This is the second part of my tribute to Frank Robinson, my personal favorite baseball player who died of bone cancer this past February 7th. In remembering him, I will always think about 1966. That year, I got the opportunity to see him play in person. And more importantly, after being defined as “past his prime” and traded, Frank Robinson had the best year of his career.
The Baltimore Orioles did not have a strong history with African-American players since coming into the American League in 1954 when a group of Baltimore investors bought the failing St. Louis Browns franchise and moved it to the city by Chesapeake Bay. The team followed the American League’s slow pace of racial integration in the 1950s. Despite building a strong minor league system, the Orioles’ had not developed an African-American star player. Joe Durham and Jehosie Heard, in 1954, were the first African-Americans to play for the Orioles; both having only brief non-impactful careers. Two former Negro League players had solid seasons with the Orioles in the late 1950s. Pitcher Connie Johnson won 14 games in 1957 and first baseman Bob Boyd hit .300 three consecutive seasons (1956 – 1958). In the early 1960s outfielder Sam Bowens had one good season, 1964, hitting 22 home runs in 139 games. But despite that history, after finishing 3rd the previous two seasons, Baltimore Orioles’ management believed acquiring Frank Robinson could put them over the top in 1966. He hit a double his first At Bat in spring training starting a magical season that would prove them correct.
On May 27th that year, while sitting in the upper deck bleachers far down the right field line at the Kansas City Athletics’ Municipal Stadium, I cheerfully saw Frank Robinson take his right field position; I saw the strut. In his first At Bat, he crowded the plate just as I had seen him do on TV; challenging the pitcher. In the 4th inning he got hit by the pitch, one of the 198 times of his career. The next game I attended when the Orioles came to town Robinson went hitless, but the talk of him winning the Triple Crown had begun. Each day I looked at the newspaper baseball box scores to check his progress. Robinson finished ahead of 4-time American League home run champion Harmon Killebrew 49 to 39. He finished ahead of Tony Oliva, who had won the American League batting title the last two seasons, .316 to .307. With also leading the League with 122 RBI, Robinson won the Triple Crown.
My high school drafting teacher brought a TV to watch the World Series. From my front row drafting desk I saw Frank Robinson’s 1st inning two run home run off Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher Don Drysdale that set the tone for the Orioles’ four games sweeping of the Series. He hit another home run off Drysdale to win Game Four. Named American League Most Valuable Player in 1966, Robinson is the only one to receive MVP honors in both leagues, winning it while with Cincinnati in 1961. During Robinson’s time in Baltimore, the Orioles also won American League pennants in 1969 – 71 and were World Series champions in 1970.
Frank Robinson’s autobiography is called “My Life is Baseball” (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 1975). That title reflects a true picture of his relationship with the game. Near the end of his playing career in 1974, he became the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball. The Cleveland Indians were the first of four teams in Robinson’s 16 year career as a manager, 1,065 wins and 1,176 losses. He had the reputation as having a “hard-nosed”, “old school” approach at managing, although he did mellow in the in the way he handled players as he got older. I remember Robinson’s competitive spirit on display when seeing the Indians play the Kansas City Royals in 1975. Throughout the National Anthem, Robinson jawed back and forth with the home plate umpire while they both looked up at the flag. He had his critics, but also gained the highest respect and esteem in the Major League Baseball community for his overall accomplishments in the sport. During his career, Frank Robinson served as a batting coach, an outfield coach, a consultant for club owners, and held positions in the Office of Major League Baseball.
I will miss my favorite baseball player. Playing on my high school’s first baseball team the spring of 1967 and throughout the amateur summer leagues, I chose # 20 as my uniform number. I still have his 1959, 1960, 1964 Topps baseball cards (lost 1965s) and also the Post Cereal Frank Robinson cards for 1961 – 63. I still have memories of that 1966 season. Also, I still have that vision of my first seeing of him circling the bases after that home run in the 1959 All-Star Game. Frank Robinson had the run, that strut, I will never forget.
From 1959 – 1962 there were two Major League All-Star Games played with most of the revenue from the second going for players’ pension fund. During the telecast of the second All-Star Game in 1959, played on August 3 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, I saw Frank Robinson for the first time. I had only heard about him when my father and older brothers talked about African-American baseball players. However; three days before my 8th birthday, I got my first real look at #20 that afternoon on our RCA black & white TV screen. The 83 years old former outfielder and manager died this past February 7th. I know this post will get lost in the thousands of verbal and written tributes to him and his accomplishments in baseball. But I have to write it. I took the death of Frank Robinson, my favorite all-time baseball player, # 20, personally. In remembering him, the following thoughts come to my mind.
