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History of the Negro Leagues, Part 3

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The golden years.

Jackie Robinson pictured as a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1944.

The 1930s were hard times for all Americans, but especially for people of color. The Negro Leagues took a hit in the mid 1930s but by the end of the decade had positioned itself for a rebound. The national unemployment rate soared to almost 25 percent in 1933 and in some northeast cities like Dayton, Ohio, the unemployment rate for industrial workers eclipsed 75 percent. This naturally effected attendance of Negro League games and led to the Negro National League abandoning operations.

A new generation of black entrepreneurs led by Gus Greenlee and Cumberland Posey stepped in and resurrected Negro League baseball. Old stars like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Turkey Stearnes were still playing while a new crop of stars like Roy Campanella and Monte Irvin were emerging.

1940

Most of the world was captivated by the emergence of World War II as the calendar turned to 1940. Nazi Germany was on the offensive, capturing Denmark and Norway before invading Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The United States was still on the sideline, but everyone, including baseball players were paying close attention to the developments across the ocean.

In 1940, the Negro National League opened play with a league of six teams: The Homestead Grays, Baltimore Elite Giants, Newark Eagles, Philadelphia Stars, New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans. The Negro American League opened with their regular assortment of seven teams: the Kansas City Monarchs, Memphis Red Sox, Cleveland Bears, St. Louis Stars, Chicago American Giants, Birmingham Black Barons and the Toledo-Indianapolis Crawfords.

The Homestead Grays, led by Buck Leonard and Howard Easterling, won the NNL with a record of 34-19, edging out the Baltimore Elite Giants by one game. In the NAL, Kansas City took the top spot with a 30-10 mark. Shortstop Jesse Williams hit .368 to lead Kansas City. Buck O’Neil chipped in with a .307 season. The two leagues did not play a World Series that year, but they did continue the East-West All-Star game. Played on August 18, the East romped by a score of 11-0 in a game held at Comiskey Park. Buck Leonard and Marvin Barker both had three hits for the East while a trio of pitchers held the West to five hits.

In the NNL, 21-year-old Monte Irvin, now in his third season, was emerging as a bona fide super star. He slashed .373/.430/.573 in that 1940 season. In those days, before cable TV and the internet, news traveled more slowly. Players in the Negro Leagues were often compared to their white contemporaries. For years Josh Gibson was known as the black Babe Ruth. That was a description fans could relate to. Irvin was known as the black Joe DiMaggio. He was a true five-tool player and many baseball observers felt that the young Mr. Irvin was a better player than the Yankee Clipper.

There were a couple of other notable players making their debut in 1940. One was 20-year-old Dan Bankhead, a hard throwing right-hander who would later become the first African-American pitcher to play in the Major Leagues. More on that later. Another rookie in 1940 was Lyman Bostock Sr., a 22-year-old first baseman. Both Bankhead and Bostock played for Birmingham. Bostock’s son, Lyman Jr., would become a star for the Minnesota Twins and California Angels before being shot to death in a 1978 killing that shocked the baseball world.

Another Negro League player of that era also sired a famous son: Luis Tiant Sr. The Senior Tiant enjoyed a long and successful career in the Negro League stretching from 1928 to 1947, primarily with the Cuban Stars West and the New York Cubans. Like his son, he was a pitcher and was noted for his screwball.

1941

The 1941 season ended with almost identical results: The Homestead Grays won the NNL with a record of 51 and 22 while the Kansas City Monarchs took the NAL with a record of 25 and 11. The Monarchs season was marred by tragedy as their 43-year old manager Andy Cooper suffered a stroke during spring training and in June suffered a fatal heart attack. Buck O’Neil said that Cooper was the best manager he ever had. Cooper was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. The Monarchs turned the manager’s job over to star second baseman Newt Allen, who led the team to the NAL title in his first and only season as manager.

In the annual East-West All-Star game, the East continued their dominance with an 8-3 victory before 50,246 at Comiskey Park. At catcher was 19-year-old Roy Campanella, now in his fifth season, made his first All-Star appearance for the East. Buck Leonard smashed a home run and drove in three runs for the winners.

