Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Negro League Baseball History Fact For Today: George "Big Daddy" Crowe

Born March 22, 1921 in Whiteland, Indiana, George Daniel Crowe always declared basketball as his favorite sport.  Named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball” his senior year in high school (1939), Crowe went on to play basketball and baseball at Indiana Central College.  After serving in the military, Crowe first played semi-professional basketball (Harlem Rens) in 1946.  However; seeing the money potential for him in professional baseball, he also signed with the New York Black Yankees in 1947 and began his short Negro League baseball career.  In 1949, he went uptown to play with the New York Cubans.

When the Negro National League (NNL) disbanded after the 1949 season, Newark Eagle co-owner Effa Manley recommended Crowe to the Boston Braves who signed him as a first baseman.  He made his Major League debut on April 16, 1952; hitting .258 in 73 games with four home runs his rookie season. 

Crowe played for nine years (1952 – 1961) in the Major Leagues on three different teams:  Boston/Milwaukee Braves (1952 – 1955), Cincinnati Reds (1956 – 1958), and St. Louis Cardinals (1959 – 1961).  The former Negro League ballplayer became a premier pinch hitter once holding the Major League record for career pinch hit home runs (14).  Crowe hit 31 home runs for the Reds in 1957 and was a National League All Star in 1958.  

Known as “Big Daddy” (6’2”, 210 lbs.), Crowe also became a mentor for young African American Major League ballplayers in the 1950s (Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Henry Aaron, etc.).  He helped them navigate through the racial prejudice and discrimination that existed in Major League baseball during that period.

Read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Jackie Robinson's Mystery Tryout

On March 18 or 19, 1942 two African Americans appeared at the Chicago White Sox training camp in Pasadena, California requesting an opportunity to win a spot on the team’s roster.  The White Sox had a 77 – 77 record in 1941, finishing in 3rd place, 31 games behind the pennant winning New York Yankees.   At that time, Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” existed; there were no African American or dark-skinned Latino players on any Major League club.  However, Jackie Robinson and Nate Moreland approached White Sox Manager Jimmy Dykes on that day asking for a tryout.

Jackie Robinson

Robinson and Moreland were from the same neighborhood in Pasadena, they played baseball together on their high school team.  They both attended Pasadena Junior College and played on the same semi-pro baseball team.  Robinson had returned from playing semi-professional football in Hawaii in December of 1941.  Moreland, a left-handed pitcher, had played with the Baltimore Elite Giants (1940) and in the Mexican League. 
Nate Morterland

Dykes gave them a workout that day, but nothing came of it.  Although the manager expressed he saw their potential, especially Robinson’s, he indicated his hands were tied.  The Major League team owners and Baseball Commissioner Landis were the ones to make the decision to allow them to play.  Shortly after the tryout, Jackie Robinson received his draft notice and went into the military.  Five years later, April 15, 1947; he broke through the color line and became the first African American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century.  Moreland continued in baseball pitching for the Elite Giants (1946), the Mexican League, and the lower minor leagues in the southwest (California, Arizona) until retiring after the 1957 season.

There were questions as to whether this tryout occurred, a cloud of mystery around it.  Jackie Robinson did not mention it, nor is it in his early biographies.  There were no mentions of it in mainstream media outlets or the black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier or Chicago Defender.   The only newspaper to have a story about it was the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the American Communist Party.

However, in recent years the tryout has been confirmed.  It is in Jackie Robinson:  A Biography by Arnold Rampersad, the latest Jackie Robinson biography.  Also, relatives of Nate Moreland indicate his mentioning of it.  There was a rumor Robinson and Moreland were sent to approach the White Sox for the tryout by The Daily Worker; the only newspaper to have a reporter to cover it and one that aggressively criticized Major League baseball’s racial discrimination.  However, there is no proof of its involvement other than covering the tryout.  Jimmy Dykes’ actions were another example of a Major League manager during that time helping to maintain baseball’s color line ahead of trying to make the needed improvements to his team. 

To read about the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Broken Ankle That Launched a Hall of Fame Career - Henry Aaron

I have not published this post in three years.  It is an example of how one quirk of fate can have tremendous impact on baseball careers.