First, I will remember Frank Robinson as the first African-American star Major League baseball player that did not get his start in Negro League baseball. Signed out of McClymonds High School in Oakland, California by the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1953, he faced the existing racial discrimination in professional baseball in the 1950s; in the minor leagues (SALLY League 1955) and in spring training (Tampa, Florida). Before national sportswriters voted Robinson National League Rookie of the Year in 1956 when he hit .293 with 38 home runs, the previous African-American winners were all former Negro League players: Jackie Robinson (1947), Don Newcombe (1949), Sam Jethroe (1950), Willie Mays (1951), Joe Black (1952), and Jim Gilliam (1953). In 1961 Frank Robinson won National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors (.323 BA, 37 HRs, 124 RBI, 22 SB) leading Cincinnati to win the National League pennant. The African- American MVP Award winners up until that time were all former Negro League players: Jackie Robinson (1949), Roy Campanella (1951, 1953, 1955), Willie Mays (1954), Henry Aaron (1957), and Ernie Banks (1958, 1959). Frank Robinson followed the path in the 1950s set by Jackie Robinson and other former Negro League players to have a Hall of Fame (1982 inductee) baseball career.
Secondly, I will always remember how Frank Robinson ran. During that second 1959 Major League All-Star Game, Robinson hit a 5th inning home run off Early Wynn. The way he circled the bases in his sleeveless Cincinnati Redlegs (they were not called the Reds back in 1959) uniform wearing a red short-sleeved jersey underneath, got my attention. To me, Robinson had a distinctive running style; straight-backed, stiff-legged, pumping his arms up and down at his hips. It seemed like a confident strut or pimp, a reflection of his highly competitive aggressive approach to playing baseball, and it stuck in my mind about him. I still have an image of other stars from that era; Mickey Mantle swinging his bat with all his body’s physical strength, Willie Mays running from under his cap, Henry Aaron playing with such ease and grace he hardly seem to break a sweat, and Ernie Banks’ smiling “let’s play two” joy about the game. But Frank Robinson, to me, had the run; the strut.
Then I will always remember Frank Robinson’s best season, 1966. Cincinnati’s trade of him to the Baltimore Orioles on December 9, 1965 turned the American League on its head. The team rosters of that 1959 All-Star Game when I first saw him reflected the slower pace of racial diversity in the junior circuit at that time. The American League All-Star team had three African-American or dark-skinned Latino ball players as compared to nine for the National League. It had been twelve years since Jackie Robinson erased the color line in 1947, but two American League clubs had just become integrated; the Detroit Tigers with Ozzie Virgil in 1958 and the Boston Red Sox with Pumpsie Green in 1959. In 1963, Elston Howard of the New York Yankees, a product of Negro League baseball, became the first African-American to receive MVP honors in the American League. In ten years with Cincinnati, Robinson hit 324 home runs while averaging 100 RBIs and a .301 batting average. However General Manager Bill Dewitt, believing him past his prime and calling him “an old 30 years of age with an old body”, in what would turn out to be one of the worst trades in baseball history sent Frank Robinson to the American League.
My tribute to the late Frank Robinson will continue in my next blog post. Stay tuned!
All images used for this post were taken from internet web sites
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.
One of the many topics of discussion by sportscasters during the recently completed 2017 World Series involved Los Angeles Dodgers’ right fielder Yasiel Puig. The club is still hoping he will continue to mature and more consistently display his tremendous baseball playing talent. Puig, a native of Cuba, is one of the most recent in a pipeline of outfielders from that Caribbean nation to successfully play professional baseball in the United States. Yoenis Cespedes, currently with the New York Mets is also from Cuba. Former players from the pipeline include Oakland A’s All-Star Jose Canseco, two-time American League batting champion (1964, 1965) Tony Oliva, the defensive star of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1955 World Series Game Seven win over the New York Yankees; Sandy Amoros, and two-time Negro League, seven-time Major League All-Star Orestes “Minnie” Minoso.
