Nate Colbert of the San Diego Padres tied a Major League record on August 1, 1972 by hitting five home runs in doubleheader. The story surrounding the first baseman’s feat reflects how the baseball dreams of African-American boys changed as a result of Jackie Robinson erasing Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” in 1947.
On May 2, 1954 in a doubleheader against the New York Giants; St. Louis Cardinal right fielder Stan Musial hit five home runs. There were 26,662 in attendance that Sunday afternoon at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium to see him do what no other Major League player had accomplished. In the first game, Musial hit three home runs and drove in six runs in the Cardinal’s 10 – 6 victory. He hit 2 homers and drove in three runs in the nightcap, but the Giants won 9 – 7.
In the stadium that spring afternoon with his father was eight year old African-American Nate Colbert. I can visualize the excitement on little Nate’s face in seeing his favorite Cardinal ballplayer, “Stan the Man”, hit those five home runs. But Colbert that day also saw Cardinal rookie first baseman Tom Alston, the first African-American to appear in a Major League game for the St. Louis Cardinals.
For the first time in the franchise’s history, the 1954 Cardinal team had African-American players. The 28-year-old Alston made his Major League debut on April 13, earlier than Brooks Lawrence (June 24) and Bill Greason (May 31), the other two African-Americans on the team. A good defensive first baseman, he had a hot bat against the Giants in the doubleheader witnessed by little Nate. In the first game Alston got four hits including a home run, his third of the young season, and two RBIs. The second game he hit a bases loaded double (3 RBIs) in the Cardinals’ first inning. He ended the day batting .313.
Little Nate also saw that day three former Negro League baseball players who appeared in both games for the Giants: Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson. Irvin and Thompson in 1949 were the first African-Americans to play for the Giants.
Fast forward this story to 1964. 18-year-old Nate Colbert is signed by the Cardinals, but they lose him to the Houston Astros in the 1965 Rule Five draft and he never plays a game in the uniform of his hometown team. The Astros then traded him to the San Diego Padres in 1969.
On August 1, 1972; in Colbert’s fourth season with the Padres, he ties the record he saw Stan Musial set in 1954. Colbert hits five home runs in a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. He hits two home runs and drives in five runs as the Padres win the first game 9-0 and hits three homers driving in eight runs in his team’s 11 -7 victory in the nightcap. For the second time in his six years with the Padres, Colbert hits 38 home runs in 1972.
Little Nate Colbert’s Major League career did not come close to that of Stan Musial who is a 1969 Hall of Fame inductee. To tie or break a record in baseball; however, is considered a great accomplishment. And Colbert being present to see the record set that he would eventually tie makes this a unique circumstance. In addition, Colbert got the opportunity to be able to do what he saw his childhood favorite Cardinal ballplayer do because of what he also witnessed that May afternoon.
By seeing Tom Alston, Willie Mays, Hank Thompson, and Monte Irvin play that day; Colbert witnessed the new day in Major League baseball that was occurring. It had dawned in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. It was a new day in which the baseball dreams of little Nate Colbert and other African-American boys were no longer confined to Negro League baseball. A new day that would produce stories like Nate Colbert’s and others as the racial barriers in professional baseball were pulled down in the 1950s and 1960s.
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
The inclement weather ten days ago on Sunday, April 15, tried to put a damper on Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day celebrations. All Major League players wore number “42”, Jackie’s number, on their uniforms during games that day and other activities were also held at Major League ballparks to honor him. This year marked the 71st anniversary of April 15, 1947, the day Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. The weather this spring forgot it is supposed to be the beginning of baseball season. Six of the scheduled sixteen games on April 15 were cancelled due to cold, wet weather, even snow. In addition, four of the games played were in weather conditions more conducive for football. But recognition of Jackie Robinson’s place in baseball history cannot be damped by bad weather.
Why did I delay my Jackie Robinson Day blog post this year? My past April 15th blog posts on Robinson focused on recapping the game he played in a Brooklyn Dodger uniform on that April 15 at Ebbets Field against the Boston Braves, and highlighting the statistical success of his ten-year Hall of Fame Major League career. However, this year instead of rushing to just write anything about Robinson to put on the blog April 15th, I did more reflecting and have made a more personal post.
I missed Jackie Robinson’s time in baseball. My love for the sport began at the end of his career. He made history on that April 15 day four years before I opened my eyes for the first time. I know my father and older brothers watched Robinson in action on our family’s first television, a black and white Philco, but I cannot recall as a toddler or small child seeing him on the screen. My first TV World Series recollection is Henry Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves’ defeat of the New York Yankees in 1957. Robinson had retired after the end of the 1956 season. But from what the adults in my family said about him, I had my first lesson of racial pride in regards to sports. At six years old I knew of Jackie Robinson as the first “Negro” to play in the Major Leagues.
I know historically that is not true. William Edward White (pictured below left), a former slave, played first base one game for the Providence Grays in 1879. The Grays at that time were in the National League. White has the distinction of being the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues. In addition Moses Fleetwood Walker (pictured below right) in 1884 played with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association, considered a Major League at that time. However, by 1890 the color line barring African-Americans and dark-skinned Hispanics from professional baseball in America became solid until 1947 when Robinson erased it. To the adults in my family, the first Negro they saw in their lifetime play in the Major Leagues; Jackie Robinson. White and Walker were long before their time.
As “baby boomers”, my friends and I idolized players such as Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda and others whose careers began in the late 1950s. And in the early 1960s, Billy Williams, Willie Stargell, other African-American, and dark-skinned Hispanic players came on the scene. We collected their baseball cards, knew all of their statistics, and had our favorite players. As much as I admired those other ball players, however; I held Jackie Robinson in a higher esteem.
By the time I reached high school in the mid to late 1960s, some of Robinson’s political actions and opinions were contrary to that of many African Americans. He came under stern criticism from my generation at that time. Even though the raised fist and shouts of “black power” drowned out Robinson’s more practical approach to racial relations, I did not lose respect for him. I still saw Jackie Robinson as that first symbol of racial pride in sports I learned as a child.
I love seeing the black and white films showing Robinson in action like in the documentary shown this past March on PBS; “Jackie Robinson” by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. The daring way he ran the bases, especially stealing home, is still exciting to me today.
Jackie Robinson’s erasing of the color line in 1947 to become the first African-American to play Major League in the 20th Century began the process of racially integrating professional baseball. A slow and reluctant process, it coincided with the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Overcoming racial discrimination and prejudice in a sport did in no way compare to facing physical harm and even death in fighting for equal rights given under the Constitution of the United States. However due to baseball’s prominence as the “national pastime”, many saw the integration of Major League baseball symbolically as one of the first steps in social progress for African-Americans. The racial integration of Major League baseball and the Civil Rights Movement were both a part of the massive seismic shift in racial relations occurring after World War II that would forever change the nation. How they coincided is shown in the story of the scheduled exhibition games in the spring of 1956 between the Kansas City A’s and the Pittsburgh Pirates to be played in Birmingham, Alabama. On February 15, 1956; they were cancelled.
It had been a tradition for Major League teams at the close of spring training to play exhibition games as they traveled north to begin the season. The spring “barnstorming circuit” mostly consisted of cities in the southern United States. These games were an economic boom for them as baseball fans from the surrounding areas came, for what would be the only opportunity for some, to see Major League players. When Major League teams began to become racially integrated in the 1950s, this tradition clashed with the “Jim Crow” laws that forbade interracial sports competition. The municipal government of these cities had to choose between receiving the commercial benefits from the games versus upholding their racial separation law. Most chose the former. Despite threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan, Atlanta officials overrode the laws to allow the Brooklyn Dodgers who had Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Jackie Robinson to play the all-white Atlanta Crackers a three game series in the spring of 1949.
The city of Birmingham, Alabama initially made a different choice and maintained its ban of interracial athletic competition. However, after being eliminated from the spring exhibition circuit for years due to the ban, the city commissioners lifted it on January 26, 1954. That spring, the Brooklyn Dodgers played an exhibition game in Birmingham against the Milwaukee Braves. But the city racial hardliners used the fear that the desegregation of sports would lead to desegregation in other aspects of life in Birmingham (schools, department stores, public accommodations, etc.) to force a voter referendum to reestablish the ban. On June 1, the referendum passed stating, “It shall be unlawful for a negro or white person to play together or in company with each other any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, football, softball, basketball, or similar games”. It was City Ordinance 597, named the “checker ordinance”.