The world changed on December 7, when the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor and thrust the United States into World War II. Many baseball players, black and white, either volunteered for service or were drafted.

1942

Despite the accelerating war, the 1942 season went on as planned. The Homestead Grays, a true dynasty, once again captured the NNL, ending with a 47-19 record. Kansas City remained the class of the NAL with a 27-12 mark.

There was one rookie of note who made his debut in 1942. The Newark Eagles signed 17-year-old Larry Doby. Doby was a multi-sport star at Patterson N.J. Eastside High School. Doby appeared in 23 games for the Eagles and hit .309.

Black Baseball Greats, Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson
Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson, 1949
Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

There were two East-West All-Star games played in 1942. The first on Sunday August 16 in Chicago in front of a crowd of 45,179, Leon Day of Newark out-dueled Satchel Paige of Kansas City in leading the East to a 5-2 victory. The second game was played two days later in Cleveland. Only 10, 791 came out to see that Tuesday night game, but the result was the same: another victory for the East, this one by a score of 9-2. The victories were the fifth straight for the East squad.

1942 World Series

After a 14-year hiatus, the two leagues agreed to resume the Negro League World Series. On one side you had the powerful Homestead Grays. On the other was the Kansas City Monarchs, led by first year manager Frank Duncan. Duncan was married to jazz and blues singer Julia Lee, who also happened to be the favorite singer of Harry Truman.

The Series opened on September 8 at Griffith Stadium in Washington. Satchel Paige and Homestead’s Roy Welmaker each threw five shutout innings before Kansas City busted loose for eight runs in the final four frames to take game one by the score of 8-0.

Game two moved to Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Hilton Smith started for the Monarchs and pitched five hitless innings before turning over a 2-0 lead to Satchel Paige. The Monarchs loaded the bases in the top of the eighth and Bonnie Serrell cleared them with a triple. Serrell was thrown out at home, trying to stretch the hit into an inside the park home run.

Game two was also one of the most famous games in Negro League lore. In the bottom of the seventh, with one out, Paige gave up a single to Roy Partlow. He then surrendered back-to-back two out singles to load the bases, bringing up Josh Gibson. Many stories have Paige walking the two men intentionally to face Gibson, but box scores of the game show Vic Harris and Howard Easterling hitting singles to load the bases. The box score also shows that Paige did not issue any walks in the game. Regardless, bases loaded, two outs. Satchel on the mound and Josh Gibson at the plate. That’s a terrific matchup any day of the week. What is known is that Gibson fouled off the first two pitches before Paige threw one by him for the strikeout.

Kansas City took Game Two by the score of 8-4.

Game Three was played at Yankee Stadium. Paige once again started for the Monarchs but pulled himself after giving up two early runs and only facing nine batters. Jack Matchett came on in relief and pitched seven brilliant innings, only allowing the Grays one more run. Ted Strong and Willard Brown hit home runs to lead the Monarchs to a 9-3 win and a commanding 3-0 series lead.

Game Four moved to Kansas City and became one of the more bizarre spectacles in Negro League history. For the record, Homestead won the game by a score of 4-1. Kansas City played the game under protest as Gray’s owner Cumberland Posey had signed several players from the Newark Eagles and Philadelphia Stars to supplement his injury depleted roster, including star pitcher Leon Day. A committee comprised of officers from both leagues and representatives from both teams met later that day and upheld the Monarchs protest and disallowed the game.

Unfortunately, it was the only game scheduled to be played in Kansas City. Another Game Four was then played at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Satchel Paige was scheduled to start for the Monarchs but at game time was nowhere to be found. Joe Matchett took the ball for Kansas City and Homestead nicked him for five runs in the first 3 23 innings. About this time, Paige found his way to the ballpark, claiming to have been detained by a speeding ticket in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Two things are known about Satchel Paige: one, he had a notorious lead foot, so a speeding ticket would not be out of the question. Two, he was notorious for getting lost. Often, teams would send a younger player with him to read maps and direct him to the correct exits in hopes of getting him to the game on time. This reminds me of Pascual Perez, who while pitching for the Atlanta Braves, missed a start in 1982. Perez circled Atlanta three times on the I-285 loop looking for the exit to Fulton County Stadium, before finally running out of gas. That earned him the nickname “Perimeter Pascual”.

