Posts Tagged ‘Wendell Smith’

A Review of “42”

August 8, 2013

By now I presume most of the people interested in baseball have seen the new movie “42”, the story of Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the Major Leagues. Normally I don’t spend time here reviewing new movies, but as it’s the only new major movie about baseball, I thought I’d change that. Here’s a quick review of the flick.

There are a lot of good and weak points in the movie. It’s pretty formulaic. Even if you knew nothing about Robinson as a person or about how the 1947 season went, you could probably figure out most of the plot by about 10 minutes in. The acting is uneven. Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey is terrific. As Hollywood has taken to using the “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar to reward older actors who’ve never won an Oscar it’s possible we’re looking at an Academy Award nomination for Ford (and maybe a win).The two actors playing Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) both do good jobs, but the actress playing Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie) didn’t impress me. I think part of the problem is that I remember Ruby Dee in the old 1950s “Jackie Robinson Story” and Dee was wonderful. Christopher Meloni’s rendition of Leo Durocher was good but it was a really small part. Alan Tudyk’s Ben Chapman is suitably odious as the lead antagonist from another team. One of the better aspects of the film is Chapman’s utter incomprehension as to why he is being considered a villain. Most of the players, without reference to whether they liked Robinson or not, were pretty wooden, an exception being Hamish Linklater who got the comic relief role as Ralph Branca. And Max Gail’s Burt Shotten was just fun.

There were a number of historical errors in the movie, most done for film purposes, but nonetheless they give a false impression of the events. Early on Robinson and Smith meet in Florida in 1946. The scene is written as if the two men didn’t know each other, but they had been acquaintances since at least 1944. At the end of the flick Robinson hits a home run to clinch the pennant for the Dodgers. The game in question took place 17 September 1947 and did clinch the pennant. Robinson hit a fourth inning homer to put the Dodgers ahead to stay in a 4-2 victory over Pittsburgh. The movie leaves the impression he does it late in the game and it’s the deciding run. The movie essentially tells us that Robinson’s homer won the pennant, but the pennant winning runs were scored an inning later (and Robinson was involved). It’s more dramatic the way the flick does it, but it’s not exactly right. Also the movie shows the famous “if we can’t use the restroom, we’ll fill up our bus somewhere else” scene. But the scene ends with Robinson meeting Clyde Sukeforth for the first time. The two events were unconnected.

Having said all that, it’s nice to see the movie mention the Robinson court-martial (he refused to move on a bus long before Rosa Parks), although it’s only a passing mention. The interplay between Boseman and Ford, which in many ways is the heart of the movie, is very good. And the baseball action is well choreographed, although, as with any movie about Robinson, the baseball aspects of the film are secondary to the main plot line. One of the finest scenes is between Robinson and Smith in which Smith reminds Robinson that he (Smith) can’t sit in the press box, but has to sit in the stands and type his story as he watches. It reminds Robinson of just how important his actions are in changing things.

I suggest you see “42”. It’s worth the effort and the money, if for no other reason than the atmospheric filming. Just remember to take some of the events with a grain of salt.

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The Crusader

February 2, 2011

Wendell Smith

Crusader is one of those words that’s really out of fashion today. It brings up all the images of religious zealotry and fanaticism that make people shy from it. But there is a place for crusading zeal. Wendell Smith knew where that place needed to be and he worked long and hard, with unquestioned zeal, to help accomplish the integration of American sport.

Born in Detroit in 1914, Wendell Smith graduated from West Virginia State College (a segregated university). He edited the sports page for the college newspaper, majored in journalism, and played baseball. After graduation he joined the Pittsburgh Courier the leading black newspaper in Pennsylvania in 1937. By 1938 he was sports editor. He waged a continuous campaign to integrate American sport, especially baseball.  Although individual sports like track and boxing could produce excellent black athletes like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, team sport (outside a handful of universities) was a bastion of segregation in the era. Smith argued that if black Americans could excel as individuals, they could do equally well as members of a  professional team, something players like Jackie Robinson had proved in college.

With World War II still going on, Smith hit upon the idea of having a tryout of Negro League players. He reasoned that with many of the Major League stars off at war, the teams would need the best quality talent they could get in order to win. This would be especially true of teams that were not usually in pennant contention and contenders who were losing because their best players were gone. And if they didn’t, then it showed their racism to the world.  He managed to talk Tom Yawkey’s Boston Red Sox into holding a tryout on 16 April 1945 for three black players: Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethro, and Marvin Williams. The Red Sox evaluation was that they weren’t good enough. Robinson, of course went on to win the first Rookie of the Year Award and make the Hall of Fame. Jethro also won a Rookie of the Year Award. Turns out the BoSox were right about Williams (1 out of 3) and Smith was right about racism.

