Archive for the ‘Negro Leagues’ category

The Ten Best Panamanian Players in MLB History

December 28, 2017

Continuing on to Panama, a country between Colombia and Nicaragua which also has a long baseball tradition.  At least 58 Panamanian-born players have played in the majors league.

The first was Humberto Robinson, when he pitched a third of an inning for the Milwaukee Braves on April 20, 1955.  Hector Lopez started his successful 12 year major league career on May 12, 1955, and Webbo Clarke, who pitched for many years in the Negro Leagues, made all seven of his major league appearances for the Washington Senators in September 1955, following a 16-12 record in the Class A Sally League that year, the same league in which Robinson had won a record-setting 23 games the year before.

Both pitchers were long and lean, and Robinson went 8-13 with three saves and a career 3.25 ERA over parts of five major league seasons.  It’s likely that both pitched in the Panamanian Professional Baseball League, which played continuously between 1946 and 1972, after their U.S. careers were over.

Robinson died in Brooklyn in 2009 at the age of 79, while Clarke died at the relatively young age of 42 back in Panama.  Robinson also notably reported a bribe offered in the amount of $1,500 to throw a baseball game in 1959.

The relative success of the PPBL is surely one of the reasons so many Panamanians have played in MLB, despite a population of only 3.75 million currently. The current version of the PPBL, Probeis, has been playing continuously since 2011.

1. Rod Carew (1967-1985)(HOF).  Carew was one of the great pure-hitters of all time, a terrific base runner who stole home plate seven times in 1969, tying Pete Reiser‘s 1946 Post-World War II record.  Ty Cobb stole home eight times in 1912 and 50 times for his career.  During their mostly lively-ball era careers, Lou Gehrig stole home 15 times and Babe Ruth did it 10 times.

Carew moved to New York City after two years of high school in Panama.  He did not immediately begin playing high school baseball, because he was spending all of his time studying, working and learning English.  In 1964, he began to play with an organized team, and he reaches the majors three years later.  He worked as a hitting instructor and coach for many years after his playing career.

Carew married Marilyn Levy, a woman of Jewish ancestry, in 1970, as a result of which Carew received death threats.  They had three daughters, but divorced after 26 years, shortly after the death of their 18 year old daughter Michelle to leukemia when doctors were unable to find a matching bone marrow donor due to her unusual ancestry.  Carew subsequently performed extensive charity work to increase the number of bone marrow donors.

Carew chewed tobacco for 28 years before developing mouth cancer in 1992.  In late 2016, Carew had heart transplant surgery, but he’s still alive as of this writing.

2.  Mariano Rivera (1995-2013).  With an all-time best 652 saves, Rivera will make the Hall of Fame shortly.  He played recently enough and burned brightly enough, that no one reading this needs anything further from me to remember Rivera.

3.  Carlos Lee (1999-2012).  He bounced around a bit, but he had five seasons with 30 home runs, six with 100 or more runs batted in, and four seasons with at least 100 runs scored.  A left fielder with an exceptionally effective throwing arm, Lee is now a wealthy rancher in Texas and Panama.

4.  Ben Oglivie (1971-1986).  Oglivie took a long time to develop, but he became a fearsome slugger for Harvey’s Wallbangers during the American League Milwaukee Brewers’ great period of success from 1978 to 1983.  He led the Junior Circuit with 41 home runs in 1980 in a tie with Reggie Jackson, becoming the first player born outside the United States to lead the AL in HRs. He hit 34 regular season long flies and two more in the post-season for the Wallbangers’ team that lost the World Series to the Cardinals in seven games.

After MLB, Oglivie had two successful seasons in Japan’s NPB at the ages of 38 and 39.  He finished his playing career with two games in the Texas League at the age of 40.

Oglivie also moved to the United States (Bronx, NY) when he was in high school.  Bill Lee described Oglivie as the”brightest guy on the club” when they played together on the Red Sox, and he attended college in Boston and Milwaukee while he played.  He’s worked for years as a hitting coach since his playing days ended.

