“Outrun the Word of God”

Sam Jethroe playing for the Braves

Sam Jethroe playing for the Braves

A lot of players who first integrated Major League Baseball teams are famous only for that. Some go on to glory, some into obscurity. Some, like Sam Jethroe make their mark both on the field and later in life and change baseball’s financial system in doing so.

Sam Jethroe was born in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1918. He was a star at his local (segregated) high school, excelling in baseball and football. After graduating he played semi-pro ball locally, getting a 1938 cup of coffee with the Indianapolis ABC’s. In 1942 he made it to the Cincinnati Buckeyes as a switch-hitting, speedy, weak armed outfielder who could, in the words of one contemporary, “outrun the word of God.” In 1943, the Buckeyes moved to Cleveland, where they remained for the remainder of Jethroe’s Negro League career.

The Buckeyes were never one of the strongest Negro American League. Jethroe was one of the players who changed that. In 1942 Jethroe made his first East-West Game. He won batting titles in 1944 and 1945, pairing both titles with the league lead in stolen bases and in hits, all while tending bar in the off-season. The 1945 Buckeyes won the NAL pennant, then swept Homestead in the Negro World Series. They picked up another pennant in 1947, Jethroe’s last full season with the Buckeyes, but lost the Negro World Series to the Cubans.

For Jethroe, 1948 was a watershed season. While still playing a few games with Cleveland, he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. He spent most of the season at Montreal, and followed 1948 up with another year in Canada. He had OPS ratings of .858 and .923 his two years in Montreal, and stole 89 bases in 1949. He couldn’t make it to Brooklyn despite those numbers. He played center field and the Dodgers had just brought up Duke Snider. Why they didn’t make Jethroe the fourth outfielder I don’t know. Whatever the reason, he found himself traded to the Boston Braves (now the team in Atlanta) for a couple of nobodies.

In 1950 he made the Major Leagues as the Braves first black player. He was terrific. He hit .273, had an OBP of .338, led the National League with 35 stolen bases, but struck out about twice as often as he walked. His reward was the 1950 National League Rookie of the Year award (the second black player, after Jackie Robinson, to win one). He was good again in 1951 raising his batting average five points and duplicating the 35 steals to again lead the NL. He was also 34. He began slipping in 1952 and found himself back in the minors in 1953. He had a two game shot with Pittsburgh in 1954, then went back to the minors to stay. He remained in the minors through 1958 playing mostly with Toronto.

As with all Negro League players, his Negro League stats are incomplete. What we have shows 219 at bats. In those at bats he had a triple slash line of .283/.323/.406. He had 62 hits, two home runs, and nine steals. Considering his stolen base propensity in the Major Leagues, obviously a lot of stats are missing.

His Major League numbers show a triple slash line of .261/.337/.418 for an OPS of 755 (OPS+ of 107). He had 737 total bases over 460 total hits with 80 doubles, 25 triples, and 49 home runs. He scored 280 runs, had 181 RBIs, and stole 98 stolen bases. He was also 33 when he arrived in Boston..

After retirement, Jethroe worked in an Erie, Pennsylvania factory, opened a bar, and complained  about not getting a pension. Pension rights were based on Major League service and because Negro League players were excluded from the Majors, few of them were eligible for one. Jethroe, in 1991, sued the Major Leagues demanding a pension. He lost the case, but in what may be his most important achievement in baseball, got the attention of Major League leadership. It took until 1997, but Negro League players not otherwise eligible for a pension were granted stipends. Jethroe received a pension until his death in 2001.

Sam Jethroe is not in the Hall of Fame and probably shouldn’t be. He is, however, very important. Mostly he is known for integrating the Braves, but he is also important as the second black player, and the first to spend significant time in the Negro Leagues, to win the Rookie of the Year award (Jackie Robinson spent only one year in the Negro Leagues). But equally important is his stand for compensation for Negro Leaguers who were unable to play in the Major Leagues simply because of their tan. Getting these men a pension, even a small one, was of significance and for that alone Jethroe should be remembered.

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2 Responses to ““Outrun the Word of God””

  1. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    Although I’ve often seen the name Sam Jethroe in passing, I really didn’t know much about him until I read this all. I knew that he was one of the first black players, that he won the Rookie of The Year one year, and that was about it. Thanks for an enjoyable and informative article, V.

    Glen

  2. William Miller Says:

    As always, a very informative, well-researched post. As far as black MLB players in general are concerned, I just read that only 8% of MLB players are black, as opposed to 28% back in 1975. That stunned me. It’s the lowest percentage since Eisenhower was President. MLB certainly has a lot of work to do to attract black kids back to MLB.
    Nice work,
    Bill

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