Due to my efforts towards organizing the youth baseball team for 10 – 12 year olds I will coach this summer, I failed to timely recognize the birthdate of former Negro League and Major League player Robert (Bob) Burns Thurman, May 14, 1917. This post is a belated “Happy Birthday” recognition of him. The mystery that existed about the age of “Satchel” Paige when he signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 is a well-known story in both Negro League and baseball history. It is now known Paige made his Major League debut when 42 years old and became an American League All-Star his final season with the St. Louis Browns at age 47. But there is less mystery to Bob Thurman having his best Major League season when 40 years old.
After Jackie Robinson erased the color line in 1947 and Major League teams began looking to sign African-Americans and dark-skinned Hispanics, many Negro League players lowered their stated age to be a more attractive prospect. They knew that younger players had the best chance of getting to the Major Leagues. Thurman and other Negro League players felt no hesitancy claiming to be a younger age in order to walk through the now open door of opportunity that had been shut since the end of the 19th Century due to racial discrimination.
The cry grew louder after World War II for an end to racial discrimination in Major League baseball. Former Kentucky U. S. Senator Albert “Happy” Chandler became the new Major League Baseball Commissioner in 1945 following the sudden death the previous year of Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner. Landis had worked with team owners since taking office in 1920 to perpetuate the “invisible color line” that kept African-American or dark-skinned Hispanic players out of Major League baseball. When asked his opinion about African-Americans playing in the Major Leagues, Chandler surprisingly said, “If they can fight and die in Okinawa and Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, they can play in America”. Although his response went against the existing racial discriminatory policy of Major League baseball, it added to the chorus for change sounding for Bob Thurman and other Negro League players.
Although born in Kellyville, Oklahoma, Thurman grew up in Wichita, Kansas. Drafted into the military while playing in the city’s semi-professional baseball leagues at the start of World War II, he saw combat duty in New Guinea and the Philippines. After leaving military service in 1946, he turned to his only option to play professional baseball in United States, the Negro Leagues. Thurman played with the Homestead Grays during the last years of owner Cum Posey’s “long gray line”. Long time Negro League veterans Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, “Cool Papa” Bell and others were still with the Grays when Thurman arrived; however, Posey died before the season started. Signed as a left-handed pitcher, Thurman proved to be a better power hitter and became the team’s regular center fielder. With the veteran players approaching the end of their baseball careers, Josh Gibson died in 1947, the Grays mixed in Thurman along with future Major League players Luke Easter and Luis Marquez to help the team remain competitive. In 1948, Thurman hit over .300 as the Grays won the last Negro League World Series Championship defeating the Birmingham Black Barons.
With both the Negro National League and the Homestead Grays disbanding after the 1948 season, Thurman signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League (NAL). Monarch Manager Buck O’Neil had a team that included future Major League players Elston Howard, Connie Johnson, Gene Baker, Hank Thompson, and Curt Roberts. The Monarchs were looking to sell their best players to Major League teams in order to remain operating profitably. On July 29, 1949 the New York Yankees purchased Thurman’s contract and he became the first African-American signed by the team. He walked through the door of opportunity given him stated as a 26-year-old outfielder, but in reality being 32.
However, the Yankees were not serious about integration. Although Thurman batted .317 and hit with power while with the team’s Triple AAA minor league affiliate (Newark Bears) for the remainder of that season, the team traded him to the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were also slow embracing integration. It would be four years, 1954, before Ernie Banks became the first African-American to play for Chicago’s north side team. After three respectable years in the Cubs minor league system, Thurman was released. The Cubs did not renew his contract.
He spent the next two years playing summer and winter league baseball in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Thurman had several successful seasons in the Caribbean leagues and had become a fan favorite. He is a member of the Puerto Rican League Baseball Hall of Fame and the league’s all-time home run leader. After a tremendous winter league season in 1955, Thurman signed with the Cincinnati Reds mainly as a reserve outfielder and pinch hitter with the team believing him to be 32 years old. He made his Major League debut on April 14, 1955; a little more than a month before his actual 38th birthday.
Thurman hit 35 home runs and drove in 106 runs in his five years with the Reds (1955 – 1959). On August 18, 1956, the Reds hit eight home runs in a 13 – 4 victory over the Milwaukee Braves; which tied the Major League record at that time. Three of the Reds’ home runs in that game were hit by Bob Thurman. After hitting a double in the third inning, he hit home runs in the fifth, seventh, and eighth innings. In 1957 at 40 years old, Thurman had his best season in the Major Leagues hitting 18 home runs. While with the Reds he, along with former Negro League player and Reds teammate George Crowe, became mentors for young African-American players coming into the National League in the late 1950s; Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, Bill White, etc.
Bob Thurman had to verbally set back the hands of time in order to get the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. If the New York Yankees in 1949 had known his real age of 32, would they have signed him? Probably not! Surely, the Reds would not have signed Thurman in 1955 had they known his real age of 38! But given the opportunity, he proved his time for hitting a baseball had not passed him by.
To read more about the Negro Baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
John L. Gray and Haley Young, Jr. both played baseball one season with the Indianapolis Clowns during the final years of the Negro League baseball era. Last month on April 7, I was the main speaker (“Negro League Baseball: The Deep Roots of African-Americans in America’s Great Game”) at a tribute given to both players at the Old Dillard Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (See pictures under the “Events” tab above)
The museum is located in the building that housed the first school for African-Americans students in Fort Lauderdale, named “The Colored School” and later Dillard High School. An important educational and cultural center for African-Americans in Fort Lauderdale, the Old Dillard Museum serves as a constant reminder of the community’s proud and rich heritage.
Both Gray (1955) and Young (1957) were graduates of Dillard High School, As part of their tribute that evening, they became the first baseball players added to the museum’s Sports Wall of Fame which is for alumni of the school.
Gray attended Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio and then signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1956 as a catcher and outfielder. Jackie Robinson had erased the “invisible color line” to begin the racial integration of Major League baseball nine years earlier in 1947, but attitudes of prejudice and discrimination still existed. The Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, and Philadelphia Phillies still had no African-American or dark-skinned Hispanic players on their Major League rosters the year Gray signed. 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). By then, Negro League baseball had declined since its peak in the 1940s due to losing its best players and fan base due to the racial integration of the Major Leagues. 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. In 1959, he went back into the Major League system signing with the Chicago Cubs. He played with the team’s Class D affiliate, the Paris (Illinois) Lakers, in the Midwest League. The next season Gray signed with the Chicago White Sox and played with its Class C minor league affiliate the Idaho Falls Russets in the Pioneer League. Reaching his frustration limit with the unfair treatment and broken agreements he encountered with Major League teams, Gray did not return to professional the next season.
After graduating from high school, Haley Young, Jr. signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. Being only 16 years old, he played shortstop and outfield in the Class D Appalachian League for the team’s Johnson City, Tennessee affiliate. In 1958, he seriously damaged his knee and did not fully recover until 1961 when he signed with the Indianapolis Clowns. The Chicago White Sox signed Young in 1962, but he got no further than the team’s Class A minor league level. He led his Clinton, Iowa (Class A – Midwest League) team in home runs (16) and RBI (51) while batting .254 in 1965, but it got him no closer to getting on the White Sox’s Major League roster even though the team needed power hitters. From the 1965 through 1967 seasons, only four White Sox players hit more than the 16 home runs Young smashed in 1965. The White Sox were in the American League where the promotion of African-American players had been less aggressive than in the National League since the days of Jackie Robinson. After the 1966 and 1967 seasons with the White Sox’s Class A minor league affiliate in Lynchburg (VA.), Young played in Canada’s independent league in 1968 and retired from baseball in 1970.
I want to thank More Than a Game, Inc. (Danny Phillips) and the Old Dillard Museum (Derrick Davis) for inviting me to be a part of the memorable event for Haley Young, Jr. and John L. Gray. The honorees were not there to receive their accolades; Haley Young died in 2015 and John L. Gray too sick to attend. Sadly, last week he too passed away. However, their achievements in baseball are honored on the Old Dillard Museum’s Wall of Fame. They were in the group of unsung African-American pioneers that stood up against racism and prejudice to integrate minor league professional baseball during the Civil Rights era.
