*I decided to tell a story and/or give a little baseball trivia at the end of each practice this season. Partly to give some background of the game we’re playing, the history of the game – I believe you can’t truly love and respect something until you know its history – but also partly for my own selfish interests to make it more interesting and enjoyable for me. These are not written down ahead of time, so this is my best recollection of what was said.
I’m going to tell you about two players, and at the end of it I’m going to tell you who one of the two is, and I’ll ask you if anybody knows or can guess who the other one was.
Our two players were both born in the deep South during a time of fierce Jim Crow segregation. Both players served overseas in World War II, and both players returned home healthy and played in the Negro Leagues.
Both players played for the Kansas City Monarchs, and both players were good enough to play in the East-West game. I’m not sure how much you guys know about the East-West game, but it was basically an All-Star game for Negro League and independent team players. It was started in 1933, the same year as the MLB All-Star game. It was usually played at Comiskey Park because Chicago was an easy location for people from all over the country too get to, and Comiskey was big enough to accommodate the mass interest in the game. In fact, for most of the first ten or so years of the East-West game, it outdrew the MLB All Star Game. It was a highly anticipated event, a showcase of the best of the best, not like the showcase of an All-Star game we know today, where everybody gets to play a little bit. It was a chance for people to see the best versus best to see who was in fact best. It was a chance to see Satchel Paige pitch against Josh Gibson. It was highly competitive, so both our players were good enough to play in this game.
In 1947, both players were signed to play Major League Baseball, being among the first players to break the color barrier, ending over fifty plus years of segregation in Major League Baseball. I’m not sure if any of you know how many Black players broke the color line in 1947. There were five Black players who joined MLB in 1947 for three teams. So our two players were two of the first five, one in the National League and one in the American League, back when this meant something. I’m not sure if you guys know much about how it was then, but back then the two leagues were completely separate. Players didn’t often go between the two leagues, the two leagues never played each other, they had different presidents, different umpires. This is where the World Series came from, the best teams from each league would play to see who was in fact best. This would be like the Dodgers playing the Japanese champ these days. So we had one of our players in the National League, and one of our players in the American League, and each would become the first Black player to hit a home run in their respective league.
Both players would play another ten or so years. One would play through the 1956 season, and one would play through the 1957 season. Both players were good enough to be elected to the Hall of Fame, both players are in Cooperstown.
Now I’m going to tell you about one of the two players. After the 1947 season, one of our players went off to the Puerto Rican Winter League. This was a very competitive league, a lot of players you’ve heard of like Tommy LaSorda, Willie Mays, and Reggie Jackson played in the Puerto Rican Winter League. In fact, Reggie Jackson once hit 20 home runs in their 60 game season, which is second all time for a single season there. Our guy hit 27 in 60 games, still the record today. In fact, that year he won the triple crown there. Two years later, he went back and won the triple crown again. He was so good the fans would start pointing him out when he’d come to the plate. “Eso Hombre,” they’d say. “There goes that man,” they’d say. In 1991, when the Puerto Rican Winter League started their Hall of Fame, our player was inducted in that very first class.
Our player had another nickname, too. This one was given to him by Josh Gibson, a great hitter, and one of the greatest power hitters of all time. He competed with our player for home run titles and got so tired of seeing our guy hit so many home runs he nicknamed him “Home Run.” He was so powerful that Josh Gibson named him “Home Run.”
There was an umpire who umpired in the Negro Leagues, the minor leagues, and in the College World Series. He umpired and saw in person Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Henry Aaron, and Dave Winfield. He said our guy was hands down the best player he ever saw in uniform.
So both our players played for the Monarchs. Both were good enough to play in the East-West game. Both integrated baseball in 1947. Both hit the first home run in their respective leagues. Both are in the Hall of Fame.
One of them set Puerto Rican Winter League records and is in their Hall of Fame. One of them earned the nicknames Eso Hombre and “Home Run.” One of them was called the greatest player an umpire had ever seen play. The other one is Jackie Robinson.
Anybody have a guess who our other player is?