(Blogathon ’16) Stephanie Liscio- Forgotten Champions: The 1945 Cleveland Buckeyes

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.

 

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Famous For Something Else: Reece “Goose” Tatum, Harlem Globetrotter Legend

It’s time for another “Famous for Something Else”.

Today’s individual who is far more famous for something else is Reece “Goose” Tatum. Tatum was the original “Clown Prince” of the Harlem Globetrotters, one of the finest basketball players of his era (back during a time when the Globetrotters would play and often beat actual NBA teams), and said to be the inventor of the hook shot/skyhook that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would later make famous.

But before his basketball career really took off, Goose played some baseball in the Negro Leagues. While his stats are a bit spotty due to the less-than-excellent record-keeping of the day, here they are:

Year Age AgeDif Tm Lg Lev PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB BA OBP SLG OPS TB SH
1941 20 Birmingham NAL NgM 6 5 1 3 0 0 0 2 0 0 .600 .600 .600 1.200 3 1
1941 20 Birmingham NAL NgM
1942 21 Birmingham NAL NgM 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0
1942 21 Birmingham NAL NgM
1943 22 Cincinnati NAL NgM 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0
1943 22 Cincinnati NAL NgM
1945 24 Cincinnati/Indianapolis NAL NgM 3 3 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 .333 .333 .333 .667 1 0
1945 24 Cincinnati/Indianapolis NAL NgM
1946 25 Indianapolis NAL NgM 19 18 6 8 2 0 0 3 0 1 .444 .474 .556 1.029 10 0
1946 25 Indianapolis NAL NgM
1947 26 Indianapolis NAL NgM 32 29 5 10 1 0 0 2 0 3 .345 .406 .379 .786 11 0
1947 26 Indianapolis NAL NgM
1948 27 Indianapolis NAL NgM 23 19 1 5 1 0 0 5 0 1 .263 .300 .316 .616 6 3
1948 27 Indianapolis NAL NgM
7 Seasons 89 80 13 27 4 0 0 12 0 5 .338 .376 .388 .764 31 4
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/13/2014.

The Previous BAL-KC Playoff Matchups… yes, there was one (and there could have been 3!)

Don’t believe the people who say that this ALCS is the first time that Baltimore and Kansas City’s baseball teams have met in the playoffs. It’s wrong.

Oh, to be sure, this is the first time the MLB franchises- the Royals and Orioles- have met. But it’s not the first time Kansas City and Baltimore have sent their nines against each other. It’s the second… and there could have been at least two more, had they been played. Using a few other resources, such as Baseball-Reference, SABR, and their joint wiki, here is the hidden history of Kansas City and Baltimore in the postseason..

 

1923 Little World Series: Kansas City Blues def. Baltimore Orioles, 5-4

Throughout history, there have been many incarnations of a Triple-A World Series, pitting the best teams in America that aren’t Major League. And in 1923, we had the only time that we can be sure Kansas City and Baltimore played each other in a postseason series, as they faced each other in a best-of-9 series, at the time going by the name “Little World Series”, although the Sporting News also referred to as the “Junior World Series”. It was a match-up between the American Association and the International League.

Winning the IL for the fifth straight season, the 1923 Orioles were in the midst of perhaps the greatest minor league dynasty in history, as they would ultimately win the IL every year from 1919 to 1925. Under Jack Dunn- best known for being the man who discovered Babe Ruth- they’d gone 111-53 to win the pennant by 11 games over Rochester, and would later be named as the 19th greatest minor league team in history. Their roster was stacked with players who either had or would have major league careers.

The most notable, of course, would be 23-year-old future Hall-of-Famer Lefty Grove, who pitched to a 3.11 ERA as he set the IL record for strikeouts in a season that year with 330 Ks in 303 IP. However, his 27-10 record wasn’t even the best on the team- that belonged to the 29-year-old Rube Parnham, who went 33-7 with a 3.18 ERA. The righty, interestingly enough, only pitched in six MLB games in his career for the 1916-1917 Philadelphia Athletics.

Also on the Orioles that year was Grove’s fellow Hall-of-Famer Chief Bender, then 39 years old, who had pitched in all but one of his 459 career MLB appearances on the mound (in addition to some small stints as a position player). Pitching in 18 games with Baltimore, he was less than effective and had a 5.03 ERA.

Other notable Orioles included Tommy Thomas (who would go on to pitch parts of 12 seasons in the big leagues), 2B Max Bishop (who tied for the IL lead in HR at 22 and who would go to 15th all-time in MLB OBP), Jimmy Walsh (who had been primarily an outfielder in the majors during the 1910s) and Clarence Pitt, a mid-season acquisition from Rochester who hit .357 in 1923 but who never played a MLB game.

In contrast to the runaway Orioles, the Blues had been in a neck-and-neck race before grabbing the AA title. In fact, in a article dated Sept. 30 in the October 4 issue of Sporting News, it was said that it would be “almost a miracle” if they were to come through in their race with the St. Paul Saints. That same article, entitled “St Paul Counting Team As Safely In”, is in fact more of a preview of a Saints-Orioles series than anything. But Kansas City won an astounding 10 of their last 11 games to finish the year with a 112-54 record, the second best in the history of the American Association and just barely ahead of St. Paul at 111-57. Unlike the Orioles, the Blues lacked many big names or future stars, instead being made up mainly of older veterans, such as their 37-year-old player-manager Wilbur Good (who’d played parts of 11 years in the bigs), 30-year-old Bunny Brief (who had already played all 184 of his MLB games), and 36-year-olds Beals Becker (who had been second in the 1914 National League batting race) and Lena Blackburne (most known for his role in the infamous “rubbing mud” that is placed on baseballs before being put in play). There was also 25-year-old Dud Branom, who hit .348 but would ultimately only have 30 games with the Athletics in 1927. Pitching-wise, the Blues were led by Jimmy Zinn, who went 27-6 with a 3.94 ERA, and Ferdie Schupp, who went 19-10 with a 4.23 ERA. Also in the rotation: Ray Caldwell, winner of 134 career MLB games.

Bad weather plagued the Little World Series, and in fact it ended after MLB’s World Series. Starting on October 10th in Kansas City, it didn’t end until October 25th- 16 days later- in Baltimore, where Kansas City won the 9th and deciding game 5-2, defeating Grove and Parnham in the final game behind homers by Bill Skiff and Brief. It was only because of Baltimore’s play at home that the series had even gotten that long, as Kansas City had gone 3-1 to start the series.

That would be the last time Baltimore and Kansas City would have two professional baseball teams meet in the playoffs… but it’s not the last time that it could have happened.

1929 Negro World Series: The Kansas City Monarchs would have played the Baltimore Black Sox

The Negro Leagues were infamously disorganized, with record-keeping at times being hit-or-miss and the with league schedules often haphazardly taking place between barnstorming tours and other exhibitions. In addition, there was the problem of money (several Negro Leagues ended up folding long before integration) and, of course, the racism they faced, which often closed them out of stadiums and hotels. So, with that in mind, perhaps it is isn’t surprising that the Negro World Series (also called the Colored World Series, depending on the era) was an on-and-off affair. Well, in 1929, it was an “off” year, thus depriving the world of a matchup between the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League and the Baltimore Black Sox of the short-lived American Negro League.

We’ll never know what would have happened had they done so, but any such series would have featured at least three Hall of Famers: Jud Wilson (with Baltimore), Bullet Joe Rogan (with Kansas City) and Andy Cooper (also with Kansas City).

1939 Negro World Series: The Kansas City Monarchs would have played the Baltimore Elite Giants

Ten years later, the Negro American League champion Kansas City Monarchs would have faced the Negro National League champion Baltimore Elite Giants. But, like in 1929, the Negro Leagues World Series was not in existence at the time.

That was a shame, as this series would have been even more star-studded than the 1929 edition would have been. Hall of Famers Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes and Willard Brown, as well as Buck O’Neil (who should have been a Hall of Famer for his work off the field alone), were on the Monarchs, while the Elite Giants had a 41-year-old Biz Mackey and a 17-year-old catcher named Roy Campanella.

We’ll never know what might have happened, but it really fires up the imagination, doesn’t it?

So, there you go, the previous playoff match-ups between Baltimore and Kansas City. Oh, sure, two of them never really happened, but, still, that’s way more than is needed to render any claim that this is the first time that Kansas City and Baltimore have met in the playoffs false!