The 2017 Baseball Winter Meetings are scheduled for December 10 – 14 in Orlando, Florida. Baseball fans will be looking on with anticipation for any trades or free agent signings coming from the meetings that will affect teams in 2018. Also, Major League Baseball announced the first official exhibition games for Spring Training 2018 will be played February 23. But this post in not about the upcoming 2018 Major League season. It is the fourth and final segment about baseball history’s forgotten fall classic; the Negro League World Series.
With its fan base having more disposable income and also widening due to the growing northern migration of the black population during World War 2, Negro League game attendance reached new levels. It experienced a fifth consecutive year of solid growth in 1945. Negro League baseball grew to become nearly a three million dollar industry and in most cases the largest business operating in the African-American communities of the cities with Negro National League (NNL) or Negro American League (NAL) franchises. Another indication of Negro League baseball’s relative stability during this period was the Negro League World Series.
Although the Homestead Grays won the NNL pennant again in 1945, the average age of the team’s nucleus (Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, “Cool Papa” Bell, Jud Wilson, etc.) was well above 30 and their skills had begun to erode. This became more evident when the Grays were swept four games to none by the younger Cleveland Buckeyes in the 1945 Negro League World Series. Gibson, playing in his last Series before dying in 1947, hit only .123 (2 for 15) and Leonard .200 (3 for 15). The Grays, scoring only 3 runs the entire Series, were shutout the last two games.
With Monte Irvin, Leon Day, and Larry Doby returning from military service, the Newark Eagles ended the nine-year reign of the Homestead Grays and won the NNL pennant in 1946. They faced the NAL’s Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 Series. Both teams had players who would cross over into Major League baseball: Newark’s Irvin (1949) and Doby (1947), Kansas City’s “Satchel” Paige (1948), Hank Thompson (1947), Willard Brown (1947), and Connie Johnson (1953). Led by Irvin’s torrid hitting (3 HRs, 8 RBI, and a .462 BA.), the Eagles won Game Six and Seven to win the Series 4 games to 3.
For almost 30 years Alejandro Pompez had been the “Latin Connection” in Negro League baseball. He created a pipeline that brought dark-skinned Hispanic players from Cuba and other Caribbean countries to star for his Negro League teams; the Cuban Stars (1916 – 1927) and the New York Cubans (1935 – 1950). The Cubans won the NNL pennant and faced the Cleveland Buckeyes the NAL pennant winner in the 1947 Negro League World Series. The accomplishments of both teams were overshadowed that year by Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century. Both teams in the Series had players who would later go through the door Robinson opened that year. New York Cuban players Orestes “Minnie” Minoso (1949), Ray Noble (1951), and Pat Scantlebury (1956) would have careers in the Major Leagues; Minoso being the first dark-skinned Hispanic to play. The Cleveland Buckeyes’ Sam Jethroe (1950), Sam Jones (1951), Quincy Trouppe (1952), and Al Smith (1953) also would spend time in the Major Leagues; Jethroe being the 1950 National League Rookie of the Year. The Cubans, with Minoso hitting .426, defeated the Buckeyes four games to one in the Series.
In 1948, the Homestead Grays were no longer the team it had been since the late 1930s. The team’s owner Cum Posey died of lung cancer in 1946 and Josh Gibson, considered the greatest home run slugger in Negro League history, died in 1947. Also gone were team stalwarts Raymond Brown, Roy Partlow, Jerry Benjamin, “Cool Papa’ Bell, and Jud Wilson. However, Buck Leonard and pitcher Wilmer Fields along with future Major Leaguers Luke Easter (1949) and Bob Thurman (1955) led the Grays to capture the NNL pennant. The team defeated the Birmingham Black Barons four games to one in the 1948 Negro League World Series. In Game Three, the only one won by Birmingham, the Grays’ Leonard was thrown out at second base trying to stretch a single into a double by the Black Barons’ 17-year old center fielder; future Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays. It would be the third time the Grays would win a World Series championship against the Black Barons, also in 1943 and 1944.
Although Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in 1947, racial integration in the Major Leagues went at a slow pace. However, African-American baseball fans looked at the racial competition in Major League games as social progress and quickly began to lose interest in Negro League baseball. Game attendance in the Negro Leagues dropped to financially dangerous levels for many teams and the economic stability of Negro League baseball began crumbling; never to recover. After the 1948 season, the NNL disbanded with the few remaining teams absorbed by the NAL which limped on until the end of Negro League baseball in the early 1960s.
The end of Negro League baseball’s economic stability put a permanent end to the Negro League World Series. The Homestead Grays, one of the most renowned Negro League franchises, played in four of these fall classics during Negro League baseball’s most profitable years, 1942 – 1945; winning two. It is only fitting that in 1948 the team won the last Negro League World Series championship.
Many of my blog posts celebrate the birthdays of African-American and dark-skinned Latino baseball players of the past; mainly those of the Negro League baseball era and of the game’s “Golden Age” (1950s and 1960s). However as 2016 comes to an end, I would like to briefly mention those who died this year. If there are some not listed it is because I was not aware of their deaths. Of the eight named in this blog post, some had more productive careers statistically than others. However, they all helped to grow the deep, unshakable roots African-Americans have in the great game of baseball
Monte Irvin – January 11, 2016
The Hall of Fame outfielder, inducted in 1973, spent the prime years of his career in Negro League baseball with the Newark Eagles. Considered the best player in the Negro Leagues by many in 1941 before going into military service, Irvin returned in 1946 to help the Eagles win the Negro League World Series Championship. In 1949 he became the first African-American to play for the New York Giants. He helped them win two National League pennants and the 1954 World Series Championship.
Walt Williams – January 23, 2016
I remember Walt Williams as a hustling, energetic outfielder with the Chicago White Sox (1967 – 1972) who had the nickname “No Neck” because of his short and stocky physique. A contact hitter without much power, he had an outwardly enthusiastic approach to playing baseball. Williams also spent time with the Houston Colt 45s (1964), Cleveland Indians (1973), and New York Yankees (1974-1975).
Ted Toles, Jr. – April 5, 2016
Ted Toles played Negro League baseball from 1943 – 1947 and then in 1949. A pitcher and outfielder, he played for the Newark Eagles, Cleveland Buckeyes, and Jacksonville Eagles. He spent time in the minor leagues in the early 1950s.
Joe Durham – April 20, 2016
After playing in Negro League baseball with the Chicago American Giants, Durham signed with the St. Louis Browns in the fall of 1952. The Browns became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954 and called Durham up from the minor leagues the last month of the season. He made his Major League debut on September 10 and two days later became the first African-American player to hit a home run in an Orioles’ uniform.
Charley Beamon – May 3, 2016
Arm trouble cut short the career of Beamon, a right-handed power pitcher with a good curveball. A high school classmate of basketball great Bill Russell and Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson (McClymonds in Oakland, CA.), Beamon made his Major League debut on September 26, 1956. He outmatched Whitey Ford in beating the New York Yankees 1 – 0 giving up only 4 hits. But he missed most of 1957 due to arm soreness and was 1 -3 with the Orioles in 1958, his last Major League season.
Jim Ray Hart – May 19, 2016
A power hitting third baseman for the San Francisco Giants 1963 – 1973, Hart smashed 31 home runs in 1964 and 33 in 1966. He finished second in the 1964 National League Rookie of the Year voting next to winner Dick Allen. Hart averaged 92 RBIs a year for the 1964 – 1967 seasons. He finished his career playing with New York Yankees in 1974.
Chico Fernandez – June 11, 2016
Fernandez signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 as a shortstop. With future Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese still in his prime, Fernandez spent five years in the team’s minor league system. But the Dodgers traded Chico to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1957 and he became the first dark-skinned Latino to play for the team. He had two productive seasons (1957-1958) with the Phillies. In 1960, the team traded Fernandez to the Detroit Tigers where he became their number one shortstop for three years (1960 – 1962).
“Choo Choo” Coleman – August 15, 2016
Coleman had a unique career in baseball. He experienced the sunset of Negro League baseball and the dawning of a new Major League franchise. Coleman was first signed in 1955 by the Washington Senators, but after going nowhere in the their minor league organization he signed with the Negro League Indianapolis Clowns. By the mid-1950s, integration had killed Negro League baseball by draining it of the best players and stealing the interest of black baseball fans. However, there were Major League teams still interested in Coleman as he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1960 and the Philadelphia Phillies in 1961. Choo-Choo would become a part of baseball history for the wrong reason the next season as he was chosen by the National League expansion team New York Mets who were 40 – 112 and are known in historical baseball lore as the “hapless 1962 Mets”.
To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. To order go to (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown) http://www.klmitchell.com
After eight years in the Negro Leagues, Monte Irvin signed to play with the New York Giants in 1949. The first African American to play in the National League for a team other than the Brooklyn Dodgers, he made his Major League debut on July 8th in Ebbets Field against the Dodgers.
In 1951, the Giants erased the first place Dodgers’ 13 ½ August lead to force a playoff. Bobby Thomson’s ninth inning home run, the “shot heard round the world”, in the final playoff game won the National League pennant for the Giants. However, the team may not have overcome the Dodgers had it not been for Monte Irvin who hit .312, 24 home runs, and drove in a league leading 121 runs. He also served as a mentor that season for the team’s rookie centerfielder; Willie Mays.
The Giants had three African American outfielders in the starting lineup for Game One of the 1951 World Series., a significant Major League Baseball racial milestone. On that October 4th fall afternoon at Yankee Stadium; Irvin played left field, Mays in centerfield, and Hank Thompson in right field. In the game, Irvin got four hits and stole home; but the New York Yankees won the Series four games to two.
Due to age and injuries, Irvin began losing his playing edge. In 1954, he hit only .262 with 19 home runs as the Giants won the pennant and defeated the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. Irvin played his last Major League season in 1956 with the Chicago Cubs. Working in the Office of Baseball Commissioner handling public relations several years after he retired, Irvin became an ambassador for the game.
In 1970, Irvin chaired a committee formed by Major League Baseball to recommend candidates for Hall of Fame induction from the Negro League Baseball era. He had seen many of the great Negro League players in action. He played on the same teams with many of them or on opposing teams against. Starting with Satchel Paige in 1971, nine Negro League players were inducted into the Hall of Fame by 1977 as a result of the committee’s efforts.
In 1973 Irvin received his plaque for induction into the Hall of Fame. By the time his productive eight year Major League career began in 1949, he had already reached his 30th birthday and not in his prime as before serving in the military during the war. However, the tremendous talent he displayed in the Negro Leagues could not be marginalized by the racial barriers that kept him out of the Major Leagues.
But no one from Negro League Baseball has been inducted into the Hall of Fame since 2006; few if any have been considered for nomination. Despite verbal denials, the museum’s actions give the impression that its doors have been shut in regards to the Negro Leagues. Is the Hall of Fame saying that its current 41 inductees from Negro League Baseball is the extent of the Negro League era’s place in baseball history? By its current actions, the museum is re-establishing the untrue stigma of “not being good enough” hung over Negro League Baseball that Monte Irvin spent his baseball career erasing.
What Negro League pitcher did the New York Giants sign in 1949 along with Monte Irvin?
To learn more about Negro League baseball history, read “Last Train to Cooperstown”: http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown.
Former Negro League and Major League player Monte Irvin died on January 11th, in Houston, Texas. A member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame, Irvin helped to solidify Negro League baseball’s place in baseball history. However, at this time when we celebrate his life, that place is again being marginalized.
Born in Haleburg, Alabama on February 25, 1919; Irvin’s family joined the migration of southern African Americans in the 1920s to northern cities looking for better economic opportunities and they settled in East Orange, New Jersey. A four sport star in high school; track, football, basketball, and baseball, Irvin played with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League (NNL) under an assumed name the summer of 1938 before heading off to Lincoln University (Pa.) on a football scholarship. However, he quit school after a year and went back to the Eagles to begin his Negro League career.
His smile and easygoing demeanor made Irvin a favorite of Negro League fans, who voted him to participate in five East-West All Star Games. Fans in the Caribbean leagues where he played in the winter also loved him. By the end on 1941, many considered the 6’1’’, 195 pound Irvin the best player in the Negro Leagues. A .300 hitter with a power stroke, Monte also had the speed and versatility to play in the infield or outfield.
Much has been written about how serving in the military during World War II took productive years away from Major League baseball stars such as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Feller. The same can be said about Monte Irvin, who also served his country doing that time. He missed nearly four seasons (1942 -1945) while in the Army. When discharged in the late summer of 1945, he met with Brooklyn Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey about a new Negro League team. Out of baseball for almost four years and suffering a nerve condition he had contacted while in the military, Irvin told Rickey he was not ready to play yet. But he did not know Rickey really wanted him for the Dodgers. It would have been Irvin, not Jackie Robinson, that would have become the first African American to play in the Major Leagues since before the beginning of the 20th Century. Serving in the military altered Irvin’s place in baseball history.
By the start of the 1946 season, Monte felt ready to play again. He led the Newark Eagles in batting average as the team won the Negro National League (NNL) pennant and defeated the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League World Series. In the Series, Irvin hit .460 with three home runs.
What Hall of Famer played second base for the 1946 Newark Eagles?
To learn more about Negro League baseball history, read “Last Train to Cooperstown”: http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown.