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History of the Negro Leagues, Part Five

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The famous final scene

Kansas City Monarchs Vs Memphis Red Sox Poster Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

And I feel like a number, feel like a number

Feel like a stranger, a stranger in this land

I feel like a number, I’m not a number

I’m not a number, Dammit I’m a man

I said I’m a man

Feel like a number is my favorite Bob Seger song. When I hear it now, I think of those early Negro League players and the frustration they must have felt at being denied things we take for granted today. Being able to eat when and where they wanted. To have a safe place to sleep. The opportunity to make a living in your chosen field. To be made to feel that they were less than men. I think Monte Irvin said it best, “Why did they think we couldn’t play? The ball was the same size. The bats weighed the same. The fields were no smaller. The fences were no lower. It was still sixty feet six inches to home plate. Still ninety feet to first base. Why did they think we were inferior? Why did they think we could not play this game?”

In the summer of 1949, Cool Papa Bell was scouting Texas and one night in San Antonio came upon a painfully shy 18-year-old playing for the Dallas Black Giants. Bell made a recommendation to Buck O’Neil, so Buck drove to Dallas and met the young man and his family and signed him to a contract without having seen the youngster play. Cool Papa’s word was enough.

That shy young man, Ernie Banks, spent the 1950 season playing with the Kansas City Monarchs. Buck O’Neil groomed him on the finer points of being a man and a ballplayer. Military service got Banks for the 1951 and 1952 seasons, but he came back to Kansas City in 1953 and drove in 47 runs in 46 games. He was no longer the shy, withdrawn kid from Dallas. Former Negro league star and now scout John Donaldson, tried to get the Chicago White Sox to sign Banks, but they waffled on the decision. The crosstown Cubs did not. They worked out Banks, liked what they saw, and signed him on the spot.

Donaldson was so frustrated by the miss that he quit his scouting job with the White Sox. Nearly 40 years later, Hall of Fame pitcher Hal Newhouser, who pitched against many black barnstorming teams, quit in disgust when his employers, the Houston Astros, passed on his recommendation to draft Derek Jeter. Donaldson and Newhouser were ballplayers. They recognized a serious talent when they saw it.

Black Coach Congratulates Ernie Banks
Ernie Banks and Buck

Banks became the first black player signed by the Chicago Cubs and as you know, developed into one of the all-time greats. He learned the joy of playing ball from Buck O’Neil – “It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two!” which famously became the phrase associated with Mr. Cub. Banks was an 11-time All-Star who went on to hit 512 home runs and win two MVP awards in his 19-year career with the Cubs. Banks was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.

1950

By 1950, the writing was on the wall. It was a bittersweet time for black ballplayers. They could see that with racial integration, the days of the Negro Leagues were numbered. The younger players were now being signed to minor league contracts and established Negro League stars were being signed directly to Major League rosters. Black fans increasingly turned to watching the major leagues so they could see Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin and other black stars perform on the big stage. Television was also chipping away at Negro League attendance. In 1946 there were 17,000 television sets in the United States. By 1949, Americans were buying more than 250,000 television sets each month! Major league games were being televised with increasing frequency. Negro League games were not.

The League went on though. Ten teams took the field in 1950, five in the east: Indianapolis, Baltimore, New York Cubans, Philadelphia and Cleveland. Kansas City, Birmingham, Memphis, Houston and Chicago comprised the West division. The New York Black Yankees and the Pittsburgh Homestead Grays remained independent.

Indianapolis won the east with a 47-38 record while Kansas City, under the tutelage of Buck O’Neil, won the west at 52-21. The Cleveland franchise folded on July 6, leaving behind a 3-39 record.

When it came playoff time, Kansas City declined to meet Chicago in the Division series. The Monarchs had sold several of their players to the majors and had lost several others to the Latin leagues and Buck elected to forfeit the division title rather than field an noncompetitive team. Indianapolis went on to beat the Chicago American Giants in the Championship series.

The league continued the tradition of the East-West All-Star game. The 1950 classic was held on August 20 and attended by 24,614 fans. Connie Johnson pitched the West to a 5 to 3 victory. Junior Gilliam hit a home run for the East squad.

Despite an increasing number of black players being signed to minor league deals, only one former Negro League player cracked a Major League lineup in 1950. Sam Jethroe, who had one of the great baseball nicknames – The Jet – had been purchased from Cleveland by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948 for $5,000. Jethroe played for the Dodgers minor league affiliate in Montreal for two seasons, where he put up excellent offensive numbers. I’m certain Jethroe could have been a valuable piece for the 1949 Dodgers. Duke Snider and Carl Furillo were stars and their third outfielder, Gene Hermanski, hit .299 with a team high OPS+ of 142. Jethroe’s defense and speed would have been an asset in any Major League lineup. Unable to find a spot for him, Rickey sold Jethroe to the Boston Braves in October of 1949 for $150,000. That was a nice return on his two-year investment.