Satchel Paige Meets Josh Gibson
Satchel and Josh Gibson

Once safely in uniform, Paige threw 5 13 hitless innings of relief and Joe Greene triggered a Monarch rally with a home run, leading Kansas City to a 9-5 victory and a sweep in the Series. The World Series title was the second for Kansas City. Bonnie Serrell had ten hits in the four games while Jessie Williams accounted for five stolen bases.

1943

1943 began with some controversy. Bill Veeck made a bid to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies and discussed his plan to stock the team with stars from the Negro Leagues. Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was shocked at the proposal and instead awarded the Phillies to William Cox. None of this speaks well for Landis, who was a known segregationist. He ruled baseball with an iron fist and few owners had the nerve to challenge him. Baseball historian Bill McNeil has argued that Landis’ parochialism set back the cause of racial integration by as much as two decades. That’s not a good legacy. Upon Landis’ death in 1944, he was immediately elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.

I understand that people are flawed. I also understand that history did not start when we were born and that men of different ages saw the world much differently than we do today. Applying today's standards of morality to someone who lived in another era is a dangerous thing. It leads to buildings being renamed, books being outlawed as offensive and statues being torn down. Where do we draw the line? Do we eject Landis from the Hall of Fame for being a racist? Do we rename all Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards because he was an adulterer? Do we rename Duke University because the founder James Duke introduced the world to the modern cigarette, thereby causing millions of deaths from cancer? No, we do not. We must accept these things as part of our history, as ugly and painful as they might be and understand that these were just men of their time, not of our time.

Judge Landis Throwing Out the First Baseball at the Opening of the 1928 World Series
Kenesaw Mountain Landis
Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

1943 season

Homestead continued their dominance of the NNL with a splendid 53-14 record. The Grays had a powerhouse team with five future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame: Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown and Jud Wilson. Over in the NAL the Cleveland Buckeyes grabbed the top spot with a 38-22 record, followed by Kansas City at 43-27. Despite that, Birmingham and Chicago met in the NAL Championship series, with Birmingham winning the five-game series to earn the right to play Homestead in the Colored World Series. The World Series was a classic with Homestead winning in seven games.

The East-West All-Star game was also a classic. Played on August 1 in front of a crowd of 51,723, Satchel Paige, now with the Memphis Red Sox, out-dueled Dave Barnhill of the New York Cubans. Buck Leonard hit a solo home run in the top of the ninth to make things interesting, but the West claimed their first victory since 1939 by the score of 2-1.

Hank Thompson, a 17-year-old rookie outfielder, made his debut in 1943, playing in 40 games for Kansas City and hitting a robust .315. Thompson was then drafted into the US Army and spent the 1944 and 1945 seasons in Europe, where he rose to the rank of Sergeant and was a machine gunner with the 1695th Combat Engineers. He saw action at the Battle of the Bulge, among other places. He was discharged from the Army on June 30, 1946 and immediately rejoined the Monarchs.

Much has also been written about Buck O’Neil and his time in Kansas City. One of my all-time favorite stories that Buck used to tell was about his best day. Buck would say his best day was Easter Sunday, 1943. The Monarchs were playing the Red Sox in Memphis. First time up, Buck hits a single. Second time up he hits a double. Third time up he hits a home run. His fourth time to the plate, he hits a smash that caroms off the center field wall and rolls away from the outfielder. The third base coach frantically waves Buck home, but he stops at third. He’s hit for the cycle. That night, some friends tell him to come down to the hotel lobby, there are some ladies there that want to meet him. One of them catches his eye. It was Ora. They fell in love and were married for 51 years. That’s a pretty good day.

During the fall and winter of 1943, Monarch’s star pitcher Chet Brewer put together a team of Negro League Stars, including Willard Brown, Quincy Trouppe, Bonnie Sorrell and Bill Simms to play in the California Winter League. Brewer named his team, the Kansas City Royals.

1944 Season

With many players now part of the war effort, both leagues trimmed down to six teams for the 1944 season. The league did manage to play a full schedule and once again, Homestead was the class of the NNL with a 47-24 record. Birmingham, led by 23-year-old Artie Wilson, who hit .421, won the NAL with a 33-18 record. Kansas City finished fourth with a record of 30 and 38, their only losing record in the teams’ history.

The most heralded rookie of the 1944 season was 18-year-old Don Newcombe, a hard throwing right-handed pitcher for the Newark Eagles. Nicknamed Newk or often Big Newk, for his 6’4 220-pound frame, Newcombe was another in a long line of incredibly talented players signed by Newark owner Effa Manley. The team also had on their roster 20-year-old Larry Doby and 25-year-old Monte Irvin, who was fighting in Europe as part of the 1313th Battalion.

Monte Irvin and Larry Doby

Homestead laid their claim to being the Yankees of the Negro Leagues with a five game beatdown of Birmingham in the Colored World Series.

The West made it two in a row in the East-West All-Star game. On August 13 in front of 46,247, Gentry Jessup of the hometown Chicago American Giants pitched the West to a 7-4 victory. 41-year-old Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, nearing the end of a fabulous career, stroked a home run for the winners. Radcliffe’s brother Alec also played in the game and ripped a triple. The game was nearly cancelled as the players were upset about the money being made and them not getting a fair share of it. The owners agreed to up the players share from $60 to $150 and a strike was averted.

04/3/2005 Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, at 102 years old, is
Double Duty at 102
Photo by Dudley M. Brooks/The The Washington Post via Getty Images

1946 was also the last season for George “Mule” Suttles. Suttles, who swung a 50-ounce bat, ended his 22-year career second on the Negro League all-time home run list behind Turkey Stearnes. Suttles was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

Toward the end of the war, Mickey Vernon, an All-Star first baseman with Washington and later Cleveland, was playing ball with a Navy team on tiny Ulithi Atoll in the Pacific. There was one opposing player whose skills awed Vernon - Larry Doby. The two struck up a friendship and spent many hours discussing baseball. Vernon wrote to Washington owner Clark Griffith and encouraged him to sign Doby once the war ended.

1945 season

1945 was the year that things started to change. Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was a strict segregationist, died on November 25, 1944 and with his death, baseball owners felt the first surge of freedom in signing players of color. New commissioner Happy Chandler publicly stated that if black men were dying on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, that they should be allowed to play Major League baseball.

In fact, after V-E day, our soldiers had more time to play ball. Willard Brown and Leon Day both served in the 818th Amphibian Battalion. The 818th had landed on Normandy six days after D-Day, “scared to death” in Day’s words.

In front of a beered up crowd of more than 100,000 soldiers, Day and Brown’s team won the European Theater of Operations championship over George Patton’s prized Third Army team, which included big leaguers such as Harry “The Hat” Walker. The 818th then went on to play in the G.I World Series in Marseilles, where they beat the Mediterranean Theater of Operation champs for the G.I. title before more than 50,000 servicemen. Patton, never a good loser, demanded a rematch with the 818th. Old Blood and Guts brought in Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell especially for this game. It didn’t matter. Brown cracked two home runs and Monarchs catcher Joe “Pig” Greene hit another and the 818th cruised to a 8-0 win over Patton’s boys.

Back in the states, the Homestead Grays continued their dominance of the NNL, winning the league for the eighth time in nine years. In the NAL, Cleveland, managed by former Monarch Quincy Trouppe, won their first division title.

In something of an upset, the Buckeyes defeated Homestead four games to nothing to capture their first Colored World Series title. The Cleveland games were played at League Park, located at East 66th and Lexington. A few years back, one of my sons and I made a side trip to see what remains of League Park. Unfortunately, there is not much left, just a small building that was once part of the grandstand. The field remains and is used by the Cleveland parks department. It’s really a piece of history. The Spiders played there. The Indians got their start there. Bob Feller made his debut in League Park. Babe Ruth played there. Cleveland’s negro league teams all played there at various times. I was glad we made the stop, to see it while it was still standing.

