Tag Archives: Sports History

“Sug” Cornelius: A battletested Negro League career

William McKinley Cornelius was not a famous Negro League baseball player. Born September 3, 1906 in Atlanta, Georgia; Cornelius said his mother gave him the nickname “Sugar” because he loved eating sugar as a baby.  As he got older, it was shortened to “Sug” and stayed with him all his life.  The right-handed pitcher did not play on the more renowned Negro League teams such as the Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles, or Pittsburgh Crawfords. After short stints with the Nashville Elite Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, and Memphis Red Sox, Cornelius had his best years with the Chicago American Giants from 1931 – 1946.  His exploits on the field were not legendary, but “Sug” Cornelius’ had an established pro baseball career in the Negro Leagues.

sug (72x108)

Many former Negro League players said “Sug” could throw a curve around a barrel; it was his signature pitch. He battled with many of the Negro League’s greatest hitters with his curveball.  His mound opponents included Hall of Famers Leon Day, Raymond Brown, and of course Satchel Paige.  Also, he successfully pitched against Major League batters in exhibition games after the season and in the California winter leagues.

Negro League fans voted him to participate in three Negro League East West All Star Games. Cornelius pitched a scoreless top of the 11th inning for the West squad in the 1935 East-West All Star Game and became the winning pitcher after “Mule” Suttles’ home run in the bottom of the ending.  But in the 1936 All Star Game “Sug” gave up two runs in the first three innings as the losing pitcher in the West squad’s 10 – 2 defeat.  He received over 63,000 votes from fans, the second highest for all pitchers that year, for the 1938 game.  But he had another rocky outing, giving up three runs in the first inning.  The West squad rallied to win the game 5 – 4.

Past his prime years when Jackie Robinson erased Major League baseball’s “invisible color line”, “Sug” regretfully accepted the fact he had missed his chance. He said, “It was just one of those things.  My skin was black and that denied me the right to play in the majors”.

“Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues by John Holway (1992, Da Capo Press – New York) was used as a source material for quotes and some other information for this article.

 

To read more on the history of Negro League baseball, order “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”, at (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown)

In Memory of “Choo Choo” Coleman

Choo old

On August 25 last year, I posted an article on this blog entitled: “Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman: Seeing both a baseball sunset and a new dawning”.  It celebrated Coleman’s 78th birthday (born August 25, 1937 in Orlando, Florida). 

I received an email from Coleman’s niece who saw my blog post. She indicated his family had begun the process keeping his name and his story alive for baseball fans. A web site was in the making and other activities were being planned.

However on August 15th, ten days before his 79th birthday, Coleman died in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

In memory of “Choo Choo” Coleman, I have re-posted last year’s article. To me his baseball life was unique.  He experienced the sunset of Negro League baseball in the 1950s and had a role in the history of a Major League franchise’s new dawning.

 

Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman: Seeing a Sunset and a New Dawning

choo choo 1

The on field statistics of Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman; born August 25, 1937 in Orlando, Florida, do not make his baseball career anything special. But it is the timing of when he played and the teams in which he was on that draws interest when his name is mentioned.  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 who had their Class D minor league team in Orlando. The Senators were in the American League which as a whole by 1955 as compared to the National League was slower in signing African-American and dark- skinned Latino ball players. The “invisible color line” which kept Major League baseball segregated for nearly half the 20th Century had been erased in 1947, but there were still two American League teams without Black or Latino players the year Coleman was signed; the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers.

Going nowhere in the Senators’ minor league organization, Coleman signed with the Indianapolis Clowns midway through the 1956 season. 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.  The Clowns had become the “Harlem Globetrotters” of baseball when Coleman joined them.  The former Negro American League (NAL) team travelled from city to city to compete against semi-professional and amateur squads while performing on field antics designed to generate laughs for fan entertainment.

