Tag Archives: Gabby Hartnett

“You Could Feel his Resentment”

22 Feb

After spending years as one of the loudest voices for the integration of professional baseball, Wendell Smith broke his own color barriers. He was the second African American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America–after Sam Lacy– and the first to have a byline in a big city white daily paper leaving The Pittsburgh Courier and joining the Hearst owned Chicago Herald-American in 1948.

Smith

Years later, William Rhoden quoted Smith’s widow Wyonella in his column in The New York Times regarding smith’s move:

“When he came to Chicago to write, he told the Hearst people. ‘I will not be your black writer. I’m not going to just write about blacks in sports. If you want me to be a sportswriter here, I’m going to right about all sports, and I’m going to do it fairly.’”

In 1963 he became a sports anchor, first at WGN-TV and later WBBM-TV in Chicago.  He also began writing a weekly column for The Chicago Sun-Times; but never gave up his new crusade for the recognition of Negro League stars; in 1971 he made the case for Josh Gibson’s enshrinement in Cooperstown:

“He hit home runs higher and farther than any batter of his time, including George Herman (Babe) Ruth, whose feats are immortalized in the Hall of Fame.

“He was a big, strong, intelligent catcher. He was as magnificent behind the plate as any of his major league contemporaries, including Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, and Gabby Hartnett, all of whom have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

“He played someplace summer and winter, spring and fall over a span of 16 years. He had the endurance and stamina of Lou Gehrig, who played in 2130 consecutive games from 1925 to 1939, a major league record. Gehrig is in the Hall of Fame. He is not.”

Gibson

Smith said of Gibson’s presence in the batter’s box:

“When he planted his immense, flat feet in the batter’s box, bent his knees slightly and cocked his bat with the most muscular arms and hands in baseball, apprehension invariably seized the defenders in the field.”

Because, said Smith, ”There are no authentic records, unfortunately to substantiate the thunder in Josh Gibson’s bat, nor his skills behind the plate,” he turned to “reliable former teammates who were there with him,” and other contemporaries to tell his story:

Roy Campanella told Smith about the night Gibson hit three home runs off Andy Porter in Wheeling, West Virginia. Campanella told a slightly different version of the story than he had 12 years earlier in his book “It’s Good to be Alive:”

“’He hit three home runs that night,’ Campanella recently recalled, with a note of awe and excitement in his highly pitched voice. ‘Each one was farther than the other.’

“’There was a mountain there, a good distance behind the left field fence…His first drive landed at the bottom of the mountain. The next one landed dead center, and the next almost cleared the mountain. When he came to bat the fourth time, I said to Porter, ‘what are you going to do with him this time?’ He said, ‘I’m going to walk him. ‘And we did.’”

In the book, Campanella said Gibson hit four runs in four at-bats, with each being longer until the fourth cleared the hill.

Bill Yancey told Smith about another Gibson three-home run performance, this one in New York:

“He walloped three that day and one of them was the quickest home run I ever saw. It was out of the park before the outfielders could turn their heads to watch it. It landed behind the Yankee Stadium bullpen, some 500 feet away. He didn’t loft it, he shot it out of there.”

Alex Pompez the one-time owner of the Cuban Stars and the New York Cubans, then a scout for the Giants, and had just joined Smith as a charter member of the Hall of Fame’s Special Committee on the Negro Leagues, told a story about a game at the Polo Grounds:

“Dave Barnhill was pitching for the Cubans. There were two on in the ninth and we were leading 3 to 2. Showboat Wright [sic, Dave “Showboat” Thomas] our first baseman, called time and walked to the mound. ‘Let’s walk him’ he said to Barnhill.

“Barnhill as a cocky pitcher. He refused (the) suggestion and insisted on pitching to Josh. He threw Gibson a curve ball and Josh hit it in the top tier of the left field stands. The last we saw the ball was when it went through an open door up there and disappeared.”

Pompez

After Pat Scantlebury gave up three home runs to Gibson in another game, he told Pompez:

“I pitched him high the first time and he hit it out of the park. So, the next time I pitched him low and he hit that one out, too. The third time, I pitched him tight and it followed the others out. When he batted the fourth time, I started to roll it to him, but instead I walked him.”

Smith also sought out Gibson’s sister, Annie Mahaffey and Ted Page who was “closer to Josh than any other player.”

Smith visited Mahaffey in her home in the Pleasant Valley neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s Northside. He noted “Strangely, there are no pictures of Josh Gibson,” in her home:

“The resemblance between Annie Mahaffey and her brother, Josh, is striking indeed. She has the same round, brown face. Her gentle smile is contagious.

“’He’d come here whenever he was in town,’ Annie recalls with a note of pride in her voice, ‘and he’d have us laughing about the funny things that happened on the road. He would sit here and talk, have a sandwich maybe, and just keep us amused with his stories. He loved life, Josh did.’”

Page said:

“He’d never talk about himself. I never heard him say one thing about himself that was intended to impress someone.

“He was extremely modest. I roomed with him in this country and South America and got to know him well.  If he hit four home runs in a game—which he did many times—you’d never know anything about it if you were getting your news of the game from him. He’d never walk up to you and say, ‘Well, I hit four of ‘em today.’”

Page

Page said Gibson was the opposite of Satchel Paige:

“When Satch pitched a no hitter, he told the whole world about it. We got little or no space in the daily papers, so he’d sit around and those third-rate hotels we lived in, and in taverns and restaurants, and tell everybody about his achievements. Everyone would gather round Satch and he’d spin tall tales for them, and they’d go away laughing and talking about him. Josh would never do that.”

Sportswriters, Page said, “always complained that he wouldn’t open up and talk about himself.”

Gibson’s sister said “he talked baseball all the time at home. He talked about other players and how good they were, and how many games were won or lost on certain types of strategy…Josh used to laugh so hard when telling a story he’d shake all over.”

Page said Gibson “loved baseball, never got bored with the game nor the terrible conditions we had to tolerate at times.”

Gibson also did not join his teammates “playing cards or meeting girls,” Page said:

“Josh was seldom with them. We’d go to an ice cream parlor or some other harmless place and talk baseball.”

Gibson’s sister and Page saw his reaction to baseball segregation differently.

Mahaffy said:

“There were all kinds of racial problems in those days, but Josh never let them get him down. If they ever bothered him, he never said so. He never once mentioned the fact that the color bar in the majors was a terrible injustice. He laughed off most of the things that happened to him.”

Page said:

“Josh never talked about the organized baseball ban against us. But he was always aware of it and it finally killed him. He kept things to himself, but if you knew him you could feel his resentment. We went to see a lot of big-league games and when he saw players who were inferior to him, he became sullen and the bitterness seemed to just ooze from him.”

Both agreed that Gibson didn’t drink until his final years.

After Jackie Robinson signed, his sister said:

“This was just about the time he started having dizzy spells and blackouts. He also became a heavy drinker.”

The dizzy spells, said Page, caused him to “stagger and stumble, whenever he looked up,” and “Josh’s drinking was a symptom of his affliction. He knew his time was short and that he’d never get a break in the majors…He tried to submerge his misfortune in drink.”

Smith closed:

:”The deadly curse that had been upon Josh Gibson all his life finally claimed him…Eighty days later Jackie Robinson became the first Negro player in modern big league history.

“That was 23 years ago.

“Josh Gibson should be immortalized in Cooperstown.

“What price, Hall of Fame?”

Less than a year later, Gibson was enshrined along with Buck Leonard; Smith died nine months later, he was 58. He was awarded the JG Taylor Spink Award 21 years after his death.

“I mentioned Satchel and Josh and Cool Papa, I told Him he was Missing the boat”

18 May

After Heywood Broun’s remarks at the 1933 Baseball Writers Association dinner about integrating the game, The Pittsburgh Courier initiated a campaign to push the issue.  Despite some support inside baseball and from well-known newspapermen, the effort fell flat by opening day.

That summer, after the first East-West Game—won by the West All-Stars 11 to 7—at Comiskey Park, Henry L. Farrell of The Chicago Daily News suggested several “(M)ajor league club owners who are now on their knees might have their prayers answered,” by signing some the Negro League stars.

In the fall, The Chicago Defender briefly picked up the mantle from The Courier.  The paper asked their readers:

“How would you like to see the great baseball players of the Race performing in the major leagues? Wouldn’t you like to see Willie Foster, Satchel Paige and (Sam) Streeter pitch to Babe Ruth?”

