A BELATED HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Before getting further into 2019, I need to briefly mention the Negro League players who took the field for the last inning of life’s game in 2018. Of the five listed, one briefly played Major League baseball and another in the minor leagues after Jackie Robinson erased the “invisible color line” in 1947. The others played during the rapid decline of the Negro Leagues in the 1950’s or on teams in the Negro minor leagues. Neither of the ex-players in the post is considered a “famous name”, but the lives of each are a chapter in the Negro League baseball story.
I may not have been aware of the death in 2018 of others from the Negro League baseball era, so the list could be incomplete.
Roosevelt Jackson – May 5, 2018
Born 12/20/17 in Gay, Georgia; Jackson became known at events honoring Negro League baseball during the last years of his life as the “oldest player from the Negro League era”. He played both infield (2B) and outfield during the 1930’s and 1940’s with Negro minor leagues teams in Florida; Miami Globetrotters, Hollywood (Fla.) Redbirds, Miami Red Sox, Belle Glade Redwings. These teams were on the Florida spring barnstorming circuit of the major Negro League clubs. After integration, Jackson did scouting for the Philadelphia Phillies.
William “Youngblood” McCrary – July 21, 2018
While attending high school in Beloit, Wisconsin; McCrary drew interest from the St. Louis Cardinals. However, with African-Americans still barred from organized white baseball, the team referred him to the Kansas City Monarchs. Beginning as a 17 years old reserve shortstop, McCrary played for the Monarchs from 1946 – 1948. Because of his young age, “Satchel” Paige called him “Youngblood”. McCrary signed with the New York Yankees in 1949 and spent two years in its minor league system.
Jose Santiago – October 9, 2018
Born September 4, 1928 in Coamo, Puerto Rico, Santiago pitched for the 1947 Negro League World Series champion New York Cubans. Before the next season, Cubans’ owner Alex Pompez sold a number of his players to Major League franchises for money to keep his team operating. Santiago went to the Cleveland Indians. He stayed in the team’s minor league system for six years before making his Major League debut on April 17, 1954. He became the second player from Puerto Rico to be in the American League. After he had a 2 – 0 record in 1955, the Indians traded Santiago to the Kansas City A’s who released him halfway through the 1956 season. He never again pitched for another Major League team.
Edward Burton – October 18, 2018
The Harrisburg Giants were a strong team in the Eastern Colored League (ECL) from 1925 – 1927. Famous Negro League players such as Oscar Charleston, Rap Dixon, Clarence “Fat” Jenkins, and John Beckwith played with the team at one time during the period. The ECL disbanded in 1928 and by the time Edward Burton joined the Giants in 1947, it had become a low-level, Negro minor league team. A second baseman, Burton played against Negro American League teams barnstorming though Harrisburg until 1955. For the last few years he had participated in activities honoring Negro League baseball in Charlotte, NC; where he died.
Frank “Bubba” King – December 8, 2018
Born 6/23/23 in East Point, GA., King played professional/semi-professional baseball from 1936 – 1958 with local black teams in the Atlanta area; East Point Bears, Atlanta Cards, College Park Indians. These teams kept black baseball alive in Atlanta down through the Negro League era. In the 1940’s King, an outfielder, played with the Atlanta Black Crackers of the Negro Southern League (NSL); a Negro minor league team.
I need to mention five former players not from the Negro League baseball era who died in 2018. For each I have my own personal reflection which will be in my next post. Stay tuned!
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!
From March through June on Twitter, follow me at Kevin L. Mitchell @LastTraintocoop, I wrote about Negro League Baseball catchers.
Currently there are four former Negro League catchers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Roy Campanella (1969), Josh Gibson (1972), James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey (2006), and Louis Santop (2006). However, there were others who developed the skills necessary to handle the responsibilities of the position and who made outstanding contributions to the success of their teams.
I listed ten of my Negro League catcher Tweets in the May 28th blog post, “Negro League Baseball Catchers – Part One”. Following is listed another ten. They all came before the erasing of the “invisible color line” and did not play Major League baseball. But, they helped to build the legacy of the Negro Leagues.
John Hines, Chicago American Giants 1924 – 1930, 1932, 1934. Negro League World Series champs 1926 and 1927, attended Wiley College.
John Walter Burch, Negro League baseball 1934 – 1946, teams included Atlantic City Bacharach Giants 1931, Homestead Grays 1936, Cleveland Buckeyes 1943 – 1944, 1946. Buckeyes manager in 1942.
