Roy Campanella: Race, opportunity and the 1942 pennant

 

THREE DECADES AGO, when I was an art student in Baltimore, I had become interested in the city’s Negro League team, the Elite Giants. I had the good fortune to meet many former Elite Giants players as well as the fans who rooted for them. The Elites (pronounced EE-lights) became my favorite Negro League team, and I eagerly dug into their history, spending hours pouring over the back issues of the Baltimore Afro-American. This was before computers made baseball research infinitely easier and research entailed camping out in library microfilm rooms or manhandling the large bound volumes of the actual newspapers. I loved this quest for knowledge, and discovering new facts and statistics pertaining to Negro League history made me feel like a lower-case indiana jones. Fortunately, for my purposes, the Afro-American was based in Baltimore and devoted extensive coverage to their hometown Elites after they moved to the city in 1938. Through this hands-on research I was able to read along as the seasons played themselves out before my eyes.

The Elite Giants were not as “sexy” a team as the Homestead Grays or Kansas City Monarchs, and not much had been written about them other than it was the team that gave Roy Campanella his start. Diving into the 1938 box scores I found the very first mention of the 16 year-old Campanella playing in an official Negro League game, although his name was misspelled as “Campanello” – it actually took the beat writers from the Afro-American a year or two to finally get the kid catcher’s name right in the box scores and post-game summaries.

THE ELITE GIANTS were blessed in that they had veteran catcher Biz Mackey on the squad during Campanella’s first few years. Mackey was at one time the best catcher in Black baseball, and although he had slowed considerably by 1937 when Campanella joined the team, his natural leadership and mentorship abilities made all the difference to the young catcher. Indeed, years later during a ceremony to honor Roy Campanella at Dodger Stadium, Roy called out his former mentor Biz Mackey, who was in the stands, and gave him the credit for making his career what it was.

By 1940 the Elite Giants felt so confident that Campanella was on his way to becoming a first-rate backstop that they traded the highly paid Mackey to the Newark Eagles. But despite Mackey’s departure, Campy did not become the Elites’ first-string catcher. Regardless of what many books and articles on Campanella may say, the Roy Campanella of the early 1940s was not yet a complete catching-slugging superstar. Remember, he was still just 17 years old at this point. The problem, according to Neil Lanctot’s biography Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella, was the accuracy of his arm. This was a make-or-break skill in the fast-paced Negro Leagues where, unlike the majors, stealing and daring baserunning was the norm. Opposing players noted the kid’s inaccurate arm and felt comfortable taking their chances on the base paths when he was behind the plate.

While Campanella honed the accuracy that would later be his trademark with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Elites picked up veteran backstop Bill Perkins and later Eggie Clark as their first-line receivers. The team now embarked on a three-year stretch where they battled the Homestead Grays for the Negro National League Championship every summer. Their rivalry became something like that between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, and the games played between the two were usually hard-fought, heavily attended affairs. The Negro National League played a split season with the winners of the first half of the season playing the winners of the second half in a playoff for the pennant.

Baltimore led for most of the first half of the 1940 season but stumbled at the end, winding up a half game behind the Grays. In the last weekend of the second half, the Elites split a crucial doubleheader to the Newark Eagles, allowing the Grays, who won their games against the Philly Stars, to overtake Baltimore and snatch the pennant at the last moment. The following year the Elites lost four of their better players who jumped the team to play in the Mexican League: Wild Bill Wright, the team’s big slugger, Sammy T. Hughes, regarded as the best second baseman in the league and starting pitchers Lefty Glover and Pullman Porter. Despite the loss of talent, the team went on a tear, but the Grays were always a game or two ahead and won the first half of the season. In the second half, the New York Cubans beat out the Elites and went on to play the Grays in the playoffs.

