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.
Jackie Robinson’s erasing of the color line in 1947 to become the first African-American to play Major League in the 20th Century began the process of racially integrating professional baseball. A slow and reluctant process, it coincided with the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Overcoming racial discrimination and prejudice in a sport did in no way compare to facing physical harm and even death in fighting for equal rights given under the Constitution of the United States. However due to baseball’s prominence as the “national pastime”, many saw the integration of Major League baseball symbolically as one of the first steps in social progress for African-Americans. The racial integration of Major League baseball and the Civil Rights Movement were both a part of the massive seismic shift in racial relations occurring after World War II that would forever change the nation. How they coincided is shown in the story of the scheduled exhibition games in the spring of 1956 between the Kansas City A’s and the Pittsburgh Pirates to be played in Birmingham, Alabama. On February 15, 1956; they were cancelled.
It had been a tradition for Major League teams at the close of spring training to play exhibition games as they traveled north to begin the season. The spring “barnstorming circuit” mostly consisted of cities in the southern United States. These games were an economic boom for them as baseball fans from the surrounding areas came, for what would be the only opportunity for some, to see Major League players. When Major League teams began to become racially integrated in the 1950s, this tradition clashed with the “Jim Crow” laws that forbade interracial sports competition. The municipal government of these cities had to choose between receiving the commercial benefits from the games versus upholding their racial separation law. Most chose the former. Despite threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan, Atlanta officials overrode the laws to allow the Brooklyn Dodgers who had Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Jackie Robinson to play the all-white Atlanta Crackers a three game series in the spring of 1949.
The city of Birmingham, Alabama initially made a different choice and maintained its ban of interracial athletic competition. However, after being eliminated from the spring exhibition circuit for years due to the ban, the city commissioners lifted it on January 26, 1954. That spring, the Brooklyn Dodgers played an exhibition game in Birmingham against the Milwaukee Braves. But the city racial hardliners used the fear that the desegregation of sports would lead to desegregation in other aspects of life in Birmingham (schools, department stores, public accommodations, etc.) to force a voter referendum to reestablish the ban. On June 1, the referendum passed stating, “It shall be unlawful for a negro or white person to play together or in company with each other any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, football, softball, basketball, or similar games”. It was City Ordinance 597, named the “checker ordinance”.
With the ordinance reinstated banning interracial athletic competition in June 1954, how did the two exhibition games between the Kansas City A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates get scheduled for the spring of 1956? The A’s at that time had American League All-Star and former Negro League outfielder Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, first baseman Vic Power who was from Puerto Rico, and outfielder Hector Lopez from Panama. Power’s friend and fellow islander future Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente and former Negro League infielder Curt Roberts both played for the Pirates. The games would have been a violation of the ordinance. Were they scheduled while the ban had been lifted in 1954? Had there been talk of overriding or ignoring the ban to play the game? What if any part did the racial tension caused by the bus boycott by African-Americans in Montgomery, 92 miles down state, going on at that time play in the decision to cancel the games? Come back for Part Two!
*Information for this blog was provided from the book “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution” by Diane McWhorter (Simon & Schuster 2001)
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Due to being shut down the last few days by a bad cold, I failed yesterday to acknowledge the birthday of Negro League left-handed pitcher Andy Cooper. Born April 24, 1898 in Waco, Texas; Cooper is considered one of the best southpaw pitchers in Negro League baseball history; Willie Foster the only one deemed better. At 6’2″, 220 pounds, he had the physical stature of a power pitcher. But Andy Cooper did not overpower hitters. Nicknamed “Lefty”, he used a variety of pitches at different speeds to keep hitters off-balance to get them out. He pitched for the Detroit Stars (1920 – 1927) and the Kansas City Monarchs (1928 – 1937). Also, with Cooper as manager, the Monarchs won the Negro American League pennant in 1939 and 1940.
The following is an exert from my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era” in which I profile Andy Cooper;
“In his prime, Hall of Famer Satchel Paige’s fastball was described by batters as
being the size of a half-dollar or a pea. By the nickname given other
pitchers, the batters knew what to expect when facing them.
