April 18, 2012

Recovered History: Jackie Robinson and the Negro leagues

There was considerable attention paid to the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball. But that wasn't the only line Robinson helped to break, as reported in Wikipedia:
"In 1942, Robinson was drafted and assigned to a segregated Army cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. Having the requisite qualifications, Robinson and several other black soldiers applied for admission to an Officer Candidate School  then located at Fort Riley. Although the Army's initial July 1941 guidelines for OCS had been drafted as race-neutral, practically speaking few black applicants were admitted into OCS until after subsequent directives by Army leadership. As a result, the applications of Robinson and his colleagues were delayed for several months. After protests by heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (then stationed at Fort Riley) and the help of Truman Gibson (then an assistant civilian aide to the Secretary of War), the men were accepted into OCS.Upon finishing OCS, Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in January 1943."
 Before entering the major leagues, Robinson played in the Negro leagues. One of the other famous players was Cool Papa Bell, who was reputed to be so fast that he could turn off the light switch and be in his bed before the light went out.  He also was said to be so fast that he once hit a hard drive to center field, and was hit by the ball as he slid into second.

According to John Holway:
Because accurate statistics are often lacking, it is difficult to say how good many of these black players were, but based on their exhibition play against their professional white counterparts during the pre-Robinson years, it is clear that they were exceptional. Black teams opposed white professional teams in more than four hundred barnstorming games between the 1890s and 1947, and came away winners sixty percent of the time. White stars like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Bob Feller, Honus Wagner, Jimmie Foxx, and Christy Mathewson were glad to make extra money in games against blacks, and their testimony attests to the considerable skills of their opponents . . . During his rookie campaign, [Josh] Gibson smashed a ball over Forbes Field's center field fence, 457 feet away. Only three other men--Oscar Charleston, Mickey Mantle, and Dick Stuart--ever duplicated that feat. Later, in New York's cavernous Yankee Stadium, Gibson blasted a five-hundred-foot line drive off the back of the left field bullpen between the grandstand and the bleachers. The pulverized ball came within two feet of being the only fair ball ever hit out of the "house that Ruth built."
Another famous Negro league player was Minnie Minoso, aka the "Black Cowboy."
Minoso is the only player to have played in the majors in four decades, a fact that had a curious side effect, as the Progressive Review later reported:
During the 1976, while Eugene McCarthy and his campaign manager Mark Plotkin were in Florida, Bill Veeck announced that he was reactivating Minnie Minoso for eight at-bats so he could claim to have played over four decades. Veeck was always coming up with ideas. Some weren't so great, like putting his players in short pants, but some became traditions like having the announcer sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch. When Chicagoan Plotkin read the Minoso story he quickly came up with another idea for Veeck: have him reactivate former Soo Leaguer Eugene McCarthy. Gene was excited and Plotkin made the call. Veeck had just one question: "Can he hit?" Plotkin assured him that McCarthy was a strong hitter. There was a long pause and then the reply, "Nah. . . Daley would kill me."

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