For more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
Due to being shut down the last few days by a bad cold, I failed yesterday to acknowledge the birthday of Negro League left-handed pitcher Andy Cooper. Born April 24, 1898 in Waco, Texas; Cooper is considered one of the best southpaw pitchers in Negro League baseball history; Willie Foster the only one deemed better. At 6’2″, 220 pounds, he had the physical stature of a power pitcher. But Andy Cooper did not overpower hitters. Nicknamed “Lefty”, he used a variety of pitches at different speeds to keep hitters off-balance to get them out. He pitched for the Detroit Stars (1920 – 1927) and the Kansas City Monarchs (1928 – 1937). Also, with Cooper as manager, the Monarchs won the Negro American League pennant in 1939 and 1940.
The following is an exert from my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era” in which I profile Andy Cooper;
“In his prime, Hall of Famer Satchel Paige’s fastball was described by batters as
being the size of a half-dollar or a pea. By the nickname given other
pitchers, the batters knew what to expect when facing them.
“Smokey” Joe Williams, “Cannonball” Dick Redding, Wilber “Bullet”
Rogan, and “Steel Arm” Johnny Taylor were just a few whose name
preceded their pitches. Using radar technology to gauge the speed
of pitches was not introduced into baseball until the 1970s.
However, if it had been used to clock the pitches of the great Negro
League baseball hurlers, it would have registered at ninety‐plus
miles per hour many times.
But Andrew Lewis Cooper was a different kind of pitcher. He
did not overpower batters. “Lefty” as he was nicknamed, used a
variety of pitches at different speeds to get batters out.
In order to hit the ball solidly, a batter must have balanced
coordination and timing between his legs, waist, shoulders, and
hands. If a pitcher can disrupt that coordination and timing, getting
the hitter swinging too early or too late; it usually leads to a fly out,
ground out or strike out. Andy Cooper was a master of keeping
hitters off-balance. Not having the blazing fastball like other great
Negro League pitchers, he had the ability to get batters out by
disrupting their coordination and timing. “Lefty” had a successful
career by frustrating and fooling them with his arsenal of pitches.”
To read more about Andy Cooper and the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
Despite the current lukewarm attitude about baseball of African-Americans, April 15 is still an important date in not only baseball history, but also African-American history.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American since before the turn of the century to play Major League baseball. Wearing Number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played first base and batted second in the team’s home opener at Ebbet’s Field against the Boston Braves. In three at bats, he reached base on an error and scored a run in the Dodgers’ 5 – 3 win.
To celebrate the day of Robinson’s debut, April 15 is designated by Major League Baseball; “Jackie Robinson Day”. All Major League players will wear number “42”, Jackie’s number, on their uniforms during games today and other activities will also be held at Major League ballparks to honor him.
Growing up in a home where my father and two older brothers were baseball fans, I was made aware at an early age of Jackie Robinson. However; his mark in history, both African-American and Twentieth Century American, continues to grow in significance sixty-nine years after that Brooklyn spring day in 1947. A mark that he made through his excellence on the baseball diamond whose impact goes well beyond the sport itself.
Robinson hit .297 in 1947 and led the National League in stolen bases. Although many sportswriters doubted he would be successful, the National Sportswriters Association named him 1947 National League Rookie of the Year. In 1949, he led the National League in hitting (.342), stolen bases, and drove in 124 runs. For his efforts Robinson won the National League Most Valuable Player Award. He hit over .300 six in his 10 Major League seasons, and over .290 two others. A six-time National League All-Star, Robinson helped the Dodgers win six National League pennants (finishing second four times) and one World Series championship (1955).
But I missed his playing career! When I made my entrance into the world in August 1951, Robinson and the Dodgers were in the process of blowing a 14 1/2 lead against the second place New York Giants to lose the National League pennant. There was no ESPN, CNN Sports, Fox Sports Net, or MLB Network in the 1950s. I am sure Jackie would have made the ESPN Top Ten Plays of the Day highlights numerous times. He retired after the 1956 season as I was in the kindergarten class of Miss Williams at Kealing Elementary. That is why I love seeing the black and white films showing him in action like in the documentary showed last week on PBS; “Jackie Robinson: A Film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMaHon”. The daring way he ran the bases, especially stealing home, is still exciting today.
