Finally! I’ve at last been able to gain a little more healthy footing and get a few things straightened out on that front. Things are still busy in the burg of Gretna, La., but I’m eager to job back into this here modest venture known as Home Plate Don’t Move.
Many thanks for hanging in there with me, as well as the beaucoup well wishes. Now, hopefully, you’ll enjoy what I’m prepared to serve up to ya.
And what I have for ya is a World Series. Not the 2015 MLB World Series, but one from a while ago — 1945, to be precise, exactly 70 years ago, when an exuberant, carefully constructed squad of unheralded but supremely talented and balanced bunch of upstarts shocked the African-American baseball community.
This is a significantly modified and expanded version of a work I submitted to a daily newspaper — I’m still waiting to see if that version of the article will be published (and if it does go to print, I’ll post the link here) — so some parts of it will have the tone and cadence of a newspaper article.
The story will be broken up into three still-very extended posts — apologies, as usual, for the relatively massive cumulative length — with the second installment (hopefully) being published this Friday and the final one going Monday as this year’s MLB World Series gets underway.
So sit back (or lean forward, depending on how you use your computational machines) and take a gander. Hope you like it …
They were the definition of underdogs, going up against arguably the greatest dynasty in Negro Leagues history. Heck, they had massively overachieved just to win the Negro American League pennant.
But 70 years ago, the Cleveland Buckeyes did it. They toppled the mighty Homestead Grays of the Negro National League, a team loaded with future Hall of Famers like Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, with a resounded 4-0 sweep.
It was a Negro World Series for the ages, and the Buckeyes — who boasted no future Hall members in their lineup — came out on top, redefining history and stamping their indelible mark on the legacy of postseason baseball in Cleveland in the process.
“The Cleveland Buckeyes … astounded the diamond world by knocking off the Homestead Grays, long the dominant force in Negro baseball, in four straight games in the world series,” wrote legendary Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith. “… Cleveland ‘breezed’ through the series in easy fashion.”
And Cleveland did it with a balanced roster blessed with depth and quality, if unheralded, talent from top to bottom.
“The Buckeyes were considered a well-rounded team, but I’m not sure how many people outside of Cleveland really considered them a threat,” said Case Western graduate student and Cleveland Negro Leagues historian Stephanie Liscio.
“They didn’t have a ton of superstars, or people that were necessarily big names outside of Cleveland, so I think it’s how they were able to fly in under the radar, especially when you consider that their competitors, the Homestead Grays, had tons of big-name superstars. [The Buckeyes] were solid across the board, though, even if they didn’t have a couple of big names clobbering the ball every day.”
It was pitching, however, that really carried the day for the Bucks. Led by the Jefferson brothers, George and the elder Willie, and buttressed by stalwart hurlers Eugene Bremmer and Frank Carswell, the Cleveland rotation shocked the world by shutting down the potent Homestead bats.
After Willie Jefferson clamped down on the Grays for a 2-1 victory at Cleveland Stadium during game one, Frank “Bruiser” Carswell made it clear that the Buckeyes — who were only four years old as a franchise — were a team of destiny by completely dominating Homestead in a 5-0 shutout in game four.
“Winning game one helped boost the Buckeyes’ confidence,” says Kent State professor Leslie Heaphy, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Negro Leagues committee. “A little sloppy play [by the Grays] and clutch hitting [by Cleveland] won them game two in come-from-behind fashion. But shutting out the Grays in game four really showed how strong the Buckeyes’ pitching was.”
Because the team was only founded in 1942, as the ’45 season began few pundits gave the Buckeyes a chance of even unseating the Birmingham Black Barons for the NAL pennant, especially because the Barons were the defending, two-time league champs.
By securing that pair and going through a rigorous round of spring training, the Buckeyes entered the campaign as a confident bunch, even though the rest of the blackball world expected little of them.
“You can take it from me …,” reported the Cleveland Call and Post’s Bob Williams in late May, “you’re going to see a classy bunch of first rate ball players, strong in every department.
“I’ve listened to a lot of stories from executive manager Wilbur Hayes,” Williams added, “who raves about his new catcher-manager, his classy Cuban players, and the superb pitching staff, to say nothing of an ‘all around ball club, ready to make a real bid for the championship.’”
And remember the postseason plaudits Wendell Smith would heap on the Bucks after they crushed the mighty Grays in September? Well, before the season started, the famed scribe seemed to possess a remarkable prescience. As he wrote in the May 5, 1945, Pittsburgh Courier:
“In the American League, [two-time defending NAL champ] Birmingham … will be confronted with Ernie Wright’s formidable Cleveland Buckeyes, a team that has grown in prestige and power yearly because it is one of the best operated organizations in baseball. Barring injuries, the Cleveland team is destined to oust the mighty Birmingham aggregation this season. Managed by Quincy Troupe [sic], a topnotch catcher, the Buckeyes have the best balanced team in the American League. … [O]n paper, Cleveland has the best team in the Western circuit.”
But before we dig into the task of retracing the season, there’s one more thing to discuss — it’s significant and, it turns out, it also involves Wendell Smith.
It came in mid-April, and it was met with a flurry of coverage in the black press and keen interest among Negro Leagues fans — two Major League teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers and, of all organizations, the Boston Red Sox, announced they would each offer tryouts to a few African-American stars.
You’ll recall that the Red Sox were the very last MLB team to integrate, a development that, fairly or not, helped earn Boston a reputation as a racist city when it came to sports. (Just as a side note, I’d counter with the fact that the Boston Bruins were the first NHL team with a black player, Willie O’Ree, while the Celtics were the first NBA squad with an African-American coach, the great Bill Russell.)
But in spring 1945, the BoSox appeared to be on the cutting edge of race relations. The players they tried out: Jackie Robinson, then playing with the Kansas City Monarchs; the Philadelphia Stars’ Marvin Williams; and Cleveland Buckeyes outfielder Sam “The Jet” Jethroe. (Sorry, Jason Terry, but Sammy was the original Jet.) The trio had Smith, who had pushed for the tryouts, accompanying them. (The Dodgers, meanwhile, took a look at pitchers Dave “Showboat” Thomas and Terris McDuffie.)
The news of the impending tryouts seems to have been met with cautious enthusiasm, but the Call and Post was understandably excited about seeing its city’s star outfielder get a shot at The Show. As the paper stated in its April 14, 1945, issue:
“This is the first time that any Cleveland ball player has ever been given an opportunity to tryout [sic] on a major league team, following on the heels of the history-making tryouts of two Negro ball players with the Brooklyn Dodgers last week.
“Jethroe stars in center field but is a good utility catcher, led the American League in batting last year with an average of close to .350, and is one of the most valuable Negro ball players in the country.”
However, any optimism the African-American media and fan base might have had at the initial news was snuffed out almost as quickly as it had been generated — none of the players who showed up for workouts with the MLB clubs were signed, and, after the affair, many African-American pundits were actually pretty steamed, calling the tryouts an insulting sham.
The April 28, 1945, issue of the Chicago Defender ran a report on the tryout with the headline, “Boston Red Sox Impressed But Fail To Hire 3 Negroes.” By most accounts, all the BoSox management — and that of the Dodgers a week earlier — did was have the black players come out for a few minutes, just toss a couple balls and take a couple cuts at the plate. It was, scribes said, humiliating. Wrote Homestead Grays owner, NNL secretary and eventual Hall of Fame inductee Cum Posey shortly after the event:
“We will forgot the foot race between sports writers to see which hopes to be the first to place a Negro player in white organized baseball. To say that these players got tryouts by major league clubs is a travesty.
“It was the most humiliating experience Negro baseball has yet suffered from white organized baseball. It was humiliating to the writers who took these players to camps.
“Whoever heard of a player getting a tryout by hitting a few balls, catching a few balls, or in the case of a pitcher throwing a few balls?
“The first instruction a major league scout gets when he leaves to look over a prospect is: Can he run? Can he throw? If he can not do either of these, he is passed no matter how he hits or fields.
“None of these players were asked to run or throw.
“After seeing these players, was an option asked for their services? Any white rookie one half as good as any of these players would have been kept for at least a week and sent to some minor league club.”
But such disgruntlement, while stinging and seething underneath for two more years, was soon forgotten, at least for the time being. There was a season to play, and the Cleveland Buckeyes were amped up for the campaign.
Next up: The season takes flight, and the Buckeyes barnstorm up a storm.