By 1960, however, there were Major League teams still interested in Coleman. The 5’9”, 165 pounds undersized catcher was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers that year and was then drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1961.  Coleman made it to the Major Leagues in time to be on the worst team in baseball that season.  The Phillies lost 107 games.  Making his debut on April 16, 1961, Coleman hit .128 playing in 34 games

Choo rookie

The next season “Choo Choo” would become a part of baseball history for the wrong reason as he was chosen by the National League expansion team New York Mets. The team was 40 – 120 its first season.  And although Coleman had his best year statistically; batting .250 with six home runs and 17 RBIs in 55 games, he became a part of the popular baseball lore about the hapless 1962 Mets.  His nickname “Choo Choo”, that Coleman says he got being a fast runner as a child, made him a fan favorite.

Choo met

He was demoted to the minor leagues after he hit .178 in 1963; 3 home runs, 9 RBIs in 106 games. Coleman returned to play briefly for the team in 1966, which would be his last season in the Major Leagues.

The story of former Major League player Nate Colbert reflects how the baseball dreams of African-American boys changed as a result of Jackie Robinson erasing Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” in 1947.

Colbert August 1

Nate Colbert (right) after game on August 1, 1972

 

On May 2, 1954 in a doubleheader against the New York Giants; St. Louis Cardinal right fielder Stan Musial hit five home runs.  There were 26,662 in attendance that Sunday afternoon at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium to see him do what no other Major League player had accomplished.   In the first game, Musial hit three home runs and drove in six runs in the Cardinal’s 10 – 6 victory.  He hit 2 homers and drove in three runs in the nightcap, but the Giants won 9 – 7.

In the stadium that spring afternoon with his father was eight year old African-American Nate Colbert.  I am sure little Nate was excited about seeing his favorite Cardinal ballplayer, “Stan the Man”, set a Major League record with those five home runs. But Colbert that day also saw Cardinal rookie first baseman Tom Alston, the first African American to appear in a Major League game for the St. Louis Cardinals.

For the first time in the franchise’s history, the 1954 Cardinal team had African-Americans players. The 28-year-old Alston made his Major League debut on April 13, earlier than Brooks Lawrence (June 24) and Bill Greason (May 31), the other two African Americans on the team.  A good defensive first baseman, he had a hot bat against the Giants in the doubleheader witnessed by little Nate.  In the first game Alston got four hits including a home run, his third of the young season, and two RBIs.  The second game he hit a bases loaded double (3 RBIs) in the Cardinals’ first inning.  He ended the day batting .313

Stan Wally Tom

St. Louis Cardinals Wally Moon (left), Stan Musial (center), and Tom Alston (right) after May 2, 1954 game

Little Nate also saw that day three former Negro League baseball players who appeared in both games for the Giants: Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Hank Thompson. Irvin and Thompson in 1949 were the first African-Americans to play for the Giants.

Hank Monte Willie

New York Giants Monte Irvin (left), Willie Mays (center), and Hank Thompson (right)

Fast forward this story to 1964. 18 year old Nate Colbert is signed by the Cardinals, but they lose him to the Houston Astros in the 1965 Rule Five draft and he never plays a game in the uniform of his hometown team.  The Astros then trade him to the San Diego Padres in 1969.

On August 1, 1972; in Colbert’s fourth season with the Padres, he ties the record he saw Stan Musial set in 1954.  Colbert hits five home runs in a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta.  He hits two home runs and drives in five runs as the Padres win the first game 9-0 and hits three homers driving in eight runs in his team’s 11 -7 victory in the nightcap.  For the second time in his six years with the Padres, Colbert hits 38 home runs in 1972.

nate colbert

Nate Colbert gets congratulation from Padres’ batboy after hitting home run on August 1, 1972

Little Nate Colbert’s Major League career did not come close to that of Hall of Famer Stan Musial.  To tie or break a record in baseball; however, is considered a great accomplishment.   And Colbert being present to see the record set that he would eventually tie makes this a unique circumstance.   However, Colbert got the opportunity to be able to do what he saw his childhood favorite Cardinal ballplayer do because of what he also witnessed that May afternoon.

By seeing Tom Alston, Willie Mays, Hank Thompson, and Monte Irvin play that day; Colbert witnessed the new day in Major League baseball that was occurring. It had dawned in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball.  It was a new day in which the baseball dreams of little Nate Colbert and other African-American boys were no longer confined to Negro League baseball.  A new day that would produce stories like Nate Colbert’s and others as the racial barriers in professional baseball were pulled down in the 1950s and 1960s.

