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
African-American players were not welcome in professional baseball prior to the beginning of the 20th Century due to racial prejudice and discrimination. However, the “invisible color line” that would keep them out of Major League baseball for nearly half the upcoming 20th Century was not completely drawn prior to 1890. Despite the adverse racial attitudes against them, there were eight known African-American players on white teams at the highest levels of organized professional baseball during the 1880’s; John W. “Bud” Fowler, Moses Fleetwood Walker, Weldy Walker, Robert Higgins, Richard Johnson, George Stovey, Sol White, and Ulysses F. (Frank) Grant.
Born on August 1, 1865 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Frank Grant was not only the best of those eight but also one of the best baseball players of that era. At 5’7” and 155 pounds, he was more than just a singles hitter with speed. He stroked doubles, triples, and even home runs during baseball’s “dead ball” era when the ball did not carry far when hit due to its soft center core. An acrobatic fielder with a strong throwing, Grant played mostly second base but when needed also handled third and shortstop.
In 2006 Grant, along with fifteen others from the Negro League baseball era, were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The following is an excerpt of my profile of Frank Grant from my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”:
“In the early years of professional baseball the attitude towards
black and Hispanic players was grounded in racial prejudice. Both
the National League formed in 1876, and the American League
formed in 1901, would not allow them the opportunity to play
baseball. The “color line” was drawn, but there were cracks in it
that allowed Frank Grant and a few other blacks to play on white
Grant began his professional career playing for Meriden,
Connecticut in the Eastern League at a time when the game was
still evolving. Batting averages were high as the batter had four
strikes and a walk counted as a hit. Teams were built on speed, not
power. The Meriden team broke up in July of 1886 and that’s when
Grant joined the Buffalo Bisons who were in the International
Association, one of the top minor leagues. In his first at bat Grant
hit a triple. He hit .340 for the remaining 45 games and a national
sports magazine called him the best all‐around player to wear a
The next year Grant helped lead Buffalo to a second place finish.
Not only was he the team’s leading hitter at .366, but he also hit
with power. Although only 5’7”, 155 lbs., he was the league’s leading
slugger hitting 11 home runs, 27 doubles, 11 triples, and he stole 40
bases. Grant hit for the cycle (home run, triple, double, & single) in
one game and stole home twice in two others. An acrobatic fielder
with a strong throwing arm, he also played shortstop or third base
In spite of his success on the playing field, Grant had trouble due
to the color of his skin. Fans shouted racially insulting comments
from the grandstands at him, including the Bison fateful who never
believed the claim he was from Spain. Grant was a target for
opposing pitchers when he batted as they constantly hit him.
Opposing base runners tried to hurt him on put out plays at second
base. Instead of the previously customary head first slide, they
started sliding feet first to cut Grant’s legs with the metal spikes on
their baseball shoes. When he began wearing wooden leg castings
for protection, the white players sharpened their spikes in order to
split the wood when their feet hit his legs.”
To read more about Frank Grant and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary; July 5, 1947, of former Negro League star and baseball Hall of Fame center fielder Larry Doby’s Major League debut. Less than three months earlier, April 14, Jackie Robinson had become the first African-American to play Major League baseball. Robinson started the season playing first base for the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers. As the second African American in Major League baseball, the first to play in the American League, Doby’s status is overshadowed by Robinson. Although not as well-known or revered, Larry Doby’s accomplishments in baseball are still of historical significance.
At Comiskey Park against the Chicago White Sox in the top of the seventh inning, Doby pinch hit for Cleveland Indians pitcher Bryan Stephens. He had started the season playing with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League (NNL). Doby joined the Indians three days prior to the game (July 2) when Eagles’ owner Effa Manley sold his contract to Indians’ owner Bill Veeck for $15,000; the first substantial price a Major League team would pay for a Negro League player. After returning from military service in 1946, Doby played second baseman alongside shortstop Monte Irvin on the Eagles’ 1946 Negro League Baseball World Series Championship team. When Robinson erased the “invisible color line” that had kept African-Americans and dark-skinned Hispanics out of Major League baseball for more than 50 years, Manley sold Doby in a last attempt to keep her team operating. She sold it after the 1948 season when the NNL disbanded. In his first Major League plate appearance against White Sox pitcher Earl Harrist, Doby struck out. He played in 29 games and batted .156 the remainder of the season.
However, in 1948 Doby became the Indians starting center fielder. In his first full Major League season, he hit .301 with 14 home runs and 66 runs batted in to help the Indians win the American League pennant. He batted .318 in the 1948 World Series and his home run, the first of an African-American in a World Series, was the winning run in Game Four. The widely publicized photo taken after that game of Doby and Indian winning pitcher Steve Gromek was the first of an African-American and white player embracing each other. The Indians defeated the Boston Braves in the Series four games to two making Doby and his teammate on the 1948 Indians, Satchel Paige, the first African-Americans to play on a Major League World Series champion. Doby led the American League in home runs with 32 in 1954, helping the Indians again win the American League pennant. In Doby’s thirteen year career (1947 – 1959), he hit 253 homeruns and played in six All Star Games.
After years of being overlooked, Larry Doby’s baseball talent and his importance in the racial integration of Major League baseball received recognition by his 1998 induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Although not as outspoken or charismatic as Jackie Robinson, Doby still overcame the same racism to be a successful Major League player. He, like Robinson, successfully carried on his shoulders the hopes of his race in the face of failure’s dire consequences.
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
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