The focus for my blog posts during this COVID 19 shortened 2020 Major League baseball season has been baseball time capsules from the 1950s. During that decade, the pace of integration in the Major Leagues slowly, but steadily went forward. As a consequence, due to the decrease in its talent pool, Negro League baseball had begun a journey towards extinction by the early 1960s. All of this with the early Civil Rights movement as a back drop.
This week’s post is about Tom Alston, the first African American to appear in a Major League game for the St. Louis Cardinals. On May 2, 1954, in a doubleheader against the New York Giants, the rookie first baseman had the best game of his short Major League career. In the first game Alston had 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.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers erased Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” that had kept out African American and dark-skinned Latino players since the end of the 19th century. Over the next six years, along with the Dodgers, African American and/or dark-skinned Latinos would play with seven other teams; the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, New York Giants, Milwaukee Braves, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, and Philadelphia A’s. In 1954, the color line would be erased on four other teams; the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Senators, and St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals, one of the Major League’s most renowned franchises, had been reluctant to accept the changing winds for racial diversity in professional baseball. The progress of racial integration in St. Louis mirrored that of cities in southern states at that time. Many stores and restaurants refused to serve African American customers. Also, the Cardinals were the last Major League team to abolish racially segregated seating at their home stadium. However after buying the team in 1953, new Cardinals’ owner August A. Busch, Jr. wanted the team to be reflective of the African American target market for his company’s product; Budweiser beer.
Born 1/31/26 in Greensboro, North Carolina; Thomas Edison Alston played baseball at North Carolina A & T following a stint in the military. After two minor league seasons on teams coached by former Negro League pitcher Chet Brewer, he caught the Cardinals’ attention while playing for San Diego (Pacific Coast League) in 1953. With Alston having a power hitters’ body (6’, 5” and 210 lbs.) along with showing agility playing first base, the Cardinals paid $100,000 to obtain his contract.
For the first time in the franchise’s history, the 1954 Cardinal team would have African American players; Alston along with pitcher Brooks Lawrence and former Negro League pitcher Bill Greason. The 28 years old Alston made his Major League debut on April 13 becoming the first African American to play in a game for the St. Louis Cardinals. Although not as historic, his debut occurred a little more than a month before the 1954 landmark US Supreme Court Brown vs Board of Education ruling (May 17) that struck the first blow in making racial segregation against African Americans unconstitutional.
After a slow start, hitting only .211 in April, Alston hit .411 the first 11 days of May which included that May 2 doubleheader against the New York Giants. But, National League pitchers discovered his weakness; the high inside fastball and Alston hit .181 in June with no homes runs. The Cardinals sent him to the minor leagues and moved Hall of Fame outfielder Stan Musial to first base. Alston tried regaining his batting hitting 21 home runs with 80 RBI playing for AAA Omaha in 1956. However, it never resurfaced for him at the Major League level. In 1955 – 1957, he hit .139 in 25 games with the Cardinals.
Alston began a battle with mental illness during the 1957 season. Diagnosed as having schizophrenia in 1958, he would spend the next 11 years in a North Carolina psychiatric institution. It is unclear if Alston’s mental condition played a role in his inability to handle the pressure of being the Cardinals’ first African American player his rookie season. However, what happened on May 2, 1954 is forever clear. On that day, Tom Alston had the best day of his short Major League baseball career.
In November I will teach the following course via Zoom for the University of Kansas Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s Fall Session: The Negro National League: A Journey Through the Stormy Seas of Professional Baseball. The course will consist 3 sessions 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM on November 11, 18, and 25. For registration information, click on “Available Sessions” link below or call 913 – 897 – 8530.
Here is a course description: As a reflection of the harsh racial attitudes in 1920, African American and dark-skinned Latino players were kept out of white professional baseball. Within this difficult racial environment black baseball team owner/manager Andrew “Rube’ Foster birthed the Negro National League on Feb. 13, 1920 in Kansas City, Missouri. It became the first successfully operated African American professional baseball league. 2020 is its 100th anniversary. Foster saw it as a ship travelling through the stormy sea of racial segregation. We will examine how despite closing down in 1931, it produced 13 Hall of Fame inductees and became the blueprint that sustained Negro League baseball until the color barriers in baseball were erased.
