BASN Negro League Spotlight: The Cinderella Season of the 1945 Cleveland Buckeyes

By Tony McClean
Updated: April 22, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — Back in 1990, the Cincinnati Reds led the NL West from wire-to-wire en route to an upset win over the heavily favored Oakland Athletics in the World Series.

Some 45 years earlier, another Ohio based baseball team whose roots began in Cincinnati pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Negro League World Series history.

The Cleveland Buckeyes originated as the Cincinnati Buckeyes in 1942. A year later, the team moved from Cincy to Cleveland where they played their games at League Park.

But it was 1945 when the Buckeyes enjoyed their most successful season. Winners of both halves in the Negro American League at 53-16, Cleveland made their first trip to the World Series a memorable one.

While Cleveland had the league’s leading hitter in outfielder Sam Jethroe (.393) and player-manager Quincy Trouppe, the heart and soul of the team was a pitching staff led by a brother combination that took the league by storm.

Righthanders Willie (12-1) and George Jefferson (10-3) were the anchors of a staff that included another pair of righties, Eugene Bremer (9-4) and Frank “Big Pitch” Carswell (5-2).

The eldest brother, Willie finished with a league best 1.57 ERA and named was the league’s George Stovey Award winner. However, the younger Jefferson was a force on and off the mound.

George, who was recommnded to Cleveland by his brother, also played outfield and first base for the Buckeyes. In part time duty, George batted a sizzling .349 for the American League champs.

Despite the fact that Cleveland dominated the AL during the regular season, many experts didn’t give them a chance going up against the Homestead Grays.

The Grays (32-13) boasted a lineup that included future Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Cool Papa Bell. The Grays were also a dominating 20-2 at home.

But when the World Series started, it was clear that Cleveland’s pitching staff would be the great neutralizer. In Game One, Willie Jefferson and the Grays’ Roy Welmaker dueled for six innings before Cleveland pushed across a run in the seventh and eighth.

With one out and two on in the ninth, a Gibson RBI single cut the lead to 2-1. However, Jefferson induced Sam Bankhead to hit into a double play and gave Cleveland a 2-1 victory.

In Game Two, the Buckeyes used a ninth inning rally to take a 2-0 series lead. With the game tied 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth, Touppe led off with a double. Homestead starter Johnny Wright would walk the next two batters bringing Cleveland starter Bremer to the plate.

He promptly hit a ground rule double for a 4-2 victory. When the series shifted to Washington, it appeared that the Grays didn’t bring their bats with them as they were blanked by George Jefferson and “Big Pitch” Carswell.

Jefferson tossed a three-hitter in Cleveland’s 4-0 Game Three victory while Carswell lived up to his nickname by throwing a four-hitter in the Buckeyes’ 5-0 series clincher.

The Cleveland pitching staff held the Grays to just two earned runs (three total) in the four-game sweep. They held the trio of Gibson (.123), Leonard (.200), and Bell (.215) to a collective .235 batting average (8-for-34).

Two years later, the Buckeyes would win another American League pennant with a 54-23 mark. This time around, Cleveland lost in the World Series as they fell to the New York Cubans in six games.

By 1948, the Buckeyes had relocated to Louisville, Ky. and folded in 1949. That same year, Sam Jethroe became the first black player in the Boston Braves organization.

After signing with the team in 1949, Jethroe went on to steal 89 bases in the International League that year. A year later at the age of 32, Jethroe was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year, hitting .273 with 18 homers, 100 runs scored, and a league-leading 35 stolen bases.

However, the memories of the 1945 championship team and the Jefferson brothers would live forever in the minds of Cleveland’s sports fans.

NOTE: The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, and the Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball contributed to this story.