Tag Archives: Kevin L. Mitchell

Jim Gilliam: 1953 Rookie of the Year

In 1953, eight former Negro League players made their Major League Baseball debut.  Only in 1951 did as many from Negro League baseball go through the door into the big leagues Jackie Robinson had broken down in 1947. Gene Baker, Ernie Banks, Jim “Junior” Gilliam, Dave Hoskins, Connie Johnson, Jim Pendleton, Al Smith, and Bob Trice all were former Negro League players who were Major League rookies in 1953.  Banks went on to have a nineteen year Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Cubs.  But it was Gilliam who the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) named 1953 National League “Rookie of the Year” on that December 23.

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Five of the first six previous winners of the National League Rookie of the Year award had been former Negro League players.  Jackie Robinson (Kansas City Monarchs) in 1947, Don Newcombe (Newark Eagles) in 1949, and Joe Black (Baltimore Elite Giants) in 1952 all won playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Sam Jethroe (Cleveland Buckeyes) won the award with the Boston Braves in 1950 and Willie Mays (Birmingham Black Barons) won it playing for the New York Giants in 1951. Gilliam was the sixth and last one from the Negro Leagues to win the award.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee; Jim Gilliam began playing with the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1946 as a seventeen year old second baseman. With the Giants, he became a switch hitter and got the nickname “Junior” because of his age.  Gilliam appeared in three Negro League East West All Star games and was signed in 1951 by the Brooklyn Dodgers.  In his rookie year, he hit .278 with 63 RBIs and a league leading 12 triples.  He also scored 125 runs.  Walter Alston, the Dodgers’ manager, loved Gilliam’s ability to play second base, third base, or left field.  Gilliam hit .296 with two home runs in that year’s World Series as the Dodgers lost to the New York Yankees 4 games to 2.  He hit .292 in the 1955 World Series win against the Yankees; the Dodgers only World Series Championship while in Brooklyn.

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When the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958, Gilliam played on three more Dodgers World Series Champion teams (1959, 1963, and 1965). He played in a total of seven World Series (39 games) with the Dodgers.  The “Dodger blue” was the only uniform Gilliam wore in his 14 year (1953 – 1966) Major League career.

 

Remembering “Sad” Sam Jones

Past feature articles, game summaries, and game box scores of African-American newspapers indicate there were at least 29 no-hitters thrown in Negro League baseball.  Most notably there were two by Satchel Paige and one each by Hilton Smith, Andy Cooper, “Smoky” Joe Williams, and Leon Day; all Hall of Fame pitchers.  The “invisible color line” that kept African–American ballplayers out of the Major Leagues was not erased until 1947 which was too late for these and many other good Negro League hurlers who were by then either dead or passed their prime.  But there were younger Negro League pitchers that got their opportunity in the Major Leagues; “Toothpick” Sam Jones was one of them. He is the only former Negro League pitcher to throw a Major League no-hitter.

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Born 12/14/25 in Stewartsville, Ohio, Jones also spent a portion of his youth in West Virginia. He left for military service before starting the life of a coal mine worker as were many of his family members and friends.  He played with a local black team while stationed in Orlando, Florida in 1947 and caught the eye of Quincy Trouppe, then the manager of the Negro American League (NAL) Cleveland Buckeyes.  Jones signed in time to help the team win the NAL pennant, but they lost to the New York Cubans in the 1947 Negro League World Series.  Jones got his nickname from having a toothpick in his mouth while on the pitching mound.

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With Quincy Trouppe 1952

It would be 1950 when the Cleveland Indians finally noticed the talented right-handed hurler that had been in their own backyard. However, Jones pitched in only 16 games with the Indians in four years before being traded to the Chicago Cubs after the 1954 season. Once in the National League, the talented pitcher proved what he had done in the Negro Leagues was no fluke.   Opponents claimed Jones, a power pitcher standing at 6’4” and weighing 200 pounds, had the best curveball in the National League.  He faced batters with a never-changing, expressionless look on his face which resulted in him also being called “Sad” Sam.  That is the nickname I mostly remember.  But opponents also said Jones had a mean streak exhibited by his pitches; he hit 14 batters in 1955 (league leader).  There was an ongoing intense confrontation whenever Henry Aaron faced Jones that is well documented.  Jones struggled at times with control of his pitches; he led the National League in walks four times.  But he also could be overpowering; being the league leader in strikeouts three years and pitching 17 shutouts in his 12 year Major League career.  He became a two-time National League All-Star, winning 21 games with the San Francisco Giants in 1959 and 18 in 1960.

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But it was on May 12, 1955 as a Chicago Cub that Jones pitched himself into the Major League Baseball record book with a 4-0 no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It was a “Sam Jones” pitched type of game.  He struck out six batters, walked seven, threw a Wild Pitch, and was helped with two double plays.  In the ninth inning, he walked the first three hitters before striking out the final three.

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He retired after pitching with the Baltimore Orioles in 1964, the sixth team played with during his time in the Major Leagues; Cleveland Indians 1951 – 1952,  Chicago Cubs 1955 – 1956, St. Louis Cardinals 1957 – 1958 and 1963, San Francisco Giants 1959 – 1961, and Detroit Tigers 1962.  On November 5, 1971, the 45 years old Jones died of throat cancer.

“Sad “Sam Jones won 102 games in the Major Leagues. He lost 101.  No doubt the inconsistent control of his pitches cost him victories early in his career, but he still had 1,376 career strikeouts.  And no former Negro League pitcher, other than Don Newcombe, had the success in the Major Leagues as Sam Jones.

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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

 

 

Hank Thompson: Played a Role in the Integration of Major League Baseball

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.

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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.

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Hank Thompson (left) and Willard Brown (right) with the St. Louis Browns 1947

 

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.

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(Left to right) Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson

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.

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Former Negro League players(left to right) Ernie Banks, Hank Thompson, Gene Baker, Willie Mays

 

 

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Larry Kimbrough: The Ambidextrous Negro League Pitcher

Due to a childhood injury of his left arm, naturally left-handed Larry Nathaniel Kimbrough learned to equally use his right hand. Born, September 23, 1923 in Philadelphia, PA., Kimbrough went on to become one of the few ambidextrous pitchers in Negro League baseball.  He pitched mainly with his right hand, but did throw some games left-handed.  He never switched between the two during a game.

larry-kimbroughAfter refusing to accept offers to sign with Negro League teams while in high school, Kimbrough began pitching for the Philadelphia Stars in 1942 after one year at Wilberforce University (Wilberforce, Ohio). He got the nickname “Schoolboy”.  He started with a flash pitching a shutout against the Newark Eagles.

Following two seasons, Kimbrough received his draft notice for military service and did not return to the Stars until 1946.  But he did not regain his pre-military magic on the mound and never became a star pitcher.

Although being only 23 years old at the time, Kimbrough retired from professional baseball after 1946 and had a long distinguished career with the US Postal Service.

 

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

 

Cum Posey: In Both the Baseball and Basketball Halls of Fame

Cumberland “Cum” Posey made his mark in sports history as the architect and owner of the Homestead Grays, one of the most renown and successful franchises in Negro League baseball. One of the seventeen individuals from the Negro League baseball era inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Cooperstown, New York) in 2006, Posey helped to provide the opportunity for African-American and dark-skinned Latino baseball players to exhibit their God-given talent during the time racial discrimination kept them out of the Major Leagues.

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Cum Posey as owner of the Homestead Grays

However, Cum Posey received another distinction last week by being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. The other inductees with Posey were; former National Basketball Association (NBA) players Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Yao Ming, and Zelmo Beaty; former Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Sheryl Swopes, Michigan State Basketball Coach Tom Izzo, Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, former NBA referee Darell Garretson, and former NBA and college coach John McLendon.  Long before the existence of the NBA or National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), Posey received acclaim as one of the best basketball guards in the country when he graduated from high school in 1908.

A super quick point guard (5’ 4” – 5’9”, depending on the source), he went on to become the first African-American student athlete at Penn State (1909 – 1911). After leaving school, Posey and his brother organized a basketball team in his hometown of Homestead across the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh; The Monticello Rifles. Not only the team’s star player, Cum also operated the business and promotional functions for it.  The team changed its name to the Loendi Big Five in 1913 and became for years one of the best in what was the black professional basketball circuit.

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Posey at Penn State (first row on the right)

 

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Posey with Monticello Rifles (second from left on first row)

Posey returned to college in 1916 and under the name Charles Cumbert became the first African-American student athlete at Duquesne. Leading the team in scoring from 1916 – 1919), he wanted to get an additional year of eligibility so he successfully used an assumed name.

 

After playing baseball in the summer with the Homestead Grays since 1911, Posey bought the team in 1920 and by 1925 baseball became his main focus until he died of lung cancer in 1947.

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Posey with the Homestead Grays (first on the left, back row)

Cum Posey is the first to be recognized at the Hall of Fame in both Cooperstown and Springfield.

Here is an excerpt from my book, “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era” (Black Rose Writing – 2015), with more information about Cum Posey:

“Homestead was the birthplace of Cumberland Willis Posey, Jr.

on June 20, 1890. However, Posey’s destiny would not be tied to

steel. His parents were educated. His mother a teacher and his

father was an entrepreneur. An engineer that built boats and

operated a coal and ore business, Cum Sr. had the distinction of

being possibly the richest African American in the area. In college

Cum Jr. studied chemistry leaning towards becoming a pharmacist.

But sports had such a hold of his heart he could not ignore it.

 

A star athlete at Homestead High School, Posey played football,

basketball, and baseball as a teenager. Named Pittsburgh area’s top

high school basketball player in 1909, Posey (5’9”, 140 pounds) also

received national attention as one of the best guards in the country.

He played college basketball at Penn State and Duquesne.

However, baseball was a more popular sport in Posey’s

hometown of Homestead. The black steel workers passionately

played it every weekend from spring through fall. There were many

sandlot baseball teams sponsored by Pittsburgh area steel mills and

companies in the steel industry. These teams would be opponents

for a Homestead black team organized in 1900 called the Blue

Ribbons. The Blue Ribbons also played against local white semiprofessional

teams. By the time Posey began playing for the team

in 1911, its name had been changed to the Murdock Grays. Shortly

afterwards the team became the Homestead Grays.

Posey used the speed he exhibited on the basketball court to

develop into a decent centerfielder in baseball. He still played local

semi‐professional basketball during the winter in his early years

with the Grays. It was during his involvement with basketball that

the skills Posey used when he owned and operated the Grays were

first exhibited. Along with his brother Seward, he organized and

operated a basketball team that was successful for many years in

the black semi‐professional circuit. He continued to operate the

team for 14 years after he began playing with the Grays.

Posey’ status with Grays steadily increased as he was the team

captain in 1916, the field manager in 1917, and in 1918 was also

handling many of the team’ business operations. Finally, Posey

and a local businessman (Charles Walker) bought the Grays in

1920.”

To learn more about Cum Posey, read “Last Train to Cooperstown”.  To order, go to http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown.

 

“Sug” Cornelius: A battletested Negro League career

William McKinley Cornelius was not a famous Negro League baseball player. Born September 3, 1906 in Atlanta, Georgia; Cornelius said his mother gave him the nickname “Sugar” because he loved eating sugar as a baby.  As he got older, it was shortened to “Sug” and stayed with him all his life.  The right-handed pitcher did not play on the more renowned Negro League teams such as the Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles, or Pittsburgh Crawfords. After short stints with the Nashville Elite Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, and Memphis Red Sox, Cornelius had his best years with the Chicago American Giants from 1931 – 1946.  His exploits on the field were not legendary, but “Sug” Cornelius’ had an established pro baseball career in the Negro Leagues.

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Many former Negro League players said “Sug” could throw a curve around a barrel; it was his signature pitch. He battled with many of the Negro League’s greatest hitters with his curveball.  His mound opponents included Hall of Famers Leon Day, Raymond Brown, and of course Satchel Paige.  Also, he successfully pitched against Major League batters in exhibition games after the season and in the California winter leagues.

Negro League fans voted him to participate in three Negro League East West All Star Games. Cornelius pitched a scoreless top of the 11th inning for the West squad in the 1935 East-West All Star Game and became the winning pitcher after “Mule” Suttles’ home run in the bottom of the ending.  But in the 1936 All Star Game “Sug” gave up two runs in the first three innings as the losing pitcher in the West squad’s 10 – 2 defeat.  He received over 63,000 votes from fans, the second highest for all pitchers that year, for the 1938 game.  But he had another rocky outing, giving up three runs in the first inning.  The West squad rallied to win the game 5 – 4.

Past his prime years when Jackie Robinson erased Major League baseball’s “invisible color line”, “Sug” regretfully accepted the fact he had missed his chance. He said, “It was just one of those things.  My skin was black and that denied me the right to play in the majors”.

“Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues by John Holway (1992, Da Capo Press – New York) was used as a source material for quotes and some other information for this article.

 

To read more on the history of Negro League baseball, order “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”, at (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown)

In Memory of “Choo Choo” Coleman

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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

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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

Choo rookie

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.

Choo met

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.

Gene Baker: “Mr. Cubs'” Double Play Partner

Baker Cubs

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.

Baker Monarchs

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.

Baker & banksOn 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. 

Baker Pirates 2

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.

Baker Pirates three

Gene Baker gained the reputation of being a “smart ballplayer”. In 1961, the Pirates named him manager of their Class D minor league team.

 

 

 

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