The focus for my blog posts during this COVID 19 shortened 2020 Major League baseball season has been baseball time capsules from the 1950s. During that decade, the pace of integration in the Major Leagues slowly, but steadily went forward. As a consequence, the talent pool for the Negro Leagues decreased setting it on a journey towards extinction by the early 1960s. All of this with the early Civil Rights movement as a back drop.
This week’s post is about former Negro League outfielder Bob Thurman. On August 18, 1956 while playing for the Cincinnati Redlegs, Thurman hit three home runs. The make-up of his team, still called Redlegs and not Reds in 1956, gave an indication of racial integration in the Major Leagues nine years after the color line had been erased.
Drafted into the military while playing in the semi-professional baseball leagues of Wichita, Kansas, Bob Thurman saw combat duty during World War ll in New Guinea and the Philippines. After leaving military service in 1946, he 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; 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 centerfielder. 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, the Grays defeated the Birmingham Black Barons in the last Negro League World Series.
With the Negro National League disbanding after the 1948 season, Thurman signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Monarchs’ 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.
However, the Yankees were not serious about integration. Although Thurman batted .317 at Triple AAA minor league Newark Bears for the remainder of that season, the Yankees traded him to the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were also slow embracing integration and released Thurman in 1952 despite him having respectable years in the team’s minor league system. It would not be until 1954 before Ernie Banks became the first African-American to play for Chicago’s north side team.
Thurman spent the next two years playing summer and winter Caribbean league baseball. After a tremendous winter league season in 1955, he signed with the Cincinnati Redlegs mainly as a 34 years old reserve outfielder/pinch hitter and made his Major League debut on April 14, 1955; a little more than a month before his actual 38th birthday.
On August 18, 1956, the Redlegs hit eight home runs in a 13 – 4 victory over the Milwaukee Braves. After hitting a double in the third inning, Bob Thurman hit home runs in the fifth, seventh, and eighth.
In addition to Thurman, the other former Negro League players on the Redlegs’ roster that season were George Crowe, Chuck Harmon, Joe Black, and Pat Scantlebury. All were thirty-plus years old and nearing the end of their playing careers. However, with Major League scouts draining the Negro League talent pool by 1956, more African-American and dark-skinned Latino players were being signed who never played Negro League baseball. Twenty years old Frank Robinson hit two of the eight home runs for the Redlegs in that August 18 game. The 1956 National League Rookie of the Year and 1986 Hall of Fame inductee did not play in the Negro Leagues. Neither had eighteen years old Redlegs’ outfielder Curt Flood. He appeared in five games that season and later played 12 years with the St. Louis Cardinals.
If the New York Yankees in 1949 had known Bob Thurman’s real age of 32, they would not have signed him. Neither would the Redlegs in 1955 had they known him being almost 38! But finally given the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues, Bob Thurman certainly proved in that game on August 18, 1956 that his time for hitting a baseball had not passed him by. He hit 35 home runs in his five seasons (1955 – 1959) with Cincinnati.
All pictures via Google Images
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell @Lasttraintocoop
The focus for my blog posts during this COVID 19 shortened 2020 Major League baseball season is a baseball time capsule from the 1950s. During that decade, the pace of integration in the Major Leagues slowly, but steadily went forward. As a consequence, the talent pool for the Negro Leagues decreased setting it on a journey towards extinction by the early 1960s. All of this with the early Civil Rights movement as a back drop.
This week’s post is about Ozzie Virgil, who accomplished two milestones in the integration of the Major Leagues during the 1950s. Virgil became the first Dominican Republic born player in the Major Leagues (1956) and he broke through the Detroit Tigers’ color barrier in 1958.
Born Osvaldo Jose Virgil on May 17, 1933 in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic, Ozzie moved to New York City (The Bronx) when 13 years old. After two years in the US Marine Corp., he signed with the New York Giants in 1953. Versatility became Virgil’s strength, he could play all infield positions including catcher and also in the outfield. Virgil made his Major League debut on September 23, 1956. The next season he made the Sporting News’ All-Rookie team as a utility player; seeing action when needed at four positions, including third base and catcher.
