By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
These Elmira Pioneers Were True Pioneers
ELMIRA, N.Y. — “TWO NEGRO SLUGGERS TO JOIN CLUB TONIGHT.”
The headline appearing in the June 28, 1950 Star-Gazette heralded the arrival of Bob Wilson and Jim Wilkes, the first two black baseball players to wear the Elmira Pioneers uniform.
The headline was somewhat less than accurate. Wilson was an accomplished .300 hitter who played in the 1949 Negro Leagues All-Star Game.
But Wilkes, a speedy center fielder who hit .280 and made a key defensive play as the Newark Eagles won the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series title, was more of a slap hitter. Fans called him “Seabiscuit” because people said he could outrun the fabled race horse.
“They will help the ballclub,” predicted Fresco Thompson, an executive of the Pioneers’ parent Brooklyn organization after the Dodgers signed Wilson and Wilkes as free agents from the Houston Eagles roster.
“Oh, yes, I remember playing in Elmira as a good experience,” the 81-year-old Wilkes said in a recent telephone interview from Brantford, Ontario, where he retired after playing 10 years for the Brantford Red Sox of the Intercounty Baseball League.
“Bob Wilson and I roomed together, and by and large we didn’t experience problems because we were black. There was nothing really negative.”
The two 25-year-olds made their Elmira debut on June 30, the same night player-manager George Fallon took command of the faltering team from Greg Mulleavy. Fallon’s lineup card listed center fielder Wilkes in the leadoff spot and third baseman Wilson batting third.
Wilson and Wilkes were instant successes, each garnering four hits in seven at-bats in a doubleheader against Utica. Wilkes hit .281 with no home runs and 14 RBIs before the Dodgers sent him to Three Rivers, Quebec, of the CanAm League.
“They needed some help up there,” Wilkes recalled. Wilson stayed in Elmira, hit .299 with four home runs and 39 RBIs, but the Pioneers lost their final seven games and finished seventh in the eight-team Eastern League.
Wilkes today suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, but his recollection of “The Catch” in the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series matches historians’ account of the seven-game set against the Kansas City Monarchs.
Game Six brought the teams to Newark’s Ruppert Stadium with the Monarchs needing one victory for the championship. With two outs and the bases loaded late in the game, Negro League legend Buck O’Neil slammed a drive deep into the right-center field gap. A sure double that would score two runners or even clear the bases.
“I turned, started running and when I looked up there was the ball and I made the catch just before the fence,” Wilkes said. “Buck, he called me every name in the book after that.”
Newark won 9-7 and the next day captured the World Series with a 3-2 victory in Game 7 when future Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Larry Doby scored the decisive runs.
“No, there wasn’t any extra money or fancy rings for winning,” Wilkes said. “Just the prestige.”
If the 1950 Pioneers flopped on the field, the 1951 team excelled by winning its first division title since 1943 and drawing a record 156,507 fans to Dunn Field before bowing in the Eastern League playoffs.
“Seabiscuit” Wilkes batted .273 for the Pioneers but was sent to Lancaster, Pa., of the Interstate League early in the season. The next year saw Wilkes play briefly with the Pioneer League’s Great Falls, Mont., entry before returning to the Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns. He closed his baseball career with a 10-year stint at Brantford, Ontario.
Bob Wilson was a key to the Pioneers’ success in 1951. He batted .313, hit eight home runs and had 60 RBIs, second best on the club.
Called a “terrific hitter” by retired Star-Gazette sports editor Al Mallette, Wilson seemed destined for stardom. After Elmira, the Dodgers promoted Wilson to Triple-A baseball — the last stop before the major leagues — and he flourished by hitting .334 and .317 during two seasons with St. Paul in the American Association.
After a brief stop in the Pacific Coast League, he joined Montreal of the International League, where he hit better than .300 in three of his four seasons, led the league in hits in 1955 and in doubles in 1955 and 1956.
Finally, at age 33, Wilson’s long-awaited chance at what ballplayers call “The Show” came in 1958 when the Dodgers, now in Los Angeles, summoned him to the majors.
He singled in his first plate appearance in a May 17 game against the St. Louis Cardinals. But after going hitless in four at-bats the following day, it was back to St. Paul, where he hit .349.
Wilson split time with the International League’s Montreal and Toronto squads, hitting .325 in 1959, and closed his career a year later with stops in Toronto, Dallas and Fort Worth. Wilson died in 1985 at age 60 in his hometown of Dallas.
Two other early black Pioneers went on to make baseball history.
Charlie Neal, later a third baseman for the Brooklyn and then Los Angeles Dodgers, was one of the original New York Mets in 1962, a team that went on to lose 120 games. Neal, who died in 1996, hit .246 for the 1952 Pioneers and is considered the first black player signed by the Mets.
“I saw him at the 1956 World Series between the Dodgers and Yankees,” Mallette recalled. “He told me not to ask him about Elmira because he hated it when he played here and still hated it in 1956.”
Catcher-outfielder Nat (sometimes called Nate) Peeples — nicknamed Nat the Hat — hit .252 for the 1951 Pioneers and appeared in 12 games in 1952, batting .255 before joining Santa Barbara of the Class C California League.
He earned a place in baseball lore on April 19, 1954, when he pinch-hit for pitcher Noel Oquendo in the fifth inning of the Atlanta Crackers’ season opener against Mobile.
The plate appearance — a weak ground ball to the Mobile pitcher — and an 0-for-3 performance with a walk the following night put Peeples into the record books as the first and only black player to appear in a Southern Association game.
Crackers owner Earl Mann sent Peeples to Jacksonville of the Class A South Atlantic League a day later and the Class AA Southern Association folded after the 1961 season without another black player taking the field.