clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

History of the Negro Leagues, Part Four

New, 5 comments

The end of the golden era.

Monte Irvin Holding Baseball Bats

We continue our series looking back at the history of the Negro Leagues. You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

1946

With Jackie Robinson now in Montreal, Branch Rickey continued to raid the Negro Leagues. The next to sign was Roy Campanella on March 18, 1946. Campy was probably Major League-ready, but the Dodgers moved slowly and assigned him to Danville of the Iowa-Illinois League, their AA affiliate. Rickey also signed Don Newcombe, the big right-hander from Newark. The Newcombe signing rankled Newark owner Effa Manley. She was irked by not getting any compensation for Newcombe, something that would come into play when dealing with contracts for her other stars, Larry Doby and Monte Irvin.

Jackie Robinson Signs Contract B. Rickey Dodgers 1950
Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson
Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

The signings were the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues. The flow of talent was a trickle at first, but would soon become a gusher, stripping the Negro Leagues of their young players. It was a double-edged sword. Black players wanted the chance to compete at the highest level. Yet for the cities that supported the Negro Leagues, their businesses would never be the same. There were restaurants and hotels that catered specifically to black ballplayers and fans. Black newspapers covered the games and black photographers took the pictures. It was an entire separate world. It shouldn’t have been, but it was.

Roy Campanella

In many ways, 1946 was the zenith of the Negro Leagues. Attendance was strong as people celebrated the end of the war and the hardships they endured during those years. By the end of the season, the Negro Leagues had cleared more than $2 million in profit. As the season started, the Negro National League and the Negro American League each fielded six teams.

1946 also marked the debut year for Minnie Minoso. The 20-year-old Minoso came over from Cuba and naturally played for the New York Cubans. He only hit .227 but would soon develop into a super star. Another rookie in 1946 was Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, who hit .279 for the Philadelphia Stars. Simpson would later have several good seasons for the Kansas City Athletics.

With Monte Irvin back from Europe, the Newark Eagles were the class of the NNL, posting a 50-20 record for manager Biz Mackey. The Eagles championship put an end to the Homestead Grays’ reign. In the NAL, Kansas City reclaimed the top spot with a 50-16 mark for manager Frank Duncan.

For Newark, Monte Irvin, at age 27 was just hitting his prime. He slashed .363/.431/522 to lead Newark. Larry Doby chipped in with a .339 season.

Kansas City was led by Ted Strong who hit .321. The Monarchs staff also featured a pair of 39-year-old workhorses: Hilton Smith and Satchel Paige, back from his temporary exile in Memphis.

There were two East-West All Stars games that summer. The first was held August 15 at Griffith Stadium in Washington. 16,268 were in attendance to see the East climb back into the win column with a 6-3 victory in a game that featured no extra base hits.

The second classic was held on August 18 at Comiskey. Chicago fans came out in droves, 45,474 to be exact, as the West claimed a 4-1 win.

The real focus though was on the World Series: Kansas City, the aging dynasty, against the upstart Newark Eagles. The series opened on September 17 with a game at the Polo Grounds. Hilton Smith took the hill for Kansas City opposed by Leon Day of the Eagles. Hank Thompson scored an early run for KC, but Newark got that back in the sixth off of Satchel Paige, in a relief role. Paige led off the seventh with a single and came around to score the game winner to give the Monarchs a 2-1 victory.

Game Two took place at Ruppert Stadium in Newark. Yes, they had a Ruppert Stadium also. Heavyweight champ Joe Lewis threw out the first pitch, then it was all Newark. The Eagles tallied six runs in the seventh to break open a tight game and cruised to the 7-4 win.

Game Three shifted back to Kansas City and the Monarchs went crazy, pounding out 21 hits, including a home run from Ted Strong, to rout the Eagles 15-5.

Newark returned the favor in Game Four, also in Kansas City. Monte Irvin jacked a three-run home run and Larry Doby doubled and tripled as the Eagles roughed up Satchel in a 8-1 romp to even the series at two games apiece.

