Celebrating Baseball Black History Month

For Quincy Trouppe, “Twenty Years Too Soon”

             The BarryCode’s February tribute to baseball’s black history could commence with any of its many topical tributaries:  Hank Aaron’s 76th birthday, Willie Mays’ new biography, Frank Thomas’ retirement.  However, as the month began, the obscured signing of outfielder Scott Hairston by the San Diego Padres may be the best place to start.

            Hairston’s $2.45 million one-year deal, avoiding arbitration, coupled with brother Jerry Jr.’s $2.12 million 2010 contract as a newly arrived Padre, completes an unprecedented family cycle that grandfather Sammy Hairston could not have imagined when, after years of Negro League stardom, in 1950 he became the first black player to ink a Chicago contract.

            That year, before his July signing with the White Sox, Sam had already won the Negro American League’s triple crown, hitting .424, with 17 HRs and 71 RBI in 70 games with the Indianapolis Clowns.  He then joined the Sox’s farm club in Colorado Springs, not making a big league showing until July 21, 1951, as a back-up catcher.  By mid-August, he was returned to the minors, where he was Western League MVP in 1952.

            While Sammy’s 2-for-5 four-game performance proved both his debut and swan song, his appearance in ML annals now seems not inauspicious at all, for this forgotten “.400 hitter” (“Better than Ty Cobb!” he later joked) was destined to become the patriarch of the largest baseball family in diamond history.

            After his playing days, as Hairston began his nearly 50-year career as the White Sox premier “organization man,” scouting and coaching a bevy of future big leaguers, his lineage extended to an outcome undreamable from his “futureless time” playing with the greatest black stars during the shameful era of baseball’s segregation.

            Son Johnny (born in Birmingham in 1944) partook of the same “cup of coffee” treatment with the star-crossed ’69 Cubs, going 1 for 4 in three games as a September outfield call-up, never to play in the majors again.

            But the Hairston story would not be denied, and it continued another 40 years to its present prominence.  By 1973, John Hairston’s brother Jerry (born in Birmingham in 1952) had come on the diamond scene as a White Sox utility man and pinch hitter deluxe, playing 14 seasons for Chicago, while fathering those current Hairston teammates (who were tutored by Grandpa Sam!) in San Diego.  A bit of happy Hairston essentia:  all five of the family had a 1.000 Fielding Average season in their big league careers.

            While considering this month the family’s remarkable achievement as baseball’s first five-member, three-generation family (sorry Boones and Bells!), we must always remember the baseball world of Sam Hairston.  Born in 1920, a boy growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, playing semi-pro there before joining the Black Barons, are facts revealing his beginnings.  Coaching until his death in 1997 for another Birmingham Baron team, in a completely changed baseball world, encapsulates his final years.  In between, with his constant dignity pitted against a constant indignity, he begat an incomparable part of baseball black history!

 *     *     *     *     *

 Believe me when I say that Minnie Minoso is to Latin ballplayers what Jackie Robinson is to black ballplayers.  As much as I loved Roberto Clemente and cherish his memory, Minnie is the one who made it possible for all us Latins.  Minnie was like a god to me.”

                                                                                                Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda

            He could steal home or hit the ball over the Comiskey roof!  Astoundingly neglected by Cooperstown, Orestes Arrieta Saturnino Armas “Minnie” Minoso was an absolute trailblazer for blacks as well as Latinos, pridefully fighting prejudice with his exuberant, exhilarating style through the 1950s.  Indeed, he was the first black to actually play in Chicago, as he broke in as a White Sox third baseman on May 1, 1951, against the Yankees, homering in his first at-bat in Comiskey Park (where, as a Negro League All Star, he had often thrilled the Chicago crowds) and launching the “Go Go Sox” into a streak of 17 consecutive winning seasons.

            Minnie, described by Hall of Fame executive legend Alex Pompez as the “best centerfielder [!] of the Negro Leagues,” and Willie Mays were the first blacks to play in All Star games in seven different years.  An early Gold Glover, a pioneering league leader in reached bases, total bases, stolen bases, hits, doubles and triples, he could do it all — in fact, Minnie was the first black or Latino with more than 10 years with 10 or more homers!

            Yet beyond his wondrous numbers, he is remembered today as an exemplary international goodwill ambassador for the game, the A.L.’s most exciting player for over a decade and even, for a brief time, a treasured teammate of Sammy Hairston.  Black Latino baseball history starts with Minnie Minoso!  And here in Chicago circa 2010, perhaps Minnie’s legacy will continue via Cub Starlin Castro, vying to be the major’s first player born in the 1990s . . . .

 *     *     *     *     *

             Further recalling the early ‘50s in Chicago black baseball, the North Side produced the following fine and certainly not forgotten fellow:  batting right, throwing right, a lanky youngster who started his career with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League, the first black signed by the Cubs, proclaimed by their head scouts as “already a better shortstop than Pee Wee Reese.”  Need a hint?  His initials are E.B.  In 1950, after signing, he was sent to the minors, first to the Western League, then the Pacific Coast League, perfectly mirroring the movements of his respected rival Sammy Hairston.  He made his Cub entrance with a part-time look in 1955, quickly became a fan favorite, hitting .274 as an “all-rookie” teammate of the one and only Hank Aaron.  In 1955, he played all 154 games, earning an N.L. All Star spot.  Of course, our mystery man is none other than Eugene Baker, “Bango” to Ernie Banks’ “Bingo” (you didn’t think Mr. Cub was the identity of our paragraph’s hero, did you?  By the time I finished it, I did!)

            Gene Baker was a special player and a special person.  Switching to second base to play alongside roommate Ernie Banks, Gene quickly established a reputation as a brilliant baseball mind.  His future manager Danny Murtaugh would say, “Gene Baker knows more baseball than fellows twice his age.  He’s one of the smartest I’ve ever met.”  As a matter of historical fact, after winning a World Series ring with Murtaugh’s Pirates in 1960 (how Ernie envied him — the last Cub pennant is still from the segregated era!), Gene became the first black to manage a team in a major league game, subbing in 1963 for two tilts in place of Murtaugh.  He was the Pirates’ top scout for a quarter century, always spreading the gospel of clean living and baseball, and choosing to stay only at those hotels that would accept him during the years he played facing daily discrimination.  What a man, what an example:  Gene Baker!

 *     *     *     *     *

            James Hirsch’s authorized and authoritative new biography of Willie Mays promotes the oft expressed idea that, despite Willie’s gleaming statistical slate, no one record sets him above the field.  Well, here are four records that show the reservoir of his still-standing numeric mastery that matches his intangible perfection:

            1.      Only player ever to have a four-homer game and a four-stolen base game over the course of his career

            2.      Only player to have consecutive 30-homer, 30-stolen bases seasons, while walking more than striking out in each

            3.      Only player to lead a league four times in homers and four times in stolen bases over the course of his career (consecutive in each department, to boot!!)

            4.      Only player to have a career surpassing .300 BA, 3000 H., 600 HRs and 300 SB!

            Connecting today’s dots, we note Willie’s father Willie Howard “Cat” Mays, Sr. played in 1942 for the Birmingham Industrial League team — with Sam Hairston who, like Willie himself, was a proud alumnus of the 1940s Birmingham Black Baron dynasty.

 *     *     *     *     *

             The 1990 season saw Mr. Hairston coaching a new prospect in Birmingham whose success there prompted the parent club to finish his year by bringing him to Chicago.  There, young Frank Thomas hit the last Sox home run in Comiskey Park history.  By the time he hit the first homer in the new ballpark the following April, Sammy’s prize protégé belonged to the world.  Now firmly established as the greatest player in White Sox 110-year history, Frank Thomas conducted a classy retirement press conference this month, followed by the White Sox announcement of the retirement of his number 35, which springs us forward for this grouping: 

35 HRs, 100 RBI, 100 BB, .300 BA, .600 SA, consecutive years

            5 consecutive years        Frank Thomas

            3 consecutive years        Babe Ruth

            3 consecutive years        Ted Williams

            3 consecutive years        Jimmie Foxx

            3 consecutive years        Barry Bonds

            The Big Hurt is on an inordinately large number of small lists.  And that’s a good thing!  How about this next one?  Career with one team of 10 or more “Averaged 162-game seasons” exceeding .300 BA, 300 RB, 300 TB, 300 BB-SO:

            1.      Ruth, Yankees

            2.      Gehrig, Yankees

            3.      Williams, Red Sox

            4.      Bonds, Giants

            5.      Thomas, White Sox

            And an even more select grouping of players with careers exceeding .300 average while surpassing 500 HRs, 1500 RBI, and 1500 walks before their 10,000th plate appearance:

            1.      Ruth

            2.      Williams

            3.      Thomas (only right-handed hitter, only black player to accomplish this feat–put him in the Hall!)

            Using my numbers, Frank is one of 10 in history with 10 or more years of 400 bases, all players in the BarryCode “Batters Hall of Fame.”  As Casey said, “You could look it up!”

            And so, a reminder:  Be a finder!  Use that Barry Code decoder to further verify the innumerable accomplishments of the black stars.  There’s so much to find under the radar!

            Exampling Extra:

                  Richie Allen          Only player to lead both leagues two times in OPS!

                  Vada Pinson          Three seasons with 200 hits, .300 BA, 20 HRs, 20 SBs—no other player in history had more than one season with those stats!

                  Matty Alou           Joined immortals Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie as the only man to lead the majors in hits, doubles, and singles in the same year!

Saluting all of the above and all the others,

Barry Codell

2 Responses to “Celebrating Baseball Black History Month”

  1. Gary Velich Says:

    Hello Barry, Thanks for putting up the Bat Lead Count stat. With it you can find out who led in several categories in the same season. Did you know that Ty Cobb is the only player to lead the majors in Homers and Stolen Bases in the same year. He did it in 1909. Only two other players led their league in Homers and Steals in the same year. They are Jimmy Sheckard in 1903 and Chuck Klein in 1932, both in the National League. Ty Cobb is the only one from the American League to do it.

  2. Glenn Posner Says:

    Hi Boychick…I’m sure all the accolade and praise thrown your way is richly deserved. With performance enhancing drugs mixed into the equation, Glenn is just a tad more….jaded, shall we say, regarding baseball’s stats. Synical also works. When you and I were kids, it was a GAME. Now it’s morphed into some sort of evil hybrid of what it once was. We lived in the best of times Barry. I always relished our friendship. You were one of a few friends that actually made me periodically think. I hope Neil is OK & you are comfortable and in good health. By now your kids are probably grown. Mozel Tov.

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