I forgot to give a birthday mention last week for one of the first in the stream of outfielders through the pipeline; Cristobal Torriente, born November 16, 1893 in Cienfuegos, Cuba (same as Puig). He played with a number of teams in Negro League baseball from 1913 to 1932; including the Chicago American Giants (1918 – 1925), Kansas City Monarchs (1926), and Detroit Stars (1927 – 1928). In an early 1950’s poll of former Negro League baseball players and sports writers, Cristobal Torriente received high consideration as one of the best outfielders in Negro League history.
In 2006, Cristobal Torriente and fifteen other individuals from the Negro League baseball era were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I profile the 2006 inductees in my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. The following is an excerpt from my profile of Cristobal Torriente:
“At the end of World War I, Chicago was becoming an urban
mecca for African Americans. The lure of the possibility for
economic stability and a better life had fueled the migration of
southern blacks to the city. Rube Foster used the growing aura
Chicago had for African Americans to attract ballplayers to his
Chicago American Giants. He felt the city gave him an advantage
When talking to a player about joining his team. Other owners
accused Foster of using what Chicago was becoming for African
Americans to steal their ballplayers. Foster’s approach proved
successful with Torriente, who went to play for the American
Giants in 1918. He had excellent seasons with the Cuban Stars,
however it would be with Foster’s team that Torriente would reach
his peak as a baseball player.
Having the most area to cover, centerfield is the most
challenging outfield position. Most managers choose their fastest
outfielder to play it. This was Rube Foster’s thinking in regards to
Cristobal Torriente. Although the Cuban mostly played right field in
his years with the Cuban Stars, his speed and strong arm were a
perfect fit for centerfield in Foster’s mind. With Torriente as the
anchor in centerfield, the American Giants went on to have a
consistently good outfield for many years. Good ballplayers such as
Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, Jimmy Lyons, Floyd “Jelly” Gardner,
and David Malarcher all shared the American Giants’ outfield at one
time or another with Torriente.
When Rube Foster’s vision became a reality in 1920 and the
Negro National League (NNL) was formed, his Chicago American
Giants became its premier team from the start. They won the league
championship the first three years (1920 – 1922). The lack of
documented league statistics prevents a true picture from being
given of Torriente’s performance on the field during the American
Giants’ years of dominance. Research indicates he finished those
seasons hitting from .342 to as high as .411. Clearly, they were his
best seasons in the Negro Leagues.”
To read the entire profile of Torriente and the other 2006 inductees Last Train to Cooperstown
“Last Train to Cooperstown”
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The World Series is the most anticipated event and the most exciting time of the season for baseball fans. The American and National League pennant winners clash in what is traditionally referred to as the “Fall Classic” to determine who will get the crown of World Series Champion. It is a huge part of baseball history. This year’s Series, the 113th, began last Tuesday. The Los Angeles Dodgers, a long time National League franchise which began as the Brooklyn Grays in 1890, is going against the Houston Astros who began as a National League franchise in 1962 (Houston Colt 45s) and were switched to the American League in 2013. The Dodgers are after their fifth World Series title (Brooklyn Dodgers 1955, Los Angeles Dodgers 1959, 1963, 1965, 1981, and 1988), while the Astros their first.
But this blog post is not a commentary on the 2017 World Series. It is to give attention to the other World Series also a part of baseball history. On October 3, 1924; the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League (NNL) took on the Hilldale Club of Darby, Pennsylvania of the Eastern Colored League (ECL) in the first game of the initial Negro League Baseball World Series. Although never the financial success of the Negro League East-West All Star Game (1933 – 1948), the Negro League World Series gave an indication of Negro League baseball’s attempt at relative stability in the face of its economic and racial discrimination barriers. Held for eleven years, 1924 – 1927 and 1942 – 1948, it is the “forgotten” World Series.
By 1924, the acrimony between the two primary Negro professional baseball leagues had subsided to a level favorable to begin a championship series with the pennant winners of each. Chicago American Giant owner/manager Andrew “Rube” Foster had formed the Negro National League (NNL) in 1920 consisting of teams in mid America (Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, etc.). Organized of teams along the eastern seaboard (New York, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, etc.), the Eastern Colored League (ECL) began operating in 1923. Many NNL players broke their contracts to play for more money in the ECL angering Foster. In addition, he had other financial feuds with some owners of ECL teams. However, the leagues were able to forgo their differences to pursue the potential benefits from a championship series.
