The 2017 Baseball Winter Meetings are scheduled for December 10 – 14 in Orlando, Florida. Baseball fans will be looking on with anticipation for any trades or free agent signings coming from the meetings that will affect teams in 2018. Also, Major League Baseball announced the first official exhibition games for Spring Training 2018 will be played February 23. But this post in not about the upcoming 2018 Major League season. It is the fourth and final segment about baseball history’s forgotten fall classic; the Negro League World Series.
With its fan base having more disposable income and also widening due to the growing northern migration of the black population during World War 2, Negro League game attendance reached new levels. It experienced a fifth consecutive year of solid growth in 1945. Negro League baseball grew to become nearly a three million dollar industry and in most cases the largest business operating in the African-American communities of the cities with Negro National League (NNL) or Negro American League (NAL) franchises. Another indication of Negro League baseball’s relative stability during this period was the Negro League World Series.
Although the Homestead Grays won the NNL pennant again in 1945, the average age of the team’s nucleus (Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, “Cool Papa” Bell, Jud Wilson, etc.) was well above 30 and their skills had begun to erode. This became more evident when the Grays were swept four games to none by the younger Cleveland Buckeyes in the 1945 Negro League World Series. Gibson, playing in his last Series before dying in 1947, hit only .123 (2 for 15) and Leonard .200 (3 for 15). The Grays, scoring only 3 runs the entire Series, were shutout the last two games.
With Monte Irvin, Leon Day, and Larry Doby returning from military service, the Newark Eagles ended the nine-year reign of the Homestead Grays and won the NNL pennant in 1946. They faced the NAL’s Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 Series. Both teams had players who would cross over into Major League baseball: Newark’s Irvin (1949) and Doby (1947), Kansas City’s “Satchel” Paige (1948), Hank Thompson (1947), Willard Brown (1947), and Connie Johnson (1953). Led by Irvin’s torrid hitting (3 HRs, 8 RBI, and a .462 BA.), the Eagles won Game Six and Seven to win the Series 4 games to 3.
For almost 30 years Alejandro Pompez had been the “Latin Connection” in Negro League baseball. He created a pipeline that brought dark-skinned Hispanic players from Cuba and other Caribbean countries to star for his Negro League teams; the Cuban Stars (1916 – 1927) and the New York Cubans (1935 – 1950). The Cubans won the NNL pennant and faced the Cleveland Buckeyes the NAL pennant winner in the 1947 Negro League World Series. The accomplishments of both teams were overshadowed that year by Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century. Both teams in the Series had players who would later go through the door Robinson opened that year. New York Cuban players Orestes “Minnie” Minoso (1949), Ray Noble (1951), and Pat Scantlebury (1956) would have careers in the Major Leagues; Minoso being the first dark-skinned Hispanic to play. The Cleveland Buckeyes’ Sam Jethroe (1950), Sam Jones (1951), Quincy Trouppe (1952), and Al Smith (1953) also would spend time in the Major Leagues; Jethroe being the 1950 National League Rookie of the Year. The Cubans, with Minoso hitting .426, defeated the Buckeyes four games to one in the Series.
In 1948, the Homestead Grays were no longer the team it had been since the late 1930s. The team’s owner Cum Posey died of lung cancer in 1946 and Josh Gibson, considered the greatest home run slugger in Negro League history, died in 1947. Also gone were team stalwarts Raymond Brown, Roy Partlow, Jerry Benjamin, “Cool Papa’ Bell, and Jud Wilson. However, Buck Leonard and pitcher Wilmer Fields along with future Major Leaguers Luke Easter (1949) and Bob Thurman (1955) led the Grays to capture the NNL pennant. The team defeated the Birmingham Black Barons four games to one in the 1948 Negro League World Series. In Game Three, the only one won by Birmingham, the Grays’ Leonard was thrown out at second base trying to stretch a single into a double by the Black Barons’ 17-year old center fielder; future Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays. It would be the third time the Grays would win a World Series championship against the Black Barons, also in 1943 and 1944.
Although Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in 1947, racial integration in the Major Leagues went at a slow pace. However, African-American baseball fans looked at the racial competition in Major League games as social progress and quickly began to lose interest in Negro League baseball. Game attendance in the Negro Leagues dropped to financially dangerous levels for many teams and the economic stability of Negro League baseball began crumbling; never to recover. After the 1948 season, the NNL disbanded with the few remaining teams absorbed by the NAL which limped on until the end of Negro League baseball in the early 1960s.
The end of Negro League baseball’s economic stability put a permanent end to the Negro League World Series. The Homestead Grays, one of the most renowned Negro League franchises, played in four of these fall classics during Negro League baseball’s most profitable years, 1942 – 1945; winning two. It is only fitting that in 1948 the team won the last Negro League World Series championship.
In celebration of Black History Month, here is Today’s Negro League Baseball History Fact: Parnell Woods.
Born on either February 16 or 26, 1912; Parnell Woods began his Negro League baseball odyssey with his hometown Birmingham (Ala.) Black Barons in 1933. The solid fielding third baseman, who occasionally hit over .300 during his career, finally left home in 1940 to play for the Cleveland Bears (Negro American League). Formerly known as the Jacksonville (Fla.) Red Caps in the 1930s, the franchise moved back to Jacksonville for the 1941 season. Woods returned to Ohio in 1942 to be the player/manager for the Cincinnati Buckeyes; the youngest skipper in Negro League baseball at that time.
The team relocated to Cleveland the next year and hired a new manager who named Woods team captain. As one of the team’s best hitters, he helped the Buckeyes surprisingly become one of the best teams in the Negro American League (NAL) from 1945 – 1948. They won two NAL pennants (1945 and 1947) and defeated the Homestead Grays to be Negro League World Series Champion in 1945.
Negro League fans selected Woods to participate in five straight East West All Star Games (1938 – 1942).
In 1949 at 37 years old, Woods played with the Oakland Oaks (Triple AAA minor league), his only season in white organized baseball.
Negro League baseball is not just a part of African-American history, but is woven into the fabric of 20th Century American history.
To read about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
The following is an excerpt from my book, “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”:
“Jackie Robinson broke through the color line in 1947 and began his successful Major League playing career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. With the line erased by Robinson and as more African Americans began playing in the Major Leagues, the eventual future end of Negro League baseball became obvious by the early 1950s. Instead of attending Negro League games, more and black baseball fans began following former Negro League players in the Major Leagues. By the middle of the decade talented young African American players were bypassing the Negro Leagues and directly signing with Major League teams. The death of Negro League baseball came by the early 1960s due to economic problems caused by a declining fan base and a decreasing level of talent.”
Born on November 30, 1939 in Cleveland, Tennessee; Ernest Westfield was the starting pitcher for the East squad in the last Negro League Baseball East-West All Star Game. The contest was held on August 21, 1960 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, the same as where the first was played in 1933.
A 6’3”, 160 pound right-handed pitcher, Westfield spent the 1958 season in the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system. The next year he signed with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League (NAL). In spite of the league’s decline, it was still an honor to be chosen to participate in the All Star Game. Ike Brown, the West squad’s shortstop, went on to play for the Detroit Tigers in 1969 and was the last player from the Negro Leagues signed by a Major League team.
Westfield gave up three runs in the first three innings and the West squad won the game 8 – 4.
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William “Bill” Greason played professional baseball in many different places and at several different levels during his career. Born on September 3, 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia, Greason applied his talent as a right-handed pitcher in both Negro and Major League baseball; in addition to high and lower levels in the minor leagues. He pitched in cities across the United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Like other African American ballplayers of his era (1947 -1958) Greason saw the final demise of Negro League baseball, participated in the integration of the minor leagues, and experienced racism in the Major Leagues after the “invisible color line” had been erased.
The 5’ 10’’ and 170 pound ex-Marine first pitched in 1947 with the Nashville Black Vols and Ashville (North Carolina) Blues, both considered minor league African American teams. It was the year Jackie Robinson became the first African American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. Greason was a power pitcher with a fastball and a sharp breaking pitch that he could throw sidearm. By the end of that season he had pitched his way onto the roster of the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League (NAL).
1948 was his breakout year. Greason pitched three scoreless innings in that year’s Negro League Baseball East-West All-Star game. Also, with him as one of its top pitchers, the Black Barons beat out Buck O’Neil’s Kansas City Monarchs to win the NAL pennant. Both Negro League stars Lorenzo “Piper” Davis and Arte Wilson were also on the Black Barons that year. In addition, a 17-year-old kid named Willie Mays played centerfield for the team. In what would be the last Negro League World Series, Greason pitched the Black Barons to their only victory against the Homestead Grays winning 4 – 3.
After leaving the Black Barons following the 1950 season, Greason pitched in the Class AAA and A levels in the minor leagues. He also pitched in the Mexican League and spent a short second stint in the Marines. When he returned to baseball in 1953, he became the third African American to play in the Class AA Texas League.
