This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.
The 1945 Homestead Grays boasted five eventual Hall of Famers – Ray Brown, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, and Jud Wilson. They were a powerhouse team, the kind of team on which dynasties are built. So how were they defeated in the 1945 Negro League World Series by the Cleveland Buckeyes, a team with zero eventual Hall of Fame members that was relatively new to the Negro League circuit? That 1945 series is a true tale of David versus Goliath, one in which a vastly underrated team not only defeated their heavily-favored opponent, but shut them down completely.
Negro League baseball struggled in Cleveland for years before the Buckeyes came onto the scene. They city had their first entry into the formal league structure in 1922…it fell apart before the end of the 1923 season. Cleveland (and the league hierarchy) refused to give up on the Negro Leagues in the city. They continued to introduce brand new teams, sometimes as often as each year, between 1922 and 1940. In that 18-year span, the city hosted 10 different Negro League teams. The reasons for their failures varied; the Depression played a role in the demise of several teams, while poor management and bad play were behind some of the others. By the time the Buckeyes were formed in 1942, they were buoyed by a surge in popularity in Negro League baseball nationally, and war workers that had more disposable income to spend attending games.
Of those 10 early teams in Cleveland, only two had non-losing records – the short-lived 1931 Cleveland Cubs (which had a winning record), and the 1939 Cleveland Bears (who finished at .500). As an example of the struggles of some of these teams, the 1926 Cleveland Elites only won six games the entire season. It is no wonder that some folks were likely skeptical about the potential success of the Buckeyes. However, during their first year they already proved competitive in the Negro American League with powerhouse teams like the Kansas City Monarchs, Chicago American Giants, and the Birmingham Black Barons. In the past, when those teams travelled to Cleveland, they made a mockery of the home team. The Buckeyes managed to hold their own against some of the best competition the league could offer.
By 1945, the team started to pull everything together under the tutelage of new catcher/manager Quincy Trouppe. The local African-American newspaper, the Call and Post, dubbed the Buckeyes’ lineup as a “murder’s row” prior to the start of the season, and while they were quite good, they couldn’t compare to a Grays lineup that included one of the greatest power hitters of all time in Josh Gibson. The difference came from the Buckeyes’ pitching staff; a group of arms that were definitely not household names, and while talented, were viewed as somewhat unthreatening to the Grays. However, they shut Homestead’s offense down as they went on to win the series four games to none.
Game one saw a pitcher’s duel from Buckeyes hurler Willie Jefferson and the Grays’ starter, Roy Welmaker, as both took a shutout into the seventh inning. Trouppe hit a triple and was driven home on a sacrifice fly by second baseman Johnny Cowan to make the score 1-0. The other Buckeyes run came in the eighth inning on an RBI single from outfielder Willie Grace. The Grays managed to make some noise in the ninth inning, after the made the score 2-1 on an RBI single from Gibson. However, the Buckeyes managed to hold on for the 2-1 win.
In game two, the Buckeyes were shut out 2-0 until a solo home run from Grace to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning made it 2-1. They were able to tie the game later in that inning, after outfielder Buddy Armour scored on an error (he doubled to reach base). The game was still tied 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth, when Trouppe doubled and later moved to third on a passed ball. The Grays intentionally loaded the bases, but a sacrifice fly from pitcher Eugene Bremmer made that a moot point.
These first two games were played in Cleveland; game one was played downtown at the cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium, while game two was played at League Park in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood. (The Indians split their time between Municipal Stadium and League Park until owner Bill Veeck chose to move the team downtown permanently in time for the 1947 season – the Buckeyes rented their facilities from the Indians). Game three was scheduled to take place in Pittsburgh; however, a rain-out moved it to Washington, D.C. This wasn’t completely out of the ordinary, since the Grays spent some of their time playing in DC, plus Negro League teams often traveled around to increase their gate receipts. Game four was played in Philadelphia.
The first two games in Cleveland were close affairs that were both won in the later innings. The same could not be said for games three and four; the Buckeyes were in the driver’s seat for both of those match-ups. George Jefferson (brother of game one starter Willie Jefferson) got the win in game three as the Buckeyes defeated the Grays 4-0. In the final game, the Buckeyes closed out the series with a 5-0 victory. Even though the Grays had what was considered the more threatening lineup, the Buckeyes managed to tame their bats and put some runs of their own on the board.
Even though this World Series win was the high point of Negro League baseball in Cleveland, a time when the city was finally able to put forth a team capable of running with the big boys (and beating them), it was still a bit bittersweet for them in hindsight. Just a month after they closed out their win against the Grays, Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a harbinger of the upcoming integration of the formerly all-white major leagues. Within a few years, other MLB teams started to sign players from the Negro Leagues; Cleveland became the first American League city to do so with Larry Doby in 1947 (formerly of the Negro National League Newark Eagles). While integration obviously was the first and most important priority, it essentially signaled the downfall for the Negro Leagues. The Buckeyes managed to return to the Negro League World Series in 1947 as they lost to the New York Cubans; but by 1949 the team attempted a move to Louisville, Kentucky in a bid to survive in a city without an integrated team like the Indians. That experiment failed, and they returned to Cleveland by the 1950 season. The Buckeyes had trouble making payroll though, and longtime star Eugene Bremmer went to the press in May to discuss the fact that he’d never been paid. The team’s owner and general manager owed money to what seemed like everyone; the team didn’t even make it to the end of the season, and collapsed and disbanded in the summer of 1950.
While some Negro League teams lost tons of players to the major leagues, only Quincy Trouppe and star outfielder Sam Jethroe would go on to play in the majors from the Buckeyes. Trouppe spent a very brief amount of time with the Indians in 1952 (and spent time in the minors prior to that), while Jethroe had a very successful rookie season in 1950 with the Boston Braves, earning him the title as the oldest person to win the Rookie of the Year award. However, the Buckeyes had to contend with an Indians team that not only signed Larry Doby in 1947, but also signed one of the Negro League’s biggest stars when they inked Satchel Paige to a deal halfway through the 1948 season. The Indians’ 1948 World Series title dramatically increased their popularity and set a single-season attendance record that held until 1962. In addition to their progressive moves on the field, the Indians also integrated the press box, hired African-American vendors, and hired track and field gold medalist Harrison Dillard to work in a public relations role with the team. African-American fans embraced the Indians and stopped attending Buckeyes games. While a few Negro American League teams were able to survive into the 1950s, the Buckeyes weren’t one of them.
Last fall, it was the seventieth anniversary of the Buckeyes’ surprising win over the Homestead Grays. Even though this was a great moment for Negro League baseball in the city of Cleveland, it’s often forgotten; overshadowed by an Indians team that continuously made headlines in the late 1940s. It deserves recognition as a great baseball series though, when the underdog unseated the giant.
A side note – The Buckeyes’ home park for the 1945 season, League Park, was recently refurbished by the city of Cleveland and features a brand new baseball diamond and the renovation of the park’s original ticket office building. Located at the corner of E. 66th St. and Lexington Ave. in Cleveland, it is also the home of the Baseball Heritage Museum. (http://baseballheritagemuseum.org/)
Stephanie Liscio (@stephanieliscio) is the author of Integrating Cleveland Baseball: Media Activism, the Integration of the Indians, and the Demise of the Negro League Buckeyes, and co-owner of the ESPN SweetSpot Indians affiliate blog It’s Pronounced Lajaway (http://itspronouncedlajaway.com). A Ph.D. student in history, Stephanie has also spent the past six years as president of Cleveland’s SABR chapter.
This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer were not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.