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
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
To honor Ernie “Mr. Cub” Banks who died in January last year, I hope the Chicago Cubs will overcome decades of frustration and defeat the Cleveland Indians in this year’s World Series. However, if Cleveland does win Indian fans will celebrate the team’s third World Series Championship. The Indians defeated the Brooklyn Robins (changed its name to Dodgers in 1932) in 1920 and the Boston (now Atlanta) Braves in 1948. However, there is another Cleveland baseball championship that fans of the game in “the Land” should not overlook. In 1945, the Cleveland Buckeyes defeated the Homestead Grays to win the Negro League World Series.
At the end of the 1941 Negro League season, Erie, Pennsylvania businessman Ernie Wright purchased the semi-pro African-American Cleveland White Sox baseball team and the St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League (NAL). He merged the teams to organize the Buckeyes who played most of its games next season in Cincinnati and other cities throughout Ohio, but relocated to Cleveland in 1943. Being a large industrial northern city with a substantial African American population, 71,899 in 1930, “the Land” was no stranger to Negro League baseball. The Buckeyes were the eleventh Negro League team to call Cleveland home since 1922, the only one to survive more than one season. Their home games were played in League Park.
The 1945 baseball season began as the most destructive world war in history approached an end. Many ball players had lost time from their professional baseball careers due to military service. Major League players Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and others had gone into the armed forces after the War began in 1941. Negro League players Monte Irvin, Leon Day, Willard Brown, and others also served in the military to help preserve the nation’s freedom even though racial discrimination deprived them of the opportunity to play Major League baseball. But this shortage of quality players due to the war does not tarnish what the Cleveland Buckeyes accomplished.
The team had no iconic player of Negro League lore or destined for the Hall of Fame. After the “invisible color line” was erased by Jackie Robinson in 1947, the Buckeyes’ best player Sam Jethroe went on to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1950. The speedy outfielder led the league in stolen bases (35) and hit .273 playing for the Boston Braves. Veteran Negro League catcher Quincy Trouppe, the Buckeyes’ manager, played briefly for the Cleveland Indians in 1952 when 39 years old. The remainder of the team consisted of solid Negro League players such infielders Parnell Woods and Archie Ware, outfielders Buddy Armour and Willie Grace, and pitchers Eugene (Gene) Bremmer, and the Jefferson brothers; Willie and George. After integration, they all briefly played in the lower levels of Minor League baseball. Since its inception in 1937, the Negro American League (NAL) had been dominated by the Kansas City Monarchs (NAL pennants in 1937, 1939 – 1942) and Birmingham Black Barons (NAL pennants in 1942 and 1943). But, the Buckeyes prevailed in 1945 and advanced to the World Series against one of the most renown franchises in the history of Negro League baseball; the Homestead Grays.
Going into the Series, the Buckeyes were overwhelmingly the underdog. The Grays were the reigning Negro League World Series champion, beating the Black Barons in 1943 and 1944. They had extended their run of consecutive Negro National League (NNL) pennants to nine in 1945. Their roster included five players who would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame: outfielder James “Cool Papa” Bell (1974), pitcher Raymond Brown (2006), first baseman Buck Leonard (1972), catcher and Negro League icon Josh Gibson (1972), and third baseman Jud “Boojum” Wilson (2006). But Hall of Fame team owner Cum Posey (2006) had allowed his “long Gray line” to get old and worn down. With Wilson being 49, Bell 42, and the Grays other top players in their mid to late 30s, the team went into the Series depending on skills being eroded by time. But they still had hard-hitting Gibson and Leonard, and they were still the mighty Homestead Grays.
In a huge upset, the Cleveland Buckeyes won the 1945 Negro League World Series in a four game sweep. That they were a younger and faster team played a big part in their victory. But the dominance of Cleveland’s pitchers turned out to be the most shocking factor. After winning Game One 2 – 1 and Game Two 3 -2, the Buckeye pitching shutout the Grays the final two games. Willie Jefferson threw a 3 – 0 shutout in Game Three winning 4 – 0 and Frank Carswell a 5 – 0 win in Game Four. The Grays scored only three runs the entire Series, none the last 18 innings. Cleveland’s Willie Grace hit the only Series home run. The Buckeyes also won the NAL pennant in 1947, but lost in the World Series to the New York Cubans four games to one. Because of financial deficits due to a declining fan base, the team disbanded after the first half of the 1950 season.
The entire city of Cleveland will go wild if the Indians win the World Series this year. It only had a small banquet with no parade in 1945 acknowledging the Buckeyes’ Championship. But hopefully there will be fans at Progressive Field this World Series wearing Cleveland Buckeye Negro League gear to show the team’s 1945 triumph is not totally forgotten. Lebron, JR Smith, Kyrie, Richard Jefferson, let me see you!
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
Both Raydell Maddix and Henry Presswood played Negro League baseball after the “invisible color line” was broken and Major League teams began signing African Americans. Maddix and Presswood were opponents and teammates of Negro League players that went on to play in the Major Leagues. However, neither of the two went beyond playing in the Negro Leagues.
A left handed pitcher who was born in Tampa, Florida on October 7, 1928, Raydell Maddix played for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1947 – 1953. Like most Negro League players in the late 1940s and in the 1950s, he was hoping to catch the eye of Major League scouts. His teammate, Sam Hairston, was signed by the Chicago White Sox in 1950. However, military service interrupted Maddix’s career for two years; 1951 and 1952.
A power pitcher nicknamed “Lefty Bo”, Maddix twice lead the Negro American League in strikeouts; 1948 and 1949. He pitched against Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Elston Howard, Jim “Junior” Gilliam and others who went on to play in the Major Leagues. However, Maddix at times was inconsistent with the command of his pitches and walked batters. He had potential, but integration at that time had not progressed to the point that many Major League teams were willing to invest the time and money on developing African American players; especially pitchers.
Henry “Hank” Presswood was born on October 7, 1921 in Electric Mills, Mississippi. A light hitting infielder, his five year Negro League career ran parallel to that of Raydell Maddix. After coming out of the military in 1947, Presswood played with the Cleveland Buckeyes from 1948 – 1950. His 1948 Buckeye teammates Sam Jethroe, Sam Jones, and Al Smith went on to play in the Major Leagues. Presswood finished his Negro League career playing for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1951 – 1952. Ernie Banks was his teammate.
Read more about the journey of Negro League baseball in my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. For more information, go to www.klmitchell.com or http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown
The story that indicates how Ross Davis, born July 28, 1918 in Greenville, Mississippi, picked up the nickname “Satchel” is a testament to his pitching ability.
By the time he became a teenager; Davis had moved to St. Louis and gained notoriety as a pitcher in the city’s African American semi-professional leagues. He was tall and lean (6’2”, 165 pounds), but had a blazing fastball and sharp breaking curve. The story goes that one day “Satchel” Paige himself saw how hard the talented teenager threw the baseball and loudly began referring to young hurler as “my son”. The nickname, “Satchel”, stuck with Davis his entire short Negro League career.
In 1940 while with the Baltimore Elite Giants and only 22 years old, Ross “Satchel” Davis no-hit the Newark Eagles. His battery mate for that pitching gem was an eighteen year old Roy Campanella, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career in the Major Leagues. Pitching for the Cleveland Buckeyes in 1943, he defeated “Satchel” Paige in a head to head matchup.
Davis was drafted into military service after the 1943 season and contacted a serious case of hepatitis during World War II. He was advised to not play baseball again because of the lingering effects of his illness.
But Davis returned to the pitching mound after the war. First, he pitched in the short lived Untied States League and then in 1947 helped the Cleveland Buckeyes win the Negro American League (NAL) pennant. He retired after the season at only 29 years old due to the on-going battle with his illness.
Ross “Satchel” Davis died January 1, 2013 in Houston, Texas.
Who was Davis’ 18 year old battery mate for that 1940 no-hit pitching gem?
Alfred Allen “Buddy” Armour played with four teams in his 13 year (1936 – 1948) Negro League baseball career. Born in Jackson, Mississippi on April 27, 1927, the left handed hitting outfielder was a three time All Star and a member of a Negro League World Series winning team.
As a shortstop with the St. Louis Stars, Armour made his first Negro League East West All Star Game appearance in 1941. Chosen as an All Star again in 1944 after becoming an outfielder and playing with the Cleveland Buckeyes, he got two hits in the West squad’s 7 – 4 victory. While with the Chicago American Giants in 1947, Armour was chosen again an All Star by the votes of Negro League fans. In the first of the two All Star Games played that year, he hit two doubles to help the West squad win 5 – 2.
Armour hit .307 in the 1945 Cleveland Buckeyes’ four game sweep of the Homestead Grays for the Negro League World Series Championship.
By the time professional baseball became integrated in 1947, Armour was 32 years old and was never signed by a Major League club. He played in the Canadian minor leagues from 1949 – 1951 before retiring.
Which of Armour’s teammates on the Cleveland Buckeyes would go on to win “Rookie of the Year” honors in the Major Leagues?