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.
I watched the film documentary “Tell Them We Are Rising” on my local Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) station February 19th. It detailed the history of Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) beginning from after the Civil War. They had an undeniable and immeasurable impact on the education of African-Americans during times when the doors of white institutions of higher academic achievement were mainly closed to people of color. From the end of the Civil War to over halfway through the 20th Century, the vast majority of African-American doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, accountants, and others in professional occupations were educated at HBCUs. A number of players in Negro League baseball also attended HBCUs.
Based on information currently established, an estimated 40% of Negro League baseball players were college educated. The majority, other than a few exceptions, were products of HBCUs. Six (6) are listed below:
Frank “Doc” Sykes – Morehouse College/Howard Medical
While still in medical school, Sykes started his Negro League baseball career pitching for the New York Lincoln Giants in 1914. Between 1914 and 1919, the 6’2” right handed hurler also played with the New York Lincoln Stars, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Philadelphia Giants, and the Hilldale Club of Darby, Pa. His longest tenure, 1920 – 1926, came with the Baltimore Black Sox. After the 1926 season, Sykes retired from baseball became a dentist in his hometown of Decatur, Alabama.
Grady “Dip” Orange – Wiley College
Called “Dip”, short for diploma, Orange began his Negro League baseball career in 1925 with the Birmingham Black Barons. He had the talent and versatility to play any infield position. After the Black Barons, his career included stints with the Kansas City Monarchs (1926 – 1927, 1931), the Cleveland Tigers (1928), and the Detroit Stars (1929 – 1931). Orange graduated from Meharry Medical College after his baseball career ended.
Jimmie Crutchfield – Lincoln University (MO.)
A 5’7”speedy center fielder, Crutchfield played in the Negro Leagues from 1930 – 1945. After short stints with the Birmingham Black Barons (1930) and Indianapolis ABCs (1931), the 4-time Negro League All-Star had his best years with the Pittsburgh Crawfords (1931 – 1936). He teamed with “Cool Papa” Bell and Ted Page to give the Crawfords one of the best outfields in the Negro Leagues at that time. The final years of his career (1941 – 1945) with the Chicago American Giants were interrupted by military service in 1943 – 1944. After retiring from baseball, Crutchfield worked in the postal service 26 years.
Pat Patterson – Wiley College
A standout in football and baseball in college, Patterson played infield with mainly Negro National League (NNL) teams. He had a 13 season career that began in 1934, interrupted by military service from 1943 – 1945. The 4-time All-Star had stints with the Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs, Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles, and New York Black Yankees. He also played 2nd base on the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords, considered by many one of the best Negro League teams ever assembled. Patterson became a high school teacher, coach, and school administrator in Houston, Texas.
James Buster Clarkson – Wilberforce College
Wherever Clarkson played, he demonstrated an ability to hit a baseball. First in Negro League baseball with the Pittsburgh/Toledo Crawfords (1938 – 39), Newark Eagles (1940), and Philadelphia Stars (1942), he established the reputation as a hard-hitting shortstop/third baseman. In 1941, he followed the same script playing in the Mexican League.
After returning from military service (1943 – 1945), Clarkson re-established his reputation in the Negro Leagues (Philadelphia Stars 1946, 1949), in Mexico (1946 – 47) and in the Canadian League (1948). The Boston Braves signed him in 1950 and he tormented pitchers in the leagues of their minor league system. On April 30, 1952 with the Braves, at 37 years old, Clarkson became the first from a HBCU to play in the Major Leagues. Ironically however, he got off to a slow start hitting .200 and played in only 25 games. Pushed aside in favor of younger white players (Ed Mathews, Johnny Logan, and Jack Cusack), Clarkson went back to the minor leagues where he spent the rest of his career hitting close to .300 with double digits in home runs (42 HRs in Texas League 1954).
Joe Black – Morgan State Univ.
Winning all Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (CIAA) honors in football and track (hurdler & javelin throw), Black is in Morgan State’s athletic Hall of Fame. While serving in the military, 1943 – 1945, he became a starter in the Baltimore Elite Giant’s pitching rotation. The 3-time participant in the Negro League East-West All-Star Game signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950. In his first Major League season, Black had a record of 15 – 4 and national baseball writers voted him 1952 National League Rookie of the Year. On October 1, 1952 Black defeated the New York Yankees to become the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game. After retiring from baseball in 1957, he went back to college and received a Masters’ Degree, became a high school teacher, and then worked in an executive position with the Greyhound Corporation.