Sam Jethroe Portrait Boston Color
The Jet

The Jet made his debut for the Braves on April 18, 1950 and proceeded to lead the league in stolen bases and won the National League Rookie of the Year award, at the age of 32. He got his chance and made the most of it.

After playing for Cleveland in 1948 and 1949, Satchel Paige came back to the Kansas City Monarchs. Bill Veeck was forced to sell the Indians to settle an expensive divorce and the team’s new owners informed Satch that at the age of 42, he did not figure in their future plans.

1951

After the 1950 season, it becomes increasingly difficult to find accurate statistics on the Negro Leagues. 1951 was the last season that the Negro American League was considered “Major League” caliber. The majors really blew a developmental chance by not absorbing the remaining Negro League teams as developmental teams for young black players. There was considerable activity on the Major League level in 1951 as eight more former Negro League players made their MLB debuts. Luis Marquez became the third Puerto Rican to play in the majors when he joined the Boston Braves. The New York Giants added Ray Noble, Artie Wilson and a 20-year-old Willie Mays. The Cleveland Indians debuted Sam Jones and Harry “Suitcase” Simpson. The Chicago White Sox had Sam Hairston and Bob Boyd.

Despite the increasing number of black players in the majors, they were all going to just a handful of teams - the Dodgers, Giants, Indians, Braves, and White Sox. Much of the rest of the league sat on their hands and it cost them. A downtrodden franchise like the Philadelphia Athletics should have been an early and active player in signing black talent. Instead, it was 1953 before a black man made the Athletics roster. In the meantime, some of the all-time greats were being signed for a pittance.

On April 30, 1951, Cleveland General Manager Hank Greenburg made one of the all-time bad trades. In a three-team swap with the Philadelphia Athletics and the Chicago White Sox, Greenberg basically gave the White Sox Minnie Minoso. Freed from his Cleveland purgatory, Minoso exploded. He played 138 games that first season in the south side and slashed .324/.419/.498 and led the American League with 14 triples. This started a brilliant seven-year run in Chicago that saw Minoso hit .308 and collect 1,186 hits. The White Sox inexplicably traded him back to Cleveland for the 1958 and 1959 seasons, before reacquiring Minoso for the 1960 and 1961 seasons. The Sox brought back Minoso in 1976 for three games – at the age of 50. He collected one hit in 8 at bats. In 1980, they brought him back for two games so he could lay claim to playing in five decades. Over a 17-year career, Minoso collected 1,963 hits and was good for over 50 WAR. He was an underappreciated player who should be in the Hall of Fame.

Minnie Minoso in Baseball Action Pose
Minnie Minoso

Remember Bill Veeck and his costly divorce? It took him a year, but he rebounded and put together enough cash to buy 80% of the St. Louis Browns. By mid-July, with his team struggling on the field and at the gate, Veeck convinced Satchel Paige to give it another go. Paige appeared in 126 more games for Veeck and the Browns from 1951 to 1953. By 1953, Veeck realized he could no longer compete with the Cardinals and sold the Browns. The new owners moved the franchise Baltimore for the 1954 season. Once again, Satch was told he was no longer part of the teams plans.

The Negro League continued to play their annual East-West All-Star game. The 1951 game took place on August 12 and was won by the East by a score of 3 to 1 in front of 21,312.

1952

Seven more Negro League players made their debut in 1952. Brooklyn, the most active team, brought up pitcher Joe Black and Cuban outfielder Sandy Amoros. Black had a terrific rookie season, going 15-4 while appearing in 56 games with an ERA of 2.15. That performance garnered him the National League Rookie of the Year and a third place showing in the league MVP race. Amoros would make one of the more famous catches in World Series history, a sixth inning, Game 7 catch in the 1955 classic that helped Brooklyn win their first World Series championship. Also making a debut in 1952 was 39-year-old catcher Quincy Trouppe. Trouppe made his Negro League debut in 1930 at the age of 18. He had been an eight-time Negro League All Star. By 1952, his best days were well behind him, but he had made it. He climbed the mountain. On May 3, he was behind the plate for the Cleveland Indians when Sam “Toothpick” Jones took the mound, making Trouppe and Jones the first black battery in American League history. He only played in six games, getting ten at bats. He collected a single in his last game, drew a walk and scored a run.

The annual East-West All Star game was played on August 17. The West won this one by a score of 7-3 before a crowd of 18,279. The league continued to play the All-Star game through the end of the 1962 season, but declining attendance doomed the event. There were still some interesting games played.

In 1954, the league was down to six teams. Buck O’Neil managed the West team, while Oscar Charleston managed the East squad. The game was primarily a showcase for major league scouts to assess young black talent. The 1954 game would be Oscar Charleston’s last day in the sun. Within two months, Charleston would suffer a heart attack and die at the age of 57.

Negro League alumni continued to make major league rosters, with nine more players arriving in 1953. Among those were Junior Gilliam (Brooklyn) and Ernie Banks (Chicago Cubs). Three former Monarchs made the majors that season (Banks, Connie Johnson and Gene Baker).

Eleven players made it in 1954, with the big name being Henry Aaron, who made his debut with the Milwaukee Braves. Buck O’Neil, who always had a great story to tell, recounted the first time he saw Hank Aaron play. In the spring of 1952, Aaron was a 160-pound shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns. The Clowns were playing the Monarchs and Buck instructed his pitcher to challenge the kid with a fastball. Aaron hit it off of the right field fence. The second time Aaron came to the plate, Buck was into his second pitcher, Booker McDaniels. Buck instructed the hard throwing McDaniels to give the kid his best fastball. Aaron roped it over the centerfielders head and off the wall. Buck’s third pitcher was Gene Collins, a southpaw with outstanding stuff. Buck told Collins to feed Aaron a steady diet of curves to see what the kid could do with a breaking ball. Aaron hit the third pitch over the left field wall.

After the game, Buck and the Clowns manager Buster Haywood were eating supper. Haywood could hardly contain his excitement over Aaron. Haywood said, wait until this kid hits against you in Kansas City. Buck replied, “Buster, when you come to Kansas City, Henry Aaron will not be on your ball club.” Sure enough, when the Clowns visited Kansas City a few weeks later, Aaron was property of the Boston Braves. The New York Giants also made a play to sign Aaron. Aaron said he had the Giants contract offer in his hands, but the Braves were offering $50 more per month, so he signed with them. Just think, $50 per month was the only thing keeping Hank Aaron and Willie Mays from being teammates. Can you imagine how different baseball history might be had those two played together?

By 1955, the league was down to four teams. That summer’s all-star game featured Satchel Paige, who started for the winning West team and threw three hit less innings. For West manager Buck O’Neil, 1955 was his final season in the Negro Leagues.

Seven more players made their big-league debuts in 1955, including former Monarch Elston Howard, who became the first black man to play for the New York Yankees. In his first at bat of the 1955 World Series, Howard hit a home run off another Negro League pioneer, Don Newcombe. This was the first home run hit by a black man off a black pitcher in World Series history.

Major changes came to the Kansas City Monarchs in 1955 as well. Previous owner J.L. Wilkinson had sold off his share of the team to Tom Baird in 1948. By 1955, Baird could see that there was not going to be room in Kansas City for the Monarchs and the newly relocated Athletics. Baird sold the team to a man named Ted Rasberry, who moved the operation to Michigan and transformed the club into a traveling team. The Monarchs hung on until 1964 before folding once and for all.

In 1956, the league held steady at four teams: Kansas City, Memphis Red Sox, Birmingham Black Barons and the Detroit Stars. A young man playing for Birmingham, Charlie Pride, played right field for the West team and collected two singles and an RBI. When Pride’s baseball dreams fizzled, he crossed over and became one of the first black superstars of country music.

For the remainder of the 1950s and ‘60s, former Negro League players continued to make major league rosters. The last two big names made the jump in 1959 – Willie McCovey from Birmingham to the San Francisco Giants and Maury Wills, from the Raleigh Tigers to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Monarchs continued to develop and supply talent to the majors. Between 1958 and 1962, 8 of the 16 players who made the jump came from the Monarchs.

There were other interesting stories as well. The Kansas City Athletics signed pitcher John Wyatt from the Indianapolis Clowns and John “Blue Moon” Odom from the Raleigh Tigers. George Spriggs, who started with the Detroit Stars, made his debut in 1963 with the Detroit Tigers. Spriggs played for the Kansas City Royals in 1969 and 1970.

The last Monarch I can find that made the majors was Ike Brown, who made his debut with the Detroit Tigers in 1969.

