevailed in 1919 with deadly riots in East St. Louis, Tulsa, and Chicago. This toxic national racial attitude spilled over into the sport of baseball, “the national pastime”. Due to racial discrimination, African American and dark-skinned Latino baseball players were kept out of white professional baseball.
It is within this difficult racial environment that Andrew “Rube” Foster, African American team owner and manager of the Chicago American Giants birthed the Negro National League (NNL) on February 13, 1920 at the YMCA Building on 18th and The Paseo in Kansas City, Missouri. The NNL has the distinction of being the first African American professional baseball league.
There had been a little more than a hand full of African American players in white professional baseball in the late 1880s. However, by the beginning of the 20th Century, the racially discriminating “invisible color line” had been solidly formed. In response to this, African Americans formed their own professional baseball teams. The Cuban Giants, Cuban X Giants, Chicago Union Giants, Philadelphia Giants, and Pittsburgh Keystones were a few of the African American professional baseball teams at the dawning of the new century. “Rube” Foster first gained fame as a star pitcher for the Philadelphia Giants. Before 1920 there were a few Negro pro baseball leagues formed, but they either quickly folded or had no impact on the structure of black baseball. However, the Negro National League (NNL) operated from 1920 – 1931.
The NNL consisted of eight teams its first year: the Chicago American Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Detroit Stars, St. Louis Giants, Chicago Giants, Dayton Marcos, Indianapolis ABCs, and Cuban Stars. Due to the financial and racial obstacles African American pro baseball franchises faced, the league make up changed from season to season as some teams folded and new ones added. Foster’s American Giants along with the Kansas City Monarchs, Detroit Stars, and the St. Louis Stars (new owners changed name from Giants to Stars in 1922) were the only teams in the league every NNL season. At one time or another during its duration, the NNL showcased 14 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In addition, it is acknowledged as the successful forerunner and blueprint for the leagues formed that kept Negro League professional baseball alive before finally ending in the early 1960s; the Negro National League (1933 – 1948) and Negro American League (1937 – 1962).
This past February 13, 2020, the centennial celebration of this baseball historic milestone began with Major League Commissioner Rob Manfred making a $1 million joint donation from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association to the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. The funds are to support the museum’s continuous effort to keep highlighting the historical impact Negro League professional baseball had on the sport and on American society as a whole.
Also, that ceremony included the unveiling of the Centennial Anniversary’s logo.
Once the 2020 Major League Baseball season hopefully begins, the centennial celebration will continue to be recognized. During all MLB games, the Negro League 100th anniversary logo will be worn on the uniforms of all players, managers, coaches, and umpires. Also, many clubs have planned centennial anniversary activities such as Negro Leagues tribute games with throwback uniforms, pregame panels with special guests, and game day giveaways. The timing of these activities is now pending on the adjustments that will be made to the MLB season based on the COVID-19 pandemic.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
It is not only the start of a new year, 2020; but also a new decade. Whether you are continuing the weekend celebration of the beginning of both or putting the finishing touches on your 2020 goals and objectives; take a moment to pay tribute with me to a group of former Negro League and Major League baseball players who died in 2019.
Due to their advancing ages, the number of surviving former Negro League baseball players decreases each year. Most of those who played before Jackie Robinson erased “the invisible color line” in 1947 opening the door for the racial integration of Major League baseball have died. The remaining former Negro League players began their careers in the late 1940s and 1950s. Some played only in the remaining Negro Leagues; others spent their career integrating professional baseball’s minor league system and only briefly played in the Major Leagues, while others had productive Major League careers.
Of the five former Negro League players listed below, three played only in the Negro Leagues, one played briefly in the Major Leagues, and one had a stellar Major League career.
There may be other former Negro League baseball players whose deaths in 2019 I missed, so this list could be incomplete.
Don Newcombe – February 19, 2019
Born 6/14/26 in Madison, New Jersey. Newcombe began his career with the Negro League baseball Newark Eagles in 1944. Starting in 1949, “Big Newk” (6’4”, 220 pounds) became the workhorse pitcher of the Brooklyn Dodgers “Boys of Summer” era winning 138 games between 1949 – 1956 despite missing 2 two seasons due to military service (1952 & 1953). On average, he pitched 215 innings per year. Named National League Rookie of the Year in 1949, the 3-time National League All-Star won 20 games three times. In 1956 when he won 27 games, “Big Newk” became the first recipient of the Cy Young Award and also received National League Most Valuable Player honors. World Series horrors: 0 – 4 with 8.22 ERA in five Series starts against New York Yankees. Plagued by alcohol abuse his entire career, Newcombe retired from baseball at age 34. He worked many years after retirement in programs providing support for individuals suffering from alcoholism and in community relations for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Charles “Chuck” Harmon – March 19, 2019
Born May 23, 1924 in Washington, Indiana, Harmon earned All-American basketball honors at the University of Toledo in 1943. After three years of military service, Harmon signed with the Indianapolis Clowns in the summer of 1947 to make extra money before returning to school. He used a different name in order to keep his NCAA college basketball eligibility. After just a one week road trip, the St. Louis Browns offered him a contract. Although he had good offensive years, the slow pace of Major League baseball racial integration kept him stuck in the Browns’ minor league system. However, the Browns traded Harmon to the Cincinnati Reds in 1952. In 1954, he and Nino Escalera became the first African American and the first dark-skinned Latino players to appear in a Major League game for the Cincinnati Reds. Used as a utility player, Harmon spent 1954 – 56 with Cincinnati and 1957 with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Bob Mitchell – June 12, 2019
Born November 18, 1932 in West Palm Beach, Florida, Mitchell pitched in the Negro baseball minor leagues in Florida after high school. In 1954, he pitched for the Florida Cubans against the barnstorming Kansas City Monarchs managed by Buck O’Neil. O’Neil liked the talent he saw in Mitchell and offered him a contract. Mitchell played for the Monarchs from 1954 – 1957 and then retired from baseball to spend more time with his wife and young children. He had a 30 – 14 career pitching record.
Lee Vester Spann – October 19, 2019
Spann, born June 4, 1948 in St. Louis , Missouri, played with Indianapolis Clowns in 1965 after coming out of Hadley Tech High School . Not much else is known about him. His name came in the news when his insurance claim failed and the family had to make attempts to raise money for his funeral this fall.
Paul Jones – December 12, 2019
Born October 11, 1927 in New Iberia, Louisiana, Jones first played in the Louisiana network of Negro amateur/semi-professional baseball barnstorming teams after coming out of the military in 1946. From 1949 – 1951, Jones caught for the New Orleans Black Pelicans; the top Negro minor league team in Louisiana.
In my next blog post, I will make note of 3 former Major League players who died in 2019.
Historical notices from last week: Birthday for Ted Strong former Kansas City Monarchs INF/OF (1939 – 1942, 1946 – 1947) born January 2, 1914, in South Bend, Indiana and Tito Fuentes 2nd baseman for San Francisco Giants (1965 – 1974) born January 4, 1944, in La Habana, Cuba.
All photos for this post the courtesy of numerous internet sites via Google Images
A BELATED HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Before getting further into 2019, I need to briefly mention the Negro League players who took the field for the last inning of life’s game in 2018. Of the five listed, one briefly played Major League baseball and another in the minor leagues after Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in 1947. The others played during the rapid decline of the Negro Leagues in the 1950’s or on teams in the Negro minor leagues. Neither of the ex-players in the post is considered a “famous name”, but the lives of each are a chapter in the Negro League baseball story.
I may not have been aware of the death in 2018 of others from the Negro League baseball era, so the list could be incomplete.
Roosevelt Jackson – May 5, 2018
Born 12/20/17 in Gay, Georgia; Jackson became known at events honoring Negro League baseball during the last years of his life as the “oldest player from the Negro League era”. He played both infield (2B) and outfield during the 1930’s and 1940’s with Negro minor leagues teams in Florida; Miami Globetrotters, Hollywood (Fla.) Redbirds, Miami Red Sox, Belle Glade Redwings. These teams were on the Florida spring barnstorming circuit of the major Negro League clubs. After integration, Jackson did scouting for the Philadelphia Phillies.
William “Youngblood” McCrary – July 21, 2018
While attending high school in Beloit, Wisconsin; McCrary drew interest from the St. Louis Cardinals. However, with African-Americans still barred from organized white baseball, the team referred him to the Kansas City Monarchs. Beginning as a 17 years old reserve shortstop, McCrary played for the Monarchs from 1946 – 1948. Because of his young age, “Satchel” Paige called him “Youngblood”. McCrary signed with the New York Yankees in 1949 and spent two years in its minor league system.
Jose Santiago – October 9, 2018
Born September 4, 1928 in Coamo, Puerto Rico, Santiago pitched for the 1947 Negro League World Series champion New York Cubans. Before the next season, Cubans’ owner Alex Pompez sold a number of his players to Major League franchises for money to keep his team operating. Santiago went to the Cleveland Indians. He stayed in the team’s minor league system for six years before making his Major League debut on April 17, 1954. He became the second player from Puerto Rico to be in the American League. After he had a 2 – 0 record in 1955, the Indians traded Santiago to the Kansas City A’s who released him halfway through the 1956 season. He never again pitched for another Major League team.
