This is the second part of my tribute to Ed Charles a baseball player I admired during the 1960s when he played with the Kansas City A’s. I discovered this summer Charles died earlier this year on March 15.
Although he did not receive any votes for 1962 American League Rookie of the Year, Ed Charles had a solid initial year in the Major Leagues. He hit .288 with 17 HRs, 74 RBI, and 20 stolen bases. Playing for the 9th place Kansas City A’s did not give him much help in the voting despite his statistics. However, he did make the 1962 Topps All-Star Rookie team.
In Ed Charles’ five full seasons with the A’s (1962 – 1966), the team finished no higher than 7th place. On average per year for that period, he hit 13 HRs, had 62 RBI, batting .270 with 14 stolen bases. These offensive statistics were not equal to the best third baseman in the American League during that time, Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles, who averaged 20 HRs, 90 RBI, and a .287 batting mark. However, Charles’ per year offensive averages for the period were compatible with other American League top “hot corner” men:
Pete Ward (Chicago White Sox) 14 HRs, 65 RBIs, hit .260
Rich Rollins (Minnesota Twins) 11 HRs, 59 RBI, hit .273
Clete Boyer (New York Yankees) 14 HRS, 57 RBI, hit .246
Max Alvis (Cleveland Indians) 19 HRs, 59 RBI, hit .257
Frank Malzone (Boston Red Sox) 13 HRS, 63 RBI, hit .269
The way he consistently hit in the minor leagues, it is no surprise when given the opportunity Charles would be a capable Major League hitter.
Defensively, Brooks Robinson won five Gold Gloves at third base from 1962 – 1966. He averaged 12 errors per year with a .974 fielding percentage. Charles, during this period, averaged 16 errors per year with a .960 fielding percentage making him statistically above par in terms of defense with the other top American League third basemen who averaged 19 errors and had a .954 fielding percentage.
But Ed Charles’ running style is what first captured my attention of him. Most fans called it a glide. He turned his elbows outward, pumping his arms up and down together in coordination with his stride. Seeing it more like a prideful strut or pimp, I loved it. To me, Frank Robinson had the only other distinctive running style at that time.
The way Charles swung his bat also got my attention. He had a slight hitch in his swing, but used strong wrists and forearms that still allowed him to hit with power. On July 31, 1964, my neighborhood friends and I went to see an A’s and Baltimore Orioles doubleheader. After losing the first game, the A’s rallied to tie the nightcap 6 – 6 in the eighth inning. In the late innings, the stadium ushers allowed kids from the bleachers to go down to the box seats which would then be empty. This gave us the opportunity to see and hear Major League players up close. The O’s brought in pitcher Steve Barber to face the A’s in the ninth and Charles greeted him with a home run to win the game. I saw Ed Charles up close one other time that summer when he turned the switch on the new lighting for the inner-city baseball field in my neighborhood.
Charles’ poetry began to get notice during his time with the A’s. I remember him reciting the one called “An Athlete’s Prayer” on the radio or TV dugout show a number of times.
In 1967, the Kansas City A’s were building the team that would become World Series Champions in 1972, 1973,and 1974 after owner Charlie Finley moved it to Oakland when that season ended. But 34 years old Ed Charles did not fit into the team’s plans. On May 10 the A’s traded him to the last place New York Mets. I did not totally lose track of Charles’ career after the trade. In 1968, he proved to still be a suitable Major League hitter for again a bottom rug team, 15 HRs, 53 RBI, and a .276 batting average. This is what he had done his entire Major League career.
But the baseball fate of Ed Charles made a remarkable turnaround in 1969 when the New York Mets won the World Series. He went 2 for 4 in Game 2 with a double in New York’s 2 – 1 win. A picture of the celebrating Mets after the final out to close out the Series shows a smiling, jubilant Ed Charles. After toiling nine years in the minor leagues and seven with bottom rug Major League teams, Charles reached the top of pro baseball’s world; a place where some Hall of Fame players never reached.
This summer I have juggled coaching a baseball team of eight to twelve years old kids while teaching a course on the history of Negro League baseball; “Negro League Baseball: The Deep Roots of African-Americans in America’s National Pastime”, and visiting grandchildren in Texas.
Included in the summer curriculum of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Kansas, the course discussed the deep historical roots African-Americans have in the sport due to the Negro League baseball era. Although he did not play in the Negro Leagues, I briefly mentioned former Major League player Ed Charles in the introductory section of the course. I wanted to give the students a brief history of how as a kid I fell in love with baseball. Edwin Douglas Charles had a part in that history. In my research preparing for the course I discovered Charles had died last March 15th in the East Elmhurst section of the New York City borough of Queens. The former third baseman was 84 years old.
