30 Aug

something’s clicked

You might say Cade Bunnell has exceeded expectations. Actually, that would be a large understatement. A former 40th-round draft pick who played sparingly in college and hit .185 in A-ball this season, Bunnell finds himself batting .344 with six homers and 23 RBIs in 27 games for the Mississippi Braves. Having replaced Atlanta No. 1 prospect Vaughn Grissom as the M-Braves’ shortstop earlier this month, Bunnell is batting .327 with four homers in 15 games since he took on that role. Double-A pitching? What’s the big deal? The lefty-hitting Bunnell goes into the team’s home series (today-Sunday) against Tennessee after banging out three homers and driving in 10 runs in a six-game set at Birmingham. Bunnell, 25, who goes 6 feet, 190 pounds, was drafted in the last round — No. 1,207 overall — by the Braves in 2019 out of Indiana. In two years there, he hit under .200 with one homer in 60 at-bats. He hit .141 in rookie ball in 2019 and .216 (albeit with 13 homers) at Low-A Augusta last year. He has served three stints in 2022 with the M-Braves, having spent most of the season at High-A Rome, batting .185 with seven homers. But forget all that. Bunnell is in some kind of groove right now, helping the M-Braves (27-23, 4.5 games out of first) stay in the chase for a second-half title in the Southern League South. P.S. The top-rated position player prospect on the M-Braves team, No. 13 Justyn-Henry Malloy, also has been productive, batting .284 with five homers and 25 RBIs in 37 games since he came up from Rome. The 6-3, 212-pound outfielder was a sixth-round pick last year out of Georgia Tech. … Tennessee, a Chicago Cubs affiliate, features a pair of Mississippi products: pitcher Walker Powell out of Southern Miss and infielder Delvin Zinn from Pontotoc by way of Itawamba Community College. … The M-Braves’ Negro Leagues Tribute Night (see previous post), rained out in the last homestand, has been rescheduled for Saturday (6:05 p.m. start) at Trustmark Park.

20 Aug

celebration

The Mississippi Braves in conjunction with Jackson State will pay tribute to the Negro Leagues during tonight’s doubleheader against Pensacola at Trustmark Park in Pearl. The M-Braves will don the uniform of the 1938 Atlanta Black Crackers. JSU officials, as part of their Family and Friends Night celebration, will also honor former Tigers players who went on to big league careers. The M-Braves’ Negro Leagues tribute was originally planned for 2020, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League, but the season was canceled by the pandemic. Cool Papa Bell, a National Baseball Hall of Fame member, is the most recognizable former Negro Leagues star from Mississippi; the entrance road into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum and Smith-Wills Stadium is named after the Starkville native. But an array of others from the Magnolia State also made a mark in black baseball. Here’s a few names to know: William Foster, who grew up in Rodney and attended and coached at Alcorn State, is also in the national Hall of Fame and is widely considered the best left-handed pitcher in Negro League annals. He starred on three pennant winners with the great Chicago American Giants teams of the late 1920s and early ’30s. Howard Easterling, from Mt. Olive, was a five-time All-Star and won a Negro League World Series title with the 1943 Homestead Grays. Jonestown native Luke Easter, the first black Mississippian to play in the majors, got his start in the Negro Leagues. The legendary slugger played until he was 49 and hit 385 career homers, 93 in the majors with Cleveland. Sam Hairston, from Crawford, won a batting Triple Crown with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1950 and played briefly for the Chicago White Sox in 1951. He is the patriarch of MLB’s first three-generation black family. Rufus Lewis, a Hattiesburg native, was a star pitcher from 1936-50 and won 18 games plus Game 7 of the Negro League World Series for the 1946 Newark Eagles. JSU officials will give a nod to Kelvin Moore, the first school alumnus to make it to the big leagues. Among those who followed are Oil Can Boyd, Dave Clark, Marvin Freeman and Wes Chamberlain. HBCU notes: Mississippi Valley State has named Milton Barney Jr. as its new coach. The former Gulfport High star and Alcorn State assistant coach replaces Stanley Stubbs, who resigned after one season reportedly due to health concerns. Barney is the son of Milton Barney Sr., a former Alcorn State football star, and grandson of Pro Football Hall of Famer Lem Barney, who starred at Jackson State. … JSU lost longtime assistant coach and former player Chadwick Hall, who has taken the reins at Tuskegee. … JSU recently added a power bat to its roster for 2023 with the signing of Peeko Townsend from Northwest Mississippi Community College. The 6-foot, 230-pound outfielder hit 11 homers in 42 games for the Rangers and belted eight in 18 games in the Cotton States League this summer.