“Smokey” Joe Williams, “Cannonball” Dick Redding, Wilber “Bullet”
Rogan, and “Steel Arm” Johnny Taylor were just a few whose name
preceded their pitches. Using radar technology to gauge the speed
of pitches was not introduced into baseball until the 1970s.
However, if it had been used to clock the pitches of the great Negro
League baseball hurlers, it would have registered at ninety‐plus
miles per hour many times.
But Andrew Lewis Cooper was a different kind of pitcher. He
did not overpower batters. “Lefty” as he was nicknamed, used a
variety of pitches at different speeds to get batters out.
In order to hit the ball solidly, a batter must have balanced
coordination and timing between his legs, waist, shoulders, and
hands. If a pitcher can disrupt that coordination and timing, getting
the hitter swinging too early or too late; it usually leads to a fly out,
ground out or strike out. Andy Cooper was a master of keeping
hitters off-balance. Not having the blazing fastball like other great
Negro League pitchers, he had the ability to get batters out by
disrupting their coordination and timing. “Lefty” had a successful
career by frustrating and fooling them with his arsenal of pitches.”
To read more about Andy Cooper and the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
Despite the current lukewarm attitude about baseball of African-Americans, April 15 is still an important date in not only baseball history, but also African-American history.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American since before the turn of the century to play Major League baseball. Wearing Number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played first base and batted second in the team’s home opener at Ebbet’s Field against the Boston Braves. In three at bats, he reached base on an error and scored a run in the Dodgers’ 5 – 3 win.
To celebrate the day of Robinson’s debut, April 15 is designated by Major League Baseball; “Jackie Robinson Day”. All Major League players will wear number “42”, Jackie’s number, on their uniforms during games today and other activities will also be held at Major League ballparks to honor him.
Growing up in a home where my father and two older brothers were baseball fans, I was made aware at an early age of Jackie Robinson. However; his mark in history, both African-American and Twentieth Century American, continues to grow in significance sixty-nine years after that Brooklyn spring day in 1947. A mark that he made through his excellence on the baseball diamond whose impact goes well beyond the sport itself.
Robinson hit .297 in 1947 and led the National League in stolen bases. Although many sportswriters doubted he would be successful, the National Sportswriters Association named him 1947 National League Rookie of the Year. In 1949, he led the National League in hitting (.342), stolen bases, and drove in 124 runs. For his efforts Robinson won the National League Most Valuable Player Award. He hit over .300 six in his 10 Major League seasons, and over .290 two others. A six-time National League All-Star, Robinson helped the Dodgers win six National League pennants (finishing second four times) and one World Series championship (1955).
But I missed his playing career! When I made my entrance into the world in August 1951, Robinson and the Dodgers were in the process of blowing a 14 1/2 lead against the second place New York Giants to lose the National League pennant. There was no ESPN, CNN Sports, Fox Sports Net, or MLB Network in the 1950s. I am sure Jackie would have made the ESPN Top Ten Plays of the Day highlights numerous times. He retired after the 1956 season as I was in the kindergarten class of Miss Williams at Kealing Elementary. That is why I love seeing the black and white films showing him in action like in the documentary showed last week on PBS; “Jackie Robinson: A Film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMaHon”. The daring way he ran the bases, especially stealing home, is still exciting today.
Truthfully Jackie Robinson was not the best player in Negro League baseball when Dodger Vice-President and General Manager Branch Rickey signed him in 1945. But he was named the 1946 International League’s Most Valuable Player while with the Dodgers top minor league team in Montreal. Bob Feller, the star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians said Robinson would never be good enough as a hitter to make it in the Major Leagues. How ironic was it that they were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame together in 1962. Jackie Robinson accepted the hopes and expectations for success of his race as he faced the expectations and predictions of his failure from those opposed to him. Despite this pressure from all sides, he proved his skeptics wrong and opened the door for other African-American and dark-skinned Latino ball players to play Major League baseball. Jackie Robinson was an extra-ordinary man God equipped for a super extra-ordinary task!