5.  Manny Sanguillen (1967-1980).  One of the batting heroes, along with Roberto Clemente and Bob Robertson, of the 1971 Pirates who came back from two games down to win the World Series against the Orioles.  Sanguillen made the National League All-Star Team three times and received MVP votes in four seasons.  Sanguillen didn’t have much power, and, a notorious bad ball hitter, he didn’t walk much either, but he had a .296 career batting average and threw out 39% of the 820 men who tried to steal bases against him.

Sanguillen played in the post-season six times for the Pirates, including driving in a run for the Pirates’ last victorious World Series team in 1979, when he was 35 and nearing the end of his career.  Sanguillen married a Pennsylvania woman, Kathy Swanger, had two kids, and still lives in the Pittsburgh area, hosting Manny’s BBQ behind center field at PNC Park.  Sanguillen says his greatest baseball accomplishment was catching Bob Moose‘s no-hitter on September 20, 1969.

6 (Tie).  Roberto Kelly (1987-2000) & Hector Lopez (1955-1966).  Kelley was a center fielder who played well for the Yankees between 1989 to 1992.  Lopez was a jack-of-all-trades guy who played at least 175 games in each of LF, RF, 3B and 2B, playing most often in left field and at third base. Lopez’s best seasons were for the Kansas City A’s and the Yankees between 1955 and 1960 and he played on five consecutive World Series teams for the Yankees from 1960 through 1964.

Lopez also sported the nicknames “The Panama Clipper” and “Hector the Hit Collector.”  Playing for Kansas City, Lopez roomed with former Negro League star, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, who got the nickname because he wore size 13 shoes, which a sportswriter wrote looked like suitcases.  After his playing career was over, Lopez became the first black, let alone Panamanian, manager of a AAA team, when he managed the International League’s Buffalo Bisons to a 7th place finish.

Roberto Kelly coached and managed for the San Francisco Giants organization for nine years until 2016, after his playing career ended.

8.  Omar Moreno (1975-1986). Today, Omar Moreno is primarily remembered as a light-hitting stolen base threat, and he was known as the Antelope, but he was also a really good player for the 1979 World Champion Pirates, leading the Senior Circuit with 77 stolen bases (in 98 attempts) and in putouts by an outfielder (489, 64 more than Gold Glove winner Garry Maddox of the 4th place Phillies) and also scoring 110 runs.  Moreno finished 15th in the NL MVP vote that year and was almost certainly more valuable than that.

In 1980, Moreno stole 96 bases (in 129 attempts) being edged out of the league lead by Ron LeFlore with 97, and again led NL outfielders in putouts, but he didn’t bat as well and only scored 87 times while making more than 500 outs on offense, even more than he prevented on defense.   Moreno stole 487 bases on his major league career at a 73% success rate.

After his playing career, Moreno and his family returned to Panama, where he started a foundation to help poor kids to play baseball.  In 2009, he became Panama’s Secretary of Sport where he represented Panama internationally and oversaw the country’s athletic programs.  After he left office, he returned to working with under-privileged children.

9. Bruce Chen (1998-2015).  Chen is a Panamanian of Chinese descent who amounts to the best starting pitcher Panama has produced.  Another bright guy, Chen studied civil engineering at Georgia Tech during his playing career.

Chen won 13 games for the Orioles in 2005, and won 12 back to back for the Royals in 2010-2011.  He was a consistently affordable bottom of the rotation starter who ate up a lot of innings by today’s standards and pitched well enough to hold onto that role for an astounding 17 seasons.

He finished his career with an 82-81 record, tying him with Mariano Rivera for most wins by a Panamanian-born pitcher, and a 4.62 ERA.  Chen came out of retirement to pitch for Team China in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

10.  Juan Berenguer (1978-1992).  Berenguer went 11-10 with a 3.42 ERA as the World Champion Detroit Tigers‘ fourth starter in 1984, but didn’t pitch in the post-season, when Jack Morris, Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox got all the starts.  He then became an effective reliever  (32 career saves) for the Giants, Twins and Braves, ending his major league career at the age of 37.

Known as “Senor Smoke,” “El Gasolino” and the “Panama Express” because of his high-90’s fastball, Berenguer went 8-1 as a reliever and spot starter for the underwhelming Twins team that went on to win the 1987 World Series.  After his playing career, he returned to and still lives in Minnesota.

Berenguer retired with a 67-62 career record and 3.90 ERA.  He was the all-time Panamanian wins leader until Mariano Rivera passed him in 2008.

Honorable MentionsRamiro Mendoza, Rennie Stennett, Carlos Ruiz and Randall Delgado.  Panama has produced enough major league players that some pretty good ones don’t make my list of the top ten.  The 1970’s Pirates, during their best run of the post-WW II period, had three Panamanians in Sanguillen, Stennett and Moreno who were key starters on winning teams.  I remember Stennett as being one of the worst free agent signings in SF Giants’ history, although five years for $3 million sounds like peanuts today.

Carlos Ruiz deserves to be in the top ten for the six seasons he had for the Phillies from 2009 through 2014, and he was the starting catcher for the World Champion 2008 Phillies, the last period when the Phillies were consistent winners.  Randall Delgado is entering his age 28 season in 2018, so he’s certainly got a chance to break into the top 10 one day, although he missed most of the second half of the 2017 season to an elbow injury, for which he received platelet rich injections in his elbow as recently as late September.

A majority of Pananian born baseball players are Afro-Panamanian with many coming from in and around the heavily Afro-Caribbean city of Colon.  However, my personal observation spending 16 days in Panama around January 1, 1999 was that a large percentage of the population in greater Panama City appeared to my surely untrained eyes to be some admixture of European, African and Indigenous Panamanian ancestries.

Marshall Bridges and Joe Stanka

December 7, 2017

Marshall Bridges crossed my consciousness for the first time yesterday.  He came up while I was reviewing Joe Stanka‘s years with Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League — see below.  I hit a link for Bridges’ major league numbers and found out that he was the 1962 World Champion New York Yankees’ top fireman.

Bridges went 8-4 with 18 saves, while Luis Arroyo, who had a break-through year for closers generally in 1961, was next on the Bombers with seven.  Arroyo’s 1961 season was so great, in fact, that it appears to have a cast a dark shadow over Bridges’ merely impressive 1962, even though the ultimate outcome, a World Championship, was the same.  Bridges had a big fastball and was hard to hit but wild, and his 1963 campaign was similar to Arroyo’s 1962.

The thing that really did in Bridges’ Yankees’ career, perhaps, was that he got into an altercation with a female patron in a Ft. Lauderdale bar during Spring Training 1963, and Bridges ended up getting shot in the leg.   According to baseball reference, “21-year-old Carrie Lee Raysor claimed Bridges had repeatedly offered to drive her home and, after repeatedly not taking ‘no’ for an answer, ‘took out [her] gun and shot him'” below the knee.

I hope she was good-lucking.  Bridges eventually made a full recovery, but since he was already 31 in 1962, he never again recaptured his 1962 magic.

Bridges was an African American lefty (Ms. Raysor was a married black woman, according to my sources) from Jackson, Mississippi who started his professional career with the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues.  Bridges started his MLB-system career as a two-way player, but pitched better than he hit in the low minors and became a full-time pitcher.  He didn’t reach the majors until his age 28 season, and still pitched in seven major league seasons.  He passed away at the age of 59 in 1990.

Bridges also pitched for the NL Champion Cincinnati Reds in 1961, but had been sent down to the minors for good long before the Reds reached the post-season.  Bridges pitched in two games of the 1962 Series, but allowed three runs, two earned in 3.2 innings pitched and did not receive a decision.

More famously, he allowed Chuck Hiller’s 7th inning game-winning Grand Slam in Game 4, with Jim Coates‘ runner on first the run what cost Coates the decision.  This website says that Marshall Bridges was the last Negro Leaguer pitcher to pitch in the World Series.

I was surprised the Bridges’ name rang no bells and his photo on baseball reference was not familiar, after I saw his record.  I knew about Chuck Hiller’s Grand Slam, but obviously not the pitcher that served it up.  I fancy myself pretty knowledgeable about pitchers, including relievers, who had at least one great season in the 1960’s, and I was sad to be disabused of that notion.

I think that a big part of the reason I had never heard of Bridges is because he appears to have appeared on no Topps baseballs card in his seven seasons of major league play.  Topps apparently elected not to put out a card for Bridges in either 1962, the year he had the great season, or in 1963, the year after.  Sources suggest that Bridges signed an exclusive baseball card contract with Fleer, although the shooting incident before the 1963 season certainly didn’t help.

Thus, I never had Bridges’ Topps baseball card.  Anyway, that’s my excuse for my shameful ignorance.

Joe Stanka was a pitcher who appeared in only two major league games, but was one of the first two great American pitchers in NPB history.  Stanka was also probably the first “modern” player in Japan’s NPB, in the sense that he was exactly the type of 4-A player just past age 27 which ultimately became the bread-and-butter of NPB recruiting of foreign players.

Stanka pitched reasonably effectively in his 5.1 major league innings during the September of his age 27 season, but when he got an offer to play in the Japan that off-season, he jumped at it.  Stanka pitched four full seasons for the Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento Solons before his 1959 major league cameo, when the PCL was still the best of the three AAA leagues.  In those four seasons, he was one of the Solons’ top two starters in three of those seasons and was the third best out of six in the fourth year, his rookie year in the league.  Marshall Bridges was the best starter on the 1958 Solons.

Stanka won 100 games against 72 losses in seven NPB seasons.  He was generally a No. 2 starter in Japan, except for 1964, when he was one of the Central League’s top three starters, going 26-7.  More importantly, he had one of the all-time great Japan Series, pitching shut-outs in Games 1, 6 and 7 (ya think?), beating fellow American Gene Bacque, the 1960’s other 100 NPB game winning foreigner, in Game 6.  Bacque had had an even better regular season than Stanka in 1964.

I got to thinking about Stanka while I was researching foreign players in NPB in the 1960’s.  1962 was roughly the year that NPB teams routinely began to bring in foreign players throughout each NPB league’s six teams.

Most of the foreign MLB-system players in 1960’s NPB were players over the age of 30, who were finishing out their relatively/marginally successful MLB-system careers and wanted to keep playing for top dollar once their future MLB major league hopes were dim indeed.  The next largest group was younger players who played in the MLB low minors and somehow made their way to NPB to continue their careers.

There were few 4-A players of Stanka’s type in the 1960’s, but Stanka’s success wasn’t really acted upon by NPB teams until the 1970’s.  Today, NPB teams (and now KBO teams) like best foreign players going into their age 27 season, with ages 26 and 28 a close second.  Teams will still sign older players with substantial major league records, but it’s not nearly as common as it once was.

Casey McGehee is an example of a current generation older player.  McGehee has had the talent level, good luck and good sense to use two separate stints in NPB to have what must be his most successful professional career possible.  He’s returning to the Yomiuri Giants in 2018 for a reported $2.4 million, which beats by far what most 35 year olds make.

In reviewing the NPB 1960’s, one thing that struck me is that by the 1960’s, NPB was already a pretty good league.  The older major league veterans mostly had a couple of good years and then were too old to succeed in NPB.  Relatively few foreign players during this period were either No. 1 starters or No. 1 hitters (per each of each league’s six teams) in any of their many, collective seasons.

Foreign hitters provided power, which NPB teams highly valued.  By the late 1960’s, it was mostly foreign sluggers that NPB teams were signing.

As a final note, in 1962 saves was still not an official statistic, although it was the third season that the Sporting News had been reporting save totals based on a formula created by Jerome Holtzman.  Bridges’ 18 saves were second best behind The Monster, Dick Radatz.  As far as I know, there is no (close) family relationship between Jerome and Ken Holtzman, another fine pitcher who fell victim to early success and 1970’s pitch counts.

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 do 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 Afro-Cuban catcher Ray Noble (his real first name was Rafael).  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 Seattle Rainiers 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 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.  At the same time, however, the PCL quickly signing up many of the top Negro League players who were too old to interest major league teams drained the Negro Leagues of many of its marquee players.

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, Puerto Rican Luis Marquez and Panamanian shortstop Frankie Austin 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.

Frankie Austin, meanwhile, was the Beavers’ starting shortstop for seven consecutive seasons starting at the age of 32.  He finished his PCL career in Vancouver in 1956 at the age of 39.  Baseball Reference has a brief biography here.

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.