With the ordinance reinstated banning interracial athletic competition in June 1954, how did the two exhibition games between the Kansas City A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates get scheduled for the spring of 1956? The A’s at that time had American League All-Star and former Negro League outfielder Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, first baseman Vic Power who was from Puerto Rico, and outfielder Hector Lopez from Panama. Power’s friend and fellow islander future Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente and former Negro League infielder Curt Roberts both played for the Pirates. The games would have been a violation of the ordinance. Were they scheduled while the ban had been lifted in 1954? Had there been talk of overriding or ignoring the ban to play the game? What if any part did the racial tension caused by the bus boycott by African-Americans in Montgomery, 92 miles down state, going on at that time play in the decision to cancel the games? Come back for Part Two!
*Information for this blog was provided from the book “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution” by Diane McWhorter (Simon & Schuster 2001)
The following is the repeat of my March 29, 2016 blog post entitled “Earl Battey and the Great Year for African-American Catchers – 1963”. Earl Battey, born January 5, 1935 in Los Angeles, California, signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1953 and made his Major League debut on September 10, 1956. An obscure note about Battey’s career is his being one of the first African-Americans to play in the American League who was not a product of Negro League baseball. The post describes 1963 as a banner season for Battey and a few other African American catchers.
My March 10th post titled, “My public apology to Elston Howard”, ended with the following question; “Who was the African-American catcher that finished eighth in the American League Most Valuable Player Award voting in 1963”. Congratulations to James O’Berry for giving the correct answer, Earl Battey! 1963 turned out to be a good year for African-American catchers.
Hitting .285 with 26 home runs and 84 Runs Batted In (RBIs), Battey helped the Minnesota Twins to a third place finish in the American League. But the national sports writers chose Howard (far left in picture below), who hit .287 with 28 home runs and 85 RBIs leading the New York Yankees to the American League pennant, as the American League’s Most Valuable Player (MVP). The first time an African-American player won the award in the American League. In the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the pennant and defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series with an African American behind the plate; John Roseboro (second from left in picture below). He hit a home run off Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford to help the Dodgers win Game One of the Series. In addition that year, I (far right in picture below) was the catcher for the championship team in the 9 – 11 little league age group at the Athletic Field in Kansas City, Kansas. It was a good year for African American catchers!
In 1963 Battey had the best season of his 13 year Major League career. He signed with the Chicago White Sox after leaving high school in 1953 and made his Major League debut in 1955. But he spent the next five years with as a backup to White Sox veteran catcher Sherman Lollar. Battey got his break after the 1959 season when the team traded him to the Washington Senators, a sub-.500 ball club throughout the 1950s that had begun to rebuild by the end of the decade. He became the Senators # 1 catcher and hit .270 with 15 home runs and 60 RBIs in 1960. But it was after the franchise relocated to Minneapolis the next year, becoming the Minnesota Twins, when Battey’s career took flight.
While in a Twins’ uniform, Battey was a four-time American League All Star catcher (1962, 1963, 1965, and 1966) and a two-time Glove Award winner (1961, 1962). He became a part of the power laden batting lineup of the early 1960s Minnesota Twins, the favorite team of my friends Mighty Mouse and Gary T. Along with Battey on the 1963 team, Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew hit 44 home runs, Bob Allison 35, and Jimmie Hall 33. Battey was the steady hand for the Twins’ pitchers which included All Stars Jim Kaat, Jim “Mudcat” Grant and Camilo Pascual. With Battey behind the plate, the Twins won their first American League pennant in 1965, but lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As an eleven year old little league catcher in 1963, I identified with Earl Battey. No, I did not show any signs at that age I would have the skills when older to hit 26 homes runs against Major League pitching as Battey did that year. Nor was there any indication of me potentially having his ability to throw out base stealers. I did however have Battey’s lack of foot speed and some people felt I had started the journey of evidently developing his 200 pound plus body frame due to my love at that time for food; especially peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Fortunately, I would not complete that journey. I did play well enough in 1963 for our team, the only all black team in the league to go undefeated and win the championship.
