Category Archives: Negro League Baseball

Last Train To Cooperstown Book Trailer

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“Last Train to Cooperstown”

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Negro League Baseball Connected to Black History Month

Check out my interview discussing “Last Train to Cooperstown” on the podcast BASEBALL HAPPENINGS NET.  Thanks to Nick Diunte for having me on his website’s podcast.

The death of former Negro League player Art Pennington is mentioned in the interview.  He died last month, January 4.  Pennington played outfield and first base for the Chicago American Giants from 1940 – 1946, 1950.

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His passing is another loss in the dwindling number of former Negro League players still alive.  This makes it even more important for the story of Negro League baseball must continue to be told.  As the nation celebrates African-American history this month, the Negro League baseball era should be included in the celebration.  Although established due to racial discrimination, it is an important part of 20th Century African American history.

To read more on the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown

Remembering Those Who Played Life’s Last Inning in 2016

Many of my blog posts celebrate the birthdays of African-American and dark-skinned Latino baseball players of the past; mainly those of the Negro League baseball era and of the game’s “Golden Age” (1950s and 1960s). However as 2016 comes to an end, I would like to briefly mention those who died this year.  If there are some not listed it is because I was not aware of their deaths.  Of the eight named in this blog post, some had more productive careers statistically than others.  However, they all helped to grow the deep, unshakable roots African-Americans have in the great game of baseball

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Monte Irvin (left)

Monte Irvin – January 11, 2016

The Hall of Fame outfielder, inducted in 1973, spent the prime years of his career in Negro League baseball with the Newark Eagles. Considered the best player in the Negro Leagues by many in 1941 before going into military service, Irvin returned in 1946 to help the Eagles win the Negro League World Series Championship.  In 1949 he became the first  African-American to play for the New York Giants.  He helped them win two National League pennants and the 1954 World Series Championship.

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Walt Williams – January 23, 2016

I remember Walt Williams as a hustling, energetic outfielder with the Chicago White Sox (1967 – 1972) who had the nickname “No Neck” because of his short and stocky physique. A contact hitter without much power, he had an outwardly enthusiastic approach to playing baseball.  Williams also spent time with the Houston Colt 45s (1964), Cleveland Indians (1973), and New York Yankees (1974-1975).

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Ted Toles, Jr. – April 5, 2016

Ted Toles played Negro League baseball from 1943 – 1947 and then in 1949. A pitcher and outfielder, he played for the Newark Eagles, Cleveland Buckeyes, and Jacksonville Eagles.  He spent time in the minor leagues in the early 1950s.

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Joe Durham – April 20, 2016

After playing in Negro League baseball with the Chicago American Giants, Durham signed with the St. Louis Browns in the fall of 1952. The Browns became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954 and called Durham up from the minor leagues the last month of the season.  He made his Major League debut on September 10 and two days later became the first African-American player to hit a home run in an Orioles’ uniform.

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Charley Beamon – May 3, 2016

Arm trouble cut short the career of Beamon, a right-handed power pitcher with a good curveball.  A high school classmate of basketball great Bill Russell and Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson (McClymonds in Oakland, CA.), Beamon made his Major League debut on September 26, 1956.  He outmatched Whitey Ford in beating the New York Yankees 1 – 0 giving up only 4 hits.  But he missed most of 1957 due to arm soreness and was 1 -3 with the Orioles in 1958, his last Major League season.

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Jim Ray Hart – May 19, 2016

A power hitting third baseman for the San Francisco Giants 1963 – 1973, Hart smashed 31 home runs in 1964 and 33 in 1966.  He finished second in the 1964 National League Rookie of the Year voting next to winner Dick Allen.  Hart averaged 92 RBIs a year for the 1964 – 1967 seasons.  He finished his career playing with New York Yankees in 1974.

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Chico Fernandez – June 11, 2016

Fernandez signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 as a shortstop.  With future Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese still in his prime, Fernandez spent five years in the team’s minor league system.  But the Dodgers traded Chico to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1957 and he became the first dark-skinned Latino to play for the team.  He had two productive seasons (1957-1958) with the Phillies.  In 1960, the team traded Fernandez to the Detroit Tigers where he became their number one shortstop for three years (1960 – 1962).