Game Five moved to Comiskey Park in Chicago. The Monarchs gave Max “Dr. Cyclops” Manning only his second loss of the year behind a strong performance from Hilton Smith to win by a score of 5-1. Kansas City played without Ted Strong, who left the team to play in the Puerto Rican League.

Hilton Smith Portrait
Hilton Smith

Game Six returned to Newark and things looked good for Kansas City as they rocked Leon Day for five runs in the first inning. Newark rallied for six in the first two innings and the two teams kept throwing haymakers at each other. Monte Irvin hit two bombs for Newark, while Lennie Pearson added one of his own. Willard Brown and Buck O’Neil hit long balls for the Monarchs, but it wasn’t enough as Newark got the win by a score of 9-7.

Game Seven was played in front of a full house on Sunday September 29 in Newark. The Monarchs had planned to pitch Satchel Paige, but he was a no-show. Ford Smith took the ball for Kansas City and turned in an admirable performance. The Monarchs held a 2-1 lead, thanks to another Buck O’Neil home run, going into the bottom of the eighth, but couldn’t close the deal. Smith walked Doby and Irvin before giving up a two-run double to Johnny Davis. Kansas City tried to rally in the top of the ninth. With two on and two out, Buck O’Neil drove a pitch to the deepest part of centerfield. Buck said he was thinking triple and maybe even an inside the park home run but Leon Day made a fantastic over the shoulder running catch to corral Buck’s drive for the series ending out. O’Neil called it one of the greatest catches he’d seen in his lifetime.

When the series was over, Satchel put together a group called Satchel Paige’s Colored All-Stars. They went on a barnstorming tour of the states and played 13 games against a group of major league stars: Bob Feller’s Major League All-Stars. Satchel’s team featured several of his Kansas City past and present teammates as well as other league stars such as Howard Easterling, Buck O’Neil, Monte Irvin, Willard Brown and Sam Jethroe. Monarch teammates Hank Thompson and Buck O’Neil led the Paige stars by hitting .324 and .313 respectively. Feller’s team, which won 9 of the 13 games, was led by Mickey Vernon’s .333 average. The Feller team had a better pitching staff. Besides The Heater from Van Meter, the Feller stars had Bob Lemon, Dutch Leonard, Spud Chandler, Mel Harder and Johnny Sain. That was a formidable staff at any level of baseball. The winter tour was also the first time both teams traveled by air, a luxury which allowed them to play same day double-headers in different cities. Feller underwrote and planned the logistics for the entire tour and shared the windfall with all involved, black and white.

1946 marked the last season of play for a trio of Negro League immortals: John Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe. Gibson, known as the black Babe Ruth, was noted to have hit nearly 800 home runs between Negro League, independent and barnstorming games. Buck O’Neil once said that he heard a special sound of the bat hitting the ball only three times in his life: the first when he was a child and watched Babe Ruth hit. The second time was Josh Gibson. He didn’t hear that sound again for almost 50 years until he watched a young Bo Jackson take batting practice. Tragically, Gibson would be dead of a stoke within five months at the age of 35. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

43-year old James Cool Papa Bell ended his 23-year career as one of the all-time greats. He started his career as a pitcher, but his blazing speed made him one of the greatest outfielders ever. Bell was an 8-time All-Star and played for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1932 to 1934. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, also 43, was arguably the greatest two-way threat in Negro League history. He was an outstanding pitcher and catcher and could handle the bat as well, as witnessed by his career .269 batting average over his 18-year career. Double Duty was one of the oldest living ballplayers, dying August 11, 2005 at the age of 103.

1947

Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. By the end of the season, four other Negro League stars would join him. Most owners and players could now see the writing on the wall, the Negro Leagues would slowly deteriorate as more and more players got their chance to play integrated ball.

