Many of my blog posts celebrate the birthdays of African-American and dark-skinned Latino baseball players of the past; mainly those of the Negro League baseball era and of the game’s “Golden Age” (1950s and 1960s). However as 2016 comes to an end, I would like to briefly mention those who died this year. If there are some not listed it is because I was not aware of their deaths. Of the eight named in this blog post, some had more productive careers statistically than others. However, they all helped to grow the deep, unshakable roots African-Americans have in the great game of baseball
Monte Irvin – January 11, 2016
The Hall of Fame outfielder, inducted in 1973, spent the prime years of his career in Negro League baseball with the Newark Eagles. Considered the best player in the Negro Leagues by many in 1941 before going into military service, Irvin returned in 1946 to help the Eagles win the Negro League World Series Championship. In 1949 he became the first African-American to play for the New York Giants. He helped them win two National League pennants and the 1954 World Series Championship.
Walt Williams – January 23, 2016
I remember Walt Williams as a hustling, energetic outfielder with the Chicago White Sox (1967 – 1972) who had the nickname “No Neck” because of his short and stocky physique. A contact hitter without much power, he had an outwardly enthusiastic approach to playing baseball. Williams also spent time with the Houston Colt 45s (1964), Cleveland Indians (1973), and New York Yankees (1974-1975).
Ted Toles, Jr. – April 5, 2016
Ted Toles played Negro League baseball from 1943 – 1947 and then in 1949. A pitcher and outfielder, he played for the Newark Eagles, Cleveland Buckeyes, and Jacksonville Eagles. He spent time in the minor leagues in the early 1950s.
Joe Durham – April 20, 2016
After playing in Negro League baseball with the Chicago American Giants, Durham signed with the St. Louis Browns in the fall of 1952. The Browns became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954 and called Durham up from the minor leagues the last month of the season. He made his Major League debut on September 10 and two days later became the first African-American player to hit a home run in an Orioles’ uniform.
Charley Beamon – May 3, 2016
Arm trouble cut short the career of Beamon, a right-handed power pitcher with a good curveball. A high school classmate of basketball great Bill Russell and Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson (McClymonds in Oakland, CA.), Beamon made his Major League debut on September 26, 1956. He outmatched Whitey Ford in beating the New York Yankees 1 – 0 giving up only 4 hits. But he missed most of 1957 due to arm soreness and was 1 -3 with the Orioles in 1958, his last Major League season.
Jim Ray Hart – May 19, 2016
A power hitting third baseman for the San Francisco Giants 1963 – 1973, Hart smashed 31 home runs in 1964 and 33 in 1966. He finished second in the 1964 National League Rookie of the Year voting next to winner Dick Allen. Hart averaged 92 RBIs a year for the 1964 – 1967 seasons. He finished his career playing with New York Yankees in 1974.
Chico Fernandez – June 11, 2016
Fernandez signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 as a shortstop. With future Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese still in his prime, Fernandez spent five years in the team’s minor league system. But the Dodgers traded Chico to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1957 and he became the first dark-skinned Latino to play for the team. He had two productive seasons (1957-1958) with the Phillies. In 1960, the team traded Fernandez to the Detroit Tigers where he became their number one shortstop for three years (1960 – 1962).
“Choo Choo” Coleman – August 15, 2016
Coleman had a unique career in baseball. 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, but after going nowhere in the their minor league organization he signed with the Negro League Indianapolis Clowns. 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. However, there were Major League teams still interested in Coleman as he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1960 and the Philadelphia Phillies in 1961. Choo-Choo would become a part of baseball history for the wrong reason the next season as he was chosen by the National League expansion team New York Mets who were 40 – 112 and are known in historical baseball lore as the “hapless 1962 Mets”.
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
Donald “Groundhog” Johnson, born July 31, 1926 in Covington, Kentucky, and Joseph (Joe) Durham, born July 31, 1931 in Newport News, Virginia, were almost Chicago American Giant teammates in 1952. After playing with Chicago the three previous years (1949 – 1951), Johnson left to play with the Philadelphia Stars while Durham that year was a Negro League baseball rookie. Their careers were two typical examples of what happened to Negro League players after the “invisible color line” was broken and Negro League baseball began its decline into oblivion in the 1950s.
Named “groundhog” because how low he positioned his body to field ground balls while playing shortstop, Johnson was not signed by a Major League team. He retired from professional baseball after the 1952 season as it was quickly becoming an unstable, unprofitable profession for those stuck in the Negro Leagues. After retiring, he played in amateur baseball leagues and coached youth league teams while living in Cincinnati.
Durham was signed by the St. Louis Browns after the 1952 season. In 1953, he became one of the first African American players in the Piedmont League which consisted of teams in segregated southern cities. The Browns became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954 and called Durham up from the minor leagues the last month of the season. He made his Major League debut on September 10 and two days later became the first African American player to hit a home run in an Orioles’ uniform.
After spending two years doing military service, Durham returned to the Orioles in 1957 and hit .185 (four home runs and nineteen RBI in 77 games), being used mostly as a pinch hitter. The Orioles sent him back to the minor leagues, but the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him (Rule 5 draft) after the 1958 season. Durham played in six games for the Cardinals in 1959. He spent the remainder of his career playing in the minor leagues where he compiled a ten year batting average of .288.
What former Negro League pitcher also made his Major League debut with the Baltimore Orioles in 1954?