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By the time he made his debut in the majors, three years after Jackie Robinson broke the big-league color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers and five years after he had taken part with Robinson in a sham tryout held by the Boston Red Sox, Jethroe’s prime years were behind him. But he led the major leagues in steals in his first two seasons, each time with 35, and he batted .273 with 18 home runs and 100 runs scored in 1950, when he was named National League rookie of the year by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
“He was the fastest human being I’ve ever seen,” said the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe, the first outstanding black pitcher in the majors and Jethroe’s onetime teammate on the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals farm team, for whom Jethroe stole 89 bases in 1949. “When he came to bat, the infield would have to come in a few steps or you’d never throw him out,” remembered Buck O’Neil, who played against Jethroe while with the Negro leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs.
A native of East St. Louis, Ill., Jethroe played for the Cincinnati and Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League from 1942 to 1948, appearing in four East-West All-Star Games, black baseball’s showcase event. In April 1945, the Boston Red Sox, facing political pressure to sign a black player, gave Jethroe, Robinson, who was then with the Monarchs, and Marvin Williams of the Philadelphia Stars a tryout conducted by two coaches at Fenway Park. The Red Sox never contacted them afterward. Jethroe won the Negro American League batting title in 1945, hitting .393, but it was Robinson who was selected by the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey to break organized baseball’s color barrier with Montreal in 1946.
Rickey bought Jethroe from the Buckeyes for $5,000 in midsummer 1948, assigning him to the Royals. After Jethroe starred with Montreal for a season and a half, Rickey sold him to the Braves for a reported $150,000 and several players. When Jethroe joined the Braves in April 1950, he was the first black major leaguer in Boston. Only four other teams – the Dodgers, the New York Giants, the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Browns – had integrated.
Jethroe was the Braves’ regular center fielder for three seasons, was sent to the minors in 1953, then played two games with the 1954 Pirates, who were being run at the time by Rickey. Jethroe joined Curt Roberts as Pittsburgh’s first black players. A switch-hitter, Jethroe had a career major league batting average of .261.
Some 40 years after his last major league game, Jethroe filed a federal lawsuit against Major League Baseball and its players association, seeking pension payments for former Negro leaguers who had not qualified for them because their careers had been damaged by racial discrimination. The suit was dismissed, but in 1997 Major League Baseball instituted yearly payments to Jethroe and a host of other former Negro leaguers and other old-timers shut out of the pension plan. Jethroe experienced difficult times in his later years. His home in Erie burned down in November 1994, forcing him to sleep for several months at the bar he ran in a rundown section of the city. His plight brought financial aid from the Baseball Assistance Team, an organization helping needy former players.
Jethroe is survived by his wife, Elsie; four daughters, Gloria Jethroe, Sheila Overton, Jennifer Overton and Kim Overton, all of Erie; and 10 grandchildren. “I’m not the type of person to be bitter,” Jethroe once said. “I was honored to play. I’m thankful that I was able to do what I did.”
Jethroe achieved a measure of vindication against the Red Sox, who had ignored his talents in the spring of 1945 and were the last team to have a black player, waiting until 1959, when they signed the infielder Pumpsie Green.
In April 1952, Jethroe hit a three- run homer over the left-field wall at Fenway Park in a Braves-Red Sox exhibition game. And in May 1993, he was back at Fenway, taking part in a tribute to the Negro leaguers of old who never got a chance when their time was right.