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“Choo Choo” Coleman – August 15, 2016

Coleman had a unique career in baseball.  He experienced the sunset of Negro League baseball and the dawning of a new Major League franchise. Coleman was first signed in 1955 by the Washington Senators, but after going nowhere in the their minor league organization he signed with the Negro League Indianapolis Clowns. By the mid-1950s, integration had killed Negro League baseball by draining it of the best players and stealing the interest of black baseball fans.  However, there were Major League teams still interested in Coleman as he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1960 and  the Philadelphia  Phillies in 1961.  Choo-Choo would become a part of baseball history for the wrong reason the next season as he was chosen by the National League expansion team New York Mets who  were 40 – 112 and are known in historical baseball lore as the “hapless 1962 Mets”.

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

Jim Gilliam: 1953 Rookie of the Year

In 1953, eight former Negro League players made their Major League Baseball debut.  Only in 1951 did as many from Negro League baseball go through the door into the big leagues Jackie Robinson had broken down in 1947. Gene Baker, Ernie Banks, Jim “Junior” Gilliam, Dave Hoskins, Connie Johnson, Jim Pendleton, Al Smith, and Bob Trice all were former Negro League players who were Major League rookies in 1953.  Banks went on to have a nineteen year Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Cubs.  But it was Gilliam who the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) named 1953 National League “Rookie of the Year” on that December 23.

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Five of the first six previous winners of the National League Rookie of the Year award had been former Negro League players.  Jackie Robinson (Kansas City Monarchs) in 1947, Don Newcombe (Newark Eagles) in 1949, and Joe Black (Baltimore Elite Giants) in 1952 all won playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Sam Jethroe (Cleveland Buckeyes) won the award with the Boston Braves in 1950 and Willie Mays (Birmingham Black Barons) won it playing for the New York Giants in 1951. Gilliam was the sixth and last one from the Negro Leagues to win the award.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee; Jim Gilliam began playing with the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1946 as a seventeen year old second baseman. With the Giants, he became a switch hitter and got the nickname “Junior” because of his age.  Gilliam appeared in three Negro League East West All Star games and was signed in 1951 by the Brooklyn Dodgers.  In his rookie year, he hit .278 with 63 RBIs and a league leading 12 triples.  He also scored 125 runs.  Walter Alston, the Dodgers’ manager, loved Gilliam’s ability to play second base, third base, or left field.  Gilliam hit .296 with two home runs in that year’s World Series as the Dodgers lost to the New York Yankees 4 games to 2.  He hit .292 in the 1955 World Series win against the Yankees; the Dodgers only World Series Championship while in Brooklyn.

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When the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958, Gilliam played on three more Dodgers World Series Champion teams (1959, 1963, and 1965). He played in a total of seven World Series (39 games) with the Dodgers.  The “Dodger blue” was the only uniform Gilliam wore in his 14 year (1953 – 1966) Major League career.

 

Remembering “Sad” Sam Jones

Past feature articles, game summaries, and game box scores of African-American newspapers indicate there were at least 29 no-hitters thrown in Negro League baseball.  Most notably there were two by Satchel Paige and one each by Hilton Smith, Andy Cooper, “Smoky” Joe Williams, and Leon Day; all Hall of Fame pitchers.  The “invisible color line” that kept African–American ballplayers out of the Major Leagues was not erased until 1947 which was too late for these and many other good Negro League hurlers who were by then either dead or passed their prime.  But there were younger Negro League pitchers that got their opportunity in the Major Leagues; “Toothpick” Sam Jones was one of them. He is the only former Negro League pitcher to throw a Major League no-hitter.

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Born 12/14/25 in Stewartsville, Ohio, Jones also spent a portion of his youth in West Virginia. He left for military service before starting the life of a coal mine worker as were many of his family members and friends.  He played with a local black team while stationed in Orlando, Florida in 1947 and caught the eye of Quincy Trouppe, then the manager of the Negro American League (NAL) Cleveland Buckeyes.  Jones signed in time to help the team win the NAL pennant, but they lost to the New York Cubans in the 1947 Negro League World Series.  Jones got his nickname from having a toothpick in his mouth while on the pitching mound.

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With Quincy Trouppe 1952

It would be 1950 when the Cleveland Indians finally noticed the talented right-handed hurler that had been in their own backyard. However, Jones pitched in only 16 games with the Indians in four years before being traded to the Chicago Cubs after the 1954 season. Once in the National League, the talented pitcher proved what he had done in the Negro Leagues was no fluke.   Opponents claimed Jones, a power pitcher standing at 6’4” and weighing 200 pounds, had the best curveball in the National League.  He faced batters with a never-changing, expressionless look on his face which resulted in him also being called “Sad” Sam.  That is the nickname I mostly remember.  But opponents also said Jones had a mean streak exhibited by his pitches; he hit 14 batters in 1955 (league leader).  There was an ongoing intense confrontation whenever Henry Aaron faced Jones that is well documented.  Jones struggled at times with control of his pitches; he led the National League in walks four times.  But he also could be overpowering; being the league leader in strikeouts three years and pitching 17 shutouts in his 12 year Major League career.  He became a two-time National League All-Star, winning 21 games with the San Francisco Giants in 1959 and 18 in 1960.

