Willard Brown, born 6/26/15, is said to have fit the bill of what is called a “five tool” baseball player. A superb fielding outfielder; Brown ran the bases with blazing speed, had a strong throwing arm, and could hit for a high average with home run power. Many ascribed to him by the nickname “Home Run” Brown. He played for the Kansas City Monarchs mostly throughout his Negro League career (1935 – 1950). He served in the military (1944 – 1945) during World War II and briefly played Major League baseball in 1947 with the St. Louis Browns. On August 13, 1947 Brown became the first African-American to hit a home run in the American League.
In 2006, Willard Brown and fifteen other individuals from the Negro League baseball era were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I profile the 2006 inductees in my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. The following is a brief book exert from my profile of Willard Brown:
“Brown had a tendency to appear bored during games. When
that happened it is said he would take a magazine with him to the
outfield to read between pitches. And sometimes he would walk
instead of running to his outfield position, holding up the start of an
inning. This gave an impression of Brown by some as having a
“prima donna” attitude.
But former teammate and manager Buck O’Neil said, “Willard
was so talented, he did not look as if he was hustling. Everything
looked so easy for him.” Brown’s extreme talent made it appear he
did things effortlessly. While most players ran around the bases, he
seemed to glide. The exhaustion of the game would be evident on
most players, but it appeared Brown hardly broke a sweat. O’Neil
felt that no matter what “Home Run” Brown did, people thought he
could do a little more because of his enormous talent.
But Negro League fans appreciated the play of Willard Brown.
They selected him to participate in six Negro League East‐West All
Star Games. In ten All Star plate appearances Brown had five hits.
As an indication of Negro League baseball’s relative prosperity
after surviving the economic depression of the late 1920s and
1930s, the Negro League World Series was played in 1942. There
had not been one since 1927. The 1942 fall classic saw the two
most recognized Negro League franchises tangle, the Kansas City
Monarchs against the Homestead Grays. Willard Brown was one of
the series’ hitting stars as the Monarchs swept the Grays four
games to none. He batted .412 (7 hits in 17 at bats) with one double,
one triple, and of course one home run.”
To read more about Willard Brown and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
Due to being shut down the last few days by a bad cold, I failed yesterday to acknowledge the birthday of Negro League left-handed pitcher Andy Cooper. Born April 24, 1898 in Waco, Texas; Cooper is considered one of the best southpaw pitchers in Negro League baseball history; Willie Foster the only one deemed better. At 6’2″, 220 pounds, he had the physical stature of a power pitcher. But Andy Cooper did not overpower hitters. Nicknamed “Lefty”, he used a variety of pitches at different speeds to keep hitters off-balance to get them out. He pitched for the Detroit Stars (1920 – 1927) and the Kansas City Monarchs (1928 – 1937). Also, with Cooper as manager, the Monarchs won the Negro American League pennant in 1939 and 1940.
The following is an exert from my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era” in which I profile Andy Cooper;
“In his prime, Hall of Famer Satchel Paige’s fastball was described by batters as
being the size of a half-dollar or a pea. By the nickname given other
pitchers, the batters knew what to expect when facing them.
“Smokey” Joe Williams, “Cannonball” Dick Redding, Wilber “Bullet”
Rogan, and “Steel Arm” Johnny Taylor were just a few whose name
preceded their pitches. Using radar technology to gauge the speed
of pitches was not introduced into baseball until the 1970s.
However, if it had been used to clock the pitches of the great Negro
League baseball hurlers, it would have registered at ninety‐plus
miles per hour many times.
But Andrew Lewis Cooper was a different kind of pitcher. He
did not overpower batters. “Lefty” as he was nicknamed, used a
variety of pitches at different speeds to get batters out.
In order to hit the ball solidly, a batter must have balanced
coordination and timing between his legs, waist, shoulders, and
hands. If a pitcher can disrupt that coordination and timing, getting
the hitter swinging too early or too late; it usually leads to a fly out,
ground out or strike out. Andy Cooper was a master of keeping
hitters off-balance. Not having the blazing fastball like other great
Negro League pitchers, he had the ability to get batters out by
disrupting their coordination and timing. “Lefty” had a successful
career by frustrating and fooling them with his arsenal of pitches.”
To read more about Andy Cooper and the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
In celebration of Black History Month, here is Today’s Negro League Baseball History Fact: Eddie Dwight.
Born in Dalton, Georgia on February 25, 1905, Eddie Dwight played for the Kansas City Monarchs for two periods of time; 1928 – 1929 and 1933 – 1937. He made his home in Kansas City, Kansas, my hometown on the west end of Kansas City’s Intercity Viaduct. The Dwight’s lived on the northeast side of KCK, his children went to school with members of my family.
Although a good outfielder with speed and range, Dwight could not break into the Monarchs’ starting line up during his first stint with the team. However, he returned in 1933 to become the No. 1 centerfielder. A good contact hitter and bunter with base stealing speed, Dwight primarily led the Monarchs offensive attack batting first. Negro League fans selected him to play in the 1936 East-West All Star Game.
After retiring, Dwight owned a retail store in the 1950s. In 1962, his son Eddie Dwight, Jr. became the first African-American chosen by NASA for astronaut training.
Negro League baseball is not just a part of African American history, but is woven into the fabric of 20th Century American history
In celebration of Black History Month, here is today’s Negro League baseball history fact for today: Leroy Breedlove.
A well-respected educator and coach (football, track and field) in the Orange, Texas school system, Breedlove died earlier this month. Loved by parents and former students in the community, he was honored on last September 23 when the West Orange-Stark High School football field became the Leroy D. Breedlove Field. More on the life of Breedlove can be read using the link to an article from the Orange Leader at the end of this post. As mentioned in the article, before his career as an educator, Breedlove played with the Kansas City Monarchs.
Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Breedlove moved to my hometown of Kansas City, Kansas while in grade school. Like most of the African-American kids on the city’s northeast side, including me, he attended Sumner High School participating in all sports. Breedlove graduated in 1949, a classmate of my uncle and aunt. I went to high school with his nephews. After graduating, Breedlove received an athletic scholarship to Texas Southern, named Texas State University for Negros at that time. He played football, basketball, baseball, and ran track.
It would be after his freshman year when Breedlove, a pitcher, played with the Kansas City Monarchs. In 1950, African-American professional baseball players faced a time of both slow change and faster decline. The racial integration of Major League had started its initial slow process that would increase by mid-decade. However, Negro League baseball had begun a faster demise its eventual end in the early 1960s. Pitcher Satchel Paige and shortstop Ernie Banks, both in the Baseball Hall of Fame, played with the Monarchs in 1950. Pitcher Connie Johnson and infielder Curt Roberts, who would both play on Major League teams in the 1950s, were also Monarch teammates of Breedlove.
After that one season, Breedlove returned to Texas Southern and upon graduation in 1954 began his teaching/coaching career.
To read more about the life of Leroy Breedlove Leroy Breedlove
To learn more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
In celebration of Black History Month, here is Today’s Negro League Baseball History Fact: Frank Duncan
Frank Duncan spent 20 of his 28 years (1920 – 1948) in Negro League baseball with his hometown Kansas City Monarchs. Born February 14, 1901 in Kansas City, Missouri, he played on both Monarch teams that were Negro League World Series Champions; although almost two decades apart.
Known mostly for his defense as a catcher, Duncan’s strong throwing arm helped Monarch pitchers hold opposing baserunners close to first or second base. A smart catcher, he worked with Hall of Fame pitchers Jose Mendez, Bullet Rogan, Satchel Paige, and Hilton Smith during his years with the Kansas City team.
He first played with the Monarchs from 1921 -1934. During that time the team won four Negro National League (NNL) pennants (1923 – 1925, 1929). They defeated the Hilldale Club of Darby, Pennsylvania in the first Negro League World Series (1924). Duncan got the key hit to drive in two runs and help the Monarchs win Game Seven of the best five out of nine series.
Although the Monarchs continued to operate when the NNL went out of business after the 1931 season, Duncan left to play for teams in New York and Pittsburgh. He returned to the Monarchs in 1937, the first year of the Negro American League (NAL). The next season he played with the Chicago American Giants, but returned to the Monarch’s in 1940 and became the team’s player/manager.
In 1942, the Monarchs won the NAL pennant and defeated the Homestead Grays in the Negro League World Series; the team’s second World Series championship. Duncan led the team to another NAL pennant in 1946, but it lost a closely contested Negro League World Series to the Newark Eagles.
Duncan and his son Frank, a pitcher, were the first Negro League father-son battery in 1941.
Negro League baseball is not just a part of African-American history, but it is woven into the fabric of 20th Century American history.
.To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
In my opinion, Hank Thompson does not get the notice he deserves in the integration of Major League baseball. Playing with the St. Louis Browns in the summer of 1947, he followed closely on the coat tails of Jackie Robinson (after two months and two days) and Larry Doby (after two days) to break through the “invisible color line” that had kept African-American and dark-skinned Latinos out of Major League baseball. Although the Browns released him that summer, Thompson’s talent could not be denied and he went on to have a productive eight year Major League career with the New York Giants. Born on December 8, 1925 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the left-handed hitting Henry Curtis Thompson played a part in the historic changing of baseball’s face.
Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League on April 15, 1947 to become the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues in the 20th Century. At that time, Hank Thompson was in his second season with the Kansas City Monarchs since returning from the military after World War II. He had begun playing Negro League baseball in 1943 as a teenaged outfielder with the Monarchs before the military draft. The potential as a ball player he exhibited before military service was coming to fruition. On July 5, 1947 Larry Doby played his first game with the Cleveland Indians to become the first African-American to play in the American League.
Seeing the large crowds Jackie Robinson attracted to ballparks, the St. Louis Browns purchased the contracts of Hank Thompson and his teammate Willard Brown from the Monarch. The Browns were the worst team in the American League with attendance below 1,000 fans during many home games. The team’s management hoped having the black players would generate fan interest. Thompson played his first Major League game on July 17. On July 20, he and Brown made history as St. Louis became the first team to field two African-American players. Their teammates refused to accept them and Browns’ manager Muddy Ruel only used the black players sparingly. The integration experiment did not attract the crowds as desired. With no intention of helping to nurture their baseball talents as the Dodgers did for Robinson and the Indians would do for Doby, the Browns released both Thompson and Brown on August 23. Although he did not get a fair opportunity with the Browns, Thompson showed promise hitting .256 in 27 games playing mainly second base. At only 21 years old, he would get another opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. Unfortunately, being 32 years old, Willard Brown did not.
Thompson returned to the Kansas City Monarchs for the 1948 season and received his second chance the next year when signed by the New York Giants. He along with Monte Irvin made their Major League debuts on July 8, 1949 to become the first African-Americans to play for the Giants. In 1950, his first full year with the team, Thompson hit .289 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs while playing 148 games mainly at third base and was considered one of the best in league at that position. But he also played in the outfield as he did with the Monarchs. In 1951, the Giants won the National League pennant and played in the World Series against the New York Yankees. Thompson played alongside Monte Irvin and rookie Willie Mays as the Giants become the first team in World Series history to field an all African-American starting outfield.
When Mays left for military service, Thompson hit 17 home runs in 1952 and 24 home runs batting .302 in 1953. When Mays returned in 1954, Thompson hit .263 with 26 home runs and 86 RBIs to help the Giants win the National League pennant. In the team’s World Series sweep of the Cleveland Indians, he hit .364 with seven walks (a four game Series record) and made a spectacular fielding play at third base in Game Three.
Throughout his playing career Thompson battled with alcoholism. By 1956 it dramatically took its toll on him. He became so unproductive the Giants sent him to the minor leagues late in the 1956 season and he retired from baseball in 1957. He died on September 3, 1969, only 43 years old.
Hank Thompson does not have a plaque in Cooperstown as does his former teammates on the New York Giants; Willie Mays and Monte Irvin. However, he should be remembered as one of the Negro League players who proved that once given the opportunity, he belonged in the Major Leagues. His success kept the door open for others to follow.
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
After viewing my previous post on Negro League baseball’s ambidextrous pitcher Larry Kimbrough, Wanda Weatherspoon wanted information shared about her relative who played with the Kansas City Monarchs; Eugene “Gene” Collins. If you have consistently read my blog posts, you know how strongly I believe Negro League baseball is forever woven into the fabric of 20th Century American History. Wanda is proud her relative is a part of the Negro League story.
Born January 7, 1925 in Kansas City, Gene Collins came to the Monarchs in 1947 when the face of Major League baseball began to change and the Negro Leagues’ swan song started its tune. That year Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play in the Major Leagues. A 5’8”, 168 pound left-handed pitcher, Collins joined a pitching staff that included Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith, both now in the Baseball Hall of Fame. A good hitter, Collins also spent time playing with Hall of Fame outfielder Willard Brown who along with Monarch teammate Hank Thompson would briefly play for the St. Louis Brown in 1947. By mid-summer of the next year, Paige would be pitching for the Cleveland Indians. Buck O’Neil, Ted Strong, Joe Greene, and Manager Frank Duncan were all Monarch veterans that help break in Gene Collins to the life of Negro League baseball.
For seven innings on May 22, 1949 Collins gave up no hits to the Houston (formerly Newark) Eagles. With Kansas City leading 14 – 0, the game ended after the seventh inning and some credit Collins with pitching the last no-hitter in Negro League baseball. Some research indicates without detail he had pitched a no-hitter earlier while with the Monarchs.
Five of Gene Collins’ young Monarch teammates during his 1947 – 1949 time with the club went on to play in the Major Leagues as racial integration continued in professional baseball; Gene Baker, Elston Howard, Hank Thompson, Curt Roberts, and Connie Johnson. Collins himself began his minor league career with the Chicago White Sox in 1951. Similar to other teams in the American League, the White Sox took a slow approach to racial integration. Although the “invisible color line” had been erased, there were still racial barriers that African-American and dark-skinned Latino ball players had to face (quota for number on a team, utility player roster spots for white players only) that hindered many of their careers. The only African American pitchers in the American League until the late 1950s were two of Collins’ former Monarch teammates: Satchel Paige who pitched for the Indians (1948 -1949) and the St. Louis Browns (1951 – 1953) and Connie Johnson (White Sox 1953 – 1955 and Baltimore 1955 – 1958). After spending two years in the lower minor league levels of the White Sox organization, Collins played the remainder of his career in Mexican and Caribbean leagues. He never played a game in Major League baseball.
The second book I am currently writing deals with the plight of former Negro League players like Gene Collins. With the Civil Rights Movement’s initial beginnings as its backdrop, the book tells of the final demise of Negro League teams as the integration of Major League baseball gained unstoppable momentum in the 1950s.
I invite Wanda and anyone else who knew Gene Collins and would want to add more about his life to provide me your information and I will do another post about him.
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
Based on the historical information I have read, many times on this blog I have stated it appears the slow progress of integration in Major League baseball during the 1950s hindered the careers of many good African-American players. A prime example of this is Gene Baker. After two seasons in Negro League baseball, Baker became the first African American player signed by the Chicago Cubs. However, it would be three years before he took the field in a Cubs’ uniform.
Born on June 15, 1925 in Davenport, Iowa, Eugene Walter Baker in 1948 and 1949 played shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs; who were managed by John “Buck” O’Neill. After signing with the Cubs before the 1950 season when 25 years old, Baker stayed in the team’s minor league system for four years. The top shortstop in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) for the Cubs’ Los Angeles Angels Triple AAA affiliate, he averaged 12 home runs, 62 RBIs, and a .284 batting average during those years. At that time the Cubs were getting less than mediocre play from their shortstops, but the team dragged its feet promoting Baker. Even the Cubs owner, P. K. Wrigley, began to question how Baker could still be in the minor leagues.
On September 20, 1953, Baker made his Major League debut as a pinch hitter. Ernie Banks, who the Cubs had signed from the Kansas City Monarchs on September 3, played shortstop that day and hit his first Major League home run. After Baker had left the Monarchs in 1950 to sign with the Cubs, Banks followed as “Buck” O’Neill’s new shortstop. He had made his Major League debut on September 17 and beat Baker by three days to be the first African-American to play a Major League game for the Cubs.
The Cubs moved Baker to second base the next season making he and Banks the first African-American double play combination in the Major Leagues. Baker is credited with helping Banks develop into an All Star fielding shortstop; while he was himself selected to play in the 1955 All Star Game.
After the 1957 season began the Cubs believed they needed more power in their line up. They also had a 22-year-old second baseman, Tony Taylor, ready for the Major Leagues. A month and a half before his 32nd birthday, the team traded Baker to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Dale Long and Lee Walls who combined to hit 44 home runs for them the following year. The Pirates were a young upcoming team who had only four players 30 or older. Baker became a utility infielder backing up 20-year-old second baseman Bill Mazeroski, 26-year-old shortstop Dick Groat, and 23-year-old third baseman Gene Freese. After missing most of the 1958 season due to severely injured knee, the team released him after the season and he ended up out of the Major Leagues in 1959.
However, needing a reliable utility infielder and pinch hitter, the Pirates signed Baker at the beginning of the 1960 season. The team won the National League pennant and defeated the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Baker got the opportunity to be on a championship team, something his former double play partner Ernie Banks never experienced.
Gene Baker gained the reputation of being a “smart ballplayer”. In 1961, the Pirates named him manager of their Class D minor league team.
If the Kansas City Royals defeat the New York Mets in the 2015 World Series which begins this week, it will be the city’s ninth professional baseball World Series championship since 1900. The Royals won their first in 1985. The Kansas City Blues, a minor league franchise that was in the city from 1888 – 1954 won three Double-A and two Triple-A Junior World Series championships.
The Kansas City Monarchs, one of the most well-known Negro League baseball franchises, must also be included in the World Series championship baseball history of the city. The Monarchs won the Negro League World Series in 1924 and 1942.
Due to racial discrimination that kept them out of Major League baseball for nearly the first half of the Twentieth Century, African Americans formed their own professional baseball leagues. The Negro National League (NNL) was formed in 1920, followed by the Eastern Colored League (ECL) in 1923. The first Negro League World Series was held in 1924 between the Kansas City Monarchs (NNL) and the Hilldale Club of Darby, Pennsylvania (ECL). It was a best five out of nine Series and it featured five players now with plaques in the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Jose Mendez and Wilber “Bullet” Rogan for the Monarchs; Judy Johnson, Biz Mackey, and Louis Santop for Hilldale.
In Game 7 with the Series tied three games apiece, Hilldale had a 3 -2 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning. The following excerpt from my book, Last Train to Cooperstown, tells what then happened:
“The Monarchs rallied to have the bases loaded, but with two outs. Hilldale was one out from going ahead in the Series four games to three. The Monarchs batter, Frank Duncan, hit a foul fly ball behind home plate within the reach of Santop. All the normally sure handed backstop had to do was catch it and Hilldale would win. He dropped the ball! Given another swing, Duncan hit a ground ball that got through third baseman Biz Mackey driving in two runs to give Kansas City a 4 – 3 victory”.
Although Hilldale rebounded to win Game Eight, the Monarchs got a stellar pitching performance in Game Nine from their aging manager Jose Mendez to win 2 – 0. They were the first Negro League World Series Champions. Hilldale revenged their lost the next year defeating Kansas City in the 1925 Series five games to one.
To learn more about the Negro League baseball careers of Jose Mendez, Louis Santop, and Biz Mackey; read 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.
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