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.
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