Saturday, December 17, 2016

Remembering "Sad" Sam Jones

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Past feature articles, game summaries, and game box scores of African-American newspapers indicate there were at least 29 no-hitters thrown in Negro League baseball.  Most notably there were two by Satchel Paige and one each by Hilton Smith, Andy Cooper, “Smoky” Joe Williams, and Leon Day; all Hall of Fame pitchers.  The “invisible color line” that kept African–American ballplayers out of the Major Leagues was not erased until 1947 which was too late for these and many other good Negro League hurlers who were by then either dead or passed their prime.  But there were younger Negro League pitchers that got their opportunity in the Major Leagues; “Toothpick” Sam Jones was one of them.  He is the only former Negro League pitcher to throw a Major League no-hitter. 

Born 12/14/25 in Stewartsville, Ohio, Jones also spent a portion of his youth in West Virginia.  He left for military service before starting the life of a coal mine worker as were many of his family members and friends.  He played with a local black team while stationed in Orlando, Florida in 1947 and caught the eye of Quincy Trouppe, manager of the Negro American League (NAL) Cleveland Buckeyes.  Jones signed in time to help the team win the NAL pennant, but they lost to the New York Cubans in the 1947 Negro League World Series.  He got his nickname from having a toothpick in his mouth while on the pitching mound. 
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It would be 1950 when the Cleveland Indians finally noticed the talented right-handed hurler that had been in their own backyard.  However, Jones pitched in only 16 games with the Indians in four years before being traded to the Chicago Cubs after the 1954 season.  Once in the National League, the talent Jones proved what he had done in the Negro Leagues not to be a fluke.   Opponents claimed Jones, a power pitcher standing at 6’4” and weighing 200 pounds, had the best curveball in the National League.  He faced hitters with a never changing, expressionless look on his face which resulted in him also being called “Sad” Sam.  That is the nickname I mostly remember.  But opponents also said Jones had a mean streak exhibited by his pitches; he hit 14 batters in 1955 (league leader).  There was an ongoing intense confrontation whenever Henry Aaron faced Jones that is well documented.  Jones struggled at times with control of his pitches; he led the National League in walks four times.  But he also could be overpowering; being the league leader in strikeouts three years and pitching 17 shutouts in his 12 year Major League career.  He became a two time National League All-Star, winning 21 games with the San Francisco Giants in 1959 and 18 in 1960.
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But it was on May 12, 1955 as a Chicago Cub that Jones pitched himself into the Major League Baseball record book with a 4-0 no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It was a “Sam Jones” pitched type of game.  He struck out six batters, walked seven, threw a Wild Pitch, and was helped with two double plays.  In the ninth inning, he walked the first three hitters before striking out the final three.

He retired after pitching with the Baltimore Orioles in 1964, the sixth team he played with in the Major Leagues;  Cleveland Indians 1951 – 1952,  Chicago Cubs 1955 – 1956, St. Louis Cardinals 1957 – 1958 and 1963, San Francisco Giants 1959 – 1961, and Detroit Tigers 1962.  On November 5, 1971, the 45 years old Jones died of throat cancer.

“Sad “Sam Jones won 102 games in the Major Leagues.  He lost 101.  No doubt the inconsistent control of his pitches cost him victories early in his career, but he still had 1,376 career strikeouts.  And no former Negro League pitcher, other than Don Newcombe, had the success in the Major Leagues as Sam Jones.

To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown:  The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  To order go to (

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Hank Thompson: Played a Role in the Integration of Major League Baseball

In my opinion, Hank Thompson does not get the notice he deserves in the integration of Major League baseball.  Playing with the St. Louis Browns in the summer of 1947, he followed closely on the coat tails of Jackie Robinson (after two months and two days) and Larry Doby (after two days) to break through the “invisible color line” that had kept African American and dark-skinned Latinos out of Major League baseball.  Although the Browns released him that summer, Thompson’s talent could not be denied and he went on to have a productive eight   year Major League career with the New York Giants.  Born on December 8, 1925 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the left handed hitting Henry Curtis Thompson played a part in the historic changing of baseball’s face. 

Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League on April 15, 1947 to become the first African American to play in the Major Leagues in the 20th Century.  At that time, Hank Thompson was in his second season with the Kansas City Monarchs since returning from the military after World War II. He had begun playing Negro League baseball in 1943 as a teenaged outfielder with the Monarchs before the military draft.  The potential as a ball player he exhibited before military service was coming to fruition.  On July 5 of that year, Larry Doby played his first game with the Cleveland Indians to become the first African American to play in the American League.

Seeing the large crowds Jackie Robinson attracted to ballparks, the St. Louis Browns purchased the contracts of Hank Thompson and his teammate Willard Brown from the Monarch.  The Browns were the worst team in the American League with attendance below 1,000 fans during many home games.  The team’s management hoped having the black players would generate fan interest.  Thompson played his first Major League game on July 17.   On July 20, he and Brown made history as St. Louis became the first team to field two African American players.  Their teammates refused to accept them and Browns’ manager Muddy Ruel only used the black players sparingly.  The integration experiment did not attract the crowds as desired.  With no intention of helping to nurture their baseball talents as the Dodgers did for Robinson and the Indians would do for Doby, the Browns released both Thompson and Brown on August 23.  Although he did not get a fair opportunity with the Browns, Thompson showed promise hitting .256 in 27 games playing mainly second base.  At only 21 years old, he would get another opportunity to play in the Major Leagues.  Unfortunately, being 32 years old, Willard Brown did not.

Thompson returned to the Kansas City Monarchs for the 1948 season and received his second chance the next year when signed by the New York Giants.  He along with Monte Irvin made their Major League debuts on July 8, 1949 to become the first African Americans to play for the Giants.  In 1950, his first full year with the team, Thompson hit .289 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs while playing 148 games mainly at third base and was considered one of the best in league at that position.  But he also played in the outfield as he did with the Monarchs.  In 1951, the Giants won the National League pennant and played in the World Series against the New York Yankees.  Thompson played alongside Monte Irvin and rookie Willie Mays as the Giants become the first team in World Series history to field an all African American starting outfield. 
When Mays left for military service, Thompson hit 17 home runs in 1952 and 24 home runs batting .302 in 1953.   When Mays returned in 1954, Thompson hit .263 with 26 home runs and 86 RBIs to help the Giants win the National League pennant.  In the team’s World Series sweep of the Cleveland Indians, he hit .364 with seven walks (a four game Series record) and made a spectacular fielding play at third base in Game Three.

Throughout his playing career Thompson battled with alcoholism.  By 1956 it dramatically took its toll on him.  He became so unproductive the Giants sent him to the minor leagues late in the 1956 season and he retired from baseball in 1957.  He died on September 3, 1969, only 43 years old. 

Hank Thompson does not have a plaque in Cooperstown as does his former teammates on the New York Giants; Willie Mays and Monte Irvin.  However, he should be remembered as one of the Negro League players who proved that once given the opportunity, he belonged in the Major Leagues.  His success kept the door open for others to follow.

To learn more about the Negro League baseball era, read “Last Train to Cooperstown:  The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”.  To order go to (