It was a good year for African-American catchers!
Below is a re-post, of my 2016 birthday tribute to Harry “Suitcase” Simpson (“Why Harry “Suitcase” Simpson Has a Place in My Heart”). I did acknowledge his birth date (December 3, 1925) two weeks ago on Twitter, but initially decided to not do a blog post. However, after reading Douglass M. Branson’s book “Greatness in the Shadows: Larry Doby and the Integration of the American League” (University of Nebraska Press – 2016) last month, I decided to give a birthday acknowledgement to Simpson on my blog again this year. As my 2016 post indicates, he helped capture my passion for baseball 60 years (Yipes!) ago. Yes, he does have a place in my heart. But I also believe his role in the early racial integration of Major League baseball in the American League is overlooked, as it was in Branson’s book.
The premise of Branson’s writing is that the talent and accomplishments of Larry Doby, the first African-American to play baseball in the American League, is under-appreciated. The author believes Doby’s career has been overshadowed by Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the Major Leagues, who made his debut nearly three months (April 14, 1947) before Doby’s (July 5, 1947). The National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949, Robinson played on six pennant winners and one World Series champion in his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Doby had a career a little less spectacular. The 1954 American League leader in home runs and RBI, Doby hit 253 career home runs, drove in a career 969 runs, and played on two pennant winners and one World Series champion with the Cleveland Indians. He also overcame the same types of racial prejudice and discrimination chronicled in the many books, written articles, and even movies about Robinson; but without given the same admiration. Branson also stated the American League domination by the New York Yankees from 1947 – 1958 with first Joe DiMaggio and then Mickey Mantle playing centerfield also overshadowed the career of Larry Doby.
While I overall agree with his book’s premise, Brannon failed in one regard. In mentioning the few other African-American ball players who were Doby’s teammates or opponents during the early period of racial integration in the American League, the author omitted Harry Simpson.
With Simpson and Larry Doby in the outfield, and Luke Easter at first base, the Cleveland Indians were the only American League team to have African-Americans as part of its everyday lineup in 1951 – 1953. In 1950, the season before Simpson’s rookie year, only three African-American or dark-skinned Hispanics played in the American League; Doby, Easter, and the Chicago White Sox’s Minnie Minoso. After leaving the Indians, Simpson went on to play with the Kansas City A’s and the New York Yankees. How could Brannon discuss Doby and the racial integration of the American League, but not mention Harry Simpson? His name is not indexed anywhere in Brannon’s book. Although not as prominent as Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, or Elton Howard, Simpson’s role in adding color to the face of the American League in my opinion is overlooked. And surely, as my following re-post explains, he helped to hook a five year-old kid to what would become an everlasting love for baseball. Enjoy my re-post
Harry Simpson was one of the first baseball players that captured my attention as I became a young fan of the nation’s “favorite past time” in the 1950’s. I learned about great players like Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and Mickey Mantle when I was a six year old becoming aware of the game. But “Suitcase” Simpson, as my brother called him, was one player that really drew my interest.
Born on December 3, 1925 in Atlanta, Georgia; the left-handed batting Harry Leon Simpson was an outfielder/ first baseman who after serving in the military during World War II initially played professionally in Negro League baseball with the Philadelphia Stars. Signing his first Major League contract with the Cleveland Indians in 1948, Simpson became one of eight former Negro League players who made their Major League debuts in 1951. The others were Bob Boyd and Sam Hairston (Chicago White Sox), Sam Jones (Cleveland Indians), Luis Angel Marquez (Boston Braves), Willie Mays, Ray Noble, and Arte Wilson (New York Giants). A good fielder with a strong throwing arm, Simpson hit with power in the minor leagues (31 home runs in 1949, 33 in 1950). The Indians had high expectations for him. With Simpson and Larry Doby in the outfield, and Luke Easter at first base, it was the only American League team to have African-Americans as part of its everyday lineup in 1951 – 1953.
