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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Thursday, June 21, 2001
So long, Sam.
Jethroe?s death ends one of the most interesting lives in baseball history.
Sam Jethroe died this week. His obituary was buried at the bottom of the sports pages, saved for a one-sentence blurb at the end of the nightly telecast. After all, he only played three seasons in the major leagues. True, he did win a Rookie of the Year award, but then again, so did Don Schwall. Jethroe was no big deal to most people. But Sam Jethroe, one of the fastest men ever to play major league baseball, was also one of the most fascinating.
It begins with the tryout. At Fenway Park on April 16, 1945 ? two years before the color barrier was broken ? Jethroe became one of the first African Americans to formally try out for a major league team. The tryout was the result of lobbying by sportswriter Wendell Smith and Boston city councilman Isadore Muchnik, who had threatened to revoke the Red Sox? permit to play Sunday games at Fenway Park unless they granted a tryout to black players. The Sox agreed, and Smith chose the three players who would participate: Philadelphia Stars shortstop Marvin Williams, Cleveland Buckeyes outfielder Jethroe, and ex-UCLA running back Jackie Robinson. In retrospect, it is remarkable that Robinson was even invited to the tryout. Although a remarkable athlete, he had not played organized baseball at any level for six years. (In his last try at the sport, in 1939, Robinson had batted .091 for UCLA.) Although Robinson was about to begin his first season with the Kansas City Monarchs, there was no reason that anyone in the spring of 1945 should have expected him to succeed at baseball. In the years since giving up baseball, Robinson had spent his time playing professional football and basketball, serving in the Army during World War II, and coaching a college basketball team in Texas. The fact that his name even came up as a candidate for the tryout was a tribute to his tremendous athleticism.
The tryout was supervised by four Hall of Famers ? Hugh Duffy, a Red Sox coach; Joe Cronin, the manager; Eddie Collins, the general manager; and Tom Yawkey, the owner. Immediately following the tryout, all four tried to dodge responsibility for evaluating the players. Yawkey?s public stance was that decisions regarding players needed to be made by his baseball people. Collins, the GM, was unable to attend the tryout ?because of a previous engagement.? Cronin, the manager, attended the tryout, ?but said that any comment would have to come from Duffy who supervised the workout.? And Duffy, the 78-year-old coach, said the players were ?fine fellows? who played ?all right,? but he couldn?t make a decision about their ability after only one workout. There would be no second workout, though. The political requirements had been satisfied, and the three players were left exactly where they had started: with no reasonable hope of ever playing major league baseball.
United Press International, in its report on the tryout, said Jethroe and Williams ?seemed tense and both their hitting and fielding suffered.? Robinson, however, ?slammed several balls off the left-field wall.? In later years, though, Jethroe remembered it differently. ?We had a good tryout,? he told me over the phone last year. ?We hit the ball, went to the outfield and worked out. But they didn?t tell me nothing. I never heard from them again. It was a sham.? Sham or not, it was the first and last appearance at Fenway Park for all three players.
However, unbeknownst to Jethroe, Robinson, and the others, there was someone else hard at work trying to integrate the Red Sox. On March 3, 1945, sportswriter Sam Lacy wrote a letter to Eddie Collins suggesting that, with integration inevitably on the horizon, Major League Baseball should hire an ?integration czar? of sorts. Although Lacy mentioned no names, he was clearly nominating himself to fill the position. The owners, he wrote, should ?appoint a colored man to make a survey of Negro baseball to the end of thoroughly studying the possibilities, and finding the best way of ironing out the many ramifications that will attach to the employment of a Negro player.?
?I know that there will be no hiring of colored players as a result of the? Boston ban on Sunday baseball,? Lacy wrote, more than a month before the tryout. ?But such an appointment as I recommend here would indicate that the owners involved are interested in working out a feasible plan of action.? In his reply to Lacy on April 11, Collins did not even bother to deny the allegation that the tryout was rigged, although he did write that ?as far as the Boston Red Sox are concerned, we want to make every effort to avoid anything that savors (sic) in any way of discrimination of race, color, or creed in the selection of our ball club.? But Collins argued that responsibility for overseeing integration belonged to the league presidents rather than individual teams, so he forwarded Lacy?s letter to A.L. president Will Harridge and then dropped the matter. Fourteen years later, in 1959, the Red Sox became the last major league team to integrate when they called up Pumpsie Green.