The last black Negro League player I can find who played in the Majors, was Billy Parker. Parker was an outfielder who played for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1961 to 1964. He made his debut with the California Angels on September 9, 1971 and became the first player to hit a walk-off home run in his first major league at-bat. At the time, Parker claimed he was only 24, but he was actually 29. He played with the Angels through the end of the 1973 season before the Yankees acquired him in the Rule 5 draft. He played for the Yankees AAA affiliate for three seasons, never again playing a major league game. He finished his career with two years in the Mexican League. Parker died in 2003 at the age of 61.

You know how inspiration always seems to strike at an odd hour? For the past several weeks, I’ve been laboring over who was the last player of the Negro Leagues to make their debut in the majors. It finally came to me at 4:30 in the morning. You see, when I was younger, I could easily drink a case of beer, go to sleep, wake up ten hours later and feel great. Now I’m older. I’m in what gerontologists call “the youth of old age.” There are some advantages. Patience. Wisdom. Understanding.

There are also a lot of things not to like about getting older. One is my once prodigious bladder is now the size of a walnut. I stop drinking fluids by 8:00 p.m. and even with that mother nature still visits me early each morning. I try to shut off my brain so I can get back to sleep, but a couple of weeks ago, I’m lying in bed at 4:30 and it occurs to me that Harry Chappas may very well have been the last player to come out of the Negro Leagues and make a Major League roster.

You see Harry Chappas had played for the Indianapolis Clowns, and by the time he played for them they were a barnstorming team, baseball’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters. Harry Chappas would have been a perfect fit for those Clowns. He was a diminutive, slick fielding shortstop. He made his Major League debut in September of 1978 for the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox were owned by…Bill Veeck. Veeck of course had always been a big proponent of signing players from the Negro Leagues and a promoter extraordinaire. Chappas would have been in Veeck’s promotional wheelhouse. Chappas became a bit of a cult hero on the South Side, even appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a piece titled, “The Littlest Rookie.” You may remember that was the Sox team that wore collared shirts and shorts, in what may have been one of the worst uniform ensembles ever. Sox announcer Harry Carey measured Chappas height and declared him to be 5’3, which would have made him two inches shorter than the Royals Freddie Patek.

As I put this together, it all made sense that the research had been right, and that Chappas probably was the last player from the Negro Leagues to make it to the majors. The only problem was, Chappas was white. This too is explainable. After Jackie Robinson broke the color line, a few Negro League teams, beginning in 1948, began to sign and play a few white players. So yes, the Negro Leagues also integrated. So as strange as it seems, the first 87 men to make the jump from the Negro Leagues to the majors were black men, with the last one being Billy Parker. The 88th and final man to make the jump, was a white man – Harry Chappas.

Chicago White Sox v Baltimore Orioles
Harry Chappas
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The last East-West All Star game was played August 27, 1962, fittingly at Municipal Stadium. The League honored Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and several other Monarchs during the game.

People always thought Satchel was just a clown, always goofing off. Away from the game though, Satch could be deep. Buck O’Neil recounted the time that the Monarchs were on the road in Charleston, South Carolina. The hotel rooms were not ready yet, so Satch says to Buck, “Nancy! C’mon with me. We’re going to take a little trip.”

Satchel drove them to an area near the harbor called Drum island. This was where newly arrived slaves were auctioned off. There’s a large tree with a plaque on it marking the site of the old slave auction. The two men stood there silently, for about ten minutes, breathing in the sea air.

“You know what Nancy?”

“What’s that Satchel?”

“Seems like I’ve been here before.”

“Me too Satch, me too.”

The Negro National League was disbanded after the 1962 season.

Of the 88 players who made the majors from the Negro Leagues, 20 of them came from the Monarchs. Birmingham was the next closest supplier with seven.

This brings to an end the history of the Negro Leagues and of the Kansas City Monarchs. It’s a rich history. It’s a history of perseverance in the face of ignorance and hatred. It’s a history of proud men, who just wanted to be ballplayers. I’ll forever treasure meeting Buck O’Neil and the baseball community will forever be indebted to him for keeping the history of the Negro Leagues alive. If you haven’t been, go see the Negro League Museum. It’s a treasure. Take a look at the fabulous paintings of Kadir Nelson, and if you have the money, buy one. His paintings of the Negro Leagues are astounding. If you haven’t heard the story before, read the Nancy story of Buck O’Neil and Satchel Paige.

“The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you.” – Buck O’Neil

SP.Negro League.3.0311.GF.8. John (Buck) O’Neil, former baseball player with Kansas City of Negro Le
Buck O’Neil
Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images