With Negro Leagues now officially major, it’s time for Rochester to honor its major leaguers

Late last year, Major League Baseball made it official: the Negro Leagues between 1920 and 1948 were and always have been major league level. Their exclusion from records before now had been the result of the very same racism that had forced their existence in the first place. The issue of incomplete statistics and other forms of record-keeping (for example, which games were official league games and which were one of the countless exhibitions that Negro League teams held) have been largely (although not completely) corrected through an extreme amount of research and fact-finding. MLB and most major baseball historians agree: there is no major reason to continue to exclude the Negro Leagues and the statistics of their players from the official history books of MLB.

For many baseball fans in the internet age, though, it can be argued that nothing is official until Baseball Reference says it is. Although not the official decision-maker of what baseball statistics are and are not valid, it might as well be, so when the folks there announced that the Negro League statistics would be integrated (for lack of a better word) with the site’s pre-existing statistics, it was a big deal.

Which brings me to my hometown of Rochester, N.Y. A good place to grow up depending on where you live in the area. Doesn’t deserve the reputation it has. For the purposes of this blog, what’s important though is that Rochester has one of the longest and most successful baseball histories in the country, outstripping even many major league cities. However, due to size and the proximity to other large cities it hadn’t had a Major League Baseball team since 1890’s American Association Broncos. The city had gone the entire 20th century without a MLB team.

Until now. Because, you see, in the waning days of the Negro Leagues, a member of the Negro National League played in Rochester. The New York Black Yankees were, of course, originally based in the New York City area. Founded in the early 30s and joining the NNL in 1936, they played in Paterson, N.J. or on Randalls Island when they weren’t barnstorming or playing away games. By 1948, with integration underway and finances taking a downward turn for many Negro League teams (especially in the New York City area), the Black Yankees headed upstate to Rochester, where they played the last year of their existence in Red Wing Stadium.

With MLB’s recent recognition of the Negro Leagues as major leagues, those 1948 New York Black Yankees are Rochester’s most recent Major League Baseball team. And it is time that Rochester also recognize them as such.

They were, admittedly, not very successful on the field, finishing 9-35 and coming in dead last in that year’s Negro National League standings. However, they still had some players who were considered good enough to represent the east in the Negro Leagues’ famed East-West All-Star Game. As the best players of Rochester’s last major league team, they deserve spots of honor at Frontier Field, perhaps on its Wall of Fame.

Those players are:

  • George Crowe, who hit .345 and led the team in HR and RBI. After integration, he would go on to spend time with three different franchises, playing over 700 games before finishing as a career .270 hitter. He was named to the 1958 All-Star Game when he was with the Cincinnati Reds. For a time, he held the MLB record for career pinch-hit home runs.
  • Robert Griffith was a two-way player. In his younger days, he’d often found himself in the top 10 of the pitching leaderboard for the NNL, but by 1948. he was 35-years-old and his best days were behind him. He was still the Black Yankees’ best pitcher, though, finishing with a 3-1 record and 4.33 ERA while throwing the team’s only shutout on the year. At the plate, he was less successful, although he still had a HR in his limited action.
  • Finally, there was Marvin Barker, an infielder who was also the team’s manager who occasionally would also fill in on the pitcher’s mound. Like Griffith, Barker’s best days were behind him, although he still hit a respectable .293 (third-best on the team) and had an OPS of .734 (second only to Crowe).

This coming Saturday, the Red Wings will hold their annual Negro Leagues tribute. They will be wearing the uniforms of the Rochester American Giants, a team that played in the minor leagues of the Negro Leagues. Perhaps, though, they should be playing in the uniforms of the 1948 Black Yankees. And perhaps, in years ahead, the best players of Rochester’s last Major League Baseball team can have a place of honor somewhere in the stadium.

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