Remembering Jimmy ‘Seabiscuit’ Wilkes

By BASN Wire Services
Updated: August 16, 2008

NEW YORK –Jimmy “Seabiscuit” Wilkes, a center fielder with the Newark Eagles of the old Negro Baseball League, died this past Monday in Brantford, Ontario. He was 82.

Born in Philadelphia on October 1, 1925, the 5-foot-8, 160-pound Wilkes was a key member of one of the last great Negro League teams, the Negro League champion Newark Eagles of 1946. He was the team’s centerfielder and leadoff hitter.

The 1946 Eagles rank among the most talented baseball teams of any era, in any league. To reach the series, Newark ended the Homestead Grays’ streak of nine Negro National League pennants.

Wilkes’ speed in the outfield and on the bases brought him the nickname “Seabiscuit” after the famous thoroughbred race horse of the era. In fact, it was Wilkes’ catch in Game 7 of the 1946 Negro League World Series that was a key moment during Newark’s championship.

The Eagles led the Kansas City Monarchs 3-2 in the ninth inning of Game 7 when Kansas City mounted a rally. With two outs and two men on, Buck O’Neil lashed a line drive toward right-centerfield.

In an interview with New York Newsday back in 2004, Wilkes said he was confident that he would make the catch. “I used to tell the pitcher, keep the ball in the park and I’ll catch it.”

“If it goes out of the park, I can’t catch it. It was a long way in centerfield. I just turned my head and started running. I looked up and I caught the ball.”

Over the years, O’Neil has compared Wilkes’ play to the one that Willie Mays made in the 1954 World Series, but argues it was a better catch because of the game’s circumstances. “Wilkes caught the ball with his back to the infield, just like Mays,” said O’Neil. “The entire season came down to that play.”

Wilkes played Negro League ball from 1945 to 1950 before entering organized baseball in the Brooklyn Dodger system. After two years he left to return to Negro league ball with the Indianapolis Clowns (playing out of Buffalo, New York).

While on a barnstorming tour of Ontario, he caught the attention of the Intercounty League team in Brantford. He got a job with the city (where he worked for more than 30 years) and played for the local Red Sox team.

He would play in Brantford for 10 seasons before taking on an career as an umpire for another 23 years. The Red Sox won the league title five times during his ten year tenure.

He fell in love with the city of Brantford and never left. He met and married his second wife, Donna, in Brantford. He finally retired in 1987 to watch his two stepsons and two grandsons play baseball.