If so:

“Sit down and write K.M. Landis commissioner of baseball, 333 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago.”

The following week, the paper reported that Landis’ office had refused to comment.  When baseball’s winter meetings commenced in Chicago in December, The Defender promised readers that the letters they had sent:

“(A)re not being passed on lightly as many suggested would be the case.  On the contrary, the club owners are downright concerned and from the inside word leaked out that some action would be taken.”

The optimism was tempered later that week when their reporter was barred from covering a meeting where he was told “vital points were discussed.”  The Defender reporter was told no newspapermen would be admitted, but:

“That sinister moves were being made against your author’s admission became a certainty when a well-known writer from one of the downtown papers came along, gave the high sign and was admitted.”

When 1933 came to a close, integration was no closer to being a reality than it was 11 months earlier as Broun stood to deliver his remarks to the baseball writers.

Four years later, Sam Lacy from The Baltimore Afro-American met with Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith in an attempt to revive the subject:

“I mentioned Satchel and Josh and Cool Papa, I told him he was missing the boat.”

Sam Lacy

Sam Lacy

Griffith, he said, told him the timing was wrong, and that Southern-born players would not accept integration.

The next major effort came in 1939.

Political support had generally been limited to socialist and communist organizations—the Young Communist League spent the summer of ’39 gathering signatures to present to Commissioner Landis.  But, in July of that year, the Illinois House of Representatives adopted a resolution which read in part:

“Resolved, by the House of Representatives of the Sixty-first General Assembly.  That the owners of all professional baseball teams in the United States, both in the major and minor leagues be strongly urged to give baseball players of the colored race the same opportunity of becoming players on their respective teams as is accorded to such players of the white race.”

Another push came from Pittsburgh as well.

Wendell Smith, who was playing baseball at West Virginia State College when Broun made his speech in 1933, was now a reporter for The Courier. In July, he promised readers:

“The most exclusive, startling and revealing expose, of the attitude of the major league players and managers themselves, ever written.”

Wendell Smith

Wendell Smith

Over the course of several weeks Smith asked 40 players and eight managers as they passed through Pittsburgh, “Are Negro ballplayers good enough to ‘crash’ the majors?”

The Courier’s Chester Washington said in a column to introduce the series of articles:

“One of the major reasons why Mr. Smith’s discovery is so revolutionary is that the club owners, in trying to pass the buck, have blamed the ban on the players themselves.  They claimed that the injection of colored stars into the clubs would bring about friction and dissention… (Smith) practically disproves this contention.

“Fearlessly buttonholing the managers and outstanding players of all the National League clubs, Mr. Smith received scores of testimonials which should be a revelation to the owners.”

A sampling of the statements collected by Smith:

Ernie Lombardi, Cincinnati Reds:  “(Satchel) Paige is as good as (Dizzy) Dean.”

Johnny Vander Meer, Cincinnati Reds:  “I wouldn’t object.”

James “Doc” Prothro, Philadelphia Phillies: “If given permission I would jump at the opportunity to sign up a good Negro ballplayer.”

Leo Durocher, Brooklyn Dodgers:  “(Satchel) Paige, (Bill “Cy”) Perkins, (Mule) Suttles and (Josh) Gibson are good enough to be in the majors right now…I certainly would use a Negro ballplayer if the bosses said it was all right.”

Gabby Hartnett, Chicago Cubs:  “I am sure that if we were given permission to use them, there would be a mad scramble between managers to sign them.”

Gabby Hartnett

Gabby Hartnett

Dizzy Dean, Chicago Cubs: “If some of the colored players I’ve played against were given a chance to play in the majors they’d be stars as soon as they joined up.”

Pepper Martin, St. Louis Cardinals: “Some of the big league players would object, but on the whole I think they would be accepted.”

Pie Traynor, Pittsburgh Pirates: “believe me when I say I have seen countless numbers of Negro ball players who could have made the grade in the majors.  Only their color kept them out.  If given permission, I would certainly use a Negro player who had the ability.”

Honus Wagner, Pittsburgh Pirates:  “Yes, down through the years I have seen any number of Negro players who should have been in big league baseball.”

Over the next five years, Smith would interview more than 150 additional major leaguers, who would echo the sentiments of his original 40, keeping the pressure on professional baseball to desegregate.