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
Happy Birthday Henry Aaron!
Today marks the eighty-third birthday of the Hall of Fame (inducted in 1982) outfielder. Born February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama; Aaron signed with the Boston Braves in 1952 after playing half of a season with the Negro League baseball Indianapolis Clowns. Aaron spent two years destroying pitchers in the Braves’ minor league system. While one of the first African Americans in the Southern Atlantic League (Sally League) in 1953, he hit .362 with 22 home runs and won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. However, Aaron thought at best he would be assigned to the Braves’ Triple A team in Toledo, Ohio.
On March 3, 1954 during an exhibition game in Florida; Milwaukee Braves outfielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle sliding into second base on a force play. Three years after his pennant clinching home run for the New York Giants, Thomson had come to the Braves in a trade to add power to their line-up. It was a forgone conclusion when spring training began that the Braves’ opening day outfield would be Thomson along with Billy Bruton, and Andy Pafko. But with Thomson out for with a triple fractured ankle, the Braves had to change their plan.
With the previous year’s reserve outfielder Jim Pendleton not reporting to spring training in an effort to get a salary increase, the Braves’ turned to Aaron. The next day in his first time in the starting outfield, he hit a home run. Exceeding his expectations, Aaron left spring training as the Braves opening day left fielder.
Aaron went hitless in five at bats during the season opener in Cincinnati on April 13, but got two hits in the Braves home opener on April 15. In St. Louis on April 23 against Cardinal pitcher Vic Raschi, Aaron hit his first Major League home run. He finished 1954, his rookie season, batting .282 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year award voting behind Gene Conley, Ernie Banks, and Wally Moon.
On August 25 last year, I posted an article on this blog entitled: “Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman: Seeing both a baseball sunset and a new dawning”. It celebrated Coleman’s 78th birthday (born August 25, 1937 in Orlando, Florida).
I received an email from Coleman’s niece who saw my blog post. She indicated his family had begun the process keeping his name and his story alive for baseball fans. A web site was in the making and other activities were being planned.
However on August 15th, ten days before his 79th birthday, Coleman died in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
In memory of “Choo Choo” Coleman, I have re-posted last year’s article. To me his baseball life was unique. He experienced the sunset of Negro League baseball in the 1950s and had a role in the history of a Major League franchise’s new dawning.
Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman: Seeing a Sunset and a New Dawning
The on field statistics of Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman; born August 25, 1937 in Orlando, Florida, do not make his baseball career anything special. But it is the timing of when he played and the teams in which he was on that draws interest when his name is mentioned. He experienced the sunset of Negro League baseball and the dawning of a new Major League franchise.
Coleman was first signed in 1955 by the Washington Senators who had their Class D minor league team in Orlando. The Senators were in the American League which as a whole by 1955 as compared to the National League was slower in signing African-American and dark- skinned Latino ball players. The “invisible color line” which kept Major League baseball segregated for nearly half the 20th Century had been erased in 1947, but there were still two American League teams without Black or Latino players the year Coleman was signed; the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers.
Going nowhere in the Senators’ minor league organization, Coleman signed with the Indianapolis Clowns midway through the 1956 season. By the mid-1950s, integration had killed Negro League baseball by draining it of the best players and stealing the interest of black baseball fans. The Clowns had become the “Harlem Globetrotters” of baseball when Coleman joined them. The former Negro American League (NAL) team travelled from city to city to compete against semi-professional and amateur squads while performing on field antics designed to generate laughs for fan entertainment.
By 1960, however, there were Major League teams still interested in Coleman. The 5’9”, 165 pounds undersized catcher was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers that year and was then drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1961. Coleman made it to the Major Leagues in time to be on the worst team in baseball that season. The Phillies lost 107 games. Making his debut on April 16, 1961, Coleman hit .128 playing in 34 games
The next season “Choo Choo” would become a part of baseball history for the wrong reason as he was chosen by the National League expansion team New York Mets. The team was 40 – 120 its first season. And although Coleman had his best year statistically; batting .250 with six home runs and 17 RBIs in 55 games, he became a part of the popular baseball lore about the hapless 1962 Mets. His nickname “Choo Choo”, that Coleman says he got being a fast runner as a child, made him a fan favorite.
He was demoted to the minor leagues after he hit .178 in 1963; 3 home runs, 9 RBIs in 106 games. Coleman returned to play briefly for the team in 1966, which would be his last season in the Major Leagues.
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 last “clown prince” of the Negro League baseball’s Indianapolis Clowns, Samuel “Birmingham Sam” Brison, was born on July 24, 1940 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Here are nine (9) facts about his baseball career:
- Brison, a shortstop, first played for the Birmingham Black Barons when 18 years old in 1958.
- The Black Barons, Memphis Red Sox, Detroit Clowns, and Kansas City Monarchs were the only teams in the Negro American League (NAL) Brison’s first year.
- In 1962, Brison began his fifteen year stint with the Indianapolis Clowns.
- The Clowns in 1962 were strictly a barnstorming team and the “Harlem Globetrotters” of baseball.
- Brison replaced Richard “King Tut” King who had retired in 1959. “King Tut” had been the Clowns’ leading comedy performer and a fan favorite for the team since the 1940s. At times during those years with a midget named “Spec Behop”, King would perform comedy stunts before the game and between innings.
- Because Brison looked so much like King, Clowns’ owner Syd Pollock initially billed him “King Tut Jr.”. However, because “King Tut” was so popular with the fans, Brison said he felt uncomfortable with that name. It was changed to “Birmingham Sam”.
- There is unconfirmed information about Brison’s opportunities to play in the Major Leagues while with the Clowns. Supposedly, he was on the spring training camp roster for the Milwaukee Braves in 1965 and the Cincinnati Reds in 1969. However, there is no record of Brison officially playing for a Major League team in his career.
- He had a small part in “The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars”, a 1976 movie that loosely depicted life in Negro League baseball.
- Brison played basketball in the winter of 1963 with the Harlem Road Kings along with former Indianapolis Clowns first baseman “Goose” Tatum.
“Birmingham Sam” Brison died in April 1204 while living in Birmingham.