Archive for the ‘Negro Leagues’ category

Late February Free Association

February 25, 2016

I got to thinking about Connie Johnson today.  He’s one of my favorite players of all time.  His career was one great frustrations and at least a couple of great triumphs.

He was a Negro League player, who was not one of the most elite black players of his era.  He might have been, but he lost his age 20-22 seasons (he joined the Negro Leagues at age 17) to WWII, and then appears to have lost much of 1947-1950 to injuries.

He was one of the youngest players to play in the Negro League All-Star Game, and he was part of one of the great Negro League pitching rotations for the 1942 Kansas City Monarchs.

He then joined Organized (White) Baseball in 1951 at age 28 in a Class-C League, and by the time he had worked his way up the majors, he was over 30.  He had one really fine major league season in 1957 at age 34 when he went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA and finishing 8th in wins and 9th in ERA, but 4th in innings pitched (242), 3rd in strikeouts (177) and 2nd in K/BB ratio.  He pitched three shut-outs that season.

It must have been awfully gratifying for Johnson, after having lost three seasons to war and having been barred from MLB for the prime years of his career, to have had that one big season when he proved he could be an elite pitcher at the very highest level of competition.

I first became aware of Johnson because I collected baseball cards as a kid.  I never actually had a Connie Johnson baseball card, but I had an unusually large number of 1958 cards, which had the 1957 season stats on the back.  One of my teenage hobbies was trying to put together all-star teams out the baseball cards I had, by the season on the back of the cards.  I had a lot of 1958 and 1964 cards, so my 1957 and 1963 season teams were really good.

I had a McMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, and I would look to find the best seasons by players whose cards weren’t worth much, in the anticipation that I would one day add those particular cards to my collection, which I didn’t actually do (some of them, anyway) until about 20 years later.

Connie Johnson’s 1957 season was his one great season, and the more I found out about him, the more interested I became, in part because I’d never heard anything about him before I discovered his 1957 season in the context of his MLB career.

The photographs of Johnson on his baseball cards and also on the internet suggest that he was big yet kindly looking man whose face suggested that he’d been through a lot by the time he was 34.

The one player from my tremendous 1963 team, a team on which Bill Maloney is only on the cusp of making the pitching staff, worth mentioning here is Bill Daily.  Daily had one extraordinary season at age 28 when he had a 1.99 ERA with equally fantastic ratios and finished tied for 3rd in the Junior Circuit with 21 saves, while pitching more than 100 innings.

No one except stat junkies like me remember Daily in part because he pitched for the Twins in their early Minnesota years before they went to the World Series in 1965, when they were truly on the edge of the MLB universe.  Daily blew out his arm in 1964 at age 29 and didn’t pitch professionally after that season.  However, he finished his professional baseball career with a .617 winning percentage (108-67), suggesting his one great season was not entirely a fluke.

What is the Magic Word?

February 18, 2016

I was watching the boob-tube a few minutes ago, an interview of Buck O’Neil regarding the old Negro Leagues, and there was a blurb about him getting thrown out of a game by the umpire.  They then cut to an interview with the actual umpire, who said that he had ejected O’Neil because O’Neil had said the “magic word.”

I’ve wondered what the magic word is for some years.  I’ve long thought that the magic word, based on my extensive readings on baseball history, was “c***s***er,” although “m*****f***er” and “a**h**e” would also due the trick.  (If you can’t figure out what the actual words are from my redactions, you probably aren’t old enough to be reading this post in the first place.)

It turns out that there are a surprising number of internet posts on this not-so-weighty topic.  In the modern game, there is a strong argument to be made that that the magic word is “you,” as in “you [epithet of your choosing].”  Reportedly, aspiring umpires are trained in at least some places to allow managers and players to vent about calls they don’t like, but that as soon as the comments are directed toward the umpire personally rather than at the call, it’s time for the thumb.

This makes a lot of sense, as it is a bright line rule that is easy for the umpire to apply and for the player/manager in question to understand.  To any arbiter in a court of law or on a playing field, a relatively simple rule that is easy to apply and easy to understand is going to be preferable to a rule that is highly nuanced, in most circumstances.

Now that the instant replay regime is in effect, it would be interesting to know if ejections have dropped precipitously.  If the play can be challenged by instant replay, the need to vent is almost eliminated, since little is gained by it, compared to simply buying time in discussion with the umpire so that the replay guys can advise whether to make a challenge.

I would thus expect that, except for ejections resulting from hit batsmen, the number of ejections has plummeted.  On the other hand, ejections will never disappear completely because batters and catchers/pitchers cannot challenge ball-strike calls by replay.  If an umpire is calling a poor or inconsistent strike zone, players/managers will squawk, particularly if the bad/inconsistent call results in a key strikeout, walk, hit or home run.

Players/managers hate inconsistent strike zones much more than umpire strike zones that do not comply with the rules.  If an umpire calls his own peculiar strike zone consistently, then pitchers and hitters know what to expect and can make the necessary adjustments, since within a full season in a league, the players are all familiar with each umpire’s strike zone.  The only time you hear complaints about these strike zones are typically from pitchers who live on pitches thrown an inch or two of the outside corner but right at the catcher’s target, when the umpire calls a to-the-rule or tighter strike zone.

Alfredo Despaigne Re-Signs with the Chiba Lotte Marines

December 9, 2014

Cuban Slugger Alfredo Despaigne will be returning to Japan’s NPB next year, signing a two-year deal with the Chiba Lotte Marines for a reported 500 million yen ($4.11 million).  While that doesn’t sound like a lot by MLB standards, it’s a hell of a lot for a small-revenue NPB team for a player who has played only 45 NPB games to date.

Despaigne is an MLB caliber player — Kendrys Morales, who is a few years older, or Dayan Viciedo, who is s a few years younger, might be good comps — and NPB doesn’t get many MLB caliber hitters still near the prime of their careers.  Every so often they develop one from among the native population, and every so often they find a hitter like Wladimir Balentien that MLB gave up on too soon. Almost all of the others, foreign and domestic, simply don’t have enough power to be MLB regulars at the defensive positions they play.

Despaigne will be 29 next year, and I expect he’ll have a big year in NPB unless he gets hurt.  He’s listed as 5’9″ and 210lbs, so he’s stocky, which isn’t a great body type for long-term durability, but he isn’t enormous, and he isn’t 30 yet either.

The Yokohama Bay Stars are also working hard on bringing back Yulieski Gurriel for what has been reported as around 300 million yen ($2.47 million) for one year.  Gurriel is two years older than Despaigne, but from what I understand has much more defensive value than Despaigne.  Gurriel played mostly 2B for the Bay Stars in 2014.

If the Bay Stars aren’t able to re-sign Gurriel, it is likely another NPB team will.  The Yomiuri Giants, far and away NPB’s wealthiest and most popular team, are reported be interested in Gurriel.

If the actual contracts are anywhere close to what Despaigne and Gurriel are reported to be getting, it will make them fabulously wealthy by Cuban standards even if the Cuban Government gets a cut significantly bigger than 50%.  While these contracts may pale by comparison to the deals the top Cuban defectors receive to play in MLB, a $1 million goes much farther in Cuba than it does in the U.S.

The question, I guess, is whether we start seeing more elite Cuban players electing to play in NPB rather than having to leave Cuba forever (or at last for a very long time), as is the case for the defectors.  In terms of culture, the defectors can buy palatial estates in South Florida and have all the Cuban culture they want, at least during the off-season.  However, most of them have to leave their families behind at a minimum for many years.  That can’t be easy no matter how well you are paid.

Obviously, the main limitation on elite Cuban players going to Japan is the fact that NPB teams have a roster cap of four foreign players to team.  Many of those spots are going to 4-A players from the Americas, Koreans and Taiwanese players.  In fact, a number of Cuban defectors who were shade too old when they fled or not quite good enough for MLB are playing in NPB right now.

Also, the salaries that Despaigne and Gurriel can apparently command are not salaries that any NPB team except the Yomuiri Giants, the Hanshin Tigers and the Softbank Hawks are willing to pay to more than one of their foreign players.  That would leave the maximum number of roster spots on NPB teams at about 15.

For the very best Cuban players, the allure of MLB has got to be great.  The money is unbelievable, and the best players usually want to play against the best.  That said, I would think there is easily room for another six or eight elite Cuban players to play in NPB in the relatively near future.