17 Jun

time goes by …

On this date 50 years ago, Laurel’s Rod Gilbreath made his major league debut for the Atlanta Braves at age 19. Playing third base at Fulton County Stadium, in a lineup that included Hank Aaron, Rico Carty and Ralph Garr, Gilbreath went 0-for-3 against Montreal. Drafted in the third round in 1970 out of Laurel’s Watkins High, Gilbreath zipped through the minors, batting .277 with 10 homers and 45 stolen bases at Double-A Savannah in ’72 before his call-up. He played seven big league years, all with the Braves, batting .248 with 14 homers, 125 RBIs and 25 steals in 500 games. Sign of the times: In 1976, he led the National League with 20 sacrifice bunts. He went on to be a Braves scout. … One hundred years ago, Starkville native Cool Papa Bell broke in at age 19 with the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League. (The exact date of Bell’s debut isn’t known.) He was a lefty pitcher initially, earning his nickname in 1922 for his composure on the mound. He won 20 games over three seasons with the Stars but an arm injury turned him into a full-time outfielder. Blessed with amazing speed, he batted .325 with 285 steals (unofficially, he had many, many more) over a 21-year career, playing for legendary championship teams in St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Homestead, Pa. Bell made the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

10 Sep

for history buffs

The first East-West Game, an All-Star contest featuring the best players in the Negro Leagues, was played on this date in 1933, with Starkville native Cool Papa Bell batting leadoff for the East and former Alcorn State player and coach William (Willie) Foster throwing the game’s first pitch for the West. Before a crowd of about 20,000 at Chicago’s old Comiskey Park, Bell flied out in the matchup of Hall of Famers. The West won the game 11-7, with Foster going the distance and allowing just two earned runs, per retrosheet.org’s box score. He also had a hit. Bell went 0-for-5 but scored a run. Foster, raised in Rodney, is considered perhaps the greatest left-hander in Negro Leagues annals, while Bell, who played in roughly a dozen East-West Games, is regarded as one of the fastest players of all-time. They are the only Magnolia State-connected players in Cooperstown. The 1933 East-West rosters also featured such notable names as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston, Willie Wells and Mule Suttles, who hit the lone home run.

18 Dec

recalculating

Now that the old Negro Leagues are being formally recognized as major leagues and players’ stats included in MLB records, one has to wonder: Where does Cool Papa Bell fit in among Mississippi natives on the all-time charts? The Hall of Famer from Starkville, a legendary speedster, played in the Negro Leagues for 21 years between 1922 and ’46. According to seamheads.com, the foremost authority on Negro Leagues numbers, Bell batted .324 for his career. That would be tops among Mississippians. The leader was Buddy Myer, an Ellisville native who played from 1925-41 and hit .303 (.3028 to be precise). Bell’s career stolen base total of 297 would trail only Billy Hamilton’s 305; Jarrod Dyson drops to third at 256. Bell’s best single-season steal total was 52 in 1929, when he played 102 games. That would rank second on the Magnolia State chart. Hamilton stole 59 in 139 games in 2017. Bell banged out 82 career triples, which trails only Myer’s 130 on the state list. Bell was credited with 1,636 hits, well short of Dave Parker’s 2,712, though, again, Bell played far fewer games. In 1,273 games, Bell also scored a remarkable 1,208 runs. That ranks a close third behind Parker’s 1,272 (in 2,466 games) and Ellis Burks’ 1,253 (2000 games). … William (Bill) Foster, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest Negro Leagues pitchers, isn’t a Mississippi native but did move to Rodney as a child and grew up there (see previous posts). His numbers are worthy of a look. The left-hander, a former Alcorn State player and coach, won 150 games (per seamheads.com) between 1923-46 with a 2.59 ERA and 1,263 strikeouts. Only three Mississippians rank above him in wins: Guy Bush (176), Roy Oswalt (163) and Claude Passeau (162). Only Oswalt (1,852) had more K’s, and only Reb Russell (2.33 from 1913-19) had a better ERA.

