“Smokey” Joe Williams, Leon Day, Hilton Smith, and other fantastic pitchers who toiled their entire careers in the Negro Leagues never received the opportunity to appear on professional baseball’s main stage; the World Series. When Jackie Robinson erased Major League Baseball’s “invisible color line in 1947 opening the door for African American and dark-skinned Latinos to play, many of the better Negro League pitchers were past their prime. However, there were four former Negro Leaguers who did get the opportunity to take the mound in a World Series game. Three are familiar names in Negro League baseball history. The fourth and last one, Marshall Bridges who was born June 2, 1931 in Jackson, Mississippi, reflects how slow the progress of integration took in the Major Leagues during the 1950s.
On October 10, 1948 Satchel Paige became the first African American to pitch in a Major League World Series game. He pitched 2/3 of an inning in Game 5 for the Cleveland Indians in the 1948 World Series giving up no runs or hits. The Indians lost the game to the Boston Braves 11 – 5, but won the World Series 4 games to 2.
Don Newcombe pitched in the 1949, 1955, and 1956 Series for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The team’s leading hurler and innings workhorse during the regular season, Newcombe seemed to run out of gas in the World Series against the Dodgers’ main nemesis each of those years; the New York Yankees. In five World Series’ starts, he lost four with an ERA of 8.59.
On October 1, 1952 Joe Black of the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the New York Yankees 4 – 2 to become the first African American pitcher to win a World Series game. He pitched a complete game giving up only six hits in the first contest of that year’s Series. Black, however, lost Game Four and the deciding Game Seven by the identical score of his victory, 4 – 2.
Marshall “Sheriff” Bridges began his professional baseball career as a pitcher and first baseman for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. Signed by the New York Giants in 1953, the hard throwing left hander spent five seasons pitching in the minor leagues. When he turned 28 years old, Bridges finally made his Major League debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959 winning 6 games while losing 3. He finished second in strikeouts among Cardinal relief hurlers with 76 in 76 innings pitched
The Cardinals released Bridges in August of 1960 and he finished the season with the Cincinnati Reds. The next season, Bridges did not make a mound appearance when Cincinnati lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series four games to one. However, due to a surprising shift of fortune it would be different for him the next year.
A little more than 2 months after the Series, the Reds traded Bridges to New York and he went on to become the top relief pitcher for the 1962 Yankees. In 52 relief appearances, Bridges had his best Major League season winning eight games while saving 18 others and helping the Yankees capture the American League pennant.
The “Sheriff” made two appearances in the World Series pitching a total of three and two- third innings as the Yankees defeated the San Francisco Giants to win the World Championship. However; he made a place in baseball history by surrendering the first World Series grand slam home run hit by a National League player, Giants’ second baseman Chuck Hiller, in the Yankee’s 7 – 3 Game 4 lost.
After being shot by a 21 year old married woman (Carrie Lee Raysor) in a bar during spring training the next season, Bridges fell out of favor with the Yankees. Although there had been off the field incidents involving Yankee star players Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, Bridges had crossed the Yankees’ behavior double standard line that his fellow African American teammate Elston Howard had for seven years been able to toe. Bridges recovered from the gunshot wound in his leg, but made only 23 relief appearances for the 1963 Yankees. After the season, the team traded him to the Washington Senators.
For more on Negro League Baseball history, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown)
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.