Due to my efforts towards organizing the youth baseball team for 10 – 12 year olds I will coach this summer, I failed to timely recognize the birthdate of former Negro League and Major League player Robert (Bob) Burns Thurman, May 14, 1917. This post is a belated “Happy Birthday” recognition of him. The mystery that existed about the age of “Satchel” Paige when he signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 is a well-known story in both Negro League and baseball history. It is now known Paige made his Major League debut when 42 years old and became an American League All-Star his final season with the St. Louis Browns at age 47. But there is less mystery to Bob Thurman having his best Major League season when 40 years old.
After Jackie Robinson erased the color line in 1947 and Major League teams began looking to sign African-Americans and dark-skinned Hispanics, many Negro League players lowered their stated age to be a more attractive prospect. They knew that younger players had the best chance of getting to the Major Leagues. Thurman and other Negro League players felt no hesitancy claiming to be a younger age in order to walk through the now open door of opportunity that had been shut since the end of the 19th Century due to racial discrimination.
The cry grew louder after World War II for an end to racial discrimination in Major League baseball. Former Kentucky U. S. Senator Albert “Happy” Chandler became the new Major League Baseball Commissioner in 1945 following the sudden death the previous year of Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner. Landis had worked with team owners since taking office in 1920 to perpetuate the “invisible color line” that kept African-American or dark-skinned Hispanic players out of Major League baseball. When asked his opinion about African-Americans playing in the Major Leagues, Chandler surprisingly said, “If they can fight and die in Okinawa and Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, they can play in America”. Although his response went against the existing racial discriminatory policy of Major League baseball, it added to the chorus for change sounding for Bob Thurman and other Negro League players.
Although born in Kellyville, Oklahoma, Thurman grew up in Wichita, Kansas. Drafted into the military while playing in the city’s semi-professional baseball leagues at the start of World War II, he saw combat duty in New Guinea and the Philippines. After leaving military service in 1946, he turned to his only option to play professional baseball in United States, the Negro Leagues. Thurman played with the Homestead Grays during the last years of owner Cum Posey’s “long gray line”. Long time Negro League veterans Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, “Cool Papa” Bell and others were still with the Grays when Thurman arrived; however, Posey died before the season started. Signed as a left-handed pitcher, Thurman proved to be a better power hitter and became the team’s regular center fielder. With the veteran players approaching the end of their baseball careers, Josh Gibson died in 1947, the Grays mixed in Thurman along with future Major League players Luke Easter and Luis Marquez to help the team remain competitive. In 1948, Thurman hit over .300 as the Grays won the last Negro League World Series Championship defeating the Birmingham Black Barons.
With both the Negro National League and the Homestead Grays disbanding after the 1948 season, Thurman signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League (NAL). Monarch Manager Buck O’Neil had a team that included future Major League players Elston Howard, Connie Johnson, Gene Baker, Hank Thompson, and Curt Roberts. The Monarchs were looking to sell their best players to Major League teams in order to remain operating profitably. On July 29, 1949 the New York Yankees purchased Thurman’s contract and he became the first African-American signed by the team. He walked through the door of opportunity given him stated as a 26-year-old outfielder, but in reality being 32.
However, the Yankees were not serious about integration. Although Thurman batted .317 and hit with power while with the team’s Triple AAA minor league affiliate (Newark Bears) for the remainder of that season, the team traded him to the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were also slow embracing integration. It would be four years, 1954, before Ernie Banks became the first African-American to play for Chicago’s north side team. After three respectable years in the Cubs minor league system, Thurman was released. The Cubs did not renew his contract.
He spent the next two years playing summer and winter league baseball in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Thurman had several successful seasons in the Caribbean leagues and had become a fan favorite. He is a member of the Puerto Rican League Baseball Hall of Fame and the league’s all-time home run leader. After a tremendous winter league season in 1955, Thurman signed with the Cincinnati Reds mainly as a reserve outfielder and pinch hitter with the team believing him to be 32 years old. He made his Major League debut on April 14, 1955; a little more than a month before his actual 38th birthday.
Thurman hit 35 home runs and drove in 106 runs in his five years with the Reds (1955 – 1959). On August 18, 1956, the Reds hit eight home runs in a 13 – 4 victory over the Milwaukee Braves; which tied the Major League record at that time. Three of the Reds’ home runs in that game were hit by Bob Thurman. After hitting a double in the third inning, he hit home runs in the fifth, seventh, and eighth innings. In 1957 at 40 years old, Thurman had his best season in the Major Leagues hitting 18 home runs. While with the Reds he, along with former Negro League player and Reds teammate George Crowe, became mentors for young African-American players coming into the National League in the late 1950s; Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, Bill White, etc.
Bob Thurman had to verbally set back the hands of time in order to get the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. If the New York Yankees in 1949 had known his real age of 32, would they have signed him? Probably not! Surely, the Reds would not have signed Thurman in 1955 had they known his real age of 38! But given the opportunity, he proved his time for hitting a baseball had not passed him by.
To read more about the Negro Baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
I surprisingly found myself rooting for the Chicago Cubs to win this year’s World Series. At first, I did not care which team would come out on top. The Cleveland Indians had turned back my hometown Kansas City Royals’ effort to win what would have been a third consecutive American League pennant. But I did not hold that against them. To their credit, they were the best team in the league. Initially I began watching the Series as an impartial fan with a love for the game. But suddenly, I began humming the Cubs’ fight song and after the team fell behind three games to one I still held on to hope that they would somehow pull it out.
After they won Game Six to tie the Series at three games each, I started to question how I suddenly had become a Cub fan. I discovered it had nothing to do with the “curse”, having sympathy for the 71 years of futility and frustration suffered by the Cubs and their fans since the team’s previous World Series appearance in 1945. It did not matter about Cub first baseman Leon Durham’s error in the 1984 NLCS, or the “Bartman” fan interference call in the 2003 NCLS. I realized I wanted the Cubs to win the World Series because of my late father whose favorite baseball player happened to be the late Ernie Banks, “Mr. Cub”.
My love for baseball blossomed at the end of Jackie Robinson’s career. I know my father and older brothers must have watched him in action on our family’s first television, a black and white Philco, but I cannot recall as a toddler seeing him on the tube. However in 1957, one year after Robinson’s last season, I became captured by the sport I still have a passion for today. Henry Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves’ defeat of the New York Yankees that year is my first TV World Series recollection. My favorite players on the hometown Kansas City A’s that year were Hector Lopez and Harry “Suitcase” Simpson. Also in 1957, the early stages of my love for baseball were nurtured by my father’s accolades for “Mr. Cub”.
Banks played for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1950 and 1953 before signing with Chicago. I am sure this is when my father first became aware of him. Although Negro League baseball had begun its decline in the 1950s due to the integration of the Major Leagues, the Monarchs were still a viable team with Buck O’Neil the manager. Due to his work schedule my father probably did not go to many Monarchs’ games, but he read about Banks in the Kansas City Call newspaper. Once Banks got to the Cubs, he gave my father plenty to talk about.
In order for baseball’s “great experiment” of integration to fully work, there had to be successful players to build on the accomplishments of Jackie Robinson. No player did more statistically on the field in the 1950s to solidify the place of African-Americans in the Major Leagues than Ernie Banks. He is in the forefront of any conversation about the best player in the Major Leagues during the mid to late 1950s.
From 1955 – 1959, Banks hit 248 home runs, more than any other Major League player during that period of time; more than Mickey Mantle (231), Eddie Matthews (226), Willie Mays (214), and Henry Aaron (166). He hit over 40 home runs five times in his career, leading the National League twice with 47 in 1958 and 41 in 1960. Banks also knocked in more runs (RBIs) than anyone else during that time period with 693, an average of 115 per year. He was named National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1958 and 1959, the first and one of only four African-American players to receive a league MVP honor for consecutive years; Joe Morgan (1975 – 1976), Frank Thomas (1993 – 1994), and Barry Bonds (1992 – 1993, 2001 – 2004) being the others. An eleven time All Star, Banks is a member of the 500 career home run club with 512.