Two years after the tryout, in June of 1947 ? after Robinson had proven himself with the Brooklyn Dodgers ? a rumor was circulated that the Red Sox wanted Jethroe after all, and had purchased him from the Negro American League?s Cleveland Buckeyes. It turned out to be false, though, and Jethroe played another year for the Buckeyes before his contract was purchased by Branch Rickey?s Dodgers in July 1948. Jethroe tore up the International League in 1949, batting .326 for the Montreal Royals and breaking the league record for stolen bases. But with black players like Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe already on their major league roster, the Dodgers were wary of alienating white fans by making their team too black. ?Mr. Rickey told me the same things he told Jackie about all the stuff people would yell at us,? Jethroe said. ?Then he asked me if I smoked or drank. I said, ?Yeah, I smoke and drink.? Well, Jackie didn?t. He had everything Mr. Rickey wanted. He was a college man who had experienced the white world, and I wasn?t.?
In the winter before the 1950 season, Rickey sold Jethroe and another player to the Boston Braves for a whopping $255,000. The move was roundly criticized by the press, and more than one headline called Jethroe a ?bust? or a ?lemon? before he had played in a single major league game. In the New York World Telegram, Joe Williams wrote that ?B. (for Barnum) Rickey sold the Boston Braves one of his gold-brick specialties in outfielder Sam Jethroe, who doesn?t seem to be able to throw at all.? Rickey, however, disagreed. Before the season even started, in a speech at a Boston baseball writers? dinner, he admitted making ?a bad mistake? in letting Jethroe go, predicting that ?he is going to be great.? Rickey was right, at least for a while. Jethroe was named Rookie of the Year for the Braves, batting .273 with 18 homers and 35 stolen bases, more than twice as many as any other major league player. He enjoyed life in Boston, driving an orchid-colored Lincoln limousine around town and sharing an apartment with Chuck Cooper, the Boston Celtic who had recently become the first black player drafted by an NBA team.
Though Jethroe played well, the Boston press continued to skewer him. He and the other early black players were under such a microscope that even a routine speeding ticket issued to Jethroe in 1952 was noteworthy enough to be wired around the country by the Associated Press. Then, late that season, Jethroe got into a shouting match with Braves manager Charlie Grimm, who had called him ?Sambo.? That incident, along with Jethroe?s .232 batting average, was enough to get him sent down to the minors the next spring. Except for one at-bat with the Pirates in 1954, he never played in the majors again. Instead he spent the next six seasons in Triple A, and played brilliantly, ?hitting tape-measure home runs, making dazzling centre-field catches, and stealing bases with electrifying artistry,? according to one observer.
Jethroe quit in 1959, retiring from baseball to open Jethroe?s Bar and Restaurant in his home of Erie, Pa. He was never well off, but the bar helped him support his family for more than 30 years. In the early ?90s a bureaucratic edict forced him to sell the bar to make way for a development project, so he bought a new place in a tougher part of town. A man was shot to death in the bar one night. Business drifted away. Money became so tight that he sold his Rookie of the Year trophy to a collector for $3,500. Then, in December 1994, Jethroe?s home burned down. He had no insurance and, since he didn?t play the four full big league seasons necessary to qualify, he also had no pension from Major League Baseball. With no money and no home, Jethroe did the only thing he could: He began living in Jethroe?s Bar. Three months later, he filed a class-action lawsuit against major league owners, alleging that racism in the early days of baseball integration had prevented he and other black players from playing the four major league seasons required to get a pension. Though Jethroe?s claim was factually correct ? remember, he had been turned down by the Red Sox in 1945 ? Major League Baseball refused to give in. The case went to court, where a federal judge ruled for the owners because the statute of limitations for Jethroe?s claim had passed. But in 1997, Major League Baseball announced that it would award limited pensions to the players anyway. It wasn?t what Jethroe had wanted, but at least it was something. Thanks to Jethroe?s efforts, 110 Negro Leaguers began receiving pensions of $7,500 to $10,000 per year.
I never met Sam Jethroe, and I only spoke to him once on the telephone. It wasn?t much of a conversation. Because he had lost most of his hearing, he couldn?t understand anything I was saying. So I just let him talk, listening to him tell well-polished stories that he?d probably told a thousand times before. He was a man with a lifetime of memories, half of them bitter, the other half sweet. ?Over the years, I gave baseball a lot more than it gave me,? he said.
Yes, Sam, you did. And for that we thank you.
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