P.S. I just saw something somewhere suggesting that the Cuban Serie Nacional is sort of like the old U.S. Negro leagues in the sense that the spread of talent is enormous.  In other words, the best players in Cuba are world-class, but at least one MLB scout says that the worst pitchers in the Serie Nacional are little better than American high school pitchers.

That may be true if the American high school pitchers we’re talking about are the ones playing in professional rookie league ball the year after they graduate high school. With 16 top-league teams in a country of only 11 million people, the talent at the bottom of Serie Nacional rosters is probably pretty thin.

The Pacific Coast League’s First Black Stars, Part III

July 19, 2013

This is the last part of my series on the Pacific Coast League’s first black stars in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.  You can find the first two parts of this series and a related article on John Ritchey here, here and here.

Once the Oakland Oaks had found success with Artie Wilson in 1949, the Oaks were as quick to add more black players as the San Diego Padres had been only months earlier.  Later in the 1949 season, the Oaks brought in the already 37 year old Parnell Woods.  While Woods only played 40 games for the Oaks, he hit a respectable .275 with a .751 OPS, solid numbers indeed for a 3Bman in his late 30’s.

In 1950, the Oaks brought in 31 year old catcher Ray Noble.  He hit .316 with power for the Oaks and was purchased by the New York Giants in the trade that also sent Artie Wilson (briefly) to the majors.

Noble hit .234 with a .648 OPS for the National League champion Giants and even got two at-bats in the 1951 World Series (he didn’t get a hit).  While his numbers were acceptable for a back-up catcher, the Giants wanted stars in the roster spots they willing to give to black players, and the team didn’t see a future for a player Noble’s age.  He went back to the Oaks in 1952 and had another good season.  However, he was apparently on a one-year assignment from the Giants (the Oaks were still an independent club), because Noble played for the Giants’ top farm club, the Minneapolis Millers, in 1953.

Half way through the 1951 season, the Oaks brought in Piper Davis, yet another over-30 former Negro League star.  Although Davis was already 33 years old when he joined the Oaks and wasn’t quite a hitter of the caliber of Artie Wilson or Ray Noble, Davis was an extremely useful jack-of-all-trades player who could fill in at just about every position on the diamond.  As such, he was able to play successfully for the Oaks for all or part of five seasons.  He effectively finished his professional career with the Los Angeles Angels in the years immediately preceding the Dodgers’ move to the West Coast.

In 1949, the Los Angeles Angels signed former Kansas City Monarchs and Mexican League ace, Booker McDaniels, who was already 35 years old.  McDaniels went 8-9 with a 4.21 ERA for the ’49 team.  The Angels brought him back in 1950, but he went 3-4 with an ugly 6.49 ERA mostly in relief and that ended his organized baseball career.

In mid-1950, the Los Angeles Angels, a team owned by Phil Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, were assigned Gene Baker, a 25 year old 2Bman who had gotten off to a good start that year at the Cubs’ Western League affiliate in Des Moines.  Baker was a rangy 2Bman who hit well for the position, but he made a lot of errors, and the Cubs’ management wasn’t quite ready to bring a black player to Chicago unless he was a can’t-miss player.

As a result, Baker spent parts of four seasons in L.A. until the Cubs called him up to room with fellow rookie Ernie Banks in September 1953.  Baker was the Cubs starting 2Bman for the next three seasons playing along side Banks at SS.  Banks, of course, played 19 seasons for the Cubs and became “Mr. Cub.”

Two more Coast League teams, the Sacramento Solons and the San Francisco Seals, introduced black players at the start of or early in the 1951 season.  The Solons brought in Bob Boyd, another veteran Negro Leaguer, who was known as “the Rope” (or “El Roppo” in Latin America where he played winter ball) because of his exceptional ability to hit “frozen rope” line drives.

Boyd was quite possibly a pure hitter of the caliber of Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and Ichiro Suzuki, or at the very least of the caliber of his contemporary Ferris Fain, a two-time major league batting champion.  Although Boyd was already past age 30 when he began his career in organized (white) baseball, he hit .321 in nearly 3,500 minor league at-bats, almost all of it in the high minors, and .293 in more than 1,900 major league at-bats, mostly after the age of 35.  He’d have spent more time in the majors during the 1950’s except for the facts that he was a old 1B/LF with no power — line drive singles and the occasional gapper were Bob Boyd’s game.