All photos provided by Google Images

To order “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”, go to (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown)

“The Last Train to Cooperstown” Featured in Christian Science Monitor

The following is an article from the Christian Science Monitor:

Books

10 new baseball books for summer reading

In North America, the baseball season is a marathon, stretching from April to late October, a full seven months. It lures many publishers to feed the public appetite for books about the sport, especially during the heart of the season. These selections are among the latest varied offerings.

8. ‘The Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era,’ by Kevin L. Mitchell

Book Cover 47 KB

By the year 2001, the National Baseball Hall of Fame had enshrined 24 former Negro League Players, from players who eventually helped integrate the previously white major leagues like Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, and Roy Campanella, to those who starred only in the Negro League, such as Buck Leonard and “Cool Papa” Bell. In 2006, however, the Hall of Fame tried to usher in all those Negro Leaguers who still deserved inclusion after a thorough study of existing records. That led to the enshrinement of an additional 12 players, who, while lesser known than those who preceded them into the Cooperstown shrine, enjoy the spotlight in this compact book.

Here’s an excerpt from The Last Train to Cooperstown:

“Despite being kept out of white organized professional baseball, African American ballplayers had the opportunity to compete against white professional players. In the fall after the regular season ended, many white players would make extra money by forming teams to play exhibition games against Negro League players. The practice was called ‘barnstorming’ as the white and black teams would travel from city to city to play games. Because the black teams would win as many or even more times than the white ones, Major League executives tried unsuccessfully to discourage their players from barnstorming. Black players also competed against white Major Leaguers in the winter leagues that operated during November and December in the Caribbean and California.”

 

The Story of Joe Louis Reliford

Coaching two teams in a machine-pitch league for 6 – 10 years old has resulted in me falling behind on my blog post this summer.  However, after hearing about what happened to Joe Louis Reliford  on July 19, 1952, I had to post the following.  It is an incredible story.

How Joseph Louis Reliford made his place into the annals of baseball history is unbelievable! On July 19, 1952, while being only 12 years old, Reliford became the youngest person to play in a professional baseball game and the first African-American to play in the Georgia State League (Class D Minor League). Considering his young age, that initial time of racial integration in professional baseball, and the hostile racial environment that was brewing in the South, Reliford’s story is amazing.

Reliford pitching                                                 Reliford older

Although born November 29, 1939 in the small community of Richton, Georgia, Reliford grew up in the nearby town of Fitzgerald. He became a fan of the Fitzgerald Pioneers, the Philadelphia A’s Class D Minor League team of the Georgia State League.  Not having the money for a ticket to sit in the “Jim Crow” segregated section for colored people in the Pioneers’ stadium, Joe and his friends watched what they could of the games from the nearby railroad tracks.

In the summer of 1949, Joe wanted to find a job to help his widowed mother feed the family.  Ignoring the pre-civil rights, racial culture in the South at that time, he courageously asked the Pioneer’s manager Ace Adams for the job of team bat boy.  Amazingly, Adams hired him.

Joe’s mother had concerns about him travelling through southeast Georgia with a team of white men. Adams promised her they would take care of him.  But Adams did not travel with the team.  On road trips the responsibility of fulfilling his promise was the team’s player/manager second baseman Charlie Ridgeway.  About Ridgeway Reliford said in the 2008 JockBio.com article, “Joe Louis Reliford:  12 Year Old Pro:

He didn’t treat me like a bat boy. He treated me like I was his son. I wanted to be just like him. So I wanted to play second base, I wanted to run like him.

I didn’t see any difference between the way he treated me and the way he treated the ballplayers. He expected me to hustle, and when I was done with my duties, he would tell me to go out and take grounders and shag flies.”

About what happened on road trips, Reliford also said in the article:

“Only one or two didn’t want anything to do with me. They were both pitchers, and they couldn’t win anyway. When they got pulled from the game, I was the one they threw the glove at.

