Tag Archives: Negro League

Belated Happy Birthday Willard Brown

Willard Brown, born 6/26/15, is said to have fit the bill of what is called a “five tool” baseball player. A superb fielding outfielder; Brown ran the bases with blazing speed, had a strong throwing arm, and could hit for a high average with home run power.  Many ascribed to him by the nickname “Home Run” Brown.  He played for the Kansas City Monarchs mostly throughout his Negro League career (1935 – 1950).  He served in the military (1944 – 1945) during World War II and briefly played Major League baseball in 1947 with the St. Louis Browns.  On August 13, 1947 Brown became the first African-American to hit a home run in the American League.

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In 2006, Willard Brown and fifteen other individuals from the Negro League baseball era were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I profile the 2006 inductees in my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  The following is a brief book exert from my profile of Willard Brown:

“Brown had a tendency to appear bored during games. When

that happened it is said he would take a magazine with him to the

outfield to read between pitches. And sometimes he would walk

instead of running to his outfield position, holding up the start of an

inning. This gave an impression of Brown by some as having a

“prima donna” attitude.

 

But former teammate and manager Buck O’Neil said, “Willard

was so talented, he did not look as if he was hustling. Everything

looked so easy for him.” Brown’s extreme talent made it appear he

did things effortlessly. While most players ran around the bases, he

seemed to glide. The exhaustion of the game would be evident on

most players, but it appeared Brown hardly broke a sweat. O’Neil

felt that no matter what “Home Run” Brown did, people thought he

could do a little more because of his enormous talent.

 

But Negro League fans appreciated the play of Willard Brown.

They selected him to participate in six Negro League East‐West All

Star Games. In ten All Star plate appearances Brown had five hits.

 

As an indication of Negro League baseball’s relative prosperity

after surviving the economic depression of the late 1920s and

1930s, the Negro League World Series was played in 1942. There

had not been one since 1927. The 1942 fall classic saw the two

most recognized Negro League franchises tangle, the Kansas City

Monarchs against the Homestead Grays. Willard Brown was one of

the series’ hitting stars as the Monarchs swept the Grays four

games to none. He batted .412 (7 hits in 17 at bats) with one double,

one triple, and of course one home run.”

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To read more about Willard Brown and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown 

 

 

 

 

 

A Snapshot of Negro League Baseball’s Cum Posey

Cumberland “Cum” Willis Posey, born June 20, 1891 began his baseball career playing with a black team in his hometown of Homestead, Pennsylvania; the Homestead Grays in  1911.  After becoming the team’s owner in 1920, Posey had turned the Homestead Grays into one of the most renowned and successful Negro League Baseball franchises by the time he died in 1946. From 1937 – 1945, the Grays finished first in the Negro National League eight times and played in four Negro League World Series, winning two:  1943 and 1944.

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In 2006, Cum Posey 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  exert from my book with a preview of the chapter about Posey:

As the country’s economic condition worsened, Posey struggled

to pay the salaries of his ball players in 1932. He also faced a major

challenge from the new black team in Pittsburgh started by Gus

Greenlee a night club/restaurant owner and numbers operator, the

Pittsburgh Crawfords. He used a tactic Posey himself employed to

steal players from other teams. Greenlee offered the Grays’ best

players more money than Posey could pay them. Josh Gibson, Oscar

Charleston, and three other players took Greenlee’s offer and

signed with the Crawfords. Other players for the Grays also left for

other teams.

 

Determined to not let his team die, Cum Posey formed a

business partnership in 1934 with Rufus “Sonnyman” Jackson,

Homestead’s main black numbers operator. Posey operated the

club while Jackson provided the financial backing. Many black

sportswriters thought partnering with whom some called “black

mobsters” hurt Negro League baseball’s image with the fans. But

Posey and the other black owners said financial backing from

those men did not influence the teams’ performance on the field.

The numbers bosses were just fans who loved the game. The truth

was that if it were not for their investment Negro professional

baseball may not have survived.

