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.
Check out my interview discussing “Last Train to Cooperstown” on the podcast BASEBALL HAPPENINGS NET. Thanks to Nick Diunte for having me on his website’s podcast.
The death of former Negro League player Art Pennington is mentioned in the interview. He died last month, January 4. Pennington played outfield and first base for the Chicago American Giants from 1940 – 1946, 1950.
His passing is another loss in the dwindling number of former Negro League players still alive. This makes it even more important for the story of Negro League baseball must continue to be told. As the nation celebrates African-American history this month, the Negro League baseball era should be included in the celebration. Although established due to racial discrimination, it is an important part of 20th Century African American history.
To read more on the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown