Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Negro League baseball history fact for today - Dan Bankhead

On August 26, 1947 Dan Bankhead became the first African American in the 20th Century to pitch in a Major League game.  Playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Bankhead entered the game at Ebbets Field in relief of starting pitcher Hal Gregg in the second inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Born on May 5, 1020 in Empire, Alabama, he was the youngest of five brothers who all played Negro League baseball; Sam, Fred, Garnett, and Joe being the other four.  Dan Bankhead was one of the best pitchers in the Negro Leagues in 1947.  He was selected three times to play in the Negro League East-West All Star Game; 1941 while with the Birmingham Black Barons, 1946 and   1947 while with the Memphis Red Sox.   The 6’1”, 184 pound right hand hurler had a fastball that traveled to home plate at 95 miles per hour, a good curveball, and a screwball.  However, he lacked control of his pitches at times, walking as many batters as he struck out.  Bankhead was also one of the best hitting pitchers in the Negro Leagues during the 1940s.
The Dodgers desperately needed pitching for the 1947 National League pennant race.  Also;  Dodger Jackie Robinson, who had become the first African American to play in the Major Leagues since the turn of the century earlier that season, needed a roommate for road trips.  After hearing good scouting reports and seeing him pitch in person, Brooklyn Dodger Managing Partner Branch Rickey signed Bankhead on August 24.  Rickey did not first send him to the minor leagues to help prepare him for the pressure of being one of the first African American players in white organized baseball as he had done Jackie Robinson.  For Dan Bankhead, one day less than a month after being the winning pitcher in the first 1947 Negro League East-West All Star Game, he was on the mound in Ebbets Field.
His Major League debut was a pitching disaster.  In three and one-third innings, Bankhead gave up 8 runs and 10 hits in the Dodgers 16 – 3 lost to the Pirates.  However, in his first Major League at bat, he hit a two run home run.  He pitched in only three more Dodger games that season, in 10 total innings he walked 8 and struck out six.
While spending the next two seasons in the Dodgers’ minor league system, Bankhead showed the form that made him a success in the Negro Leagues.  He won 20 games both in 1948 (Nashua, Class D) and 1949 (St. Paul, Class AAA), but still at times had control issues with his pitches.   The next season, 1950, was his best with the Dodgers.  In 41 games, 12 as a starting pitcher, Bankhead was 9 – 4.  He pitched 2 complete games, 1 shutout, but had a 5.50 ERA.   In 129.1 innings, he struck out 96 batters, walked 88, and gave up 16 home runs.  He pitched well enough to be in the team’s starting rotation by mid-season, but strained his shoulder and struggled the last half of the season. 

After giving up 27 hits, 14 walks, and 5 home runs in 14 innings the first part the 1951 season, Bankhead was sent to the minor leagues.   He never pitched again for a Major League team.  

What team did Dan Bankhead pitch his only Major League shutout against in 1950? 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Negro League baseball history fact for today - Walt Calhoun

Walter “Walt” Calhoun, born on August 21, 1911 in Union City, Tennessee, pitched for 10 Negro League baseball teams.  The 5’ 9” 180 pound southpaw was known for having good control over the variety of his pitches.
He first played for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1931, the last year of the original Negro National League.  In 1932, Calhoun pitched in the Negro Southern League with first the Memphis Red Sox and then the Montgomery Gray Sox.  By 1937, he was in the revived Negro National League (NNL) with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and split 1938 between the Washington Pilots and the Indianapolis ABCs ; the latter team being in the newly formed Negro American League (NAL).
Calhoun’s best years were 1939 and 1940 with the St. Louis/New Orleans Stars.  Chosen for the 1940 Negro League East-West All Star Game, he pitched two and one-half innings giving up six hits and six runs in the West All Stars’ 11 – 0 loss.  
He finished his career pitching for the New York Black Yankees and Philadelphia Stars in 1942 and then in 1946 with the Cleveland Buckeyes.
What future Major League player was the only pitcher on the West quad not to give up a run in the 1940 Negro League All Star Game?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Today's African American fact from baseball's "Golden Era"

On August 20, 1948 before a crowd of 78,382 at Municipal Stadium, their home field, the Cleveland Indians beat the Chicago White Sox 1 – 0.  The Indian pitcher who shut the White Sox out that night was former Negro Leaguer Leroy “Satchel” Paige.   After being the most recognized hurler in Negro League baseball during the 1930s and 1940s, Paige had signed with the Indians earlier that summer.
He held the White Sox to only three hits that 1948 August night, two singles and one double.  Paige struck out five and walked only one.  Former Negro Leaguer Larry Doby, the Indians’ centerfielder, knocked in the only run Paige needed in the bottom of the fourth inning with a single.  “Satchel” and Doby were the only African American players in the American League at that time. 
It was Paige’s second shutout of the White Sox that month.  On August 12 he beat them 5 – 0 before 51,013 in attendance at Chicago’s Comisky Park.  In each of his seven games as the Indian starting pitcher that year, Paige drew record crowds.
He finished the season with a 6 – 1 record pitching three complete games.  The Indians won the American League pennant and went on to be the 1948 World Series champions.