Leon “Pepper” Daniels, Detroit Stars 1921 – 1927, battery mate of Hall of Fame pitcher Andy Cooper, Chicago American Giants 1931.
Bob Clarke, Negro League career 1923 – 1948. Played mainly with Baltimore Black Sox 1923 – 1928, New York Black Yankees 1933 – 1940, Baltimore Elite Giants 1941 – 1946.
Pete Booker, Negro League 1905 – 1919, teams included Philadelphia Giants, Leland Giants, New York Lincoln Giants, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Chicago American Giants, Indianapolis ABCs, Also played 1B
Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett, Negro League career 1935 – 1946, played with several teams including Pittsburgh Crawfords and Birmingham Black Barons (1943 & 1944 Negro American League champions)
WG “Bill” Perkins, Negro League career 1928 – 1948, 2-time Negro League All-Star, best years 1931 – 1936 Pittsburgh Crawfords, frequent battery mate of Satchel Paige.
Joe Greene, Kansas City Monarchs 1939 – 1943, 1946 – 1947. Handled pitching staff that included “Satchel” Paige, Connie Johnson, Hilton Smith, Jack Matchett, etc.
Frazier Robinson, Kansas City Monarchs 1942 – 1943, New York Black Yankees 1943, Baltimore Elite Giants 1943, 1946 – 1950.
Bill “Ready” Cash, 2-time Negro League All-Star, Philadelphia Stars 1943 – 1949. Briefly played in Chicago White Sox minor league systems 1950s.
All photos for this post the courtesy of numerous internet sites via Google Images
Since the beginning of March on Twitter (follow me at Kevin L. Mitchell @Lasttraintocoop) I have been tweeting about Negro League baseball catchers.
If you have been reading my blog posts any length of time, you are aware of my journey through playing Little League and high school baseball handling the so-called “tools of ignorance”. That is the nickname given to a catcher’s protective equipment: catcher’s mask, chest protector, shin guards. Supposedly coined by Major League catcher “Muddy” Ruel who played in the 1920s and 1930s, the phrase ironically points out the so called smarts needed by a catcher to handle the responsibilities of the position and the foolishness needed to play a position where such protective equipment is required. My less than stellar performance at times questioned if I had the smarts to required for the position, but the pain experienced from being hit by foul tips and from base runners crashing into me trying to score (catchers could block home plate back then) showed my foolishness in playing it.
The catchers I mention in my tweets have not gotten the recognition as the four former Negro League catchers currently in the Baseball Hall of Fame: Roy Campanella (1969), Josh Gibson (1972), James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey (2006), and Louis Santop (2006). However, some did briefly play Major League baseball. Others were outstanding contributors to the success of their team. They all developed the skills necessary to handle the responsibilities of the position and helped to build the legacy of Negro League baseball.
Following are a few of my Twitter tweets on Negro League baseball catchers:
Bruce Petway, best defensive catcher in Negro League baseball in early 1900s. Cuban X Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Chicago American Giants 1911 – 1919, Detroit Stars 1920 – 1925.
Larry “Iron Man” Brown, Negro League career 1921 – 1946, teams included Memphis Red Sox and Chicago American Giants, 7-time Negro League All-Star, Memphis player/manager 1942 – 1944.
Frank Duncan, Kansas City Monarchs 1921 – 1934, 1937, 1941 – 1947. Played on both of Monarchs’ Negro League World Series champions 1924 and 1942. Monarchs’ manager 1942 – 1947.
Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, Negro League All-Star, 3-times catcher and 3-times pitcher, 1931 Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords 1932, Memphis Red Sox 1938 – 39, 41, Birmingham Black Barons 1942 – 1946.
Quincy Trouppe, 5-time Negro League All-Star, St. Louis Stars 1930 – 1931, Indianapolis Clowns 1938, Cleveland Buckeyes 1944 – 1947, signed Cleveland Indians 1952, Major League debut 4/30/52.
Joshua Johnson 1934 – 1940 Homestead Grays 1934 – 35, 1940 back up to Josh Gibson, also played with New York Black Yankees 1938.
Albert “Buster” Haywood, most productive years Cincinnati/Indianapolis Clowns 1943 – 1953, Negro League All-Star 1944, named manager of Clowns 1948, first manager for Henry Aaron 1952.
Sam Hairston, Indianapolis Clowns 1945 – 1948, Signed Chicago White Sox 1950, MLB debut 7/21/51, 1952 – 1960 mainly in White Sox minor league system, 2 sons and 2 grandsons played MLB .
Ray Noble, New York Cubans 1946 – 1948, played on team’s 1947 Negro League World Series champion, New York Giants 1951 – 1953, MLB debut 4/18/51.
Otha “Little Catch” Bailey, Negro League career 1950 – 1959, Cleveland Buckeyes, Houston Eagles, Birmingham Black Barons, 5’6’’, 150 pounds, One of the best catchers in talent diluted Negro Leagues in 1950s.
All photos the courtesy of a variety of internet sites via Google Images
Before getting further into 2018, I need to briefly mention the Negro League players who took the field for the last inning of life’s game in 2017. The lives on each one I name in this post were a chapter in the Negro League baseball story. I may not have known about the death this year of others from the era, so the list could be incomplete.
I need to mention three players who died in 2017 not involved in the Negro League baseball era, but were a part of the game’s “Golden Age” (1950s and 1960s). They will be in my next post.
Art Pennington – January 4, 2017
The legendary story surrounding Art Pennington has him briefly lifting the front or back-end of an automobile when 10 years old while helping fix a flat tire. From this event, whether true or false, he got childhood nickname “superman” which remained with him during his baseball career. The left-handed 1b/OF played with the Chicago American Giants from 1940 – 1946, and 1950. A 2-time Negro League All-Star (1942, 1950), Pennington also played in the Mexican League during the late 1940s. One of a group of African-American players that integrated professional baseball’s minor league system in the early 1950s, Pennington finally signed with the New York Yankees in 1958. At 35 years old, he briefly played in the team’s lower minor league before retiring after the 1959 season.
Paul Casanova – January 12, 2017
An excellent defensive catcher from Cuba with a strong throwing arm, Casanova first signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1960. After being released, he finished the 1961 season with the Indianapolis Clowns, the final remnant of Negro League baseball. While Casanova played with a semi-pro team in 1963, a scout for the Washington Senators noticed him. He remembered seeing Casanova play with the Clowns and signed him. Casanova went on to have a 10 year Major League career, 7 with the Senators (1965 – 1971). In 1967, he played in 141 games and was named to the American League All-Star team.
Cleophus Brown – March 14, 2017
The left-handed pitcher and first baseman played in the Negro Leagues during the decade the era limped to its eventual end. A Korean War vet, Brown signed on with the Louisville Clippers in 1955 an independent team. It had been in the Negro American League (NAL), but dropped out after the 1954 season. After one season with Louisville, Brown worked in the Birmingham, AL. steel mills (17 years) and then the Post Office while playing in the city’s semi-professional baseball Industrial Leagues.
John L. Gray – May 4, 2017
Gray attended Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio and then signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1956 as a catcher and outfielder. He played that first year with the Indians’ Class D minor league affiliate the Daytona Beach Islanders (Florida State League). In 1958 after some dissatisfaction with the Indian’s minor league system, Gray signed with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League (NAL). While with the Clowns, Gray hit a home run at Yankee Stadium which he frequently mentioned to his children and grandchildren in his golden years. He finished his baseball career playing in the minor league system of first the Chicago Cubs in 1959 and then the Chicago White Sox in 1960.
Maurice Peatross – June 26, 2017
In 1944, while 17 years old, Peatross played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the short-lived United States Negro Baseball League. The 6’1”, 230 pound first baseman went into the military after high school and returned in 1947 to sign with the Homestead Grays as backup support for the aging Buck Leonard. The legendary first baseman was 40 years old and still the main drawing card for the Grays. Signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, Peatross spent the next four years in the team’s minor league system and then retired from baseball to spend more time with his growing family.
Bob Motley – September 14, 2017
The last surviving and one of the most well-known umpires in Negro League baseball, Motley entertained fans during the late 1940s and the 1950s with his animated calls. The ex-marine World War II Purple Heart recipient handled the umpiring duties for the games of such Negro League players who went on to the Major Leagues such as Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Henry Aaron, and Elston Howard. Motley tenaciously fought to overcome the racial discrimination he faced as a professional umpire. He became the second African-American umpire in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) in 1959.
Willie James Lee and Archie “Dropo” Young
The former teammates on the Birmingham Black Barons died within the same week in 2017. Willie James Lee died on October 12 and Archie “Dropo” Young died October 19. They were briefly teammates with the Black Barons in 1956. After one game Lee (left on the picture below) went on to the Kansas City Monarchs where he got the reputation of being a power hitting outfielder. Constant injuries hampered his development in the minor league systems of first the Detroit Tigers and then the Minnesota Twins from 1959 – 1964. A Korean War veteran, Archie Young (below right) played with the Black Barons in 1956 and 1957 while also working in job in the coal mines. The power hitting first baseman got the nickname “Dropo” after the American League first baseman during that time, Walt Dropo.