Signing initially with the Chicago White Sox and assigned to Sacramento, Boyd hit .342 in 1951 and led the Coast League with 41 stolen bases.  After a very short trial with the White Sox late in the year in which he went 3-for-18 in 12 games, the White Sox, who were no longer affiliated with the Solons, assigned Boyd to the Seattle Rainiers, where he joined Artie Wilson as the team’s first black players at the start of the 1952 season.  Boyd hit .320 that year and stole 33 bases, second only to the Hollywood Stars’ Carlos Bernier, who is discussed below.

Also in 1951, the San Francisco Seals obtained Bob Thurman, a big, strong left-handed hitting LF/1B probably bigger than his listed 6’1″ and 205 lbs, who had originally been signed by the New York Yankees in July 1949.  Thurman was 32 years old then, but he told the Yankees he was only 26, much as Luke Easter had done with the Indians around the same time.

Despite a promising half-season at Newark in 1949, the Yankees moved Thurman to the Cubs.  Thurman didn’t have as good a season at the International League’s Springfield (Mass.) team in 1950, and the Cubs assigned him to the Seals in the PCL in 1951.

Thurman batted .274 and .280 in his two seasons in San Francisco, but he didn’t hit with nearly as much power as everyone had been hoping for.  He then dropped out of organized baseball entirely, instead spending two years playing in a new summer league in the Dominican Republic.  Thurman then returned to the U.S. and spent four successful seasons as a platoon player and pinch-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds from 1955 through 1958.

The Sacramento Solons and the Hollywood Stars in 1952 became the last two PCL teams to integrate.  The Stars’ first “black” player was Puerto Rican center fielder Carlos Bernier, whose complexion was only slightly lighter than the more famous Puerto Rican ballplayer Roberto Clemente.

Bernier began his organized baseball career in 1948 at age 21, originally as a St. Louis Browns’ farm-hand.  The Pittsburgh Pirates obtained him the next year, and Bernier gradually worked his way up through the Bucs’ system.

In 1952, he was assigned to the Stars, which had become a Pirates’ affiliate that year.  Bernier immediately became a star, batting .301 with a league-leading 65 stolen bases and scoring 105 runs in 171 games played.

The Pirates promoted Bernier to the parent club in 1953 and made him their regular center fielder.  Bernier responded with a horrible year in which he batted only .213.  While he stole 15 bases that year, good for sixth in the Senior Circuit, but he was caught stealing 14 times which tied with fellow rookie Junior Gilliam for the league lead.

Bernier’s .332 on-base percentage was actually fairly good for a center fielder, but OBP wasn’t a statistic anyone was paying attention to in 1953.  The ’53 Bucs went 50-104 with the 26 year old Bernier in center, and that was the only season he played even one game in the majors.

Bernier was sent back to Hollywood in 1954, and he became a great minor league star, ultimately playing all or most of eleven PCL seasons, the first five with the Stars, and after the Dodgers moved to L.A., playing for Salt Lake City and Honolulu.

While Bernier continued to be a fine top-of-the-batting-order player in the Coast League, an on-field incident in 1954 contributed to his failure ever to be recalled to the majors. In August of that year, he punched an umpire in the face after arguing a strike call and was suspended for much, if not all, of the rest of the 1954 season.  Major league teams of the 1950’s had little interest in an aging black player with a reputation as a trouble-maker.

At the time, Bernier was reportedly happy to remain playing in Hollywood.  As a true star on the Stars, then one of the Coast League’s top-drawing teams, he made as much money playing there as he had in Pittsburgh.  (Groucho Marx, one of the Stars’ many celebrity fans, famously joked that going from the first-place 1952 Stars to the last-place 1953 Pirates constituted an undeserved demotion.)  Further, the summer weather was better in California than in the Midwest, and Bernier perceived less racism playing on the West Coast than he had playing in the major leagues.

However, the long-term consequences were less sanguine.  Because Bernier played only one season in the majors, he wasn’t entitled to a major league pension after he retired.  Players who last played in the major leagues before the 1980 season needed four full years of major league service to get a pension, at least until a couple of years ago when MLB and the players’ union renegotiated pension benefits for pre-1980 retirees; even then, the changes applied mostly to those players who played in the majors after the union was formed in 1966.

By then, however, it was too late for Bernier.  Back home in Puerto Rico, he committed suicide in 1989 at age 62, in part (but only in part) due to financial problems he was having.

A few final notes — Hall of Fame 3Bman Ray Dandridge played briefly in the Coast League in 1953 at age 39 — a total of 87 games split between the Oakland Oaks and the Sacramento Solons.  He batted .268 but didn’t hit for power or draw many walks.  He retired from organized baseball after that season.

Also, almost all of the early black players in the PCL seem to have been position players.  The next black pitcher to have pitched in the Pacific Coast League after Booker McDaniels pitched for the L.A. Angels in 1949 and 1950 (at least that I have found so far) was Brooks Lawrence, who went 5-1 with a 2.37 ERA for the Oakland Oaks late in 1955, the last season of the Oaks’ existence.  Lawrence then returned to the major leagues with the Cincinnati Reds, where he won 19 games against ten losses in 1956.

Finally, the fact that the PCL integrated so much more quickly than the major leagues or the eastern minor leagues did meant that West Coast baseball fans got to see a caliber of baseball that was nearly major league level and certainly better than what any other fans who didn’t live close to a major league team got to see.

The Pacific Coast League’s First Black Stars, Part II

July 18, 2013

The last of the new black ballplayers to play for the 1949 San Diego Padres was Cuban star Minnie Minoso.  Minoso was still a relatively young 23 years old when he started the 1949 season with the Cleveland Indians.  He got off to a slow start, going 3-for-16 in only nine games before being assigned to San Diego in May.  Minoso hit .297 with 22 HRs in 137 Pacific Coast League games that year and hit even better in 1950, batting .339 with 70 extra base hits in 169 Coast League games.

The Indians could no longer keep Minnie in the minors, and he began the 1951 season in Cleveland.  However, after only eight games, the Tribe sent Minoso to the Chicago White Sox in a complicated three-team trade in which the Indians got precious little in return, at least compared to what the ChiSox and the Philadelphia A’s received.  Minoso almost immediately established himself as a big league star with the Pale Hose and went on to a long and successful major league career.

In 1950, the Padres added two more fine young black players Al Smith and Harry Simpson. Simpson had a huge year in San Diego, batting .323 with 33 home runs and 93 extra-base hits, earning him a promotion to Cleveland in 1951.  Smith played two full seasons with the Friars before eventually becoming a major league star with the Indians and White Sox starting in 1953.

The Portland Beavers were the next PCL team to sign black players, adding veteran but still reasonably young stars Art “Superman” Pennington and Puerto Rican Luis Marquez in 1949.   Pennington, a slugging outfielder who had starred the three previous seasons in the Mexican (summer) League after starting his career in the Negro Leagues, got off to a horrible start in Portland, batting only .208 with no power in 20 games and was shipped out to Salem, Oregon in the Class B Western International League.

Pennington later said that he faced a lot racism in Oregon that year, leading him to quit halfway through the season and return to the Negro Leagues.  On the other hand, Marquez, also an outfielder, had a successful season at Portland, batting .294.  He returned to Portland in 1950 and had a terrific year, batting .311, compiling 241 hits, 136 runs scored and 69 extra base hits (mostly doubles and triples) and leading the Coast League with 38 stolen bases.

After the 1950 season, the Boston Braves drafted Marquez from the Beavers.  He didn’t prove to be the next Sam Jethroe, however, batting only .197 in 68 games for the 1951 Braves and was sent back to the minor leagues, this time to the Midwest.

On the subject of racism, the first generation of black ballplayer in the PCL certainly faced prejudice in the early years of integration.  According to one anecdote, veteran Portland Beavers’ pitcher Ad Liska threw at slugger Luke Easter multiple times in one at bat with two pitches sailing behind Easter before Easter in his next at-bat hit a line drive home run to center field that nearly took Liska’s head off as it flew through the infield.  While this story appears to be greatly exaggerated (SABR’s biography on Easter claims that Liska threw at Easter eight times in a single at-bat, which is basically impossible given that four balls make a walk), it is almost certain that Easter was thrown at a great deal in 1949, given the way he was wearing out Coast League pitching and given the long-held myth/prejudice that black players didn’t have the heart to dig in and take their best cuts after being thrown at.