Following two injury plagued disappointing seasons with the Indians, Simpson’s contract was purchased in May of 1955 by the Kansas City A’s; my hometown team. He had his best seasons in the Major Leagues with the A’s (1955 – 1957) and that is when I became familiar with him. I had never seen anyone with such thick eye brows and pointed ears. He hit .293 in 1956 with twenty-one home runs and 103 runs batted in and was one of two African-Americans on the American League’s All-Star Game squad; Vic Power his teammate from the A’s was the other.
Contrary to the assumption that could be made in reviewing Simpson’s baseball career, he got tagged with the nickname “Suitcase” while in Negro League baseball. It did not come from him being traded or changing teams six times in his eight year Major League career. Simpson already had the nickname when he came to the A’s in 1956; only his second Major League team. Because of his size 13 feet, he was nicknamed while with the Philadelphia Stars after the Toonerville Trolley comic strip character “Suitcase Simpson” who had feet the other characters said; “were large as suitcases”. I remember Simpson’s eye brows and ears, but I do not recall his large feet.
To my sorrow, the A’s traded Simpson to the New York Yankees in June of 1957, but the Yankees traded him back the following summer. In 1959, he split playing time with three teams; Kansas City A’s, Chicago White Sox, and Pittsburgh Pirates. After being released by the White Sox before the 1960 season, Simpson played in the minor leagues and in the Mexican League before retiring in 1964.
Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, a part of that early group of African-Americans to integrate professional baseball in the American League during the 1950s, will always have a place in my heart. Although not a Hall of Fame player, Simpson helped to capture the passion of a six-year-old kid for the game; a passion that has lasted 59 years.
To order for your holiday shopping list click here: Last Train to Cooperstown
One of the many topics of discussion by sportscasters during the recently completed 2017 World Series involved Los Angeles Dodgers’ right fielder Yasiel Puig. The club is still hoping he will continue to mature and more consistently display his tremendous baseball playing talent. Puig, a native of Cuba, is one of the most recent in a pipeline of outfielders from that Caribbean nation to successfully play professional baseball in the United States. Yoenis Cespedes, currently with the New York Mets is also from Cuba. Former players from the pipeline include Oakland A’s All-Star Jose Canseco, two-time American League batting champion (1964, 1965) Tony Oliva, the defensive star of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1955 World Series Game Seven win over the New York Yankees; Sandy Amoros, and two-time Negro League, seven-time Major League All-Star Orestes “Minnie” Minoso.
I forgot to give a birthday mention last week for one of the first in the stream of outfielders through the pipeline; Cristobal Torriente, born November 16, 1893 in Cienfuegos, Cuba (same as Puig). He played with a number of teams in Negro League baseball from 1913 to 1932; including the Chicago American Giants (1918 – 1925), Kansas City Monarchs (1926), and Detroit Stars (1927 – 1928). In an early 1950’s poll of former Negro League baseball players and sports writers, Cristobal Torriente received high consideration as one of the best outfielders in Negro League history.
In 2006, Cristobal Torriente and fifteen other individuals from the Negro League baseball era were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I profile the 2006 inductees in my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. The following is an excerpt from my profile of Cristobal Torriente:
“At the end of World War I, Chicago was becoming an urban
mecca for African Americans. The lure of the possibility for
economic stability and a better life had fueled the migration of
southern blacks to the city. Rube Foster used the growing aura
Chicago had for African Americans to attract ballplayers to his
Chicago American Giants. He felt the city gave him an advantage
When talking to a player about joining his team. Other owners
accused Foster of using what Chicago was becoming for African
Americans to steal their ballplayers. Foster’s approach proved
successful with Torriente, who went to play for the American
Giants in 1918. He had excellent seasons with the Cuban Stars,
however it would be with Foster’s team that Torriente would reach
his peak as a baseball player.
Having the most area to cover, centerfield is the most
challenging outfield position. Most managers choose their fastest
outfielder to play it. This was Rube Foster’s thinking in regards to
Cristobal Torriente. Although the Cuban mostly played right field in
his years with the Cuban Stars, his speed and strong arm were a
perfect fit for centerfield in Foster’s mind. With Torriente as the
anchor in centerfield, the American Giants went on to have a
consistently good outfield for many years. Good ballplayers such as
Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, Jimmy Lyons, Floyd “Jelly” Gardner,
and David Malarcher all shared the American Giants’ outfield at one
time or another with Torriente.
When Rube Foster’s vision became a reality in 1920 and the
Negro National League (NNL) was formed, his Chicago American
Giants became its premier team from the start. They won the league
championship the first three years (1920 – 1922). The lack of
documented league statistics prevents a true picture from being
given of Torriente’s performance on the field during the American
Giants’ years of dominance. Research indicates he finished those
seasons hitting from .342 to as high as .411. Clearly, they were his
best seasons in the Negro Leagues.”
To read the entire profile of Torriente and the other 2006 inductees Last Train to Cooperstown
Last Friday I failed to give notice of Edsall Walker’s birthday. Born September 15, 1913 in Catskill, New York, “Big” Walker pitched for the Homestead Grays from 1937 – 1940 and 1943 – 1946. He received the nickname because of his 6’0, 215 pounds physical stature. They nicknamed George Walker, 5’11”, 185 pounds who also pitched for the Grays during that time “Little”.
A left-handed pitcher, “Big” Walker had what opposing hitters called a wickedly sinking fastball that he consistently threw at 100 miles per hour. However, he could not consistently get it in the strike zone. Wild enough with his pitches to caused batters to fear being hit, Walker still threw enough strikes when needed to get them out. That combination made him an effective pitcher. With Hall of Fame left handed pitchers Willie Foster and Andy Cooper past their primes, “Big” Walker was one of the best southpaw pitchers in the Negro Leagues during his time.
Walker came to the Grays in 1937 after playing with a minor league team; the Albany Colored Giants. Slugger Josh Gibson had returned to the Grays that same year in a trade after playing five years with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Starting with that season the Homestead Grays would win nine straight Negro National League pennants (1937 – 1945). With the team known mainly during this stretch for its powerful offense due to Gibson, Buck Leonard, Jerry Benjamin, and others in the batting order, the pitching staff does not get the credit it deserved. Hall of Fame pitcher Raymond Brown was the team’s ace with “Big” Walker one of the other key starters and its top reliever. The Grays traded “Big” to the Philadelphia Stars in 1941. After the United States became embroiled in World War II, he sat out the 1942 season to work fulltime in the Baltimore shipping yards and then returned to the Grays.
Walker’s only Negro League East-West All Star Game appearance came in 1938 as the starting pitcher for the East squad. In the first three innings, he gave up five runs on four hits, three walks, and was the losing pitcher in the West’s squad 5 – 4 win. It was a performance Walker hesitated discussing later in life because he was a better pitcher than he showed that day.
The winning tradition established by the Homestead Grays has been called “the long gray line”. Although not a Hall of Fame or perennial All Star pitcher, Edsall “Big” Walker for seven years helped keep the line moving.
For more information on the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
This past Monday I acknowledged on Twitter the birthdate of former Negro League pitcher Bob Trice, born 8/28/26 in Newton, Georgia. Bob Trice has a place in baseball history as the first African-American to play in a Major League game for the then Philadelphia A’s, September 13, 1953. He was one of a group of former Negro League players that found success in Canada’s Provincial League during the slow beginning of racial integration in the Major Leagues and the steady demise of Negro League baseball. They were scouted while playing in Canada and signed by Major League teams.
Organized in 1922, the Canadian (Quebec) Provincial League consisted of teams located in Canada’s Quebec Province. Operating independently of any professional baseball governing organization, the league began allowing African-Americans to play in the late 1930s. In 1935 pitcher Alfred Wilson became the first African-American to be in the league, but I could not find information about him or others who played there during that period. When the Provincial League became more recognized by organized professional baseball in the United States, the welcome mat for African American players disappeared. However; when the process of racial integration of Major League baseball began in 1946 and Negro League baseball began to decline, the league in Canada attracted many former Negro League players.
