Posts Tagged ‘Cleveland Buckeyes’

The Grays

February 5, 2014
front of the Homestead Grays uniform

front of the Homestead Grays uniform

Negro League Baseball had a lot of teams. Many were very good, others not so good. Some were famous, others played in obscurity. Three teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, and the Monarchs (alphabetically) were the most well-known. I’ve done a post on the Crawfords and the Monarchs. It’s time to look at the Grays.

Homestead, Pennsylvania is a part of the greater Pittsburgh area. In the period just after the turn of the 20th Century, it was still outside the direct orbit of Pittsburgh. It had a thriving black community and a steel mill that was its major source of jobs. As with most steel mills, this one had a semi-pro baseball team called the Blue Ribbons. Formed in 1909, initially it  played against other industrial teams.

By 1912 the team known as the Homestead Grays (after the color of their uniforms). They’d picked up a new star in Cumberland (Cum) Posey, who quickly became manager and team secretary. He made the team into a fully professional team and moved it away from the local industrial leagues. In 1920 Posey and local businessman Charlie Walker bought the Grays. That same year they made an agreement with the Pirates that allowed the Grays to use Forbes Field, the Pirates’ home field, for games when the Pirates were out-of-town. Having a Major League facility available for games helped make the Grays profitable. Between 1919 and 1928 the Grays were enormously successful as an independent barnstorming team. They stayed away from the newly formed Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League because they found it more profitable to play independent ball. By the late 1920s they were making money and playing 200 or so games a season. In 1926 they were credited with a record of 140-13 with 43 consecutive wins. Many of those games were against quality opponents, but many were also against local semi-pro teams.

Then the Great Depression hit and profits began drying up. Posey, now running the team alone, decided the Grays needed a league to insure financial stability. He helped form the American Negro League (not to be confused with the Negro American League of the 1940s). It lasted one year and folded. The Grays managed to hang on and by 1931 were fielding what was chosen by a panel of experts the finest of all Negro League teams. The roster included such Hall of Fame names as Oscar Charleston, Bill Foster, and Josh Gibson. In 1932, the Grays joined the new East-West League, but it folded midway through the season.

Homestead began losing money and was unable to meet the lavish salary offers of the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords. Many of the Grays jumped ship, most to the Crawfords, and by 1934, in order to keep the team afloat, Posey was forced to bring in a new partner. One of the wealthiest men in Homestead was Rufus Jackson, the leader of the local numbers racket. Posey made Jackson team President, while he (Posey) continued to run the team. In many circles in Pittsburgh, Jackson was seen as nothing short of a gangster, which hurt the reputation of the team. Ruined reputation or not, the team now had money and again became competitive in black baseball. And of course it still had Forbes Field.

In 1934, the Grays joined the newly established Negro National League (not to be confused with Rube Foster’s Negro National League of the 1920s). In 1935 Vic Harris replaced Posey as manager, although Posey remained team secretary (more or less equivalent to the modern general manager job). The team was an instant success, being competitive for the entire period of the NNL’s existence. In 1939 they won the NNL pennant. They were to repeat as league champions every year through 1945, then won another pennant in 1948.

The 1940s saw several major changes involving the Grays. In 1940 they made an agreement with the Washington Senators to use Griffith Stadium when the Senators were out-of-town, thus moving the team’s home field to DC (although they continued to play a few games in Pittsburgh off and on during the decade). Despite the move, they retained the Homestead name. In 1942, the participated in the revived Negro World Series (there had been games in the 1920s but none in the 1930s). They lost the first one to the Kansas City Monarchs, but won both the 1943 and 1944 Series before dropping the 1945 Series to the Cleveland Buckeyes. In 1948 they won the final Negro World Series defeating Willie Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons.

In 1946, Posey died. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. Posey’s wife and Jackson now jointly owned the team. They tried to keep it going, winning, as mentioned above, the last NNL pennant in 1948. With the NNL gone after 1948, the Grays hung on into 1950, when devoid of stars, lacking money, and short of an audience they folded.

We can argue back and forth for a long time about which team was the greatest or the most famous or the most important Negro League team. You can pick your own candidate for each category. But the odds are pretty good that in each case, you’ll have the Homestead Grays on your short list.

“Outrun the Word of God”

February 14, 2013
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.

Negro Leagues World Series, Round II

February 10, 2010

After a 13 year hiatus, the Negro Leagues restarted a postseason series. The old Eastern Colored League was gone, replaced by the Negro American League. The Negro National League had been revived and by 1942 the two leagues agreed to work together, at least enough to play a World Series. Unlike the 1920’s series’ the new set would be four games out of seven for victory. The series’s ran from 1942 through 1948. The premier American League teams were the Kansas City Monarchs, the Birmingham Black Barons, and the Cleveland Buckeyes. In the National League, the New York Cubans and Newark Eagles each had good seasons, but the league was dominated by the Homestead Grays, who played in 5 of the 7 World Series’. Ironically both the Cubans and Eagles won their series’ while the Grays went 3-2. Below is a short summary of each series:

1942: Kansas City Monarchs defeat the Homestead Grays 4 games to none. Timely hitting by players like Buck O’Neill and Newt Allen, coupled with Hall of Fame pitching by Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith shut down the Grays power in a sweep. Grays players Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Sam Bankhead, Jud Wilson couldn’t get timely hits, while pitcher Ray Brown was vulnerable.

1943; The Grays win a seven game series against the Birmingham Black Barons 4 games to 3. The power hitting Grays, supplemented by an aging but still fast Cool Papa Bell squeak out a victory against a Barons team that featured Double Duty Radcliffe still playing after starring in the 1920s World Series.

1944: The Grays pound the Barons again, this time winning in five games.

1945: The Cleveland Buckeyes win their first pennant and stun the Grays in a four game sweep. Buckeyes stars Quincy Trouppe,  future National League Rookie of the Year Sam Jethroe, and Arch Ware proved you could beat the Grays without great power.

1946: The Newark Eagles dethrone the Grays to win the Negro National League title. With future Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Biz Mackey (yes, he was still around), and Leon Day, the Eagles take on the Kansas City Monarchs of Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Buck O’Neill, Chet Brewer, and Hank Thompson. The Eagles and Monarchs battle for the full seven games before Leon Day wins game seven making the Eagles champs. It was a unique series for two reasons. It was the only Word Series won by a team with a female owner, Effa Manley, and the last series before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

1947: The New York Cubans make the series for the only time in their history. Their Latin based roster includes Luis Tiant (father of the later American League pitcher), Minnie Minoso, Jose Fernandez, and pitcher Dave Barnhill. They face off against the Buckeyes who had won it all two years previously. Trouppe, Ware, and Jethroe were still around and were joined by pitcher Toothpick Sam Jones. The Cubans won 4 games to 1. The season had been rocked by the arrival of Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn and the departure of the first black players to the white leagues.

1948: The Grays returned to the series for the first time since 1945. Gibson was gone, but Leonard and Bankhaead were still around. They were joined by power hitting outfielder Luke Easter. They took on the Black Barons, also returning to the series, for the first time since 1944. Most of their old gang was gone, but they had a new outfielder named Willie Mays who looked promising. Despite Mays, the Barons lost 4 games to 1, thus giving the Grays the last Negro League World Series title.

After 1948 the Negro Leagues floundered. The National League folded, the American League hung on as nothing much more than a minor league. Many teams took to being independent and went back to barnstorming. The era of the great Negro League teams was over. So was their World Series.