Still, the 1947 season was a success. In the NNL, the New York Cubans put together a fine 43-19 record to edge the Newark Eagles. You remember Minnie Minoso? He blew up in 1947, slashing .356/.406/.508 to lead the Cubans. Luis Tiant Sr., at the age of 40, had one last season in the sun, leading the Cuban pitching staff with a 9-0 record in what would be his final Negro League season.

In the NAL, the Cleveland Buckeyes went 42-12 to slip by the Kansas City Monarchs. Sam “the jet” Jethroe had a spectacular season, slashing .362/.439/.603 to lead Cleveland. He had help from a 19-year-old shortstop named Al Smith who slashed .346/.404/.692. Another young star who made his debut in 1947 was 18-year-old Jim “Junior” Gilliam who hit .254 for Baltimore.

One of the more interesting rosters in the league belonged to the Cincinnati-Indianapolis Clowns. Their third baseman was Sam Hairston, whose son Jerry played for the Chicago White Sox in the 1970’s and ‘80’s. the Clowns shortstop was 46-year-old Newt Allen, who made his bones as a Monarch. Allen was in the final year of a terrific 24-year career. The first baseman for the Clowns was Goose Tatum. Yes, that Goose Tatum, who was better known as The Clown Prince of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. My grandfather played in a basketball game against the Trotters in those years and towards the end of his life would tell me about the game and especially what unbelievable basketball players Tatum and Marques Haynes were.

Once again, there were two All-Star games. The first, held at Comiskey on July 27 resulted in a 5-2 win for the West. Don Bankhead of Memphis was the winning pitcher for the West. The second game was played July 29 at the Polo Grounds and once again the West prevailed, this time by an 8-2 margin. The New York game drew 38,402 fans, which was the highest attendance for an All-Star game held outside of Chicago.

The 1947 Negro League World Series pitted the New York Cubans against the Cleveland Buckeyes. Like all previous series, the games shifted to various venues. Game One was played at the Polo Grounds, while Game Two was played at Yankee Stadium. Game Three shifted to Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, followed by games at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Comiskey and the finale at League Park in Cleveland. The Cubans claimed the title four-games-to-one with one game declared a tie after a sixth inning rainout.

The Monarchs were hurt not only by the loss of Jackie Robinson, but also the departure of Hank Thompson and Willard Brown, both of whom were signed by the St. Louis Browns in July. The St. Louis Browns were a mess in those days and neither player was given much of a chance to succeed. St. Louis lacked the front office support necessary to help Negro League players adapt.

Willard Brown did hit the first home run by an African-American player in American League history. In a pinch-hitting role, he borrowed a bat from a teammate, then drove the ball off the 428 sign in dead center field at Sportsman Park. Upon returning to the dugout, not a single teammate offered a handshake or congratulations to him. In fact, the player whose bat Brown borrowed, took the lumber and smashed it to pieces after Brown used it. Both players were returned to the Monarchs at the end of August.

St Louis Browns Players and Manager
Hank Thompson (L) and Willard Brown (R)

Larry Doby had better luck with the Cleveland Indians. Doby was the first African-American to play in the American League. He had an owner, Bill Veeck, who believed in him and was committed to his player. Doby made his debut on July 5. Four Indians players refused to shake hands with Doby and owner Veeck unloaded the four before the season was over. Doby finished his Cleveland career as a seven-time All-Star, led the league in home runs twice and RBI once. He helped the Tribe win the World Series in 1948 and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.

Don Bankhead also made the jump in 1947, without much success. Bankhead also played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who were the era’s most progressive team. According to Bankhead’s son, his father was afraid of hitting white batters with his fastball. He had after all grown up in Alabama and as a young man had seen black men lynched. He could never quite cut loose with the abandon that is needed from a pitcher. He appeared in 52 games over parts of three seasons with Brooklyn before spending the remainder of his career in the Mexican League.

Satchel Paige appeared in four games for the Kansas City Monarchs, pitching 17 innings. After the season, at the age of 40, he called it quits after a brilliant, sometimes turbulent, 18-year career.

