John L. Gray and Haley Young, Jr. both played baseball one season with the Indianapolis Clowns during the final years of the Negro League baseball era. Last month on April 7, I was the main speaker (“Negro League Baseball: The Deep Roots of African-Americans in America’s Great Game”) at a tribute given to both players at the Old Dillard Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (See pictures under the “Events” tab above)
The museum is located in the building that housed the first school for African-Americans students in Fort Lauderdale, named “The Colored School” and later Dillard High School. An important educational and cultural center for African-Americans in Fort Lauderdale, the Old Dillard Museum serves as a constant reminder of the community’s proud and rich heritage.
Both Gray (1955) and Young (1957) were graduates of Dillard High School, As part of their tribute that evening, they became the first baseball players added to the museum’s Sports Wall of Fame which is for alumni of the school.
Gray attended Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio and then signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1956 as a catcher and outfielder. Jackie Robinson had erased the “invisible color line” to begin the racial integration of Major League baseball nine years earlier in 1947, but attitudes of prejudice and discrimination still existed. The Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, and Philadelphia Phillies still had no African-American or dark-skinned Hispanic players on their Major League rosters the year Gray signed. He played that first year with the Indians’ Class D minor league affiliate the Daytona Beach Islanders (Florida State League). In 1958 after some dissatisfaction with the Indian’s minor league system, Gray signed with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League (NAL). By then, Negro League baseball had declined since its peak in the 1940s due to losing its best players and fan base due to the racial integration of the Major Leagues. While with the Clowns, Gray hit a home run at Yankee Stadium which he frequently mentioned to his children and grandchildren in his golden years. In 1959, he went back into the Major League system signing with the Chicago Cubs. He played with the team’s Class D affiliate, the Paris (Illinois) Lakers, in the Midwest League. The next season Gray signed with the Chicago White Sox and played with its Class C minor league affiliate the Idaho Falls Russets in the Pioneer League. Reaching his frustration limit with the unfair treatment and broken agreements he encountered with Major League teams, Gray did not return to professional the next season.
After graduating from high school, Haley Young, Jr. signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. Being only 16 years old, he played shortstop and outfield in the Class D Appalachian League for the team’s Johnson City, Tennessee affiliate. In 1958, he seriously damaged his knee and did not fully recover until 1961 when he signed with the Indianapolis Clowns. The Chicago White Sox signed Young in 1962, but he got no further than the team’s Class A minor league level. He led his Clinton, Iowa (Class A – Midwest League) team in home runs (16) and RBI (51) while batting .254 in 1965, but it got him no closer to getting on the White Sox’s Major League roster even though the team needed power hitters. From the 1965 through 1967 seasons, only four White Sox players hit more than the 16 home runs Young smashed in 1965. The White Sox were in the American League where the promotion of African-American players had been less aggressive than in the National League since the days of Jackie Robinson. After the 1966 and 1967 seasons with the White Sox’s Class A minor league affiliate in Lynchburg (VA.), Young played in Canada’s independent league in 1968 and retired from baseball in 1970.
I want to thank More Than a Game, Inc. (Danny Phillips) and the Old Dillard Museum (Derrick Davis) for inviting me to be a part of the memorable event for Haley Young, Jr. and John L. Gray. The honorees were not there to receive their accolades; Haley Young died in 2015 and John L. Gray too sick to attend. Sadly, last week he too passed away. However, their achievements in baseball are honored on the Old Dillard Museum’s Wall of Fame. They were in the group of unsung African-American pioneers that stood up against racism and prejudice to integrate minor league professional baseball during the Civil Rights era.
For more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
On March 18 or 19, 1942 two African-Americans appeared at the Chicago White Sox training camp in Pasadena, California requesting an opportunity to win a spot on the team’s roster. The White Sox had a 77 – 77 record in 1941, finishing in 3rd place, 31 games behind the pennant winning New York Yankees. At that time, Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” existed; there were no African-American or dark-skinned Latino players on any Major League club. However, Jackie Robinson and Nate Moreland approached White Sox Manager Jimmy Dykes on that day asking for a tryout.
Robinson and Moreland were from the same neighborhood in Pasadena, they played baseball together on their high school team. They both attended Pasadena Junior College and played on the same semi-pro baseball team. Robinson had returned from playing semi-professional football in Hawaii in December of 1941. Moreland, a left-handed pitcher, had played with the Baltimore Elite Giants (1940) and in the Mexican League.
Dykes gave them a workout that day, but nothing came of it. Although the manager expressed he saw their potential, especially Robinson’s, he indicated his hands were tied. The Major League team owners and Baseball Commissioner Landis were the ones to make the decision to allow them to play. Shortly after the tryout, Jackie Robinson received his draft notice and went into the military. Five years later, April 15, 1947; he broke through the color line and became the first African-American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century. Moreland continued in baseball pitching for the Elite Giants (1946), the Mexican League, and the lower minor leagues in the southwest (California, Arizona) until retiring after the 1957 season.
There were questions as to whether this tryout occurred, a cloud of mystery around it. Jackie Robinson did not mention it, nor is it in his early biographies. There were no mentions of it in mainstream media outlets or the black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier or Chicago Defender. The only newspaper to have a story about it was the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the American Communist Party.
However, in recent years the tryout has been confirmed. It is in Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad, the latest Jackie Robinson biography. Also, relatives of Nate Moreland indicate his mentioning of it. There was a rumor Robinson and Moreland were sent to approach the White Sox for the tryout by The Daily Worker; the only newspaper to have a reporter to cover it and one that aggressively criticized Major League baseball’s racial discrimination. However, there is no proof of its involvement other than covering the tryout. Jimmy Dykes’ actions were another example of a Major League manager during that time helping to maintain baseball’s color line ahead of trying to make the needed improvements to his team.
Jackie Robinson crashed through Major League baseball’s closed door for African-American and Hispanic ball players in 1947. In order for baseball’s “great experiment” of integration to fully work, there had to be successful players to build on his accomplishments. Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, and Henry Aaron contributed to it working by having Hall of Fame Major League careers. There were other African-American players such as Alphonse Eugene Smith who also contributed. Although he does not have a plaque in Cooperstown, the former Negro League player helped to permanently put to death the myth African-Americans did not have the talent to play Major League baseball.
Born February 7, 1928 in Kirkwood, Missouri, Al Smith developed his versatility as a ball player while in the Negro American League with the Cleveland Buckeyes from 1946 – 1948. He played third base, shortstop, and outfield as the team won the Negro American League pennant in 1947.
Signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1948, Smith made his Major League debut on July 10, 1953; one of eight Negro League players that were Major League rookies that season. With Al hitting lead off (.281 with 11 home runs and 50 RBIs) while playing 131 games at third base or the outfield, the Indians won 111 games in 1954 and captured the American League pennant.
As he approached his 30th birthday, the Indians traded Smith to the Chicago White Sox after the 1957 season. He had five productive years in Chicago and helped the White Sox win the American League pennant in 1959, ending its forty-year absence from appearing in the World Series. He finished second in the 1960 American League batting title (.315, 12 home runs, 72 RBIs) and hit 28 home runs in 1961.
The White Sox traded the two-time All-Star (1955, 1960) to the Baltimore Orioles in 1963. After splitting time with Cleveland and the Boston Red Sox the next year, Smith retired. He died January 3, 2002.
On the five Al Smith baseball cards I have in my collection (Topps 1959, 1960, 1964) and Post Cereal (1961 – 1963), there is no mention of him playing Negro League baseball. By omitting that information the cards do not paint a complete picture of his baseball career. Like other African-American and dark-skinned Latino baseball players in the late 1940s and 1950s, Al Smith successfully crossed over the dividing river of racial discrimination that had existed in professional baseball for nearly half of the 20th Century.
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
Today is for long time Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodger baseball fans, like James O’Berry in Houston, to celebrate the birthday of two players who were on a World Series Champion Dodger team; Sandy Amoros (left) in 1955 and Charlie Neal (right) in 1959. Neither of them received formal “hero status” in their team’s triumph. But Dodger fans know how important each of them were those years; the two World Series Championships for the franchise in the 1950s.
After five previous World Series losses against the New York Yankees; 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953, the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated them in 1955. Johnny Podres claimed the moniker of “Series hero” for the Dodgers by pitching a 2-0 shutout in Game Seven, his second complete game win in the Series. It is in that important Game Seven when Sandy Amoros makes his contribution to the Dodgers’ victory.
Born January 30, 1930 in Matanzas, Cuba, Edmunido “Sandy” Amoros could hit a baseball with surprising power for his 5’7 ½”, 170 pounds physical stature. He played Negro League baseball in 1950 with the New York Cubans. The team went out of business after the season and Amoros played in Caribbean baseball leagues until signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952. The left-handed outfielder hit over .300 and showed power in his batting stroke while in the team’s minor league system. However, after integration Major League teams had a “quota” on the number of African-Americans to have on their rosters. With Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Joe Black, and Jim Gilliam already wearing Dodger blue, the team kept Amoros in the minor leagues.
It is Amoros’ defense, however, that engraved him a place in Dodger history. In the deciding Game Seven of the 1955 World Series, the Dodgers were leading 2 – 0 in the bottom of the sixth inning; but the Yankees had the tying runs on base with no outs. Yankees’ catcher Yogi Berra hit a line drive headed towards the Yankee Stadium left field corner that appeared it to be a game tying double. However Amoros; who had been put in the game for defensive purposes when the inning started, ran as fast as he could and caught it. He quickly threw it back to the infield and completed a double play. Amoros’ play killed the Yankees’ scoring threat and the Dodgers held on to win the game and be 1955 World Series Champions.
In 1959, the second season after moving to Los Angeles, the Dodgers defeated the Chicago White Sox in the World Series. Dodger relief pitcher Larry Sherry played a role in all four of the teams’s victories and got the nod as Series “Most Valuable Player”. He pitched 12.2 innings with an Earned Run Average (ERA) of 0.71. Entering the contests as a relief pitcher, Sherry got the save in World Series Games Two and Three, and was the winning pitcher in Games Four and Six. Whereas Sherry was the pitching star for the Dodgers in the Series, Charlie Neal led the team in hitting.
Born January 30, 1931 in Longview, Texas; Charles Lenard Neal signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950. A promising prospect, the 5’10’, 165 lb. infielder first languished in the minor leagues as the Dodgers had team captain Pee Wee Reese at shortstop, All Star Jackie Robinson playing second base, and 1953 National League Rookie of the Year Jim Gilliam also playing on the infield. In addition as Sandy Amoros discovered, the Dodgers were reluctant to have “too many” African-American and dark-skinned Latinos on the Major League roster.
Neal made his Major League debut April 15, 1956; playing in 62 games his rookie season and hitting .287. The starting second baseman in Game Three of the 1956 World Series, Neal went hitless against the Yankees’ Whitey Ford in the Dodgers’ 5 -3 lost. When Jackie Robinson retired in 1957, Reese moved over to play third base and Neal became the Dodger’s starting shortstop. In 1958, the Dodgers first season in Los Angeles, Neal hit 22 home runs and drove in 65 runs.
Charlie had the best year of his career in 1959, hitting .287 with 19 home runs, 83 RBIs (2nd on the team), and a team leading 177 hits. The All-Star second baseman also received his only Gold Glove Award. After the White Sox won Game One of the 1959 World Series 16 – 0, the Dodgers trailed 2 – 0 in the top of the fifth in Game Two. Neal broke the team’s streak of 13 scoreless innings with a solo home run. He then hit a 2-run homer in the seventh to give the Dodgers a lead that Sherry kept in their 4 – 3 win. While a crowd of 92,394 looked on at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Game Three, Neal went 2 for 4. With the score 0 – 0, he singled to start a Dodger rally in the bottom of the seventh and scored the first run in the team’s 3 – 1 victory. In the Series clinching Sixth Game, he got three hits. His double drove in two of the Dodgers’ six runs in the top of the fourth on their way to winning the game 9 – 3 and the World Series Championship (four games to two). For the Series, Neal hit .370 with two home runs, six RBIs and had the most hits; 10.