“‘Kimmie,’ as he was known, was the best centerfielder of his day. Noted for letting his bat, arm, and glove do the talking for him, Kimbro said little.”
– Writer Bob Luke in his 2009 book, “The Baltimore Elite Giants: Sport and Society in the Age of Negro League Baseball.”
“I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted to because I didn’t go to school. It just tore me all to pieces. People started calling me ‘bad man’ and ‘evil’ and it just followed me all around my whole baseball time.”
– Henry Kimbro, as quoted by Richard Goldstein of the New York Times in 1999
“My father made me into all the things he was,” Harriet said. “All of [Henry’s traits] was what became a part of me.”
– Harriet Kimbro Hamilton
Today would have been the 111th birthday of centerfielder Henry Kimbro, a native of Nashville, Tenn., who produced one of the steadiest, most impactful and overlooked careers in Negro Leagues history.
Kimbro, in a 17-year career (1937-53) spent primarily with the Baltimore Elite Giants, played in 10 East-West All-Star Games; was part of the Elites club that won the 1949 Negro American League championship; also starred for several seasons in the Cuban Winter League; and compiled a .325 overall batting average, according to the Center for Negro League Baseball Research.
Moreover, during the seasons that now are considered major league (1937-48), Kimbro amassed a cumulative batting line of .304/.396/.441, including the 1947 Negro National League season, in which he led all the major leagues in average (.385), and led the NNL in on-base percentage (.447), slugging percentage (.619), hits (90), runs (75), doubles (24), RBIs (52) and total bases (153).
Expounding on such sterling stats, in a comprehensive biographical article about Kimbro, CNLBR founder Dr. Layton Revel described Kimbro as “an all-around complete ball player. He was a lead-off batter who could hit for average and power. Henry possessed excellent speed. He also was an exemplary outfielder with outstanding range and a strong throwing arm.”
Revel added that Kimbro, in his prime, could hit for both power and average. In his prime he “was considered one of the best outfielders in the Negro Leagues. In addition, his speed was an asset both offensively and defensively. He truly is a ‘forgotten hero’ of Negro League baseball.”
Upon Kimbro’s death on July 11, 1999, Richard Goldstein of the New York Times eulogized the Nashvillian, calling him “[a]n outstanding hitter, speedy on the basepaths and a superb outfielder with a strong arm … A left-handed leadoff batter who invariably let the first pitch go by, Kimbro was adept at slashing low fastballs to the opposite field. …”
Goldstein attributed Kimbro’s on-field skills to the latter’s body type, writing that “Kimbro had a stocky build, at 5 feet 8 inches and 175 pounds, with powerful shoulders and arms developed from swinging on ladders in schoolyards as a youngster.”
However, in what has unfortunately become an all-too-common refrain when discussing Negro Leaguers, many feel Kimbro was, as they say, born too early to enter organized baseball. If he’d come along a few years later, Kimbro could have been a Hall of Famer.
“He is consistently mentioned as one of the men who could have done well in the white major leagues had they been integrated a few years earlier,” wrote Richard Schweid of the Tennessean newspaper out of Nashville in 1987.
A dozen years later, a 1999 issue of the Tennessean quoted former Nashville Sounds owner Larry Schmittou attesting to Kimbro’s talent and poor historical timing.
“He and [fellow Negro Leaguer and Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodger] Junior Gilliam are probably the two best black [sic] baseball players that this city has ever produced,” Schmittou said. “Had he been born a few years later there is no doubt that he would have been a great player in the regular major leagues, too. … he was known by some people as the black [sic] Ty Cobb.”
But was Kimbro’s age when integration began – he was 34 when Jackie Robinson joined the Triple-A Montreal Royals, one of the Dodgers top-level farm teams, in 1946 – the only reason Kimbro never made it to the promised land, or was it something deeper, more complex?
Researchers and fans have always wondered if Kimbro’s personality kept him out of organized baseball? It’s a notion that Kimbro himself might have believed, at least to a certain extent, and he expressed such frustrations to writer Randy Horvick of the Nashville Scene alternative newspaper in May 1996.
“They’d have put me in there and shot me the next day,” Kimbro told Horvick, “because the first time somebody did something to me, I’d have been up at ’em. No way in the world I wouldn’t have fought back.”
Kimbro did indeed acquire a reputation as an angry, combative, ornery player – the great dual-threat All-Star Double Duty Radcliffe called Kimbro “the wildest man I ever saw in baseball and absolutely the hardest to manage” – in addition to amassing such impressive statistics, accolades and on-field accomplishments.
Kimbro earned – quite unfairly – a reputation as an aloof, quiet, ornery loner with a mean streak who had trouble bonding with teammates. But many of those who truly knew him would dispute such a labeling of the Nashville native despite the prevailing impression of him.
Such a drastic mischaracterization perhaps has been the cause, or at least one of the causes, of Kimbro’s status as an overlooked, underappreciated legend. In fact, many speculate that that contemporaneous, negative assessment of Kimbro’s nature was a factor in his never making it into Organized Baseball.
Some, such as Elite Giants teammate Butch McCord, believe that his undeserved, erroneous reputation is partially why Kimbro has never come close to entering baseball’s valhalla in Cooperstown.
“In most books,” McCord told USA Today reporter Tom Weir in 1997, “people write that Kimbro was the most evil player ever. He ought to be in the Hall of Fame, but politics are going to keep him out.”
Added Stanley Glenn, another baseball contemporary of Kimbro: “A lot of people misunderstood Henry. He was quiet and he stayed to himself and didn’t talk an awful lot. I found him a real fine baseball player.”
Journalists were also aware of Kimbro’s reputation, with Anthony Coleman of the Tennessean writing in 1995 that “[t]he only potential negative related to Henry Kimbro is possibly people’s differing views related to his personality. By his own admission, he was a loner who tended to keep to himself. In addition Henry has been described as a little unruly and reportedly didn’t get along with umpires.”
However, James Bready of the Baltimore Sun wrote in 1996 that while Kimbro might have been taciturn in nature, the longtime Elite Giant didn’t necessarily need words to prove himself an excellent ballplayer.
“When he wore the uniform,” Bready wrote, “Henry Kimbro volunteered words less often. His bat, his glove, his arm did the talking. Centerfielder and leadoff man, he was a basic asset — 13 years a Baltimore Elite, more than any other player.”
And again, those who knew Kimbro on a personal level said there was a specific reason for the way he carried himself. Dr. Revel, in his CNLBR biography of Kimbro, revealed the truth about Kimbro.
“Dr. Revel, the author of this essay, had the opportunity to personally know Henry Kimbro and visited with him on numerous occasions over the years,” he wrote. “Dr. Revel’s impression of Henry was that every time he saw him, he presented himself as a very humble and professional individual. Dr. Revel characterized Henry as a quiet and an unpretentious man who played the game of baseball with a fierce determination. It is Dr. Revel’s assessment that Henry being aloof was more from the fact that his lack of formal education made him uncomfortable around people and once he got the reputation of being non-social, it just stuck and followed him throughout his career.”
That brings us to someone who knew Kimbro better than anyone else ever could, or ever did – his daughter, Harriet Kimbro-Hamilton.
I had the honor of speaking with Mrs. Kimbro-Hamilton way back last June, when we both attended the annual SABR Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues conference, which was held in Birmingham, Ala.
I feel terrible for taking so long to write something about the interview I had with Dr. Kimbro-Hamilton; unfortunately, I haven’t been keeping up with my blog like I wished I was. But I figured that Henry’s birthday would be a perfect time to write something up.
She said that Henry was so much more complex that the erroneous image people had of him.
“He was more than that person,” Kimbro-Hamilton told me. “Not too many people know about him, and if they do, they know just what’s in books [which claimed] that he was a loner, that he was mean.”