There are many more that could be added to this short list such as David Malarcher (Dillard/Xavier), Monte Irvin (Lincoln Univ. in Pa.), Bill Foster (Alcorn A & M), and Hilton Smith (Prairie View A & M).
The racism of the times contributed to Bus Clarkson’s short stay in the Major Leagues after Jackie Robinson erased the color line. However, a number of HBCU products have had excellent Major League baseball careers. Lou Brock (Southern Univ.) and Andre Dawson (Florida A & M) are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Also, George Altman (Tennessee A & I), Ralph Garr (Grambling), Hal McRae (Florida A & M), Danny Goodwin (Southern Univ.), Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd (Jackson State), and others from HBCUs have had well established Major League careers.
This is the second part of my previous blog post on the process of racially integrating professional baseball coinciding with the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. They were both a part of the massive seismic shift in racial relations occurring after World War II that would forever change the nation. An example of 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. As mentioned in Part 1, they were cancelled on February 16, 1956.
With the toxic racial climate that existed in the city during the 1950s, it puzzled me how and why the games were even scheduled. There had to be information to add clarity to what happened. I would like to thank Jim Baggett of the Birmingham Public Library for providing that additional information to solve the puzzle.
First a short recap. As part of the “Jim Crow” laws racially segregating the city, Birmingham’s City Commissioners banned interracial athletic competition. However, the ban clashed with Major League baseball becoming racially integrated in the 1950s. 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. As more Major League teams became integrated, the fewer opportunities existed for Birmingham to receive the economic benefits of being on the circuit. The City Commissioners lifted the ban on January 26, 1954 and that spring the Brooklyn Dodgers played two exhibition games in Birmingham against the Milwaukee Braves.
According to information from the Birmingham News in 1954 sent me by Mr. Baggett, the second game drew 10,474 fans; the largest crowd to see a spring exhibition game in the city since 1947 and the third largest ever. There were no reports of racial violence or unrest during the games. Afterwards, since Major League baseball exhibition games evidently were normally handled on a two-year ahead basis, five games for Birmingham were scheduled for 1956; the Braves vs the Dodgers on April 6, the Pittsburgh Pirates vs the Kansas City A’s on March 31 and April 1, and the Boston Red Sox vs Birmingham’s Southern League Double A minor league team (the Barons) on April 7 & 8.
However, the racial harmony on the ball field displayed during the games between the 1954 Dodgers and Braves games disturbed the racial hardliners in Birmingham’s city government. It went against what they called, “the South’s way of life”, and their belief that athletic competition between blacks and whites could not be done peacefully. They orchestrated a campaign of fear saying the desegregation of sports would lead to desegregation in other aspects of life in Birmingham (schools, department stores, public accommodations, etc.) and forced a voter referendum to reestablish the racial athletic competition ban. On June 1 the referendum passed City Ordinance 597, called “the checker ordinance”, and the ban again went into place.
As the spring of 1956 approached, the general managers of the Major League teams scheduled to play exhibition games in Birmingham received a copy of the ordinance:
“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”. City Ordinance 597
The maximum penalty for violation: $100 fine and/or 180 days in jail.
By 1956, the racial integration of Major League baseball remained slow, but steady. It had passed the “experiment” label some had put on it. Seven of the eight National League teams and six of the eight teams in the American League had become racially integrated. Since 1947, former Negro League players had been named National League Rookie of the Year six times. Three of them, Jackie Robinson (1947), Don Newcombe (1949), and Junior Gilliam (1953) played for the Dodgers who were scheduled in one of the games that spring. Although African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players in the Major Leagues still encountered racial discrimination in 1956, their teams were beginning to be less willing to subject them to municipal segregation laws such as in Birmingham.
The Birmingham Barons were the sponsor of the games that spring. On February 14, 1956; Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Buzzie Bavasi and Milwaukee Braves General Manager John Quinn issued the following joint statement to the Barons’ general manager: “Due to the current conditions in the Birmingham area, all parties concerned have agreed to cancel the game in Birmingham between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves”. Two days later, February 16, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City A’s cancelled their two games scheduled to be played in Birmingham that spring.
The Boston Red Sox games against Birmingham Barons were played as scheduled. The last Major League team to integrate, the Red Sox would not have its first African-American player until 1959.
Information for this blog was provided by Jim Baggett of the Birmingham Public Library
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)
There were three former Major League baseball players who died in 2017 that I would like to mention. None of them had their beginning in Negro League baseball. One is the first of many Major League players that would come from San Pedro de Marcois, Dominican Republic. The other two are Caucasians who were on one of the last Major League franchises that fielded African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players.