On March 13, 1954 during an exhibition game in Florida; Milwaukee Braves outfielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle sliding into second base on a force play.  Three years after his pennant clinching home run for the New York Giants, Thomson had come to the Braves in a trade to add power to their line-up.  It was a forgone conclusion when spring training began that the Braves’ opening day outfield would be Thomson along with Billy Bruton, and Andy Pafko.  But with Thomson injured, the Braves had to change their plan.

Henry Aaron
Twenty-year old Henry Aaron had doubts about making it on the Braves roster that spring.  Purchased from Negro League baseball’s Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, Aaron had spent two years destroying pitchers in the Braves’ minor league system.  While one of the first African-Americans in the Southern Atlantic League (Sally League) in 1953, he hit .362 with 22 home runs and won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award.  However, Aaron thought at best he would be assigned to the Braves’ Triple A team in Toledo, Ohio.

Bobby Thomson

But, with Thomson breaking his ankle and reserve outfielder Jim Pendleton (also a former Negro League player) not reporting due to a salary dispute, the Braves’ turned to Aaron.  The next day in his first time in the starting outfield, he hit a home run.  Exceeding his expectations, Aaron left spring training as the Braves opening day left fielder.

He went hitless in five at bats during the season opener in Cincinnati on April 13, but got two hits in the Braves home opener on April 15.  In St. Louis on April 23 against Cardinal pitcher Vic Raschi, Aaron hit his first Major League home run.  He finished 1954, his rookie season, batting .282 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs.

To read about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Negro League Baseball History Fact For Today - James "Buzz" Clarkson

The baseball career of James Buster “Buzz” Clarkson, born 2/13/18 in Hopkins, South Carolina, covered a large amount of ground; not much different than his Negro League contemporaries.  It included stints in Negro League baseball, the Mexican and Canadian Leagues, and the winter leagues in Puerto Rico and Cuba; in addition to serving in the military (1943 – 1945).  In the 1950s, Clarkson also played Major League baseball and helped integrate the minor leagues. 

At 5’11’ and a solidly built 210 pounds, Clarkson could play any infield or outfield position.  He began his Negro League baseball career with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1937.   When Clarkson played shortstop for the Newark Eagles in 1940, fans selected him to participate in the Negro League East-West All Star game (scored a run).  He also played right field in 1949 All-Star Game while with the Philadelphia Stars (one hit and one RBI). 

Clarkson signed with the Boston Braves in 1950 as a third baseman.  After hitting over .300 in two minor league seasons, he made his Major League debut on April 20,1952, at 37 years old per Major League Baseball records.  Knowing being older may hinder their careers, many former Negro League players did not give their true age when signing with a Major League team.  His advanced age and the Braves having 20-year-old rookie Eddie Mathews at third base that year, the first of a 17-year Hall of Fame career, made Clarkson expendable.  In his only Major League season, he played in 14 games with the Braves that year hitting .200; five singles in 25 AT Bats (.200).

Spending the remainder of his career in the minor leagues, Clarkson became as one of the first African-Americans to play in the Texas League (Class AA); hitting 42 home runs in 1954.

To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Negro League Baseball History Fact For Today - Lyman Bostock

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you will recognize this post.  It is one I have done the last few years on this calendar day commemorating Lyman Wesley Bostock, born March 11, 1918 in Birmingham, Alabama.   Twenty-four year old Bostock, a promising Negro League baseball player, went into the military in 1942.  Thirty-three years later Bostock became one of the less than handful of former Negro League players who had sons that played in the Major Leagues.  Being twenty-four years old in 1975, Lyman Bostock Jr. began his Major League baseball rookie season with the Minnesota Twins.  He fulfilled the dream that alluded his father

Before going into military service, the senior Bostock played first base for the Birmingham Black Barons.  Selected by fans as an All Star in 1941, he got a hit in the Negro League East West All Star Game.  However, after returning to baseball in 1946, he did not regain his All-Star form and no opportunity to play in the Major Leagues came when the “invisible color line” disappeared in 1947.  Had integration in Major League baseball come prior to Bostock’s years in the military, it could have been a different story for him.  Bostock played in the Negro Leagues until 1954.

