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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Snapshot of Negro League Baseball's Cum Posey





Cumberland “Cum” Willis Posey, born June 20, 1891 began his baseball career playing with a black team in his hometown of Homestead, Pennsylvania; the Homestead Grays in 1911.  After becoming the team’s owner in 1920, Posey had turned the Homestead Grays into one of the most renowned and successful Negro League Baseball franchises by the time he died in 1946.  From 1937 – 1945, the Grays finished first in the Negro National League eight times and played in four Negro League World Series, winning two:  1943 and 1944. 



In 2006, Cum Posey and fifteen other individuals from the Negro League baseball era were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  I profile the 2006 inductees in my book “Last Train to Cooperstown:  The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  The following is an   exert from my book with a preview of the chapter about Posey:

As the country’s economic condition worsened, Posey struggled

to pay the salaries of his ballplayers in 1932. He also faced a major

challenge from the new black team in Pittsburgh started by Gus

Greenlee a night club/restaurant owner and numbers operator, the

Pittsburgh Crawfords. He used a tactic Posey himself employed to

steal players from other teams. Greenlee offered the Grays’ best

players more money than Posey could pay them. Josh Gibson, Oscar

Charleston, and three other players took Greenlee’s offer and

signed with the Crawfords. Other players for the Grays also left for

other teams.

 

Determined to not let his team die, Cum Posey formed a

business partnership in 1934 with Rufus “Sonnyman” Jackson,

Homestead’s main black numbers operator. Posey operated the

club while Jackson provided the financial backing. Many black

sportswriters thought partnering with whom some called “black

mobsters” hurt Negro League baseball’s image with the fans. But

Posey and the other black owners said financial backing from

those men did not influence the teams’ performance on the field.

The numbers bosses were just fans who loved the game. The truth

was that if it were not for their investment Negro professional

baseball may not have survived.

 

Jackson’s financial backing allowed Posey to step away from

being the field manager and devote all his time to rebuilding the

team. He brought on Buck Leonard in 1934 as the first step of

putting together what would be the most dominant Negro League

team in the late 1930s and 1940s. The next year the Grays joined

the Negro National League (NNL). Despite Posey’s rebuilding

efforts, the team could not finish ahead of the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

In 1937 Posey got Josh Gibson back in a trade with his crosstown

rival. Part of the trade, as rumored, included “Sonnyman” Jackson

paying off a gambling debt of the Crawfords’ owner. By getting back

Gibson, Posey had the final piece to add to Leonard and the other players he assembled to begin the Grays’ winning tradition.”



To read more about Cum Posey and the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Snapshot of Negro League Baseball's Sol White


King Solomon “Sol” White wrote about the plight of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century African-American professional baseball player, of which he himself experienced.  Born June 12, 1868 in Bellaire, Ohio, White played with teams in the minor league system of white professional baseball in the 1880s.  In the 1890s when the color line became solidified banning African-American and dark-skinned Hispanics, he then played with a number of the best Negro baseball teams and later the co-owner/manager of the Philadelphia Giants, one of the best black teams of the early 1900s.  His book written in 1907, “History of Colored Baseball”, gives a picture of obstacles he and other African-American professional baseball players faced as the game began its journey to become “the National Pastime”. 
 

In 2006, Sol White and fifteen other individuals from the Negro League baseball era were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  I profile the 2006 inductees in my book “Last Train to Cooperstown:  The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  The following is a book exert from my profile of Sol White:   
"With the door to Major League professional baseball closed for
African American players, Sol White continued his career in the
1890s with teams that were a part of Negro League baseball’s
early beginnings. They were African American teams that played
small town white semi‐pro teams, other black teams, and anyone
that wanted to play them. No official Negro League existed at that
time. He played for the Cuban Giants in 1893 –1894, the Page
Fence Giants in 1895, the Cuban X Giants in 1896 –1899, and the
Chicago Columbia Giants in 1900. All of which were top African
American professional teams of that period.
In 1902 White joined forces with white sportswriter H. Walter
Schlichter to start a new black team, the Philadelphia Giants. As co-

owner,team manager, and one of the team’ top players, White
built what some called one of the best black teams of the new
century’ first ten years. Some of the best black players of that time
such as Frank Grant, Pete Hill, Charlie Grant, Grant “Home Run”

Johnson, and Rube Foster played for the Giants at some point when
White headed the team. Unofficial records show the team won 134
games in 1905. They were challenged by the Cuban X Giants at the
end of the season to a best of two out of three series. White’s Giants
won the series and proclaimed themselves Negro baseball
champions."
Philadelphia Giants (Sol White five from left)


For more information on the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown




Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Belated Happy Birthday Bob Thurman!


Due to my efforts towards organizing the youth baseball team I will coach this summer, I failed to timely recognize the birth date of former Negro League and Major League player Robert (Bob) Burns Thurman, May 14, 1917.  This post is a belated “Happy Birthday” recognition of him.  The mystery that existed about the age of “Satchel” Paige when he signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 is a well-known story in both Negro League and baseball history.  It is now known Paige made his Major League debut when 42 years old and became an American League All-Star his final season with the St. Louis Browns at age 47.  But there is less mystery to Bob Thurman having his best Major League season when 40 years old.  




After Jackie Robinson erased the color line in 1947 and Major League teams began looking to sign African Americans and dark-skinned Hispanics, many Negro League players lowered their stated age to be a more attractive prospect.  They knew that younger players had the best chance of getting to the Major Leagues. Thurman and other Negro League players felt no hesitancy claiming to be a younger age in order to walk through the now open door of opportunity that had been shut since the end of the 19Th Century due to racial discrimination.

 

The cry grew louder after World War II for an end to racial discrimination in Major League baseball.  Former Kentucky U. S. Senator Albert “Happy” Chandler became the new Major League Baseball Commissioner in 1945 following the sudden death the previous year of Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner.   Landis had worked with team owners since taking office in1920 to perpetuate the “invisible color line” that kept African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players out of Major League baseball.  When asked his opinion about African Americans playing in the Major Leagues, Chandler surprisingly said, “If they can fight and die in Okinawa and Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, they can play in America”.  Although his response went against the existing racial discriminatory policy of Major League baseball, it added to the chorus for change sounding for Bob Thurman and other Negro League players.

 

Although born in Kellyville, Oklahoma, Thurman grew up in Wichita, Kansas.  Drafted into the military while playing in the city’s semi-professional baseball leagues at the start of World War II, he saw combat duty in New Guinea and the Philippines.  After leaving military service in 1946, he turned to his only option to play professional baseball in United States, the Negro Leagues.  Thurman played with the Homestead Grays during the last years of owner Cum Posey’s “long gray line”.  Long time Negro League veterans Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, “Cool Papa” Bell and others were still with the Grays when Thurman arrived; however, Posey died before the season started.  Signed as a left handed pitcher, Thurman proved to be a better power hitter and became the team’s regular center fielder.  With the veteran players approaching the end of their baseball careers, Josh Gibson died in 1947, the Grays mixed in Thurman along with future Major League players Luke Easter and Luis Marquez to help the team remain competitive.  In 1948, Thurman hit over .300 as the Grays won the last Negro League World Series Championship defeating the Birmingham Black Barons.

 

With both the Negro National League and the Homestead Grays disbanding after the 1948 season, Thurman signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League (NAL).  Monarch Manager Buck O’Neil had a team that included future Major League players Elston Howard, Connie Johnson, Gene Baker, Hank Thompson, and Curt Roberts.  The Monarchs were looking to sell their best players to Major League teams in order to remain operating profitably.  On July 29, 1949 the New York Yankees purchased Thurman’s contract and he became the first African American signed by the team.  He walked through the door of opportunity given him stated as a 26 year old outfielder, but in reality being 32. 