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
Teammates would say when Negro League power hitter George “Mule” Suttles, born March 31, 1900 or 1901, swung his bat at a pitch they could feel the earth shake. “Kick Mule, Kick Mule”, is what fans and teammates would chant when “Mule” came up to bat. The fifty ounce bat he swung was a testament to his strength.
Although the year of his birth is in dispute one thing is not, other than Josh Gibson; no other power slugger was feared by Negro League pitchers more than “Mule”. Suttles may not have hit more home runs than Gibson, but he could hit them as far.
The following about Suttles is an excerpt from my book, Last Train in Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era:
“Because of the lack of documented Negro League baseball statistics, the total number of home runs hit by Suttles is not known. Supposedly, he led the Negro National League in round trippers twice. There is an eyewitness account of a 500 foot home run he hit over the centerfield fence at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Hall of Fame Negro League shortstop Willie Wells frequently told the story of a 600 foot home run “Mule” hit at Havana’s Tropical Park while playing in the Cuban Winter League. The ball carried out of the stadium and over the heads of the Cuban soldiers on horseback doing crowd control duty behind the fence. Afterwards, a marker was supposedly placed at the spot the ball landed commemorating “Mule’s” blast. Another version of that home run has it landing in the ocean.
Chico Renfro, former Kansas City Monarch’s infielder and longtime sports editor recalled, “Suttles had the rawest power of any player I’ve ever seen.” Since the major white newspapers mainly ignored Negro League baseball, “Mule” was not included when the Major League power hitters of that time ‐ Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hack Wilson, Jimmie Foxx, and others, were given national media recognition. However, “Mule” was popular among Negro League baseball fans because they knew the stories about his home run power.”
To read more about “Mule” Suttles and the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
Born on February 8, 1924 in Plainfield, New Jersey; right-handed pitcher Joe Black possessed a power fastball and natural slider. Black pitched with the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro National League (1943 -1950) while finishing college (Morgan State) and then was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
As a 26 years old Major League rookie, Black pitched in relief for Dodgers in 1952. His former Elite Giant teammate Roy Campanella was the Dodgers’ catcher. Black won 15 games; he also saved 15 and received the 1952 National League Rookie of the Year award.
To Black’s surprise, Dodgers’ manager Chuck Dressen chose him to be the starting pitcher against the New York Yankees in Game One of the World Series. Black had only started two games during the regular season. He responded by becoming the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game beating the Yankees 4 – 2. However, Black lost Game Four 2 – 0 and Game Seven 4 – 2. He finished the Series with a 2.15 ERA, lowest of all Dodger starting pitchers.
After a six-year Major League career (1952 – 1957) in which he was 30 – 12, Black worked in business becoming a vice president at the Greyhound Corporation.
Learn more about the Negro League Baseball Era Last Train To Cooperstown
February is African American history month. Below is my interview for the website www.margareekmitchell.com about my book “Last Train To Cooperstown”. Negro League baseball is a huge part of 20th Century African American history and should be included in this month’s celebration.
Why did you write “Last Train to Cooperstown”?
I wrote the book in response to the current decline of popularity for baseball by African Americans. Due to social, economic, and other issues; the attention of African American youth has been diverted from the game. Basketball and football are now the main sports they participate. The number of African Americans playing Major League baseball is less than during the late 1950s through 1970s. With no Lebron James, Steph Curry, or Cam Newton high profile type player in baseball, African American attendance at Major League baseball games has decreased.
The book’s purpose is to indicate that because of Negro League baseball’s rich history and its everlasting impact on the game, African Americans have deep, grounded roots in baseball that cannot be severed by the current trends. The stories of the 2006 Hall of Fame Inductees from Negro League baseball in the book are reminders of those deep, everlasting roots. Readers will get a deeper understanding of Negro League baseball as not just a part of baseball history or African America history, but as being imbedded into the fabric of 20th Century American history.