1948

On April 20, Roy Campanella made his Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Campy had signed not long after Jackie Robinson, but the Dodgers had him play two seasons in their minor league system before calling him up. The minor league seasoning was probably unnecessary. Campy had been playing in the Negro Leagues since he was 14, having been tutored on the art of catching by Biz Mackey. The Dodgers assigned him first to Class B Nashua, where he hit .290 with 13 home runs in 1946. He spent 1947 at AAA Montreal and hit .273 with 13 home runs. He opened 1948 with Brooklyn but was sent to AAA St. Paul after 30 days, despite objections from Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher. Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey wanted Campy to integrate AAA ball. Campy did more than that, he hit .325 with 13 home runs in 35 games, prompting the Dodgers to call him up for good. By 1950, Campanella was a full-fledged superstar, on his way to winning three MVP awards.

Campy was joined in the Majors later in the summer by Satchel Paige. In somewhat of a surprise signing, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck, convinced Paige to come out of retirement and join the powerhouse Indians. When the 42-year old Paige made his debut on July 9, he was the oldest major league rookie ever. He appeared in 21 regular season games, posting a 6-1 record with a 2.48 ERA. His presence gave the Indians an immediate boost in attendance with several of his starts drawing more than 70,000 fans. He also threw 2/3 of an inning in the 1948 World Series, becoming the first African-American pitcher to appear in the World Series.

With several of the old stars retiring and others defecting to the majors, the Negro Leagues rolled out a crop of new stars. The biggest to make his debut in 1948 was a 17-year-old outfielder for the Birmingham Black Barons, the Say Hey Kid, Willie Mays. Mays appeared in 13 games for Birmingham. He wasn’t an immediate star, only hitting .233, but he was only 17! The Boston Braves made a strong attempt to sign Mays, only to be rebuffed by Birmingham owner Tom Hayes. Imagine if they had been successful in getting Mays. They would have had Mays AND Hank Aaron in the same outfield. Wow.

Instead, the New York Giants signed him and assigned the youngster to their Class B Trenton team. In 1951, Mays played for the AAA Minneapolis Millers, along with another former Negro League star, Ray Dandridge. Mays hit .477 in his 35 games in Minneapolis which earned him a call up to the Giants at the age of 20. The rest is history, as they say. Willie Mays was arguably the greatest baseball player of all time. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. Something that has always rankled and amazed me is that 23 voters did not vote for Willie Mays as a Hall of Famer on their ballot. 23!! Did those 23 not see Mays play during his 22-year career? Were his 3,283 hits, 660 home runs, 1,903 RBI and 338 stolen bases not enough to meet their criteria? Ballots were closely guarded secrets in those days. At least today the most voters have the stones to make their ballot public knowledge. The identity of the Mays 23 remains a secret.

Ray Dandridge Marianao
Ray Dandridge

Kansas City traveling Secretary Dizzy Dismukes, himself once a Negro League star, found a young catcher in St. Louis in 1948 and convinced the kid to turn down several college football scholarships to sign with the Monarchs. They trained the young man to catch and play in the outfield. His name? Elston Howard, who would later become the first black player for the New York Yankees. Jim Gilliam was another young player that rose to stardom in 1948, hitting .291 and playing stellar defense at second base.

The Homestead Grays returned to the top spot in the NNL with a 44-23 mark. The Grays then beat the Baltimore Elite Giants in a best of three Championship series for the right to play in the Negro League World Series.

In the NAL, Birmingham and Kansas City took the top two spots, with Birmingham besting the Monarchs in the league championship series. 1948 was Buck O’Neil’s first year as manager of the Monarchs. He ran a tight ship. Monarch players wore tailored suits from Matlaws. Bartenders around town were told to cut off Monarch players if they’d had too much to drink. Even though Kansas City was a gambling haven, Buck had a rule against his players gambling, and for the most part they obeyed him. At that time, there must have been 50 nightclubs between 12th and 18th Street. Buck said that people were afraid to go to sleep in Kansas City for fear that they’d miss something.