In an attempt to maximize revenue (ticket sales), league officials decided on a best five out of nine series format; same as the Major League’s World Series in 1919 – 1921. Also, in addition to the cities of the participating teams, some games would be played in cities with a large African-American population.
In the inaugural Negro League World Series in 1924 there were a number of players who now have plaques in the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Cooperstown, New York). The Kansas City Monarchs had pitchers Wilber “Bullet” Rogan, a 1998 Hall of Fame inductee, and Jose Mendez (2006), who also was the team’s manager. Third baseman Judy Johnson inducted in 1975, catcher Biz Mackey (2006) and catcher Louis Santop (2006) were on the Hilldale club. The latter two were involved in one of the key plays in the Series. In Game Seven with the Series tied three games apiece, the Monarchs trailed 3 -2 in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and the bases loaded. The Monarch’s batter Frank Duncan hit a foul ball behind home plate within the reach of Santop which should have resulted in a Hilldale victory. But the catcher dropped it, giving Duncan another swing. On the next pitch Duncan hit a ground ball that got past Biz Mackey who was playing shortstop to give the Monarchs a 4 – 2 win.
Hilldale recovered to win Game Eight to tie the Series. Monarch’s manager Jose Mendez, supposedly past his prime at 37 years old, pitched a 5 – 0 shutout in Game Nine for Kansas City to be the first Negro League World Series champion. The teams played the Series in four cities; two games in Philadelphia, one in Baltimore, three in Kansas City, and three in Chicago.
They met again in the 1926 Series, but with a different outcome. accidentally punctured with a needle in the knee by his son, Monarchs pitcher and best hitter “Bullet” Rogan could not play. Hilldale won the Series four games to one. Biz Mackey, who had replaced the aging Louis Santop at catcher, hit .360 including three hits in the Series clinching Game Five.
Both the 1926 and 1927 Negro League World Series featured the NNL’s Chicago American Giants against the ECL’s Atlantic City Bacharach Giants. Due to a debilitating illness to “Rube” Foster, Dave Malarcher took over as manager for Chicago. Excellent pitching highlighted the Series both years. In 1926, Atlantic City left-handed pitcher Red Grier hurled a no-hitter in Game Three. However, Chicago’s Bill Foster, Rube’s brother, was the pitching star for the Series. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996 and considered the best left-handed pitcher in Negro League baseball history, Foster won two games as his team took the Series five games to three. In Game Eight, the Series clincher, he pitched a five hit shutout winning 1 – 0. In the 1927 Series, Atlantic City beat Foster twice. However, he still won Game 1 and Game 8 as Chicago won the Series again five games to three.
In most written accounts of the “Great Depression”, it does not officially start until the New York Stock Market crashes in 1929. However, economic hard times had hit African-Americans by the mid-1920s. Negro League baseball game attendance dramatically declined as fans had no money to support the teams. As a result many Negro League teams, low on capital from the start, went out of business. After the 1927 season, the ECL disbanded and the NNL economically limped to the end of the decade. With only one official league operating and facing extremely difficult economic times, the Negro League World Series disappeared after those four years, 1924 – 1927. However, this is not the end of its story. Stay tuned.
To read more about Negro League baseball history Last Train to Cooperstown
I did not totally forget to acknowledge the birthday of Negro League outfielder Pete Hill last week, born October 12, 1882 – 84. If you follow me on Twitter, @Lasttraintocoop, you saw my tweet acknowledging it. Please excuse my unintended slight of him on this blog. Hill, a fine fielder and consistent .300 plus hitter, is now considered one of the best outfielders in baseball during the “Deadball Era” (1900 – 1919).
The National Baseball Hall of Fame agreed in 2006 with that assessment of Pete Hill. He along with eleven other players and five executives all from Negro League baseball were inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown that year. Hill’s induction gave him overdue recognition as a contemporary of Ty Cobb (1936 Hall of Fame inductee) and Tris Speaker (1937 Hall of Fame inductee), the best Major League outfielders of the early 20th Century.
The following is an excerpt from my book Last Train in Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era, in which I profile Pete Hill and the other 2006 inductees from Negro League baseball.
“In 1901, Hill left Pittsburgh for New York to play for the Cuban X
Giants. Being only 21, he could not break into the starting lineup to
play regularly. But, the young outfielder caught the eye of Sol White,
manager of the X Giants’ main rival, the Philadelphia Giants. White
recruited Hill to play for his team in 1903.
