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The Last Negro League World Series Champions -Part Two

A major mews media story line about the Washington Nationals’ 2019 World Series is the team’s ending of a 95 year drought of no World Series championship for Washington D. C. baseball fans. However, as I discussed in my previous blog post, the 1924 Washington Senators were not the last professional baseball team in Washington, D. C. to win a World Series.  The last professional baseball champions from Washington D. C. were the 1948 Homestead Grays.

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Buck Leronard

The 1948 Negro League World Series pitted the Homestead Grays against the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League, a third Series re-match.  The Grays had defeated the Black Barons in the 1943 and 1944 Series.

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Birmingham Black Barons

The teams played the 1948 Series as aftershocks from the racial integration of Major League baseball were just beginning.  Jackie Robinson’s 1947 successful season erased the “invisible color line” opening the door for the initially slow but eventual flow of African American and dark-skinned Hispanics into the Major Leagues.  The erasing of the color line had come too late for 40 years old Homestead Grays first baseman Buck Leonard and the Grays’ power-hitting catcher Josh Gibson who had died in early 1947.  However, 1948 Grays’ players first baseman Luke Easter, pitcher/outfielder Bob Thurman, pitcher Bob Trice, and outfielder Luis Marquez, all went on to play in the Major Leagues.  For the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons infielder Artie Wilson, pitchers Bill Greason and Jehosie Heard would briefly play in the Major Leagues.  But the Black Barons’ 17 years old center fielder, Willie Mays, would have a Hall of Fame Major League career.

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Willie Mays

Having to rent playing facilities for their games, Negro League teams had to adjust game schedules to field rental availability.  Griffith Stadium had been booked for Washington Redskins football games, so the Grays did not play any home games in the Series.  Three of the games had to be played at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, home of the Birmingham Barons Southern League team.

Not all the Negro League World Series games were played in the cities of the participating teams.  World Series games were played also in other cities with a large population of African Americans.  Negro League officials saw playing the Series in multiple cities would afford more African American baseball fans the opportunity to see the games and hopefully maximize ticket sales.  For the 1948 Series in addition to the games played in Birmingham, Kansas City and New Orleans also hosted games.

The Grays won the first two games of the Series, 4 – 3 and 5 – 3.  The Black Barons rebounded to win Game Three. The Grays outscored the Black Barons 25 – 7 to win the final two games of the Series.

The shift in the interest of African American baseball fans clearly revealed itself during the 1948 Series.  The fans were more interested in following the few African American players in the Major Leagues.  They saw the integrated Major League games as racial and social progress.  African American baseball fans were focused on the 1948 Major League World Series contest between the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Braves.  Former Negro League players Larry Doby and Leroy “Satchel” Paige played for the Indians.

The October 16, 1948 issue of the Baltimore Afro American, one of the leading national black newspapers at that time, is an example of the fan interest shift. The weekly paper’s front page headline that day:  “DOBY SERIES HERO, Young Fielder Is Brilliant.  Single in Sixth Game Beats Boston.  Slams First Homer Over CenterField.”  The adjoining front page article highlights Larry Doby’s contributions, his leading .318 Series Batting Average with 1 home run, in the Cleveland Indians’ four games to two games victory over the Boston Braves.  Also on the front page, the photo of teammates Doby and Cleveland pitcher Steve Gromek in a smiling embrace after the Indians’ 2 – 1 win in Game 5.  The photo of Doby whose third inning homer broke a 1-1 tie and Gromek the winning pitcher sent a new visual message across the country of racial harmony in Major League Baseball.  On the front page also, an article questioning  “Satchel” Paige’s role with the Indians for 1949.  He had only pitched two-thirds of an inning in the Series.

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On the Sports Page, buried under additional headlines, articles, and pictures about Doby, and Paige, the paper had a brief article about the Homestead Grays’ 11 – 6 win over the Birmingham Black Barons in Game Five to be the 1948 Negro League World Series champion.             

The Negro League World Series ended after 1948.  The Negro National League disbanded before the next season began.  The Homestead Grays stopped functioning as a professional baseball team.  Negro League baseball limped through the 1950s selling their best players to the Major Leagues before fading away in the early 1960s.

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Luke Easter

In 2009 the Washington Nationals paid tribute to the Homestead Grays by placing a statue of Grays’ Hall of Fame catcher Josh Gibson in the Center Field Plaza at Nationals’ Park.  Negro League baseball operated in the shadow of the Major Leagues for nearly half of the 20th Century.  However, the Washington Nationals’ 2019 World Series triumph shined a larger spotlight on the Homestead Grays.  The Nationals’ 2019 World Series championship brought the Homestead Grays from behind that shadow to show the teams’ place in Washington D. C. professional baseball history.