 

Jackson’s financial backing allowed Posey to step away from

being the field manager and devote all his time to rebuilding the

team. He brought on Buck Leonard in 1934 as the first step of

putting together what would be the most dominant Negro League

team in the late 1930s and 1940s. The next year the Grays joined

the Negro National League (NNL). Despite Posey’s rebuilding

efforts, the team could not finish ahead of the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

In 1937 Posey got Josh Gibson back in a trade with his crosstown

rival. Part of the trade, as rumored, included “Sonnyman” Jackson

paying off a gambling debt of the Crawfords’ owner. By getting back

Gibson, Posey had the final piece to add to Leonard and the other players he assembled to

begin the Grays’ winning tradition.”

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To read more about Cum Posey and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Negro League Baseball History Fact For Today: George “Big Daddy” Crowe

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.

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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.

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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

The Negro League Baseball Fact For Today – Paul “Jake” Stephens

In his sixteen year baseball career (1921 – 1937) Paul “Country Jake” Stephens; born February 10, 1900 in Pleasureville, Pennsylvania, played with some of the best teams in the Negro League baseball era. The 5’7”, 150 pound light-hitting shortstop had quickness, range, and a strong throwing arm. Although not considered one of the best all-around shortstops, he had the opportunity to be teammates with many Hall of Fame players.  Because of his outgoing, always joking attitude; he got the nickname “Country Jake”.

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Stephens first played with the Hilldale Daisies of Darby, Pennsylvania from 1921 – 1929. His teammates included third baseman Judy Johnson, catcher and infielder Biz Mackey, and catcher Louis Santop; all now in baseball’s Hall of Fame.  The 1925 Daisies won the Negro League World Series Championship.

From 1929 – 1932, he wore the uniform of the Homestead Grays. Hall of Fame players “Smokey” Joe Williams, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and Jud Wilson spent time with the Grays during those years.  Wilson became Stephen’s best friend.  The 1931 team is considered by many one of the best in Negro League baseball history.

Stephens along with his Hall of Fame Grays’ teammates were signed by Pittsburgh Crawford’s owner Gus Greenlee in 1932. Stephen’s former Hilldale teammate Judy Johnson and Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige were also on the Crawford’s that year making it one of the best Negro League teams assembled.

With his friend Jud Wilson and former Hilldale teammate Biz Mackey, Stephens played with the Philadelphia Stars in 1933 – 1935. The 1934 team won the Negro National League championship.

Negro League baseball fans in the 1930s appreciated the talent displayed by Jake Stephens on the baseball field. They voted him as the starting shortstop for the East squad in the 1935 East-West All-Star Game, the annual national showcase for Negro League baseball.

 

To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown

 

Happy Birthday Henry Aaron

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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.

Remembering Those Who Played Life’s Last Inning in 2016

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

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Monte Irvin (left)

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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“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

LA Dodgers’ Dave Roberts is C. I. Taylor -type Manager

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Last week, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) named Los Angeles Dodger skipper Dave Roberts as the 2016 National League Manager of the Year. In his first season, I watched him manage the team with a low-key approach.  Even doing pressure situations in the National League Championship Series (NLCS) against the Chicago Cubs, Roberts kept an even keel and did not appear to get rattled.  To me that is what I would call the C. I. Taylor style of managing.  Now the question you may be asking is, “Who is C. I. Taylor”?

During the Negro League baseball era, African-American teams faced constant criticism for being unstructured and undisciplined. Most of it came from Major League team owners as a way of justifying the “invisible color line” that kept African American and dark-skinned Latinos out of Major League baseball.  The criticism also came from African American sportswriters in their ongoing battle with Negro League team owners in trying to improve the status and condition of black baseball.  Negro League players in reality were no more undisciplined than white ones in the Major Leagues.  Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and many others had problems, but they were not publicized.  There were no 24 hour Cable TV sports networks or social media around to spotlight an athlete’s off field activities.  Although some of the criticism may have been valid, it unfairly stereotyped many Negro League teams.  However, none of it could be applied to teams handled by Charles Isham Taylor; one of the best managers in Negro League baseball.

A native of Andersonville, South Carolina, C. I. Taylor like Dave Roberts did not have a standout playing career. Neither he a weak hitting second baseman, nor Roberts an outfielder with a below average throwing arm was considered an All-Star caliber player.  Both of their baseball careers were odysseys that had several stops.   After first being drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 1984, Roberts went on to play with five other Major League franchises (Indians, Dodgers, Red Sox, Padres, and Giants) while developing a reputation of being a good teammate who played the game with hustle and enthusiasm.  After retiring in 2009 he first worked as a baseball TV analyst and broadcaster before holding several administrative and coaching positions with the San Diego Padres.

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C. I. Taylor began as the player/manager for the Birmingham Giants, one of that city’s first black professional baseball teams, in 1904. His three younger brothers were also with him; “Candy” Jim, “Steel Armed” Johnny, and Ben the youngest. As a part of the African-American migration north during that time, Taylor took his brothers in 1910 and became manager of the West Baden Sprudels, a team sponsored by a resort in West Baden, Indiana. Although located in the remote area of southern Indiana, the Sprudels became one of the best African American teams in the country’s heartland.  In 1914, Taylor became co-owner and manager of the Indianapolis ABC’s; named after the American Brewing Company.

His teams did not fit the Negro League stereotype. A strict disciplinarian, Taylor’s players had a dress code on the field and when they traveled.  The son of a Methodist minister, C. I. demonstrated a manner different from most of his contemporaries, black or white.  He did not curse, nor rant and rave at his players.  He had a sense of calm and composure about him rarely seen on a baseball field during those times.  Described as being fair, honest, and patient; C. I. taught his players the fundamentals of the game while having their admiration and respect. Always having an eye for good talent, he discovered an 18-year-old center fielder from Indianapolis who became a Hall of Fame player; Oscar Charleston.  C. I. also helped younger brother Ben to become a Hall of Fame first baseman.  His list of former players that went on to be managers or coaches includes Charleston, Hall of Fame catcher Biz Mackey, Dizzy Dismukes, David Malarcher, Bingo DeMoss, and each of the other Taylor brothers.

Most importantly, C. I. Taylor’s teams won. From 1914 – 1916, his ABCs would battle the Chicago American Giants in a season ending series to determine Negro League supremacy.  The Giants were managed by Andrew “Rube” Foster, considered the father of Negro League baseball.  The two managers respected each other, but the contests between the teams were heated. Taylor’s team won in 1916.

When Foster formed the first official Negro League in 1920, C. I. Taylor played a key role.  The ABCs were a charter member of the Negro National League (NNL) and he served as Vice-President.  However, Taylor unexpectedly died in 1922 at age 47, a setback for Negro League baseball.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have not played in a World Series since 1987.  Dodger fans are hoping Dave Roberts can lead the team to soon ending its 28 year drought.  It is my hope the National Baseball Hall of Fame will realize that only one of the two best managers in Negro League baseball has a plaque at the museum in Cooperstown; Andrew “Rube” Foster (1981).  Hopefully C. I. Taylor will someday get his.

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Rube Foster and C. I. Taylor

 

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

Hall of Fame Negro League Outfielder Cristobal Torriente

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Cristobal Torriente, like most of the 2006 National Baseball Hall of Fame inductees from Negro League baseball, had not been well-known to many baseball fans. That includes a long time one such as yours truly.  His feats on the diamond had not been celebrated as contributions to Negro League lore similar to those of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, James “Cool Papa” Bell and the other Negro League legends that had previously been enshrined in Cooperstown.  But Torreinte deserved Hall of Fame recognition and he received it in 2006.

Born in Cienfuegos, Cuba on November 16, 1893, Torriente saw a few of his white countrymen play Major League baseball. However, he could not due to the dark hue of his skin.  Just like African-American professional baseball players for nearly half of the 20th Century, he could not cross Major League baseball’s “invisible color line”.  Instead, Torriente showcased his baseball talents in the Negro Leagues.

In a poll of former Negro League players and sportswriters conducted in the early 1950s, Cristobal Torriente was named one of the best outfielders to play in the Negro Leagues. Known as the “Cuban Strongman, the left-handed slugger stood 5’11”, 185 pounds, with broad shoulders, and a rifle for a throwing arm.

The following is an excerpt from my book, Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era, which profiles the Hall of Fame outfielder:

“Pitchers had a hard time getting him out due to his quick,

powerful swing. They could not throw strikes pass him. Getting him

to swing at pitches out of the strike zone also did not work because

the Cuban was a notorious bad ball hitter. Facing him was an

experience pitchers dreaded.

 

Many stories have been told as a testimony of the Cuban’s

power when batting. One is about a line drive he hit off the right

field wall in Indianapolis against the ABCs. Supposedly the ball was

hit so hard, it got to the wall so fast, the right fielder was able to

throw the speedy Torriente out at first base. Another story is about

a ball he supposedly hit in Kansas City against the Monarchs. It

smashed a clock 17 feet above the centerfield fence. According to

Torriente’s American Giant teammate shortstop Bob Williams,

“The hand of the clock started going round and round.” It is doubtful

all the stories of balls hit by Torriente are true. But there is no

doubt he was one of the best hitters seen by Negro League fans.

 

Little is known about the early life of Cristobal Torriente in

Cuba. From most information, he was born in 1893 in Cienfuegos.

His family worked in the fields and boiler houses of the area’s sugar

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mills. By 17 he was in the Cuban Army displaying his physical

strength by loading heavy guns onto mules; while also blasting

baseballs around local sandlots.

 

After being a young phenomenon in the 1913 Cuban Winter

League, the 19 year old Torriente joined the Cuban Stars and played

his first season in the United States. The Stars were a traveling team

that played mainly against independent black professional baseball

teams. No official African American league existed at the time, but

the Stars competed against such black teams as the New York

Lincoln Giants, New York Lincoln Stars, Chicago American Giants,

and others. The change in surroundings did not hinder Torriente.

He quickly began to establish himself as the team’s hitting star

going up against the likes of “Smokey Joe” Williams, “Cannonball”

Dick Redding, ”Big Bill” Gatewood, and other Negro League

pitchers. By many accounts, Torriente hit .383 that first year. And if

the Stars’ opponents believed that was just rookie luck, the strong

Cuban put that to rest the next season by again hitting over .300. In

his years with the Cuban Stars, he reportedly never hit less than

.300.”

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For more of Cristobal Torriente’s Negro League baseball story, read Last Train to Cooperstown:The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  For more information, go to http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown.

 

 

 

“Sweet” Lou Johnson’s 1965 Redemption

It is my hope that long time Dodger fans like James O’Berry will forgive me for failing to acknowledge Lou Johnson last month. Johnson, a former Negro League player born September 22, 1934 in Lexington, Kentucky; after many years in the minor leagues surprisingly emerged to help the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 1965 World Series.

lou-johnsonThe Dodgers began the 1965 National League baseball season with the hope of doing better than the tied for sixth showing of the previous year.

The team wanted to resurrect the caliber of play that netted them the 1963 World Series Championship. However, when their two-time National League Batting Champion outfielder Tommy Davis broke his ankle that spring, the chances of achieving their goal seemed remote.  In response to Davis’ injury, the team brought up Lou Johnson from their Spokane AAA minor league team. The Dodgers had traded pitcher Larry Sherry, its 1959 World Series Championship Most Valuable Player, to the Detroit Tigers at the end of the 1964 season for Johnson.  They were the fifth Major League team of his baseball career.

Although the all-white face of Major League baseball began adding color after Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in 1947, African-American and dark-skinned Latino players were confronted with racially prejudiced and discriminatory attitudes.  Unless they were extremely more talented than their white counterparts, they lingered in the team’s minor league system.  There were limits (1 – 3) as to the number of them on a ball club as Major League team owners were afraid of alienating white fans.  This is what Louis Brown Johnson faced after being signed off the Kentucky State University campus by the New York Yankees in 1953.

Johnson responded to what he encountered in playing professional baseball with anger and got the reputation, fair or not, as a player with a “bad” attitude. After short stints in the minor league systems of the Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates, he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1955.  Negro League baseball by then had become only a remnant of its former self.  The best players had been stripped by Major League teams and young African-American talented prospects bypassed it going directly to white organized baseball. Observing Johnson’s potential, Monarchs’ manager Buck O’Neil advised him to channel his anger in ways to become a better player.  Through the signing of Gene Baker and Ernie Banks a few years earlier, the Chicago Cubs had developed a pipeline with the Monarchs.  Before the next season Johnson along with fellow Monarchs George Altman and JC Hartman were signed by the Cubs.

