Life lessons from Sammy the Jet

Sammy “the Jet” Jethroe (photo courtesy Negro Leagues Baseball Museum)

A few weeks ago, while I was in Rochester for my mom’s funeral, a few of us were hoping to sneak away to a Red Wings game on July 27 to kind of have some fun and blow off emotional steam. I learned via Nate Rowan’s media listserv that before the game, the Wings were going to host the induction of Sam Jethroe into the International League Hall of Fame.

Armed with this new knowledge, I thought about attending the game and interviewing some of Jethroe’s descendants and International League president Randy Humber for a prospective article on Sam’s ushering into the ILHOF. However, we weren’t able to squeeze the game into our slate of events, which was disappointing, but we knew there was too much else going down in terms of the funeral trip.

But, fortunately, since then I’ve been able to land a few assignments about Jethroe and his induction, and I’ve been able to do a few phone and email interviews as follow-ups. One of the folks I talked to was Rachel Jethroe, Sam’s granddaughter, who lives in Rochester.

Other members of the Jethroe family attended the ceremony as well, including some from Erie, Pa., where Sam Jethroe retired to and spent his last several decades as a resident and businessman. (The IL does its Hall of Fame inductions separately at various places; Sam’s induction was held in Rochester because of Rachel’s residence there.)

“It’s a wonderful lifetime achievement,” Rachel later told me. “I wish he could have been there to enjoy the recognition for his achievements.”

Rachel added that the induction ceremony was extremely touching and meaningful.

“We enjoyed the game, the whole family came up from Erie,” she said. “It was a beautiful moment.”

Carla Jethroe, another of Sam’s granddaughters, told me that they’re “beyond proud” of their grandfather, adding that the honor helps to keep Sam’s legacy alive.

“It was a great [legacy] because it still lives on,” she said.

Red Wings officials, IL representatives and members of Sam Jethroe’s family gather for Jethroe’s induction into the IL Hall of Fame July 27 at Frontier Field (photo by Joe Territo/Rochester Red Wings).

I just contributed an article to the Erie Times-News about the induction; it was published Sunday, and you can check it out here.

But wait, wait, wait … Who’s Sam Jethroe anyway, you might be asking, and why is he important enough to warrant election to a hall of fame?

Well, here’s the rundown …

Sam Jethroe, who was raised and started his baseball career in East St. Louis, played for the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League in the 1940s. He was known first and foremost as a near-supersonic speedster and demon on the basepaths, but he also led the NAL in batting multiple seasons using a deceptively powerful swing to crush doubles and triples by the boatful. The Bucks won the 1945 Negro World Series over the vaunted Homestead Grays with Jethroe leading the way.

Here’s how SABR colleague, historian and author Stephanie Liscio summed up Jethroe’s Negro Leagues career:

“He was one of the Buckeyes’ most consistent and talented hitters during the 1940s. He hit for average, had tremendous speed, and was a skilled defender. The Buckeyes likely don’t win the 1945 World Series without him (and may not have been in a position to even be in the World Series).”

However — and here’s where he enters the baseball lexicon for many people — he went on to integrate the Boston Braves in 1950 as a starting centerfielder. Jethroe’s jump made the Braves the fifth major-league team to integrate, and, after a scorching first season in the majors, he earned the National League Rookie of the Year award at age 32.

The accolade made him the oldest rookie so far in MLB history to pick up ROY honors, and his second season in the majors, 1951, saw just about an equal amount of excellence as his first one; he led the NL in stolen bases each year, and he ranked high in several other categories.

In March 1951, Jethroe gave an interview to Baltimore Afro-American sportswriting legend Sam Lacy, who transcribed Sam’s comments and published them in a column. Jethroe’s words reflect how he realized that, despite some flashiness at the bat, it was his quickness and daring on the basepaths that earned his paychecks. Jethroe told Lacy:

“Anyone should know my legs are most important to me ’cause I make a business of running.

“I can run fast and I know it. May the Lord help me when I can’t run anymore. …

“[W]hen it comes to a real showdown, it’s the pair of good legs I was lucky enough to draw that makes my major league baseball life a success. …

“Taking a chance is something I believe in. If the other guy bobbles the ball, I’m gone, and he’s got to throw me out. In a close game, if an outfielder holds his head down on a ground ball just a second longer than I think he should, I’m going to make him throw me out ’cause I ain’t stopping! …

“I find that taking a chance pays off ’cause it has a tendency to make the other side jittery. The fielder knows he’s got to make the perfect throw and the man covering base realizes he has to catch the ball and outguess me on the slide.”