Of the dark-skinned Latinos who had played in the Major Leagues at that time, most were from Cuba or Puerto Rico. Virgil would be the first of many Major League players from the Dominican Republic including Baseball Hall of Fame inductees Juan Marichal, Vladimir Guerrero, and Pedro Martinez. By the mid-1950s, talented young African American and dark-skinned Latino players were bypassing the Negro Leagues and directly signing with Major League teams. Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Bill White, Curt Flood and others in addition to Virgil who began their Major Leagues careers during that time did not play Negro League baseball.
Before the 1958 season, the Giants moved to San Francisco and traded Virgil to the Detroit Tigers. Eleven years after Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in professional baseball (1947), Detroit and its American League counterpart Boston Red Sox were the only Major League teams never to have an African American or dark-skinned Latino on the roster. It had been a strong Negro League baseball city with the Detroit Stars in the 1920s and 1930s. However, the Tigers’ previous long-time owner Otto Briggs (1935 – 1952) had a bad relationship with African Americans due to the prejudice many of them experienced working at his automotive body factory. Also, African Americans were not allowed to sit in the box seats at Briggs Stadium.
The Tigers were World Series champions in 1945, but had finished no higher than fifth place since 1950 and efforts were being made to build the team around outfielder Al Kaline and pitcher Jim Bunning who would both have Hall of Fame careers. Jake Wood, the first African American to make his way through Detroit’s minor league system, played at the Class B level in 1958 and would not become the Tigers’ starting second baseman until 1961.
On June 6, 1958, at Griffith Stadium against the Washington Senators, Ozzie Virgil became the first nonwhite player to appear in a Major League game for the Detroit Tigers. He played third base and hit a double in the team’s 11 – 5 win. Virgil hit .244 in 49 games.
For the majority of the 1959 season, the Tigers were again at their pre-integration level. Virgil spent the entire season in the team’s minor league system (Double AA level). Newly acquired 35 years old Larry Doby, the first African American or dark-skinned Latino to break through the American League’s color barrier in 1947, played only 18 games before being traded to the Chicago White Sox in July. Also, the Tigers briefly promoted African American pitcher Jim Proctor, who appeared in only 2 games before being sent back to the minor leagues.
But, in 1960 Virgil appeared in 62 games as the Tigers used him as a key utility player. The Tigers traded him to the Kansas City Athletics In 1961 and he would spend the next seven years splitting time between the minor leagues and four major league teams. Virgil finished his playing career with the team that first signed him, the San Francisco Giants.
After retiring Ozzie Virgil coached 19 years in the Major Leagues and his son, two-time All Star catcher Ozzie Virgil Jr, had an eleven year Major League career.
All pictures via Google Images
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell @Lasttraintocoop
It now appears that despite the current COVID-19 pandemic, there will still be a 2020 Major League Baseball season. The number of games that will be played and other details will be announced before July 1, the expected starting date. My weekly blog posts for the season will be a baseball time capsule from the 1950s. During that decade, the pace of integration in the Major Leagues slowly, but steadily went forward. As a consequence, the talent pool for the Negro Leagues decreased setting it on a journey towards extinction by the early 1960s. All of this with the early Civil Rights movement as a back drop.
This week’s post is about Roy Campanella.
91,103 fans were at Los Angeles’ Memorial Coliseum on May 7, 1959 for Roy Campanella Night, a special occasion which included a benefit exhibition game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees. On that evening, the Dodgers paid tribute to the 8-time All-Star, former Dodger catcher who did not have an opportunity to play for the team after it moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn. Less than two months before the Dodgers would start 1958 spring training for the team’s first season in Los Angeles, he had a car accident that left him permanently paralyzed from the neck down.
Roy Campanella’s journey through professional baseball began in 1937 when at 15 years old he played for the Washington Elites of the Negro National League. He developed his skills as a backstop under the tutelage of his manager Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, considered one of the best catchers of that era despite not being allowed to play in the Major Leagues because of his skin color.
After nine years in the Negro Leagues, Campanella signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 and became teammates with Jackie Robinson in 1948. Although Robinson had erased the “invisible color line” in 1947, African Americans and dark-skinned Latino ballplayers would be faced with racial discrimination and prejudice in Major League baseball throughout the 1950s.
Campanella became one of the anchors for Brooklyn Dodgers teams that won five National League pennants (1949, 1952 – 1953, 1955 – 1956) and one World Series championship (1955). Named National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) three times (1951, 1953, & 1955), he hit a career 242 home runs with 856 RBIs.
On that special night in 1959, former Dodgers’ teammate Pee Wee Reese pushed a wheelchair bound Campanella out to the infield of the Coliseum in front of a cheering crowd that gave a three minute standing ovation. Also, Biz Mackey received a roaring ovation when introduced that night as Campy’s catching mentor. Mackey did not live to see the crowning acknowledgement of his baseball career that came in 2006 with his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Yankees, who were the 1958 World Series champions, won the game 6 – 2. But it did not turn out to be an omen about the season for the teams. For the first time since 1954, the Yankees did not win the American League pennant in 1959. The Dodgers won the National League pennant that year and defeated the Chicago White Sox 4 games to 2 in the World Series. It would be the last hurrah for Campy’s former long- time Brooklyn Dodgers teammates (“The Boys of Summer”) Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, and Carl Furillo.
As his health permitted, Roy Campanella continued to be a part of the Dodgers’ family (coaching catchers during Spring Training, Community Relations Department, etc.) until his June 23, 1993 death.
All pictures via Google Images
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell@Lasttraintocoop
One way the cable sports networks are trying to help sports fans cope with the cancellation of professional and other sporting events due to the COVID- 19 pandemic is re-broadcasting key games and matches from previous years. While channel surfing I have seen replays from past “March Madness” NCAA men and women’s basketball championship games, Game Sevens of the NBA Playoffs, Super Bowls, Masters’ (golf) Championships, and World Series’ Game Sevens (my favorite).
Following their example, my blog posts during the 2020 Major League baseball season will be a baseball time capsule from the 1950s. During that decade, the pace of integration in the Major Leagues slowly, but steadily went forward. As a consequence, the talent pool for the Negro Leagues decreased setting it on a journey towards extinction by the early 1960s. All of this with the early Civil Rights movement as a back drop.
This week’s post is about Henry Aaron and John Irvin Kennedy.
Aaron’s First Major League HR
On April 23, 1954, 24 days before the United States Supreme Court’s May 17th decision that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional, Milwaukee Braves’ rookie outfielder Henry Aaron hit his first Major League career home run. Aaron hit a 6th inning solo 4-bagger off St. Louis Cardinals’ veteran right hand pitcher Vic Rashi at Busch Stadium in the Braves 14 inning 7 – 5 win. He had also gotten his first Major League hit, a double, off Rashi in a game at Milwaukee’s County Stadium on April 15. Rashi had come to the Cardinals after three 20 game winning seasons and six World Series championships with the New York Yankees (1946 – 1953). Braves reserve catcher Charlie White, who played for the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues, hit his one and only home run of his two year Major League career in the Braves April 23rd victory.
Henry Aaron signed with the Braves in 1952 after leading the Negro American League in batting during his one month stint with the Indianapolis Clowns. After one and a half seasons in the minor leagues, he moved into the Braves’ starting line up during spring training in 1954 when outfielder Bobby Thompson broke his ankle. On April 13 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field against the Redlegs, Aaron made his Major League debut going without a hit in five At Bats.
By September of his rookie season, despite suffering the ups and downs of a first year Major League player, he had batted .280 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs. However, his season ended on September 5th. While sliding into third base after hitting a triple, his fourth hit of the game, Aaron broke his ankle. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Wally Moon of the Cardinals, Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, and Braves’ teammate pitcher Gene Conley.
The Phillies First African American Player
On April 22, 1957, John Kennedy became the first African American player to appear in a Major League baseball game wearing a Philadelphia Phillies’ uniform. He entered against the Brooklyn Dodgers as a pinch runner at Roosevelt Field in Jersey City, New Jersey where the Dodgers played eight games in 1957
John Irvin Kennedy wedged his Negro League baseball career between two attempts to play in the Major Leagues. After college (Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida), the slick fielding shortstop played two seasons in Canada on a team managed by former Negro League star Willie Wells. Signed by the Major League’s New York Giants in 1953, Kennedy spent one season in the team’s minor league system before being released. He spent the next three seasons in Negro League baseball; 1954 – 1955 with the Birmingham Black Barons and with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1956.