These close-but-no-cigar finishes were heartbreaking to the Baltimore fans who, by this time, had really embraced the team. When spring of 1942 came around, those fans had reason to be optimistic that this would be “the year.” Wright, Hughes, Glover and Porter all returned. It was hoped that the now mature Campanella, along with the extra fire-power provided by Wright, would be the key to finally overcoming the Homestead Grays and bringing the pennant to Baltimore. This proved to be the case, and the Elites cruised to a comfortable first half victory in July. Campanella proved that he had arrived by not only handling the pitchers like a veteran, but he was batting for average and came through in the clutch when most needed. The rest of the league took notice, and he was elected for the second time to represent Baltimore in the East-West All-Star Game. But before he made it to the game, something happened.

SINCE THE 1920s, various factions had been pushing for the majors to integrate. Owners and managers, who for decades had not wanted to touch this racial hand grenade, traditionally passed the buck to baseball’s Commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had become an expert at deflecting the issue. But now that the United States had entered World War II against the race-purifying Nazis, Americans began looking at their own Black-White relations in a different light. In addition to the influential Black newspapers that had steadily called for baseball’s integration, left-wing publications such as the Communist Party’s New York Daily Worker took up the fight.

A May 6, 1942 story in the Daily Worker by Lester Rodney quoted Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher as saying, “I wouldn’t hesitate a minute to sign up some of those great colored players if I got the OK.” Rodney wrote that the “OK” would have to come from Judge Landis. The Daily Worker story was immediately picked up by Black newspapers, but it would take a while for it to penetrate the mainstream White media.

In the meantime, June-July of 1942, rumors began swirling about big league interest in the Elite Giants young catcher. The Philadelphia Phillies were the first team said to have an interest in Campy. One newspaper story related that the Phils had their scouts in the stands during the July 4 game against Newark at Yankee Stadium. Campy was impressive, banging out three hits in the Elite Giants win. On July 12, the Daily Worker reported the surprising news that Campanella had actually worked out with the Phillies.

On July 25, the Baltimore Afro-American told a slightly different story, relating how the Phillies scouts approached Campy after an early July night game in Philadelphia and invited him to Shibe Park for a tryout. According to the Afro, after this tryout, “Campanella was told to keep coming to practice when the Phils were in town and we may be able to sign you when ‘something turns up.’”

By this time, the pressure from Leo Durocher’s quote in both the Black and White press finally became so hot that Landis’ customary deflection of the issue was no longer sufficient. Landis summoned the Dodgers manager to his office in Chicago, after which the Commissioner issued the following blockbuster statement, “there is no rule, formal or informal, or any understanding-unwritten, subterranean, or sub-anything” against the hiring of Negro players by major league teams. He went on to punt the ball back to the owners, “A manager can have one or 25 negroes if he cares to.”

Landis’ claim that there was no rule barring Blacks from playing in the majors set off a chain reaction of stories reporting the major league’s supposed interest in Negro League stars. Unfortunately, most, if not all of them were exaggerated. The same July 25 Baltimore Afro-American story that reported Campanella’s tryout with the Phillies claimed that “Campanella currently is busy with the Elites, but every off-day he rushes to Philadelphia to practice with the Phils.”

Anyone who is familiar with Negro League team schedules during this period knows that the idea of an “off-day” was ridiculous – in order to turn a profit, clubs tried to play at least one game every day, whether it be an official league game or exhibition against an amateur team. This hectic schedule, combined with wartime travel restrictions for civilians, makes Campy’s “off-day” workouts in Philadelphia very unlikely. Campanella himself denied the rumors, telling Randy Dixon of the Pittsburgh Courier, “I never worked out with them in practice, nor has anyone asked me to.” The catcher went so far as to reach out to Phillies owner Gerry Nugent and apologize for the stories about him working out with his team. That said, Campy asked the owner for the chance at a real tryout to play for the Phillies, to which Nugent “said I was welcome to play with the Phillies if I was good enough and all that was needed was for a scout to recommend me to him or Manager Lobert.”

Of course, everyone knew that was the polite way of saying, “forget about it.”

THE PITTSBURGH PIRATES were another team that was rumored to be on the verge of signing Black players. This story had a bit more meat on it because Pittsburgh was home to both the widely read Black-owned newspaper The Courier as well as Blackball’s most successful franchise, the Homestead Grays. The Grays even played their games in Forbes Field, the Pirates home park, when the team was on the road. With his ball club currently foundering 21½ games out of first place, Pirates owner Bill Benswanger was said to have made half-hearted overtures to Grays stars Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard about playing for his club. With all this in mind, the Daily Worker zeroed in on Benswanger. When he accompanied the team on a road trip to New York, the Pirates owner was contacted by Daily Worker writer Nat Low, who suggested the Pirates give a tryout to Roy Campanella and Sammy T. Hughes of the Elite Giants and Dave Barnhill of the Cubans. According to Low, Benswanger finally said the words, “I will be glad to have them try out with the Pirates. He then went on to state, “Negroes are American citizens with American rights. I know there are many problems connected with the question but after all, somebody has to make the first move.”

The news of Benswanger’s blockbuster statement hit the newsstands nationwide on Sunday, July 26. That afternoon Dave Barnhill and the New York Cubans were playing a 4-team doubleheader at Yankee Stadium where, according to the Daily Worker, the news was met with a “thundering roar of approval.”

Ominously, as the days went by no date was set for the tryout. On August 2, newsreel cameras captured Campanella, Hughes and Barnhill in the dugout at Yankee Stadium where their teams were playing another 4-team doubleheader before a large crowd. A legion of sportswriters flocked to cover the story of the trio who were thought to be so close to integrating baseball, and the Daily Worker cameraman was even able to snap a picture of Campy reading a copy of the communist daily.

At this point, Bill Benswanger either got cold feet or was beginning to wilt under pressure from Landis and the other owners. Walking back his bold comments, the Pirates owner claimed the Daily Worker had put words in his mouth. Most of the press moved on, but the Black newspapers and the Daily Worker refused to let the story die. Lester Rodney repeatedly tried to contact Benswanger, finally receiving a call from his secretary to say the tryout was off. Eventually, Rodney got through to the Pirates owner, who told him, “I’m sorry, I have nothing to say….I can’t go ahead with this.”

CAMPANELLA’S POPULARITY with Black baseball fans grew with every mention of him breaking the color barrier. Up to this point, the most popular catcher in the Negro National League was Josh Gibson of the Grays. Each summer, fans voted Gibson to the annual East-West All-Star Game, with Campanella running a distant 2nd or 3rd. Being voted to the East-West Game was the most prestigious reward a player could earn in the Negro Leagues. Fans had voted Campanella to his first East-West Game the previous season, but it was a hollow victory as Gibson was in Mexico all season and illegible to play. But now, in the weeks after the Pirates tryout story hit, Baltimore’s young catcher overtook Gibson in the voting for the August 16 game.

With his name being put forward as a Major League prospect and holding a lead in the All-Star voting, Campy began to understand his worth as a ballplayer. In the wake of all their recent publicity, the Cleveland Buckeyes, a team in the Negro American League, offered Campanella, Hughes and Barnhill $200 to appear in an August 10 exhibition game against a White semi-pro team. While a professional team hiring players from a rival club to appear for a single game was unheard of in White baseball, Negro League teams occasionally borrowed big name players for special exhibition games. Negro League salaries were markedly lower than that brought home by White major leaguers, and owners tended to look the other way when one of their players had a chance to make a nice payday. For Campy, Hughes and Barnhill, the $200 offered by the Buckeyes amounted to almost a month’s salary, and the three did not expect their respective team owners to have a problem with their brief absence. The Cubans gave Barnhill their blessing, but Elites owner and Negro National League president Tom Wilson refused to grant Campanella and Hughes permission to go.