Lyman Bostock, Sr
Lyman Bostock Jr. became one of the first players to benefit from the Major League baseball free agency system in the 1970s.  After hitting over .300 for two years with the Twins, he signed a huge contract with the California Angels in 1978.  Unfortunately, we did not get to see the full extent of Lyman Bostock, Jr.’s baseball ability.  A gunman cut short the ballplayer's career, killing him during the season that year.  A senseless tragedy ended the great story that the son of a former Negro League player had become a Major League baseball player.

Lyman Bostock, Jr.

The indisputable ties between Negro League baseball and the Major Leagues were not fully acknowledged during the late 1970s, before the boom of interest in the Negro Leagues that exists today.  But, Lyman Bostock, Jr. displayed the actual DNA representation of those ties.  How great it would be for baseball today if a Negro League player’s descendant dawned a Major League baseball uniform.

To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Negro League Baseball History Fact For Today - Walter "Rev" Cannady

Walter “Rev” Cannady’s twenty-four years (1921 – 1945) Negro League baseball journey encompassed nine cities and included him playing for fourteen teams.  Born on March 2, 1904 in Lake City, Florida (or Norfolk, Virginia); his baseball experiences in that long career include being traded three times and playing with a Negro League Baseball World Series Championship team.

With a reputation of being a good defensive second baseman, Cannady had the versatility to play any infield position solidly.  On a few teams; he also played in the outfield, put on the catcher’s gear, and even pitched. 

Everyone in the Negro Leagues also knew “Rev” Cannady could hit a baseball.  At 6’0” and 180 lbs., he had a batting average of over .300 with home run power several times; consistently hitting in the middle of his team’s batting order.

Although his career began in 1921 with the Cleveland Buckeyes, he spent most of his career with teams in New York.  His longest stint with the New York Black Yankees (1933 – 1939).  In 1938, Negro League baseball fans elected “Rev” to play in the East-West All Star Game.   After playing for the Homestead Grays in 1923 – 1924, 1929, and 1932; he returned to the team in 1944.  Playing third base, Cannady helped the Grays win the 1944 Negro League World Series Championship.

In 2005, Major League Baseball and the National Baseball Hall of Fame commissioned a special committee of Negro League baseball historians to make recommendations of individuals from Negro League baseball for Hall of Fame induction in 2006.   After an extensive research of the Negro League baseball era, the committee developed a group of 97 in which they would vote on to make up the final list that would be recommended.  They included Walter “Rev” Cannady in that group.  He did not garish enough votes from committee members to be one of the seventeen recommended for Hall of Fame induction.  However, to be included by the committee in the group of 97 indicates at the very least Walter “Rev” Cannady’s legacy as a good Negro League ballplayer.

To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Negro League Baseball History Fact For Today - Eddie Dwight

In celebration of Black History Month, here is Today’s Negro League Baseball History Fact:  Eddie Dwight.

Eddie Dwight kneeling first right to left

Born in Dalton, Georgia on February 25, 1905, Eddie Dwight played for the Kansas City Monarchs for two periods of time; 1928 – 1929 and 1933 – 1937.  He made his home in Kansas City, Kansas, my hometown on the west end of Kansas City’s Intercity Viaduct.  The Dwight’s lived on the northeast side of KCK, his children went to school with members of my family.

Although a good outfielder with speed and range, Dwight could not break into the Monarchs’ starting line up during his first stint with the team.  However, he returned in 1933 to become the No. 1 center fielder.   A good contact hitter and bunter with base stealing speed, Dwight primarily led the Monarchs offensive attack batting first.  Negro League fans selected him to play in the 1936 East-West All Star Game.

After retiring, Dwight owned a retail store in the 1950s.  In 1962, his son Eddie Dwight, Jr. became the first African-American chosen by NASA for astronaut training.

Negro League baseball is not just a part of African American history, but is woven into the fabric of 20th Century American history.
To read more about the Negro League Baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown