To say the place has seen better days is an understatement.
An empty building, some broken brick walls and chain-link fence contain the garbage-strewn field.
Lonely and neglected are the remnants of League Park, at East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue. Lost to progress, lingering in indifference, it was once the home of Cleveland baseball, host to some of the game’s most historic events.
I’m here for a baseball moment, a true fan walking hallowed ground.
At first I’m disappointed by the decrepitude and emptiness of the place. Then the ghosts of baseball past tickle the soul of the kid in me. Suddenly I see the outlines of the old diamond. It’s still a baseball field, and with an open mind, willing heart and some bats and balls, anyone can still play baseball in League Park.
Satisfied as I exit, I notice the historical marker:
“League Park opened on May 1, 1891 with the legendary Cy Young pitching … the park remained the home of Cleveland’s professional baseball and football teams until 1946 … Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run over the short right field wall … with the park as home field, the Cleveland Buckeyes won the Negro World Series in 1945.”
And I ask myself: Who were the 1945 Cleveland Buckeyes?
Why do they seem so invisible, not just in Cleveland’s baseball history, but even in Negro League history?
“Four teams have always gotten most of the glory in Negro League baseball: the Kansas City Monarchs, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Homestead Grays and Chicago American Giants, which were the most successful,” says Wayne Stivers, a researcher and historian for the Society for American Baseball Research’s Negro League committee.
“I think success on the field, as well as having the bigger names in Negro League baseball on those teams, caused them to be more recognized. Just think of the New York Yankees.” By the mid-1940s, Stivers adds, Negro League baseball was winding down.
The hard, dry facts left on plaques and in libraries are unsatisfying and nudge me. I want something more about the 1945 Buckeyes. Someone, something connected — a soul. I ask Stivers if any of the 1945 Buckeyes are still alive.
Only one, he says.
“Josh Gibson was the cruelest hitter ya ever saw,” the old man answers. Then his eyes close and his head drops.
“How about Satchel Paige? Was he really as good as they say?”
“Satchel Paige?” The name warms his worn memory, creating a smile.
“Well … he was the best pitcher … the best pitcher in the world.”
The Cleveland Buckeyes’ history begins with Ernie Wright, a slick entrepreneur who made his initial fortune running the numbers racket in Erie, Pa. In the tough era of depression, racism and world war, he turned his numbers fortune into many legitimate black businesses, most notably Erie’s Pope Hotel, as well as nightclubs, restaurants, pool halls and barber shops. Wright’s ventures and solid business acumen provided something the white business structure of the time ignored: entertainment and jobs for black people by black people.
One of the biggest black enterprises in the days of Jim Crow was Negro League baseball. In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster, a former star pitcher for several black baseball teams, decided to organize a professional baseball league controlled and run by black people to make money and keep that money cycled through the black community. For the most part, Foster succeeded, but times were often tight for the Negro Leagues. With the onset of the Great Depression, teams came and went. Cleveland had an array of teams through the years: the Browns, Bears, Stars, Tate Stars, Elites, Giants, Tigers, Cubs, Red Sox and Hornets. None lasted more than a year or two.
Wright, a sporting man, sponsored semi-pro teams in the Erie area. Those connections eventually led to the big leagues about 120 miles west, in Cleveland.
In 1941 …
As England fights Hitler, FDR makes America “an arsenal of democracy.”
Penicillin is used for the first time in humans to treat infections.
There is still no cure for the undemocratic disease of Jim Crow.
Ernie Wright isn’t looking for a shine when he walks up to Wilbur Hayes’ shoeshine stand on Cleveland’s Central Avenue in spring 1941. He is looking for ball players to compete against one of his semi-pro teams back in Erie. A local reporter has told Wright that Hayes is the man to see.
For years, Hayes had tried unsuccessfully to get financial backing for a professional club in Cleveland. Hayes’ confidence and enthusiasm impresses Wright enough for him to back a local semi-pro team.
Later that summer, Hayes’ guile and Wright’s dollars bring the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League to Cleveland to play at League Park. Though the team disbands at the end of the season, Wright and Hayes are convinced Cleveland can support a team. In fall 1941, they acquire the right to field a Negro American League team and found the Buckeyes. They play the 1942 season in Cincinnati while the new owners plan to move the team to Cleveland and make League Park its new home the next year.
In spring 1942, Wright and Hayes travel the Southern states scouting talent. They sign two talented young players to the Buckeyes roster: fleet-footed, hard-hitting Sam Jethroe and strong-armed pitcher and outfielder Willie Grace. These two players become keys in establishing the new Buckeyes as a solid, competitive team. But it will still take more scouting, some shrewd trades and good coaching before they can match the league’s perennial powers.
During the Buckeyes’ next three seasons, with war in full bloom, players come and go from day to day, week to week, year to year.
In the spring of 1945 … American servicemen are still fighting a world war.
Science develops an inconceivable power from the splitting of an atom.
Joe Louis is heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Bess Myerson becomes the first Jewish Miss America.
Dizzy Gillespie is blowing a mean horn.
The St. Louis Browns field a one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray.
Blacks are referred to as Negroes and aren’t permitted to play Major League Baseball.
Strong up the middle. It’s baseball creed for a winning team, so Wright and Hayes acquire veteran Negro League all-star catcher Quincy Trouppe as player-manager to guide their ’45 squad.
From his crouching command behind the plate, Trouppe surveys the field, his eyes falling on a newcomer to the Buckeyes, shortstop Avelino Canizares, picked up from the Cuban leagues and known for his sensational fielding and solid hitting.
Behind him in center field is the 1944 Negro American League batting leader and stolen base champion Sam Jethroe. At third is Buckeye captain and four-time all-star Parnell Woods, and bird-dogging in right field is the diminutive but speedy five-time all-star Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport.
“With the exception of the ‘World Champion’ Homestead Grays, the Bucks are reputed to be the highest-paid Negro club in America,” reports Bob Williams, sports editor of the Call and Post, Cleveland’s weekly black newspaper.
It includes “a pitching staff second to none,” Hayes brags to a reporter.
Anchored by brothers George Jefferson, 22, and Willie Jefferson, 41, the Buckeyes Big Four pitching staff is rounded out by three-time all-star Gene Bremer and rocket fastballer Frank “Big Pitch” Carswell.
This talented group of men opens its season on the road at full throttle. Behind the sharp pitching of the Jefferson brothers, the sparkplug play of Canizares, and torrents of hitting from Jethroe and company, the Buckeyes are riding strong in first place by their 1945 Opening Day in Cleveland. More than 10,000 members of the city’s black community in their Sunday best turn up at the home opener May 27 at League Park. They watch the Buckeyes efficiently sweep the Memphis Red Sox in a doubleheader, 3-1 and 6-2.
The fans “screamed themselves hoarse as Parnell Woods, stellar third baseman, made a sensational steal from third to home just as the pitcher wound up to make the throw,” the Call and Post’s Williams writes later that week. “The park resounded still louder when [Avelino Canizares,] a classy Cuban who can’t even speak English, ripped around the bases for a home run within the park.”
The early season is well-oiled and smooth until slick-fielding second baseman Billy Horne is lost to military service. But veteran Johnny Cowan weaves seamlessly into the fabric of the Cleveland nine. With a 31-9 record, the Buckeyes win the first half of the Negro American League pennant and Davenport, Bremer, Trouppe and hard-hitting first baseman Archie Ware play in the East West Baseball Classic, the Negro Leagues’ all-star game.
The “Classy Bucks,” as the Call and Post now dubs them, begin the second half strong.
Then their first major hurdle pops up. Right fielder Ducky Davenport takes his .349 batting average and jumps leagues to play in Mexico. Taking his place in right field is young utility player Willie Grace. Though not Davenport’s equal in the field, Grace is adequate, and the Buckeyes blister along.
Darryl Grace has advised me in advance to write my questions down. His dad is looking forward to talking baseball, but at 88, his mind can wander and he can go off on tangents.
I meet Willie with his son Darryl in the old right fielder’s room at an assisted living complex in Erie. Glaucoma has robbed the former Buckeye of his sight, and the accumulated years stoop him slightly as he rests in his chair, but even so, there’s still an athletic elegance to his presence. A round, warm face, solemn and still, with a ring of wispy white hair, rests on his broad shoulders.
I have a lot of questions. But after a few minutes with him, I realize that age has taken most of the answers I was looking to get from Willie. Still, I can see him fighting the stubborn erosion of mind, wanting to give me information about the Negro Leagues, something, anything to keep their time remembered and important.
“They have made every team in the league look like a bunch of amateurs this season,” Williams crows in his column in early September, “and if they fail to cop the [American League] title it will be the greatest upset imaginable.” It’s a relief compared to the club’s first few years, “when the Buckeyes looked like a team of scrub sandlotters, ready for the ash can,” and fans left games convinced the team was “too mediocre even for the most tolerant or race-conscious individual.”
Williams now dares the Indians — who have shared League Park with the Buckeyes all season, not done nearly as well in their league’s standings and attracted only about 7,600 fans per game — to “play the championship Buckeyes at any time, any place.”
On Sept. 2, with the team riding high in the standings, black community leaders celebrate Hayes’ part in assembling the team with Wilbur Hayes Day at League Park. The gate receipts at the doubleheader that day, which attracts 8,000 fans, are dedicated to paying for a new 1946 Chevrolet for Hayes. It’s a fitting reward to a fine season, but not equal to what is to follow. With a second half record of 22-7, the Buckeyes clinch the 1945 Negro American League pennant and ready themselves to take on the Negro National League champion, Pittsburgh’s Homestead Grays, for the Negro League World Championship.
BUCKEYES AIM, TO DETHRONE HOMESTEAD GRAYS, CZARS OF ALL BASEBALL FOR SIX YEARS – Call and Post, Sept. 15, 1945
“Cool Papa” Bell, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, lethal and legendary players, lead the Homestead Grays’ lineup as the two teams take the field before 6,500 excited fans for Game 1 in Cleveland Stadium. Countering with league batting leader, Sam Jethroe and his lusty .393 batting average, the Bucks aren’t blinking. Their staff ace, Willie Jefferson, with his sparkling 11-1 season record, opens on the mound. For the Grays, it’s 12-game winner Leroy Welmaker.
The game is a pitcher’s battle until the seventh inning, when Trouppe smacks a triple into deep center, and little Johnny Cowan, the early season replacement player, drives him in with a sacrifice fly to left. In the eighth, with runners on first and second, Willie Grace loops a single into right field to score Archie Ware from second.
But the Grays mount a comeback in the top of the ninth with a single by right fielder Dave Hoskins, a walk to Buck Leonard and a Josh Gibson single to center that scores Hoskins.
“It was one of those terrible suspense moments when both sides are deadly silent and tense,” Williams writes that week. “Fans turned from the exits without speaking, staring fascinated out onto the playing field. A slow drizzle of rain and mist which had held off graciously all evening now began to come down steadily like fine needles through the brilliant stadium lights.”
Grays shortstop Sammy Bankhead comes to the plate to face Willie Jefferson — and hits into a double play. The Buckeyes walk away victors, 2-1. “Fans left the Stadium commenting that it was actually the best game they had ever seen,” Williams writes.
The teams take a break to play an exhibition game in Dayton the next day, one of several planned so that fans could see the championship teams in action. The Grays win 3-1, and they head back to Cleveland.
I softly pitch Willie the names of former teammates.
“I have Avelino Canizares at shortstop in ’45. Is that right?”
“Avelino Canizares?” He perks up in his chair, chuckling like someone who’s found a forgotten treasure.
“I forgot all about Canizares. He was all glove. He only played a year.” And right there for a moment, Willie Grace shows he can still hit.
“Sam Jethroe was the fastest player … and a good friend,” he says when I ask about the star outfielder.
And that’s our interview — trickles from a fading past, mostly smiles as his mind wiggles its way back, finding lost teammates and friends.
The Bucks’ crafty pitcher Eugene Bremer starts Game 2 back at League Park before a crowd of 10,000. He pitches tough, but the Grays are leading 2-0 until the seventh inning. That’s when right fielder Willie Grace breaks out of the obscurity of a .232 batting season. “With a resounding crack that brought the dejected Buckeye fans to their feet, Grace smacks the ball neatly over the right field Gem Safety Razor ad and struts around the sacks,” the Call and Post reports. Later that inning, Grays second baseman Jelly Jackson mishandles a ground ball from Bremer’s bat and lets in the tying run.
The game is tied going into the bottom of the ninth. With two out and Trouppe at third base after a double and a passed ball, Grays pitcher Billie Wright intentionally walks Armour and Cowan to bring up Bucks pitcher Bremer. To the dissatisfaction of the crowd, manager Trouppe forgoes a pinch hitter and allows Bremer to hit. And he does, sending Wright’s pitch off the right field wall.
“Trouppe came thundering across the plate,” writes the Call and Post reporter, “and players and fans rushed out to lift Bremer high above their shoulders as the man who, after almost losing it, came back to win his own ball game.”