Why mention them? They played during the time when baseball consumed my life, my youth. I collected their baseball cards and remembered the events in their careers. Even though I will always retain good memories of that time, the death of these players still gives me a sense of lost.
Manny Jimenez – December 12, 2017
There had been no players of color on the roster of my hometown team Kansas City Athletics in 1960. However, Charlie Finley purchased the A’s in 1961 and the next season a group of African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players were added to the roster: Ed Charles, John Wyatt, Jose Tartabull, Diego Segui, Orlando Pena, and Manny Jimenez. A contact left-handed hitting outfielder, Jimenez came from San Pedro de Marcois in the Dominican Republic; the first of many Major League players that would come from that city. The list of players that would follow includes former Major Leaguers Sammy Sosa, Joaquin Andujar, Rico Carty, Alfonso Soriano, Pedro Guerrero, Tony Fernandez, and George Bell in addition to current active players Johnny Cueto and Robinson Cano.
Jimenez started the 1962 season with a hot bat, hitting .351 by the All-Star break. But Finley believed due to his physical stature, 6’1” and 185 pounds, Jimenez should hit with more home run power. Saying he did not pay him to hit singles, Finley ordered Jimenez to swing harder to hit more home runs. Altering his swing, the outfielder experienced a batting slump the remainder of the season. Although he finished with a .301 batting average, Jimenez never again consistently regained the swing he had earlier that season. He had three injury-prone more seasons with the A’s and three as a pinch hitter in the National League before retiring in 1969.
Jim Bunning and Frank Lary
Teammates with the Detroit Tigers from 1955 – 1963, Bunning, who died May 26, and Lary, who died on December 13, were both All-Star pitchers. The Tigers were the next to last franchise to add African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players; the team’s first being Ozzie Virgil in 1958. The Boston Red Sox, the last team to integrate, added Elijah “Pumpsie” Green the next year.
From 1949 – 1964 the New York Yankees won the American League pennant every year but two; 1954 and 1959. With me being a young baseball fan in Kansas City, an American League city, you can understand how I became a “Yankee hater”. I rooted for any team who had the potential to beat the Yankees and surprisingly the Tigers in 1961 came close to doing it.
Detroit finished the 1960 season in 6th place (71 – 83), with the high point acquiring 1959 American League home run co-champion Rocky Colavito from the Cleveland Indians in a trade. He would be a factor in the team’s dramatic turn around in 1961. Colavito with 45, first baseman Norm Cash with 41, and future Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline with 19 combined for 105 home runs. The Tigers added more color to the line-up that season. Billy Bruton, a trade acquisition from the Milwaukee Braves, played centerfield. Starting shortstop Chico Fernandez had come over from the Philadelphia Phillies the previous year. Jake Wood, the first African-American to work through the Tigers’ farm system and earn a starting position on the team, played second base.
The pitching staff, led by Jim Bunning and Frank Lary, had a huge role in the team’s success in 1961. At that time, both had been mainstays of the starting rotation for years: Bunning winning 62 games since 1957 and Lary 94 since 1955. In the midst of what would be a 28 – 13 lifetime record against New York, Lary had been given the moniker “Yankee Killer” by the sports media. The number three spot in the Tiger’s pitching rotation went to Don Mossi, a seven-year veteran of American League campaigns. Combined the three won 53 games that season; Lary 23, Bunning 17, and Mossi 15.
The defending American League champion Yankees had a powerful hitting line-up in 1961 led by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. They pursued the single season home run record of 60 held by Babe Ruth. Maris broke it with 61, while Mantle finished with 54. However, on July 24 the Tigers were in first place by one game ahead of the Yankees. Detroit certainly had my hopes raised high.
On September 1, the Tigers went to Yankee Stadium for a three game weekend series in second place trailing New York by only 1.5 games. However, Detroit lost all three games and ended the in season in a tailspin. They lost 14 of their last 29 games, finishing in second place with a 101 – 61, 8 games behind the Yankees.
Never again having his 1961 form due to shoulder problems, Frank Lary won only nine more games the final years (1962 – 65) of his career. The Tigers traded him to the New York Mets after the 1963 season.
