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Leaving An Indelible Mark
“You pitched in high school with the idea of moving up to either college or the Negro Leagues. I went the college route and pitched with the idea of moving up to the Negro Leagues. It was my dream, just like a white teen’s dream would have been to move up to the Dodgers or Red Sox”.
– Garnett Blair, Homestead Grays pitcher.
NEW HAVEN, Ct (BASN) — In the formative years of the Negro Leagues, the talent pool of players stretched out from the local sandlots to the college ranks. Most importantly, players like Blair, a standout for Virginia Union of the CIAA, began their baseball careers on black college campuses.
Schools like Morris Brown, Howard, Tuskegee, Clark Atlanta, Wilberforce, and others were the training grounds for some of the elite players in Negro League history. Longtime Negro League icon Buck O’Neill attended Edward Waters College in Florida before beginning his career with the Miami Giants in 1934.
One of the early pioneers of Negro League baseball, Frank Leland attended Fisk University in Tennessee. Leland would later help form the Chicago Leland Giants in 1909. One of the pitchers for Leland in those formative years was a fellow by the name of Andrew “Rube” Foster, the father of Negro League baseball.
Even Foster’s brother, William had HBCU ties before beginning his Negro League career. The younger Foster attended Alcorn State before going to the Windy City to play with his older brother for the Chicago American Giants in 1923.
The impact of black college players are a huge part of Negro League baseball. From player-manager Dick Lundy (Bethune-Cookman) to future Brooklyn Dodger Joe Black (Morgan State), the HBCU influence was felt throughout the entire existence of the Negro Leagues.
While a comprehensive list of players would be too long to mention, what follows is a brief summary of some players that made a significant impact on their schools and their professional teams.
PITCHERS LAYMON YOKELY AND BUN HAYES These two rivals from the CIAA were a big part of a pitching staff that helped lead the Baltimore Black Sox to the Negro American League pennant in 1929. A 6-foot-2 righty from Livingstone College, Yokely led Baltimore starters with a 19-11 mark that season.
The Winston-Salem, N.C. native threw six career no-hitters during his eight-year run (1926-33( with Baltimore. While hurling for LC, Yokley had several duels with his future teammate Hayes, who hurled for Johnson C. Smith University and briefly for North Carolina Central. Hayes’ best season also came in 1929 when he finished 4-0 for the Black Sox.
THE 1946 NEWARK EAGLES The Negro League champs of that season had several players that attended HBCU schools including third baseman Andrew “Pat” Patterson (Wiley College) and outfielder Bob Harvey (Bowie State University). However, it was the contributions of future Hall of Famers Larry Doby (Virginia Union) and Monte Irvin (Lincoln, Pa.) that helped put Newark over the top.
A year before he became the American League’s first black ballplayer, Doby hit a blistering .360 to lead the Eagles in batting. Irvin, who hit .349 during the regular season, was Newark’s catalyst in their World Series triumph over the Kansas City Monarchs. His .462 average with three homers and eight RBI led all starters in the 7-game series.
OTHER PLAYERS OF NOTE: C Joshua Johnson: A power-hitting standout who also played football at Cheyney State University, Johnson might have developed into an all-time great if given the chance to play more. His greatest misfortune was that he spent most of his career as a backup to future Hall of Famer Josh Gibson while toiling for the Homestead Grays. When Gibson opted to play in Mexico in 1940, Johnson hit a whopping .429 as the Grays won their fourth straight pennant.
OF John “Sparkplug” Reese: A speedy, defensive standout for several teams including the Hillsdale Daisies and Chicago American Giants title teams of the early 20′s. This Morris Brown product and Florida native would later manage the St. Louis Stars to the Negro National League pennant in 1931.
RHP George Jefferson: In 1945, this product of Langston University helped lead the upstart Cleveland Buckeyes to a four-game sweep of the Homestead Grays in the Negro League World Series. In a season where the 6-foot-2 Oklahoma native finished the regular season with an 11-1 mark, his highlight came when he tossed a three-hit shutout against the Grays in Game Three of the Series.
C Nish Williams: Another power-hitting catcher who was a standout for Morehouse College before toiling for several Negro League squads including the Nashville Elite Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, and Atlanta Black Crackers. His baseball legacy was continued at Morehouse by his son, Donn Clendenon. A three-time All-NAIA standout for the Tigers, Clendenon was the World Series MVP for the “Amazin” Mets in 1969.
NOTE: The Biographical Encyclopedia of The Negro Baseball Leagues, When The Game Was Black And White, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, and The Black College Sports Encyclopedia all contributed to this story.