Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Negro League baseball history fact for today - Al Spearman

There is no dispute that Alvin “Al” Spearman was born August 26 in Chicago, Illinois.  However, where most records show 1931 as the year, some conflicting information says 1926.  Spearman cut his baseball teeth in the semi-professional Chicago industrial leagues before joining the Chicago American Giants of the Negro American League (NAL) after the 1949 season.

Physically at 6’1” and 185 pounds, he was a right handed pitcher that threw side armed.  Unlike some of the best Negro League hurlers, Spearman did not have a blazing fast ball to overpower and strikeout batters.  Instead, his best pitch was a sinkerball.  When he threw it with excellent control he was a good pitcher as opponents would hit the ball on the ground to his infielders and be thrown out.

During his time with American Giants, 1950 and 1951, Spearman also briefly played with the Kansas City Monarchs.  In Spearman’s short stay with the team, Elston Howard of future New York Yankee fame was his roommate. 

The Chicago White Sox signed Spearman after the 1951 season.  He then encountered the obstacles faced by many of the African American and dark skinned Latino players signed by Major League teams in the 1950s.  The pace of integration was slow and most of the players signed were not steadily progressed through the teams’ minor league systems.  In addition, although not formerly stated, there existed a specific limit (quota) as to the number of them on each Major League roster.  Feeling lost in the White Sox minor league system, Spearman left after the 1954 season to play in Japan.

He returned in 1956 and continued his career in the minor leagues.  At the Class C level Spearman had his best years winning 18 games in 1956 and 20 games in 1958.  In 1960 he was signed by his hometown Chicago Cubs Class AAA minor league team, the Houston Buffs.  However, Spearman had confrontations with the team management in which he felt had racial overtones.  In addition, he had to encounter “Jim Crow” racial discrimination laws while in Houston.  Before the season ended, Spearman left the team and did not return to playing professional baseball.

What three other former Negro League players were on the 1959 Houston Buff’s team with Al Spearman?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Seeing both a baseball sunset and new dawning - "Choo-Choo" Coleman

The on field statistics of Clarence “Choo-Choo” Coleman; born August 25, 1937 in Orlando, Florida, do not make his baseball career anything special.  But it is the timing of when he played and the teams in which he was on that draws interest when his name is mentioned.  He experienced the sunset of Negro League baseball and the dawning of a new Major League franchise.

Coleman was first signed in 1955 by the Washington Senators who had their Class D minor league team in Orlando.  The Senators were in the American League which as a whole by 1955 as compared to the National League was slower in signing African American and dark skinned Latino ballplayers. The “invisible color line” which kept Major League baseball segregated for nearly half the 20th Century had been erased in 1947, but there were still two American League teams without Black or Latino players the year Coleman was signed; the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. 

Going nowhere in the Senators’ minor league organization, Coleman signed with the Indianapolis Clowns midway through the 1956 season.  By the mid-1950s, integration had killed Negro League baseball by draining it of the best players and stealing the interest of black baseball fans.  The Clowns had become the “Harlem Globetrotters” of baseball when Coleman joined them.  The former Negro American League (NAL) team hectically travelled from city to city to compete against semi-professional and amateur squads while performing on field antics designed to generate laughs for fan entertainment.

By 1960, however, there were Major League teams still interested in him.  The 5’9”, 165 pounds undersized catcher was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers that year and was then drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1961.  Coleman made it to the Major Leagues in time to be on the worst team in baseball that season.  The Phillies lost 107 games.  Making his debut on April 16, 1961, Coleman hit .128 playing in 34 games.
The next season Choo-Choo would become a part of baseball history for the wrong reason as he was chosen by the National League expansion team New York Mets.  The team was 40 – 120 its first season.  And although Coleman had his best year statistically; batting .250 with six home runs and 17 RBIs in 55 games, he became a part of the popular baseball lore about the hapless 1962 Mets.  His nickname “Choo-Choo”, that Coleman says he got being a fast runner as a child, made him a fan favorite.

He was demoted to the minor leagues after he hit .178 in 1963; 3 home runs, 9 RBIs in 106 games.  Coleman returned to play briefly for the team in 1966, which would be his last season in the Major Leagues.