The Last Negro League World Series Champions – Part 1

Congratulations to the Washington Nationals, the 2019 Major League Baseball World Series Champions! With their 6 – 2 win in Game Seven over the Houston Astros, the Nationals become the seventh team qualifying for the playoffs as the “Wild Card” to win the World Series; the last being the 2014 San Francisco Giants.

Also, as one of the 2019 Fall Classic’s story lines, with their victory the Washington Nationals ended a 95 year drought of having a World Series championship for Washington D. C. baseball fans.  Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck mentioned this as the Nationals took command of Game Seven Wednesday night.   The 1924 Washington Senators were World Series champions after defeating the New York Giants 4 games to 3.   Hall of Fame pitcher Walter “Big Train” Johnson (23 – 7 with a 2.72 ERA) and Hall of Fame outfielder Goose Goslin (12 HRs, a league leading 129 RBIs, .344 BA.) lead that Senators’ championship team.  However, the 1924 Washington Senators were not the last professional baseball team in Washington, D. C. to win a World Series before the Nationals won this year.  That distinction had belonged to the Homestead Grays, one of the most renowned franchises in Negro League professional baseball.  The Grays were Negro League World Series champions in 1943, 1944, and 1948.

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After losing the 1933 World Series to the New York Giants, the Washington Senators finished .500 or above only once more in the 1930s, twice in the 1940s, and twice in the early 1950s.  Despite showing signs of improvement in 1960, the team finished below .500 for the seventh straight year.  The franchise then moved to Minneapolis and became the Minnesota Twins.

In 1961 the American League placed a new Washington Senators franchise in D.C., an expansion club, but it finished near or at the bottom in the league’s standings from 1961 – 1968.  Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams became manager in 1969 and led the Senators to an 87 – 75 record.  However, after finishing below .500 for the 1971 season the Senators’ owner moved the franchise to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the team became the Texas Rangers.  Major League Baseball would not return to Washington, D. C. until 2005 when the Montreal Expos National League franchise moved to the nation’s capital and became the Washington Nationals.

For nearly the first half of the 20th Century, the “invisible color line” in white organized professional baseball kept African Americans and dark-skinned Hispanic players out of Major League baseball.  In the face of this racial prejudice, Homestead Grays owner Cumberland Posey created a winning tradition in Negro League professional baseball.  At one time or another ten Negro League players enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame wore the uniform of the Homestead Grays, including long time Grays’ first baseman Buck Leonard and catcher Josh Gibson.  Beginning in 1937, the Grays won eight consecutive Negro National League pennants.  The Grays originated out of Homestead, Pennsylvania across the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh.  However, in 1940 it began playing half of its home games in Washington, D. C. to tap into the increasing African American population in the city.  The city previously had been the home of two other Negro League teams; the Washington Pilots briefly in 1932 and the Washington Elite Giants in 1936 – 1937.  The Grays leased the Senators’ home ballpark, Griffith Stadium, for their home games.  In 1943, Washington became the home base for the Homestead Grays.  As the Senators continued to struggle on the field, many considered the Grays the best professional baseball team in the nation’s capital from 1940 – 1948.  Despite being mainly a second division team during this period, the Senators remained profitable due to the fees charged to the Grays for leasing Griffith Stadium.

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Cumberland Posey

The Washington Nationals being in this year’s World Series helps to shine the spotlight on the Homestead Grays, who played in the shadow of the Washington Senators.   Part two of this post will tell more of the 1948 Homestead Grays, the playing of the last Negro League World Series, and the beginning of the end for the Negro League baseball era.  Stay tuned!

Willie McCovey & My World Series Nightmare: Part Two

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.

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Willie McCovey

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.

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Willie McCovey’s HR Game Two 1962 World Series

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.

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Willie McCovey Game 5 – 1962 World Series

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!

 

 

 

Willie McCovey & My World Series Nightmare: Part 1

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.

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Willie McCovey

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.

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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.

Amoros & Neal: Stars in Dodgers’ World Series History

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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.

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Amoros’ 1955 World Series Catch

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.

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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.

 

“Sweet” Lou Johnson’s 1965 Redemption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Johnson hits HR Game 7 1965 World Series

 

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

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Maury Wills (left) and Lou Johnson

 

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

To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  To order go to (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown) http://www.klmitchell.com

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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)

 

 

 

 

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