But things took a disappointing turn in 1952, when intestinal surgery and uncorrected bad eyesight led to a steep dropoff at the plate and in centerfield, where his poor eyesight led him to misjudge and just plain lose fly balls in the sky as they arched his way.

So for the 1953 campaign, the Braves demoted Jethroe to their Triple-A farm club, the Toledo Sox. The Pittsburgh Pirates took a chance on him and picked him up for the for the ’54 season. However, his foibles in the field and at the plate — coupled with the slowing of his fleet feet — earned him just two game appearances for the Bucs, who promptly sent him down go Triple-A again. He was retired from professional baseball and living in Erie by the early 1960s.

Thus, Jethroe’s major-league career — just over three seasons total in the bigs — now seems like a historical footnote and a prime example of advancing age catching up with a once-talented and supremely gifted athlete. (Actually, his career probably, for many people, carries a second footnote, but more on that a little further down.)

However, we have to remember the main reason why he didn’t break into the bigs until age 32 — the 60-year enforcement of a tacit “gentleman’s agreement” that barred African-American players, coaches and managers from the majors that wasn’t broken until a fellow named Jack Roosevelt Robinson came along.

In addition, Jethroe’s career wasn’t just about his relatively fleeting time in major league baseball. His stellar tenure in the Negro Leagues — particularly with the Cleveland Buckeyes — not only convinced MLB teams to sign him up, but also stands by itself as a formidable achievement. He was one quite simply one of the best players in the Negro American League in the 1940s.

(This is where the second footnote comes into play. In 1945, Jethroe was one of three Negro Leaguers — the others were Robinson and Marvin Williams — invited by the Boston Red Sox for a workout in front of Sox management. As could be predicted, the event turned out to be a complete sham; the Sox were never going to sign any of the trio anyway. The BoSox, of course, were the very last MLB team to integrate, which didn’t happen until 1959 with Pumpsie Green, who died just this past month).

However, there was a third section of Jethroe’s blazing career — his tenure in the minor leagues, during which he emerged as one of the greatest players the Triple-A International League has ever seen.

Jethroe’s saga in the minors begins not within the Braves organization, but in none other than Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers farm system.

Because, you see, Rickey ended up signing and grooming a large handful of Negro Leaguers during the late 1940s, in addition to Robinson. Naturally there were Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, but Dan Bankhead, Joe Black and Jim Gilliam all eventually made it to the Dodgers roster. 

Like that half-dozen, Jethroe was inked by Rickey, and in 1948 he was assigned to the Montreal Royals of the International League, the team that Jackie Robinson shined for in 1946 on his way from the Negro Leagues to the majors.

And Jethroe made the most of his first true crack at “organized” baseball, eventually establishing himself as a phenom in the International League for two full seasons in which he ranked highly in a whole bunch of categories, including stolen bases, homers, doubles, hits and other rankings.

(Jethroe enjoyed his experience in Montreal, too.the province of Quebec as well. In a 1948 American Baseball Bureau survey, he answered the question about his most interesting experience in the sport, he answered, “when I had a chance to play with the Montreal Royals.”)

However, while such a track record that normally would most likely lead to a call up to Brooklyn, Rickey instead sold Jethroe to the Boston Braves for a then-whopping $125,000. (To this day there’s much speculation about exactly how high the price tag was, but it was easily at least six figures.)

1957 Toronto Maple Leafs

Reasons for Rickey’s decision to let such a bright prospect, from what I can tell, have never been completely pinned down — it’s tough to tease out the mental machinations of the baseballs Mahatma — theories included the fact that future National Baseball Hall of Famer Duke Snider was already ensconced in centerfield in Brooklyn, making another CF like Jethroe, no matter how good, expendable.

Another theory is that Rickey was hesitant to bring up a fourth black player (in addition to Robbie, Campy and Newcombe) to his major-league roster because, the notion goes, having four players of color on the Dodger roster was simply too much to be acceptable at that point in the integration process, i.e. the other teams and powers-that-be, while they might grumble, were willing to accept three black guys on one team, but four was beyond the pale for the conservative times.

Plus, of course, the sale of a hot commodity like Jethroe would net a whole lotta green for Rickey and the Dodgers. Money, it seems, has always talked.

So the Braves were given the first crack at establishing Jethroe with a major-league career. But, as noted previously, the Jet became a shooting star for the Braves, who sent Jethroe to Toledo. 

At that time, the Toledo Sox were members of the American Association, but the International League eventually emerged on Jethroe’s horizon again. Because when the Pirates dropped Sammy to their minor-league system, he ended up with the Toronto Maple Leafs of — you guessed it — the International League!

For five seasons, Jethroe served as a steady member of the Maple Leafs, batting .280 over the stretch and once again frequently showing up in the IL’s leaders in various categories.

Encompassing his entire cumulative tenure in the International League with Montreal and Toronto, Jethroe batted .293 over 875 games, racking up 940 hits, 157 doubles, 52 triples, 91 home runs, 383 RBIs and 205 stolen bases. That includes the single-season marks for steals, hits and runs, the last two of which still stand.

He retired after his stint in Toronto, settling in Erie for the rest of his life. He owned and worked at a bar for many years and became a fixture in the northwest Pennsylvania community.

In the 1990s Jethroe sued Major League Baseball and the players’ union for a pension plan, arguing that he and many other former Negro Leagues players hadn’t reached the required threshold of MLB service because racial discrimination prevented them from breaking into the majors sooner. Although the lawsuit was eventually tossed, MLB agreed to provide a modest pension to Jethroe and other players.

Sam “the Jet” Jethroe died in 2001 at the age of 84.

For my article in the Times-News, I chatted with International League president Randy Mobley about Sam Jethroe’s election to the IL Hall of Fame, and he said Jethroe’s outsized achievements, especially with the Royals, more than earned the Jet a spot in the hall.

Another scene from the July 27 induction ceremony (photo by Joe Territo/Rochester Red Wings).

“To put in perspective how well he played, in my research I’ve come across where some people thought he made Montreal forget about Jackie Robinson,” Mobley said. “That’s a pretty good statement about him.”

Also thanks to Red Wings media relations guru for his help with my articles and blog. I also want to give credit to longtime Wings GM Dan Mason for his contributions, including commenting for my articles.

“It was an honor to host the family of Sam Jethroe on Saturday, July 27 as Randy Mobley inducted Sam into the International League Hall of Fame,” Dan told me. “It was great to see our fans so interested when Randy described the details of Sam’s groundbreaking career. With such a rich history of professional baseball in our community it was great to host this event for the League and Sam’s family, some of whom reside in our town. He is certainly a VERY worthy inductee for the International League Hall of Fame.”

When assessing Jethroe’s overall legacy on the national pastime — as well as the game’s history of racial turmoil, struggle and ultimate success — it’s perhaps instrumental to note that he was never a superstar in the majors, but he still made it to that top level of play. Just like all white players couldn’t be Joe DiMaggio, not all former Negro Leaguers could be Jackie Robinson. As Martin F. Nolan wrote in the Boston Globe upon Jethroe’s death:

“The lesson in equality Jethroe taught is the civil right to be less than the best.”

Sometimes “success” isn’t about becoming an all-time legend; it’s measured in more modest terms. And that’s a lesson I myself can learn from Sam Jethroe.

Am I a Pultizer Prize-winning writer? Honestly, probably not. But I know I’m still pretty darn good at what I do, and I’ve earned a pretty decent spot in the worlds of journalism and historical research. For years, I’ve beaten myself up for not writing books or becoming a university professor or breaking through to the prominent national-level media.

But I’m learning to be proud of what I have accomplished — I’ve developed an award-winning blog, and I’ve had hundreds of articles published in dozens of publications and on dozens of Web sites. Are the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine among them? Not as of yet. But I know that most of the media outlets I have worked for really liked and appreciated my work and efforts, and I’m proud and glad to be able to contribute to every one of them in any way I can.

And I know my colleagues respect and like me (I hope!), and I respect and like them, and I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has supported and encouraged me over the years. That includes family, friends and loved ones, too. Despite all of my health challenges, I’ve found a place for myself in the world, however modest, and I’m starting to learn to be proud of that as an important achievement on its very own — just like Sam Jethroe did.

And just like, I sincerely hope, have all of you, my readers. Find your place in the world — a place of respect and pride and accomplishment and acceptance and happiness — and enjoy life for all it brings you. Do your best and make an impact all your own, and know that you’ve made a difference for countless people and enriched their lives.

That is what Sam Jethroe did, and he deserves and hard-fought, honored place in many people’s lives. We should all be so lucky.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum curator Dr. Ray Doswell offered a pretty good summation of Sam Jethroe’s impact on baseball history:

“Jethroe to me represents the great talent, yet unfulfilled opportunities of many Negro Leagues stars had to endure. If, perhaps, he had opportunities a few years sooner, could we be speaking of Jethroe among his Hall of Fame contemporaries? Might his ROY season been sooner? He was as good an athlete as any available at the time and could have helped any team. This honor from the International League recognizes that and the importance of his minor leagues contributions.”

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