This is the second in a three-part series on the 1945 Negro World Series champion Cleveland Buckeyes. For Part 1, click here.
It was with the disappointment (although Ernie Wright, Quincy Trouppe and the rest of the Buckeyes might have been a little relieved that their standout outfielder was going to be snatched up by the Red Sox) of outfielder Sam Jethroe‘s insulting tryout with the Boston Red Sox that the 1945 Cleveland Buckeyes launched their campaign.
It was a new season, and the Bucks were rarin’ to go as one of the favorites to cop the Negro American League pennant. However, their schedule wasn’t as loaded with “official” NAL contests as you might think. As discussed later, most Negro Leagues often played only a few dozen such contests each year.
The rest of their hardball campaigns — including a host of preseason warmup contests — were packed with exhausting barnstorming jaunts throughout the Northeast and Midwest. In fact, like pretty much every Negro Leagues team, those barnstorming ventures comprised the majority of Cleveland’s season — they seemed willing to play anyone, and anywhere within striking distance.
In July, for example, 500 people gathered at the famed House of David stadium in Benton Harbor, Mich., to watch the Bucks blast a popular local semipro team, Tate Edgell’s Twin City Independents, 7-3. A few weeks later, Cleveland landed in NYC top face the talented Bushwicks in a barnstorming tilt at Dexter Park. Stated the July 28, 1945, New York Age:
“It will be the first meeting between the two clubs. Cleveland captured the first half honors in the Western circuit [the NAL]. This will be [the Buckeyes’] first visit of the year in the East.”
When it came to barnstorming during the fantastic 1945 season, the Buckeyes seemed to love the towns and small cities of western and central Pennsylvania — they frequently scheduled contests, against both local clubs and other traveling big-time Negro League aggregations, in cities like Harrisburg, York and Chester.
The Bucks’ opponents for these exhibition games varied from local sandlot teams, like Lloyd’s Athletic Club in Chester, to top-level blackball squads, like the Negro National League’s Baltimore Elite Giants at the West York High School field in York.
However, it wasn’t just barnstorming tilts that saw the Buckeyes crisscross the Midwest; they also played NAL games in various locales. For example, on June 19, the Bucks squared off against the legendary Chicago American Giants, one of blackball’s most storied franchises, at Swayne Field in Toledo.
The Cleveland crew then motored to Buffalo, another Lake Erie burg, where they fell to the Indianapolis Clowns (those most embarrassing of baseball minstrels), 4-3, at Offerman Stadium. An article in the June 23, 1945, New York Age asserted that the W was the Clowns’ second win over the Buckeyes that season, which, according to the report, amounted for half of Cleveland’s paltry four loses.
However, as was the case throughout much of Negro Leagues history, blackball teams usually played so many league games, barnstorming contests and/or exhibitions in so many locales that, in historical hindsight, it becomes difficult to ascertain the results of these dozens of games — or even whether the contests even went off as planned at all.
Take, for example, a game scheduled between Cleveland and the Chicago American Giants slated for that Aug. 9 in Harrisburg — the NAL regular season game fizzled before it started when the Buckeyes failed to make an appearance, reportedly because their bus broke down near Pittsburgh.
(Such last-minute cancellations and alterations occurred pretty frequently during Negro Leagues seasons, thanks to often less than stellar transportation, shoddy accommodations or a host of other causes. That, plus sketchy record-keeping, made it quite difficult to ascertain exactly how many league games each team had played and, therefore, what each team’s record was at any given point during the season. You’ll actually see an example of that a little bit later in this tale of the ’45 Buckeyes.)
Amidst this frenzied barnstorming chaos, the Buckeyes managed to bear down when the contests started mattering in the Wins and Losses column — league games. The Bucks’ quest began in late May, when they opened the season by sweeping the Memphis Red Sox in a doubleheader at League Park in Cleveland. The day was punctuated by a theft of home by Buckeyes third baseman Parnell Woods, the sparkling all-around play of Cuban spark plug Avelino Canizares, and the stellar mound work of the Jefferson brothers.
The Buckeyes followed that up by taken six of eight games against the Red Sox in a joint road trip, results that secured Cleveland’s spot in first place in the NAL. Paced by Canizares’ league-leading four home runs, the Bucks staked out first by posting the top team batting average (.316) and fielding percentage (an astounding .996), showing off their well rounded balance in the process.
Cleveland turned out its first-half coup de grace a couple weeks later, when they clobbered the great Chicago American Giants in a dominant doubleheader sweep on the road at Comiskey Park, 6-0 and 3-1. The victories secured the NAL’s first-half pennant — the league followed a split-season setup, with the winners of each half facing off for the overall league crown — as Sammy Jethroe went 7-for-9 at the plate to anchor what the Cleveland Call and Post’s Bob Williams called the Buckeyes’ “murderer’s row.”
With the first-half flag in their hands, the Bucks bore through their second-half slate in similar fashion. However, shoddy-record keeping — as alluded to earlier — nearly robbed Cleveland on the second-half crown as well.
Despite again drubbing the American Giants in a doubleheader — this time in front of 8,000 fans at League Park at Wilbur Hayes Day, with George Jefferson claiming the 6-2 victory in Game 1 and big Frank Carswell blanking the hapless Giants 6-0 in the nightcap — during the first week of September, muddled paperwork and stat-taking at first gave the second-half crown to rival Chicago.
Why? Because league officials determined that, at first glance, Cleveland hadn’t played the required number of league games. Such a situation seems strange if one goes by Major League standards, in which every league team follows a strictly maintained scheduled and thus plays the same amount of contests as everyone else.
But with life being so harried and frenetic and even willy-nilly in the Negro Leagues — where, out of economic necessity just to survive as a franchise, teams routinely played many more barnstorming games than league matches — league officials had trouble keeping up with all the irregular records. Add to that a somewhat tenuous league administrative structure — which, again, wasn’t the case in the Majors — and at times, the league office was pure chaos.
But after some adjusting of the numbers and a review of the records, circuit honchos determined that the Bucks had, in fact, played the required number of games as well as posted more wins than the Chicago club, a skein that included 11 straight league victories at one point.
Thus, with both the first- and second-half pennants in their trophy case, the Buckeyes ended up undisputed champions of the 1945 Negro American League season. And, while field players like Woods, Canizares and first sacker Archie Ware and a stout but unheralded pitching pen, media and fans knew who was the foundation of the Buckeyes’ on-field success.
“ … [T]he top man in the Negro American League this years is again Sammy Jethroe, slight, unimpressive centerfielder who wears No. 27 on his shirt,” stated the Sept. 15, 1945, issue of the Call and Post, which added:
“Jethroe … has captured the batting championship for the second straight year with an average swat of .393, after fattening his mark 13 points in the final week of the campaign …
“King Jethroe almost finished right across the board in other departments, too … finishing on top in five other divisions, which included:
“A total of 55 runs scored, 123 total bases, 10 triples, 8 home runs and 21 stolen bases.”
Jethroe would have earned a septuple crown, but his teammate Archie Ware beat him out in RBIs. Sammy’s incredible stats in ’45 cemented his place in Negro Leagues history as a steady, dependable and incredibly well rounded player — a player who might be one of the most underrated, overlooked legends in blackball annals. If fantasy baseball had existed in the mid-1940s, Jethroe would, to say the least, be a good guy to draft.
With Cleveland’s NAL crown, that set up the blockbuster showdown with the dynastic Homestead Grays, once again kings of the NNL but also a franchise starting the slow decline in ferocity and fortitude. A now-steadily aging squad, the Grays were formidable but flawed.
On the flip side, the Buckeyes were young, talented, balanced and getting better. With no superstars but a deep roster to go with shrewd, battle-tested but bold management on the bench and in the front office, Cleveland presented a captivating foil to the storied Grays — not to mention a Lake Erie fanbase that was dying for a successful hardball team. Stated the Call and Post’s Jimmy Jones in the paper’s Sept. 15 issue:
“Hosts of their first world series contest since 1920 when the Indians clashed with the Brooklyn Dodgers .. it is expected that record crowds of white and colored fans will see the first two of the five games now scheduled between the Grays and the Buckeyes. …
“The Buckeyes have more than an even chance to win the series from the Grays who have been steadily declining in power and flash which highlighted some of their earlier title triumphs. …
“The Buckeyes are a young and growing squad, strong in every department and surging with the thrill of early success.
“Just four years ago Manager Wilbur Hayes began to collect pro and semi-pro ball players from all over the country to begin building today’s championship title contenders. The brilliant players who hold down most berths on Buckeyes’ squad were secured only after [a] long and diligent search.”
Then came the Negro World Series and the triumph of the vaunted Grays. I actually won’t go into too much detail — please don’t be mad! — about the actual series other than what I discussed in the first post of this trio of articles. To me, honestly, it’s the Buckeyes’ preseason, regular season that are the most fascinating. We know what happened in the World Series. But how did that World Series juggernaut come together?
That’s the story I hope these first two posts have spotlighted. In the next and final installment of this opus, the Bucks’ fall victory tour and a theorem that hopes to chew over.