In 1954, Greason along with Brooks Lawrence and Tom Alston were the first African American players invited to a spring training camp by the St. Louis Cardinals. He made his Major League debut on May 31 at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs. In three innings, Greason gave up five runs on six hits in the Cards 14 – 4 lost. Three of the hits off Greason were home runs, one by the Cubs young shortstop and former Negro League player Ernie Banks. After appearing briefly in two more games, Greason at the end of June was sent to the minor leagues.
For the remainder of the decade he pitched with the Houston Buffs (Class AA Texas League), the Rochester Red Wings (Class AAA International League), and winter league baseball in the Caribbean. He never again played in the Major Leagues, getting only that one chance like a number of former Negro League players in the 1950s.
Greason retired in 1959 and was called into Christian ministry. He was pastor of a church in Birmingham, Alabama for 30 years and was cited by the Alabama State Legislature in 2001 for outstanding ministry achievement.
The Birmingham Black Barons won three Negro American League (NAL) pennants in the 1940s. The heart and acknowledged leader of those strong Black Baron teams was Lorenzo Davis. The nickname that stuck with him throughout his career, “Piper”, came from the coal mining town near Birmingham where he was born on July 3, 1917; Piper, Alabama.
After graduating high school, Davis played basketball on scholarship one year at Alabama State (Montgomery, Alabama) and for a few winters was a Harlem Globetrotter in the early 1940s. But Piper knew that baseball was his escape from the coal mining work of his father’s generation.
He established his reputation as a ballplayer first in the all black Industrial League sponsored by Birmingham’s steel and mining industry companies. At 6’3”, 188 pounds, Davis could play every infield and outfield position. He did not hit with home run power or have blazing speed, but was fundamentally sound. Davis was an excellent fielder with an accurate, strong throwing arm and a high “baseball” IQ.
He started playing second base with the Black Barons in 1942 and would form one of the best double play combo’s in Negro League baseball history with shortstop Arte Wilson who came to the team in 1944. Davis was also selected four times by fans (1946 -1949) to play in the Negro League East-West All Star Game.
In 1948, Davis was the Black Barons’ player/manager and led them to their third NAL pennant only to lose to the Homestead Grays in what would be the final Negro League World Series. He played an important role that year as mentor for the Barons’ 16 year old outfielder, Willie Mays.
Davis was wrongly labelled an undesirable prospect by some Major League scouts due to his intensely competitive approach to playing the game. In 1950, he became the first African American player signed by the Boston Red Sox. Released after one season in the Red Sox minor league system, Davis spent the next eight years integrating the minor leagues. For seven years he played in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), Triple AAA minor league baseball. His final year, 1958, he was a player/coach in the Texas League (Double AA).
Davis never played in the Major Leagues, but his ability to evaluate a player’s talent was well known. After retiring, he spent many years as a Major League scout.
Who was the first African American to play for the Boston Red Sox?
Otha Bailey experienced Negro League baseball die up close. Born on June 30, 1920 in Huntsville, Alabama, Bailey started his career by first playing with the Cleveland Buckeyes, Houston Eagles, and Birmingham Black Barons in 1950. By 1952 he was signed again by the Black Barons and stayed with them until he retired in 1959. African American players by then had firmly established themselves in the Major Leagues and Negro League baseball was no more than a semi-pro organization.
After Jackie Robinson successfully erased the “invisible color line” in 1947, Major league teams began to sign the most talented Negro League players. African American and Latino players still encountered racism and discrimination after integration. However; former Negro League players such as Robinson, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, and others went on to have stellar Major League careers.
Others like Otha Bailey, a 5’6”, 150 pound catcher whose nickname was “Little Catch”, never signed with a Major League team. Despite his size, he was one of the best catchers in the talent diluted Negro Leagues in the 1950s.
Who was Otha Bailey’s battery mate with the Black Barons in the late 1950s that went on to country and western music fame?
Last Friday May 1, Alex Rodriguez hit his 660 career home run to tie Willie Mays as the fourth leading Major League All-time Home Run hitter. Before having an illustrious 22 year Hall of Fame career in Major League baseball which began in 1951, Mays played Negro League baseball.
Willie Howard Mays, Jr. was born on May 6 in Westfield, Alabama; 1931. As a 17 year old teenager, Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons. He was the center fielder on the Black Barons’ 1948 Negro American League pennant winning team. In the last Negro League World Series, the Black Barons lost to the Homestead Grays that year four games to one.
After playing for the Barons in 1949, Willie Mays was signed as an amateur free agent by the New York Giants in 1950. After Willie Mays, which former Negro League player is next on the Major League All-time Home Run list?