Other than that, I felt like a member of the Pioneers. When they gave out meal money for the ballplayers, they gave me meal money, too. When we stopped at a restaurant, and they wanted me to eat in the kitchen, Mr. Ridgeway said, “He’s a ballplayer like the rest of us, so he eats with us.” 

If the place objected, he would take the team out of the restaurant and go somewhere else.”

On July 19, the Pioneers were losing a road game 13 – 0 to the Statesboro (Ga.) Pilots. An Elks Night promotion attracted 6,000 – 8,000 fans to the game, unusually high for minor league baseball. Due to the apparent home team victory and for some the consumption of adult beverages, the crowd was in high spirits. In the late innings a boisterous chant came from the crowd to put Fitzgerald’s bat boy into the game.

No African-American had ever played in a Georgia State League game. However, after getting approval from the umpire, Ridgeway told Joe to go pinch hit in the eighth inning. After he stepped up to home plate, Joe discovered the pitcher was not going to make it easy as he felt the breeze of a fastball go by. He hit the next pitch to the Pilots’ third baseman who threw him out at first base. The crowd cheered Reliford as he ran back to the Pioneers’ dugout. But to his surprise, he was not finished for the night.

When it was the Pilots turn to bat in the bottom of the eighth, Ridgeway sent Reliford out to play right field. The crowd continued going wild as the 4’11’’, 68 pound bat boy in the oversized uniform ran out to his position. With one out and a runner on first base, the Pilots’ batter hit a single to right. Challenging the kids throwing arm, the baserunner rounded second base and headed towards third. Reliford threw the runner out! The next batter hit a long fly ball that appeared to be a home run.  But Reliford jumped to catch the ball before it went over the fence to end the inning.

What happened next is best described by Reliford himself in the Jock.Bio article:

“The bleachers emptied. All those white folks were coming right to me! I started to holler. It frightened me to death. I was a little boy. They grabbed me and I didn’t know what to do—I was so scared—I knew I couldn’t beat all those people. They were slapping me from my head to my feet. I was crying.

Finally, Mr. Ridgeway made it out to me, and I felt better. He grabbed me and rushed me into the dressing room. I finally caught my breath when someone said, “Look here, Joe Louis—you’re pockets are full of money!” Those fans had been stuffing bills and coins into my pockets.”

Reliford card                                                      Reliford Catch

In the aftermath of the game, Georgia State League officials fired the game’s umpire that allowed Reliford to play. Also, Pioneer Manager Charlie Ridgeway was fined and suspended. It was also Reliford’s last season as the team’s batboy.

The next season Reliford played with Fitzgerald’s all-black minor league team, the Lucky Stars. As a publicity stunt, team owners took him to the spring training camp of the Jacksonville (Fla.) Tars; the Class A minor league team of the Boston Braves. Nineteen year old shortstop Henry Aaron was the talk of the camp that spring. Despite the efforts of the Lucky Stars’ owners, the Tars did not want to sign the 13-year-old Reliford. When he broke his collarbone after high school playing football in college at Florida A & M, Reliford did not continue his professional baseball career.

At 77 years old, Joe Louis Reliford lives with his wife today in Douglas, Georgia. However, he is in ill-health. The National Baseball Hall of Fame has a display acknowledging his feat. Also, his place in baseball as “the youngest person to play in a professional baseball game” is recognized by the Guinness World Book of Records. His story is truly incredible!

 

Other sources for this post include: Society for American Research, and BR Bullpen-Baseball Reference.Com. All pictures are from Google Images.com.

 To order “Last Train to Cooperstown” go to http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown

 

 

Gene Baker: “Mr. Cubs'” Double Play Partner

Baker Cubs

Based on the historical information I have read, many times on this blog I have stated it appears the slow progress of integration in Major League baseball during the 1950s hindered the careers of many good African-American players. A prime example of this is Gene Baker.  After two seasons in Negro League baseball, Baker became the first African American player signed by the Chicago Cubs.  However, it would be three years before he took the field in a Cubs’ uniform.

Baker Monarchs

Born on June 15, 1925 in Davenport, Iowa, Eugene Walter Baker in 1948 and 1949 played shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs; who were managed by John “Buck” O’Neill.  After signing with the Cubs before the 1950 season when 25 years old, Baker stayed in the team’s minor league system for four years.  The top shortstop in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) for the Cubs’ Los Angeles Angels Triple AAA affiliate, he averaged 12 home runs, 62 RBIs, and a .284 batting average during those years. At that time the Cubs were getting less than mediocre play from their shortstops, but the team dragged its feet promoting Baker.  Even the Cubs owner, P. K. Wrigley, began to question how Baker could still be in the minor leagues.

Baker & banksOn September 20, 1953, Baker made his Major League debut as a pinch hitter.   Ernie Banks, who the Cubs had signed from the Kansas City Monarchs on September 3, played shortstop that day and hit his first Major League home run.  After Baker had left the Monarchs in 1950 to sign with the Cubs, Banks followed as “Buck” O’Neill’s new shortstop.  He had made his Major League debut on September 17 and beat Baker by three days to be the first African-American to play a Major League game for the Cubs.

The Cubs moved Baker to second base the next season making he and Banks the first African-American double play combination in the Major Leagues.  Baker is credited with helping Banks develop into an All Star fielding shortstop; while he was himself selected to play in the 1955 All Star Game. 

Baker Pirates 2

After the 1957 season began the Cubs believed they needed more power in their line up.  They also had a 22-year-old second baseman, Tony Taylor, ready for the Major Leagues.  A month and a half before his 32nd birthday, the team traded Baker to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Dale Long and Lee Walls who combined to hit 44 home runs for them the following year.  The Pirates were a young upcoming team who had only four players 30 or older.  Baker became a utility infielder backing up 20-year-old second baseman Bill Mazeroski, 26-year-old shortstop Dick Groat, and 23-year-old third baseman Gene Freese.  After missing most of the 1958 season due to  severely injured knee, the team released him after the season and he ended up out of the Major Leagues in 1959.

However, needing a reliable utility infielder and pinch hitter, the Pirates signed Baker at the beginning of the 1960 season. The team won the National League pennant and defeated the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series.  Baker got the opportunity to be on a championship team, something his former double play partner Ernie Banks never experienced.

Baker Pirates three

Gene Baker gained the reputation of being a “smart ballplayer”. In 1961, the Pirates named him manager of their Class D minor league team.

 

 

 

Marshall “Sheriff” Bridges: The Last Former Negro League Pitcher in a World Series

“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.

Marshall Bridges 1

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

Bridges 4

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.

Bridges 2

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.

Bridges 3

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)

 

 

 

 

Negro League Umpires

Umpires 2                Umpires 1

“Strike Three, you are out”! Umpires are an essential but underplayed part of a baseball game.  Most of the time they do their job correctly and leave the outcome of the game to the skill level of the players, as it should be.  However, like all humans, umpires make mistakes.  Occasionally an umpire’s judgement on a close play will cause a controversy, but it is seen as just a part of baseball’s overall nature as a sport.  On a close play, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers stole home in Game one of the 1955 World Series against the New York Yankees.  The argument between the home plate umpire and Yankee catcher Yogi Berra is a classic cut of baseball film history.  Berra, until his death earlier this year, continued to say Robinson was out.

Umpires were also an essential part of Negro League baseball. Last week marked the birthday of former Negro League umpire Percy Reed.  Born on May 10, 1910 in Mobile, Alabama; Reed lived most of his life in Cincinnati, Ohio where he became the main Negro League umpire for the “Queen City”.  From 1935 – 1937 he called games of the Cincinnati Tigers, one of the city’s most renowned black teams.  The Tigers were a charter team of the Negro American League (NAL) in 1937.  When the Tigers folded, Reed went on to be the major baseball arbitrator for Negro League baseball games in the city until 1947.  He worked contest played by Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, and other great Negro League stars.

Due to the racial prejudice that existed in professional baseball in the early 1900s, there were only a handful of professional black umpires. By most accounts, the Negro National League (NNL) founder Andrew “Rube” Foster used only white umpires for league games during the first two years of operation (1920 and 1921) before hiring black umpires W.W. “Billy” Donaldson and Bert Gholston.  Both Donaldson and Gholston had long, distinguished careers in Negro League baseball stretching into the 1930s and 1940s which included umpiring Negro League World Series and East West All Star Games.

The responsibility for providing umpires for league games shifted to the home team beginning in the 1930s. This led to a period of inconsistency in the quality of umpiring in Negro League baseball. Visiting teams complained the umpires’ calls were tilted in favor of the home team.  Some players were not hesitant to voice their displeasure to an umpire’s decision in which they disagreed.  After disputing a call while playing with the Philadelphia Stars, third baseman Jud Wilson hit an umpire during the 1934 Negro Championship Series.  A few years later, Wilson went after an umpire with a bat in the locker room at the end of a game.  As teammates restrained Wilson, police got the umpire out of the room safely.

Although the actions of Jud Wilson with his legendary temper were extreme examples, player clashes with umpires surfaced as a problem many times in the Negro Leagues during this period. Due to a lack of support and authority given from league officials, umpires were reluctant to eject players or managers from games.  It became so bad at times it is said some umpires carried concealed weapons for protection.

By the late 1930s league officials helped curb the problem by making stronger efforts to support their umpires and discipline players.  Also, former Negro League players who still had the respect of those still active in the leagues began umpiring.   Hall of Famers Oscar Charleston (1976) and Wilber “Bullet” Rogan (1998), Frank Duncan, Crush Holloway, and others were umpires for Negro League games after retiring.  However, there is still the supposed story of former Kansas City Monarch Harly McNair pulling a knife on players who threatened him with bats after umpiring a game.

Bob Motley, a Negro League umpire in the late 1940s and the 1950s went on to call games in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) in 1959. During that time Emmitt Ashford was also umpiring in that league.  In 1966, Ashford became the first African American Major League umpire.

 

To learn more about the history of Negro League baseball, 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)

 

Honoring Jackie Robinson, #42

robinson-day

Please excuse the tardiness of this blog post.  In my effort to assemble a team to play in the Satchel Paige Division (age 11 – 12) of the RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inter-City) program run by the Kansas City Boys and Girls Club, I allowed April 15th to slip by me.  But that is still not a good excuse, considering how important that day is not just in Major League baseball but because of its significance in both African American and 20th Century American history.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American since before the turn of the century to play Major League baseball. Wearing Number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played first base and batted second in the team’s home opener at Ebbet’s Field against the Boston Braves. In three at bats, he reached base on an error and scored a run in the Dodgers’ 5 – 3 win.

To celebrate the day of Robinson’s debut, last Friday was designated by Major League Baseball; “Jackie Robinson Day”. All Major League players wore number “42”, Jackie’s number, on their uniforms during games that day and other activities were also held at Major League ballparks to honor Robinson.

Growing up in a home where my father and two older brothers were baseball fans, I was made aware at an early age of Jackie Robinson. However; his mark in history, both African American and Twentieth Century American, continues to grow in significance sixty-nine years after that Brooklyn spring day in 1947.  A mark that he made through his excellence on the baseball diamond whose impact goes well beyond the sport itself.

robinson standing

Robinson hit .297 in 1947 and led the National League in stolen bases. Although many sportswriters doubted he would be successful, the National Sportswriters Association named him 1947 National League Rookie of the Year.  In 1949, he led the National League in hitting (.342), stolen bases, and drove in 124 runs.  For his efforts Robinson won the National League Most Valuable Player Award.  He hit over .300 six in his 10 Major League seasons, and over .290 two others.  A six-time National League All-Star, Robinson helped the Dodgers win six National League pennants (finishing second four times) and one World Series championship (1955).

But I missed his playing career!   When I made my entrance into the world in August 1951, Robinson and the Dodgers were in the process of blowing a 14 1/2 lead against the second place New York Giants to lose the National League pennant.  There was no ESPN, CNN Sports, Fox Sports Net, or MLB Network in the 1950s.  I am sure Jackie would have made the ESPN Top Ten Plays of the Day highlights numerous times.  He retired after the 1956 season as I was in the kindergarten class of Miss Williams at Kealing Elementary.  That is why I love seeing the black and white films showing him in action like in the documentary showed last week on PBS; “Jackie Robinson:  A Film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMaHon”.  The daring way he ran the bases, especially stealing home, is still exciting today.

robinson running

Truthfully Jackie Robinson was not the best player in Negro League baseball when Dodger Vice-President and General Manager Branch Rickey signed him in 1945. But he was named the 1946 International League’s Most Valuable Player while with the Dodgers top minor league team in Montreal.   Bob Feller, the star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians said Robinson would never be good enough as a hitter to make it in the Major Leagues.  How ironic was it that they were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame together in 1962.  Jackie Robinson accepted the hopes and expectations for success of his race as he faced the expectations and predictions of his failure from those opposed to him.  Despite this pressure from all sides, he proved his skeptics wrong and opened the door for other African American and dark-skinned Latino ball players.  Jackie Robinson was an extra-ordinary man God equipped for a super extra-ordinary task!

Earl Battey and the Great Year For African American Catchers – 1963

Earl Battey  Elston Howard  John Roseboro  me 1963 (141x200)

My March 10th post titled, “My public apology to Elston Howard”, ended with the following question; “Who was the African American catcher that finished eighth in the American League Most Valuable Player Award voting in 1963”. Congratulations to James O’Berry for giving the correct answer, Earl Battey!  1963 turned out to be a good year for African American catchers.

Hitting .285 with 26 home runs and 84 Runs Batted In (RBIs), Battey helped the Minnesota Twins to a third place finish in the American League.  But the national sports writers chose Howard, who hit .287 with 28 home runs and 85 RBIs leading the New York Yankees to the American League pennant, as the American League’s Most Valuable Player (MVP).  The first time an African American player won the award in the American League.  In the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the pennant and defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series with an African American behind the plate; John Roseboro.  He hit a home run off Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford to help the Dodgers win Game One of the Series.  In addition that year, I was the catcher for the championship team in the 9 – 11 little league age group at the Athletic Field in Kansas City, Kansas.  It was a good year for African American catchers!

In 1963 Battey had the best season of his 13 year Major League career. He signed with the Chicago White Sox after leaving high school in 1953 and made his Major League debut in 1955.  But he spent the next five years with as a backup to White Sox veteran catcher Sherman Lollar.  Battey got his break after the 1959 season when the team traded him to the Washington Senators, a sub-.500 ball club throughout the 1950s that had begun to rebuild by the end of the decade. He became the Senators # 1 catcher and hit .270 with 15 home runs and 60 RBIs in 1960.  But it was after the franchise relocated to Minneapolis the next year, becoming the Minnesota Twins, when Battey’s career took flight.

While in a Twins’ uniform, Battey was a four time American League All Star catcher (1962, 1963, 1965, and 1966) and a two time Glove Award winner (1961, 1962). He became a part of the power laden batting lineup of the early 1960s Minnesota Twins, the favorite team of my friends Mighty Mouse and Gary T.  Along with Battey on the 1963 team, Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew hit 44 home runs, Bob Allison 35, and Jimmie Hall 33.  Battey was the steady hand for the Twins’ pitchers which included All Stars Jim Kaat, Jim “Mudcat” Grant and Camilo Pascual.   With Battey behind the plate, the Twins won their first American League pennant in 1965, but lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

As an eleven year old little league catcher in 1963, I identified with Earl Battey. No, I did not show any signs at that age I would have the skills when older to hit 26 homes runs against Major League pitching as Battey did that year.  Nor was there any indication of me potentially having his ability to throw out base stealers as he did.  I did however have Battey’s lack of foot speed and some people felt I had started the journey of evidently developing his 200 pound plus body frame due to my love at that time for food; especially peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Fortunately, I would not complete that journey.  I did play well enough in 1963 for our team, the only all black team in the league, to go undefeated and win the championship.  It was a good year for African American catchers!

Team Picture 7

After Earl Battey retired following the 1967 season, who was the Twins’ # 1 catcher the next season?  (You should know this James O’Berry!)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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