How many innings did “Satchel” Paige pitch in the 1948 World Series?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Today's African American fact from baseball's "Golden Era" - Bob Thurman

On August 18, 1956, the Cincinnati Reds hit eight home runs in a 13 – 4 victory over the Milwaukee Braves.  The Reds eight home runs in one game, played at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, tied the Major League record at that time.  Three of the Reds’ home runs were hit by former Negro League outfielder Bob Thurman.
After leaving military service in 1946, Thurman was signed by the Homestead Grays as a left handed pitcher.  However, he proved to be a better power hitter and became the team’s regular centerfielder.  In 1948, Thurman hit over .300 to help the Grays win the last Negro League World Series Championship defeating the Birmingham Giants.  He started the 1949 season with the Kansas City Monarchs, but was sold to the New York Yankees on July 29.  Thurman was the first African American player signed by the Yankees.

After six years in the Yankees and then Chicago Cubs minor league system, he was signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1955 who believed him to be in his early 30s.  But after the Major League teams began looking to sign African Americans, many Negro League players lowered their stated age to be a more attractive prospect.  Thurman told the Yankees he was 26 when they signed him in 1949.  He was actually 38 when the Reds signed him.  He played mainly as a pinch hitter and reserved outfielder.   He hit .285 with eight homes and twenty-two RBIs for that year and hit 16 home runs in 1957.  The Reds released Thurman on April 21, 1959, he as 42 years old.     

After hitting a double in the third inning that August day in 1956, Thurman hit home runs in the fifth, seventh, and eighth innings.  He had four RBIs. 

What African American Hall of Famer hit multiple home runs for the Reds also that day?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Negro League baseball history fact for today - Sherwood Brewer

Sherwood Brewer was so versatile he played multiple infield positions and in the outfield.  Although born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on August 16, 1923, Brewer learned to play baseball while growing up in Centralia, Illinois.   After playing on military teams while in the Army during World War II, Brewer signed with the Harlem Globetrotters’ baseball team in 1946 and the New York Cubans in 1948.
For the next three years he played the Indianapolis Clowns.  Brewer was selected to play in the Negro League East–West All Star Game in 1949 as an outfielder, 1950 as a third baseman, and 1951 as a shortstop. 
After one year with a minor league team in white organized baseball, Brewer went back to the Negro Leagues and played with the Kansas City Monarchs.  He had to switch over to second base because the Monarchs had a kid named Ernie Banks at shortstop.  Brewer made his final East-West All Star Game appearance in 1953 at second base.  He was selected to four All Star Games at four different positions.
Brewer retired after playing minor league baseball in 1955 and 1956.  He died in Chicago on June 22, 2003.
What African American second baseman was a part of the double play combo with Ernie Banks for the Chicago Cubs from 1953 – 1957?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Negro League baseball history fact for today - Alton King

Born on August 14, 1922, Alton King lived most of his life in Detroit although he as born in Thomaston, Georgia.  King played on African American baseball teams in Detroit during the 1940s that were not officially a part of the Negro National League (NNL) or Negro American League (NAL).  The Kansas City Monarchs, Homestead Grays, and other Negro League teams scheduled exhibition games against local black teams like the ones in Detroit and other cities during the season.  The games did not count in the league standings, but generated additional revenue for the Negro League teams and provided entertainment for the black baseball fans in that city.

King, a shortstop, first played with Detroit’s Motor City Kings beginning in 1942 and become the team’s player/manager by 1945.  After playing for the Detroit Wolves from 1946 – 1949, he retired from baseball to get a more secure job to take care of his family. 
The local black team I remember growing up in my hometown during the early 1960s was the Kansas City Giants.  On Sunday’s the word would get around that the Giants would be playing at either Heathwood Park or Waterway.  One of my neighbors pitched for the Giants at that time.  The team’s origin went back to the first decade of the 20th Century; however it was never a part of an official national Negro League.
What’s the name(s) of the local African American team(s) that were in your hometown? 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Negro League baseball history fact for today - John Miles

Born on August 11, 1922 in San Antonio, Texas, John “Mule” Miles was a power hitting outfielder for the Chicago American Giants from 1946 – 1948.  A basketball star in high school and junior college, Miles served in the military beginning in 1942.  He was stationed in Tuskegee, Alabama and worked as an airplane mechanic for the Tuskegee Airman; the first black military air unit.
After military service in 1946 on the suggestion of a friend, Miles attended a tryout for the Chicago American Giants and made the team.  An adequate outfielder with a strong throwing arm, Miles was best known for his power hitting.  His manager gave him the nickname “Mule” because, “he swung harder than a mule kicked”.   In 1947, the right handed slugger hit 11 home runs in 11 straight games.

A member of the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fames and the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame, John Miles died on May 24, 2013 in San Antonio.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Negro League baseball history fact for today - Luke Easter

Luscious “Luke” Easter, born on August 4, 1915 in Jonestown, Mississippi, was a left handed power hitting first baseman that became the 11th Negro League ballplayer in the Major Leagues.  At 6’4” and 240 lbs., Easter was slow with a limited range defensively and a weak arm.  However, few players could hit a baseball further than big Luke. 
Easter learned to play baseball on the sandlots of St. Louis after his family moved there when he was a small child.  After a short stint in the Army due to a previous leg injury, Easter played with the Cincinnati Crescents in 1946.  Looking for a power hitter to replace Josh Gibson who had died during that winter, the Homestead Grays signed Easter in the spring of 1947.  With Buck Leonard at first base, it did not help the Grays defensively as big Luke had to play in the outfield.  But he gave the Grays the additional powerful bat they needed and in 1948 the team won its last pennant and the Negro League World Series Championship.    
After Easter’s 1948 successful season with the Grays, the Cleveland Indians signed him.  He made his Major League debut on August 11, 1949.  From 1950 – 1952, Easter and former Negro League player Larry Doby gave the Indians a power hitting duo.  During those years, big Luke averaged 28 home runs and 102 RBIs.  He hit some of the longest home runs seen in Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium. 
Age, he was 37, and nagging injuries caused his performance to decline in 1953 and the Indians released him early the next season.
The victim of a failed robbery attempt, Luke Easter was shot and killed in Euclid, Ohio on March 29, 1975.   

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Negro League baseball history fact for today - Wilmer Fields

Wilmer Leon Fields, born on August 2, 1922 in Manassas, Virginia, fulfilled his childhood dream of playing Negro League baseball.  The 6’3”, 215 pound right handed pitcher played his entire Negro League career with the Homestead Grays, 1940 – 1950.  Fields was the Grays ace pitcher from 1946 to 1948, the team’s last good years.  His pitching helped the Grays defeat the Birmingham Black Barons four games to one in the last Negro League World Series in 1948.  He also appeared in the Negro League East – West All Star Game that year.
Fields refused three offers to play for Major League teams; the New York Yankees in 1948, the Washington Senators in 1949, and the St. Louis Browns in 1952.  He was fulfilling his dream of playing Negro League baseball and believed those contract offers were not more beneficial for his family.  After the Homestead Grays were disbanded in1949, Fields spent the next years playing in the Canadian League.
However, he did play with the St. Louis Browns’ International League team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in 1953 and was in the minor league system of other Major League teams in 1956 and 1957. 
Fields died on June 4, 2004 in his hometown of Manassas.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Negro League baseball history fact for today - Frank Grant

African American players were not welcome in professional baseball prior to the beginning of the 20th Century due to racial prejudice and discrimination.  However, the “invisible color line” that would keep them out of Major League baseball for nearly half the new century was not completely drawn prior to 1890.   Despite the adverse racial attitudes against them, there were eight known African-American players on white teams at the highest levels of organized professional baseball during the 1880’s; John W. “Bud” Fowler, Moses Fleetwood Walker, Weldy Walker, Robert Higgins, Richard Johnson, George Stovey, Sol White, and  Ulysses F. (Frank) Grant.

Born on August 1, 1865 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Frank Grant was not only the best of those eight but also one of the best baseball players of that era.  At 5’7” and 155 pounds, he was more than just a singles hitter with speed.  He stroked  doubles, triples, and even home runs during baseball’s “dead ball” era when the center core of the ball was soft and did not carry far when hit.  An acrobatic fielder with a strong throwing, Grant played mostly second base but when needed also handled third base and shortstop.

After the “invisible color line” became solidly entrenched, Grant played for the Cuban Giants which many baseball historians believe was the first African American professional baseball team.  He also played with the Philadelphia Giants one of the best black teams of the early 20th Century.

 Frank Grant was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.