BALTIMORE WAS LOCKED IN a drive to claim the second half pennant and losing the services of two of their key players could tip the balance to the Grays. None-the-less, Campanella and Hughes jumped the team and went to Cleveland. Wearing their Elite Giants uniforms, the pair helped the Buckeyes beat up on the hapless semi-pro team 12-0 through six innings before the game was called. The two fugitives pocketed their money and headed back to Baltimore, expecting nothing more than a lecture from Tom Wilson.

They were wrong.

Frequently criticized as a passive owner and do-nothing league president, Tom Wilson decided this was the time to put his foot down. As Elite Giants owner, he fined each player $250 and, as league president, suspended them for a month. Almost worse than the fine, Campanella was forced to sit out the East-West Game as well. In the days leading up to the August 16 game, Gibson “miraculously” overtook Campanella in the voting, 52,822 to 49,376. Perhaps refusing to believe he was banned from the East-West Game, Campanella accompanied a group of the East-West Game-bound players when they appeared in an August 14 exhibition game in Dayton, Ohio. However, when the all-star game began in Chicago, Campanella was noticeably absent. Gibson worked the whole game for the East and did the same when the two teams met for a second all-star game in Cleveland a few days later.

The suspension looks like it was never enforced because both Campanella and Hughes were in the Elites lineup on August 21. Most likely, Wilson decided to forget about the suspension since his Elites trailed the Grays by a single game in the standings. Sammy T. Hughes slipped right back into being the Negro League’s premier second baseman and Elite Giants star, but something had changed in the 20 year-old catcher. After the August 23 Sunday doubleheader against the New York Cubans in Baltimore, Roy Campanella disappeared.

HE SURFACED a week later in Mexico City. Over the past several years, Jorge Pasquel, the shipping magnate and playboy who ran the Mexican Baseball League, had actively poached many Negro League stars for his upstart league. Among the players Pasquel lured away with wildly generous paychecks was Campy’s rival, Josh Gibson. As mentioned earlier, his Baltimore teammates Sammy T. Hughes, Bill Wright, Lefty Glover and Pullman Porter had also played for Pasquel, yet Campanella had always remained loyal to Wilson and the Elite Giants. But now, disillusioned by the aborted tryout and disgruntled at the way Wilson treated him, Campanella was easy pickings for Pasquel’s agents who quickly offered Roy a huge contract to finish out the season with the Monterrey Industriales.

When Campanella left the Elites he was batting .295 and was one of the team’s biggest draws at the gate. Eggie Clark, the team’s back-up catcher, was a veteran who, while solid defensively, was 39 years old and no Campanella at the plate.

In the standings, Baltimore was two games behind the Grays going into the last two weeks of the season. On Friday, August 28th they beat the last place New York Black Yankees 16-3, and then took the Sunday doubleheader by scores of 6-3 and 3-1. Now Baltimore was a half-game behind the dreaded Grays.

IT ALL CAME DOWN to the final Labor Day Weekend series. The Elites faced the 4th place Philadelphia Stars and needed to take 4 out of 5 games from them. The Grays faced the considerably stronger Newark Eagles and needed to win at least 2 to stay on top.

Saturday was a night game played at Parkside Park in Philadelphia. Baltimore won 8-3, and Campanella’s replacement Eggie Clark went 1 for 4. The series moved south to Baltimore and a Sunday doubleheader at Bugle Field. In the first game it took 12 innings, but Baltimore prevailed, Clark going 1 for 4 again. In the nightcap, Clark went hitless in 3 at bats as Baltimore was defeated in a come-from-behind, 9-6 victory by the Stars. As long as Newark beat the Grays in their Monday game and the Elite Giants won both ends of the season ending doubleheader, the pennant was Baltimore’s.

Both teams were back at Parkside Park for the holiday finale. Baltimore’s Bill Harvey tossed a terrific 1-hit shutout and beat the Stars 6-0. Clark went hitless in 4 turns at bat. Up in Newark, the Grays and Eagles were slugging it out at Ruppert Stadium, and the high scoring game was still undecided as Baltimore and Philly squared off for the last game of the season.