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On April 17, 1960, Johnson made his Major League debut in the Cubs’ 14 innings 4 – 3 loss to the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. He appeared in only 34 games and they traded him to the Los Angeles Angels after season.  With the Cubs having superstar Ernie Banks, George Altman, Billy Williams, and newly signed prospect Lou Brock, they saw Johnson as expendable.  The Angels sent him back to the minor leagues and then in a trade on to the Milwaukee Braves.  In 1962, Johnson hit .282 in 61 games for the Braves.  However, it appeared he became a victim of the numbers game again.  With superstar Henry Aaron, Mack Jones, Lee Maye, Tommie Aaron, and Amado Samuel on the team’s roster along with hot prospect Rico Carty in the minor league system, the Braves traded Johnson to the Detroit Tigers in 1963.

Why would the Dodgers turn to what appeared as nothing but a journeyman outfielder after Davis’ injury. Despite his controversial attitude, Major League scouts still viewed Lou Johnson as a good hitting outfielder.  In each of the seven minor league years he played over 100 games, five seasons at the AAA level, he hit over .300 and averaged 14 home runs.  Also, Johnson still played the game with an enthusiasm and a flair that brought him the nickname, “Sweet Lou”.

The Dodgers gamble on Johnson paid off as he took advantage of what may have been his last opportunity to showcase his baseball talent. Not a high-octane power hitting team, the Dodgers built a winning formula around speed on the base paths, clutch hitting, and solid defense supporting the excellent pitching of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale; both now in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.  It became a perfect fit for Johnson.  In 131 games, he tied for the team lead in home runs (12), third in RBI (59), and fourth in batting average (.259).  For baseball sabermetric geeks, he led team in slugging percentage (.391) and tied for third in OPS (.706).  Also importantly for the Dodgers, Johnson stole 15 bases, placing third behind teammates Willie Davis (25) and Maury Wills (a league leading 94).  His enthusiasm inspired the club.  I remember seeing news footage of him broadly smiling and clapping his hands circling the bases after hitting a key home run as the Dodgers went 20 – 7 in September to win the National League pennant.

In the team’s four games to three World Series triumph over the Minnesota Twins, Johnson hit .296 with eight hits and four RBI. His second home run of the fall classic came in the 4th inning of Game Seven giving Sandy Koufax all the runs he needed in beating the Twins 2 – 0 and making the Dodgers 1965 World Series champions.

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Johnson hits HR Game 7 1965 World Series

 

Proving it not an aberration, Lou Johnson hit .272 the next season with 17 home runs and 73 RBI as the Dodgers again won the National League pennant.  However, they lost the World Series in four straight games to the Baltimore Orioles. After he hit .270 with a team leading 11 home runs in 1967, the Dodgers traded Johnson to the Chicago Cubs.  After two more trades, to the Cleveland Indians in 1968 and then to the California Angels in 1969, Johnson’s baseball career ended.  In 17 years of professional baseball, the 35-year-old had played with eight Major League teams.  In recent years, Lou Johnson has worked in the Dodgers’ Community Relations Department.

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Maury Wills (left) and Lou Johnson

 

One definition of redemption is the state of being converted into something of value. The baseball career of “Sweet” Lou Johnson was not only one of endurance and determination, but also redemption.  After 13 years of feature appearances in the baseball trade section of newspaper sport pages, Johnson got redemption in 1965.  No, he did not have superstar type hitting statistics.  But he proved to be something of great value for the Dodgers that helped them become World Series champions.

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

Bill Blair – Ballplayer and Newspaper Publisher

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After an injury cut short his time on the fields of Negro League baseball, William “Bill” Blair became a newspaper publisher and prominent community activist in his hometown of Dallas, Texas.

Born on October 17, 1921, Blair left Prairie View College to join the military and became the youngest black first sergeant in the United States Army during World War II. After the war in 1946, he began his Negro League baseball career pitching first for the Cincinnati Crescents and then the Indianapolis Clowns.  He retired from baseball after the 1951 season due to an injured pitching arm.

Blair’s Elite News, first published in 1951, is now the longest existing African American newspaper in North Texas. It covers issues of political, social, economic, and religious importance for African Americans in the North Texas area.  In 1985, Blair was instrumental in organizing Dallas’ first Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade which is today one of the largest such tribute to Dr. King attracting thousands each year.

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)

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