A baby boomer born and raised in the Kansas City area, I became a baseball fan through following the Kansas City A’s in the late 1950s; a team that consistently finished near the bottom of the American League standings. Much to the chagrin of Kansas City baseball fans, the A’s functioned as a player development team for the New York Yankees at that time. They would trade their best players to New York; Hector Lopez, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, Roger Maris, Bob Cerv, Ralph Terry, and Clete Boyer, in exchange for utility players or those past their prime. I saw Hank Bauer, Don Larson, Marv Throneberry, Johnny Kucks, Norm Siebern, and other former Yankees dawn an Athletics’ uniform. The A’s finished the 1960 season in last place and were the only Major League team without an African-American or dark-skinned Latino ballplayer.
In 1961, Charlie Finley purchased the team and the next season racially diversified it adding to the roster John Wyatt, Jose Tartabull, Diego Segui, Orlando Pena, Manny Jimenez, and Ed Charles. A product of the depression era and post-World War II “Jim Crow” south, born April 29, 1933 in Daytona Beach, Florida, Charles had been obtained in a trade with the Milwaukee Braves. The team signed him in 1952 while still the Boston Braves, but for 10 seasons he labored in its minor league system. That included stops at the A to AAA levels in places such as Jacksonville, Louisville, Wichita, and Vancouver.
Although the “invisible color line” had been erased, Charles along with other African-American and dark-skinned Latino players in the 1950s experienced the open racial prejudice that existed in professional baseball’s minor league systems. Overall he hit .291 in the minor leagues and showed occasional home run power. But Charles played 3rd base, the position manned during that period for the Braves by 2-time National League home run champion and future Hall of Fame inductee (1978) Eddie Mathews. Charles had the versatility to play 2nd base, but there is no evidence the Braves thought about a shift despite the inconsistent performances at the position in 1959 and 1960 during Red Schoendienst’s absence due to illness. The A’s would finally give Charles, at 29 years old, the opportunity to prove himself as a Major League player.
Given that opportunity, Ed Charles over the next five years became an above average, solid ballplayer on a team that consistently finished near last in the American League. Also; he caught the eye of a ten-years old baseball fan that would keep a love for the game that would not just extend beyond the trading card collection years, but would continue for more than half a century.
Part Two of my tribute to Ed Charles is in my next blog post. I promise it will not be three months before it appears!
Nate Colbert of the San Diego Padres tied a Major League record on August 1, 1972 by hitting five home runs in doubleheader. The story surrounding the first baseman’s feat reflects how the baseball dreams of African-American boys changed as a result of Jackie Robinson erasing Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” in 1947.
On May 2, 1954 in a doubleheader against the New York Giants; St. Louis Cardinal right fielder Stan Musial hit five home runs. There were 26,662 in attendance that Sunday afternoon at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium to see him do what no other Major League player had accomplished. In the first game, Musial hit three home runs and drove in six runs in the Cardinal’s 10 – 6 victory. He hit 2 homers and drove in three runs in the nightcap, but the Giants won 9 – 7.
In the stadium that spring afternoon with his father was eight year old African-American Nate Colbert. I can visualize the excitement on little Nate’s face in seeing his favorite Cardinal ballplayer, “Stan the Man”, hit those five home runs. But Colbert that day also saw Cardinal rookie first baseman Tom Alston, the first African-American to appear in a Major League game for the St. Louis Cardinals.
For the first time in the franchise’s history, the 1954 Cardinal team had African-American players. The 28-year-old Alston made his Major League debut on April 13, earlier than Brooks Lawrence (June 24) and Bill Greason (May 31), the other two African-Americans on the team. A good defensive first baseman, he had a hot bat against the Giants in the doubleheader witnessed by little Nate. In the first game Alston got four hits including a home run, his third of the young season, and two RBIs. The second game he hit a bases loaded double (3 RBIs) in the Cardinals’ first inning. He ended the day batting .313.
Little Nate also saw that day three former Negro League baseball players who appeared in both games for the Giants: Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson. Irvin and Thompson in 1949 were the first African-Americans to play for the Giants.
Fast forward this story to 1964. 18-year-old Nate Colbert is signed by the Cardinals, but they lose him to the Houston Astros in the 1965 Rule Five draft and he never plays a game in the uniform of his hometown team. The Astros then traded him to the San Diego Padres in 1969.
On August 1, 1972; in Colbert’s fourth season with the Padres, he ties the record he saw Stan Musial set in 1954. Colbert hits five home runs in a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. He hits two home runs and drives in five runs as the Padres win the first game 9-0 and hits three homers driving in eight runs in his team’s 11 -7 victory in the nightcap. For the second time in his six years with the Padres, Colbert hits 38 home runs in 1972.
Little Nate Colbert’s Major League career did not come close to that of Stan Musial who is a 1969 Hall of Fame inductee. To tie or break a record in baseball; however, is considered a great accomplishment. And Colbert being present to see the record set that he would eventually tie makes this a unique circumstance. In addition, Colbert got the opportunity to be able to do what he saw his childhood favorite Cardinal ballplayer do because of what he also witnessed that May afternoon.
By seeing Tom Alston, Willie Mays, Hank Thompson, and Monte Irvin play that day; Colbert witnessed the new day in Major League baseball that was occurring. It had dawned in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. It was a new day in which the baseball dreams of little Nate Colbert and other African-American boys were no longer confined to Negro League baseball. A new day that would produce stories like Nate Colbert’s and others as the racial barriers in professional baseball were pulled down in the 1950s and 1960s.
Last month, I taught a course for the summer 2018 session of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Kansas. Entitled, ” Negro League Baseball: The Deep Roots of African-Americans in America’s National Pastime”, the course examined the deep roots African-Americans have in America’s great game because of the Negro League baseball era. It explained how the Negro Leagues provided a vehicle for African Americans and dark-skinned Latino players to showcase their baseball talents despite racial and economic obstacles, painting a true picture of how Negro League baseball is embedded into the fabric of 20th-century American History.
Those attending the course were baseball fans of baby-boomer age and older. Some had very little knowledge of the Negro League era while others were familiar with Negro League lore about “Satchel” Paige, Josh Gibson, and “Cool Papa” Bell. However, they all saw Negro League baseball as a neglected part of the sport’s history and wanted to know more about it. This led to course sessions full of questions and lively discussions about not just Negro League baseball, but also the history of race relations in America.
I want to thank KU’s Osher Institute Director Jim Peters for including my course in this summer’s session. Also, I thank the 17 baseball fans who took six hours from their summer activities to attend the course.
Since the beginning of March on Twitter (follow me at Kevin L. Mitchell @Lasttraintocoop) I have been tweeting about Negro League baseball catchers.
If you have been reading my blog posts any length of time, you are aware of my journey through playing Little League and high school baseball handling the so-called “tools of ignorance”. That is the nickname given to a catcher’s protective equipment: catcher’s mask, chest protector, shin guards. Supposedly coined by Major League catcher “Muddy” Ruel who played in the 1920s and 1930s, the phrase ironically points out the so called smarts needed by a catcher to handle the responsibilities of the position and the foolishness needed to play a position where such protective equipment is required. My less than stellar performance at times questioned if I had the smarts to required for the position, but the pain experienced from being hit by foul tips and from base runners crashing into me trying to score (catchers could block home plate back then) showed my foolishness in playing it.
The catchers I mention in my tweets have not gotten the recognition as the four former Negro League catchers currently in the Baseball Hall of Fame: Roy Campanella (1969), Josh Gibson (1972), James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey (2006), and Louis Santop (2006). However, some did briefly play Major League baseball. Others were outstanding contributors to the success of their team. They all developed the skills necessary to handle the responsibilities of the position and helped to build the legacy of Negro League baseball.
Following are a few of my Twitter tweets on Negro League baseball catchers:
Bruce Petway, best defensive catcher in Negro League baseball in early 1900s. Cuban X Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Chicago American Giants 1911 – 1919, Detroit Stars 1920 – 1925.
Larry “Iron Man” Brown, Negro League career 1921 – 1946, teams included Memphis Red Sox and Chicago American Giants, 7-time Negro League All-Star, Memphis player/manager 1942 – 1944.
Frank Duncan, Kansas City Monarchs 1921 – 1934, 1937, 1941 – 1947. Played on both of Monarchs’ Negro League World Series champions 1924 and 1942. Monarchs’ manager 1942 – 1947.
Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, Negro League All-Star, 3-times catcher and 3-times pitcher, 1931 Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords 1932, Memphis Red Sox 1938 – 39, 41, Birmingham Black Barons 1942 – 1946.
Quincy Trouppe, 5-time Negro League All-Star, St. Louis Stars 1930 – 1931, Indianapolis Clowns 1938, Cleveland Buckeyes 1944 – 1947, signed Cleveland Indians 1952, Major League debut 4/30/52.
Joshua Johnson 1934 – 1940 Homestead Grays 1934 – 35, 1940 back up to Josh Gibson, also played with New York Black Yankees 1938.
Albert “Buster” Haywood, most productive years Cincinnati/Indianapolis Clowns 1943 – 1953, Negro League All-Star 1944, named manager of Clowns 1948, first manager for Henry Aaron 1952.
Sam Hairston, Indianapolis Clowns 1945 – 1948, Signed Chicago White Sox 1950, MLB debut 7/21/51, 1952 – 1960 mainly in White Sox minor league system, 2 sons and 2 grandsons played MLB .
Ray Noble, New York Cubans 1946 – 1948, played on team’s 1947 Negro League World Series champion, New York Giants 1951 – 1953, MLB debut 4/18/51.
Otha “Little Catch” Bailey, Negro League career 1950 – 1959, Cleveland Buckeyes, Houston Eagles, Birmingham Black Barons, 5’6’’, 150 pounds, One of the best catchers in talent diluted Negro Leagues in 1950s.
All photos the courtesy of a variety of internet sites via Google Images
The inclement weather ten days ago on Sunday, April 15, tried to put a damper on Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day celebrations. All Major League players wore number “42”, Jackie’s number, on their uniforms during games that day and other activities were also held at Major League ballparks to honor him. This year marked the 71st anniversary of April 15, 1947, the day Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. The weather this spring forgot it is supposed to be the beginning of baseball season. Six of the scheduled sixteen games on April 15 were cancelled due to cold, wet weather, even snow. In addition, four of the games played were in weather conditions more conducive for football. But recognition of Jackie Robinson’s place in baseball history cannot be damped by bad weather.
Why did I delay my Jackie Robinson Day blog post this year? My past April 15th blog posts on Robinson focused on recapping the game he played in a Brooklyn Dodger uniform on that April 15 at Ebbets Field against the Boston Braves, and highlighting the statistical success of his ten-year Hall of Fame Major League career. However, this year instead of rushing to just write anything about Robinson to put on the blog April 15th, I did more reflecting and have made a more personal post.
I missed Jackie Robinson’s time in baseball. My love for the sport began at the end of his career. He made history on that April 15 day four years before I opened my eyes for the first time. I know my father and older brothers watched Robinson in action on our family’s first television, a black and white Philco, but I cannot recall as a toddler or small child seeing him on the screen. My first TV World Series recollection is Henry Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves’ defeat of the New York Yankees in 1957. Robinson had retired after the end of the 1956 season. But from what the adults in my family said about him, I had my first lesson of racial pride in regards to sports. At six years old I knew of Jackie Robinson as the first “Negro” to play in the Major Leagues.
I know historically that is not true. William Edward White (pictured below left), a former slave, played first base one game for the Providence Grays in 1879. The Grays at that time were in the National League. White has the distinction of being the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues. In addition Moses Fleetwood Walker (pictured below right) in 1884 played with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association, considered a Major League at that time. However, by 1890 the color line barring African-Americans and dark-skinned Hispanics from professional baseball in America became solid until 1947 when Robinson erased it. To the adults in my family, the first Negro they saw in their lifetime play in the Major Leagues; Jackie Robinson. White and Walker were long before their time.
As “baby boomers”, my friends and I idolized players such as Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda and others whose careers began in the late 1950s. And in the early 1960s, Billy Williams, Willie Stargell, other African-American, and dark-skinned Hispanic players came on the scene. We collected their baseball cards, knew all of their statistics, and had our favorite players. As much as I admired those other ball players, however; I held Jackie Robinson in a higher esteem.
By the time I reached high school in the mid to late 1960s, some of Robinson’s political actions and opinions were contrary to that of many African Americans. He came under stern criticism from my generation at that time. Even though the raised fist and shouts of “black power” drowned out Robinson’s more practical approach to racial relations, I did not lose respect for him. I still saw Jackie Robinson as that first symbol of racial pride in sports I learned as a child.
I love seeing the black and white films showing Robinson in action like in the documentary shown this past March on PBS; “Jackie Robinson” by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. The daring way he ran the bases, especially stealing home, is still exciting to me today.
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
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!