The talent level in the Negro Leagues had decreased by the mid-1950s, the best African American players were being signed by Major League teams. After appearing in the All-Star Game while with the Monarchs, Kennedy got the attention of the Philadelphia Phillies who in 1957 were the only National League team without an African American player. In the early stages of the Phillies 1957 spring training Kennedy made a big splash with his fielding skills. He made the team as a reserve infielder, but hurt his throwing arm as the regular season began.
After his debut, Kennedy appeared in four other games and then the Phillies sent him to the minor leagues with an injured shoulder. He finished the season hitting 19 home runs while playing at High Point-Thomasville in the Class B-level Carolina League.
John Kennedy spent the remainder of his career in the Phillies minor league system (1958 – 1961), never to play in another Major League game.
All pictures via Google Images
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell@Lasttraintocoop
Due to the current global COVID- 19 pandemic, I have been reluctant to post on my blog. A blog post about baseball history seems very trivial when compared to the spread of the deadly virus that has at least for now changed our lives. The voluntary and mandatory shelter in place and quarantines, recommended social distancing, and business shutdowns have been more than an inconvenience to everyone. This is especially true for sports fans who have had to accept the cancellation of NCAA college basketball’s “March Madness”, the indefinite suspension of the both the NBA and NHL seasons, and the Masters Golf Tournament being postponed. As for my favorite, baseball, the Major League Baseball season will not start until maybe June; if then.
However, I think a post about a milestone in baseball history would be a good change of pace from the constant serious life messages we are receiving about COVID-19 from MSNBC, CNN, FOX NEWS, and other media outlets. The professional baseball historic milestone I am referring is the Centennial (100 years) Anniversary of organized Negro League professional baseball; the formation of the first Negro National League.
As the new decade of the 1920’s began, equality and justice for African Americans seemed an impossible dream. African American soldiers returning from World War I battlefields did not receive a hero’s welcome, but instead a harsh slap of racial reality. There were a number of African Americans lynched not only in the south, but throughout the country. Racial violence prevailed in 1919 with deadly riots in East St. Louis, Tulsa, and Chicago. This toxic national racial attitude spilled over into the sport of baseball, “the national pastime”. Due to racial discrimination, African American and dark-skinned Latino baseball players were kept out of white professional baseball.
It is within this difficult racial environment that Andrew “Rube” Foster, African American team owner and manager of the Chicago American Giants birthed the Negro National League (NNL) on February 13, 1920 at the YMCA Building on 18th and The Paseo in Kansas City, Missouri. The NNL has the distinction of being the first African American professional baseball league.
There had been a little more than a hand full of African American players in white professional baseball in the late 1880s. However, by the beginning of the 20th Century, the racially discriminating “invisible color line” had been solidly formed. In response to this, African Americans formed their own professional baseball teams. The Cuban Giants, Cuban X Giants, Chicago Union Giants, Philadelphia Giants, and Pittsburgh Keystones were a few of the African American professional baseball teams at the dawning of the new century. “Rube” Foster first gained fame as a star pitcher for the Philadelphia Giants. Before 1920 there were a few Negro pro baseball leagues formed, but they either quickly folded or had no impact on the structure of black baseball. However, the Negro National League (NNL) operated from 1920 – 1931.
The NNL consisted of eight teams its first year: the Chicago American Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Detroit Stars, St. Louis Giants, Chicago Giants, Dayton Marcos, Indianapolis ABCs, and Cuban Stars. Due to the financial and racial obstacles African American pro baseball franchises faced, the league make up changed from season to season as some teams folded and new ones added. Foster’s American Giants along with the Kansas City Monarchs, Detroit Stars, and the St. Louis Stars (new owners changed name from Giants to Stars in 1922) were the only teams in the league every NNL season. At one time or another during its duration, the NNL showcased 14 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In addition, it is acknowledged as the successful forerunner and blueprint for the leagues formed that kept Negro League professional baseball alive before finally ending in the early 1960s; the Negro National League (1933 – 1948) and Negro American League (1937 – 1962).
This past February 13, 2020, the centennial celebration of this baseball historic milestone began with Major League Commissioner Rob Manfred making a $1 million joint donation from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association to the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. The funds are to support the museum’s continuous effort to keep highlighting the historical impact Negro League professional baseball had on the sport and on American society as a whole.