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. However, if Ernie Banks and the Cubs were scheduled to play, my father would put aluminum foil on our TV antenna in an effort to pick up the game from the station in St, Joseph, Missouri (54 miles from Kansas City). Despite having only a screen 60% clear that faded in and out when an airplane flew overhead, we sometimes could still see Banks in action.
My father admired Ernie Banks for excelling in the face of the Cubs’ adversity and frustration. The team never won more games that it lost during Banks’ prime seasons. Also, he loved the always upbeat enthusiasm “Mr. Cub” kept for the game. And my father saw the obvious in Ernie Banks, a Hall of Fame player. Five months before my father died in 1977, his favorite player was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
There is no doubt Lephus Mitchell, Sr. would have been rooting for the Cubs’ this World Series. After Kris Bryant threw the ball to Anthony Rizzo for the final out in Game Seven, I envisioned my father smiling broadly. He would have been very happy. He would have felt the Cubs won the 2016 World Series in honor of his favorite player; Ernie Banks.
To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. To order go to (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown) http://www.klmitchell.com
Based on the historical information I have read, many times on this blog I have stated it appears the slow progress of integration in Major League baseball during the 1950s hindered the careers of many good African-American players. A prime example of this is Gene Baker. After two seasons in Negro League baseball, Baker became the first African American player signed by the Chicago Cubs. However, it would be three years before he took the field in a Cubs’ uniform.
Born on June 15, 1925 in Davenport, Iowa, Eugene Walter Baker in 1948 and 1949 played shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs; who were managed by John “Buck” O’Neill. After signing with the Cubs before the 1950 season when 25 years old, Baker stayed in the team’s minor league system for four years. The top shortstop in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) for the Cubs’ Los Angeles Angels Triple AAA affiliate, he averaged 12 home runs, 62 RBIs, and a .284 batting average during those years. At that time the Cubs were getting less than mediocre play from their shortstops, but the team dragged its feet promoting Baker. Even the Cubs owner, P. K. Wrigley, began to question how Baker could still be in the minor leagues.
On September 20, 1953, Baker made his Major League debut as a pinch hitter. Ernie Banks, who the Cubs had signed from the Kansas City Monarchs on September 3, played shortstop that day and hit his first Major League home run. After Baker had left the Monarchs in 1950 to sign with the Cubs, Banks followed as “Buck” O’Neill’s new shortstop. He had made his Major League debut on September 17 and beat Baker by three days to be the first African-American to play a Major League game for the Cubs.
The Cubs moved Baker to second base the next season making he and Banks the first African-American double play combination in the Major Leagues. Baker is credited with helping Banks develop into an All Star fielding shortstop; while he was himself selected to play in the 1955 All Star Game.
After the 1957 season began the Cubs believed they needed more power in their line up. They also had a 22-year-old second baseman, Tony Taylor, ready for the Major Leagues. A month and a half before his 32nd birthday, the team traded Baker to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Dale Long and Lee Walls who combined to hit 44 home runs for them the following year. The Pirates were a young upcoming team who had only four players 30 or older. Baker became a utility infielder backing up 20-year-old second baseman Bill Mazeroski, 26-year-old shortstop Dick Groat, and 23-year-old third baseman Gene Freese. After missing most of the 1958 season due to severely injured knee, the team released him after the season and he ended up out of the Major Leagues in 1959.
However, needing a reliable utility infielder and pinch hitter, the Pirates signed Baker at the beginning of the 1960 season. The team won the National League pennant and defeated the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Baker got the opportunity to be on a championship team, something his former double play partner Ernie Banks never experienced.
Gene Baker gained the reputation of being a “smart ballplayer”. In 1961, the Pirates named him manager of their Class D minor league team.