For Game 3, the series moves to the Grays’ “home away from home,” Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. In attendance is the new commissioner of baseball, Sen. “Happy” Chandler, who has recently come out in favor of admitting black players into the Major Leagues (under pressure from a congressional effort to investigate discrimination in baseball).
The game begins and ends with 22-year-old George Jefferson baffling the Grays’ batters. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s Murderer’s Row of hitters, Jethroe, Armour, Woods and Ware, comes alive, each driving in a run. Johnny Cowan robs Buck Leonard in the eighth, snatching a line drive that seems sure to knock in a run. “That was the best play I’ve ever seen in my life,” a reporter overhears Chandler saying. The Buckeyes shut out the Grays and win 4-0.
Then it’s off Philadelphia’s Shibe Park for Game 4, where Frank Carswell is Trouppe’s choice to start on the mound. From the beginning, Carswell throws scoreless ball as the Buckeyes pick away at Grays superstar pitcher Ray Brown with flurries of singles. With superstar Jethroe leading the way with two runs-batted-in, the Buckeyes beat the floundering powerhouse Grays 5-0.
And as the last out is recorded, a lifetime bond is set. This group of men that spent the summer of 1945 packed into cars, traveling the long two-way country roads of the Midwest, sharing cold cuts, beers, slapped faces, slurs and slammed doors along with a former shoeshine man from Cleveland’s Central Avenue, share in the victory of the 1945 Negro League World Series Championship.
“They didn’t make the big hoo-ee about it like they do today. Though, the city did give them a proclamation.”
– Gene Bremer Jr., son of 1945 Cleveland Buckeye star Gene Bremer
The Buckeyes’ win is celebrated with a homecoming banquet at a downtown hotel two weekends after the series, the same day fans get to see the Buckeyes and Grays play an exhibition double-header.
The Call and Post joyfully records the triumph. But in pace with the times, the city’s two major newspapers pay little attention.
The day after the Buckeyes’ win, the big news in the sports sections of The Plain Dealer and Cleveland Press is Allie Reynolds’ 18th win as the Indians climbed to an even .500 record. The Buckeyes’ feat of sweeping the powerful Homestead Grays in the Negro League World Series merits four brief paragraphs each in the Press and Plain Dealer’s back pages.
Jackie Robinson signs a Brooklyn Dodgers contract and is assigned to their minor league team in Montreal.
In April 1947, Branch Rickey inserts Jackie Robinson in the Brooklyn Dodgers lineup, where he bravely integrates a bigoted and despotic system. With daring, dash and dignity, he bats .297, steals 29 bases and wins the Rookie of the Year award, valiantly smashing the door of racial denial in American baseball.
Larry Doby joins the Indians three months later, becoming the first black player in the American League. Not an immediate on-field sensation like Robinson, Doby has 32 at-bats in ’47, trivial to the season but tremendous for the time.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes win the 1947 Negro American League pennant with Sam Jethroe and Willie Grace leading the way. But they lose to the Cuban Giants in a diminished World Series, for the year of integration affects the Negro Leagues in an ironic way. Its black fan base, rightfully following the athletic pioneers in Brooklyn and Cleveland, are absorbed as fans by the teams that once denied them. The switch in allegiance signals the beginning of the end for baseball’s black-owned franchises.
“Most of these people don’t know anything about the Negro League history,” Darryl Grace tells me as we talk about the current chic of retro-look Negro League throwback jerseys and hats worn by a new hip-hop generation.
Willie tries to pitch in a few comments, but the weight of the day and the struggle of recollection wear him down into repetition.
As Darryl and I agree to call it an interview, the old man catches hold of the moment.
“I tell myself… I tell myself I was lucky.”
In 1948, the Indians add Negro League pitching legend Satchel Paige to the team, and Paige, Doby and the rest of the Tribe take a ride through a world championship season. The Buckeyes have a solid year, but the Indians’ gain is their loss, attendance drops, and the Buckeyes leave Cleveland in 1949 for Louisville, Ky. The team returns to Cleveland briefly for a short, unsuccessful stint in 1950. But the success and acceptance of black players in Major League Baseball lowers the status of the Negro Leagues to minor-league level.
After 1950, the Buckeyes are gone from the Cleveland sports scene.
“A lot a players would come and go, but it was fun. You were having so much fun.” –Willie Grace
In 1950, Sam Jethroe finally gets a chance to show the whole world what he can do on a baseball field. Playing for the Boston Braves, he hits .273, steals 35 bases and pops 18 homers. At 32, he's named the National League’s Rookie of the Year.
Other Buckeyes pass the color line and join the big leagues. Al Smith, third-baseman and shortstop during the Buckeyes’ 1947 and ’48 seasons, becomes an integral player on some of the great Indians and White Sox teams of the ’50s, and Sam Jones, whose potent arm helps the Buckeyes win the ’47 pennant, goes on to throw a no-hitter for the Chicago Cubs in 1955 and win 21 games with the San Francisco Giants in 1959.
Other Buckeyes, such as veteran Quincy Trouppe, get minor league contracts and brief visits to the majors, and then it’s off to the unheralded world of regular work and regular people. Grace and Jethroe follow Ernie Wright to Erie, Pa., where they get jobs, marry, find friends and raise kids. Others, such as Parnell Woods, make Cleveland home, as does Gene Bremer, whose grandson, J.R. Bremer, grows up to play basketball for the Cavaliers in the 2003-04 NBA season.
With integration, the Negro Leagues fade and die, and most of their members become names and stats in baseball books. Records that could have been, or who was the best, can be argued forever in the sports world. But one thing is set in stone: the Negro Leagues and players such as Parnell Woods, Archie Ware and Johnny Cowan were the soul collective that loaded the bases for Jackie Robinson to forever knock the hardball of rejection over the wall of racial segregation.
He must have been a great dad, I think, observing Darryl’s thoughtful tenderness while helping Willie rise from his chair.
It must be hard for him to leave his dad alone like this, I think to myself. But as the son helps the father over to his bed to get him settled in, I take notice of the whole room and can tell Darryl never leaves his father entirely alone.
On the dresser are some cigars and pictures of Willie and his family: Darryl, his brother, their wives and kids.
And above the couch, facing the bed, is a black and white picture of a group of young black men in baseball uniforms. They watch over Willie Grace.
They’re the 1945 Negro World Series baseball champions, the Cleveland Buckeyes.
Remembering the Negro Leagues
The Indians are commemorating the Buckeye's championship season at the Negro League Celebration Game against the Pittsburgh Pirates May 20 for "Negro League recognition Day." The iNdians will wear Cleveland Buckeyes jerseys and the Pirates will wear Homestead Gray jerseys, re-creating the 1945 Negro League World Series mathup. Game time is 7:05p.m. www.indians.com
The Baseball Heritage Museum opens May 20 in the Colonial Marketplace, 530 Euclid Ave. the museum, which celebrates "the multicultural aspects of baseball and the impact of baseball on our communities and our society," includes a strong collection of Negro League memorabilia, says founder Robert Zimmer. www.baseballheritagemuseum.org
The Baseball Heritage Museum Festival celebrates the museum's grand opening in Gateway Plaza, between Jacobs Field and Quicken Loans Arena, before the Indians' May 20 and 21 home games. "We don't want to see this portion of baseball and Americana be forgotten,: says Vern Fuller, executive director and former Indians player. "There were great players and true characters." Former Negro League and Major League players will be there , plus 50 exhibitors and interactive displays, including a mobile exhibit from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Sat. 11a.m.- 4p.m. (440) 239-9200, www.baseballheritagemuseum.org/festival.shtml
The Indians will host the Baseball Heritage Festival Luncheon at Jacobs Field's terrace Club at noon May 19. Appearing at the lunch will be John "Buck" O'Neil, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum chairman and former Kansas City Monarchs star, still an angaging ambassador for the Negro Leagues at 94; Joe B. Scott, who played for the Negro League teams such as the New York Black Yankees and Chicago American Giants; Jim "Mudcat" Grant, author of the book "The Black Aces" and the first black American League pitcher to win 20 games and the first to win a World Series game; and Indians great Bob Fellar, who used to barnstorm with negro League players. Tickets are $50; for details, visit www.indians.com.
A rare film of the Buckeyes was donated to the Western Reserve Historical Society early this year. About five minutes long, it shows Buckeyes players such as Quincy Trouppe at a game at League Park, according to archivists who've inspected the reel. the film, part of the late local historian Josephus Hicks' collection of black history memorabilia, isn't ready to be shown yet, but the historical society applied for a grant to restore it and hopes to show it by the end of the year. www.wrhs.org