The 1945 East-West All-Star game was played July 29 in Chicago before 33,088. The West won their third straight by the score of 9-6. Satchel Paige was voted to play but had a dispute about how much he was going to get paid, as money was often Satch’s first concern. At one time the league needed Paige more than he needed them. Now the league had grown strong and the owners refused to buckle, so Paige sat the game out in protest. Josh Gibson also missed the game, suspended by Homestead for “flagrant and consistent training violations.”

Jesse Williams of the Monarchs had two hits for the West, including a two-run triple. Jackie Robinson, the Monarchs rookie shortstop, was hitless in five at bats, but did excel in the field. Speaking of Jackie, 1945 was the start of his legend.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson

It’s hard to imagine the life of Jackie Robinson. The discrimination he faced in his daily life and during his time in the US Army. Robinson was a gifted athlete. He excelled in every sport he attempted: baseball, football, basketball, track and field and even tennis. He stood up to racial injustice, even at risk to himself. He was driven by a white-hot desire to change the world for people of color. And he did. He was, in the words of Buck O’Neil, “right on time.” 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of Jackie’s time with the Monarchs. About a year ago I wrote about Jackie Robinson’s time in Kansas City.

In early 1945, Monarchs star pitcher Hilton Smith was serving as a lieutenant in the US Army. Smith wrote to his old boss, J.L. Wilkinson and urged him to sign Robinson. The Monarchs made Jackie a written offer to play for $400 per month. Smith himself was later approached by the Brooklyn Dodgers about signing a contract. He turned it down. The Dodgers asked him to start in their minor league system (which seemed to be the norm for them) and Hilton Smith declined, saying they were a decade too late and he had no interest in taking a pay cut.

Once in the Monarchs fold, Robinson played 47 games at shortstop. Jackie was 26 at the time. Seamheads, one of the most accurate repositories of Negro League stats, has Robinson’s 1945 slash at: .384/.445/.606. 38 hits in 99 at bats with 3 home runs and 23 RBI.

Satchel and Jackie

World War II was winding down. V-E day was May 8th, 1945 and V-J Day was declared on September 2. Players who had been active in the service would soon be returning to their teams and with Commissioner Landis now toes up, anything was possible.

After the 1945 season ended, Jackie was selected to travel to Venezuela as part of a Negro League All-Star team. One of his teammates was Roy Campanella. The night before the team departed for Caracas, Roy and Jackie were sitting in Jackie’s hotel room at the Woodside Hotel in New York City, playing gin rummy. Jackie told Campy that he had signed with the Dodgers and the press conference to announce the signing would be tomorrow morning in Montreal. Campanella, who had been approached earlier by Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey about playing for the Dodgers, had misunderstood Mr. Rickey’s intent. Campy thought that Rickey wanted him to play for a new Negro League team called the Brown Dodgers. Campy assumed that was what Robinson signed onto. Campanella was shocked when he learned that Robinson would soon be breaking the color line. Robinson said his first season would be spent in Montreal and that he could be in the big leagues in a year or two.

“I’m glad for you Jackie, real glad. Don’t you be afraid of nothing.” said Campanella. “You’re a good ballplayer, you’ll make it. It won’t be as rough as you think. I’ve played with white teams, lots of them. With them and against them. They’re men, just like us. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“I hope so.” Said Jackie. “I sure hope so.”

Buck O’Neil was serving in Subic Bay, Philippines in October of 1945. His commanding officer called him into his office and told him that Jackie had been signed by the Dodgers. Buck grabbed the camp microphone and yelled into it, “Attention! Attention! Jackie Robinson has been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers! The entire camp exploded in celebration, with men shouting and shooting guns into the air.”

Change was coming and it was coming fast.

Next Week: The end of the Golden ERA