Undeterred, Smith continued to support integrating baseball as the sport that would gain the most instant credibility for black players. There is no evidence that he personally influenced Branch Rickey’s move to integrate the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946-7, but Smith certainly supported the idea. His newspaper paid for Smith to accompany Robinson during both the 1946 minor league year and also during the 1947 season on team road trips. Until the arrival on Dan Bankhead in the 1947 season, Smith served as a sort of unofficial roommate and confidant of Robinson, especially in those towns where Robinson was not allowed to stay in the same hotels as the white players. His articles on the road trips are some of his best work.

In 1938 Smith applied for membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America. He was turned down. It wasn’t because he was black (Of course, it wasn’t. They just wouldn’t do that, would they?) but because his newspaper was not owned by a white person (Say what?). In 1948, the BBWAA changed its mind and Smith became its first black member. That made him the first black man who could vote for the Hall of Fame.

In the late 1940s, Smith moved to Chicago and began covering mostly boxing for a local newspaper. In 1964 he joined WGN and became the television station’s first black sports anchor. He continued to write a newspaper article or two while working on television. He died in 1972. In 1993 he was award the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing (thus getting his name in the HofF) and in 1996 his wife donated his papers to the Hall of Fame, where they are available for research.

The above should tell you I really like Wendell Smith. He’s not the greatest writer to win the Spink Award (I think Grantland Rice is), but he wa very good. His style was somewhat folksy, but his ability to cut through the nonsense to get at what he wanted is excellent. He understood the value of confrontation (ala the Red Sox episode), but could also let his prose make his case for him (like the Robinson hotel stories did). I think it took much too long to get him the Spink Award and I think he deserves to move a step beyond that. I’d like to see his full enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, plaque and all. I know a lot of people will disagree with me. After all, the man didn’t play the game. But then neither did Ban Johnson, William Hulbert, Tom Yawkey, and a lot of other members of the Hall. For what he meant to both the sport and the country, I think he should be there.

This post allows me to begin a celebration of black history month in the US with a look at a black American writer. I intend to make a few more looks at the Negro Leagues and other aspects of black baseball off and on during the month. Hope you will enjoy them.

Jackie Robinson and the Death of the Negro Leagues

February 12, 2010

There’s an old phrase I remember from years ago in my science classes (my son is fairly sure there was only alchemy that far back), “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Seems that’s true in baseball too. For years the black community wanted the integration of Major League Baseball. The columns of Wendell Smith of Pittsburgh are a wonderful read when looking at this attitude. In 1947 they got what they wanted. They also got something they didn’t, the death of the Negro Leagues.

When Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers he opened up a new pool of talent for Major League teams. Slowly, it’s true, but steadily the big league teams began signing black players and by 1959 every team had at least one on its Major League roster. For most Americans, then and now, this was progress. For the Negro Leagues it was slow and steady death. For every black player that went to the Major Leagues, there was one less white player with a job; but for every black player that went to the Major Leagues, there were also less fans in the stands at Negro League parks and that was deadly. Some estimates indicate a tripling of black faces in Ebbets Field in the first three years Robinson played in Brooklyn. If that’s true, then those fans, whose wages hadn’t changed, were not going to Negro League games and spending money at Negro League parks. In the post on Effa Manley I noted the Newark Eagles attendance dropped 52%. That’s fairly common. And if Negro League teams collapsed that put more and more black people out of work; not just players, but owners, executives, peanut sellers, etc.

Part of the loss of fan base is because of the falling off in quality of play. As more and more stars of the Negro Leagues ended up in the Majors or in the vast reaches of the Minor Leagues, the level of play in the Negro Leagues suffered. Taking a look at the 3 Negro League World Series’ beginning in 1946, the year Robinson played in Montreal preparatory to heading to Brooklyn, you can see this beginning.

In 1946 the Newark Eagles and Kansas City Monarchs squared off in the Series. By 1948 Monte Irvin and Larry Doby of the Eagles were gone to the Majors (Doby) or to the minors (Irvin). The Monarchs lost Hank Thompson, Willard Brown, and Satchel Paige (and manager Buck O’Neill became the first black coach in the Majors)  to previously all-white teams.

The aftermath of the 1947 Series saw the New York Cubans lose Minnie Minoso, Lino Donoso, Pat Scantleberry, and Jose Santiago to the white leagues and the Cleveland Buckeyes lose the services of Sam Jethroe, Quincy Trouppe, and Toothpick Sam Jones.

By the last World Series in 1948 the damage was already heavy and the two teams, the Homestead Grays and the Birmingham Black Barons, lost only three players: Luke Easter, Bob Trice, and Willie Mays (Yes, that Willie Mays). There was no Series in 1949. (A disclaimer here: I may have missed a player or two, but I think I have the majority of players off to the Majors or Minors from the six teams involved.)

Those players were being replaced by lower quality players and the leagues suffered. By 1949 the Negro National League collapsed. The Negro American League lasted into the 1950s, but was in many ways a repository of minor league talent with just a few significant players left. Independent teams were also failing. Major players like Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks were deserting the black teams for integrated Major League teams with greater prestige and more money.

A number of owners like Newark’s Effa Manley tried to stem the tide by requiring that the Major Leagues either honor Negro League contracts or pay the Negro League teams for the services of players already under contract. Most big league teams ignored her and her peers and simply signed who they wanted. In fairness to the Major League teams, the Negro League teams had not been real good at honoring each others contracts.

So within 3 years of Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Negro Leagues were on life support. Within 10 years they were moribund. A handful of black teams, many trying to make their way as baseball versions of the Harlem Globetrotters, managed to hang on into the 1960s, but the era of black baseball was over.  For every team integrated, the US moved toward a more incusive society, but for every team integrated a black team died and bunches of men were out of a job. It was a tradeoff and unintended.

In honor of Black History Month, I’ve devoted a week to black baseball. This post marks the end of my foray into the subject, at least for a while. Hope you’ve enjoyed them and learned something. I did.

Can’t use ’em

January 3, 2010

I’m a huge fan of the old sportswriter Wendell Smith. If you get a chance to read any of his stuff, take the time. Being black, he was very concerned about the integration of baseball in the 1940s. He championed Jackie Robinson and he wrote eloquently. He also put his money where his mouth was.

On 16 April 1945, Smith managed to get the Boston Red Sox to have a tryout for 3 black players at Fenway Park. The idea was that in the war-ravaged major leagues, black players of quality could give a team an edge and that white owners would do anything to win. He’s supposed to have chosen Boston because it was the cradle of American liberty and of abolitionism. Don’t know that’s true, because Smith never said it, at least that I can find, but it sounds like Smith.

So who’d he choose to represent black baseball? He took 3 players: Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams. If you know much about baseball history you know Robinson won both a Rookie of the Year award and the MVP and became a Hall of Famer. Jethroe was older, had a shorter career, but also won a Rookie of the Year award.  Williams was a Negro League second baseman/third baseman who never made it to the majors.

Again if you know much about baseball history you know that the Red Sox turned down all three players saying they couldn’t use them. Smith went back to Pittsburgh, Jethroe and Willams back to black baseball, and Robinson went on to glory. But what happened to the Red Sox in 1945?

Here’s the starting lineup for the Red Sox in 1945 (everyone who played more than 80 games): Catfish Metkovich at 1st (he led the team with 19 steals); Sketter Newsome at 2nd; Eddie Lake at short; Jack Tobin at 3rd; an outfield of John Lazor (who led the team in hitting at 310), Leon Culberson, and Bob Johnson (who led the team with 12 home runs); Bob Garbark as catcher; and Tom McBride a backup outfielder and first baseman who played 100 games and his 305. No other position player appeared in 80 games.

How’d they do? They finished 71-83 in 7th place (in an 8 team league) 17.5 games behind the pennant winning Tigers. So let’s see now, let me get this straight. The Sox couldn’t use a future Hall of Famer and a future Rookie of the Year (actually 2 of those) but could use Culberson  who hit 275 with 6 home runs, 45 RBIs, and 4 stolen bases in Jethroe’s normal position; Newsome who hit 290 with 1 home run, 48 RBIs, and 6 stolen bases in what was to become Robinson’s normal position; and Tobin who hit 252 with no home runs, 21 RBIs, and 2 stolen bases in what was Williams’ normal Negro League position. I guess that makes sense to somebody, just not me.

Despite some earlier posts on this site that might have led to other conclusions, I’m not a particular Red Sox fan. This kind of thing is part of the reason why. It would take Boston until 1959, 12 (count ’em 12) years after the Brooklyn Dodgers brought up Jackie Robinson, to finally integrate their Major League team. Between 1918 and 2004 the Red Sox never won a World Series. Part of the reason may have been the “Curse of the Bambino”, but there was certainly at least one other reason.