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But it was on May 12, 1955 as a Chicago Cub that Jones pitched himself into the Major League Baseball record book with a 4-0 no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It was a “Sam Jones” pitched type of game.  He struck out six batters, walked seven, threw a Wild Pitch, and was helped with two double plays.  In the ninth inning, he walked the first three hitters before striking out the final three.

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He retired after pitching with the Baltimore Orioles in 1964, the sixth team played with during his time in the Major Leagues; Cleveland Indians 1951 – 1952,  Chicago Cubs 1955 – 1956, St. Louis Cardinals 1957 – 1958 and 1963, San Francisco Giants 1959 – 1961, and Detroit Tigers 1962.  On November 5, 1971, the 45 years old Jones died of throat cancer.

“Sad “Sam Jones won 102 games in the Major Leagues. He lost 101.  No doubt the inconsistent control of his pitches cost him victories early in his career, but he still had 1,376 career strikeouts.  And no former Negro League pitcher, other than Don Newcombe, had the success in the Major Leagues as Sam Jones.

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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

 

 

Hank Thompson: Played a Role in the Integration of Major League Baseball

In my opinion, Hank Thompson does not get the notice he deserves in the integration of Major League baseball. Playing with the St. Louis Browns in the summer of 1947, he followed closely on the coat tails of Jackie Robinson (after two months and two days) and Larry Doby (after two days) to break through the “invisible color line” that had kept African-American and dark-skinned Latinos out of Major League baseball.  Although the Browns released him that summer, Thompson’s talent could not be denied and he went on to have a productive eight year Major League career with the New York Giants.  Born on December 8, 1925 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the left-handed hitting Henry Curtis Thompson played a part in the historic changing of baseball’s face.

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Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League on April 15, 1947 to become the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues in the 20th Century.  At that time, Hank Thompson was in his second season with the Kansas City Monarchs since returning from the military after World War II. He had begun playing Negro League baseball in 1943 as a teenaged outfielder with the Monarchs before the military draft.  The potential as a ball player he exhibited before military service was coming to fruition.  On July 5, 1947 Larry Doby played his first game with the Cleveland Indians to become the first African-American to play in the American League.

Seeing the large crowds Jackie Robinson attracted to ballparks, the St. Louis Browns purchased the contracts of Hank Thompson and his teammate Willard Brown from the Monarch. The Browns were the worst team in the American League with attendance below 1,000 fans during many home games.  The team’s management hoped having the black players would generate fan interest.  Thompson played his first Major League game on July 17. On July 20, he and Brown made history as St. Louis became the first team to field two African-American players.  Their teammates refused to accept them and Browns’ manager Muddy Ruel only used the black players sparingly.  The integration experiment did not attract the crowds as desired.  With no intention of helping to nurture their baseball talents as the Dodgers did for Robinson and the Indians would do for Doby, the Browns released both Thompson and Brown on August 23.  Although he did not get a fair opportunity with the Browns, Thompson showed promise hitting .256 in 27 games playing mainly second base.  At only 21 years old, he would get another opportunity to play in the Major Leagues.  Unfortunately, being 32 years old, Willard Brown did not.

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Hank Thompson (left) and Willard Brown (right) with the St. Louis Browns 1947

 

Thompson returned to the Kansas City Monarchs for the 1948 season and received his second chance the next year when signed by the New York Giants. He along with Monte Irvin made their Major League debuts on July 8, 1949 to become the first African-Americans to play for the Giants.  In 1950, his first full year with the team, Thompson hit .289 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs while playing 148 games mainly at third base and was considered one of the best in league at that position.  But he also played in the outfield as he did with the Monarchs.  In 1951, the Giants won the National League pennant and played in the World Series against the New York Yankees.  Thompson played alongside Monte Irvin and rookie Willie Mays as the Giants become the first team in World Series history to field an all African-American starting outfield.

When Mays left for military service, Thompson hit 17 home runs in 1952 and 24 home runs batting .302 in 1953. When Mays returned in 1954, Thompson hit .263 with 26 home runs and 86 RBIs to help the Giants win the National League pennant.  In the team’s World Series sweep of the Cleveland Indians, he hit .364 with seven walks (a four game Series record) and made a spectacular fielding play at third base in Game Three.

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(Left to right) Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson

Throughout his playing career Thompson battled with alcoholism. By 1956 it dramatically took its toll on him.  He became so unproductive the Giants sent him to the minor leagues late in the 1956 season and he retired from baseball in 1957.  He died on September 3, 1969, only 43 years old.

Hank Thompson does not have a plaque in Cooperstown as does his former teammates on the New York Giants; Willie Mays and Monte Irvin. However, he should be remembered as one of the Negro League players who proved that once given the opportunity, he belonged in the Major Leagues.  His success kept the door open for others to follow.

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Former Negro League players(left to right) Ernie Banks, Hank Thompson, Gene Baker, Willie Mays

 

 

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

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

Hall of Fame Negro League Outfielder Cristobal Torriente

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Cristobal Torriente, like most of the 2006 National Baseball Hall of Fame inductees from Negro League baseball, had not been well-known to many baseball fans. That includes a long time one such as yours truly.  His feats on the diamond had not been celebrated as contributions to Negro League lore similar to those of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, James “Cool Papa” Bell and the other Negro League legends that had previously been enshrined in Cooperstown.  But Torreinte deserved Hall of Fame recognition and he received it in 2006.

Born in Cienfuegos, Cuba on November 16, 1893, Torriente saw a few of his white countrymen play Major League baseball. However, he could not due to the dark hue of his skin.  Just like African-American professional baseball players for nearly half of the 20th Century, he could not cross Major League baseball’s “invisible color line”.  Instead, Torriente showcased his baseball talents in the Negro Leagues.

In a poll of former Negro League players and sportswriters conducted in the early 1950s, Cristobal Torriente was named one of the best outfielders to play in the Negro Leagues. Known as the “Cuban Strongman, the left-handed slugger stood 5’11”, 185 pounds, with broad shoulders, and a rifle for a throwing arm.

The following is an excerpt from my book, Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era, which profiles the Hall of Fame outfielder:

“Pitchers had a hard time getting him out due to his quick,

powerful swing. They could not throw strikes pass him. Getting him

to swing at pitches out of the strike zone also did not work because

the Cuban was a notorious bad ball hitter. Facing him was an

experience pitchers dreaded.

 

Many stories have been told as a testimony of the Cuban’s

power when batting. One is about a line drive he hit off the right

field wall in Indianapolis against the ABCs. Supposedly the ball was

hit so hard, it got to the wall so fast, the right fielder was able to

throw the speedy Torriente out at first base. Another story is about

a ball he supposedly hit in Kansas City against the Monarchs. It

smashed a clock 17 feet above the centerfield fence. According to

Torriente’s American Giant teammate shortstop Bob Williams,

“The hand of the clock started going round and round.” It is doubtful

all the stories of balls hit by Torriente are true. But there is no

doubt he was one of the best hitters seen by Negro League fans.

 

Little is known about the early life of Cristobal Torriente in

Cuba. From most information, he was born in 1893 in Cienfuegos.

His family worked in the fields and boiler houses of the area’s sugar

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mills. By 17 he was in the Cuban Army displaying his physical

strength by loading heavy guns onto mules; while also blasting

baseballs around local sandlots.

 

After being a young phenomenon in the 1913 Cuban Winter

League, the 19 year old Torriente joined the Cuban Stars and played

his first season in the United States. The Stars were a traveling team

that played mainly against independent black professional baseball

teams. No official African American league existed at the time, but

the Stars competed against such black teams as the New York

Lincoln Giants, New York Lincoln Stars, Chicago American Giants,

and others. The change in surroundings did not hinder Torriente.

He quickly began to establish himself as the team’s hitting star

going up against the likes of “Smokey Joe” Williams, “Cannonball”

Dick Redding, ”Big Bill” Gatewood, and other Negro League

pitchers. By many accounts, Torriente hit .383 that first year. And if

the Stars’ opponents believed that was just rookie luck, the strong

Cuban put that to rest the next season by again hitting over .300. In

his years with the Cuban Stars, he reportedly never hit less than

.300.”

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For more of Cristobal Torriente’s Negro League baseball story, 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.

 

 

 

The Cleveland Buckeyes: “The Land’s” Other World Series Champion

1945_cleveland_buckeyesTo honor Ernie “Mr. Cub” Banks who died in January last year, I hope the Chicago Cubs will overcome decades of frustration and defeat the Cleveland Indians in this year’s World Series. However, if Cleveland does win Indian fans will celebrate the team’s third World Series Championship. The Indians defeated the Brooklyn Robins (changed its name to Dodgers in 1932) in 1920 and the Boston (now Atlanta) Braves in 1948.  However, there is another Cleveland baseball championship that fans of the game in “the Land” should not overlook.  In 1945, the Cleveland Buckeyes defeated the Homestead Grays to win the Negro League World Series.

At the end of the 1941 Negro League season, Erie, Pennsylvania businessman Ernie Wright purchased the semi-pro African-American Cleveland White Sox baseball team and the St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League (NAL). He merged the teams to organize the Buckeyes who played most of its games next season in Cincinnati and other cities throughout Ohio, but relocated to Cleveland in 1943.  Being a large industrial northern city with a substantial African American population, 71,899 in 1930, “the Land” was no stranger to Negro League baseball.  The Buckeyes were the eleventh Negro League team to call Cleveland home since 1922, the only one to survive more than one season.  Their home games were played in League Park.

cleveland-buckThe 1945 baseball season began as the most destructive world war in history approached an end. Many ball players had lost time from their professional baseball careers due to military service.  Major League players Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and others had gone into the armed forces after the War began in 1941.  Negro League players Monte Irvin, Leon Day, Willard Brown, and others also served in the military to help preserve the nation’s freedom even though racial discrimination deprived them of the opportunity to play Major League baseball.  But this shortage of quality players due to the war does not tarnish what the Cleveland Buckeyes accomplished.

The team had no iconic player of Negro League lore or destined for the Hall of Fame. After the “invisible color line” was erased by Jackie Robinson in 1947, the Buckeyes’ best player Sam Jethroe went on to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1950.  The speedy outfielder led the league in stolen bases (35) and hit .273 playing for the Boston Braves.  Veteran Negro League catcher Quincy Trouppe, the Buckeyes’ manager, played briefly for the Cleveland Indians in 1952 when 39 years old.  The remainder of the team consisted of solid Negro League players such infielders Parnell Woods and Archie Ware, outfielders Buddy Armour and Willie Grace, and pitchers Eugene (Gene) Bremmer, and the Jefferson brothers; Willie and George.  After integration, they all briefly played in the lower levels of Minor League baseball.  Since its inception in 1937, the Negro American League (NAL) had been dominated by the Kansas City Monarchs (NAL pennants in 1937, 1939 – 1942) and Birmingham Black Barons (NAL pennants in 1942 and 1943). But, the Buckeyes prevailed in 1945 and advanced to the World Series against one of the most renown franchises in the history of Negro League baseball; the Homestead Grays.

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Infielder Johnnie Cowan, Mgr./Catcher Quincy Trouppe, and Shortstop Avelino Canizares

Going into the Series, the Buckeyes were overwhelmingly the underdog. The Grays were the reigning Negro League World Series champion, beating the Black Barons in 1943 and 1944.  They had extended their run of consecutive Negro National League (NNL) pennants to nine in 1945.  Their roster included five players who would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame:  outfielder James “Cool Papa” Bell (1974), pitcher Raymond Brown (2006), first baseman Buck Leonard (1972), catcher and Negro League icon Josh Gibson (1972), and third baseman Jud “Boojum” Wilson (2006).  But Hall of Fame team owner Cum Posey (2006) had allowed his “long Gray line” to get old and worn down.  With Wilson being 49, Bell 42, and the Grays other top players in their mid to late 30s, the team went into the Series depending on skills being eroded by time.  But they still had hard-hitting Gibson and Leonard, and they were still the mighty Homestead Grays.

In a huge upset, the Cleveland Buckeyes won the 1945 Negro League World Series in a four game sweep. That they were a younger and faster team played a big part in their victory. But the dominance of Cleveland’s pitchers turned out to be the most shocking factor.  After winning Game One 2 – 1 and Game Two 3 -2, the Buckeye pitching shutout the Grays the final two games.  Willie Jefferson threw a 3 – 0 shutout in Game Three winning 4 – 0 and Frank Carswell a 5 – 0 win in Game Four.  The Grays scored only three runs the entire Series, none the last 18 innings.   Cleveland’s Willie Grace hit the only Series home run.  The Buckeyes also won the NAL pennant in 1947, but lost in the World Series to the New York Cubans four games to one.  Because of financial deficits due to a declining fan base, the team disbanded after the first half of the 1950 season.

The entire city of Cleveland will go wild if the Indians win the World Series this year. It only had a small banquet with no parade in 1945 acknowledging the Buckeyes’ Championship. But hopefully there will be fans at Progressive Field this World Series wearing Cleveland Buckeye Negro League gear to show the team’s 1945 triumph is not totally forgotten.  Lebron, JR Smith, Kyrie, Richard Jefferson, let me see you!

 

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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