Also, that ceremony included the unveiling of the Centennial Anniversary’s logo.
Once the 2020 Major League Baseball season hopefully begins, the centennial celebration will continue to be recognized. During all MLB games, the Negro League 100th anniversary logo will be worn on the uniforms of all players, managers, coaches, and umpires. Also, many clubs have planned centennial anniversary activities such as Negro Leagues tribute games with throwback uniforms, pregame panels with special guests, and game day giveaways. The timing of these activities is now pending on the adjustments that will be made to the MLB season based on the COVID-19 pandemic.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
It is not only the start of a new year, 2020; but also a new decade. Whether you are continuing the weekend celebration of the beginning of both or putting the finishing touches on your 2020 goals and objectives; take a moment to pay tribute with me to a group of former Negro League and Major League baseball players who died in 2019.
Due to their advancing ages, the number of surviving former Negro League baseball players decreases each year. Most of those who played before Jackie Robinson erased “the invisible color line” in 1947 opening the door for the racial integration of Major League baseball have died. The remaining former Negro League players began their careers in the late 1940s and 1950s. Some played only in the remaining Negro Leagues; others spent their career integrating professional baseball’s minor league system and only briefly played in the Major Leagues, while others had productive Major League careers.
Of the five former Negro League players listed below, three played only in the Negro Leagues, one played briefly in the Major Leagues, and one had a stellar Major League career.
There may be other former Negro League baseball players whose deaths in 2019 I missed, so this list could be incomplete.
Don Newcombe – February 19, 2019
Born 6/14/26 in Madison, New Jersey. Newcombe began his career with the Negro League baseball Newark Eagles in 1944. Starting in 1949, “Big Newk” (6’4”, 220 pounds) became the workhorse pitcher of the Brooklyn Dodgers “Boys of Summer” era winning 138 games between 1949 – 1956 despite missing 2 two seasons due to military service (1952 & 1953). On average, he pitched 215 innings per year. Named National League Rookie of the Year in 1949, the 3-time National League All-Star won 20 games three times. In 1956 when he won 27 games, “Big Newk” became the first recipient of the Cy Young Award and also received National League Most Valuable Player honors. World Series horrors: 0 – 4 with 8.22 ERA in five Series starts against New York Yankees. Plagued by alcohol abuse his entire career, Newcombe retired from baseball at age 34. He worked many years after retirement in programs providing support for individuals suffering from alcoholism and in community relations for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Charles “Chuck” Harmon – March 19, 2019
Born May 23, 1924 in Washington, Indiana, Harmon earned All-American basketball honors at the University of Toledo in 1943. After three years of military service, Harmon signed with the Indianapolis Clowns in the summer of 1947 to make extra money before returning to school. He used a different name in order to keep his NCAA college basketball eligibility. After just a one week road trip, the St. Louis Browns offered him a contract. Although he had good offensive years, the slow pace of Major League baseball racial integration kept him stuck in the Browns’ minor league system. However, the Browns traded Harmon to the Cincinnati Reds in 1952. In 1954, he and Nino Escalera became the first African American and the first dark-skinned Latino players to appear in a Major League game for the Cincinnati Reds. Used as a utility player, Harmon spent 1954 – 56 with Cincinnati and 1957 with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Bob Mitchell – June 12, 2019
Born November 18, 1932 in West Palm Beach, Florida, Mitchell pitched in the Negro baseball minor leagues in Florida after high school. In 1954, he pitched for the Florida Cubans against the barnstorming Kansas City Monarchs managed by Buck O’Neil. O’Neil liked the talent he saw in Mitchell and offered him a contract. Mitchell played for the Monarchs from 1954 – 1957 and then retired from baseball to spend more time with his wife and young children. He had a 30 – 14 career pitching record.
Lee Vester Spann – October 19, 2019
Spann, born June 4, 1948 in St. Louis , Missouri, played with Indianapolis Clowns in 1965 after coming out of Hadley Tech High School . Not much else is known about him. His name came in the news when his insurance claim failed and the family had to make attempts to raise money for his funeral this fall.
Paul Jones – December 12, 2019
Born October 11, 1927 in New Iberia, Louisiana, Jones first played in the Louisiana network of Negro amateur/semi-professional baseball barnstorming teams after coming out of the military in 1946. From 1949 – 1951, Jones caught for the New Orleans Black Pelicans; the top Negro minor league team in Louisiana.
In my next blog post, I will make note of 3 former Major League players who died in 2019.
Historical notices from last week: Birthday for Ted Strong former Kansas City Monarchs INF/OF (1939 – 1942, 1946 – 1947) born January 2, 1914, in South Bend, Indiana and Tito Fuentes 2nd baseman for San Francisco Giants (1965 – 1974) born January 4, 1944, in La Habana, Cuba.
All photos for this post the courtesy of numerous internet sites via Google Images
A major mews media story line about the Washington Nationals’ 2019 World Series is the team’s ending of a 95 year drought of no World Series championship for Washington D. C. baseball fans. However, as I discussed in my previous blog post, the 1924 Washington Senators were not the last professional baseball team in Washington, D. C. to win a World Series. The last professional baseball champions from Washington D. C. were the 1948 Homestead Grays.
The 1948 Negro League World Series pitted the Homestead Grays against the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League, a third Series re-match. The Grays had defeated the Black Barons in the 1943 and 1944 Series.
The teams played the 1948 Series as aftershocks from the racial integration of Major League baseball were just beginning. Jackie Robinson’s 1947 successful season erased the “invisible color line” opening the door for the initially slow but eventual flow of African American and dark-skinned Hispanics into the Major Leagues. The erasing of the color line had come too late for 40 years old Homestead Grays first baseman Buck Leonard and the Grays’ power-hitting catcher Josh Gibson who had died in early 1947. However, 1948 Grays’ players first baseman Luke Easter, pitcher/outfielder Bob Thurman, pitcher Bob Trice, and outfielder Luis Marquez, all went on to play in the Major Leagues. For the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons infielder Artie Wilson, pitchers Bill Greason and Jehosie Heard would briefly play in the Major Leagues. But the Black Barons’ 17 years old center fielder, Willie Mays, would have a Hall of Fame Major League career.
Having to rent playing facilities for their games, Negro League teams had to adjust game schedules to field rental availability. Griffith Stadium had been booked for Washington Redskins football games, so the Grays did not play any home games in the Series. Three of the games had to be played at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, home of the Birmingham Barons Southern League team.
Not all the Negro League World Series games were played in the cities of the participating teams. World Series games were played also in other cities with a large population of African Americans. Negro League officials saw playing the Series in multiple cities would afford more African American baseball fans the opportunity to see the games and hopefully maximize ticket sales. For the 1948 Series in addition to the games played in Birmingham, Kansas City and New Orleans also hosted games.
The Grays won the first two games of the Series, 4 – 3 and 5 – 3. The Black Barons rebounded to win Game Three. The Grays outscored the Black Barons 25 – 7 to win the final two games of the Series.
The shift in the interest of African American baseball fans clearly revealed itself during the 1948 Series. The fans were more interested in following the few African American players in the Major Leagues. They saw the integrated Major League games as racial and social progress. African American baseball fans were focused on the 1948 Major League World Series contest between the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Braves. Former Negro League players Larry Doby and Leroy “Satchel” Paige played for the Indians.
The October 16, 1948 issue of the Baltimore Afro American, one of the leading national black newspapers at that time, is an example of the fan interest shift. The weekly paper’s front page headline that day: “DOBY SERIES HERO, Young Fielder Is Brilliant. Single in Sixth Game Beats Boston. Slams First Homer Over CenterField.” The adjoining front page article highlights Larry Doby’s contributions, his leading .318 Series Batting Average with 1 home run, in the Cleveland Indians’ four games to two games victory over the Boston Braves. Also on the front page, the photo of teammates Doby and Cleveland pitcher Steve Gromek in a smiling embrace after the Indians’ 2 – 1 win in Game 5. The photo of Doby whose third inning homer broke a 1-1 tie and Gromek the winning pitcher sent a new visual message across the country of racial harmony in Major League Baseball. On the front page also, an article questioning “Satchel” Paige’s role with the Indians for 1949. He had only pitched two-thirds of an inning in the Series.
On the Sports Page, buried under additional headlines, articles, and pictures about Doby, and Paige, the paper had a brief article about the Homestead Grays’ 11 – 6 win over the Birmingham Black Barons in Game Five to be the 1948 Negro League World Series champion.
