Tag Archives: Roy Campanella

“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.

Lost Advertisements: Negro Delta Baseball School

10 Apr

negrodeltabbschool

A 1951 ad for the second year of the Negro Delta Baseball School at Brown Stadium, home of the Negro Southern League Jackson Cubs.

The school was started by long-time Negro League player and manager Homer “Goose” Curry. Curry managed 18-year-old Roy Campanella with the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1940–hence Campanella was advertised as an “outstanding product” of the school.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger said the six-week school had attracted 86 players from across the country.

The first two years, the school operated at Brown Stadium, but moved the following year to the heart of the Delta in Greenville, Mississippi.

currymemphis

Goose Curry

In 1955, a United Press reporter asked Curry, who had just become manager of The Memphis Red Sox, about the impact of integration on Negro League baseball:

“Now the big league teams can offer the young Negro players a bonus and a shot at the majors. All we can offer is a job…We take what the majors leave, keep them a couple of years and if they develop into pretty good players, we can sell them to the majors.”

Curry, who was still operating the school at that point, although it seems to have been dissolved sometime in the mid 1950s, was asked who was the best player he ever saw:

“That title goes to the late Josh Gibson, fabulous home run hitter of the 30s.

“‘He’s have hit 100 home runs in the majors,’ Curry said.”

 

“He Took a Needling From Jackie Every Day”

29 Apr

In 1952, “Jet Magazine” featured an article about the “feuds” between several former Negro Leaguers who were currently starring in the major leagues.  The article contained no byline but was likely written by Andrew Sturgeon “A.C.” “Doc” Young, who wrote most of the baseball articles for the magazine during the early 50s; Young later became Hollywood’s fist black publicist in the late 1950s.

Young said Satchel Paige arrived in Cleveland in 1948 “a bit confused by some of the regulations,” of big league clubs. Paige did not understand why players did not have mustaches, as he did, nor did they were hats with their street clothes:

“One day Satch asked of Larry Doby, then a fledgling major leaguer “Why don’t they wear hats up here?’

“Doby, who had crawled in diapers while Satch was getting started on his fabulous career, said shortly, ‘Do as we do. Don’t ask questions!’

“Ít was the unkindest cut. Satch didn’t like it. And, later, when Doby told a white writer that Satch ‘carries a gun,’ failing to explain the pitcher was a collector of antique firearms, a feud was on. To this day it still flairs every time Doby faces Paige in a game.”

dobypaige

Doby and Paige

Young said the “feuds” tended to get “little publicity,” but would put “the Hatfields and McCoys episode to shame.”

Artie Wilson appeared in just 19 games for the New York Giants in 1951, but Young said it was enough time for two feuds to develop between Wilson and fellow, former Negro Leaguers.

The first involved Doby before the beginning of the season.

“The Indians and Giants had played an exhibition game at Charleston, West Virginia, after which a party was organized.”

Wilson went back to the hotel rather than attending.

“(H)e was in bed when someone knocked on his door and insisted he attend the affair. Finally, not wanting to offend the man, he agreed to go. He went, had a few dances, and returned home.

“Later, on the train, Doby sought to collect $5 from Wilson, explaining that the players had agreed to chip in for the party. Wilson declared he knew nothing of any such arrangements. Doby insisted Wilson should chip in anyway. An argument ensued, during which the 155-pound Wilson invited the 185-pound Doby to settle it with fists in back of the car.”

artie.jpg

Wilson

Wilson’s other feud was with teammate Hank Thompson. Thompson, who had hit .289 and drove in 89 runs in 1950, got off to a slow start in ’51:

Although he was a rookie with the Giant, Wilson was an experienced player and a former manager in Latin league ball. He sought to give Thompson some good advice.

“Thompson heard him out, then snapped, “Listen, you can’t tell me nothing. You just got up here.”

Doby, said Young was involved in a bit of a “feud” with every other black player on the Indians in 1950:

“When the club went to Tucson, Arizona for spring training, they were housed at a local Negro family because the swank resort Santa Rita Hotel had refused them. To facilitate their travel the two miles between the home and the ballpark, the Indians arranged for the Negroes to have a rented Ford, with Doby holding the keys. Luke Easter and others became disgruntled when Doby wouldn’t let them drive the car. As the pioneer Negro with the club, he felt the car was his responsibility.”

Young said there were several feuds among the black players on the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In 1949, Don Newcombe “had been labeled lazy” by manager Burt Shotton, and:

“(He) took a needling from Jackie every day he pitched and between games. It was Jackie’s way of ‘lighting a fire’ under the big, easy-going rookie. But Don didn’t take it that way.

“When he sought to buy a house later, he was very much impressed with one in St. Albans, L.I. [sic, Queens] Everything was fine until the real estate broker, thinking he was embellishing its attractiveness, said the house was in Jackie Robinson’s neighborhood. Newcombe immediately cancelled the deal. Explaining he did not want to live in the same neighborhood as Jackie Robinson.”

campanella-newcombe-and-robinson

Campanella, Newcombe, and Robinson

After the 1950 season, Young said, Robinson had “perhaps the hottest feud of all” with Roy Campanella after the catcher felt Robinson did not pay him enough during the Jackie Robinson All-Stars barnstorming tour:

“Campy, a man who watches money with eagle eyes, was greatly put out. Though they play together every day, and perhaps, will fight for the other team’s rights, the feud has not completely burned out, evidence indicates. Only recently, Campy refused to let his children attend a birthday party for one of Jackie’s children.”

And Campanella, said Young, sought out a feud with Giants Rookie Willie Mays in 1951:

“Campy, who had earned his place in the sun by playing both Latin ball in the winter and Negro ball in the summer, catching doubleheaders, and riding broken-down busses before entering organized ball, was miffed because Mays became a major leaguer in less than a year following graduation from high school.

“Every time the teams met, Campanella rode Mays unmercifully. It got to the point where Mays complained to his manager Leo Durocher, who said Campy had no right to do it.

“Mays, a naïve youngster, was at bat one day, Campy went into his needling routine. Mays turned and told the catcher, ‘Stop talking to me. Mr.  Durocher says you have no right to keep talking to me that way.’ But Campy didn’t stop talking until Mays went into the army this year.”

Young said “likeable, hard-hitting Monte Irvin” was one of the few who seemed to avoid “feuds” with fellow players.

The “strangest feud of all” according to Young started over a joke in 1949.  Two of the stars of the Wilkes-Barre Indians in the Eastern League were “Tall’ slender Harry Simpson,” the 24-year-old outfielder who hit .305 and hit a league-leading 31 home runs, and “rotund, left-handed Roy Welmaker,” the 35-year-old, long-time Negro League pitcher who was 22-12 with a 2.44 ERA in a league where only six pitchers who qualified for the league lead had an ERA below 3.45.

dobywelmaker.jpg

Doby and Welmaker

“After a game one day, Welmaker almost used an entire bar of soap lathering himself in the bath. A startled white player inquired, ‘What’re you doing, Roy?’ The pitcher replied, ‘I’m trying to get white like you.’

“From that day on, Simpson and Welmaker were in sharp disagreement. Simpson said Welmaker was an ‘Uncle Tom.”’

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Definitive Cobb Biography

11 May

Myths.  Baseball books are full of them.

Perhaps the most enduring myths are about Ty Cobb.  A prototype of a villain in spikes from central casting:  Dirty player– check, virulent racist—check, miserly and bitter in old age—check.

That is the Ty Cobb cemented into our consciousness.

So much so in fact, it is difficult to find a discussion on the internet regarding the merits of Pete Rose’s case for the Hall of Fame without a member of the pro-Rose faction, at some point, making the “Yeah, but Ty Cobb did (fill in the blank)” argument.

Or, as Charles Leerhsen puts it, in “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” (which will be released tomorrow), “This Cobb was someone (fans) could shake their heads at, denounce, and feel superior to.”

cobb

 

The clues were there that Cobb might just be more than the sum of the single-dimensional parts previous biographies claimed to reveal.

Not long ago, I wrote about Cobb’s embrace of fellow Royston, Georgia native, and former Negro League player and newspaperman Fred Downer at Wrigley Field in 1953—the same day Cobb spoke glowingly to reporters about Dodgers’ catcher Roy Campanella.

No less an authority than Wendell Smith—the legendary reporter from The Pittsburgh Courier who by then had joined The Chicago Herald-American as the first black sportswriter at a white-owned paper—said after that day at Wrigley that reports of Cobb’s racism were always “merely a matter of hearsay,” and “He gives no indication today of intolerance.”

Yet, the hearsay has always outpaced the reality; until now.

Through exhaustive research and a compelling narrative, Leerhsen demonstrates that the one-dimensional Cobb of lore is, at best, a caricature.   The stories that have been told and retold for years about racially motivated physical attacks were poorly sourced and greatly exaggerated.  Statements like the one about Campanella and several that Leerhsen has compiled were ignored.

The author even manages to add context to the often told stories of the death of Cobb’s father and Cobb’s relationship with mascot Ulysses Harrison (bonus points here because unlike many of the versions of this story elsewhere he gets Harrison’s name correct).

Leehrsen’s three-dimensional Cobb is more interesting than the one presented previously.  This Cobb was quick to anger, perhaps overly sensitive, certainly no less flawed than many of his contemporaries, but more complex, more introspective and much more difficult to shake our heads at.

An excellent read, well worth your time.

Fred Downer

30 Mar

In August of 1953, “Jet Magazine” said people were talking about:

 “That affectionate hug baseball immortal Ty Cobb gave Chicago news dealer Fred Downer.”

By then, Frederick Douglas Downer was largely forgotten.

Before playing as a professional, he was, according to The Pittsburgh Courier, the “star” of the Morehouse College baseball team in Atlanta.

Fred Downer

Fred Downer

His first professional experience was with the Atlanta Cubs in 1919—the team was colloquially called the Atlanta Black Crackers for years, and newspapers referred to them by both names until 1922 when the “Cubs” name was permanently dropped.  Years later, Downer told The Chicago Defender he also played with the Knoxville Giants during this period.

In 1921, Downer and Gerard Williams, his teammate at Morehouse and with the Atlanta Cubs, went north to join the Pittsburgh Keystones.   Downer is listed by several sources as the club’s manager, but in the 1970s he told The Defender said he “played under the management of (William) Dizzy Dismukes.”  Dismukes was also the Keystones’ manager the following year when the team entered the Negro National League.

Downer appears to have played independent and semi-pro ball during 1922.

While not listed on any extant rosters, Downer spent some time with the Cleveland Tate Stars in 1923—in an interview given in 1972 Elander “Vic” Harris, who debuted with the Tate Stars as an 18-year-old that season, said Downer, who he had gotten to know in Pittsburgh was with the club. Harris told The Van Nuys (CA) News he tried out as a first baseman but was installed in the outfield, leading to Downer being let go.

Downer returned to Pittsburgh and assumed management of the Keystones in 1924. After a single season in the Negro National League, the Keystones had dropped out, and the team continued operations as a semi-pro club.

Downer, and another Georgian who also played with the 1923 Cleveland Tate Stars, Mathis Williams, managed and played for the semi-pro version in 1924 and ’25.  The Keystones barely treaded water financially.

Mathis Williams

Mathis Williams

In June of 1925 The Pittsburgh Courier said:

“Of the colored clubs in action, none but the Homestead Grays are making any money…Fred Downer and his Pittsburgh Keystones are practically a thing of the past.”

Within a month the team disbanded and Downer was through as a player.

The following year, he and his wife Marian Foster Downer, a reporter for The Pittsburgh Courier—and later The Chicago Defender— relocated to Chicago.  She continued to write for The Courier’s society page while Fred began covering baseball and boxing for the paper and acted as The Courier’s Midwest circulation manager.

In addition to covering most major Midwest-based events–including the annual Negro League East-West All-Star Game and several championship fights—Downer started the Atlas News and Photo Service which distributed content to Black newspapers.

 

Marian Foster Downer also wrote about sports for The Defender.  Her article on the 1935 East-West All-Star Game—won by the West 11-8 on George “Mule” Suttles’ three-run home run after Webster McDonald walked Josh Gibson to face him—was headlined:

Mule Suttles

Mule Suttles

Our Girl Scribe Sees Mule’s Hit

Marian Foster Downer--The Defender's "Girl Scribe"

Marian Foster Downer–The Defender’s “Girl Scribe”

In 1945, Fred Downer proposed a new path for Negro League baseball, writing in a Chicago-based magazine called “New Vistas:”

“If the white majors won’t hire good colored players, then the Negroes should build their own parks and hire the best players regardless of race.  This will build up competition, and competition will break down many barriers.”

Downer was covering the World Series at Wrigley Field in 1932 and was on-hand for Babe Ruth’s “called shot.”  The Courier’s Sports Editor Wendell Smith said Downer was “One of Babe’s most staunch and loyal supporters,” and was determined to find the ball.

 “His decision to find the ball Ruth hit resulted in a search that has been a detailed and intensive as any by a ‘G-man.’  Fred scoured every baseball haunt in the Chicago area.”

According to Smith, Downer expanded his search throughout the Midwest, with no luck.

Downer later told The Chicago Defender he found the ball and bought it from a former Chicagoan who had moved to Michigan.  He called the ball “one of his prized possessions.”

The actual provenance of the ball and its current whereabouts are unknown.

Twenty-one years after he witnessed Ruth’s “called shot,” Downer—by then he had left  The Courier and owned three newsstands on Chicago’s South Side– was again at Wrigley Field where he had an encounter that raised questions in the Black press about a long-held opinion of another baseball legend.

Ty Cobb stopped in Chicago on his way back to his California home from Cooperstown, to attend a game between the Cubs and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Downer was born in Cobb’s hometown of Royston, Georgia in 1896.  The Defender said of the relationship between the two:

“(Downer) got his start in baseball chasing fly balls for Ty Cobb as a kid.”

The California Eagle said:

“Downer was raised around the Cobb’s household in Royston, Georgia.”

Wendell Smith, then with The Chicago Herald-American, said of Cobb’s day at Wrigley:

“(T)here were two things said about (Cobb) that were, apparently, the gospel truth:

  • He could hit any living pitcher.

  • He would hit any living Negro.”

Smith said the second “truth” was “merely a matter of hearsay.”

And, he said:

“(H)e gives no indication today of intolerance.”

In addition to his embrace of Downer, Cobb was asked which players on the field most impressed him:

“’Why that catcher there, he said, pointing to Roy Campanella.  ‘He’s the best ball player I’ve seen in many a year…That fella’s a great catcher,’ he volunteered.  ‘The very best in the game.  He reminds me a little of Roger Bresnahan.  If he can stick around for five or six more years they’ll have to put him alongside the game’s all-time catchers.’”

Downer continued to operate his newsstands well into his 70s.  At the corner of 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue, The Defender said, he would:

“(S)ell morning newspapers (and) answer hundreds of questions pertaining to his long career.”

Fred Downer

Fred Downer

Frederick Douglas Downer died in Chicago on March 10, 1986.