How did you get interested in baseball?
I think my interest in the sport began to develop in 1957 when I was six years old. Baseball reigned during that time as the nation’s favorite sport. Henry Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves’ defeat of the New York Yankees in 1957 was my first TV World Series recollection. I played a form of stickball with my brother, Lephus Jr., in our backyard. My friend, Big Mike, and I would take turns using the handle of a cut off broom to hit a rubber ball my brother pitched to us. We turned the small yard into a make shift asymmetrical ballfield. A red barrel used for burning trash served as first base. Air pollution had not yet become a concern in 1957 so open trash burning in the city was not illegal yet. When I hit a double, I would run to touch the red barrel and then head to second base; the southeast back corner of our garage where my father very seldom kept his car. When scoring from second on Big Mike’s single I would have to remember to touch third base, a post of our neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Shern’s wire fence.
With both of my older brothers and my father being baseball fans, I would watch baseball games on TV with them. There were no 24 hour Cable TV sports stations televising games. The Kansas City CBS affiliate TV station could not televise the weekend national Game of the Week due to the television blackout policy in the 1950s for cities with Major League teams. So we watched selected road games the Kansas City Athletics televised. Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, Hector Lopez, and Bob Cerv are the A’s players with which I first became familiar. I also would listen to my brothers and their friends talk about other Major League players, especially African American ones (Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, etc). Jackie Robinson had retired the previous year (1956), but my awareness of race relations at six years old was enough to allow me to know of him as the first “Negro” to play in the Major Leagues. However, I was too young to have a deeper understanding of his significance.
Why do you think African American kids have lost interest in baseball?
This could be the topic of someone’s dissertation because there are so many issues as to why African American kids have lost interest in the game. There are social, economic, racial, political, and other factors; and they are all intertwined. A change in the times and differences in the world surrounding different generations also must be considered.
In my opinion, baseball failed to keep up with the increasingly intense competition from football and basketball that developed in the 1980s for capturing the attention of African American kids. The competition was a subset of a changing world, one obviously now much different than when I was a kid interested in the sport.
Being of “baby boomer” age, I grew up doing the time when baseball reigned as America’s pastime with no other sport seriously vying for my attention. My love for the game began and was nurtured during the time called “baseball’s golden era”, the 1950s and 1960s when young white and black boys were passionate about the sport. My friends and I collected baseball cards and knew the names of the players on all the Major League teams. We had Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, and an increasing number of other African American players to emulate. We saw them play on TV, but mostly read about them in the newspaper and magazines. The All-Star Game and the World Series were baseball special events we looked forward to each year with excitement.
Pro football and basketball were growing sports we played, but they failed to capture our allegiance from baseball. They had not yet turned into the billion-dollar advertising and marketing giants targeting African American kids as they are today. The TV networks had not discovered the money bonanza in sports programming. There was no Sunday Night, Monday Night, or Thursday Night Football to get our attention. No 24-hour NFL Cable TV network. No ESPN to broadcast pro and college basketball games throughout the week. There was no Super Bowl, no “March Madness”, and no marathon broadcast of the NBA Playoffs which, not like today, ended in the spring and not mid-summer. It was a different time.
Being before Nike and the other athletic shoe companies, there were no basketball shoe advertising campaigns in front of us. It was a time before pro athletes, especially African American ones, were not endorsing products on TV. There were no “I want to be like Mike” commercials about Gatorade getting our attention. Gatorade did not come around until the late 1960s.
The competition from other sports for the attention of African American kids increased immensely in generations after mine. The world changed, no longer the 1960s. The popularity of football and basketball continued to grow, threatening baseball’s long standing number one sport status by the year 2000. The TV ratings for the Super Bowl and “March Madness” frequently surpassed that of the World Series.
When pro football and basketball began to intensely target the younger generation of African American kids in the 1980s, baseball’s marketing mentality remained in 1960 with a nine-year-old me. It was slow out of the starting blocks in marketing official apparel and gear. Unlike football and basketball, baseball did not use their African American star players to promote the sport. It may not have had a Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, or Jerry Rice; but it could have better utilized Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds (before the steroid issues), Derek Jeter, or Frank Thomas. By the time baseball understood what was happening, the other sports had the ears and eyes of African American kids.
What is your present involvement in youth baseball?
For the last four years I have been on the board of the Kansas City, Kansas Baseball Association (KCKBA), an organization that provides opportunities for kids in the inner city to play competitive baseball. We organize youth baseball teams to play in leagues such as the Kansas City, Missouri RBI, Wyandotte County Unified Government, and other leagues, in addition to having our own T-Ball league. Last season I helped coach two Machine Pitch league teams for kids aged 10 years old and younger.
How are the lives of the Negro League players in “Last Train to Cooperstown” an inspiration?
They were examples of pursuing excellence in what they did in spite of facing obstacles due to uncontrollable and imperfect circumstances. Racial discrimination robbed them of the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues; that was out of their control. Due to the economic restrictions that characterized Negro League baseball, they had to travel and play often in imperfect conditions. However, they did not use either as an excuse or rationalization to not do their best. As a result, even though the color of their skin kept them out of Major League baseball, the excellence they exhibited on the diamond earned them an undeniable place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Do you have plans for another book?
Yes! With the Civil Rights Movement’s initial beginnings as its backdrop, the book will tell of the final demise of Negro League teams as the integration of Major League baseball by African American and dark-skinned Latino players gained unstoppable momentum in the 1950s.
You have a popular baseball blog – The Baseball Scroll and a website where you write about baseball history. Explain why you started them.
I started The Baseball Scroll (www.thebaseballscroll.blogspot.com)and the blog on my website (www.klmitchell.com) to constantly promote the unshakable historical connection of African Americans to the sport of baseball. The content for both includes my personal reflections, as an African American, on baseball events of my youth, the history of Negro League baseball, and information about baseball’s “golden era” (1950s through early 1960s) pertaining to African American ball players. Hopefully, heralding the deep historical connection will revive the interest of African Americans in the game. My blogs also help me connect to other bloggers and baseball historians, both African American and white, who have the same objective.
How can someone get in touch with you for speaking events?
My website address is www.klmitchell.com and my direct email address is email@example.com.
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Happy Birthday Henry Aaron!
Today marks the eighty-third birthday of the Hall of Fame (inducted in 1982) outfielder. Born February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama; Aaron signed with the Boston Braves in 1952 after playing half of a season with the Negro League baseball Indianapolis Clowns. Aaron spent two years destroying pitchers in the Braves’ minor league system. While one of the first African Americans in the Southern Atlantic League (Sally League) in 1953, he hit .362 with 22 home runs and won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. However, Aaron thought at best he would be assigned to the Braves’ Triple A team in Toledo, Ohio.
On March 3, 1954 during an exhibition game in Florida; Milwaukee Braves outfielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle sliding into second base on a force play. Three years after his pennant clinching home run for the New York Giants, Thomson had come to the Braves in a trade to add power to their line-up. It was a forgone conclusion when spring training began that the Braves’ opening day outfield would be Thomson along with Billy Bruton, and Andy Pafko. But with Thomson out for with a triple fractured ankle, the Braves had to change their plan.
With the previous year’s reserve outfielder Jim Pendleton not reporting to spring training in an effort to get a salary increase, the Braves’ turned to Aaron. The next day in his first time in the starting outfield, he hit a home run. Exceeding his expectations, Aaron left spring training as the Braves opening day left fielder.
Aaron went hitless in five at bats during the season opener in Cincinnati on April 13, but got two hits in the Braves home opener on April 15. In St. Louis on April 23 against Cardinal pitcher Vic Raschi, Aaron hit his first Major League home run. He finished 1954, his rookie season, batting .282 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year award voting behind Gene Conley, Ernie Banks, and Wally Moon.