Showing posts with label East-West All-Star Game. Show all posts
Showing posts with label East-West All-Star Game. Show all posts

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Art Pennington, Last Negro League All-Star, Dies At 93

Art Pennington, one of the last true All-Stars from the Negro Leagues, passed away Wednesday, January 4, 2017 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was 93.

With Pennington’s passing, so goes the last living great who made his career primarily in the Negro Leagues. The switch-hitting outfielder made his first All-Star appearance in the Negro Leagues East-West Game in 1942 at 19, surrounded by ten future Hall of Famers including Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Satchel Paige. Speaking with Pennington in 2009, he was in awe of being in the company of such tremendous talent at a young age.

“They had some great players in that game,” he said. “I was very young. … We played at Comiskey Park; it was the first time I ever played in a big park like that.”

Art Pennington Fritsch Negro League Baseball Stars Card / Author's Collection

Nicknamed "Superman" he made his entry into the Negro Leagues when he was just 17 years old in 1940 with the Chicago American Giants. His place on the club didn’t sit well with some of the veterans, especially those who were benched after he arrived.

“When I first went to that league with the American Giants, Jim Taylor was my manager,” he recalled. “Taylor [first] told me I was going to play shortstop, and then he told me I was going to play first base. One of the guys [Don] Reese didn’t like it because he had to sit. … I took another guy's job. I had a strong arm and I could run.”
Pennington in 1942 with Chicago American Giants teammates / Balt. Afro-American

Pennington exuded confidence every time he stepped into the batter’s box, posting eye popping batting averages of .359 in 1945 and .370 in 1950 for the Chicago American Giants. His cockiness at the plate was even more evident when he’d taunt the opposing pitcher with what became his trademark catchphrase.

“I had a saying, ‘Throw it and duck!’” he laughed. “We barnstormed against Dizzy Dean and I didn’t know who he was. I told him to, ‘Throw it and duck!’ He threw it and ducked, and I hit a homerun off of Dizzy Dean! I was young and goofy at that time and that was my saying.”

Pennington jumped the Negro Leagues in 1946 to join Jorge Pasquel’s Mexican League in search of fairer racial treatment and a higher paying salary.

“I faced some tough guys in the Mexican League,” he said. “They had a tough outfit in Caracas. Chico Carrasquel, said, ‘You’ll be going to the majors. I said, ‘You don’t know how it is up there. You see my wife?’ That’s why I jumped to Mexico. The conditions were better down there.”

In Mexico, Pennington met his future wife Anita. He explained how he courted her despite them both speaking completely different languages.

“She was a fine looking woman, a beautiful red-headed woman,” he recalled. “We were in the same restaurant. They had a lot of fans in the restaurants in those foreign countries. Her and her girlfriend came in the restaurant, and they knew we were ballplayers. So I talked to her, and I gave her and her girlfriend a pass to the game. From then on, they knew where I was eating. They were there all the time. Finally, we got together. In Mexico, you couldn’t take a woman out by themselves. They called them SeƱoritas. You got to have some kind of brother, sister, a chaperone; that’s how I ran into her.”

Thinking about his wife brought back painful memories of not only her passing, but the struggles they had when they returned from Mexico. The harsh realities of segregation over fifty years later resonated with Pennington.

“I look at my wife’s picture since she’s dead and I think about what she went through — all that we went through,” he said. “She couldn’t speak English. We came out of Mexico and we took a train to catch a bus out of Little Rock, Arkansas. They wouldn’t let her go to the colored waiting room to stay with me in the colored waiting room; they wanted her to go to the white waiting room. I said, ‘No way, because she couldn’t speak any English. How is she going to go with me?’ I had to call my mother and father to come pick us up from Hot Springs. He came to pick us up and we’re standing out on the curb; he’s putting my luggage in the car and he said, ‘Where is your wife?’ I said, ‘She’s standing right there.’ She couldn’t speak a word of English. I’m so glad she didn’t because when we got off the plane coming from Cuba, and we got on a sightseeing bus, I had to write her a note for her to get me a sandwich. I said, ‘Ain’t this a shame? I’m American born and she’s got to go and get me a sandwich.’”

Pennington was a pioneer himself as one of the first African-American players in the Pacific Coast League. He played there in 1949 with the Portland Beavers. He experienced rough treatment that affected his play due to his wife’s fair skinned color.

“In Portland, I couldn’t play out there the way they mistreated me,” he said. “Frankie Austin and Luis Marquez were out there with me. They stayed out there longer. I just left there; a fellow from Caracas, Venezuela paid me double the amount of money. Marquez was doing well in Portland; he didn’t have a white wife.”
Art Pennington Signed Ron Lewis Postcard / Author's Collection
When Pennington returned to organized baseball in 1952, he went on a tear, leading the Three-I league with a .349 batting average for Keokuk. He continued to annihilate pitching in that league hitting .345 in 1954. Despite his feats at the plate, no major league team called.

“They didn’t do me good, but I left my records in all of those minor leagues,” he said.

1952 Minor League Leaders / Sporting News

He left organized ball in 1955 to play with the highly competitive Bismarck, North Dakota semi-pro team, winning a league championship with fellow Negro Leaguers Ray Dandridge and Bill Cash. He had one last hurrah in pro ball in 1958 with St. Petersburg in the New York Yankees organization, batting .339. Sal Maglie, who pitched with the Yankees in 1958, lobbied for the Yankees to give Pennington a look.

“He was with the Yankees in spring training, and he told them, ‘There’s another Mickey Mantle down there! He can hit!’ he recalled. “They didn’t do nothing.”

Pennington retired in 1985 after working for more than 20 years for Rockwell Collins. He was a fixture at Negro League reunions and traveled the country spreading the word about the league’s history.

Art Pennington 2009 Topps Allen and Ginter Baseball Card / Topps

When we spoke in 2009, Pennington was at the crossroads of history. Barack Obama had just been elected President of the United States. As someone who faced tremendous discrimination and segregation, Pennington was optimistic about a black man holding the highest office in the country.

“I never thought we’d have a black anything,” he said. “I’m really glad they picked an educated black man, well educated; I’m proud. I’m hoping he does well.”

As excited as he was of the new President, Pennington was trying to put his life back together after his home was destroyed in a devastating flood in Cedar Rapids. We spoke only a few days after he was allowed back in his home. He was grateful for all of the help he received despite many significant baseball artifacts being destroyed by the raging waters.

“I just moved back into my house two days ago,” he said. “I lost one of my cars, I lost my dogs. FEMA put me over in Marion in one of those mobile homes until a couple days ago. They treated me great and gave me a little money. I’ve had help from different ballplayers. My biggest help was from Charley Pride. He sent me $1,000. One fellow in Kansas City, he gave me $750. I get [money] in most of the letters. I just appreciate all of the people that helped me a little bit. I lost everything; I’ll never get it back. I’m in a book, Unforgotten Heroes. Someone sent me a new one. I really appreciate all of the people that helped me.”

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Joe Durham, 84, first African-American to hit a home run for the Baltimore Orioles

Joe Durham was a bona fide All-Star well before he made history as the first African-American player to hit a home run for the Baltimore Orioles. Playing in 1952 for the Chicago American Giants in the Negro Leagues, Durham was selected to the East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park. It was a thrill for a rookie to share a prominent stage amongst the league's veterans.

Joe Durham

“It was kind of exciting,” Durham said to me during a 2010 phone interview from his home in Maryland. “The All-Star game was good; we had a fairly decent crowd. We had a chance to play against one another and participate against guys from the East and the West. Most of the guys on those teams were older… There were several veterans that got my attention. I saw them play when I was a kid. Henry Kimbro and Doc Dennis… these guys had been playing for ages.”

Durham passed away Thursday, April 28, 2016, at the Northwest Hospital Hospice Center in Randallstown, Maryland. He was 84.

The outfielder found himself in the Negro Leagues after signing with the St. Louis Browns in 1952. The Browns wanted to place him on their farm teams in the South, but racial tensions at the time prevented that from being an option for Durham. Luckily Browns owner Bill Veeck was able to use a long-standing connection to place Durham on one of the flagship Negro League franchises.

“Everything they had in the farm system where they wanted to start me was in the South and I couldn’t play there,” he said. “Abe Saperstein who owned the Chicago American Giants and Bill Veeck who owned the St. Louis Browns were very good friends. So that’s how I got over there [to Chicago] for just one year.”

As major league teams signed more players from the Negro Leagues, these prospects served as agents of change across the minor leagues. In 1953, Durham along with future Baltimore Orioles outfielder Willie Tasby helped to break the color barrier of the Piedmont League as members of the York White Roses. Even though Durham grew up in segregated Newport News, Virginia, that still didn’t prepare him for the taunting he faced while playing.

“Hagerstown was the worst team in the whole damn league,” he said in Bruce Adelson’s book, Brushing Back Jim Crow. “They were really bad. I used to hate to go there. We opened the season in Hagerstown. I’m telling you, I never heard so much stuff in my life.”

Tasby further explained the degree of insults they faced while playing in Hagerstown. They retaliated against the hateful slurs by taking it out on the opposition.

“That was as bad as Mississippi,” Tasby told Adelson. “That was one of the worst places I played in my life. It wasn’t even in what you’d call the South. It’s in Maryland. But you see, Baltimore and Washington used to be bad too.

“We got called everything except our names there, all of the derogatory names. Of course, we beat the hell out of them every time we played there. But we still had to hear them.”

Durham responded by batting .308 with 14 home runs, earning a promotion to San Antonio in the Texas League in 1954. Still deep in the South, he had to figure out a way to keep his performance on the field unaffected by the social conditions at the time.

“Black ballplayers of that era had to have a little something extra to go along with their playing talent because of things you had to endure,” Durham said to Adelson. “You had to tell yourself not to let anything get in your way or distract you. There was nothing you could do.”

After another standout minor league season, where he hit .318 with 14 home runs and 108 RBI, Durham earned a September call-up to the Baltimore Orioles. Upon his arrival, he was immediately inserted into the lineup, and in his fourth major league game, he became the first African-American to homer for the Orioles, hitting a circuit blast off of Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Al Sima.

“The first night I got here, I played,” he said in during our 2010 interview. “I played out the season and then I had to go into the Army. I was scheduled to go in July, but I got a deferment until October.”

Durham spent two years in the Army, serving first at Camp Gordon in Georgia and then later with the Seventh Army in Germany. Upon his discharge in October 1956, he went on to play winter ball with San Juan in Puerto Rico, preparing him for major league spring training in 1957.

He responded to his two-year absence by leading the team in batting during spring training. Finally, Durham felt that he proved his worth as a full-time major leaguer. However, Orioles manager Paul Richards thought otherwise.

“The strange thing about it, I led the Orioles in hitting in spring training,” he said. “I had tremendous spring training. The prejudiced manager Paul Richards, the last day he told me, ‘If we go to Baltimore, you are only going to play 20-30 games and you are going to get rusty. We want you to go down to San Antonio.’ I asked him about going to Triple-A Vancouver and he said the roster there was full. He said, ‘Go on down there for a couple of weeks keep hitting, and we’ll bring you back up here.’”

A dejected Durham returned to San Antonio, determined to prove Richards wrong in his decision to keep him in the minor leagues. Upon his return to Texas after a three-year absence, Durham encountered greater indignities than when he left in 1954. The city of Shreveport, Louisiana enacted a law barring white and blacks from playing on the same field together. Rather than forcing the Texas League to remove Shreveport from competition, the league allowed the rest of the clubs to carry an extra player to compensate for keeping their players of color at home while they traveled to Shreveport.

“The first year I played at Shreveport, you could go in [and play],” he said. “I went in the Army and came back out. I started in 1957 and no blacks or whites could participate on the field, arena, or against one another in Shreveport. We would go to Houston and the team would go to Shreveport; we would go back to San Antonio.”

Showing tremendous character in the face of adversity, Durham’s on-field performance was at its peak. Durham maintained a .400 average during the first two months of the season, finally forcing the Orioles to call him up in the middle of June after he hit .391 in 50 games.

“I didn’t get recalled until June 10th and I was hitting over .400 until the 1st of June,” he recalled. “I came up and played the rest of the season in Baltimore.”

Unfortunately, Durham couldn’t duplicate his minor league success, hitting only .185 with four home runs in 77 games for the Orioles in 1957. Save for five at-bats with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959, it would be his last foray in the major leagues.

“I really hate to say it, but I never got a good chance to play,” Durham lamented. “They would tell you that they wanted to have you on the team and you were doing well, but he [Richards] was playing all of his boys. In 1959, I went to the St. Louis Cardinals. I had another tremendous spring, made the team and I got five at-bats before they decided to send me back to Baltimore.”

Durham continued to play in the minor leagues at the Triple-A level until 1964 and continued his involvement with the Orioles organization until his passing. A link to the franchise's birth, Durham’s six-decade association with the Orioles made him the longest-tenured employee in the team’s history. He spent 20 years as a batting practice pitcher after he hung up his spikes, and then served as their community coordinator for baseball operations, as well as a minor league coach, instructor, and scout.

“I do clinics and go around to some of the schools, community relations they call it,” he said in 2010. “I’m not on the regular payroll. I’ve been on their payroll in some capacity since 1954. I used to do a lot of traveling, hitting schools and private organizations; that was part of my job. I worked in the front office as the community relations director. I scouted one year. That was the last year I worked.”

As with many of his African-American counterparts in the early 1950s, Durham’s major league stats fall short of explaining the totality of his story and skills. His ability to stand tall in the face of Jim Crow segregation to become the Orioles’ most respected employee demonstrates Durham proved his All-Star status long after he left the diamond.