Truthfully Jackie Robinson was not the best player in Negro League baseball when Dodger Vice-President and General Manager Branch Rickey signed him in 1945. But he was named the 1946 International League’s Most Valuable Player while with the Dodgers top minor league team in Montreal. Bob Feller, the star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians said Robinson would never be good enough as a hitter to make it in the Major Leagues. How ironic was it that they were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame together in 1962. Jackie Robinson accepted the hopes and expectations for success of his race as he faced the expectations and predictions of his failure from those opposed to him. Despite this pressure from all sides, he proved his skeptics wrong and opened the door for other African-American and dark-skinned Latino ball players to play Major League baseball. Jackie Robinson was an extra-ordinary man God equipped for a super extra-ordinary task!
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
Born March 22, 1921 in Whiteland, Indiana, George Daniel Crowe always declared basketball as his favorite sport. Named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball” his senior year in high school (1939), Crowe went on to play basketball and baseball at Indiana Central College. After serving in the military, Crowe first played semi-professional basketball (Harlem Rens) in 1946. However; seeing the money potential for him in professional baseball, he also signed with the New York Black Yankees in 1947 and began his short Negro League baseball career. In 1949, he went uptown to play with the New York Cubans.
When the Negro National League (NNL) disbanded after the 1949 season, Newark Eagle co-owner Effa Manley recommended Crowe to the Boston Braves who signed him as a first baseman. He made his Major League debut on April 16, 1952; hitting .258 in 73 games with four home runs his rookie season.
Crowe played for nine years (1952 – 1961) in the Major Leagues on three different teams: Boston/Milwaukee Braves (1952 – 1955), Cincinnati Reds (1956 – 1958), and St. Louis Cardinals (1959 – 1961). The former Negro League ballplayer became a premier pinch hitter once holding the Major League record for career pinch hit home runs (14). Crowe hit 31 home runs for the Reds in 1957 and was a National League All Star in 1958.
Known as “Big Daddy” (6’2”, 210 lbs.), Crowe also became a mentor for young African-American Major League ball players in the 1950s (Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Henry Aaron, etc.). He helped them navigate through the racial prejudice and discrimination that existed in Major League baseball during that period.
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
The baseball career of James Buster “Buzz” Clarkson, born 2/13/18 in Hopkins, South Carolina, covered a large amount of ground; not much different from his Negro League contemporaries. It included stints in Negro League baseball, the Mexican and Canadian Leagues, and the winter leagues in Puerto Rico and Cuba; in addition to serving in the military (1943 – 1945). In the 1950s, Clarkson also played Major League baseball and helped integrate the minor leagues
At 5’11’ and a solidly built 210 pounds, Clarkson could play any infield or outfield position. He began his Negro League baseball career with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1937. When Clarkson played shortstop for the Newark Eagles in 1940, fans selected him to participate in the Negro League East-West All Star game (scored a run). He also played right field in 1949 All-Star Game while with the Philadelphia Stars (one hit and one RBI).
Clarkson signed with the Boston Braves in 1950 as a third baseman. After hitting over .300 in two minor league seasons, he made his Major League debut on April 20,1952, at 37 years old per Major League Baseball records. Knowing being older may hinder their careers, many former Negro League players did not give their true age when signing with a Major League team. His advanced age and the Braves having 20-year-old rookie Eddie Mathews at third base that year, the first of a 17-year Hall of Fame career, made Clarkson expendable. In his only Major League season, he played in 14 games with the Braves that year hitting .200; five singles in 25 AT Bats (.200).
Spending the remainder of his career in the minor leagues, Clarkson became as one of the first African-Americans to play in the Texas League (Class AA); hitting 42 home runs in 1954.
To read more about the Negro League baseball era The Last Train To Cooperstown
As African-American history is celebrated this month, the Negro League baseball era should be included in the celebration. Negro League baseball is not just a part of African-American history, it is woven into the fabric of 20th Century American history.
