Friday, October 21, 2011

The Negro League Baseball photographer

 What is your favorite moment in baseball history captured on photo or video?  Is it the over the shoulder catch by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series or Reggie Jackson hitting 3 home runs in game 6 of the 1977 Series?  Is it Jackie Robinson stealing home in the 1955 World Series?  As time goes on, those photo and video images will be even more important to preserve the history of what was once unquestionably our nation’s favorite pastime.

This week’s Negro League baseball history fact is about photographer Ernest C. Withers.  Proclaimed as the main photographer of the Civil Rights Movement, Withers’ camera gave the nation an eye into the trial of Emmitt Till’s accused murderers in 1954 and the violent demonstrations surrounding the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957.  He was a part of Dr. Martin Luther King’s inner circle during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)’s civil rights campaigns in the 1960s.  Withers took photos of the historic racial confrontations in both Birmingham and Selma, Alabama; and Memphis, Tennessee. 
Withers perfected the use of his camera lens through capturing the twilight years of Negro League baseball.  His interest in photography became serious in 1942 while serving in the Army.  After World War II, Withers returned to his hometown of Memphis and began taking photos in 1946 for the Negro American League Memphis Red Sox.   Negro League baseball at that time was the largest black owned and operated business in the nation.  However, first Jackie Robinson (with the Brooklyn Dodgers) and then Larry Doby (with the Cleveland Indians) crossed over the “invisible color line” to play in the Major Leagues the next season.  Their success opened the door to Major League baseball for other black players, but it marked the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues.
Wither’s camera captured the last photo of Negro League legend and Hall of Famer Josh Gibson in uniform.  It was during the 1946 Negro League East-West All Star game, less than a year before Gibson’s death.  There is the Withers team photo of the 1946 Chattanooga Choo Choos with 15 year old Willie Mays on the first row.  The classic shot of the 1948 Birmingham Barons celebrating in their locker room after winning the 1948 Negro American League Championship is also a Wither photo.  On the back row amongst those hardened veteran black players on the Barons is the innocent face of 19 year old Willie Mays.  Withers also snapped a photo of the legendary John “Buck” O’Neil, manager of the Kansas City Monarchs in 1948 talking to 19 year old Elston Howard.  It was Howard’s first game as a Monarch.  Other Negro League players caught in the eye of Wither’s camera include Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, Len Pearson, Bob Boyd, and Sam Hairston.  Irvin, Boyd, and Hairston went on to play in the Major Leagues.
Baseball as a sport has declined in popularity in many black communities, but Negro League baseball will forever connect African-Americans to the game.  The baseball photos of the late Ernest C. Withers will help to preserve that connection.
What is your favorite historic baseball photo or video?         

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Late Memorial to "Killer"

This past season Jim Thome became only the sixth Major League ballplayer to reach the 600 home run plateau, 604.  Thome, who now plays with the Cleveland Indians, was in his second year with the Minnesota Twins when this season started.  On route to reaching the plateau while with the Twins, Thome surpassed the team’s leading career home run hitter Harmon Killebrew who hit 530 and is ranked #11 on the Major League career home run list.  Killebrew died this year on May Seventh of esophageal cancer at 74 years old.
To me and my friends growing up in Kansas City, Harmon Killebrew was “Killer”.  Being in an American League city, we did not get the opportunity to personally see National League sluggers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, and Eddie Matthews.  By the time we started attending Kansas City Athletics’ games, Ted Williams had retired and injuries had begun to slow Mickey Mantle.  But the Hall of Fame career of Harmon Killebrew was in full blast.

When playing sandlot ball we tried imitating our favorite ballplayers.  Some tried Mays’ basket catch or the batting stance of Rocky Colavito (pointing the bat straight at the pitcher before coming set).  When imitating “Killer”, we swung the bat as hard as we could to hit the ball as far as we could.  With his bulging arm biceps and compactly built torso (6’0, 195 lbs.), Harmon Killebrew to us was the ultimate personification of strength and power in a ballplayer.  We knew Aaron, Mays, and Mantle had power.  But no one looked stronger or more powerful than “Killer”.

Killebrew was 18 years old when signed right out of Payette (Idaho) High School in 1954 by the Washington Senators.  Splitting time during his first five seasons between playing in the minor leagues and the Senators, he had only 11 home runs by the end of 1958.  However, in 1959 Killebrew hit 42 home runs and tied for the league lead with Cleveland’s Rocky Colavito.  He hit 31 home runs in 1960 and continued his power surge after the Senators moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul to become the Minnesota Twins the next year.  From 1959 to 1972, Killebrew hit 530 home runs.  He won 6 American League home run titles, including three straight (1962-1964).  The only player to hit more home runs during that period was Hank Aaron, 533.  Killebrew won three league RBI titles and was the American League’s 1969 Most Valuable Player (MVP).
I witnessed Killebrew hit a massive home run on the Fourth of July; 1965, at Kansas City A’s old Municipal Stadium.  He had been bothered with injuries the first half of the season and had just returned to playing every day.  The crowd went silent when Killebrew hit the ball.  I watched it spin like a satellite, high in the clear blue sky and land in the parking lot far behind the stadium.  It was awesome!

There was a sudden weather change later that day which brought rain and dampened our fireworks celebration of the holiday.  I knew it was scientifically impossible, but I still kept saying it rained because “Killer’s” home run disturbed the atmosphere.   It was awesome!  

What is your favorite recollection of Harmon Killebrew?   

Friday, October 7, 2011

Negro League Baseball and Buck O'Neil

The Negro League baseball history fact of this week is a sad one.  Five years ago yesterday, John Jordan O’Neil, Jr. passed away.  Buck, as he was more famously known, was 93 years old when he died.  He played 17 years (1938 – 1955) with Negro League baseball’s Kansas City Monarchs, the last 7 also as the team’s manager.   He was not only a great ambassador for the historic Negro Leagues, but also for the game of baseball.  Through listening to Buck’s colorful telling of his experiences we got a glimpse of the time in our county’s history when baseball was king, but segregated.  Buck also played an integral part in the creation and development of the National Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
O’Neil was not chosen in the 2006 special election which inducted 12 players and 5 owners/executives from Negro League baseball into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  However, there is statue of him in Cooperstown, which is fitting since he is a lasting symbol of Negro League baseball.  The Hall of Fame also created the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award that honors the individual who broadens baseball’s appeal by using it to make a positive impact on society, just as Buck did.

Even though there are current signs baseball’s popularity is declining in black communities, the Negro Leagues will forever be tightly woven into the game’s history.  Major League Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks were all former Negro Leaguers.  From using lights to play night games to having special promotions to attract fans, Negro League baseball has made tremendous lasting contributions to the game.

Negro League baseball is even a part of the current National League championship Series.  The Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Jerry Hairston, Jr. is the grandson of former Negro Leaguer Sam Hairston.

Buck O’Neil was more than an ambassador, he was a historian.  He was the expert on Negro League baseball history.  He loved being a part of it and was proud to tell the world about it.  

What are yor memories of Negro League baseball?    

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The 1967 Kansas City A's

The Kansas City Royals started Spring Training this past February with what most baseball analysts referred as the most talented minor league players in baseball.  But the dilemma the Royals face is how much longer to keep them in the minors for development considering the team’s last place finish six out of the last ten years. 
The team’s struggles for victories the first part of the season prompted the Royal management into action.  The team added some of its minor league talent (Moustakus, Hosmer, Perez, Giavotella) to its established young nucleus (Gordon, Butler, Cabrera, Esober, and Francoeur) and got improved results; especially with its offense.  The Royals finished 71 – 91, fifth place in the division.  In September they were 15 – 10 with the highest September team batting average in Royals history, .306.

The Royals strong finish has raised the 2012 expectations for some fans who now believe the team can compete for the division crown next year.  However, other fans are not impressed with the Royals’ September record seeing most of the wins were against teams with below .500 records.  Is the team for real or was September just “fool’s gold”?  That is what Royals fans will ponder this winter.

It reminds me of fan expectation for another Kansas City baseball team at the end of the 1966 season:  the Kansas City A’s.  After being 59 -103 in 1965, the A’s were 74 – 86 in 1966.  They had a strong September/October, 15 – 9 and their seventh place finish (10 team league) their best since moving to Kansas City in 1955.  The A’s had developed the most talented young pitching staff in baseball.  Twenty year old Jim “Catfish” Hunter, 23 year old Lew Krausse, 21 year old “Jumbo” Jim Nash, 21 year old John “Blue Moon” Odom, and 22 year old Chuck Dobson all had some measure of success in 1966.  Krausse was 14 – 6 and Nash 12 – 1.  The A’s position players included a young nucleus of Sal Bando and Rick Monday, both 20 years old, Bert Campaneris and Danny Cater.  In addition, future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (21 years old) and Joe Rudi (20 years old) were ready to make the jump from the minor leagues.  The prospects for the A’s in 1967 were bright and fan expectations were higher than ever before.
But despite the high hopes, the 1967 season was a disaster for the A’s.  They were 62-99, finishing in last place.  There was internal conflict between some players and management.  And at the end of the season, owner Charlie Finley moved the team to Oakland.

Was the bright future for the team after the 1966 season a mirage?  No!  Their first season in Oakland, 1968, the A’s were 82-80.  They won 88 games in 1969, 89 in 1970.  In 1971 they won the American League Western Division Championship and were World Series Champion the next 3 years.  The heart of those championship teams were the players from the 1967 A’s; Hunter, Odom, Bando, Jackson, Rudi, and Campenaris.

It is fine for Royals fans to enjoy the winter being enthusiastically optimistic about next season.  But remember, if the team takes a step back; do not get discouraged.  The team’s future is still bright.  It may just take longer for it to develop as it did the 1967 Kansas City A’s.

What are your memories of the old Kansas City Athletics?