The Negro League World Series ended after 1948. The Negro National League disbanded before the next season began. The Homestead Grays stopped functioning as a professional baseball team. Negro League baseball limped through the 1950s selling their best players to the Major Leagues before fading away in the early 1960s.
In 2009 the Washington Nationals paid tribute to the Homestead Grays by placing a statue of Grays’ Hall of Fame catcher Josh Gibson in the Center Field Plaza at Nationals’ Park. Negro League baseball operated in the shadow of the Major Leagues for nearly half of the 20th Century. However, the Washington Nationals’ 2019 World Series triumph shined a larger spotlight on the Homestead Grays. The Nationals’ 2019 World Series championship brought the Homestead Grays from behind that shadow to show the teams’ place in Washington D. C. professional baseball history.
Congratulations to the Washington Nationals, the 2019 Major League Baseball World Series Champions! With their 6 – 2 win in Game Seven over the Houston Astros, the Nationals become the seventh team qualifying for the playoffs as the “Wild Card” to win the World Series; the last being the 2014 San Francisco Giants.
Also, as one of the 2019 Fall Classic’s story lines, with their victory the Washington Nationals ended a 95 year drought of having a World Series championship for Washington D. C. baseball fans. Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck mentioned this as the Nationals took command of Game Seven Wednesday night. The 1924 Washington Senators were World Series champions after defeating the New York Giants 4 games to 3. Hall of Fame pitcher Walter “Big Train” Johnson (23 – 7 with a 2.72 ERA) and Hall of Fame outfielder Goose Goslin (12 HRs, a league leading 129 RBIs, .344 BA.) lead that Senators’ championship team. However, the 1924 Washington Senators were not the last professional baseball team in Washington, D. C. to win a World Series before the Nationals won this year. That distinction had belonged to the Homestead Grays, one of the most renowned franchises in Negro League professional baseball. The Grays were Negro League World Series champions in 1943, 1944, and 1948.
After losing the 1933 World Series to the New York Giants, the Washington Senators finished .500 or above only once more in the 1930s, twice in the 1940s, and twice in the early 1950s. Despite showing signs of improvement in 1960, the team finished below .500 for the seventh straight year. The franchise then moved to Minneapolis and became the Minnesota Twins.
In 1961 the American League placed a new Washington Senators franchise in D.C., an expansion club, but it finished near or at the bottom in the league’s standings from 1961 – 1968. Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams became manager in 1969 and led the Senators to an 87 – 75 record. However, after finishing below .500 for the 1971 season the Senators’ owner moved the franchise to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the team became the Texas Rangers. Major League Baseball would not return to Washington, D. C. until 2005 when the Montreal Expos National League franchise moved to the nation’s capital and became the Washington Nationals.
For nearly the first half of the 20th Century, the “invisible color line” in white organized professional baseball kept African Americans and dark-skinned Hispanic players out of Major League baseball. In the face of this racial prejudice, Homestead Grays owner Cumberland Posey created a winning tradition in Negro League professional baseball. At one time or another ten Negro League players enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame wore the uniform of the Homestead Grays, including long time Grays’ first baseman Buck Leonard and catcher Josh Gibson. Beginning in 1937, the Grays won eight consecutive Negro National League pennants. The Grays originated out of Homestead, Pennsylvania across the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh. However, in 1940 it began playing half of its home games in Washington, D. C. to tap into the increasing African American population in the city. The city previously had been the home of two other Negro League teams; the Washington Pilots briefly in 1932 and the Washington Elite Giants in 1936 – 1937. The Grays leased the Senators’ home ballpark, Griffith Stadium, for their home games. In 1943, Washington became the home base for the Homestead Grays. As the Senators continued to struggle on the field, many considered the Grays the best professional baseball team in the nation’s capital from 1940 – 1948. Despite being mainly a second division team during this period, the Senators remained profitable due to the fees charged to the Grays for leasing Griffith Stadium.
The Washington Nationals being in this year’s World Series helps to shine the spotlight on the Homestead Grays, who played in the shadow of the Washington Senators. Part two of this post will tell more of the 1948 Homestead Grays, the playing of the last Negro League World Series, and the beginning of the end for the Negro League baseball era. Stay tuned!