Around the same time, the team traded Jim Bunning to the Philadelphia Phillies. He won 106 games the final years of his career (1964 – 71) in the National League. After baseball, he became a six-term US Congressman and two-term US Senator from his home state of Kentucky. In 1991, Bunning was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies on June 21, 1964, Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game against the New York Mets. His former Detroit Tiger teammate Frank Lary looked on from the Mets’ bullpen that day. Lary may not have been surprised at the pitching mastery shown by Bunning. He had seen it numerous times in their nine years together with the Tigers.
Before getting further into 2018, I need to briefly mention the Negro League players who took the field for the last inning of life’s game in 2017. The lives on each one I name in this post were a chapter in the Negro League baseball story. I may not have known about the death this year of others from the era, so the list could be incomplete.
I need to mention three players who died in 2017 not involved in the Negro League baseball era, but were a part of the game’s “Golden Age” (1950s and 1960s). They will be in my next post.
Art Pennington – January 4, 2017
The legendary story surrounding Art Pennington has him briefly lifting the front or back-end of an automobile when 10 years old while helping fix a flat tire. From this event, whether true or false, he got childhood nickname “superman” which remained with him during his baseball career. The left-handed 1b/OF played with the Chicago American Giants from 1940 – 1946, and 1950. A 2-time Negro League All-Star (1942, 1950), Pennington also played in the Mexican League during the late 1940s. One of a group of African-American players that integrated professional baseball’s minor league system in the early 1950s, Pennington finally signed with the New York Yankees in 1958. At 35 years old, he briefly played in the team’s lower minor league before retiring after the 1959 season.
Paul Casanova – January 12, 2017
An excellent defensive catcher from Cuba with a strong throwing arm, Casanova first signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1960. After being released, he finished the 1961 season with the Indianapolis Clowns, the final remnant of Negro League baseball. While Casanova played with a semi-pro team in 1963, a scout for the Washington Senators noticed him. He remembered seeing Casanova play with the Clowns and signed him. Casanova went on to have a 10 year Major League career, 7 with the Senators (1965 – 1971). In 1967, he played in 141 games and was named to the American League All-Star team.
Cleophus Brown – March 14, 2017
The left-handed pitcher and first baseman played in the Negro Leagues during the decade the era limped to its eventual end. A Korean War vet, Brown signed on with the Louisville Clippers in 1955 an independent team. It had been in the Negro American League (NAL), but dropped out after the 1954 season. After one season with Louisville, Brown worked in the Birmingham, AL. steel mills (17 years) and then the Post Office while playing in the city’s semi-professional baseball Industrial Leagues.
John L. Gray – May 4, 2017
Gray attended Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio and then signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1956 as a catcher and outfielder. 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). 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. He finished his baseball career playing in the minor league system of first the Chicago Cubs in 1959 and then the Chicago White Sox in 1960.
Maurice Peatross – June 26, 2017
In 1944, while 17 years old, Peatross played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the short-lived United States Negro Baseball League. The 6’1”, 230 pound first baseman went into the military after high school and returned in 1947 to sign with the Homestead Grays as backup support for the aging Buck Leonard. The legendary first baseman was 40 years old and still the main drawing card for the Grays. Signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, Peatross spent the next four years in the team’s minor league system and then retired from baseball to spend more time with his growing family.
Bob Motley – September 14, 2017
The last surviving and one of the most well-known umpires in Negro League baseball, Motley entertained fans during the late 1940s and the 1950s with his animated calls. The ex-marine World War II Purple Heart recipient handled the umpiring duties for the games of such Negro League players who went on to the Major Leagues such as Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Henry Aaron, and Elston Howard. Motley tenaciously fought to overcome the racial discrimination he faced as a professional umpire. He became the second African-American umpire in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) in 1959.
Willie James Lee and Archie “Dropo” Young
The former teammates on the Birmingham Black Barons died within the same week in 2017. Willie James Lee died on October 12 and Archie “Dropo” Young died October 19. They were briefly teammates with the Black Barons in 1956. After one game Lee (left on the picture below) went on to the Kansas City Monarchs where he got the reputation of being a power hitting outfielder. Constant injuries hampered his development in the minor league systems of first the Detroit Tigers and then the Minnesota Twins from 1959 – 1964. A Korean War veteran, Archie Young (below right) played with the Black Barons in 1956 and 1957 while also working in job in the coal mines. The power hitting first baseman got the nickname “Dropo” after the American League first baseman during that time, Walt Dropo.
