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The two John Donaldsons

Both played in KC

Recently, my wife, daughter and I were on a short road trip and drove through Lehigh, Iowa, a small burg of 395 people located in central Iowa which was founded in 1881. Lehigh sits in a steep valley of the Des Moines river which cuts through the center of what is left of the town. The east part of Lehigh has 10-15 houses plus the local bar and grill. Most residents live in west Lehigh which has the smallish main street where the only going concerns are a butcher shop, a bank, a bait shop and the city building.

The best way to describe Lehigh is that it is an impoverished version of Galena, Illinois. Lehigh, named for the Lehigh valley of Pennsylvania, was once home to a thriving coal and clay works business. When reading about some new places on Wikipedia, I always look for Notable Residents. Lehigh had two. One was a man named Hugh Lester who somehow became an English football player - soccer to us Yanks. Mr. Lester played a few games for Liverpool FC way back in 1911. I find it somewhat amazing that any person from this part of the country would somehow find a way to make it as a player in the top division of English football.

The other notable resident was a professional baseball player named John Donaldson. At first, I assumed they meant John Donaldson that played for the Kansas City Athletics in the mid-1960’s, but amazingly it wasn’t. It was the other, more famous John Donaldson, who was one of the greatest pitchers in Negro League history. He was THE John Donaldson. Both men had considerable ties to the Kansas City baseball community.

The first John Donaldson was born in 1891 in Glasgow, Missouri and as a 17-year-old, started his career with the local Glasgow Blues baseball team. This started a remarkable 33-year career that looked like it ended in 1940, when Donaldson pitched for Joe Green’s Chicago Giants. Donaldson would have been 49 years old at the time.

Donaldson’s playing career in Lehigh, Iowa came in the fall of 1912, when he was signed onto the town team as a ringer for a fee of $75. The game was the hotly contested, annual Lehigh vs. Fort Dodge matchup, which in past years had been dominated by the Fort Dodge team. Donaldson, playing for the All-Nations team, had pitched in Fort Dodge just days before, throwing a 2-hit shutout and striking out 21. Regional baseball in those days was a gambling affair and the Lehigh team kept Donaldson hidden in a nearby train car until the lineups were announced. This was a deliberate attempt to burn the gamblers betting on Fort Dodge. The manager of the Lehigh team bet heavily on his squad, knowing that Donaldson was on board. This windfall would help the Lehigh team climb out of debt. Donaldson was particularly sharp that afternoon, striking out 14 of the first 15 batters he faced, and 18 on the day, to lead Lehigh to victory.

In 1949, Donaldson returned to Lehigh for the town’s annual old-timer’s game. At the age of 58, he threw three scoreless innings in front of more than 3,000 appreciative fans.

It’s a shame that better records of this era don’t exist. Donaldson, nicknamed Cannonball, was widely considered the best pitcher of his era. Researchers have found that Donaldson pitched in 718 games, winning 420 of those and recording somewhere around 5,221 strikeouts. He also threw at least 14 no-hitters during his long career. Donaldson, a lefty, played in Kansas City on several occasions. In 1915, he pitched for the Kansas City Colts. He was a bit of a vagabond after that, playing for the Indianapolis ABCs, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Detroit Stars and the Chicago American Giants, before returning to Kansas City to play for the Monarchs from 1920 to 1924. Like many Negro League players, he went where the paycheck was and he played other positions when needed. When not pitching, Donaldson often played centerfield. Donaldson was also a solid hitter, racking up a .338 career average in over 1,800 at bats.

In an interview with the Kansas City Call in 1948, Monarchs founder J.L. Wilkinson called Donaldson “one of the greatest pitchers that ever lived, white or black.” Wilkinson also gave Donaldson credit for coining the name Monarchs for the new club.

Even though Donaldson played many games against semi-pro teams, he fared well when he played against big league competition. No less an expert than Buck O’Neil said, “John Donaldson showed Satchel Paige the way. The fact is, there are many people who saw them both who say John Donaldson was just as good as Satchel.”

Famed manager John McGraw said of Donaldson, “I think he’s the greatest I have ever seen.”

Eldon Auker, who was raised in Norcatur, Kansas and starred at Kansas State, before a notable career with the Tigers, Red Sox and St. Louis Browns, said of Donaldson, “I played against him in 1929. I pitched against Paige and won, 2 to 1. Donaldson played center field. The Monarchs had a catcher named Young (Tom Young who had an 11-year career with the Monarchs). Donaldson squatted down in center field, like a catcher, and he and Young played catch from 300 feet. They threw the ball on a line. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

In 1952, the Pittsburgh Courier published a player voted poll of the greatest Negro League players of all-time. Donaldson was voted to the first team as a pitcher. That first team is a who’s who of Negro League history: Buck Leonard, Jackie Robinson, Monte Irvin, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, Bullet Rogan and Satchel Paige among others. There’s considerable talent on the second through fifth teams as well. Players like Willie Wells, Cool Papa Bell, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Mule Suttles and Turkey Stearnes. The Negro Leagues had some serious talent.