16 Aug

golden oldies

The old Negro Leagues, which Major League Baseball is celebrating today, produced not only great players but great teams. Mississippians played major roles on some of the best. There is surely ample debate about which Negro League team deserves to be called “the best,” but the short list would have to include the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords. There were four future Hall of Famers on that team, five if you count Satchel Paige, who was on the roster but held out most of the season. The center fielder and leadoff batter for the Crawfords, the Negro National League champs in ’35, was James “Cool Papa” Bell, the Starkville native and Hall of Famer whose speed is legend. Clarksdale native David “Lefty” Harvey was a pitcher on that team, which also featured the incredible slugger Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Judy Johnson. Bell was also the leadoff man for the 1930 St. Louis Stars, another NNL champion with a stacked lineup that included Willie “The Devil” Wells, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe (from the Ken Burns films) and George “Mule” Suttles. Nicknames apparently were a Negro Leagues staple. William Foster, who grew up in Rodney and played and coached at Alcorn A&M, didn’t have a nickname — he was known simply as Bill or Willie — but did have a great arsenal of pitches as the left-handed ace of the 1927 Chicago American Giants. That team won the NNL pennant and the Negro World Series, with Hall of Famer Foster throwing a shutout in the decisive eighth game. The Giants’ roster also featured Pythias Russ, “Gentleman Dave” Malarcher, Walter “Steel Arm” Davis and Willie “Pigmeat” Powell. The 1945 Cleveland Buckeyes, with Jackson native Buddy Armour playing center field, won the Negro American League pennant and the World Series in a sweep against a Homestead Grays team that trotted out a 42-year-old Bell and Greenwood native Dave Hoskins. The Buckeyes, 53-16 in the regular season according to “Only the Ball Was White,” were led by future major leaguer Sam “The Jet” Jethroe and the brothers Jefferson, Willie and George, both pitchers. Hattiesburg’s Rufus Lewis was the ace of the 1946 Newark Eagles, who won the NNL title and the World Series in seven games against Kansas City’s Monarchs. Lewis won Game 7. Future big leaguers Larry Doby and Monte Irvin and Max “Dr. Cyclops” Manning were other stars on that great Newark team. … All MLB players, managers, coaches and umpires will wear today a patch commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League. The logo is based on the official logo created by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

17 Jun

something to celebrate

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League, and baseball had planned a season-long celebration before COVID-19 threw everything for a loop. For their part, the Mississippi Braves were slated to wear replica uniforms of the Atlanta Black Crackers for their April 25 game at Trustmark Park. Hopefully, that tribute will be rescheduled whenever minor league ball returns. For the record, the Black Crackers were a fine choice, but any of a large number of vintage uniforms would have been appropriate. Back in the day – before major league baseball integrated in 1947 with the debuts of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby — Mississippians starred for the St. Louis Stars, Birmingham Black Barons, Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles, Homestead Grays, Chicago American Giants and more. You could put together a pretty strong team of Mississippi Negro Leaguers, including a couple of Hall of Famers: legendary outfielder Cool Papa Bell of Starkville and left-handed pitcher William Foster, who grew up in Rodney and attended what is now Alcorn State. At catcher, you could go with Sam Hairston (Crawford). Put Bob “The Rope” Boyd (Potts Camp) at first base, Sherwood Brewer (Clarksdale) at second, Howard Easterling (Mount Olive) at third, Buddy Armour (Jackson) at shortstop and fill out the outfield with Bill Hoskins (Charleston) and Luke Easter (Jonestown). In reserve, there’s pitcher Rufus Lewis (Hattiesburg), outfielder Bubba Hyde (Pontotoc), pitcher/outfielder Dave Hoskins (Greenwood), outfielder Lacey Thomas (Meridian) and first baseman Henry McCall (Hattiesburg). This is a darn good bunch. Easter — a legendary home run hitter and the first black Mississippian to play in the majors — Boyd, Hairston and Dave Hoskins all got to the big leagues. Easterling was a perennial Negro Leagues All-Star, and Lewis was the ace of the Newark Eagles’ championship club in 1946. These guys deserve a celebration. P.S. You can donate to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at nlbm.com.

12 Jun

worth noting

William (Bill) Foster, widely considered the best left-hander in Negro Leagues history, was born on this date in 1904 in Texas. His mother died when he was 4 and he was raised by his maternal grandparents in Rodney, according to Negro Leagues historian James Riley. A ghost town no longer on the map, Rodney is listed by the National Baseball Hall of Fame as Foster’s hometown. It was 12 miles from Lorman and Alcorn A&M, where Foster reportedly made the college baseball team while in sixth grade. In the Negro Leagues, Foster was credited with 143 wins, played on several championship teams and started and won the inaugural East-West All-Star Classic in 1933. He was selected to Cooperstown posthumously in 1996. Foster, who claimed to hold a winning record head-to-head against the great Satchel Paige, threw a variety of pitches. “Now, if you can keep a man off balance, he can’t hit the ball hard,” Foster told historian John Holway. “How do I keep him off balance? And with what pitches? It boils down to the fact that I had to have one motion to control every pitch.” After his pro playing days, he served as a coach and dean at Alcorn State from 1960 until just before his death in ’78. The Braves’ field bears his name.

13 Apr

on this date

On this date in 1952, Greenwood native Dave Hoskins became the first black player to appear in a Texas League game. His story is chronicled in an milb.com piece published today. Hoskins, a Negro Leagues alumnus, debuted for the Double-A level Dallas Stars on April 13 and beat San Antonio. The right-hander yielded just two runs while working around eight hits and seven walks. Hoskins went 22-10 with a 2.12 ERA for Dallas that season – he also batted .328 – and made the majors in 1953 with Cleveland, posting a 9-3 mark with a 3.99 ERA. (He claimed to be 27 at the time, but it was later revealed that he was 36.) Hoskins pitched briefly for the Indians in 1954 but was not on their World Series roster that fall.

08 Feb

around the horn

Tony Sipp, the veteran left-hander out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College who is unsigned for 2019, might be a nice fit with the New York Mets. “(A)s the final addition to a bullpen that has seen three major acquisitions this season, Sipp makes perfect sense,” a blogger writes on amazinavenue.com. “He’d give the Mets a 7th inning option that projects as above-average and has a recent track record of elite performance. … At a cost of $5 million or less, Sipp would make for a great last move.” Sipp is 35 with a career ERA of 3.67 and is coming off a strong 2018 season, when he put up a 1.86 ERA for Houston. Mickey Callaway’s Mets already have added free agent lefties Justin Wilson and Luis Avilan (a former Mississippi Braves star) to their bullpen mix. … Add Mississippi State product Nate Lowe and Delta State alums Dalton Moats and Trent Giambrone to the list of Mississippians receiving non-roster invitations to big league camp. Lowe and Moats are in the Tampa Bay system, Giambrone in the Chicago Cubs’. … Perfect Game lists three Mississippi natives on its High School All-America First Team, though only two of them play ball in the state. Jerrion Ealy, the much-ballyhooed senior at Jackson Prep, and Blaze Jordan, the power-hitting sophomore at DeSoto Central, made the grade, as did Kendall Williams, an Olive Branch native who plays for IMG Academy in Florida. Hayden Dunhurst of Pearl River Central made PG’s second team. PG ranks DeSoto Central (No. 20) and Gulfport (No. 32) in its preseason Top 50. … The final showing of “Kansas City: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues” is slated for Sunday at Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson. The show, hosted by the City of Jackson Department of Parks and Recreation Champion Dance Center and Montage Theatre of Dance from Hinds Community College, is a musical presentation that, per the billing, “will retell the story of Black baseball greats such as Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball, is chosen by Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers who is determined to integrate the league.” Mississippi, it is worth noting, produced a fair number of Negro Leagues stars, including Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell, who worked with Robinson as he prepared to join the Dodgers, Hall of Famer William Foster, Howard Easterling, Sam Hairston, Rufus Lewis, Dave Hoskins and Luke Easter, the first black Mississippian in the majors.