Due to my efforts towards organizing the youth baseball team for 10 – 12 year olds I will coach this summer, I failed to timely recognize the birthdate of former Negro League and Major League player Robert (Bob) Burns Thurman, May 14, 1917. This post is a belated “Happy Birthday” recognition of him. The mystery that existed about the age of “Satchel” Paige when he signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 is a well-known story in both Negro League and baseball history. It is now known Paige made his Major League debut when 42 years old and became an American League All-Star his final season with the St. Louis Browns at age 47. But there is less mystery to Bob Thurman having his best Major League season when 40 years old.
After Jackie Robinson erased the color line in 1947 and Major League teams began looking to sign African-Americans and dark-skinned Hispanics, many Negro League players lowered their stated age to be a more attractive prospect. They knew that younger players had the best chance of getting to the Major Leagues. Thurman and other Negro League players felt no hesitancy claiming to be a younger age in order to walk through the now open door of opportunity that had been shut since the end of the 19th Century due to racial discrimination.
The cry grew louder after World War II for an end to racial discrimination in Major League baseball. Former Kentucky U. S. Senator Albert “Happy” Chandler became the new Major League Baseball Commissioner in 1945 following the sudden death the previous year of Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner. Landis had worked with team owners since taking office in 1920 to perpetuate the “invisible color line” that kept African-American or dark-skinned Hispanic players out of Major League baseball. When asked his opinion about African-Americans playing in the Major Leagues, Chandler surprisingly said, “If they can fight and die in Okinawa and Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, they can play in America”. Although his response went against the existing racial discriminatory policy of Major League baseball, it added to the chorus for change sounding for Bob Thurman and other Negro League players.
Although born in Kellyville, Oklahoma, Thurman grew up in Wichita, Kansas. Drafted into the military while playing in the city’s semi-professional baseball leagues at the start of World War II, he saw combat duty in New Guinea and the Philippines. After leaving military service in 1946, he turned to his only option to play professional baseball in United States, the Negro Leagues. Thurman played with the Homestead Grays during the last years of owner Cum Posey’s “long gray line”. Long time Negro League veterans Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, “Cool Papa” Bell and others were still with the Grays when Thurman arrived; however, Posey died before the season started. Signed as a left-handed pitcher, Thurman proved to be a better power hitter and became the team’s regular center fielder. With the veteran players approaching the end of their baseball careers, Josh Gibson died in 1947, the Grays mixed in Thurman along with future Major League players Luke Easter and Luis Marquez to help the team remain competitive. In 1948, Thurman hit over .300 as the Grays won the last Negro League World Series Championship defeating the Birmingham Black Barons.
With both the Negro National League and the Homestead Grays disbanding after the 1948 season, Thurman signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League (NAL). Monarch Manager Buck O’Neil had a team that included future Major League players Elston Howard, Connie Johnson, Gene Baker, Hank Thompson, and Curt Roberts. The Monarchs were looking to sell their best players to Major League teams in order to remain operating profitably. On July 29, 1949 the New York Yankees purchased Thurman’s contract and he became the first African-American signed by the team. He walked through the door of opportunity given him stated as a 26-year-old outfielder, but in reality being 32.
However, the Yankees were not serious about integration. Although Thurman batted .317 and hit with power while with the team’s Triple AAA minor league affiliate (Newark Bears) for the remainder of that season, the team traded him to the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were also slow embracing integration. It would be four years, 1954, before Ernie Banks became the first African-American to play for Chicago’s north side team. After three respectable years in the Cubs minor league system, Thurman was released. The Cubs did not renew his contract.
He spent the next two years playing summer and winter league baseball in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Thurman had several successful seasons in the Caribbean leagues and had become a fan favorite. He is a member of the Puerto Rican League Baseball Hall of Fame and the league’s all-time home run leader. After a tremendous winter league season in 1955, Thurman signed with the Cincinnati Reds mainly as a reserve outfielder and pinch hitter with the team believing him to be 32 years old. He made his Major League debut on April 14, 1955; a little more than a month before his actual 38th birthday.
Thurman hit 35 home runs and drove in 106 runs in his five years with the Reds (1955 – 1959). On August 18, 1956, the Reds hit eight home runs in a 13 – 4 victory over the Milwaukee Braves; which tied the Major League record at that time. Three of the Reds’ home runs in that game were hit by Bob Thurman. After hitting a double in the third inning, he hit home runs in the fifth, seventh, and eighth innings. In 1957 at 40 years old, Thurman had his best season in the Major Leagues hitting 18 home runs. While with the Reds he, along with former Negro League player and Reds teammate George Crowe, became mentors for young African-American players coming into the National League in the late 1950s; Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, Bill White, etc.
Bob Thurman had to verbally set back the hands of time in order to get the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. If the New York Yankees in 1949 had known his real age of 32, would they have signed him? Probably not! Surely, the Reds would not have signed Thurman in 1955 had they known his real age of 38! But given the opportunity, he proved his time for hitting a baseball had not passed him by.
To read more about the Negro Baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown
Today is for long time Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodger baseball fans, like James O’Berry in Houston, to celebrate the birthday of two players who were on a World Series Champion Dodger team; Sandy Amoros (left) in 1955 and Charlie Neal (right) in 1959. Neither of them received formal “hero status” in their team’s triumph. But Dodger fans know how important each of them were those years; the two World Series Championships for the franchise in the 1950s.
After five previous World Series losses against the New York Yankees; 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953, the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated them in 1955. Johnny Podres claimed the moniker of “Series hero” for the Dodgers by pitching a 2-0 shutout in Game Seven, his second complete game win in the Series. It is in that important Game Seven when Sandy Amoros makes his contribution to the Dodgers’ victory.
Born January 30, 1930 in Matanzas, Cuba, Edmunido “Sandy” Amoros could hit a baseball with surprising power for his 5’7 ½”, 170 pounds physical stature. He played Negro League baseball in 1950 with the New York Cubans. The team went out of business after the season and Amoros played in Caribbean baseball leagues until signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952. The left-handed outfielder hit over .300 and showed power in his batting stroke while in the team’s minor league system. However, after integration Major League teams had a “quota” on the number of African-Americans to have on their rosters. With Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Joe Black, and Jim Gilliam already wearing Dodger blue, the team kept Amoros in the minor leagues.
It is Amoros’ defense, however, that engraved him a place in Dodger history. In the deciding Game Seven of the 1955 World Series, the Dodgers were leading 2 – 0 in the bottom of the sixth inning; but the Yankees had the tying runs on base with no outs. Yankees’ catcher Yogi Berra hit a line drive headed towards the Yankee Stadium left field corner that appeared it to be a game tying double. However Amoros; who had been put in the game for defensive purposes when the inning started, ran as fast as he could and caught it. He quickly threw it back to the infield and completed a double play. Amoros’ play killed the Yankees’ scoring threat and the Dodgers held on to win the game and be 1955 World Series Champions.
In 1959, the second season after moving to Los Angeles, the Dodgers defeated the Chicago White Sox in the World Series. Dodger relief pitcher Larry Sherry played a role in all four of the teams’s victories and got the nod as Series “Most Valuable Player”. He pitched 12.2 innings with an Earned Run Average (ERA) of 0.71. Entering the contests as a relief pitcher, Sherry got the save in World Series Games Two and Three, and was the winning pitcher in Games Four and Six. Whereas Sherry was the pitching star for the Dodgers in the Series, Charlie Neal led the team in hitting.
Born January 30, 1931 in Longview, Texas; Charles Lenard Neal signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950. A promising prospect, the 5’10’, 165 lb. infielder first languished in the minor leagues as the Dodgers had team captain Pee Wee Reese at shortstop, All Star Jackie Robinson playing second base, and 1953 National League Rookie of the Year Jim Gilliam also playing on the infield. In addition as Sandy Amoros discovered, the Dodgers were reluctant to have “too many” African-American and dark-skinned Latinos on the Major League roster.
Neal made his Major League debut April 15, 1956; playing in 62 games his rookie season and hitting .287. The starting second baseman in Game Three of the 1956 World Series, Neal went hitless against the Yankees’ Whitey Ford in the Dodgers’ 5 -3 lost. When Jackie Robinson retired in 1957, Reese moved over to play third base and Neal became the Dodger’s starting shortstop. In 1958, the Dodgers first season in Los Angeles, Neal hit 22 home runs and drove in 65 runs.
Charlie had the best year of his career in 1959, hitting .287 with 19 home runs, 83 RBIs (2nd on the team), and a team leading 177 hits. The All-Star second baseman also received his only Gold Glove Award. After the White Sox won Game One of the 1959 World Series 16 – 0, the Dodgers trailed 2 – 0 in the top of the fifth in Game Two. Neal broke the team’s streak of 13 scoreless innings with a solo home run. He then hit a 2-run homer in the seventh to give the Dodgers a lead that Sherry kept in their 4 – 3 win. While a crowd of 92,394 looked on at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Game Three, Neal went 2 for 4. With the score 0 – 0, he singled to start a Dodger rally in the bottom of the seventh and scored the first run in the team’s 3 – 1 victory. In the Series clinching Sixth Game, he got three hits. His double drove in two of the Dodgers’ six runs in the top of the fourth on their way to winning the game 9 – 3 and the World Series Championship (four games to two). For the Series, Neal hit .370 with two home runs, six RBIs and had the most hits; 10.
“Smokey” Joe Williams, Leon Day, Hilton Smith, and other fantastic pitchers who toiled their entire careers in the Negro Leagues never received the opportunity to appear on professional baseball’s main stage; the World Series. When Jackie Robinson erased Major League Baseball’s “invisible color line in 1947 opening the door for African American and dark-skinned Latinos to play, many of the better Negro League pitchers were past their prime. However, there were four former Negro Leaguers who did get the opportunity to take the mound in a World Series game. Three are familiar names in Negro League baseball history. The fourth and last one, Marshall Bridges who was born June 2, 1931 in Jackson, Mississippi, reflects how slow the progress of integration took in the Major Leagues during the 1950s.
On October 10, 1948 Satchel Paige became the first African American to pitch in a Major League World Series game. He pitched 2/3 of an inning in Game 5 for the Cleveland Indians in the 1948 World Series giving up no runs or hits. The Indians lost the game to the Boston Braves 11 – 5, but won the World Series 4 games to 2.
Don Newcombe pitched in the 1949, 1955, and 1956 Series for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The team’s leading hurler and innings workhorse during the regular season, Newcombe seemed to run out of gas in the World Series against the Dodgers’ main nemesis each of those years; the New York Yankees. In five World Series’ starts, he lost four with an ERA of 8.59.
On October 1, 1952 Joe Black of the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the New York Yankees 4 – 2 to become the first African American pitcher to win a World Series game. He pitched a complete game giving up only six hits in the first contest of that year’s Series. Black, however, lost Game Four and the deciding Game Seven by the identical score of his victory, 4 – 2.
Marshall “Sheriff” Bridges began his professional baseball career as a pitcher and first baseman for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. Signed by the New York Giants in 1953, the hard throwing left hander spent five seasons pitching in the minor leagues. When he turned 28 years old, Bridges finally made his Major League debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959 winning 6 games while losing 3. He finished second in strikeouts among Cardinal relief hurlers with 76 in 76 innings pitched
The Cardinals released Bridges in August of 1960 and he finished the season with the Cincinnati Reds. The next season, Bridges did not make a mound appearance when Cincinnati lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series four games to one. However, due to a surprising shift of fortune it would be different for him the next year.
A little more than 2 months after the Series, the Reds traded Bridges to New York and he went on to become the top relief pitcher for the 1962 Yankees. In 52 relief appearances, Bridges had his best Major League season winning eight games while saving 18 others and helping the Yankees capture the American League pennant.
The “Sheriff” made two appearances in the World Series pitching a total of three and two- third innings as the Yankees defeated the San Francisco Giants to win the World Championship. However; he made a place in baseball history by surrendering the first World Series grand slam home run hit by a National League player, Giants’ second baseman Chuck Hiller, in the Yankee’s 7 – 3 Game 4 lost.