With the Philadelphia Giants, he began to mature as a ballplayer.
In 1904, he was the center fielder for what many say was the best
black team of the early 20th century era. With Hill leading the way,
the Giants were proclaimed winners of the “Colored Championship
of the World” in 1904, 1905, and 1906. This was the title given to
the top black team on the east coast. Charles “Kid” Carter, James
Booker, Charlie Grant, Emmett Bowman, and Dan McClellan were
other good players on the Giants with Hill.
Another teammate of Hill was Andrew “Rube” Foster. Foster at
that time was one of the best pitchers in black baseball. He would
later become the “father” of Negro League baseball and a member
of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The friendship with Foster would have
a major influence on the remainder of Pete Hill’s baseball career.
After the 1906 season, Foster left the Philadelphia Giants to
become the manager for the Chicago Leland Giants. He took six of
his Philadelphia Giants teammates with him, including Pete Hill.
Under the leadership of Rube Foster, Hill’s career blossomed
with the Chicago team. He was the team captain and was taught the
ins and outs of managing by his friend. Hill continued to build on
his reputation as a great hitter and the Leland Giants became one of
the most dominant African-American teams in the country’s
To read more about Pete Hill and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
African-American players were not welcome in professional baseball prior to the beginning of the 20th Century due to racial prejudice and discrimination. However, the “invisible color line” that would keep them out of Major League baseball for nearly half the upcoming 20th Century was not completely drawn prior to 1890. Despite the adverse racial attitudes against them, there were eight known African-American players on white teams at the highest levels of organized professional baseball during the 1880’s; John W. “Bud” Fowler, Moses Fleetwood Walker, Weldy Walker, Robert Higgins, Richard Johnson, George Stovey, Sol White, and Ulysses F. (Frank) Grant.
Born on August 1, 1865 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Frank Grant was not only the best of those eight but also one of the best baseball players of that era. At 5’7” and 155 pounds, he was more than just a singles hitter with speed. He stroked doubles, triples, and even home runs during baseball’s “dead ball” era when the ball did not carry far when hit due to its soft center core. An acrobatic fielder with a strong throwing, Grant played mostly second base but when needed also handled third and shortstop.
In 2006 Grant, along with fifteen others from the Negro League baseball era, were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The following is an excerpt of my profile of Frank Grant from my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”:
“In the early years of professional baseball the attitude towards
black and Hispanic players was grounded in racial prejudice. Both
the National League formed in 1876, and the American League
formed in 1901, would not allow them the opportunity to play
baseball. The “color line” was drawn, but there were cracks in it
that allowed Frank Grant and a few other blacks to play on white
Grant began his professional career playing for Meriden,
Connecticut in the Eastern League at a time when the game was
still evolving. Batting averages were high as the batter had four
strikes and a walk counted as a hit. Teams were built on speed, not
power. The Meriden team broke up in July of 1886 and that’s when
Grant joined the Buffalo Bisons who were in the International
Association, one of the top minor leagues. In his first at bat Grant
hit a triple. He hit .340 for the remaining 45 games and a national
sports magazine called him the best all‐around player to wear a
The next year Grant helped lead Buffalo to a second place finish.
Not only was he the team’s leading hitter at .366, but he also hit
with power. Although only 5’7”, 155 lbs., he was the league’s leading
slugger hitting 11 home runs, 27 doubles, 11 triples, and he stole 40
bases. Grant hit for the cycle (home run, triple, double, & single) in
one game and stole home twice in two others. An acrobatic fielder
with a strong throwing arm, he also played shortstop or third base
In spite of his success on the playing field, Grant had trouble due
to the color of his skin. Fans shouted racially insulting comments
from the grandstands at him, including the Bison fateful who never
believed the claim he was from Spain. Grant was a target for
opposing pitchers when he batted as they constantly hit him.
Opposing base runners tried to hurt him on put out plays at second
base. Instead of the previously customary head first slide, they
started sliding feet first to cut Grant’s legs with the metal spikes on
their baseball shoes. When he began wearing wooden leg castings
for protection, the white players sharpened their spikes in order to
split the wood when their feet hit his legs.”