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson – December 19, 2017
One of three women (also Connie Morgan and Toni Stone) who played Negro League baseball in the 1950s, Mamie Johnson pitched for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1953 – 1955. Johnson stood 5’3” and weighed 120 pounds. An opposing player said she “looked like a peanut” on the mound and that started the nickname “Peanut”. With Negro League baseball on a steady decline during the 1950s, the Clowns added comedy routines to their performance on the field in hopes of attracting fans to the games. But Johnson’s pitching had nothing to do with comedy. A regular in the Clown’s rotation, she had an arsenal of pitches to throw against opposing batters; slider, curveball, screwball, change of pace, and a fastball that got to home plate sooner than hitters expected. Her unofficial 3-year record is given as 33 – 8. Racial discrimination banned her from playing in the All-American Girls Professional League (AAGPL) as in the movie “A League of Their Own”. After baseball, Johnson had a long successful nursing career.
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!
Happy New Year! Thanks to everyone who supported my blogs, THE BASEBALL SCROLL and www.klmitchell.com in 2016. Your feedback encourages and inspires me to continue providing content for both each week.
Thanks to everyone also for the support you gave my first book, Last Train to Cooperstown. ( http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown) The response towards it continues to be fantastic and I anticipate more in 2017. I will keep you posted.
The focus of both blogs this year will continue to be on the Negro League baseball era. The players of this era did not let racial discrimination be an excuse or rational for not giving their best on the baseball field. They did their best with the talent God gave them no matter the circumstances and that should be an inspiration to us all to do the same.
I will also focus on the time period when the “invisible color line” for professional baseball was erased and the process of integrating Major League baseball began; the late 1940s and the 1950s. This was a period of joy, but also frustration for African-American and dark-skinned Latino ball players. The door to the Major Leagues had opened, but the process of integration was slow due to the prevailing racial prejudice and discrimination.
There will also be some content about the 1960s, a decade that has a special place in my heart. During it, I had the peak years of my baseball card collecting activity (Topps, Post Cereal, etc.) and a youthful innocence about the game.
In addition, I will periodically give updates on the writing of my second book, “Sunset at Daybreak: The Final Years of Negro League Baseball”.
Continue to enjoy THE BASEBALL SCROLL and http://www.klmitchell.com in 2017 and spread the word about them!
In 1953, eight former Negro League players made their Major League Baseball debut. Only in 1951 did as many from Negro League baseball go through the door into the big leagues Jackie Robinson had broken down in 1947. Gene Baker, Ernie Banks, Jim “Junior” Gilliam, Dave Hoskins, Connie Johnson, Jim Pendleton, Al Smith, and Bob Trice all were former Negro League players who were Major League rookies in 1953. Banks went on to have a nineteen year Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Cubs. But it was Gilliam who the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) named 1953 National League “Rookie of the Year” on that December 23.
Five of the first six previous winners of the National League Rookie of the Year award had been former Negro League players. Jackie Robinson (Kansas City Monarchs) in 1947, Don Newcombe (Newark Eagles) in 1949, and Joe Black (Baltimore Elite Giants) in 1952 all won playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Sam Jethroe (Cleveland Buckeyes) won the award with the Boston Braves in 1950 and Willie Mays (Birmingham Black Barons) won it playing for the New York Giants in 1951. Gilliam was the sixth and last one from the Negro Leagues to win the award.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee; Jim Gilliam began playing with the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1946 as a seventeen year old second baseman. With the Giants, he became a switch hitter and got the nickname “Junior” because of his age. Gilliam appeared in three Negro League East West All Star games and was signed in 1951 by the Brooklyn Dodgers. In his rookie year, he hit .278 with 63 RBIs and a league leading 12 triples. He also scored 125 runs. Walter Alston, the Dodgers’ manager, loved Gilliam’s ability to play second base, third base, or left field. Gilliam hit .296 with two home runs in that year’s World Series as the Dodgers lost to the New York Yankees 4 games to 2. He hit .292 in the 1955 World Series win against the Yankees; the Dodgers only World Series Championship while in Brooklyn.
When the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958, Gilliam played on three more Dodgers World Series Champion teams (1959, 1963, and 1965). He played in a total of seven World Series (39 games) with the Dodgers. The “Dodger blue” was the only uniform Gilliam wore in his 14 year (1953 – 1966) Major League career.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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
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)