She added that as with any person, Henry was a complex man who had a depth to him that had to be viewed from all angles.
“Of course, to me he was Daddy,” Harriet said. “But you have to see people from all angles. We all evolve, and we’re not the same person [at different times].”
Dr. Kimbro-Hamilton and I spoke for over an hour, and the experience was both thrilling and elucidating. When it comes down to her father, his personality, his reputation and his legacy, she said, the key notion is education.
Because her father only went to school through the sixth grade, for much of his life he felt ashamed for what he perceived as his lack of education, which led to an inability to and apprehension about trying to express himself.
That lingering, lifelong worry led to an extreme reticence to try to interact with people, as the quote from him at the beginning of this post expressed. It was a truth that his daughter gradually learned while growing up in her family.
Kimbro-Hamilton told me that her father came from a rough background, where often bleak economic realities made it impossible for him to stay in school beyond sixth grade; between needing to help bring in money to help his mother make ends meet (he was one of 10 children), and the stifling segregation that prevented so many African-Americans from things like a quality education and opportunities to reach their full potential – the nearest Black school was 25 miles away from the family home – he was forced to drop out of school and go to work as a youngster.
“He just had a lot of barriers,” Kimbro-Hamilton said. “It was impossible to go to school, so he went to work, and that bothered him. It tore him to pieces.”
She added that through his life, Kimbro saw the hardship and injustice that surrounded him because of segregation and institutional racism, but he was taught as a Black kid to be silent against all the wrongs and all the troubles he experienced.
“A lot of things happened to him,” Harriet said, “and that molded him. He saw a lot of cruel things, and he was cruelly treated when he got a job working at a gas station. It was the worst circumstances ever. Would he even be able to eat?”
This background led Henry to close himself off from others and become a man of few words.
“He was a guarded man,” she added. “African Americans were ripped off and faced threats and intimidation, and he couldn’t speak out in the Jim Crow era. He only spoke when he had something to say. That’s something he taught me.”
Harriet added that her father became resigned to the conditions under which he and his family had to live, resolving to work hard and do all he could for his family.
“He said, ‘It is what it is,” she stated. “All he could do was keep it moving forward.”
That work ethic and determination to provide for his family made him an elite baseball player, and that drive didn’t end when he hung up his cleats in the early 1950s. After stepping away from baseball, Kimbro, still needing to provide for his wife, Erbia, and their four kids, eventually purchased a gas station, and owned and operated his own successful taxi cab company in Nashville, where he’d returned after he retired from baseball.
Kimbro-Hamilton said her father worked seven days a week, usually from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. That work ethic rubbed off on his kids, she said.
“He taught us to give everything you have, to the last drop,” she said. If you do something, you do it well or don’t do it at all.”
She added, “He was a man focused in on that moment in time. He had kids, and he had to raise them. He said his children weren’t going to grow up like he did.”
Henry laid the foundation for his children’s future success when they were young but also old enough to learn that the world wasn’t always a fair place, and that they’d have numerous obstacles – especially systemic racism – thrown at them. Harriet said her father thus engendered a toughness in his kids.
“Harshness sometimes breeds character,” she said. “He was harsh, but he was about family first. … I thank God that I had that type of father, and I was glad for it every day.”
While Henry deeply loved and provided for his family, Harriet said, he was also a stern, strict man who valued and taught discipline and achievement.
“He didn’t like people dropping the ball, she said.
She added that her father “had a button” that triggered anger when his kids didn’t work hard or screwed something up. If you did screw up, you darn well were going to fix the problems you caused.
“If you messed up, he was mad at you,” she said. “He said, ‘If I’m giving 125 percent, you are, too.’”
“He would whoop us,” she added solemnly.
But along with that strictness also came faith in his children and their ability to achieve. For Harriet, that meant that he warned her about the tough road she would have to haul as a Black woman, including in academia.
“‘You are educated, and you are a woman,’” Harriet said. “My dad said to stand up to pigtail pullers.”
She added with a smile, “[h]e knew I was the brains of the outfit,” and he didn’t want anyone intimidating his daughter and preventing her from achieving everything he knew she could accomplish.
Thus, aside from Henry becoming a successful business owner, there was another long-term benefit that came out of Henry’s own lack of education and the resulting pain it caused him – because he felt so terrible about his own educational status, he was determined that his children wouldn’t have to go through the shame and frustration that he experienced his entire life.
As a result, Kimbro made sure that, somehow, someway, all of his kids obtained a higher education. All of his children would go to college, and there was no discussion on the matter.
For Kimbro-Hamilton, her higher-education journey began with a bachelor’s degree at Fisk University, an HBCU located in Nashville, followed by a graduate program in sports administration at Florida State, an experience that shook her at first.
She was the only Black woman in the program, and the workload and classwork proved challenging, to the point that she considered transferring. She called home to talk to her mother, but her dad answered the phone. He reinforced his confidence in Harriet’s ability to overcome the challenge. She overcame it, needless to say, and her education at FSU became one of the greatest experiences of her life. Harriet then obtained a PhD at Temple University.
After obtaining her education, she became a coach at Bethune-Cookman University, an HBCU in Daytona Beach, Fla., and won the first intercollegiate championship the school ever had. Kimbro-Hamilton then embarked on another challenge, one that proved equally as formidable as anything else in her life. At Bethune-Cookman, where athletic administration at first balked at her desire to start up varsity women’s sports, including basketball.
“They just wanted a ‘yes’ person,” Harriet said, adding that the existing Fisk athletic department was a traditional “boys club.”.
She dug in her heels and, using the life lessons imparted to her by her father, eventually won out. She launched women’s teams, winning a basketball championship. “I had to fight for a piece [of the athletic program],” she said. “It was a fight, and at that time I knew how to fight because of my daddy. “I raised hell,” she added.
Returning to her alma mater Fisk University, she eventually became the university’s athletic director, the first Black woman AD at an NCAA Division III school in the country.
In addition to her achievements at Fisk, Kimbro-Hamilton served as a professor at Stillman College, an HBCU in Tuscaloosa, Ala., before settling into a professorship at Tennessee State, another HBCU in Nashville, from which she retired in 2020. She’s earned accolades, awards and/or halls of fame induction from Fisk, Temple, the Women’s Sports Foundation, and the National Association for Girls and Women in Sports. She chaired the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship Committee, and she served on the committee that selected the roster for the 1984 USA women’s basketball Olympic team that won gold.
Harriet said that she and other trailblazers in women’s sports – she noted legendary University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt in particular – strove to help change the reputation and quality of women’s athletics. She added that the passage of Title IX, a landmark amendment to civil-rights law that prohibits gender-based discrimination in education, including athletics, provided the legal teeth that aided her obtaining jobs and helping to start women’s sports programs.
“We went in there because we wanted to make a difference,” she said.
But, through it all, Harriet knew how much her father impacted the person she became, a person who overcame odds and obstacles at every turn.
“My father taught me all the things he was,” she said. “All of that was a part of me.”
As Kimbro-Hamilton got older, received her education and embarked on a lengthy career in academia and coaching that included numerous accolades, she developed a desire to eventually tell the world about her father and his true nature. She wanted to relate that instead of being mean and aloof, Henry was an intelligent – Harriet called him “one of the smartest men I ever knew” – hard-working, caring man whose rough childhood that not only caused him to close himself off and become a man of few words, but also made him a stellar baseball player, a successful business owner, and a dependable husband and father.
Kimbro-Hamilton decided to gather up the mementos, photos, articles and other items from throughout his career that he kept in a scrapbook. She poured through the vivid, comprehensive, revealing collection of memorabilia to write a reflective, deeply personal book, “Daddy’s Scrapbook: Henry Kimbro of the Negro Baseball League, a Daughter’s Perspective,” which was published in 2015.
The volume received a great deal of coverage and drew accolades, including the prestigious Robert Peterson Recognition Award at the 19th Jerry Malloy conference. The Peterson Award honors works that further the exploration of Black baseball history and help to create public awareness about the greatness of impact of the Negro Leagues.
Kimbro-Hamilton followed up “Daddy’s Scrapbook” with another incisive, colorful book, “Home Plate: Henry Kimbro and Other Negro Leaguers of Nashville, Tennessee,” which talks about all the Black baseball greats from the city that both Henry Kimbro and Harriet Kimbro-Hamilton called their hometown.
The book, which came out in 2020, was co-authored by Patrick Hamilton, Harriet’s son and Henry’s grandson, and is appropriate for teens and adults. In addition to relating family stories about Henry Kimbro, the volume also discussing other Nashville greats, like slugger Turkey Stearnes, who has been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame; Bruce Petway, whom many observers (including the author of this post) deserves a spot in Cooperstown for his superlative defensive skills as a catcher; James Junior Gilliam, who followed up several years in Black baseball with a lengthy career with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers that included the 1953 National League Rookie of the Year award and later stints as one of the first African-American coaches in organized baseball; and Tom Wilson, owner of the Nashville/Baltimore Elite Giants and an executive in the Negro National and Negro Southern leagues.
One of the ultimate ironies of writing about Henry Kimbro and relating his story to the world later in her life was that while Harriet was growing up, her father never discussed his baseball career, to the point that his children barely knew he played at all.
“I really didn’t have an opportunity to sit down and talk with him over a long period of time,” she said. “I didn’t know he was a ballplayer.”
When she eventually gained the gumption to ask her father about the rumors she’d heard about him playing ball, and why he didn’t ever talk about his baseball career, he dismissed the subject.
“He said, ‘Ah, yeah, I played a little bit,’” Harriet said. “That’s all he said.”
But once she fully realized that her father wasn’t just a professional baseball player but that he was also an excellent one, she became captivated by her father’s baseball story, the one that he modestly hid from his kids for so long.
In addition to writing her books on her father and the Negro Leagues, Kimbro-Hamilton’s intense curiosity and fascination about his baseball career led her to attend the Jerry Malloy conference several years ago. The experience with the Negro Leagues “family” further wowed her.
“I was writing the story of my dad, and I read all the books that said he was a terrible person. …
“So I came to the [Malloy conference] to get more information, to see and hear and to connect with people who also had the same goals as me.
“I got transfixed,” she added. “I loved it. I saw another world. Here were some people who had the same intentions I did, and I had to tell the stories.”
And, she said, “The stories are important to tell.”
Those tales included Henry Kimbro playing with and mentoring younger players on the Elite Giants, including a fresh-faced teenager named Roy Campanella, and a later-generation slugger like James Junior Gilliam.
“That was part of my heritage because of my dad,” Harriet said.
Hopefully, Henry Kimbro was aware of that heritage and the responsibility he and his peers had to fight the good fight and pave the way for new generations to go where the elders never could. But it was still hard to play the game you loved and know that no matter how good you were, you couldn’t get to the promised land.
“I really didn’t think the game would ever be integrated,” Henry Kimbro told Larry Taft of the Tennessean in 1995.
“You had some people in baseball who controlled it, and they weren’t for integration at all. The old judge [then-MLB commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis] …, the way I understood it at the time, didn’t want any part of integration.
“Trying to look ahead at baseball being integrated then was like trying to look through a mountain. We weren’t close enough to [the top] then that we could look in the distance and see the other side.”
But Harriet Kimbro-Hamilton understands how important her father was to baseball history and to the fight for justice and fairness in the national pastime.
“I’m proud my daddy could hold down the fort until Jackie Robinson came along, and all of those [after Robinson],” Harriet said.
She said she knows that her father was good enough to play in the majors had he been only given the chance, but that he and others of the pre-Jackie generation faced hurdles that ultimately kept them out of organized baseball.
But, she added, “I said, ‘I have to tell their stories.’”