Artie Wilson‘s story in Oakland is more positive.  The story goes that young Oaks’ 2Bman and local boy Billy Martin offered to room with Wilson on the road shortly after Wilson joined the team.  Further, Martin allegedly let it be known that opposing players who abused or tried to injure Wilson would have to face Martin’s famous fists.  Still, according to Wilson’s own words, Coast League fans called him “every name in the book” when he first came into the league.

It’s also worth noting that Wilson’s experience with the City of Portland was different than Art Pennington’s.  Artie Wilson and his family moved to Portland, Oregon in 1955, and he spent more than 30 years working for a Portland Lincoln/Mercury dealership after his baseball career ended.

In the last part of this series, I’ll mention a few more players who helped integrate the Pacific Coast League.  You can find Part I of this series here.

The Pacific Coast League’s First Black Stars, Part I

July 18, 2013

After local boy John Ritchey joined the San Diego Padres in 1948, played well and didn’t cause any major riots or scandals, the Pacific Coast League (“PCL”) began adding black players quickly.  San Diego again led the way, but by the end of the 1949 season, the Oakland Oaks and the Portland Beavers had also signed and fielded black players.

Before the 1949 season, the San Diego Padres became affiliated with the Cleveland Indians, who under owner Bill Veeck had quickly followed Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers and began stocking his organization’s rosters with African American and Afro-Caribbean ballplayers. I assume that the Indians-Padres affiliation came about in part because the Padres had been the first team to integrate the PCL and Veeck wanted another top-tier minor league team at which to play former Negro League stars before bringing them up to the Indians.

Bear in mind that for most of the first decade of organized baseball’s integration process, major league teams, as they integrated, were initially unwilling to have more than two or three black players on their major league rosters at any given time, and the same considerations (fear of alienating their existing white fan bases by playing too many black players at the same time) likely applied to a major league organization’s minor league teams as well.

The Padres, however, had four different black players play for them for at least some time during the 1949 season.  Aside from Ritchie, these players were Luke Easter, Artie Wilson and Minnie Minoso, all of whom had played in the Negro Leagues the year before.

The biggest star at the time of these signings was Luke Easter, a famed Negro League slugger. Easter was already 33 years old in 1949, although he had told Bill Veeck he was six years younger.  In any event, Veeck signed Easter in February 1949 and assigned him to play for the San Diego Padres, either because Easter injured his knee in Spring Training or because the Indians already had two proven black players on their major league roster, Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. [By the end of the 1949, five African American and Latin ballplayers had played for the Indians for at least some part of that season, not counting light-skinned Chicano Mike Garcia, who had started in organized baseball in 1942.]

Easter’s prowess as a slugger of long home runs preceded him, and from the start of the 1949 season, he was possibly the biggest draw in PCL history.  Teams sold out their stadiums to fans coming to see Easter hit, with some teams adding standing-room-only tickets in roped off sections of the outfield.  In one three-game series in Los Angeles, Easter hit six home runs, and fights broke out at the gates as fans tried to get into the sold-out stadium to see Easter hit. [Wrigley Field, where the Los Angeles Angels played, seated about 22,000, while Gilmore Field, where the Hollywood Stars played only seated about 13,000 — I don’t know at which of the two parks the episode occurred.]

Easter was probably one of the strongest men in the professional baseball of his day.  His listed measurements of 6’4″ and 240 lbs would make him a big player even by today’s standards, when players as a group are much, much larger than they were in 1949.

West Coast baseball fans, particularly in Southern California, were highly knowledgeable about the abilities of Negro League stars, because the warm-weather region was a favored location for post-season barnstorming tours and also because black players played in the California Winter League soon after the death of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a strong opponent of integration in baseball, in 1944.

Despite his knee injury, Luke Easter batted .363 and slugged 25 HRs in only 80 PCL games, as the small ballparks of the Coast League couldn’t contain his long drives, before being called up to the Cleveland Indians in early August.

Another black player who almost instantly became one of the PCL’s best players was 28 year old middle infielder Artie Wilson.  Like Easter, Wilson had been a Negro League star for years before 1949.

In late 1948, the New York Yankees began acquiring their first black players.  The Bombers purchased Wilson’s contract from the Birmingham Black Barons and assigned Wilson to one of their top farm teams, the Newark Bears in the International League.  However, when Wilson learned that he would be paid less to play for Newark than he had been making in the Negro Leagues, he jumped ship and instead signed a contract either directly with the San Diego Padres or with the Cleveland Indians with the understanding he’d be assigned to play for San Diego.

Some background is appropriate here.  One of the reasons why the integration history of the Pacific Coast League in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s has any significance at all today is that between 1946 and 1955, the PCL still retained an element of independence not enjoyed by the other top minor leagues, the International League (“IL”) and the American Association (“AA”).  By 1946 every single team of the IL and the AA was a farm team for a major league club.

For the decade between 1946 and 1955, a majority of PCL teams remained unaffiliated with major league clubs.  While PCL teams were still required to sell off their best young players after two or three seasons to avoid major league teams from drafting these players at a small, fixed price under the national agreement that governed the major and minor leagues (PCL teams could, in turn, draft players from lower minor leagues), most Coast League teams could at least prevent the major league teams from taking away their players the moment the parent club wanted them on the major league roster.  As a result, the Coast League pennant races still had real meaning for West Coast baseball fans.

Further, the Coast League played in major league caliber cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, and all of its teams were nearly 2,000 miles away from the nearest major league franchise.  The Coast League thus drew more fans to its games than any other minor league of the era by a wide margin.  The West Coast’s milder climate also allowed for playing seasons of between 188 and 200 games.  These factors meant that PCL teams could pay much higher salaries than any other minor league teams could, and many players could make more money as stars in the Coast League than they could make as bench players in the majors.

Wilson only played 31 games for San Diego at the start of the 1949 season before Baseball’s Commissioner Happy Chandler voided his contract on May 12th and awarded Wilson back to the Yankees.  However, because it was clear that Wilson didn’t intend to play for a Yankee farm club that wouldn’t pay him a reasonable salary, the Yankees sold Wilson to the Oakland Oaks only five days later.

Wilson and the Oaks were a great fit.  The San Francisco Bay Area had seen a huge influx of African Americans during the Second World War when large numbers of black southerners mostly from Louisiana and East Texas were recruited to work in the ship yards of San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond and Sausalito.

Wilson was a solid defensive shortstop for the Oaks, and while he had no power, he hit for average, got on base and stole a lot of bases, a skill that had been lost in organized baseball until black players brought it back.  In 1949, Wilson batted .348, leading the PCL among players who played in at least half of the league’s 188 game schedule that year.  He also led the PCL with 47 stolen bases, and he scored 129 runs.

Wilson was only just getting warmed up.  In 1950, although his batting average fell to .311, he played in 196 of the 200 games the Oaks played that season and accumulated an astounding 264 hits.  Wilson’s 31 stolen bases was only good enough for second in the league behind black Puerto Rican Luis Marquez, an outfielder for the Portland Beavers, but Wilson’s 168 runs scored led the PCL by a wide margin.

Wilson’s 1950 hit total was the highest in the PCL in fifteen years and his runs total was the highest in more than ten. Including walks and hit-by-pitches, Wilson reached base 358 times that season, which explains why he was able to score so many runs even though he hit only one homer that year.

On the eve of the end of the 1950 PCL season, the Oaks sold/traded Wilson and two other players to the New York Giants for four players and $125,000.  Although Wilson started the 1951 season with the major league Giants, he was already 30 years old and wasn’t given much of an opportunity to prove himself.  Wilson was used mostly as a pinch-hitter, going 4-for-22 with a couple of walks in 19 games before being sent down to Minneapolis in late May.  His major league roster spot was taken by a 20 year old outfielder named Willie Mays.

The Giants sold Wilson back to the Coast League, this time to the Seattle Rainiers, where he picked up pretty much where he left off.  He hit .316, .332 and .336 in three seasons while playing all four infield positions for the Rainiers, as needed.  He was then traded to the Portland Beavers, where he hit .307 in 1955, his last year as an every day player.  However, he continued to play in the Coast League with the Beavers, the Rainiers and the Sacramento Solons in 1956 and 1957.

Read Part II of this series here, and Part III here.

John Ritchey Pacific Coast League Pioneer

July 17, 2013

For a number of reasons, I’ve been trying lately to determine who was the first “black” player to play in the Pacific Coast League (“PCL”), by which I mean first player who would not have been considered sufficiently “white” to play in the white professional leagues before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1946/7.

The answer is trickier than it might at first appear.  A player named Jimmie Claxton reportedly pitched in two games for the Oakland Oaks in 1916 until his African ancestry was discovered. He was then forced to continue his professional career in the Negro Leagues.

Claxton’s mother was of English and Irish descent while his father’s heritage was a mix of African, French and Native American.  Claxton identified his Native American ancestry only when trying out for the Oaks, because Native Americans, even if their skin was dark, were for some reason excepted from the bar on “black” players .  Similarly, light skinned Latin American players, particularly “white” Cubans and Chicanos, routinely played in the major leagues if they had sufficient talent.

Further, numerous websites erroneously identify Artie Wilson, a great star for the Oakland Oaks in 1949 and 1950, as the first black player in the PCL, probably because he was the league’s first long-term black star.

The first black player in the Pacific Coast League following Jackie Robinson was John “Hoss” Ritchey, a catcher who broke in with the San Diego Padres in 1948.  Ritchie was the ideal man for the job, because he was born and raised in San Diego and attended college at San Diego State.

Ritchie was born in 1923 and made a name for himself in local baseball at an early age.  As a teenager, he played on an integrated San Diego American Legion team so good that it made the national finals in South Carolina in 1938 and in North Carolina in 1941.  However, given where the tournament was played, neither Ritchie nor teammate Nelson Manuel were allowed to play in the national championship game either year.

Ritchie enrolled at San Diego State College in 1941 and attended until he was drafted in 1943.  After the war, he returned to San Diego State, where he met his future wife.  In 1947, he signed to play for the Negro Leagues’ Chicago American Giants.

While Ritchie played well enough for the American Giants to receive a try-out with the Cubs, he ultimately signed with the Padres on November 22, 1947.  He pinch hit on Opening Day, March 30, 1948, making the PCL the first minor league without a franchise owned or controlled by the Brooklyn Dodgers to integrate.

Ritchie played in 103 games for the 1948 Padres, but only 55 games at catcher, third most on the team, suggesting that he was one of the Padres’ top pinch-hitters that year but not the team’s best defensive catcher.  He batted .326 that year with an .847 OPS, and he was one of the Padres’ two main catchers the next season in 1949.

Ritchie remained a West Coast star through 1955, playing for Portland, Sacramento and San Francisco in the Coast League and Vancouver in the Western International League after the 1949 season.

Despite a career minor league batting average of an even .300 and very high on-base percentages for a catcher, Ritchie never played in the major leagues.  He didn’t hit with much power, and he was already 25 years old when his PCL career began.  Also, while Ritchey likely would have made a fine major league back-up catcher, the early-to-mid-1950’s was a time when those major league teams even willing to sign black players wanted only future stars.

Once Ritchey broke the taboo, the PCL integrated quickly, much more so, in fact, than the major leagues, even in spite of the tremendous successes newly signed black players brought to the Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians.  By early in the 1952 season, all eight Coast League teams had fielded an African American or dark Latin player, before more than half of the major league teams had done so.

Here’s a list of the first black player on each major league team from wikipedia.  Earlier this evening, I added the note regarding Carlos Bernier, a Puerto Rican player who played for the Pirates in 1953 and was probably too dark to have received an organized baseball contract before Jackie Robinson changed things.  Bernier was a star for the Hollywood Stars for five years between 1952 and 1957.

You will also note that the last three major league teams to get with the program, the Phillies, Tigers and Red Sox, didn’t bring up their first players of color until 1957, 1958 and 1959, respectively, many years after every PCL team had integrated.

In my next post, I’ll write more about early black Pacific Coast League stars.  You can learn more about John Ritchey here.