Edward Burton – October 18, 2018
The Harrisburg Giants were a strong team in the Eastern Colored League (ECL) from 1925 – 1927. Famous Negro League players such as Oscar Charleston, Rap Dixon, Clarence “Fat” Jenkins, and John Beckwith played with the team at one time during the period. The ECL disbanded in 1928 and by the time Edward Burton joined the Giants in 1947, it had become a low-level, Negro minor league team. A second baseman, Burton played against Negro American League teams barnstorming though Harrisburg until 1955. For the last few years he had participated in activities honoring Negro League baseball in Charlotte, NC; where he died.
Frank “Bubba” King – December 8, 2018
Born 6/23/23 in East Point, GA., King played professional/semi-professional baseball from 1936 – 1958 with local black teams in the Atlanta area; East Point Bears, Atlanta Cards, College Park Indians. These teams kept black baseball alive in Atlanta down through the Negro League era. In the 1940’s King, an outfielder, played with the Atlanta Black Crackers of the Negro Southern League (NSL); a Negro minor league team.
I need to mention five former players not from the Negro League baseball era who died in 2018. For each I have my own personal reflection which will be in my next post. Stay tuned!
From March through June on Twitter, follow me at Kevin L. Mitchell @LastTraintocoop, I wrote about Negro League Baseball catchers.
Currently there are four former Negro League catchers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Roy Campanella (1969), Josh Gibson (1972), James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey (2006), and Louis Santop (2006). However, there were others who developed the skills necessary to handle the responsibilities of the position and who made outstanding contributions to the success of their teams.
I listed ten of my Negro League catcher Tweets in the May 28th blog post, “Negro League Baseball Catchers – Part One”. Following is listed another ten. They all came before the erasing of the “invisible color line” and did not play Major League baseball. But, they helped to build the legacy of the Negro Leagues.
John Hines, Chicago American Giants 1924 – 1930, 1932, 1934. Negro League World Series champs 1926 and 1927, attended Wiley College.
John Walter Burch, Negro League baseball 1934 – 1946, teams included Atlantic City Bacharach Giants 1931, Homestead Grays 1936, Cleveland Buckeyes 1943 – 1944, 1946. Buckeyes manager in 1942.
Leon “Pepper” Daniels, Detroit Stars 1921 – 1927, battery mate of Hall of Fame pitcher Andy Cooper, Chicago American Giants 1931.
Bob Clarke, Negro League career 1923 – 1948. Played mainly with Baltimore Black Sox 1923 – 1928, New York Black Yankees 1933 – 1940, Baltimore Elite Giants 1941 – 1946.
Pete Booker, Negro League 1905 – 1919, teams included Philadelphia Giants, Leland Giants, New York Lincoln Giants, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Chicago American Giants, Indianapolis ABCs, Also played 1B
Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett, Negro League career 1935 – 1946, played with several teams including Pittsburgh Crawfords and Birmingham Black Barons (1943 & 1944 Negro American League champions)
WG “Bill” Perkins, Negro League career 1928 – 1948, 2-time Negro League All-Star, best years 1931 – 1936 Pittsburgh Crawfords, frequent battery mate of Satchel Paige.
Joe Greene, Kansas City Monarchs 1939 – 1943, 1946 – 1947. Handled pitching staff that included “Satchel” Paige, Connie Johnson, Hilton Smith, Jack Matchett, etc.
Frazier Robinson, Kansas City Monarchs 1942 – 1943, New York Black Yankees 1943, Baltimore Elite Giants 1943, 1946 – 1950.
Bill “Ready” Cash, 2-time Negro League All-Star, Philadelphia Stars 1943 – 1949. Briefly played in Chicago White Sox minor league systems 1950s.
All photos for this post the courtesy of numerous internet sites via Google Images
Last month, I taught a course for the summer 2018 session of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Kansas. Entitled, ” Negro League Baseball: The Deep Roots of African-Americans in America’s National Pastime”, the course examined the deep roots African-Americans have in America’s great game because of the Negro League baseball era. It explained how the Negro Leagues provided a vehicle for African Americans and dark-skinned Latino players to showcase their baseball talents despite racial and economic obstacles, painting a true picture of how Negro League baseball is embedded into the fabric of 20th-century American History.
Those attending the course were baseball fans of baby-boomer age and older. Some had very little knowledge of the Negro League era while others were familiar with Negro League lore about “Satchel” Paige, Josh Gibson, and “Cool Papa” Bell. However, they all saw Negro League baseball as a neglected part of the sport’s history and wanted to know more about it. This led to course sessions full of questions and lively discussions about not just Negro League baseball, but also the history of race relations in America.
I want to thank KU’s Osher Institute Director Jim Peters for including my course in this summer’s session. Also, I thank the 17 baseball fans who took six hours from their summer activities to attend the course.
Since the beginning of March on Twitter (follow me at Kevin L. Mitchell @Lasttraintocoop) I have been tweeting about Negro League baseball catchers.
If you have been reading my blog posts any length of time, you are aware of my journey through playing Little League and high school baseball handling the so-called “tools of ignorance”. That is the nickname given to a catcher’s protective equipment: catcher’s mask, chest protector, shin guards. Supposedly coined by Major League catcher “Muddy” Ruel who played in the 1920s and 1930s, the phrase ironically points out the so called smarts needed by a catcher to handle the responsibilities of the position and the foolishness needed to play a position where such protective equipment is required. My less than stellar performance at times questioned if I had the smarts to required for the position, but the pain experienced from being hit by foul tips and from base runners crashing into me trying to score (catchers could block home plate back then) showed my foolishness in playing it.
The catchers I mention in my tweets have not gotten the recognition as the four former Negro League catchers currently in the Baseball Hall of Fame: Roy Campanella (1969), Josh Gibson (1972), James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey (2006), and Louis Santop (2006). However, some did briefly play Major League baseball. Others were outstanding contributors to the success of their team. They all developed the skills necessary to handle the responsibilities of the position and helped to build the legacy of Negro League baseball.
Following are a few of my Twitter tweets on Negro League baseball catchers:
Bruce Petway, best defensive catcher in Negro League baseball in early 1900s. Cuban X Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Chicago American Giants 1911 – 1919, Detroit Stars 1920 – 1925.
Larry “Iron Man” Brown, Negro League career 1921 – 1946, teams included Memphis Red Sox and Chicago American Giants, 7-time Negro League All-Star, Memphis player/manager 1942 – 1944.
Frank Duncan, Kansas City Monarchs 1921 – 1934, 1937, 1941 – 1947. Played on both of Monarchs’ Negro League World Series champions 1924 and 1942. Monarchs’ manager 1942 – 1947.
Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, Negro League All-Star, 3-times catcher and 3-times pitcher, 1931 Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords 1932, Memphis Red Sox 1938 – 39, 41, Birmingham Black Barons 1942 – 1946.
Quincy Trouppe, 5-time Negro League All-Star, St. Louis Stars 1930 – 1931, Indianapolis Clowns 1938, Cleveland Buckeyes 1944 – 1947, signed Cleveland Indians 1952, Major League debut 4/30/52.
Joshua Johnson 1934 – 1940 Homestead Grays 1934 – 35, 1940 back up to Josh Gibson, also played with New York Black Yankees 1938.
Albert “Buster” Haywood, most productive years Cincinnati/Indianapolis Clowns 1943 – 1953, Negro League All-Star 1944, named manager of Clowns 1948, first manager for Henry Aaron 1952.
Sam Hairston, Indianapolis Clowns 1945 – 1948, Signed Chicago White Sox 1950, MLB debut 7/21/51, 1952 – 1960 mainly in White Sox minor league system, 2 sons and 2 grandsons played MLB .
Ray Noble, New York Cubans 1946 – 1948, played on team’s 1947 Negro League World Series champion, New York Giants 1951 – 1953, MLB debut 4/18/51.
Otha “Little Catch” Bailey, Negro League career 1950 – 1959, Cleveland Buckeyes, Houston Eagles, Birmingham Black Barons, 5’6’’, 150 pounds, One of the best catchers in talent diluted Negro Leagues in 1950s.
All photos the courtesy of a variety of internet sites via Google Images
Before getting further into 2018, I need to briefly mention the Negro League players who took the field for the last inning of life’s game in 2017. The lives on each one I name in this post were a chapter in the Negro League baseball story. I may not have known about the death this year of others from the era, so the list could be incomplete.
I need to mention three players who died in 2017 not involved in the Negro League baseball era, but were a part of the game’s “Golden Age” (1950s and 1960s). They will be in my next post.
Art Pennington – January 4, 2017
The legendary story surrounding Art Pennington has him briefly lifting the front or back-end of an automobile when 10 years old while helping fix a flat tire. From this event, whether true or false, he got childhood nickname “superman” which remained with him during his baseball career. The left-handed 1b/OF played with the Chicago American Giants from 1940 – 1946, and 1950. A 2-time Negro League All-Star (1942, 1950), Pennington also played in the Mexican League during the late 1940s. One of a group of African-American players that integrated professional baseball’s minor league system in the early 1950s, Pennington finally signed with the New York Yankees in 1958. At 35 years old, he briefly played in the team’s lower minor league before retiring after the 1959 season.
Paul Casanova – January 12, 2017
An excellent defensive catcher from Cuba with a strong throwing arm, Casanova first signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1960. After being released, he finished the 1961 season with the Indianapolis Clowns, the final remnant of Negro League baseball. While Casanova played with a semi-pro team in 1963, a scout for the Washington Senators noticed him. He remembered seeing Casanova play with the Clowns and signed him. Casanova went on to have a 10 year Major League career, 7 with the Senators (1965 – 1971). In 1967, he played in 141 games and was named to the American League All-Star team.
Cleophus Brown – March 14, 2017
The left-handed pitcher and first baseman played in the Negro Leagues during the decade the era limped to its eventual end. A Korean War vet, Brown signed on with the Louisville Clippers in 1955 an independent team. It had been in the Negro American League (NAL), but dropped out after the 1954 season. After one season with Louisville, Brown worked in the Birmingham, AL. steel mills (17 years) and then the Post Office while playing in the city’s semi-professional baseball Industrial Leagues.
John L. Gray – May 4, 2017
Gray attended Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio and then signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1956 as a catcher and outfielder. He played that first year with the Indians’ Class D minor league affiliate the Daytona Beach Islanders (Florida State League). In 1958 after some dissatisfaction with the Indian’s minor league system, Gray signed with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League (NAL). While with the Clowns, Gray hit a home run at Yankee Stadium which he frequently mentioned to his children and grandchildren in his golden years. He finished his baseball career playing in the minor league system of first the Chicago Cubs in 1959 and then the Chicago White Sox in 1960.
Maurice Peatross – June 26, 2017
In 1944, while 17 years old, Peatross played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the short-lived United States Negro Baseball League. The 6’1”, 230 pound first baseman went into the military after high school and returned in 1947 to sign with the Homestead Grays as backup support for the aging Buck Leonard. The legendary first baseman was 40 years old and still the main drawing card for the Grays. Signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, Peatross spent the next four years in the team’s minor league system and then retired from baseball to spend more time with his growing family.
Bob Motley – September 14, 2017
The last surviving and one of the most well-known umpires in Negro League baseball, Motley entertained fans during the late 1940s and the 1950s with his animated calls. The ex-marine World War II Purple Heart recipient handled the umpiring duties for the games of such Negro League players who went on to the Major Leagues such as Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Henry Aaron, and Elston Howard. Motley tenaciously fought to overcome the racial discrimination he faced as a professional umpire. He became the second African-American umpire in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) in 1959.
Willie James Lee and Archie “Dropo” Young
The former teammates on the Birmingham Black Barons died within the same week in 2017. Willie James Lee died on October 12 and Archie “Dropo” Young died October 19. They were briefly teammates with the Black Barons in 1956. After one game Lee (left on the picture below) went on to the Kansas City Monarchs where he got the reputation of being a power hitting outfielder. Constant injuries hampered his development in the minor league systems of first the Detroit Tigers and then the Minnesota Twins from 1959 – 1964. A Korean War veteran, Archie Young (below right) played with the Black Barons in 1956 and 1957 while also working in job in the coal mines. The power hitting first baseman got the nickname “Dropo” after the American League first baseman during that time, Walt Dropo.
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson – December 19, 2017
One of three women (also Connie Morgan and Toni Stone) who played Negro League baseball in the 1950s, Mamie Johnson pitched for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1953 – 1955. Johnson stood 5’3” and weighed 120 pounds. An opposing player said she “looked like a peanut” on the mound and that started the nickname “Peanut”. With Negro League baseball on a steady decline during the 1950s, the Clowns added comedy routines to their performance on the field in hopes of attracting fans to the games. But Johnson’s pitching had nothing to do with comedy. A regular in the Clown’s rotation, she had an arsenal of pitches to throw against opposing batters; slider, curveball, screwball, change of pace, and a fastball that got to home plate sooner than hitters expected. Her unofficial 3-year record is given as 33 – 8. Racial discrimination banned her from playing in the All-American Girls Professional League (AAGPL) as in the movie “A League of Their Own”. After baseball, Johnson had a long successful nursing career.