It was during these years that a friend of Buck’s began hanging around the team. He was fascinated by baseball and hung out at the ballpark so much that eventually Buck gave him a uniform and had him coach first base for the Monarchs. The friend? Jazz great Lionel Hampton. The Monarchs also had a booster club during those years. The club was composed of black merchants, members of fraternal organizations and church deacons, all of whom helped take care of the players.

In the 1948 World Series, in a strange twist, Game One was played in Kansas City, which resulted in a 3-2 win for Homestead. Games Two, Three and Five were played at Rickwood Park in Birmingham. Game Four shifted to Pelican Stadium in New Orleans. The Grays won games Two, Four and Five to take the series. The series marked the end of Buck Leonard’s career. He left the game as a 13-time All-Star and three-time World Champ. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

One of the most interesting players on that Grays squad was Bob Thurman. Thurman, a Wichita, Kansas native, made his debut in 1946 as a pitcher and outfielder. He jumped from the Grays to the Monarchs in 1949 before the New York Yankees bought his contract. The Yankees sold him to the Cubs, where he languished in the high minors for several years. In 1955, the Cincinnati Reds bought Thurman’s contract from the Cubs and he made his major league debut on April 14, 1955. He played with the Reds through the 1959 season before retiring and becoming a scout. For several years, he was a scout for the Kansas City Royals. He died in Wichita in 1998 at the age of 81.

1948 also marked the end of the road for 41-year-old Hilton Smith. Smith had started with the Monarchs back in 1936 and from 1939 to 1942 was arguably the best pitcher on the planet. He was also a fine hitter and outfielder. After his playing days ended, Smith became a schoolteacher and later worked for the Armco Steel Company in Kansas City. Hilton Smith died November 18, 1983 and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.

The leagues played two all-star games in 1948. The first on August 22, in Chicago was attended by a crowd of 42,099 and saw the West grab a 3-0 win. The second game was held August 24 at Yankee Stadium and drew 17,928. The East grabbed this contest by the score of 6-1.

1949

The leagues began to shrink a bit in 1949. The NNL was reorganized into East and West division for the first time. Both leagues were down to five teams: Baltimore, New York, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Louisville in the East and Chicago, Kansas City, Birmingham, Memphis and the Houston Eagles in the West. There were three independent teams in 1949: The Ashville Blues, New York Black Yankees and the Pittsburgh Homestead Grays.

The highlight of the season occurred on May 27, when Gene Collins of Kansas City threw a no-hitter against the Houston Eagles. The Baltimore Elite Giants were the winners of the East with a 63-32 record. The Chicago American Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs finished in a dead heat atop the West division, Chicago at 51-35, Kansas City at 54-37, both with .593-win percentages.

The league abandoned the World Series for 1949 but did play their annual All-Star game. The East-West game took place on August 14 and attendance dipped to 31,097, owing in some part to the exodus of star players to the major leagues.

Four more players made their major league debuts in 1949:

Minnie Minoso and Luke Easter with the Cleveland Indians. Don Newcombe with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Monte Irvin with the New York Giants. In the three years since Jackie Robinson broke the color line, only four teams had employed black ballplayers. Brooklyn and Cleveland were the most aggressive signers with four each. The St. Louis Browns had signed two and the New York Giants one. And that was it. All the remaining teams were still lily white.

As the decade of the ‘40s ended, the Monarchs continued to be a powerhouse. They posted a 385-259 record in the decade, good for a .598-win percentage. They added their second Negro League World Series title and just missed out on a another. The team had four managers in the 1940’s – Andy Cooper, Newt Allen, Frank Duncan and Buck O’Neil. Four of the first seven black men to play major league baseball also came from the Monarchs: Jackie Robinson, Hank Thompson, Willard Brown and Satchel Paige.

Next: The 1950’s