One way the cable sports networks are trying to help sports fans cope with the cancellation of professional and other sporting events due to the COVID- 19 pandemic is re-broadcasting key games and matches from previous years. While channel surfing I have seen replays from past “March Madness” NCAA men and women’s basketball championship games, Game Sevens of the NBA Playoffs, Super Bowls, Masters’ (golf) Championships, and World Series’ Game Sevens (my favorite).
Following their example, my blog posts during the 2020 Major League baseball season will be a baseball time capsule from the 1950s. During that decade, the pace of integration in the Major Leagues slowly, but steadily went forward. As a consequence, the talent pool for the Negro Leagues decreased setting it on a journey towards extinction by the early 1960s. All of this with the early Civil Rights movement as a back drop.
This week’s post is about Henry Aaron and John Irvin Kennedy.
Aaron’s First Major League HR
On April 23, 1954, 24 days before the United States Supreme Court’s May 17th decision that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional, Milwaukee Braves’ rookie outfielder Henry Aaron hit his first Major League career home run. Aaron hit a 6th inning solo 4-bagger off St. Louis Cardinals’ veteran right hand pitcher Vic Rashi at Busch Stadium in the Braves 14 inning 7 – 5 win. He had also gotten his first Major League hit, a double, off Rashi in a game at Milwaukee’s County Stadium on April 15. Rashi had come to the Cardinals after three 20 game winning seasons and six World Series championships with the New York Yankees (1946 – 1953). Braves reserve catcher Charlie White, who played for the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues, hit his one and only home run of his two year Major League career in the Braves April 23rd victory.
Henry Aaron signed with the Braves in 1952 after leading the Negro American League in batting during his one month stint with the Indianapolis Clowns. After one and a half seasons in the minor leagues, he moved into the Braves’ starting line up during spring training in 1954 when outfielder Bobby Thompson broke his ankle. On April 13 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field against the Redlegs, Aaron made his Major League debut going without a hit in five At Bats.
By September of his rookie season, despite suffering the ups and downs of a first year Major League player, he had batted .280 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs. However, his season ended on September 5th. While sliding into third base after hitting a triple, his fourth hit of the game, Aaron broke his ankle. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Wally Moon of the Cardinals, Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, and Braves’ teammate pitcher Gene Conley.
The Phillies First African American Player
On April 22, 1957, John Kennedy became the first African American player to appear in a Major League baseball game wearing a Philadelphia Phillies’ uniform. He entered against the Brooklyn Dodgers as a pinch runner at Roosevelt Field in Jersey City, New Jersey where the Dodgers played eight games in 1957
John Irvin Kennedy wedged his Negro League baseball career between two attempts to play in the Major Leagues. After college (Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida), the slick fielding shortstop played two seasons in Canada on a team managed by former Negro League star Willie Wells. Signed by the Major League’s New York Giants in 1953, Kennedy spent one season in the team’s minor league system before being released. He spent the next three seasons in Negro League baseball; 1954 – 1955 with the Birmingham Black Barons and with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1956.
The talent level in the Negro Leagues had decreased by the mid-1950s, the best African American players were being signed by Major League teams. After appearing in the All-Star Game while with the Monarchs, Kennedy got the attention of the Philadelphia Phillies who in 1957 were the only National League team without an African American player. In the early stages of the Phillies 1957 spring training Kennedy made a big splash with his fielding skills. He made the team as a reserve infielder, but hurt his throwing arm as the regular season began.
After his debut, Kennedy appeared in four other games and then the Phillies sent him to the minor leagues with an injured shoulder. He finished the season hitting 19 home runs while playing at High Point-Thomasville in the Class B-level Carolina League.
John Kennedy spent the remainder of his career in the Phillies minor league system (1958 – 1961), never to play in another Major League game.
All pictures via Google Images
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell@Lasttraintocoop
This summer I have juggled coaching a baseball team of eight to twelve years old kids while teaching a course on the history of Negro League baseball; “Negro League Baseball: The Deep Roots of African-Americans in America’s National Pastime”, and visiting grandchildren in Texas.
Included in the summer curriculum of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Kansas, the course discussed the deep historical roots African-Americans have in the sport due to the Negro League baseball era. Although he did not play in the Negro Leagues, I briefly mentioned former Major League player Ed Charles in the introductory section of the course. I wanted to give the students a brief history of how as a kid I fell in love with baseball. Edwin Douglas Charles had a part in that history. In my research preparing for the course I discovered Charles had died last March 15th in the East Elmhurst section of the New York City borough of Queens. The former third baseman was 84 years old.
A baby boomer born and raised in the Kansas City area, I became a baseball fan through following the Kansas City A’s in the late 1950s; a team that consistently finished near the bottom of the American League standings. Much to the chagrin of Kansas City baseball fans, the A’s functioned as a player development team for the New York Yankees at that time. They would trade their best players to New York; Hector Lopez, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, Roger Maris, Bob Cerv, Ralph Terry, and Clete Boyer, in exchange for utility players or those past their prime. I saw Hank Bauer, Don Larson, Marv Throneberry, Johnny Kucks, Norm Siebern, and other former Yankees dawn an Athletics’ uniform. The A’s finished the 1960 season in last place and were the only Major League team without an African-American or dark-skinned Latino ballplayer.
In 1961, Charlie Finley purchased the team and the next season racially diversified it adding to the roster John Wyatt, Jose Tartabull, Diego Segui, Orlando Pena, Manny Jimenez, and Ed Charles. A product of the depression era and post-World War II “Jim Crow” south, born April 29, 1933 in Daytona Beach, Florida, Charles had been obtained in a trade with the Milwaukee Braves. The team signed him in 1952 while still the Boston Braves, but for 10 seasons he labored in its minor league system. That included stops at the A to AAA levels in places such as Jacksonville, Louisville, Wichita, and Vancouver.
Although the “invisible color line” had been erased, Charles along with other African-American and dark-skinned Latino players in the 1950s experienced the open racial prejudice that existed in professional baseball’s minor league systems. Overall he hit .291 in the minor leagues and showed occasional home run power. But Charles played 3rd base, the position manned during that period for the Braves by 2-time National League home run champion and future Hall of Fame inductee (1978) Eddie Mathews. Charles had the versatility to play 2nd base, but there is no evidence the Braves thought about a shift despite the inconsistent performances at the position in 1959 and 1960 during Red Schoendienst’s absence due to illness. The A’s would finally give Charles, at 29 years old, the opportunity to prove himself as a Major League player.
Given that opportunity, Ed Charles over the next five years became an above average, solid ballplayer on a team that consistently finished near last in the American League. Also; he caught the eye of a ten-years old baseball fan that would keep a love for the game that would not just extend beyond the trading card collection years, but would continue for more than half a century.
Part Two of my tribute to Ed Charles is in my next blog post. I promise it will not be three months before it appears!
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.
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.
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
Born March 22, 1921 in Whiteland, Indiana, George Daniel Crowe always declared basketball as his favorite sport. Named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball” his senior year in high school (1939), Crowe went on to play basketball and baseball at Indiana Central College. After serving in the military, Crowe first played semi-professional basketball (Harlem Rens) in 1946. However; seeing the money potential for him in professional baseball, he also signed with the New York Black Yankees in 1947 and began his short Negro League baseball career. In 1949, he went uptown to play with the New York Cubans.
When the Negro National League (NNL) disbanded after the 1949 season, Newark Eagle co-owner Effa Manley recommended Crowe to the Boston Braves who signed him as a first baseman. He made his Major League debut on April 16, 1952; hitting .258 in 73 games with four home runs his rookie season.
Crowe played for nine years (1952 – 1961) in the Major Leagues on three different teams: Boston/Milwaukee Braves (1952 – 1955), Cincinnati Reds (1956 – 1958), and St. Louis Cardinals (1959 – 1961). The former Negro League ballplayer became a premier pinch hitter once holding the Major League record for career pinch hit home runs (14). Crowe hit 31 home runs for the Reds in 1957 and was a National League All Star in 1958.
Known as “Big Daddy” (6’2”, 210 lbs.), Crowe also became a mentor for young African-American Major League ball players in the 1950s (Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Henry Aaron, etc.). He helped them navigate through the racial prejudice and discrimination that existed in Major League baseball during that period.
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
I first published this post in 2014. It is an example of how one quirk of fate can have tremendous impact on baseball careers.
On March 13, 1954 during an exhibition game in Florida; Milwaukee Braves outfielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle sliding into second base on a force play. Three years after his pennant clinching home run for the New York Giants, Thomson had come to the Braves in a trade to add power to their line-up. It was a forgone conclusion when spring training began that the Braves’ opening day outfield would be Thomson along with Billy Bruton, and Andy Pafko. But with Thomson injured, a triple fractured ankle, the Braves had to change their plan.
Twenty-year old Henry Aaron had doubts about making it on the Braves roster that spring. Purchased from Negro League baseball’s Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, Aaron had spent two years destroying pitchers in the Braves’ minor league system. While one of the first African-Americans in the Southern Atlantic League (Sally League) in 1953, he hit .362 with 22 home runs and won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. However, Aaron thought at best he would be assigned to the Braves’ Triple A team in Toledo, Ohio.
But, with Thomson breaking his ankle and reserve outfielder Jim Pendleton (also a former Negro League player) not reporting due to a salary dispute, the Braves’ turned to Aaron. The next day (March 14) in his first time in the starting outfield, he hit a home run. Exceeding his expectations, Aaron left spring training as the Braves opening day left fielder.
He went hitless in five at bats during the season opener in Cincinnati on April 13, but got two hits in the Braves home opener on April 15. In St. Louis on April 23 against Cardinal pitcher Vic Raschi, Aaron hit his first Major League home run. He finished 1954, his rookie season, batting .282 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs.
Happy Birthday Henry Aaron!
Today marks the eighty-third birthday of the Hall of Fame (inducted in 1982) outfielder. Born February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama; Aaron signed with the Boston Braves in 1952 after playing half of a season with the Negro League baseball Indianapolis Clowns. Aaron spent two years destroying pitchers in the Braves’ minor league system. While one of the first African Americans in the Southern Atlantic League (Sally League) in 1953, he hit .362 with 22 home runs and won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. However, Aaron thought at best he would be assigned to the Braves’ Triple A team in Toledo, Ohio.
On March 3, 1954 during an exhibition game in Florida; Milwaukee Braves outfielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle sliding into second base on a force play. Three years after his pennant clinching home run for the New York Giants, Thomson had come to the Braves in a trade to add power to their line-up. It was a forgone conclusion when spring training began that the Braves’ opening day outfield would be Thomson along with Billy Bruton, and Andy Pafko. But with Thomson out for with a triple fractured ankle, the Braves had to change their plan.
With the previous year’s reserve outfielder Jim Pendleton not reporting to spring training in an effort to get a salary increase, the Braves’ turned to Aaron. The next day in his first time in the starting outfield, he hit a home run. Exceeding his expectations, Aaron left spring training as the Braves opening day left fielder.
Aaron went hitless in five at bats during the season opener in Cincinnati on April 13, but got two hits in the Braves home opener on April 15. In St. Louis on April 23 against Cardinal pitcher Vic Raschi, Aaron hit his first Major League home run. He finished 1954, his rookie season, batting .282 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year award voting behind Gene Conley, Ernie Banks, and Wally Moon.