Amazingly, Donaldson has not been voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He came up short on a 2005 ballot of pre-Negro League players, then missed again in 2021, when he collected only eight of the necessary twelve votes from the Early Days committee. This was the class that put Buck O’Neil, Bud Fowler, Minnie Minoso, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva into the Hall.

Donaldson was elected to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2017, so at least one Hall of Fame got it right. During his prime, there was at least one scout who tried to convince Donaldson to claim he was Cuban. The story goes, the scout would smuggle Donaldson to Cuba, then bring him back to the US under a new name. The only catch was that Donaldson could no longer have any contact with his mother, with whom he was very close. Donaldson, a man of principle, turned down the offer without a second thought. John was the son of a white Irish American father and an African American mother. His mother Ida was a devout woman who wanted her son to become a preacher. Donaldson’s full name was John Wesley Donaldson, named for the founder of the Methodist Church.

In retirement, Donaldson settled in Chicago and went to work for the postal service while also coaching youth league baseball. He made baseball history in 1949 by becoming the first full-time black scout for a major league team, working for the White Sox. He died of pneumonia in April of 1970 at the age of 79. In 2020, the town of Glasgow honored Donaldson by erecting a statue and naming the town ballfield after him. A Minnesota man named Peter Gorton has made a mission of working to get Donaldson elected to the Hall of Fame. Here’s hoping the Hall of Fame will give this man more consideration.

The second John Donaldson was a Charlotte, North Carolina native, born May 5, 1943. He learned to play ball from his older brothers. After his high school career ended, he found no takers for his services, so he went to work in the nearby cotton mills. He continued to play semi-pro ball for the mill team and was noticed by Minnesota Twins scout, Red Robbins. Robbins thought the 5’11, 160-pound Donaldson was too small to play professionally, but Billy Martin, (yes, that Billy Martin) a scout for the Twins AA team in Charlotte, thought Donaldson had what it took and encouraged the Twins to sign him. The Twins sent the now 20-year-old infielder to their Class A Orlando team. He hit a respectable .252 that summer but the Twins left him unprotected in that year’s First Year Player Draft. The Kansas City Athletics selected Donaldson. The draft required that the player be added to the major league team’s 40-man roster.

With Wayne Causey entrenched at shortstop, the Athletics sent Donaldson to Class A Lewiston, where he hit .315 in 1964. He made the jump to AAA Vancouver in 1966, before getting a late season call up to Kansas City. He appeared in 15 games for the Athletics, collecting his first big league hit on August 27th, an RBI single off Dean Chance.

He started 1967 back in Vancouver, but after hitting .339, the Athletics recalled him and installed him as their second baseman. The position move was prompted by an injury to Dick Green and the fact that the Athletics had a young star at short in Bert Campaneris. Donaldson appeared in 105 games, hitting .276 with an OPS+ of 106.

1968 found the A’s in Oakland and Donaldson appeared in a career high 127 games. His batting average dropped to .220 as he battled stomach problems.

In June of 1969, the A’s traded Donaldson to the expansion Seattle Pilots, who installed him as their everyday second baseman. Donaldson made the move to Milwaukee, but soon found himself back on the road. The Brewers traded him back to Oakland, where he appeared in 41 more games. From that point the John Donaldson story took on some unusual twists. The A’s traded him to the Tigers. The Tigers shipped him to the Orioles. Baltimore then sold him to the Padres. He spent all those years in AAA for those respective clubs, continuing to toil at the game he loved with the belief that he would make it back to the majors.

The other twist was that Donaldson was only 53 days of roster time short of qualifying for the Big-League pension. After almost four years, Donaldson made it back to the majors. He collected the last hit of his career on April 26, 1974, with a 13th inning single off the Orioles Bob Reynolds. Fate almost derailed Donaldson once again. He was injured in a collision with teammate Billy North on May 8, suffering a separated shoulder. Upon recovering he was assigned to the A’s AAA team in Tucson. When the rosters expanded in September, owner Charlie Finley insisted that Donaldson be added to the roster so he could qualify for his pension. Who knew that Charlie Finley had a heart?

The A’s released Donaldson after the 1974 season and he retired to Charlotte. He has been a frequent participant in Kansas City Athletics players reunions. For his career, he appeared in 405 games, with 120 of those games as a member of the Kansas City A’s, slashing .238/.313/.295.