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.
Posted: June 21, 2001 at 05:00 AM | 3 comment(s)
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