In 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson had erased the “invisible color line” that had kept African-Americans and dark-skinned Hispanic players out of Major League baseball for over 60 years, racial integration in professional baseball had slowly progressed. Along with Robinson (Brooklyn Dodgers), there were eight other African-Americans or dark-skinned Hispanics who had appeared in Major League games that year: Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella (Dodgers), Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin (New York Giants), and Larry Doby, “Satchel” Paige, Luke Easter, and Minnie Minoso (Cleveland Indians). However, the future declining fate of the Negro Leagues had begun. Negro League game attendance dropped dramatically as blackball fans enthusiastically flocked to see African-Americans compete in the Major Leagues. Seen as more than an athletic contest, the games to African-American baseball fans were demonstrations of social progress. As the 1940s concluded, the Negro National League (NNL) disbanded leaving only the Negro American League (NAL) to navigate the troubled water. It was during this time that many Negro League players found refuge in Canada’s Quebec Provincial League.
In 1948, James “Buzz” Clarkson (Pittsburgh Crawfords, Newark Eagles, and Philadelphia Stars) led the Provincial League in home runs with 29 while playing for the St. Jean (Quebec) Braves. He signed with the Boston Braves in 1950. Dave Pope, (Homestead Grays), played for the Provincial League’s Farnham (Quebec) Pirates in 1948, briefly serving as the team’s player/manager. After one more season with Farnham, he signed with the Cleveland Indians.
After a stint in the Navy during World War II, Bob Trice pitched for the Homestead Grays from 1948 – 1950. When the Grays disbanded, he pitched in 1951 with the Provincial League’s Farnham Pirates managed by former Negro League player Sam Bankhead. The team consisted of many former Negro League players such as Joe Scott (Birmingham Black Barons and Kansas City Monarchs), Joe Taylor (Chicago American Giants), Archie Ware (Chicago American Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, and Cleveland Buckeyes), and Josh Gibson, Jr. (Homestead Grays). After playing with Farnham in 1950, Taylor had signed with the Philadelphia A’s who sent him back to the Provincial League. The A’s signed Trice after the 1951 season and then assigned both he and Taylor to play for St. Hyacinthe (Quebec) Saints in the Provincial League the next season.
Hall of Fame (2006) pitcher Raymond Brown whose Negro League career was with the Homestead Grays (1932 – 1945) helped the Sherbrooke (Quebec) Athletics win the Provincial League champion in 1951.
Teammates with the Grays former ace that year included former Negro League players Claro Duany (New York Cubans) and Silvio Garcia (New York Cubans).
Also in 1951, former Kansas City Monarch Connie Johnson led the Provincial League in strikeouts pitching for St. Hyacinthe. After the season, Johnson signed with the Chicago White Sox.
In the late 1940s, Major League scouts considered the Provincial League as a “Class C” level minor league. Many saw it a haven for Negro League players not considered Major League prospects because they were too old or lacked the necessary talent. However, the league performance of a few players could not go unnoticed. They used the Provincial League to get their opportunity to play in the Major Leagues.
After signing with the Boston Braves when 35 years old, “Buzz” Clarkson had two solid years with the team’s Class AAA affiliate. But he was given only 25 plate appearances in 1952 to prove himself in the Major Leagues. Not getting the quick bang from Clarkson they wanted, he hit only five singles, the Braves sent him back to the minor leagues where he played the remainder of his professional career.
Dave Pope had a four-year Major League career (1952, 1954 – 56) as a utility player including an appearance in the 1954 World Series with the Cleveland Indians.
Joe Taylor had a four-year Major League career (1954, 1957 – 59) as a utility player with four different teams: Philadelphia A’s (1954), Cincinnati Reds (1957), St. Louis Cardinals (1958), and Baltimore Orioles (1958 – 59).
The first African-American to play for the A’s, Bob Trice labored for three seasons (1953 – 55) finishing with a career 9 – 9 record with one win being a 1 – 0 shutout of the New York Yankees in 1954. After making his Major League debut when 31 years old, Connie Johnson pitched for the White Sox from 1953 – 56 and then the Baltimore Orioles from 1956 – 58. He had a Major League career ERA of 3.44. He struck out 136 batters in 1956 and 177 in 1957 the year he won 14 games with the Orioles.
The Provincial League disbanded after the 1955 season. It resurfaced again from 1958 – 1971 as an independent league. Used as a path for some Negro League players to the Major Leagues, it has a place in Major League baseball’s racial integration history. The players who took that path were baseball pioneers who prevailed against the racial discrimination and prejudice that existed in the Major Leagues during the early years of integration.
For more information on the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown