Jackie Robinson’s erasing of the color line in 1947 to become the first African-American to play Major League in the 20th Century began the process of racially integrating professional baseball. A slow and reluctant process, it coincided with the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Overcoming racial discrimination and prejudice in a sport did in no way compare to facing physical harm and even death in fighting for equal rights given under the Constitution of the United States. However due to baseball’s prominence as the “national pastime”, many saw the integration of Major League baseball symbolically as one of the first steps in social progress for African-Americans. The racial integration of Major League baseball and the Civil Rights Movement were both a part of the massive seismic shift in racial relations occurring after World War II that would forever change the nation. How they coincided is shown in the story of the scheduled exhibition games in the spring of 1956 between the Kansas City A’s and the Pittsburgh Pirates to be played in Birmingham, Alabama. On February 15, 1956; they were cancelled.
It had been a tradition for Major League teams at the close of spring training to play exhibition games as they traveled north to begin the season. The spring “barnstorming circuit” mostly consisted of cities in the southern United States. These games were an economic boom for them as baseball fans from the surrounding areas came, for what would be the only opportunity for some, to see Major League players. When Major League teams began to become racially integrated in the 1950s, this tradition clashed with the “Jim Crow” laws that forbade interracial sports competition. The municipal government of these cities had to choose between receiving the commercial benefits from the games versus upholding their racial separation law. Most chose the former. Despite threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan, Atlanta officials overrode the laws to allow the Brooklyn Dodgers who had Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Jackie Robinson to play the all-white Atlanta Crackers a three game series in the spring of 1949.
The city of Birmingham, Alabama initially made a different choice and maintained its ban of interracial athletic competition. However, after being eliminated from the spring exhibition circuit for years due to the ban, the city commissioners lifted it on January 26, 1954. That spring, the Brooklyn Dodgers played an exhibition game in Birmingham against the Milwaukee Braves. But the city racial hardliners used the fear that the desegregation of sports would lead to desegregation in other aspects of life in Birmingham (schools, department stores, public accommodations, etc.) to force a voter referendum to reestablish the ban. On June 1, the referendum passed stating, “It shall be unlawful for a negro or white person to play together or in company with each other any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, football, softball, basketball, or similar games”. It was City Ordinance 597, named the “checker ordinance”.
With the ordinance reinstated banning interracial athletic competition in June 1954, how did the two exhibition games between the Kansas City A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates get scheduled for the spring of 1956? The A’s at that time had American League All-Star and former Negro League outfielder Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, first baseman Vic Power who was from Puerto Rico, and outfielder Hector Lopez from Panama. Power’s friend and fellow islander future Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente and former Negro League infielder Curt Roberts both played for the Pirates. The games would have been a violation of the ordinance. Were they scheduled while the ban had been lifted in 1954? Had there been talk of overriding or ignoring the ban to play the game? What if any part did the racial tension caused by the bus boycott by African-Americans in Montgomery, 92 miles down state, going on at that time play in the decision to cancel the games? Come back for Part Two!
*Information for this blog was provided from the book “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution” by Diane McWhorter (Simon & Schuster 2001)
Although it is 23 days into 2018, this blog post is still necessary. Thanks to everyone who supported www.klmitchell.com in 2017. Your visits to my web site and the feedback you give are sources of encouragement for me. They give me inspiration to continue providing content for my blog each week.
The focus of my posts this year will continue to be on the Negro League baseball era. Through the stories and information you read about the players and teams it is my hope you will get a picture the era from both inside and beyond the ballparks. That picture will indicate how Negro League baseball is part of both African American and 20th Century American history.
I will also focus on the time period of the late 1940s and the 1950s when the “invisible color line” for professional baseball had been erased, but the process of integrating Major League baseball slow due to the prevailing racial prejudice and discrimination. For African-American and dark-skinned Latino ballplayers it was a period of joy, but also frustration.
During the latter years of this period my lifelong love affair with the sport began. Some of my posts this year, as the one on January 5, will be a reflection of that period (early 1960s) as I remember having a youthful innocence about the game.
Stay tuned for exciting news about my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: the 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. Thanks to everyone who has purchased a copy of it.
Also, I hope to have news later this year about my second book.
Continue to enjoy http://www.klmitchell.com in 2018 and spread the word about them it!
And again even though it is late: HAPPY NEW YEAR – 2018!
In honor of today’s (1/21/2019) celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, this is the repeat of my past blog post, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Baseball, & Jackie Robinson”, follows below. Today is Dr. King’s 90th birthday.
Today is the national celebration for the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., what would have been his 89th. Much will be written giving tributes to his life and the impact his legacy continues to have not only on this country, but also the world. However, I want to mention what appears to have been Dr. King’s favorite sport, baseball.
When Jackie Robinson crossed the “invisible color line” in 1947 to be the first African-American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century, he became the idol of an 18-year-old teenager in Atlanta, Georgia; Martin King Jr. Like many other African-Americans at that time, whether baseball fans or not, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the young King’s favorite baseball team because of Jackie Robinson. Many of those African-American Dodger fans, including King, remained loyal to the team after Robinson retired and it relocated to Los Angeles in 1958. In addressing the 1966 Milwaukee Braves’ move to his hometown of Atlanta, Dr. King indicated it would complicate his personal allegiance that had existed since 1947. “And so I have been a Dodger fan”, he said, “but I’m gonna get with the Braves now.”*
But Dr. King had been more than a fan of the Dodgers; he understood the significance for African-Americans of what Jackie Robinson had done in 1947. After becoming a leader in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King knew where his idol as a teenager’s accomplishments fit overall in reference to that movement.
When Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on that Montgomery, Alabama city bus in December of 1955 triggering the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, Jackie Robinson was nearing the end of his baseball career. He announced his retirement on January 5, 1957; fifteen days after the successful end of the Montgomery bus boycott led by the 26-year-old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the 1960s, Robinson became actively involved in the Civil Rights movement with Dr. King. He spoke at Civil Rights rallies in the South for Dr. King, marched in demonstrations with him, and held fund-raisers for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Dr. King and Robinson became co-laborers in the African-American struggle for equality. He considered Jackie Robinson a friend.
At a testimonial dinner for Jackie Robinson on July 20, 1962 celebrating his upcoming National Baseball Hall of Fame induction in three days, Dr. King paid tribute to him. He defended Robinson’s right to speak out about segregation and civil rights. “He has the right”, King insisted stoutly, “because back in the days when integration was not fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes from being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways towards the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides. And that is why we honor him tonight.”**
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have liked other sports. However; because of Jackie Robinson, baseball appeared to be his favorite. Since idolizing Robinson while being a teenager in 1947, Dr. King never forgot the significance of the baseball player’s accomplishments in the struggle of African-Americans for equality.
*”At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965 – 1968″, Taylor Branch p. 394
** “Jackie Robinson: A Biography”, Arnold Rampersad p. 7
Below is a re-post, of my 2016 birthday tribute to Harry “Suitcase” Simpson (“Why Harry “Suitcase” Simpson Has a Place in My Heart”). I did acknowledge his birth date (December 3, 1925) two weeks ago on Twitter, but initially decided to not do a blog post. However, after reading Douglass M. Branson’s book “Greatness in the Shadows: Larry Doby and the Integration of the American League” (University of Nebraska Press – 2016) last month, I decided to give a birthday acknowledgement to Simpson on my blog again this year. As my 2016 post indicates, he helped capture my passion for baseball 60 years (Yipes!) ago. Yes, he does have a place in my heart. But I also believe his role in the early racial integration of Major League baseball in the American League is overlooked, as it was in Branson’s book.
The premise of Branson’s writing is that the talent and accomplishments of Larry Doby, the first African-American to play baseball in the American League, is under-appreciated. The author believes Doby’s career has been overshadowed by Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the Major Leagues, who made his debut nearly three months (April 14, 1947) before Doby’s (July 5, 1947). The National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949, Robinson played on six pennant winners and one World Series champion in his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Doby had a career a little less spectacular. The 1954 American League leader in home runs and RBI, Doby hit 253 career home runs, drove in a career 969 runs, and played on two pennant winners and one World Series champion with the Cleveland Indians. He also overcame the same types of racial prejudice and discrimination chronicled in the many books, written articles, and even movies about Robinson; but without given the same admiration. Branson also stated the American League domination by the New York Yankees from 1947 – 1958 with first Joe DiMaggio and then Mickey Mantle playing centerfield also overshadowed the career of Larry Doby.
While I overall agree with his book’s premise, Brannon failed in one regard. In mentioning the few other African-American ball players who were Doby’s teammates or opponents during the early period of racial integration in the American League, the author omitted Harry Simpson.
With Simpson and Larry Doby in the outfield, and Luke Easter at first base, the Cleveland Indians were the only American League team to have African-Americans as part of its everyday lineup in 1951 – 1953. In 1950, the season before Simpson’s rookie year, only three African-American or dark-skinned Hispanics played in the American League; Doby, Easter, and the Chicago White Sox’s Minnie Minoso. After leaving the Indians, Simpson went on to play with the Kansas City A’s and the New York Yankees. How could Brannon discuss Doby and the racial integration of the American League, but not mention Harry Simpson? His name is not indexed anywhere in Brannon’s book. Although not as prominent as Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, or Elton Howard, Simpson’s role in adding color to the face of the American League in my opinion is overlooked. And surely, as my following re-post explains, he helped to hook a five year-old kid to what would become an everlasting love for baseball. Enjoy my re-post
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.
Following two injury plagued disappointing seasons with the Indians, 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.
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.
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.
One of the many topics of discussion by sportscasters during the recently completed 2017 World Series involved Los Angeles Dodgers’ right fielder Yasiel Puig. The club is still hoping he will continue to mature and more consistently display his tremendous baseball playing talent. Puig, a native of Cuba, is one of the most recent in a pipeline of outfielders from that Caribbean nation to successfully play professional baseball in the United States. Yoenis Cespedes, currently with the New York Mets is also from Cuba. Former players from the pipeline include Oakland A’s All-Star Jose Canseco, two-time American League batting champion (1964, 1965) Tony Oliva, the defensive star of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1955 World Series Game Seven win over the New York Yankees; Sandy Amoros, and two-time Negro League, seven-time Major League All-Star Orestes “Minnie” Minoso.
I forgot to give a birthday mention last week for one of the first in the stream of outfielders through the pipeline; Cristobal Torriente, born November 16, 1893 in Cienfuegos, Cuba (same as Puig). He played with a number of teams in Negro League baseball from 1913 to 1932; including the Chicago American Giants (1918 – 1925), Kansas City Monarchs (1926), and Detroit Stars (1927 – 1928). In an early 1950’s poll of former Negro League baseball players and sports writers, Cristobal Torriente received high consideration as one of the best outfielders in Negro League history.
In 2006, Cristobal Torriente 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 an excerpt from my profile of Cristobal Torriente:
“At the end of World War I, Chicago was becoming an urban
mecca for African Americans. The lure of the possibility for
economic stability and a better life had fueled the migration of
southern blacks to the city. Rube Foster used the growing aura
Chicago had for African Americans to attract ballplayers to his
Chicago American Giants. He felt the city gave him an advantage
When talking to a player about joining his team. Other owners
accused Foster of using what Chicago was becoming for African
Americans to steal their ballplayers. Foster’s approach proved
successful with Torriente, who went to play for the American
Giants in 1918. He had excellent seasons with the Cuban Stars,
however it would be with Foster’s team that Torriente would reach
his peak as a baseball player.
Having the most area to cover, centerfield is the most
challenging outfield position. Most managers choose their fastest
outfielder to play it. This was Rube Foster’s thinking in regards to
Cristobal Torriente. Although the Cuban mostly played right field in
his years with the Cuban Stars, his speed and strong arm were a
perfect fit for centerfield in Foster’s mind. With Torriente as the
anchor in centerfield, the American Giants went on to have a
consistently good outfield for many years. Good ballplayers such as
Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, Jimmy Lyons, Floyd “Jelly” Gardner,
and David Malarcher all shared the American Giants’ outfield at one
time or another with Torriente.
When Rube Foster’s vision became a reality in 1920 and the
Negro National League (NNL) was formed, his Chicago American
Giants became its premier team from the start. They won the league
championship the first three years (1920 – 1922). The lack of
documented league statistics prevents a true picture from being
given of Torriente’s performance on the field during the American
Giants’ years of dominance. Research indicates he finished those
seasons hitting from .342 to as high as .411. Clearly, they were his
best seasons in the Negro Leagues.”
To read the entire profile of Torriente and the other 2006 inductees Last Train to Cooperstown
The Houston Astros are the 2017 World Series champions!!! After all the adversity the residents of Houston and the surrounding communities have experienced due to Hurricane Harvey, it is great that the city can now add “home of the World Champion Houston Astros’ to its many names promoting it. Congratulations to long-time Astros fans like John McDonald who suffered with the franchise through the years of being the Houston Colt 45’s, the JR Richard and Enos Cabell years, the Killer B’s, and the 2005 Astros being swept in the World Series by the Chicago White Sox. It is the 55-year-old franchise’s first World Series championship. For the Dodgers, sorry long-time fan James O”Berry, this adds to the franchise’s World Series history frustration. Although the Dodgers have won nineteen National League pennants, their six World Series titles fall short of their fans’ expectations.
This blog post is however not a final commentary of this year’s World Series. It is the second part of last week’s post about the Negro League World Series which is an overlooked part of baseball history.
Negro League baseball held its first World Series in 1924 with the Kansas City Monarchs of Negro National League (NNL) defeating the Hilldale Club of Darby Pennsylvania from the Eastern Colored League (ECL). Hilldale avenged its lost in the 1925 Series defeating the Monarchs. In both the 1926 and 1927 Negro League World Series the Chicago American Giants (NNL) defeated the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants (ECL). When extreme economic times hit African-Americans in the mid-1920’s, Negro League game attendance declined sharply forcing many teams to go out of business. The ECL disbanded after the 1927 season. It tried to reorganize in 1929 as the American Negro League, but failed after one season. The NNL economically limped into the new decade. With only one official professional Negro baseball league operating and facing the beginning of the greatest economic depression in America’s history, the Negro League World Series went on hiatus.
Negro National League founder Rube Foster died in December of 1930 and his league disbanded at the end of the 1931 season. Two leagues were started in 1932, but without long-term success. The East-West League lasted only two months into the season and the Negro Southern League dissolved at the season’s end.
However in 1933 Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburg Crawfords, organized a new league consisting of teams in the Upper Midwest and Northeastern United States; and called it the Negro National League (NNL). From 1933 – 1936, the Crawfords were a dominant force in Negro League baseball. Hall of Fame players Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson, “Cool Papa” Bell, and Josh Gibson all played with the Crawfords during those years. They won the NNL pennant in 1933 and 1935. In 1936, the NNL’s make-up changed to being teams in the Northeast and along the Eastern Seaboard. The next season, Cum Posey’s Homestead Grays won it’s first of nine straight NNL pennants.
Also in 1937, the Negro American League (NAL) began operations consisting of teams in the Upper Midwest and Southern United States. The Kansas City Monarchs emerged as the most dominant team in the league. Starting in 1938, Buck O’Neil’s second year with the team, the Monarch’s won four straight NAL pennants.
Despite the existence by the late 1930’s of again two Negro professional baseball leagues, the Negro League World Series did not return. The economics of Negro League baseball worked against the year to year stability of both leagues as African-Americans continued to feel the effects of the economic depression. However, this changed due to the United States involvement in World War II beginning in 1941. The war led to the improvement of economic conditions for some African Americans over the previous decade because of the country’s desperate need for factory workers. Due to the labor shortage in industries with federal contracts to produce military weapons, supplies, and equipment; an estimated 1.5 million African Americans had jobs in those industries by 1944. In addition, large numbers of African Americans migrated from the rural South to cities in the Upper Midwest and Northeast seeking employment in those industries.
As a result of the improved economic condition of many African-American baseball fans, Negro League baseball peaked as a business during the 1940s. With the fan base having more disposable income and also widening due to the growing northern migration of the black population, Negro League game attendance reached new levels far above the previous two decades.
With the greater stability for Negro League baseball, what about the Negro League World Series? Stay tuned for Part 3.
For more on the history of Negro League baseball, read Last Train to Cooperstown
“Last Train to Cooperstown”
The perfect holiday gift for the sports fan on your shopping list!
To order go to Last Train to Cooperstown
I did not totally forget to acknowledge the birthday of Negro League outfielder Pete Hill last week, born October 12, 1882 – 84. If you follow me on Twitter, @Lasttraintocoop, you saw my tweet acknowledging it. Please excuse my unintended slight of him on this blog. Hill, a fine fielder and consistent .300 plus hitter, is now considered one of the best outfielders in baseball during the “Deadball Era” (1900 – 1919).
The National Baseball Hall of Fame agreed in 2006 with that assessment of Pete Hill. He along with eleven other players and five executives all from Negro League baseball were inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown that year. Hill’s induction gave him overdue recognition as a contemporary of Ty Cobb (1936 Hall of Fame inductee) and Tris Speaker (1937 Hall of Fame inductee), the best Major League outfielders of the early 20th Century.
The following is an excerpt from my book Last Train in Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era, in which I profile Pete Hill and the other 2006 inductees from Negro League baseball.
“In 1901, Hill left Pittsburgh for New York to play for the Cuban X
Giants. Being only 21, he could not break into the starting lineup to
play regularly. But, the young outfielder caught the eye of Sol White,
manager of the X Giants’ main rival, the Philadelphia Giants. White
recruited Hill to play for his team in 1903.
With the Philadelphia Giants, he began to mature as a ballplayer.
In 1904, he was the center fielder for what many say was the best
black team of the early 20th century era. With Hill leading the way,
the Giants were proclaimed winners of the “Colored Championship
of the World” in 1904, 1905, and 1906. This was the title given to
the top black team on the east coast. Charles “Kid” Carter, James
Booker, Charlie Grant, Emmett Bowman, and Dan McClellan were
other good players on the Giants with Hill.
Another teammate of Hill was Andrew “Rube” Foster. Foster at
that time was one of the best pitchers in black baseball. He would
later become the “father” of Negro League baseball and a member
of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The friendship with Foster would have
a major influence on the remainder of Pete Hill’s baseball career.
After the 1906 season, Foster left the Philadelphia Giants to
become the manager for the Chicago Leland Giants. He took six of
his Philadelphia Giants teammates with him, including Pete Hill.
Under the leadership of Rube Foster, Hill’s career blossomed
with the Chicago team. He was the team captain and was taught the
ins and outs of managing by his friend. Hill continued to build on
his reputation as a great hitter and the Leland Giants became one of
the most dominant African-American teams in the country’s
To read more about Pete Hill and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
The purpose of the postings on my blog and website is to promote the unshakable historical connection of African-Americans to the sport of baseball. Although I earnestly try to verify information I use on the posts through multiple sources, there are at times errors in the content I write. Dates may be incorrect, outdated or undocumented information may appear, or important facts not included. In those occasional instances, the post needs to be updated with the necessary corrections. My post on November 24, 2015, John Kennedy: First African-American to Play for the Philadelphia Phillies fits into this category; it needs updating for corrections. Kennedy is an unsung pioneer who has a place in baseball history as the first African-American to play for the Philadelphia Phillies (April 22, 1957).
Based on a number of internet sources, I indicated in the original post that Kennedy attended Edward Waters College in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. This is not correct; he attended Edward Waters High School. Former Negro League player John “Buck” O’Neil indicates in his book, “I Was Right on Time” that during the times of racial segregation in the south there were only four white high schools in Florida that would allow African-Americans to attend. With none of them being in his hometown of Sarasota, O’Neil said he went to the high school at Edward Waters College. In learning John Kennedy attended Edward Waters; researchers mistakenly assumed college not knowing it had a high school branch/division also.
In the original post, I referenced Kennedy’s time in Negro League baseball with the Birmingham Black Barons and Kansas City Monarchs. However, I have discovered he also had a stint with the Indianapolis Clowns. His All-Star season with the Monarchs got the attention of both the Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals. Kennedy signed with Philadelphia on October 4, 1956.
Also missing from the first post; a description about the “buzz” Kennedy created during spring training for the Phillies in 1957. “Philadelphia Bulletin” sports writer Ray Kelly reported Phillies’ Manager Mayo Smith referring to Kennedy as, “the most exciting newcomer in the Southland”, that spring. Smith praised him for having confidence in his ability and showing poise. He also complimented Kennedy’s hitting and excellent reflexes. “Pittsburg Courier” sports writer Al Dunmore said Kennedy was considered one of the “four top Negro rookies” discussed that spring training in Florida. Brooks Lawrence, African-American pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, described Kennedy to Dunmore as “a man verby tough to get out”. Although they had considered Kennedy a good player prior to that spring, the African-American Major League players who had battled against him in past fall barnstorming seasons could see his improvement. His backhanded fielding of a hard hit ground ball off the bat of Cincinnati Reds’ slugger Frank Robinson many considered the best defensive play seen in all the training camps that spring. To go along with his strong defensive performances, Kennedy batted .385 and for the first time the Philadelphia Phillies had an African-American on the regular season roster.
After Jackie Robinson erased the color line in 1947, the process of integrating Major League baseball went at a slow pace. Major League teams used age as one excuse to not sign or advance in their minor league systems former Negro League players. To improve their chances, some African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic baseball players said they were younger than their actual age when signed by a Major League team. Their actions did not denigrate or taint their Major League careers. It is what they believed had to be done in fighting the racial discrimination that still existed in professional baseball. Erroneously in my 2015 blog post about John I. Kennedy, I implied his Major League career fit into that category. That is not true! There is no documented evidence or proof that John Kennedy misled the Phillies about his age. There is nothing to indicate that the team did not know 30-year-old John Kennedy came to spring training in 1957.
There was some confusion about Kennedy’s age. In my earlier blog I indicate Kennedy’s birthdate as November 12, 1926 which is the one given of him by most sources and the accurate one. However, I also state another birthdate of November 11, 1934 for Kennedy from the book, “Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers 1947 – 1959” (University of Nebraska Press – 2006). Also, below is an excerpt from his profile in the 2000 Florida Times Union “Athletes of the Century” on-line article where Kennedy is listed as the 85th greatest athlete from the Jacksonville area:
On Kennedy: “John was a beautiful fielder with a good arm. I don’t think the Phillies intended to bring him up until he did so well in spring training. I don’t know this for fact, but I believe they released him quickly because they found out he lied about his age. He was 30, but he told them he was 21.” — Eugene “Stank” White, Kennedy’s teammate on several Negro League teams.
Despite this contrary information that has led to different a conclusion with some sources, there is no documented evidence Kennedy misled the Phillies about his age. In spite of Kennedy’s fantastic performances during spring training, the Phillies traded with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 5 for Chico Fernandez. Five years younger and with more Major League experience than Kennedy, Fernandez began the regular season as the #1 shortstop. Kennedy had played third base and second base in Negro League baseball, but the Phillies made no effort to use him at either position; even though the team’s 30-year-old 2nd baseman Granny Hamner (.227) and 31-year-old 3rd baseman Willie Jones (.218) were having a sub-par season.
The Phillies also that season traded for Chuck Harmon, an African-American outfielder, who had been in the Major Leagues three years. With Harmon, the team appeared to have gone over its quota for African American and/or dark-skinned Hispanic players (no more than two) which the majority of Major League teams set in the 1950s. The owners were afraid having too many players of color would drive away white baseball fans. This made Kennedy, who according to some sources also had a sore shoulder and a seriously ill mother, the odd minority out. Gone from the Phillies before mid-season, Kennedy played in only five games and had only two AT-BATS. He spent three more full years in the Phillies minor league system (1958 – 1960) before retiring from professional baseball. The team did not give him another opportunity to make its Major League roster.
If my original post about John Irvin Kennedy implied he misled the Phillies organization about his true age, I stand corrected. A talented African-American baseball player whose career was stymied by discrimination that existed during the slow process of Major League baseball racial integration in the 1950s, John Irvin Kennedy has an untainted place in baseball history.
For more information on the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
Last Friday I failed to give notice of Edsall Walker’s birthday. Born September 15, 1913 in Catskill, New York, “Big” Walker pitched for the Homestead Grays from 1937 – 1940 and 1943 – 1946. He received the nickname because of his 6’0, 215 pounds physical stature. They nicknamed George Walker, 5’11”, 185 pounds who also pitched for the Grays during that time “Little”.
A left-handed pitcher, “Big” Walker had what opposing hitters called a wickedly sinking fastball that he consistently threw at 100 miles per hour. However, he could not consistently get it in the strike zone. Wild enough with his pitches to caused batters to fear being hit, Walker still threw enough strikes when needed to get them out. That combination made him an effective pitcher. With Hall of Fame left handed pitchers Willie Foster and Andy Cooper past their primes, “Big” Walker was one of the best southpaw pitchers in the Negro Leagues during his time.
Walker came to the Grays in 1937 after playing with a minor league team; the Albany Colored Giants. Slugger Josh Gibson had returned to the Grays that same year in a trade after playing five years with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Starting with that season the Homestead Grays would win nine straight Negro National League pennants (1937 – 1945). With the team known mainly during this stretch for its powerful offense due to Gibson, Buck Leonard, Jerry Benjamin, and others in the batting order, the pitching staff does not get the credit it deserved. Hall of Fame pitcher Raymond Brown was the team’s ace with “Big” Walker one of the other key starters and its top reliever. The Grays traded “Big” to the Philadelphia Stars in 1941. After the United States became embroiled in World War II, he sat out the 1942 season to work fulltime in the Baltimore shipping yards and then returned to the Grays.
Walker’s only Negro League East-West All Star Game appearance came in 1938 as the starting pitcher for the East squad. In the first three innings, he gave up five runs on four hits, three walks, and was the losing pitcher in the West’s squad 5 – 4 win. It was a performance Walker hesitated discussing later in life because he was a better pitcher than he showed that day.
The winning tradition established by the Homestead Grays has been called “the long gray line”. Although not a Hall of Fame or perennial All Star pitcher, Edsall “Big” Walker for seven years helped keep the line moving.
For more information on the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown