Larry & Satchel; The Buckeyes and the Indians

Black kids in the U.S. don’t play baseball anymore.
As a generalization, that’s true. Participation by African-Americans in baseball has declined precipitously at all levels in the last two decades or so.
In 1975, 27 percent of all major leaguers were African-American. Now that number is 8 percent. The Red Sox have one African-American on their 25 man roster, Carl Crawford.
Pure racism is not the problem. A cultural shift has taken place. It was not always thus: the African-American contribution to baseball is an absorbing aspect of American social history.
Race and baseball are much on my mind.
Again this fall, I will be teaching the course “Segregation in America: Baseball’s Negro Leagues” in the American Studies Program at Middlebury College — and I have just returned from the 15th annual Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference, held this year in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Negro Leagues Conference changes cities every year, choosing a location with a significant black baseball tradition. Cleveland certainly has a rich store of baseball lore.
Every year a Players’ Panel introduces black players, octogenarians now, from the immediate post-integration era, the 1950s. These men played on black teams in the embers of the Negro American League (which hung on until 1956), or on black barnstorming clubs.
They tell stories of hardship embraced and overcome by the love of the game.
We met Minnie Forbes this year, one of five women who were owners of teams at one time or another in the Negro leagues (Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles with her husband, Abe, is the only woman in baseball’s Hall of Fame).
Minnie’s uncle Ted Rasberry owned two teams in 1955 and needed to divest of one. He kept the Kansas City Monarchs and passed the Detroit Stars on to his niece.
Elegant and modest, Minnie described the circumstances of her ownership and her relationship to the players, two of whom, Mel Duncan and Ernie Nimmons, were on the Players’ Panel and offered humorous asides.
The thrill for me at this conference is the opportunity to meet the writers of books in the field I particularly admire. Lee Lowenfish, author of the monumental Branch Rickey biography, headlined the Author’s Panel this year.
In the research presentations, much of course was made of Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, and the crucial events in Cleveland from 1945-48.
The Cleveland Buckeyes were the Champions of black baseball in 1945, when the Negro leagues were still in their heyday, two years before Jackie Robinson’s debut.
Led by catcher-manager Quincy Troupe and Sam “the Jet” Jethroe (who integrated the Boston Braves in 1950), the Buckeyes went 53-16 in league games that season and swept the powerful Homestead Grays in the Negro Leagues World Series.
In 1947, Larry Doby integrated the American League, just 11 weeks after the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the majors since the 1880s.
Cleveland owner Bill Veeck bought Doby’s contract from the Newark Eagles for $15,000 and brought him straight to the majors, where he struggled initially before starring the following season.
In the summer of ’48, Veeck introduced the inimitable Satchel Paige, 42 years old (or older), to the Indians. As an owner, Veeck was a decided maverick and many figured that his signing of the flamboyant Paige was a gag.
All Paige did was win six games and lose just won, in seven starts and 13 relief appearances. At one point, he pitched 26 consecutive scoreless innings. His earned run average was a low 2.42.
Paige certainly put fannies in the seats. In his three starts in August, he attracted over 200,000 fans to games against the White Sox in cavernous Municipal Stadium (capacity, 74,000) and Comiskey Park. He gave up only two runs in his first start, a 4-2 victory, and pitched three-hit shutouts in the next two games.
In his victory over the White Sox on Aug. 20, over 86,000 fans showed up to watch the Negro league legend, this ageless marvel.
The Indians and the Red Sox were deadlocked at the end of the 154 game regular season in ’48. The Indians won the one-game playoff, 8-3.
The Tribe then went on to defeat the Boston Braves in the World Series in six games, with Doby batting .318. His home run provided the winning margin in the Indians’ 2-1 win in Game Four.
In 1948, Cleveland was baseball’s Mecca and the Indians were the toast of the town.
I was teaching and studying in Cleveland from 1970-76. On April 8, 1975, I piled a dozen students in a van and we drove to Municipal Stadium, joining 56,000 other fans for Opening Day.
We were excited to be attending the first game of the first black manager in Major League Baseball history — another Robinson, Frank. A 39-year-old player-manager, Robinson wrote himself into the third spot in the Indians line-up.
In the bottom of the first, he hit a 2-2 pitch over the left field wall and the place went wild. A home run in his first Cleveland at-bat, his 575th homer. The Tribe won the game, 5-3, behind Gaylord Perry.
That was a good day at the old ballyard.
In Cleveland. 

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