With their pitching staff exhausted from playing four games in three days, the Elites started Emory Adams, 2 and 3 on the season, with Lefty Glover standing by in the bullpen. The Stars went with 35 year-old journeyman Chester Buchanan. Adams and Glover held the Stars to just 6 hits, but Buchanan struck out 11 as the Elites lost, 4-3. Eggie Clark went hitless again in 3 tries and was removed for a pinch hitter in the 9th. Meanwhile, the Grays out-scored Newark 14-12 and clinched the second-half pennant.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT is something that was unfortunately fairly common in the Negro Leagues. The playoff that was supposed to happen between the Elite Giants, winners of the first half, and the Homestead Grays, winners of the second half, never took place. I’ve never found out any reason why; the Afro-American didn’t report on it. Their focus quickly switched from the lost pennant to a series of games against the all-White Baltimore Orioles of the International League. Playing against the White pros was more important, it seems, than playing the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro World Series. Which brings me back to Roy Campanella.

While reading about the 1942 season in the Afro-American I was gripped by the tightness of the race and the disappointment when I read of Campanella and Hughes deserting the team for an exhibition game. I was even more upset when I discovered how Campy abandoned the team for Mexico during the last stretch. Seeing his replacement Eggie Clark go 2 for 18 as the Elites lost two crucial games makes me wonder how the team would have done with Campanella playing in those contests. Would they have won the pennant? We’ll never know.

The fortunes of the Elite Giants dwindled after that season. Failure to beat the Grays three years in a row may have hurt their fan base, and the disappearance of Roy Campanella, a favorite with the fans, didn’t help either. He played the entire 1943 season in Mexico while Baltimore sank into the second division.

DOES CAMPANELLA deserve to be labeled as selfish and the reason behind the disappointing end to the 1942 season? Initially I thought so. What kind of player deserts his team during a pennant drive? Then again, I go back to the Afro-American’s reporting at the end of the season. Nowhere was there outrage over Campanella’s desertion. No one even questioned why there was no playoff to determine who played in the Negro World Series. The Afro’s writers were more focused on the Elite Giants showcasing their talent against the all-White Orioles. Watching the 1942 season unfold made me think that by this time most players and fans were probably aware that integration was not that far off; the matter of a player jumping a team in order to better himself was not looked upon as a bad quality but simply what it was, a Black man showing the world that his talents were as equal or better than others who happened to be White.

So, in my book, Campanella gets a pass but, as an Elite Giants fan, I am rather chagrined to think about how the fortunes of the Elites would have turned out if they had beat the Grays that year and faced the Monarchs and Satchel Paige in the 1942 Negro World Series…

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As with most of my stories, the bulk of this piece was researched using contemporary sources. In this case, I went to my box of Elite Giants research which was lovingly assembled from the countless hours I spent sneezing over those dusty bound volumes and burning my retinas peering at microfilm over 30 years ago. These box scores and game summaries were augmented by the wonderful biography Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella by Neil Lanctot. Lanctot is one of the finest authors writing about the Negro Leagues, and I highly recommend not only Campy, but also his Fair Dealing and Clean Playing: The Hilldale Club and the Development of Black Professional Baseball, 1910-1932 and what is probably the best history of Blackball in the 1930s and 40s, Negro League Baseball – The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution.

For statistics, I prefer to use the Negro League Database at Seamheads.com. This archive is headed up by hardcore baseball archaeologist Gary Ashwill and constantly amended with the latest research. Encompassing the years 1896 to 1948 (so far) and including Cuban Leagues, this indispensable database can be accessed through the Seamheads.com website.

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This week’s story is Number 21 in a series of collectible booklets.

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 2 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 018 and will be active through October of 2020. Booklets 1-17 can be purchased as a group, too.

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