To read more about Frank Grant and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
The following is an excerpt from my book Last Train in Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era, which contains a profile of the Hall of Fame catcher James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, born 7/27/1897:
“Eagle Pass, Texas is a small town south of Del Rio near the
Mexican border. Here on July 27, 1897 James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey
opened his eyes the first time. This makes him another member of
the Texas fraternity of Negro League ball players from the Lone Star
state; that includes Andy Cooper, Willie Wells, Rube Foster, Louis
Santop, and others. Before becoming a teenager he moved with his
family to Luling which is east of San Antonio on the road to
Houston. The Mackeys were sharecroppers. Biz, along with his
brothers, worked on the farm most of the day and then played
baseball until dark. They used boards as bats and anything they
could find as a ball. By 1916 the black amateur baseball team in
Luling, the Oilers, had three Mackey brothers on its roster; Ray,
Ernest, and Biz.
The San Antonio Aces, a black minor league team, signed Biz in
- Charlie Bellinger, the Aces’ owner, had a friendship with
Indianapolis ABCs’ manager CI Taylor. Bellinger always looked for
good ball players in Texas that would help Taylor’s team. After the
Aces folded in 1919, he sold Mackey and five other players to the
Biz arrived in Indianapolis at the perfect time. The first official
African-American baseball league, the Negro National League
(NNL), formed in 1920 with the ABCs one of the charter teams.
The twenty‐three year old Texan shared the dugout his first year
with Hall of Famers Oscar Charleston and Ben Taylor, along with
“Cannonball” Dick Reading. Used as a utility infielder and outfielder,
Mackey also began to learn the craft of playing the game under the
master teacher, CI Taylor. With his manager’s help, Biz became a
switch hitter and developed into one of the team’s top run
producers. Some records show he hit over .300 each of his three
years in Indianapolis, helping the team finish second in 1921.
CI Taylor died before that year ended, replaced by his brother
Ben as the ABCs’ manager. However, with his mentor CI gone,
Mackey’s ties to the team were loosened. The owners of the newly
formed Eastern Colored League (ECL) in 1923 looked to lure away
NNL players. Accepting an offer from Ed Bolden, owner of the
Hilldale Club, Biz headed east without hesitation.”
Mackey’s Hall of Fame induction solidified him with the white contemporaries his era, Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane, and Bill Dickey, as one of the best catchers in baseball history.
To read more about “Biz” Mackey and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
Willard Brown, born 6/26/15, is said to have fit the bill of what is called a “five tool” baseball player. A superb fielding outfielder; Brown ran the bases with blazing speed, had a strong throwing arm, and could hit for a high average with home run power. Many ascribed to him by the nickname “Home Run” Brown. He played for the Kansas City Monarchs mostly throughout his Negro League career (1935 – 1950). He served in the military (1944 – 1945) during World War II and briefly played Major League baseball in 1947 with the St. Louis Browns. On August 13, 1947 Brown became the first African-American to hit a home run in the American League.
In 2006, Willard Brown and fifteen other individuals from the Negro League baseball era were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I profile the 2006 inductees in my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. The following is a brief book exert from my profile of Willard Brown:
“Brown had a tendency to appear bored during games. When
that happened it is said he would take a magazine with him to the
outfield to read between pitches. And sometimes he would walk
instead of running to his outfield position, holding up the start of an
inning. This gave an impression of Brown by some as having a
“prima donna” attitude.
But former teammate and manager Buck O’Neil said, “Willard
was so talented, he did not look as if he was hustling. Everything
looked so easy for him.” Brown’s extreme talent made it appear he
did things effortlessly. While most players ran around the bases, he
seemed to glide. The exhaustion of the game would be evident on
most players, but it appeared Brown hardly broke a sweat. O’Neil
felt that no matter what “Home Run” Brown did, people thought he
could do a little more because of his enormous talent.
But Negro League fans appreciated the play of Willard Brown.
They selected him to participate in six Negro League East‐West All
Star Games. In ten All Star plate appearances Brown had five hits.
As an indication of Negro League baseball’s relative prosperity
after surviving the economic depression of the late 1920s and
1930s, the Negro League World Series was played in 1942. There
had not been one since 1927. The 1942 fall classic saw the two
most recognized Negro League franchises tangle, the Kansas City
Monarchs against the Homestead Grays. Willard Brown was one of
the series’ hitting stars as the Monarchs swept the Grays four
games to none. He batted .412 (7 hits in 17 at bats) with one double,
one triple, and of course one home run.”
To read more about Willard Brown and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown