The focus for my blog posts during this COVID 19 shortened 2020 Major League baseball season is a baseball time capsule from the 1950s. During that decade, the pace of integration in the Major Leagues slowly, but steadily went forward. As a consequence, the talent pool for the Negro Leagues decreased setting it on a journey towards extinction by the early 1960s. All of this with the early Civil Rights movement as a back drop.
This week’s post is about Ozzie Virgil, who accomplished two milestones in the integration of the Major Leagues during the 1950s. Virgil became the first Dominican Republic born player in the Major Leagues (1956) and he broke through the Detroit Tigers’ color barrier in 1958.
Born Osvaldo Jose Virgil on May 17, 1933 in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic, Ozzie moved to New York City (The Bronx) when 13 years old. After two years in the US Marine Corp., he signed with the New York Giants in 1953. Versatility became Virgil’s strength, he could play all infield positions including catcher and also in the outfield. Virgil made his Major League debut on September 23, 1956. The next season he made the Sporting News’ All-Rookie team as a utility player; seeing action when needed at four positions, including third base and catcher.
Of the dark-skinned Latinos who had played in the Major Leagues at that time, most were from Cuba or Puerto Rico. Virgil would be the first of many Major League players from the Dominican Republic including Baseball Hall of Fame inductees Juan Marichal, Vladimir Guerrero, and Pedro Martinez. By the mid-1950s, talented young African American and dark-skinned Latino players were bypassing the Negro Leagues and directly signing with Major League teams. Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Bill White, Curt Flood and others in addition to Virgil who began their Major Leagues careers during that time did not play Negro League baseball.
Before the 1958 season, the Giants moved to San Francisco and traded Virgil to the Detroit Tigers. Eleven years after Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in professional baseball (1947), Detroit and its American League counterpart Boston Red Sox were the only Major League teams never to have an African American or dark-skinned Latino on the roster. It had been a strong Negro League baseball city with the Detroit Stars in the 1920s and 1930s. However, the Tigers’ previous long-time owner Otto Briggs (1935 – 1952) had a bad relationship with African Americans due to the prejudice many of them experienced working at his automotive body factory. Also, African Americans were not allowed to sit in the box seats at Briggs Stadium.
The Tigers were World Series champions in 1945, but had finished no higher than fifth place since 1950 and efforts were being made to build the team around outfielder Al Kaline and pitcher Jim Bunning who would both have Hall of Fame careers. Jake Wood, the first African American to make his way through Detroit’s minor league system, played at the Class B level in 1958 and would not become the Tigers’ starting second baseman until 1961.
On June 6, 1958, at Griffith Stadium against the Washington Senators, Ozzie Virgil became the first nonwhite player to appear in a Major League game for the Detroit Tigers. He played third base and hit a double in the team’s 11 – 5 win. Virgil hit .244 in 49 games.
For the majority of the 1959 season, the Tigers were again at their pre-integration level. Virgil spent the entire season in the team’s minor league system (Double AA level). Newly acquired 35 years old Larry Doby, the first African American or dark-skinned Latino to break through the American League’s color barrier in 1947, played only 18 games before being traded to the Chicago White Sox in July. Also, the Tigers briefly promoted African American pitcher Jim Proctor, who appeared in only 2 games before being sent back to the minor leagues.
But, in 1960 Virgil appeared in 62 games as the Tigers used him as a key utility player. The Tigers traded him to the Kansas City Athletics In 1961 and he would spend the next seven years splitting time between the minor leagues and four major league teams. Virgil finished his playing career with the team that first signed him, the San Francisco Giants.
After retiring Ozzie Virgil coached 19 years in the Major Leagues and his son, two-time All Star catcher Ozzie Virgil Jr, had an eleven year Major League career.
All pictures via Google Images
For my daily historical notices go to Kevin L. Mitchell @Lasttraintocoop
As I mentioned in my last blog post, many times I have been the fan of the team that lost the World Series. I called those painfully disappointing losses my World Series nightmares. One of those nightmares involved Hall of Fame slugger Willie McCovey who died this past October 31.
The 1962 World Series would be the seventh “Yankees vs Giants”, but with a huge difference. After being a New York franchise since 1883, first the Gothams then in 1885 the Giants, the New York Giants moved to the west coast after the 1957 season to become the San Francisco Giants. By 1962, center fielder Willie Mays and manager Alvin Dark were the only Giants who had played with the team in New York. They were on the Giants’ team that lost the 1951 World Series to the New York Yankees.
Before the boom in television coverage of sporting events, all World Series games were played in the afternoon. In grade school, I could only watch the first innings during my lunch break. The games were over by the time school ended. I would have to wait until the weekends to see a complete game.
In Game One at Candlestick Park the Giants’ stopped pitcher Whitey Ford’s World Series scoreless streak at 33 2/3 innings, but still lost to the Yankees 6-2. With Ford being a left-handed pitcher, left-handed hitting Willie McCovey did not play.
The Giants’ continued the World Series miseries of Yankees’ pitcher Ralph Terry in Game Two, winning 2 – 0. Willie McCovey hit a seventh inning home run. Terry, who won 23 games during the 1962 regular season, had been the goat of the 1960 World Series surrendering the walk-off Seventh Game winning home run to Bill Mazeroski of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the 1961 World Series Terry dropped Game Two; New York’s only loss to the Cincinnati Reds.
The Series switched to Yankee Stadium for Game Three that Sunday and I got to watch it all on TV. However, New York won 3 – 2. McCovey played right field, zero for three at the plate.
When I came home for lunch during Game Four the next day, the Giants were ahead 2 – 0. Juan Marichal had held the Yankees scoreless the first four innings, but left the game with a sore hand. After my lunch break, the Yankees tied the score. But later, from a friend who missed school due to a stomach ache, I learned the Giants scored five runs the last three innings to win 7 – 3. Claiming to have the same type of stomach ache the next morning, I stayed home to watch Game Five. However, it rained in New York forcing the game to be cancelled! My mother told me though the expression on her face, “You got what you deserved for your stunt”. Returning home from school the next day, I had no more “sick day” options, I painfully learned the Yankees had won Game Five behind Ralph Terry’s sound pitching 5 – 3. McCovey, playing first base, got one hit.
A Northern California rain storm cancelled Game Six a Series’ record three times, including during the weekend when I would have been able to watch. When play resumed, the Giants won 5 – 2 tying the Series at three games apiece.
My school’s janitor had a bet with my teacher that New York would win the World Series. After listening to Game Seven on his transistor radio, he came into my classroom to collect on his bet. I learned the details on the game after school. With Ralph Terry pitching, the Yankees led 1 – 0 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Matty Alou singled to lead-off for the Giants. With two outs, Willie Mays doubled. Willie McCovey, who had tripled in the seventh inning, then hit a line drive to second baseman Bobby Richardson to end the Series.
The 1962 World Series brought triumphant vindication to Ralph Terry, but disappointment to Willie McCovey. For the remainder of his great career, McCovey did not get another opportunity for World Series success. For me, due to the rainouts, I only saw one entire game and my stunt to see another failed. Also, in the words spoken by Charlie Brown in the newspaper comic strip Peanuts on 11/22/62; “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just 3 feet higher?” It probably needed to be more than three feet, but that tells how painfully I still think about it now. What a nightmare!
Being a fan of the team that loses the baseball World Series is a disappointing experience. It is a deeper frustration than your favorite football team losing the Super Bowl. That is just one game. But with the World Series, you have the emotionally draining ebb and flow of four to possibly seven games. I could see this emotional frustration on the faces of Los Angeles Dodgers’ fans during this year’s World Series. The Boston Red Sox defeated the Dodgers 5 – 1 at Dodger Stadium this past October 28 to win the 2018 Series 4 games to 1. It would be the second straight year Dodger fans had to watch the opposing team celebrate winning the World Series at the Dodgers’ home field. The Houston Astros won Game Seven of the 2017 Series 5 – 1 in front of the frustrated Dodger fateful. The last two World Series have been horrible experiences for Dodger fans. Both have been like nightmares.
Being a rabid baseball fan for just over 60 years, I can relate to what the Dodgers’ fans experienced; I have had more than a few World Series nightmares. The Milwaukee Braves losing three straight to the New York Yankees after being ahead three games to one in the 1958 World Series and the St. Louis Cardinals blowing their three games to one lead to the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 Series were two of my nightmares. I still cringe remembering Curt Flood misplaying Detroit’s Jim Northup’s long fly ball as the Cards’ lost Game Seven.
Another of my World Series nightmares involved Hall of Fame first baseman Willie McCovey who died October 31, three days after the end of this year’s Series. Eighty years old, the six-time National League All-Star lost his battle with an infection and other on-going health issues at the Stanford University Medical Center. Tributes from both inside and outside of professional baseball are still continuing to come for the big (6’4”, 198 lbs.) left-handed slugger who my older brother and I along with others called “Stretch”. Born January 10, 1938 in Mobile, Alabama; McCovey made his Major League debut with the San Francisco Giants July 30, 1959 getting four hits against Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts of the Philadelphia Phillies. He finished the season hitting .354 with 13 HRs in 54 games and received the National League Rookie of the Year award.
After his sensational 1959 rookie season, McCovey fought a batting slump through the summer of 1960 hitting .238 in 101 games with 13 HRs and even spent time back in the minor leagues. He regained his hitting stroke in 1961(18 HRs, 50 RBIs, .271 BA in 106 games) and created a dilemma for the Giants. Both McCovey and 1999 Hall of Fame inductee Orlando Cepeda were first basemen. In order to get both their bats in the line-up one of them had to play in the outfield, not the strongest position for either. However, with Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Mays covering ground in center field, it worked in 1962 as the Giants won the National League pennant with McCovey and Cepeda splitting time between playing first base and right or left field.
That set the 1962 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the defending champion New York Yankees. The main reason for my World Series nightmares at that time, the Yankees had won 8 Series in the prior 13 years and were favored to win in 1962 for their ninth. Be sure to read Part Two of this post to see how my hope for a World Series win by the Giants turned into another nightmare for me.
Past feature articles, game summaries, and game box scores of African-American newspapers indicate there were at least 29 no-hitters thrown in Negro League baseball. Most notably there were two by Satchel Paige and one each by Hilton Smith, Andy Cooper, “Smoky” Joe Williams, and Leon Day; all Hall of Fame pitchers. The “invisible color line” that kept African–American ballplayers out of the Major Leagues was not erased until 1947 which was too late for these and many other good Negro League hurlers who were by then either dead or passed their prime. But there were younger Negro League pitchers that got their opportunity in the Major Leagues; “Toothpick” Sam Jones was one of them. He is the only former Negro League pitcher to throw a Major League no-hitter.
Born 12/14/25 in Stewartsville, Ohio, Jones also spent a portion of his youth in West Virginia. He left for military service before starting the life of a coal mine worker as were many of his family members and friends. He played with a local black team while stationed in Orlando, Florida in 1947 and caught the eye of Quincy Trouppe, then the manager of the Negro American League (NAL) Cleveland Buckeyes. Jones signed in time to help the team win the NAL pennant, but they lost to the New York Cubans in the 1947 Negro League World Series. Jones got his nickname from having a toothpick in his mouth while on the pitching mound.
It would be 1950 when the Cleveland Indians finally noticed the talented right-handed hurler that had been in their own backyard. However, Jones pitched in only 16 games with the Indians in four years before being traded to the Chicago Cubs after the 1954 season. Once in the National League, the talented pitcher proved what he had done in the Negro Leagues was no fluke. Opponents claimed Jones, a power pitcher standing at 6’4” and weighing 200 pounds, had the best curveball in the National League. He faced batters with a never-changing, expressionless look on his face which resulted in him also being called “Sad” Sam. That is the nickname I mostly remember. But opponents also said Jones had a mean streak exhibited by his pitches; he hit 14 batters in 1955 (league leader). There was an ongoing intense confrontation whenever Henry Aaron faced Jones that is well documented. Jones struggled at times with control of his pitches; he led the National League in walks four times. But he also could be overpowering; being the league leader in strikeouts three years and pitching 17 shutouts in his 12 year Major League career. He became a two-time National League All-Star, winning 21 games with the San Francisco Giants in 1959 and 18 in 1960.
But it was on May 12, 1955 as a Chicago Cub that Jones pitched himself into the Major League Baseball record book with a 4-0 no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was a “Sam Jones” pitched type of game. He struck out six batters, walked seven, threw a Wild Pitch, and was helped with two double plays. In the ninth inning, he walked the first three hitters before striking out the final three.
He retired after pitching with the Baltimore Orioles in 1964, the sixth team played with during his time in the Major Leagues; Cleveland Indians 1951 – 1952, Chicago Cubs 1955 – 1956, St. Louis Cardinals 1957 – 1958 and 1963, San Francisco Giants 1959 – 1961, and Detroit Tigers 1962. On November 5, 1971, the 45 years old Jones died of throat cancer.
“Sad “Sam Jones won 102 games in the Major Leagues. He lost 101. No doubt the inconsistent control of his pitches cost him victories early in his career, but he still had 1,376 career strikeouts. And no former Negro League pitcher, other than Don Newcombe, had the success in the Major Leagues as Sam Jones.
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