Tag Archives: Kansas City A’s

Baseball And Civil Rights 1956: Part 2

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Curt Roberts 1956 Pittsburgh Pirates

This is the second part of my previous blog post on the process of racially integrating professional baseball coinciding with the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s.  They were both a part of the massive seismic shift in racial relations occurring after World War II that would forever change the nation.  An example of how they coincided is shown in the story of the scheduled exhibition games in the spring of 1956 between the Kansas City A’s and the Pittsburgh Pirates to be played in Birmingham, Alabama.  As mentioned in Part 1, they were cancelled on February 16, 1956.

With the toxic racial climate that existed in the city during the 1950s, it puzzled me how and why the games were even scheduled.  There had to be information to add clarity to what happened. I would like to thank Jim Baggett of the Birmingham Public Library for providing that additional information to solve the puzzle.

First a short recap.  As part of the “Jim Crow” laws racially segregating the city, Birmingham’s City Commissioners banned interracial athletic competition.   However, the ban clashed with Major League baseball becoming racially integrated in the 1950s.  It had been a tradition for Major League teams at the close of spring training to play exhibition games as they traveled north to begin the season.  The spring “barnstorming circuit” mostly consisted of cities in the southern United States.  As more Major League teams became integrated, the fewer opportunities existed for Birmingham to receive the economic benefits of being on the circuit.   The City Commissioners lifted the ban on January 26, 1954 and that spring the Brooklyn Dodgers played two exhibition games in Birmingham against the Milwaukee Braves.

According to information from the Birmingham News in 1954 sent me by Mr. Baggett, the second game drew 10,474 fans; the largest crowd to see a spring exhibition game in the city since 1947 and the third largest ever.  There were no reports of racial violence or unrest during the games.  Afterwards, since Major League baseball exhibition games evidently were normally handled on a two-year ahead basis, five games for Birmingham were scheduled for 1956; the Braves vs the Dodgers on April 6, the Pittsburgh Pirates vs the Kansas City A’s on March 31 and April 1, and the Boston Red Sox vs Birmingham’s Southern League Double A minor league team (the Barons) on April 7 & 8.

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Johnny Logan, Henry Aaron, Ed Mathews 1956 Milwaukee Braves

However, the racial harmony on the ball field displayed during the games between the 1954 Dodgers and Braves games disturbed the racial hardliners in Birmingham’s city government.  It went against what they called, “the South’s way of life”, and their belief that athletic competition between blacks and whites could not be done peacefully.  They orchestrated a campaign of fear saying the desegregation of sports would lead to desegregation in other aspects of life in Birmingham (schools, department stores, public accommodations, etc.) and forced a voter referendum to reestablish the racial athletic competition ban.  On June 1 the referendum passed City Ordinance 597, called “the checker ordinance”, and the ban again went into place.

As the spring of 1956 approached, the general managers of the Major League teams scheduled to play exhibition games in Birmingham received a copy of the ordinance:

“It shall be unlawful for a negro or white person to play together or in company with each other   any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, football, softball, basketball, or similar games”. City Ordinance 597

The maximum penalty for violation:  $100 fine and/or 180 days in jail.

By 1956, the racial integration of Major League baseball remained slow, but steady.  It had passed the “experiment” label some had put on it. Seven of the eight National League teams and six of the eight teams in the American League had become racially integrated.  Since 1947, former Negro League players had been named National League Rookie of the Year six times.  Three of them, Jackie Robinson (1947), Don Newcombe (1949), and Junior Gilliam (1953) played for the Dodgers who were scheduled in one of the games that spring.  Although African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players in the Major Leagues still encountered racial discrimination in 1956, their teams were beginning to be less willing to subject them to municipal segregation laws such as in Birmingham.

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Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers

The Birmingham Barons were the sponsor of the games that spring.  On February 14, 1956; Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Buzzie Bavasi and Milwaukee Braves General Manager John Quinn issued the following joint statement to the Barons’ general manager:  “Due to the current conditions in the Birmingham area, all parties concerned have agreed to cancel the game in Birmingham between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves”.  Two days later, February 16, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City A’s cancelled their two games scheduled to be played in Birmingham that spring.

The Boston Red Sox games against Birmingham Barons were played as scheduled.  The last Major League team to integrate, the Red Sox would not have its first African-American player until 1959.

Information for this blog was provided by Jim Baggett of the Birmingham Public Library

 

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Baseball and Civil Rights 1956 – Part 1

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Roberto Clemente

Jackie Robinson’s erasing of the color line in 1947 to become the first African-American to play Major League in the 20th Century began the process of racially integrating professional baseball.  A slow and reluctant process, it coincided with the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s.  Overcoming racial discrimination and prejudice in a sport did in no way compare to facing physical harm and even death in fighting for equal rights given under the Constitution of the United States.   However due to baseball’s prominence as the “national pastime”, many saw the integration of Major League baseball symbolically as one of the first steps in social progress for African-Americans.   The racial integration of Major League baseball and the Civil Rights Movement were both a part of the massive seismic shift in racial relations occurring after World War II that would forever change the nation.  How they coincided is shown in the story of the scheduled exhibition games in the spring of 1956 between the Kansas City A’s and the Pittsburgh Pirates to be played in Birmingham, Alabama.  On February 15, 1956; they were cancelled.

 

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Vic Power

It had been a tradition for Major League teams at the close of spring training to play exhibition games as they traveled north to begin the season.  The spring “barnstorming circuit” mostly consisted of cities in the southern United States.  These games were an economic boom for them as baseball fans from the surrounding areas came, for what would be the only opportunity for some, to see Major League players.  When Major League teams began to become racially integrated in the 1950s, this tradition clashed with the “Jim Crow” laws that forbade interracial sports competition.  The municipal government of these cities had to choose between receiving the commercial benefits from the games versus upholding their racial separation law.  Most chose the former.  Despite threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan, Atlanta officials overrode the laws to allow the Brooklyn Dodgers who had Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Jackie Robinson to play the all-white Atlanta Crackers a three game series in the spring of 1949.

 

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Harry Simpson

The city of Birmingham, Alabama initially made a different choice and maintained its ban of interracial athletic competition.  However, after being eliminated from the spring exhibition circuit for years due to the ban, the city commissioners lifted it on January 26, 1954.  That spring, the Brooklyn Dodgers played an exhibition game in Birmingham against the Milwaukee Braves.  But the city racial hardliners used the fear that the desegregation of sports would lead to desegregation in other aspects of life in Birmingham (schools, department stores, public accommodations, etc.) to force a voter referendum to reestablish the ban.  On June 1, the referendum passed stating, “It shall be unlawful for a negro or white person to play together or in company with each other   any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, football, softball, basketball, or similar games”.  It was City Ordinance 597, named the “checker ordinance”.

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Hector Lopez

With the ordinance reinstated banning interracial athletic competition in June 1954, how did the two exhibition games between the Kansas City A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates get scheduled for the spring of 1956?  The A’s at that time had American League All-Star and former Negro League outfielder Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, first baseman Vic Power who was from Puerto Rico, and outfielder Hector Lopez from Panama.  Power’s friend and fellow islander future Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente and former Negro League infielder Curt Roberts both played for the Pirates.  The games would have been a violation of the ordinance.  Were they scheduled while the ban had been lifted in 1954?  Had there been talk of overriding or ignoring the ban to play the game? What if any part did the racial tension caused by the bus boycott by African-Americans in Montgomery, 92 miles down state, going on at that time play in the decision to cancel the games?  Come back for Part Two!

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Curt Roberts

*Information for this blog was provided from the book “Carry Me Home:  Birmingham, Alabama:  The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution” by Diane McWhorter (Simon & Schuster 2001)

Remembering Those Who Played Their Last Inning in 2017 – Part 2

There were three former Major League baseball players who died in 2017 that I would like to mention.  None of them had their beginning in Negro League baseball.  One is the first of many Major League players that would come from San Pedro de Marcois, Dominican Republic.  The other two are Caucasians who were on one of the last Major League franchises that fielded African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players.

Why mention them?  They played during the time when baseball consumed my life, my youth.  I collected their baseball cards and remembered the events in their careers.  Even though I will always retain good memories of that time, the death of these players still gives me a sense of lost.

 

Manny Jimenez –  December 12, 2017

There had been no players of color on the roster of my hometown team Kansas City Athletics in 1960.  However, Charlie Finley purchased the A’s in 1961 and the next season a group of African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players were added to the roster:  Ed Charles, John Wyatt, Jose Tartabull, Diego Segui, Orlando Pena, and Manny Jimenez.  A contact left-handed hitting outfielder, Jimenez came from San Pedro de Marcois in the Dominican Republic; the first of many Major League players that would come from that city.  The list of players that would follow includes former Major Leaguers Sammy Sosa, Joaquin Andujar, Rico Carty, Alfonso Soriano, Pedro Guerrero, Tony Fernandez, and George Bell in addition to current active players Johnny Cueto and Robinson Cano.

Jimenez started the 1962 season with a hot bat, hitting .351 by the All-Star break. But Finley believed due to his physical stature, 6’1” and 185 pounds, Jimenez should hit with more home run power.  Saying he did not pay him to hit singles, Finley ordered Jimenez to swing harder to hit more home runs.   Altering his swing, the outfielder experienced a batting slump the remainder of the season.  Although he finished with a .301 batting average, Jimenez never again consistently regained the swing he had earlier that season.  He had three injury-prone more seasons with the A’s and three as a pinch hitter in the National League before retiring in 1969.

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Manny Jimenez

 

Jim Bunning and Frank Lary

Teammates with the Detroit Tigers from 1955 – 1963, Bunning, who died May 26, and Lary, who died on December 13, were both All-Star pitchers.  The Tigers were the next to last franchise to add African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players; the team’s first being Ozzie Virgil in 1958.  The Boston Red Sox, the last team to integrate, added Elijah “Pumpsie” Green the next year.

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Frank Lary

From 1949 – 1964 the New York Yankees won the American League pennant every year but two; 1954 and 1959.  With me being a young baseball fan in Kansas City, an American League city, you can understand how I became a “Yankee hater”.  I rooted for any team who had the potential to beat the Yankees and surprisingly the Tigers in 1961 came close to doing it.

Detroit finished the 1960 season in 6th place (71 – 83), with the high point acquiring 1959 American League home run co-champion Rocky Colavito from the Cleveland Indians in a trade.  He would be a factor in the team’s dramatic turn around in 1961.  Colavito with 45,   first baseman Norm Cash with 41, and future Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline with 19 combined for 105 home runs.  The Tigers added more color to the line-up that season.  Billy Bruton, a trade acquisition from the Milwaukee Braves, played centerfield.  Starting shortstop Chico Fernandez had come over from the Philadelphia Phillies the previous year.  Jake Wood, the first African-American to work through the Tigers’ farm system and earn a starting position on the team, played second base.

The pitching staff, led by Jim Bunning and Frank Lary, had a huge role in the team’s success in 1961.  At that time, both had been mainstays of the starting rotation for years:  Bunning winning 62 games since 1957 and Lary 94 since 1955.  In the midst of what would be a 28 – 13 lifetime record against New York, Lary had been given the moniker “Yankee Killer” by the sports media.  The number three spot in the Tiger’s pitching rotation went to Don Mossi, a seven-year veteran of American League campaigns.  Combined the three won 53 games that season; Lary 23, Bunning 17, and Mossi 15.

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Jim Bunning

The defending American League champion Yankees had a powerful hitting line-up in 1961 led by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.  They pursued the single season home run record of 60 held by Babe Ruth.  Maris broke it with 61, while Mantle finished with 54.  However, on July 24 the Tigers were in first place by one game ahead of the Yankees.  Detroit certainly had my hopes raised high.

On September 1, the Tigers went to Yankee Stadium for a three game weekend series in second place trailing New York by only 1.5 games.  However, Detroit lost all three games and ended the in season in a tailspin.  They lost 14 of their last 29 games, finishing in second place with a 101 – 61, 8 games behind the Yankees.

Never again having his 1961 form due to shoulder problems, Frank Lary won only nine more games the final years (1962 – 65) of his career.  The Tigers traded him to the New York Mets after the 1963 season.

Around the same time, the team traded Jim Bunning to the Philadelphia Phillies.  He won 106 games the final years of his career (1964 – 71) in the National League.  After baseball, he became a six-term US Congressman and two-term US Senator from his home state of Kentucky.  In 1991, Bunning was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies on June 21, 1964, Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game against the New York Mets.  His former Detroit Tiger teammate Frank Lary looked on from the Mets’ bullpen that day.  Lary may not have been surprised at the pitching mastery shown by Bunning.  He had seen it numerous times in their nine years together with the Tigers.

 

 

Why I Remember Harry “Suitcase” Simpson

Harry Simpson was one of the first baseball players that captured my attention as I became a young fan of the nation’s “favorite past time” in the 1950’s.  I learned about great players like Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and Mickey Mantle when I was a six year old becoming aware of the game. But “Suitcase” Simpson, as my brother called him, was one player that really drew my interest.

Born on December 3, 1925 in Atlanta, Georgia; the left handed batting Harry Leon Simpson was an outfielder/ first baseman who after serving in the military during World War II initially played professionally in Negro League baseball with the Philadelphia Stars.  Signing his first Major League contract with the Cleveland Indians in 1948, Simpson became one of eight former Negro League players who made their Major League debuts in 1951.  The others were Bob Boyd and Sam Hairston (Chicago White Sox), Sam Jones (Cleveland Indians), Luis Angel Marquez (Boston Braves), Willie Mays,  Ray Noble, and Arte Wilson (New York Giants). A good fielder with a strong throwing arm, Simpson hit with power in the minor leagues (31 home runs in 1949, 33 in 1950).  The Indians had high expectations for him. With Simpson and Larry Doby in the outfield, and Luke Easter at first base, it was the only American League team to have African Americans as part of its everyday lineup in 1951 – 1953.

simpson-2                                                                 simpson-indians

Following two injury plagued disappointing seasons with the Indians, Simpson was purchased in May of 1955 by the Kansas City A’s; my hometown team.  He had his best seasons in the Major Leagues with the A’s (1955 – 1957) and that is when I became familiar with him.  I had never seen anyone with such thick eye brows and pointed ears.   He hit .293 in 1956 with twenty-one home runs and 103 runs batted in and was one of two African Americans on the American League’s All-Star Game squad; Vic Power his teammate from the A’s was the other.

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Contrary to the assumption that could be made in reviewing Simpson’s baseball career, he got tagged with the nickname “Suitcase” while in Negro League baseball. It did not come from him being traded or changing teams six times in his eight year Major League career.  Simpson already had the nickname when he came to the A’s in 1956; only his second Major League team.  Because of his size 13 feet, he was nicknamed while with the Philadelphia Stars after the Toonerville Trolley comic strip character “Suitcase Simpson” who had feet the other characters said; “were large as suitcases”.  I remember Simpson’s eye brows and ears, but I do not recall his large feet.

To my sorrow, the A’s traded Simpson to the New York Yankees in June of 1957, but the Yankees traded him back the following summer.  In 1959, he split playing time with three teams; Kansas City A’s, Chicago White Sox, and Pittsburgh Pirates. After being released by the White Sox before the 1960 season, Simpson played in the minor leagues and in the Mexican League before retiring in 1964.

simpson-yanks                                          simpson-c

Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, a part of that early group of African Americans to integrate professional baseball in the American League during the 1950s, will always have a place in my heart. Although not a Hall of Fame player, Simpson helped to capture the passion of a six year old kid for the game; a passion that has lasted 59 years.

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

 

Why Harry “Suitcase” Simpson Has a Place in My Heart

Harry Simpson was one of the first baseball players that captured my attention as I became a young fan of the nation’s “favorite pastime” in the 1950’s.  I learned about great players like Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and Mickey Mantle when I was a six-year old becoming aware of the game. But “Suitcase” Simpson, as my brother called him,  was one player that really drew my interest.

Born on December 3, 1925 in Atlanta, Georgia; the left-handed batting Harry Leon Simpson was an outfielder/ first baseman who after serving in the military during World War II initially played professionally in Negro League baseball with the Philadelphia Stars.  Signing his first Major League contract with the Cleveland Indians in 1948, Simpson became one of eight former Negro League players who made their Major League debuts in 1951.  The others were Bob Boyd and Sam Hairston (Chicago White Sox), Sam Jones (Cleveland Indians), Luis Angel Marquez (Boston Braves), Willie Mays,  Ray Noble, and Arte Wilson (New York Giants). A good fielder with a strong throwing arm, Simpson hit with power in the minor leagues (31 home runs in 1949, 33 in 1950).  The Indians had high expectations for him. With Simpson and Larry Doby in the outfield, and Luke Easter at first base, it was the only American League team to have African-Americans as part of its everyday lineup in 1951 – 1953.

simpson-2                                                       simpson-indians

Following two injury plagued disappointing seasons, Simpson’s contract was purchased in May of 1955 by the Kansas City A’s; my hometown team.  He had his best seasons in the Major Leagues with the A’s (1955 – 1957) and that is when I became familiar with him.  I had never seen anyone with such thick eye brows and pointed ears.   He hit .293 in 1956 with twenty-one home runs and 103 runs batted in and was one of two African-Americans on the American League’s All-Star Game squad; Vic Power his teammate from the A’s was the other.

simpson-1                                     simpson-a

Contrary to the assumption that could be made in reviewing Simpson’s baseball career, he got tagged with the nickname “Suitcase” while in Negro League baseball. It did not come from him being traded or changing teams six times in his eight year Major League career.  Simpson already had the nickname when he came to the A’s in 1956; only his second Major League team.  Because of his size 13 feet, he was nicknamed while with the Philadelphia Stars after the Toonerville Trolley comic strip character “Suitcase Simpson” who had feet the other characters said; “were large as suitcases”.  I remember Simpson’s eye brows and ears, but I do not recall his large feet.

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Tooneville Trolley’s “Suitcase Simpson”

 

To my sorrow, the A’s traded Simpson to the New York Yankees in June of 1957, but the Yankees traded him back the following summer.  In 1959, he split playing time with three teams; Kansas City A’s, Chicago White Sox, and Pittsburgh Pirates. After being released by the White Sox before the 1960 season, Simpson played in the minor leagues and in the Mexican League before retiring in 1964.

simpson-yanks                                     simpson-c

Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, a part of that early group of African-Americans to integrate professional baseball in the American League during the 1950s, will always have a place in my heart. Although not a Hall of Fame player, Simpson helped to capture the passion of a six year old kid for the game; a passion that has lasted 59 years.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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