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson – December 19, 2017
One of three women (also Connie Morgan and Toni Stone) who played Negro League baseball in the 1950s, Mamie Johnson pitched for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1953 – 1955. Johnson stood 5’3” and weighed 120 pounds. An opposing player said she “looked like a peanut” on the mound and that started the nickname “Peanut”. With Negro League baseball on a steady decline during the 1950s, the Clowns added comedy routines to their performance on the field in hopes of attracting fans to the games. But Johnson’s pitching had nothing to do with comedy. A regular in the Clown’s rotation, she had an arsenal of pitches to throw against opposing batters; slider, curveball, screwball, change of pace, and a fastball that got to home plate sooner than hitters expected. Her unofficial 3-year record is given as 33 – 8. Racial discrimination banned her from playing in the All-American Girls Professional League (AAGPL) as in the movie “A League of Their Own”. After baseball, Johnson had a long successful nursing career.
Although it is 23 days into 2018, this blog post is still necessary. Thanks to everyone who supported www.klmitchell.com in 2017. Your visits to my web site and the feedback you give are sources of encouragement for me. They give me inspiration to continue providing content for my blog each week.
The focus of my posts this year will continue to be on the Negro League baseball era. Through the stories and information you read about the players and teams it is my hope you will get a picture the era from both inside and beyond the ballparks. That picture will indicate how Negro League baseball is part of both African American and 20th Century American history.
I will also focus on the time period of the late 1940s and the 1950s when the “invisible color line” for professional baseball had been erased, but the process of integrating Major League baseball slow due to the prevailing racial prejudice and discrimination. For African-American and dark-skinned Latino ballplayers it was a period of joy, but also frustration.
During the latter years of this period my lifelong love affair with the sport began. Some of my posts this year, as the one on January 5, will be a reflection of that period (early 1960s) as I remember having a youthful innocence about the game.
Stay tuned for exciting news about my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: the 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. Thanks to everyone who has purchased a copy of it.
Also, I hope to have news later this year about my second book.
Continue to enjoy http://www.klmitchell.com in 2018 and spread the word about them it!
And again even though it is late: HAPPY NEW YEAR – 2018!
In honor of today’s (1/21/2020) celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, this is the repeat of my past blog post, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Baseball, & Jackie Robinson”, follows below. Today is Dr. King’s 91st birthday.
Today is the national celebration for the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., what would have been his 89th. Much will be written giving tributes to his life and the impact his legacy continues to have not only on this country, but also the world. However, I want to mention what appears to have been Dr. King’s favorite sport, baseball.
When Jackie Robinson crossed the “invisible color line” in 1947 to be the first African-American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century, he became the idol of an 18-year-old teenager in Atlanta, Georgia; Martin King Jr. Like many other African-Americans at that time, whether baseball fans or not, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the young King’s favorite baseball team because of Jackie Robinson. Many of those African-American Dodger fans, including King, remained loyal to the team after Robinson retired and it relocated to Los Angeles in 1958. In addressing the 1966 Milwaukee Braves’ move to his hometown of Atlanta, Dr. King indicated it would complicate his personal allegiance that had existed since 1947. “And so I have been a Dodger fan”, he said, “but I’m gonna get with the Braves now.”*
But Dr. King had been more than a fan of the Dodgers; he understood the significance for African-Americans of what Jackie Robinson had done in 1947. After becoming a leader in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King knew where his idol as a teenager’s accomplishments fit overall in reference to that movement.
When Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on that Montgomery, Alabama city bus in December of 1955 triggering the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, Jackie Robinson was nearing the end of his baseball career. He announced his retirement on January 5, 1957; fifteen days after the successful end of the Montgomery bus boycott led by the 26-year-old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the 1960s, Robinson became actively involved in the Civil Rights movement with Dr. King. He spoke at Civil Rights rallies in the South for Dr. King, marched in demonstrations with him, and held fund-raisers for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Dr. King and Robinson became co-laborers in the African-American struggle for equality. He considered Jackie Robinson a friend.
At a testimonial dinner for Jackie Robinson on July 20, 1962 celebrating his upcoming National Baseball Hall of Fame induction in three days, Dr. King paid tribute to him. He defended Robinson’s right to speak out about segregation and civil rights. “He has the right”, King insisted stoutly, “because back in the days when integration was not fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes from being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways towards the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides. And that is why we honor him tonight.”**
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have liked other sports. However; because of Jackie Robinson, baseball appeared to be his favorite. Since idolizing Robinson while being a teenager in 1947, Dr. King never forgot the significance of the baseball player’s accomplishments in the struggle of African-Americans for equality.
*”At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965 – 1968″, Taylor Branch p. 394
** “Jackie Robinson: A Biography”, Arnold Rampersad p. 7
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.