After being shot by a 21 year old married woman (Carrie Lee Raysor) in a bar during spring training the next season, Bridges fell out of favor with the Yankees. Although there had been off the field incidents involving Yankee star players Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, Bridges had crossed the Yankees’ behavior double standard line that his fellow African American teammate Elston Howard had for seven years been able to toe. Bridges recovered from the gunshot wound in his leg, but made only 23 relief appearances for the 1963 Yankees. After the season, the team traded him to the Washington Senators.
For more on Negro League Baseball history, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown)
The purpose of this blog has been to promote the unshakable, enduring historical connection African Americans have to the sport of baseball. One way I have tried doing this is highlighting former Negro League players and the pioneers from the early stages of Major League baseball integration on their birthdays.
Two weeks ago I missed the birthday of Elston Howard, born February 23, 1929 in St. Louis, Missouri. With Howard being a product of Negro League baseball and then breaking into the Major Leagues in 1955, there should be a post about him on this blog every February 23. I could say due to my busy schedule, I forgot to do a birthday blog post honoring him. However, this explanation does not satisfy my conscious which suggests the omission lends to an attitude I had as a young baseball fan about Elston Howard. It is not that I disliked him, but I thoroughly disliked the team of the uniform he wore; the New York Yankees.
From 1955 through 1964 the Yankees won nine American League pennants. My friends and I would always root against them come World Series time because they did not have as many African American and dark-skinned Latino players on the team as their National League opponents. For the majority of those years, Howard was the lone black face on the Yankees.
Some may call the attitude I had along with my friends about the Yankees racist. With Howard’s career coinciding with the evolving civil rights movement, I will call our attitude a part of the growing sense of black identification and black pride among African Americans during that period. Also, it was still a part of the “root for Jackie Robinson” attitude passed on to us by our parents. Remember, baseball had banned African American and dark- skinned Latino players for nearly half the 20th Century.
Howard won four World Series championships as a Yankee. I can still remember the feelings of disappointment from their victories. But I now understand that my attitude about the team blinded me to his accomplishments. Elston Howard was a courageous African American pioneer in Major League baseball that I did not give the credit and the respect he deserved.
Purchased by the Yankees from the Kansas City Monarchs in 1950, Howard consistently met the high character expectations the team put on him while it tolerated the off field low character behavior of their stars Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin. He had to put up with segregated hotel facilities in Florida during spring training like other African American Major League ballplayers in the 1950s. They stayed at black hotels or rooming houses separate from the team’s hotel. Being the only black Yankee for most of those years, Howard had to endure those racial segregation practices by himself.
In referring to Howard, Yankee manager Casey Stengel said, “When I finally get a nigger, I get the only one who can’t run”. The Yankees were not a team built on speed, but power. Ignoring Stengel’s racially stereotyped attempt to be comical with sportswriters, Howard became a perfect fit for the team.
Hitting .290 with 10 home runs his 1955 rookie season, Howard spent the first six years splitting time between playing left field and sharing the catching duties with Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. In 1961, when he became the Yankees main catcher, Howard hit .348 with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs and in 1962 hit .279 with 21 home runs and 91 RBIs. Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were both slowed by injuries during the 1963 season. But Howard provided the offensive punch the team needed. He batted fourth, the “clean-up” spot in the batting order, for most of the season and led the team in home runs (28), batting average (.287), and was second in RBIs (85) as it won another pennant. For his efforts, Howard was the first African American to be named Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the American League.
In 1969, Howard became the first African American coach in the American League. However, during his 11 year stint as a Yankee coach (1969 – 1980), the team overlooked him four times in choosing a new manager.
Even though Elston Howard died December 4, 1980, this post is still my public apology to him. I do not apologize for my dislike of those New York Yankee teams he played with, but I apologize for not giving him more respect during those times as an African American baseball pioneer.
Who was the African American catcher that finished eighth in the American League MVP voting in 1963?
For a historical journey to get prepared for the upcoming baseball season, 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.