Monday, March 24, 2014

Dream Team

BOSTON , March 19, 1936- Coming off his team's worst season ever and on the verge of bankruptcy, Emil Fuchs, the owner of the Boston Braves has come up with a brilliant plan to save his team. With nothing to lose, Fuchs has had a change of heart and asked Babe Ruth, who retired in mid-season last year after an un-productive three months, to re-join and manage the team. Ruth who has long expressed an interest in managing, gladly accepted the offer under the condition that he would have complete control over player personnel. Fuchs has obliged.

Babe Ruth
Ruth's first move sent shock waves through the major leagues as he single-handedly erased forty years of organized baseball tradition by breaking up the team and signing several Negro players to join the club. The starting nine of the new look Braves includes some of the luminaries of black baseball: first baseman Oscar Charleston, second baseman Sam Bankhead, third baseman Judy Johnson, outfielders Jimmy Crutchfield and Cool Papa Bell, and a battery consisting of catcher Josh Gibson and the incomparable pitcher, Satchel Paige. Joining Paige on the mound will be Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, and lefty Leroy Matlock.

As bench-minder, Babe Ruth plans to insert himself into the lineup on occasion as pinch hitter.

NEW YORK CITY, October 8, 1936- At Yankee Stadium today the unthinkable took place as the Boston Braves, a team who last year posted the third worst record in baseball history, took the World Series from the mighty New York Yankees, winning the Fall Classic in a decisive game seven. Led by the greatest Yank of all, rookie manager Babe Ruth, the Braves with their new cast of characters, mostly players from the Negro Leagues, took everything the Yankees were able to dish out and then some as they frustrated the Bronx Bombers almost every step along the way.

The old Bambino whose qualifications to be manager were once discounted in the baseball world, seemed to let the team manage itself as his players played old school, opportunistic ball, slap-hitting, bunting and running at will on the unsuspecting New York pitchers and infield. Indicative of the style of play that won the championship, the winning run came in the top of the seventh in game seven as the Braves' Cool Papa Bell, showing little signs of slowing down at 33, advanced from first to third on a Sam Bankhead bunt, then later scored the game's only run on a Lefty Gomez wild pitch. Satchel Paige, while giving up early hits to Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig, George Selkirk, (Ruth's replacement in the outfield), and youngster Joe DiMaggio, shut down the Bronx Bombers in order in the final three innings, preserving a brilliant four hit shut out; final score, Braves 1, Yankees 0.

But it wasn't all running and pitching that won Boston the championship, these Braves have power to back up their speed on the base paths. Josh Gibson who at only 25, has already been compared to his famous manager on a number of occasions, hit a remarkable six home runs in the series. Veteran Oscar Charleston, who many believe is the real brains behind the team, hit four dingers and drove in twelve runs in the series. Even Bell, not usually known for his power, hit two round trippers, and recorded seven RBI.

For many, the highlight of the series came late in game six when Babe Ruth put himself in to pinch-hit. With nobody on base, the Yankees had the game well in hand leading by six runs when Ruth came up to bat against his former teammate Johnny Broaca. The bespectacled right-hander (perhaps out of compassion), floated a curve ball over the plate and as in days of old, the Sultan of Swat parked the ball into the upper deck of the right field stands. Not a soul was seated nor a dry eye in the house as the greatest ballplayer ever circled the bases of the house they say he built, perhaps for the last time.

But it was the future not the past that reigned supreme this year as Satchel Paige stole the show. He won all three of his starts, allowing only four runs, frustrating the Yankee hitters with his control of a fastball that has few if any peers in the game. While most of these Yanks including DiMaggio have faced Paige before in exhibition games, the high-kicking "Satchelfoot" seemed to save his best for this series. Showing typical confidence in his stuff, Paige brought to his game a new found seriousness, a sense of purpose born out of the desire to prove that he and his teammates indeed deserved to stand exactly where they were standing, on top of the world.


That account of the 1936 baseball season is of course, fiction. It was inspired by a recent New York Times article about Julia Ruth Stevens, the daughter of Babe Ruth. In the article, Mrs. Stevens claims that her father, who expressed a strong desire to manage a ball club, was overlooked not because of his lack of qualifications, but because he intended to hire black ballplayers.

Except for his well documented respect for some African American ballplayers, Mrs.Stevens's memories fly in the face of just about everything that has been written about Babe Ruth. The popular image of him is of a carousing, carefree, but lovable lout. The general impression was that he was not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer; great as he was as a player, no one in the game took the idea of him managing a ball club seriously.

In the article, Mrs. Stevens claims that while her dad was quite the rake in the early days, he had settled down by the time his playing days were over, and was in fact, quite an intelligent, caring human being. One could discount Mrs. Stevens's remarks as a 97 year old’s sweet remembrances of her long departed old man; but maybe, just maybe, there might be something to it.

In 1936, the Babe's full year of retirement, hiring blacks to play ball was not a threat that would have gone unnoticed. Baseball famously had excluded African Americans as participants in the game since the 1890s, and that ban, which was not officially spelled out on paper, was as binding as a straight jacket. In 1936 that jacket was pulled as tight as ever and no one, not even someone with the clout of Babe Ruth could loosen it.

It would take eleven more years before Jackie Robinson became the first African American ball player in the major leagues in the twentieth century. In the intervening years, several events took place to make that possible:
  • World War II: African Americans in the armed forces fought valiantly to help establish democracy in Europe and the Pacific only to come home to a country where they were treated as second class individuals. That irony was not lost on many Americans, both black and white. 
  • The death of the Commissioner : Perhaps no man has ever been so aptly named as Judge Kenesaw Mountain (as in, he who will not be moved) Landis. Baseball Commissioner Landis's rule was law and that law extended to the so called "gentlemen's agreement" banning black players from the game. Any time the issue of the color line was brought before him, Landis would explicitly deny that there was any ban in place, then move on to the next issue, thereby tabling all propositions to integrate the game. When he died in 1944, his replacement Happy Chandler expressed his support of integrating the game. 
  • Joe Nuxhall and Pete Gray: Despite the fact that baseball lost many of its best players to the war effort, in 1942, President Roosevelt wrote the Green Light Letter, commanding that baseball go on in any way it could for the morale of the nation. The game went on with teams that were made up largely of men who were not eligible for military service. Joe Nuxhall was a 15 year old left handed pitcher who the Cincinnati Reds briefly put in their lineup, and Pete Gray was a one armed-outfielder who played one season for the St. Louis Browns. The fact that baseball owners would gleefully accept children and players missing limbs, but still not blacks, was truly a bitter pill to swallow. 
  • Politics: Government officials in Boston and New York City put pressure on their cities' teams to enact equal opportunity hiring programs, extending to players.The big league teams in those cities conducted tryouts for black players in 1945 with no results; they turned out to be shams, show trials at best. 
  • $$$: Despite all the changes mentioned above, the one issue that ultimately moved baseball to integrate was money. Attendance at Negro League games was booming by the mid-forties, especially at the East/West All Star game held annually at Comiskey Park in Chicago. That game alone drew over 50,000 every year. Owners couldn't help but notice.
The Houdini baseball needed to free itself from the straight-jacket of segregation turned out to be Branch Rickey. Egalitarianism may have played a role in his efforts to bring a black player to the Brooklyn Dodgers but Rickey, the team's president and general manager made no bones about the money that could be made with the potential of the black community's dollars spent at the ballpark. Rickey stopped at nothing to achieve his goal. The most important piece to the puzzle was to find the right player to break the barrier. He understood that any mistake could set the cause back ten years. Unlike others who publicly expressed their desire to integrate the game, Rickey kept quiet until the last possible moment. To that end, in order to alleviate suspicions while scouting black players for his team, Rickey announced plans to create a new, (and bogus) Negro League. Once Rickey found his man, he took pains to lecture the black community on how to behave in the stands when Jackie Robinson took the field. For their part, the black fans who attended Dodger games in every National League park in 1947, understood what was at stake and took those words to heart.

A brilliant account of the atmosphere at one of those ballparks, written by Mike Royko on the day Jackie Robinson died, can be found here (found among other articles by the great columnist).

I wrote a piece last year that bemoaned the fact that while Jackie Robinson is deservedly a national hero and icon, the people who immediately followed him into the big leagues are all but forgotten. Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, Willard Brown, and Dan Bankhead (Sam's brother) all played in the major leagues in 1947 but none of them are household names. The same can be said for the black ballplayers who preceded Robinson. The scenario at the top of this post was made up, but the teams were not. The players listed as members of the Boston Braves were actually members of a real team at the time. Some called it the greatest (non all-star) team ever assembled, others called it the best team money could buy. The Pittsburgh Crawfords were put together by a Steel City entrepreneur who worked on both sides of the law named Gus Greenlee. Taking advantage of the Great Depression, a power vacuum in the Negro Leagues, and the lack of any rules preventing him from doing so, Greenlee was able to rob other teams of their best players. He knew what he was doing; five of the Crawfords' starters are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is saying something as it is exponentially more difficult for a Negro League player to be honored by that institution than a major league player from the same era. Of those players, only Satchel Paige would ever play in the big leagues where at 42 he became the oldest "rookie" in baseball history.

How the 1936 Crawfords would have fared against the Yankees (who in 1936 were on the verge of yet another dynasty era), is anybody's guess. The comparison between black baseball and the major leagues is a difficult task because Negro League statistics are notoriously unreliable and even when stats were complete, competition was erratic. All the black teams barnstormed extensively each season and some of those games were against teams comprised of major leaguers. More often than not, the black teams won. Some point out that's not a fair comparison because the black players had more to prove than the whites. I'm not so sure I buy that argument. Like all professional athletes, the white players were competitors at the pinnacle of their profession; they hardly would have allowed themselves to be beaten, especially those players who couldn't stand the humiliation of losing to blacks. Ty Cobb who was often on the losing end of those games eventually refused to play against blacks for exactly that reason. So many big league teams lost to black teams in the twenties that Judge Landis barred major league teams from participating in games against black teams. (He did not prevent big leaguers from playing on non-sanctioned teams however).

Perhaps a more reasonable standard of judgement are the testimonies of countless baseball people, including some major league stars who like Babe Ruth, claimed the best black players were as good as the best white players and deserved to be in the majors. Another reasonable standard was the performance of the first black players who made it into the big leagues. Jackie Robinson won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, despite the fact that he was by most accounts, not the best player in the Negro Leagues when he became the chosen one. In the decade after Robinson was signed by the Dodgers, a trickle of black players made it into the big leagues, yet some of the most recognizable names of that era, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, and of course, Jackie Robinson, were black players. In the fifties, Sam Jethroe, Joe Black, Jim Gilliam, Frank Robinson, and Willie McCovey, won Rookie of the Year honors. Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks (two years in a row) all won the MVP award. Brooklyn pitcher Don Newcombe won both awards as well as the being the first winner of the Cy Young Award. According to the Win Shares system of evaluating ballplayers devised by Bill James, approximately twenty percent of the best players in the National League in the early fifties were black players, a percentage far in excess of their numbers in the league.

Given that, it's not much of a leap to realize that a good number of the best players playing the game before Jackie Robinson, were indeed Negro League players. Banning a high percentage of the best players available, the major leagues before 1947 did not truly represent the best baseball of the era. It's tantalizing to imagine what if his daughter is right, and Babe Ruth had been chosen to be the manager of a major league team, AND been allowed to include black players.

One thing's for sure: it would have been a hell of a team.

The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords
Top Row: L-R: Olan Taylor (1B), Judy Johnson (2B), Leroy Matlock (P), ?, Josh Gibson (C), Hood Witter (trainer).
Middle Row: L-R: 'Cool Papa' Bell (CF), Sam Bankhead (SS), Oscar Charleston (1B), Clarence 'Spoony' Palm (C), Jimmie Crutchfield (OF), Ernest 'Spoon' Carter (P), William Perkins (C/OF).
Bottom Row: L-R: Timothy Bond (SS/3B), Howard, Bertrum Hunter (P), Sam Streeter (P), Harry 'Tin Can' Kincannon (P), Duro Davis (P).

If only...

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