Seventy years ago this month, Jonestown native Luke Easter helped the Homestead Grays win the 1948 Negro League World Series, beating the Birmingham Black Barons (and a kid named Willie Mays) 4 games to 1. Negro Leagues legend Buck Leonard and future major leaguer Bob Thurman were also on that Grays team. It was a significant Series in a couple of ways. The NLWS title was the last for the great Grays franchise, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that won three – plus nine Negro National League pennants — in a 12-year span. The 1948 season was also the last gasp of the old Negro Leagues. Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough in the majors in 1947 created opportunities for other prominent black players and began to diminish the talent in the Negro Leagues. Easter, who hit .363 with 13 homers and 62 RBIs for the ’48 Grays, would make the majors in 1949, becoming the first black Mississippian to do so. As a 34-year-old rookie in 1950, Easter slugged 28 homers for the Cleveland Indians. P.S. The National Urban Professional Baseball League, which launched on May 25 in Laurel and disbanded on July 1 due to a “lack of support,” plans to field teams again in 2019, according to the league website. The NUPBL has been rebranded as the Urban Baseball Association. All of the 2018 games for the four-team league were played at Laurel’s Wooten Field. The league was founded in response to declining numbers of African-American players in the game but is open to players of all races. One of the organization’s stated missions is to honor old Negro League stars and teams.
On July 21, 1951, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Crawford native Sam Hairston made his major league debut, becoming the first black American to play for the White Sox. Hairston played in only four MLB games – but his legacy is much, much larger than that. He is the patriarch of the only black three-generation family in MLB history. Hairston had two sons, Jerry and John, who played in the majors and two grandsons, Jerry Jr. and Scott, who also reached that summit. Sam Hairston, a catcher, was a Negro Leagues star, winning a Triple Crown in 1950, before signing with the White Sox. He was 31 when he debuted. He played on in the minors until 1960, winning an MVP award in 1953 and hitting .304 for his career. He scouted and coached in the White Sox’s system before his death in 1997. Eight years ago, the city of Columbus, just a few miles from Crawford, held a Sam Hairston Celebration day with plans to name a baseball field in his honor.
On the day we celebrate Jackie Robinson’s historic feat of breaking the MLB color line in 1947, let’s also give a nod to Greenwood native Dave Hoskins. Hoskins was the first black player in two minor leagues, the Central League in 1948 and the Texas League in 1952. While there are reports about difficulties Hoskins bravely faced in both situations, he said this in a Society of American Baseball Research article: “All in all, I had no complaints.” “He was such a nice man, you couldn’t not love the guy,” a teammate, Joe Macko, said in that same piece. Hoskins got his start in the Negro Leagues and was a standout as both a pitcher and hitter. Recruited to the Dallas Eagles of the Texas League in 1952 by team owner Dick Burnett, Hoskins went 22-10 and batted .328. That got him a shot with the Cleveland Indians in 1953, and he went 9-3 with a 3.99 ERA as a 27-year-old rookie. (The SABR report says he was actually in his mid-30s by then.) Hoskins pitched for the pennant-winning Indians in 1954 but was not on their World Series roster. His big league career was over after 40 games, though he did play a few more years in the minors. He died in 1970.
Is professional baseball coming to Laurel? The new National Urban Professional Baseball League, which is scheduled to hold tryouts this week in Jackson and Laurel, says on its website (nupbl.com) that Laurel will be home next spring to one of its teams, with others in Texas and Millington, Tenn. Tryouts, open to anyone 17 or older, are slated for Wednesday and Thursday at Jackson State’s Braddy Field and Saturday and Sunday at Laurel’s Wooten Legion Field. The league was founded in response to declining numbers of African-American players in the game but is open to players of all races. The NUPBL will honor Negro League stars and teams from the past. Several Mississippians are listed on the website as already having been chosen to participate. The 90-game schedule is slated to start in May, though no further details were available.
On this date in 1949, Luke Easter became the first black Mississippian to play in a major league game. A native of Jonestown, in Coahoma County, Easter made his debut as a pinch hitter for the Cleveland Indians at old Cleveland Stadium. This was two years and several months after Jackie Robinson broke the modern-era color line. Easter was 34 when he got his chance, having already played numerous years in various Negro Leagues. Easter did not homer in 45 at-bats for the Indians in 1949 but mashed 93 homers over the next four seasons, many of them tape-measure shots. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound first baseman produced two 100-RBI campaigns and had another of 97. Easter’s big league career was over after six games in 1954, but he played 10 more years in the minors. Despite his short time with the team, Easter was selected as one of the 100 Greatest Cleveland Indians in 2001, when the club celebrated its 100th anniversary. He died tragically in 1979 (see previous posts). P.S. In the majors on Thursday: Corey Dickerson, the former Meridian Community College star, snapped an 0-for-21 skid with a game-changing three-run homer for Tampa Bay in a win over Cleveland. It was homer No. 22 for Dickerson, who joins Southern Miss alum Brian Dozier atop the leaderboard in the All-Mississippi Home Run Derby. Ex-Mississippi State star Hunter Renfroe has 20. … Ole Miss product Lance Lynn was hit in the head by a batted ball in the third inning but stayed in the game for St. Louis. He worked six innings all told, allowing two runs, and took a no-decision in the surging Cardinals’ 8-6 win vs. Kansas City.
Kudos to former Jackson State coach Bob Braddy and ex-Mississippi State and MLB star Jay Powell on their induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame over the weekend. Braddy, an icon at JSU, should have been in a long time ago. Who’ll be the next baseball luminary to get the call? Longtime big leaguers Roy Oswalt (163 MLB wins, three-time All-Star) and Charlie Hayes (.262, 144 homers, World Series ring) certainly should get in at some point, as well as Luke Easter, who was the first black Mississippian to make the major leagues. Sam Hairston and Howard Easterling, a couple of Negro Leagues stars, also rate consideration. Among coaches, there’s William Carey’s Bobby Halford, the 2017 NAIA coach of the year who has more than 1,100 wins, and Millsaps’ Jim Page, who has over 700 W’s and seven conference coach of the year honors on his ledger. Both are deserving of recognition over on Cool Papa Bell Drive.
In recognition of Black History Month, here’s a tip of the cap to Howard Easterling, one of the state’s unsung stars from the days of segregation. Easterling, born in Mount Olive in 1911, was a switch-hitting third baseman who batted .315 over an eight-year Negro Leagues career, according to baseball-reference.com. He made his Negro Leagues debut in 1936 with the Cincinnati Tigers and in 1937 made the first of his five East-West All-Star Game appearances. Easterling played on the great Homestead Grays teams of the early ’40s, helping them win four Negro National League pennants and the 1943 Negro League World Series. The 1943 Grays, a team that included Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and a 40-year-old Cool Papa Bell, reportedly won 44 of 59 regular season games. They beat the Birmingham Black Barons in the World Series, winning a decisive eighth game – Game 2 was a 12-inning tie – with a late rally in which Easterling contributed an RBI hit, according to baseball-reference.com. Easterling, who served in the Army in 1944-45, played pro ball for several years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947 but never got a major league opportunity. He finished his career in the Mexican League in 1954. Easterling died in Collins in 1993.
The 70th anniversary of the 1946 World Series (see previous posts) is worthy of any and all hoopla it receives. St. Louis and Boston, featuring Mississippians Harry Walker and Boo Ferriss, battled it out for seven games in what was truly a Fall Classic. But that World Series didn’t corner the market on thrills that fall, and Walker wasn’t the only Mississippi native toasting a title. In the ’46 Negro Leagues World Series, the Newark Eagles, led by Monte Irvin, Larry Doby and Hattiesburg native Rufus Lewis, beat the Kansas City Monarchs in seven games, winning the clincher 3-2 at Ruppert Stadium in Newark. Lewis, one of the aces of the Eagles’ staff, started and got the victory in Game 7 and went 2-1 with a 1.23 ERA in the series. Lewis never made the major leagues but did pitch in the minors in “organized baseball.” Of course, 1946 was also the year that Jackie Robinson broke the color line and led the Montreal Royals, a Brooklyn Dodgers farm club, to the International League and Junior World Series championships. Robinson’s manager in Montreal was none other than Clay Hopper, a Portersville native and Mississippi State alum who had a long and decorated career as a minor league skipper.
Buddy Armour is a name that probably doesn’t ring a bell with most Mississippi baseball fans. He played in the relative obscurity of the Negro Leagues back in the 1930s and ’40s. Today, in honor of Black History Month, let’s put Armour in the spotlight. Born in Jackson in 1915, Alfred Allen Armour reached the “big leagues” of black baseball in 1936, when he signed with the St. Louis Stars. A 5-foot-9, 170-pound left-handed hitter, he would play until 1951 with more than a half-dozen clubs. He played primarily outfield but also saw some time at shortstop and third base. If you were putting together an all-time team of Mississippi natives who played in the Negro Leagues, Armour would have to be on it (see previous post). He was a three-time All-Star and, in what was probably the highlight of his career, a regular on the 1945 Cleveland Buckeyes team that won the Negro Leagues World Series. The Buckeyes went 53-16 overall and claimed both halves of the season in the Negro American League, according to Robert Peterson’s “Only the Ball Was White.” That club featured future major league outfielder Sam “The Jet” Jethroe, player/manager Quincy “Big Train” Trouppe, pitching brothers George and Willie Jefferson, Cuban shortstop Avelino Canizares and third baseman Parnell Woods. Armour batted .325 that season and went 4-for-13 in the World Series as the Buckeyes swept the Homestead Grays in four games.
Eighty years ago, they ruled the Earth. Well, in 1935, the Pittsburgh Crawfords ruled a segregated part of the Earth. The ’35 Crawfords are widely regarded as the greatest Negro Leagues team of all-time, and — wait for it — a pair of Mississippians were part of the club. Owned by the legendary – and deep-pocketed — Gus Greenlee, the Crawfords trotted out five future Hall of Famers, including Starkville native Cool Papa Bell. The lightning-quick Bell, one of just two Mississippi natives enshrined in Cooperstown, was the leadoff batter in a lineup that also featured Josh Gibson, player-manager Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson and Sam Bankhead. The brilliant Satchel Paige pitched for that Crawfords team for a time, though their ace was Leroy Matlock, who, according to one source, went 18-0 that season. The team went 26-6 in the first half of the Negro National League season, 39-15 overall and beat the second-half champion New York Cubans in the league championship series. A lesser known star on that Pittsburgh team was Bill “Lefty” Harvey, a Clarksdale native who pitched and occasionally played first base and pinch hit. Harvey famously beat Bob Feller in a head-to-head matchup in a California winter league game in 1939 and also hit three home runs in a game at Yankee Stadium, according to the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. Good as he was, Harvey was just a bit player on the ’35 Crawfords team that validated its greatness by winning a thrilling seven-game championship series over the Cubans. The Crawfords, down 3-2 in games and three runs in the ninth, rallied to win Game 6 on the road, then got homers from Gibson and Charleston to take the pennant in Game 7 at home at Greenlee Field. When the conversation turns to greatest teams, remember the Crawfords.