“There is no hop on Your Fastball”

21 May

Schoolboy Johnny Taylor, like many Negro Leaguers, spent several seasons playing in Mexico. The Hartford, Connecticut native told his hometown paper, The Courant, about the game south of the border, in a 1941 interview with the paper’s sports editor W.J. “Bill” Lee:

“Taylor was telling us about baseball in Mexico, a subject on which he speaks with authority.”

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Schoolboy Johnny Taylor

Taylor, who pitched in Vera Cruz in 1940, was asked how baseball competed with Mexico’s “big sport:”

‘”Well,’ Johnny laughed, “bull fighting is still the major sport down there but baseball is rapidly catching up. We play our games in the mornings and the bull fights are held before noon also. When there is a bull fight on the day a ball game is scheduled we feel it at the gate.

“But don’t let anyone tell you the Mexicans aren’t red hot baseball fans. They are as rabid as they are anywhere in the United States.”

Taylor said there was little difference between fans there and the states:

“They get riled up, those Mexican fans, and when they do they start to throw things, same as they do anywhere in America. Down there though, they mostly throw fruit, probably because it’s cheap. The only difference is their way of razzing a ball player. Instead of hoots, catcalls or the Bronx cheer, they whistle at you.”

Taylor was asked how the climate in Mexico affected American players:

“’It’s not so bad,’ Johnny said, ‘except in Mexico City, where the altitude is very high. When you first play ball in that city it gets to you…if you have to circle the bases in a hurry you have to sit down for awhile to get your breath back.

“Funny thing about pitching in Mexico City. The atmospheric conditions are such that there is no hop on your fast ball. No matter how fast you buzz one through, it goes straight. I’ve found that the batters there murder the number 1 pitch more than any other ball. You can’t get a sharp hook on your curve ball either. Everywhere in the league except Mexico City the hop comes on your fast ball and the break on your curve is normal.”

Taylor and Lee talked about “the best player in the league,” Josh Gibson:

“He’s a catcher and if it weren’t for the barrier that organized baseball has set up against members of his race and Johnny Taylor’s, Gibson would be in the big league. Taylor didn’t make any complaints or do any boasting, but this corner knows that if Johnny belonged to the white race he would have a great chance to become a major league pitcher.”

Taylor said of Gibson:

“’The left field fence in Chihuahua,’ Johnny relates, ‘is 435 feet at the foul line. This fellow Josh Gibson plastered three balls over the left field fence in one game, and the distance is plenty more than 435 feet at the points where the balls Josh clouted cleared the fence. Up to the time Gibson hit those three homers no one in Chihuahua had ever seen anybody belt one over that left field fence.”

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Josh Gibson

Taylor, who attended Hartford’s Bulkeley High School, cut the interview short to go see “Gone with the Wind,” at a local theater. Lee said:

“If I didn’t have a lot of work to get done and too little time to do it, I might have tried to talk Taylor out of leaving to see the GWTW picture.

“A fine gentleman, Johnny Taylor. He talks better than most big leaguers, better, in fact, than many college men I’ve met. He has learned a great deal about pitching since his Bulkeley High days, but he has not let baseball fill his mind entirely. John has profited by his travels through most of the states of the Union and in Mexico and Cuba.”

Taylor spent the 1941 season in Vera Cruz, and in September returned to Hartford with an all-star team that included Gibson, Ray Dandridge, Sam Bankhead, Willie Wells, and Dick Seay. They played a double-header against the Savitt Gems—an integrated semi-pro team sponsored by local jeweler Bill Savitt. Taylor, who had once played for the Gems, faced his former team and former major league pitcher Pete Naktenis, a Hartford native.

Taylor pitched a ten-inning complete game, striking out 15, and the all-stars won 7 to 5. Barney Morris pitched a two-hitter in the nightcap, defeating the Gems 3 to 0 in a five inning game called on account of darkness.

The Courant said a fire broke out under the grand stand during the first game:

“(F)iremen arriving on the scene to quench the blaze were almost totally ignored by the spectators.”

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