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
In celebration of Black History Month, here is Today’s Negro League Baseball History Fact: Frank Duncan
Frank Duncan spent 20 of his 28 years (1920 – 1948) in Negro League baseball with his hometown Kansas City Monarchs. Born February 14, 1901 in Kansas City, Missouri, he played on both Monarch teams that were Negro League World Series Champions; although almost two decades apart.
Known mostly for his defense as a catcher, Duncan’s strong throwing arm helped Monarch pitchers hold opposing baserunners close to first or second base. A smart catcher, he worked with Hall of Fame pitchers Jose Mendez, Bullet Rogan, Satchel Paige, and Hilton Smith during his years with the Kansas City team.
He first played with the Monarchs from 1921 -1934. During that time the team won four Negro National League (NNL) pennants (1923 – 1925, 1929). They defeated the Hilldale Club of Darby, Pennsylvania in the first Negro League World Series (1924). Duncan got the key hit to drive in two runs and help the Monarchs win Game Seven of the best five out of nine series.
Although the Monarchs continued to operate when the NNL went out of business after the 1931 season, Duncan left to play for teams in New York and Pittsburgh. He returned to the Monarchs in 1937, the first year of the Negro American League (NAL). The next season he played with the Chicago American Giants, but returned to the Monarch’s in 1940 and became the team’s player/manager.
In 1942, the Monarchs won the NAL pennant and defeated the Homestead Grays in the Negro League World Series; the team’s second World Series championship. Duncan led the team to another NAL pennant in 1946, but it lost a closely contested Negro League World Series to the Newark Eagles.
Duncan and his son Frank, a pitcher, were the first Negro League father-son battery in 1941.
Negro League baseball is not just a part of African-American history, but it is woven into the fabric of 20th Century American history.
.To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
Born February 12, 1923 in Conroe, Texas; Marvin Williams spent his entire Negro League baseball career (1943 – 1950) with the Philadelphia Stars. The power hitting second baseman played in the 1944 East-West All-Star game. Together with Jackie Robinson and Sam Jethroe, Williams participated in a “token” tryout given by the Boston Red Sox for African-American players in 1945. Although exhibiting they were talented baseball players during the workout, neither of the three were signed by the team. Both Robinson and Jethroe made it to the Major Leagues a few years after that tryout (Robinson in 1947, Jethroe in 1950), but not Williams.
He hurt his throwing arm limiting his defensive abilities after returning to the Stars. Williams left Negro League baseball in 1950 and spent the decade showing flashes of his hitting power while integrating minor league teams. In 1954 he hit .360 with 21 home runs playing with Vancouver (Western League). While a teammate of Frank Robinson in 1955 with Columbia (Sally League), Williams hit .328 with 16 home runs. Robinson went on to be named National League Rookie of the Year in 1956 starting his Hall Fame baseball career. Williams stayed in the minor leagues and hit .322, 26 home runs and 111 RBIs that year with Tulsa (Double AA Texas League).
There is no doubt Marvin Williams had the reputation of being a good hitter. However, the initial slow process of integration in white professional baseball during the late 1940s, an arm injury, and his advancing age in the 1950s (30+) kept him out of the Major Leagues.
To read about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
Born on February 8, 1924 in Plainfield, New Jersey; right-handed pitcher Joe Black possessed a power fastball and natural slider. Black pitched with the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro National League (1943 -1950) while finishing college (Morgan State) and then was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
As a 26 years old Major League rookie, Black pitched in relief for Dodgers in 1952. His former Elite Giant teammate Roy Campanella was the Dodgers’ catcher. Black won 15 games; he also saved 15 and received the 1952 National League Rookie of the Year award.
To Black’s surprise, Dodgers’ manager Chuck Dressen chose him to be the starting pitcher against the New York Yankees in Game One of the World Series. Black had only started two games during the regular season. He responded by becoming the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game beating the Yankees 4 – 2. However, Black lost Game Four 2 – 0 and Game Seven 4 – 2. He finished the Series with a 2.15 ERA, lowest of all Dodger starting pitchers.
After a six-year Major League career (1952 – 1957) in which he was 30 – 12, Black worked in business becoming a vice president at the Greyhound Corporation.
Learn more about the Negro League Baseball Era Last Train To Cooperstown