 

However, the Yankees were not serious about integration.  Although Thurman batted .317 and hit with power while with the team’s Triple AAA minor league affiliate (Newark Bears) for the remainder of that season, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs.  The Cubs were also slow embracing integration.  It would be four years, 1954, before Ernie Banks became the first African-American to play for   Chicago’s north side team.  After three respectable years in the Cubs minor league system, Thurman was released.  The Cubs did not renew his contract.

 

He spent the next two years playing summer and winter league baseball in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Thurman had several successful seasons in the Caribbean leagues and had become a fan favorite.  He is a member of the Puerto Rican League Baseball Hall of Fame and the league’s all-time home run leader.   After a tremendous winter league season in 1955, Thurman signed with the Cincinnati Reds mainly as a reserve outfielder and pinch hitter with the team believing him to be 32 years old.  He made his Major League debut on April 14, 1955; a little more than a month before his actual 38Th birthday.


(left to right) Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Buzz Clarkson, Bob Thurman, and George Crowe


Thurman hit 35 home runs and drove in 106 runs in his five years with the Reds (1955 – 1959).  On August 18, 1956, the Reds hit eight home runs in a 13 – 4 victory over the Milwaukee Braves; which tied the Major League record at that time.  Three of the Reds’ home runs in that game were hit by Bob Thurman.  After hitting a double in the third inning, he hit home runs in the fifth, seventh, and eighth innings.  In 1957 at 40 years old, Thurman had his best season in the Major Leagues hitting 18 home runs.  While with the Reds he, along with former Negro League player and Reds teammate George Crowe, became mentors for young African-American National League players in the late 1950s; Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, Bill White, etc.



 

Bob Thurman had to verbally set back the hands of time in order to get the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues.  If the New York Yankees in 1949 had known his real age of 32, would they have signed him?  Probably not!  Surely, the Reds would not have signed Thurman in 1955 had they known his real age of 38!  But given the opportunity, he proved his time for hitting a baseball had not passed him by.  


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

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Tribute to John L. Gray and Haley Young, Jr.


John L. Gray and Haley Young, Jr. both played baseball one season with the Indianapolis Clowns during the final years of the Negro League baseball era.   Last month on April 7, I was the main speaker (“Negro League Baseball:  The Deep Roots of African-Americans in America’s Great Game”) at a tribute given to both players at the Old Dillard Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.   

The museum is located in the building that housed the first school for African-Americans students in Fort Lauderdale, named “The Colored School” and later Dillard High School.  An important educational and cultural center for African-Americans in Fort Lauderdale, the Old Dillard Museum serves as a constant reminder of the community’s proud and rich heritage. 

Both Gray (1955) and Young (1957) were graduates of Dillard High School,   As part of their tribute that evening, they became the first baseball players added to the museum’s sports Wall of Fame which is for alumni of the school.


John L. Gray
Gray attended Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio and then signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1956 as a catcher and outfielder.  Jackie Robinson had erased the “invisible color line” to begin the racial integration of Major League baseball nine years earlier in 1947, but attitudes of prejudice and discrimination still existed.  The Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, and Philadelphia Phillies still had no African-American or dark-skinned Hispanic players on their Major League rosters the year Gray signed.  He played that first year with the Indians’ Class D minor league affiliate the Daytona Beach Islanders (Florida State League).  In 1958 after some dissatisfaction with the Indian’s minor league system, Gray signed with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League (NAL).  By then, Negro League baseball had declined since its peak in the 1940s due to losing its best players and fan base due to the racial integration of the Major Leagues.  While with the Clowns, Gray hit a home run at Yankee Stadium which he frequently mentioned to his children and grandchildren in his golden years.  In 1959, he went back into the Major League system signing with the Chicago Cubs.  He played with the team’s Class D affiliate, the Paris (Illinois) Lakers, in the Midwest League.  The next season Gray signed with the Chicago White Sox and played with its Class C minor league affiliate the Idaho Falls Russets in the Pioneer League.  Reaching his frustration limit with the unfair treatment and broken agreements he encountered with Major League teams, Gray did not return to professional the next season. 

Haley Young, Jr.

After graduating from high school, Haley Young, Jr. signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.  Being only 16 years old, he played shortstop and outfield in the Class D Appalachian League for the team’s Johnson City, Tennessee affiliate.  In 1958, he seriously damaged his knee and did not fully recover until 1961 when he signed with the Indianapolis Clowns.  The Chicago White Sox signed Young in 1962, but he got no further than the team’s Class A minor league level.  He led his Clinton, Iowa (Class A – Midwest League) team in home runs (16) and RBI (51) while batting .254 in 1965, but it got him no closer to getting on the White Sox’s Major League roster even though the team needed power hitters.  From the 1965 through 1967 seasons, only four White Sox players hit more than the 16 home runs Young smashed in 1965.  The White Sox were in the American League where the promotion of African-American players had been less aggressive than in the National League since the days of Jackie Robinson.  After the 1966 and 1967 seasons with the White Sox’s Class A minor league affiliate in Lynchburg (VA.), Young played in Canada’s independent league in 1968 and retired from baseball in 1970.

I want to thank More Than a Game, Inc. (Danny Phillips) and the Old Dillard Museum (Derrick Davis) for inviting me to be a part of the memorable event for Haley Young, Jr. and John L. Gray.  The honorees were not there to receive their accolades; Haley Young died in 2015 and John L. Gray too sick to attend.  Sadly, last week he too passed away.  However, their achievements in baseball are honored on the Old Dillard Museum’s Wall of Fame. They were in the group of unsung African-American pioneers that stood up against racism and prejudice to integrate minor league professional baseball during the Civil Rights era. 


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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Belated Happy Birthday Andy Cooper, Negro League HOF Pitcher


Due to being shut down the last few days by a bad cold, I failed to acknowledge the birthday of Negro League left-handed pitcher Andy Cooper.  Born April 24, 1898 in Waco, Texas; Cooper is considered one of the best southpaw pitchers in Negro League baseball history; Willie Foster the only one deemed better.  At 6’2″, 220 pounds, he had the physical stature of a power pitcher.  But Andy Cooper did not overpower hitters.  Nicknamed “Lefty”, he used a variety of pitches at different speeds to keep hitters off-balance to get them out.  He pitched for the Detroit Stars (1920 – 1927) and the Kansas City Monarchs (1928 – 1937).  Also, with Cooper as manager, the Monarchs won the Negro American League pennant in 1939 and 1940.
The following is an exert from my book “Last Train to Cooperstown:  The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era” in which I profile Andy Cooper;

“In his prime, Hall of Famer Satchel Paige’s fastball was described by batters as
being the size of a half-dollar or a pea. By the nickname given other
pitchers, the batters knew what to expect when facing them.
“Smokey” Joe Williams, “Cannonball” Dick Redding, Wilber “Bullet”
Rogan, and “Steel Arm” Johnny Taylor were just a few whose name
preceded their pitches. Using radar technology to gauge the speed
of pitches was not introduced into baseball until the 1970s.
However, if it had been used to clock the pitches of the great Negro
League baseball hurlers, it would have registered at ninetyplus
miles per hour many times.
But Andrew Lewis Cooper was a different kind of pitcher. He
did not overpower batters. “Lefty” as he was nicknamed, used a
variety of pitches at different speeds to get batters out.
In order to hit the ball solidly, a batter must have balanced
coordination and timing between his legs, waist, shoulders, and
hands. If a pitcher can disrupt that coordination and timing, getting
the hitter swinging too early or too late; it usually leads to a fly out,
ground out or strike out. Andy Cooper was a master of keeping
hitters off-balance. Not having the blazing fastball like other great
Negro League pitchers, he had the ability to get batters out by
disrupting their coordination and timing. “Lefty” had a successful
career by frustrating and fooling them with his arsenal of pitches.”





For more information on Andy Cooper and the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown