A half-century ago this week, a seed was planted in the mind of a 6-year-old white kid from suburban Rochester who knew not a lick about Negro Leagues baseball. Doug Brei was an inquisitive lad, and already a voracious reader of newspaper sports sections, but when he came across the story that legendary pitcher Satchel Paige had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown by a special committee of Negro League experts, he didn’t understand its historical significance.
“I asked my dad about it, and he explained to me that, in the days before Jackie Robinson, African-Americans weren’t allowed to play in the major leagues, and had their own, very successful league, in which Satchel was its biggest star,’’ Brei recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ And that really was my introduction to the Negro Leagues.’’
Though the Fairport resident didn’t realize it at the time, that introduction would lead to a life-altering event and some lost history being found.
Fast-forward 34 years, and there is Brei, hunkered down in the local history department of Rundel Library in downtown Rochester, working on a project documenting the histories of Rochester’s professional sports franchises. After scanning miles of microfilm, he finally stumbles upon the newspaper stories confirming that our fair city had been home to the New York Black Yankees in the summer of 1948.
“It was like discovering dinosaur bones or buried treasure,’’ said Brei, a human capital management advisor for Paychex. “I was beyond ecstatic.”
To ensure Rochester received its just historical due, he made photo copies of his discovery and contacted the editors of the Baseball Encyclopedia. A change was made to reflect Rochester’s season in the sun.
Brei’s research dug into the sketchy origins of the Black Yankees relocating from the Big Apple to the Flower City. With three Negro League teams in the metropolitan New York area, the Black Yankees often struggled booking venues for home games, so owner James Semler searched for other options. After learning Rochester had strongly supported barnstorming visits by Paige-led Negro League teams for exhibition games against local all-star clubs, he decided the then-bustling upstate city was a viable alternative. The hometown Red Wings were happy to see the Black Yankees set up shop at their ballpark at 500 Norton St. because it meant additional revenues for the Rochester club.
“The beauty of it is they could move here and still retain their New York name,’’ Brei said.
The Black Yankees’ Rochester debut on May 25, 1948 drew a crowd of nearly 2,000 spectators, who were treated to a double-header sweep of the Newark (N.J.) Eagles. In the nightcap, Albert Stevens and John Stanley teamed up to pitch a no-hitter. Their collaborative gem would wind up being the highlight in an otherwise dismal season that saw the Black Yankees win just six of their next 38 games before folding. At the end of the ’48 campaign, the entire Negro National League went belly-up — its demise hastened by the full-fledged integration of the heretofore white major leagues.
One of the more prominent Black Yankees that summer was George Crowe, who became the third African American to sign with the Boston (now Atlanta) Braves. His best MLB season occurred in 1957 when he batted .271, clubbed 31 homers and drove in 92 runs for the Cincinnati Reds. The third base coach for the Black Yankees was George “Mule” Suttles, who retired four years earlier as the third-leading home run hitter in Negro League history and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006. “The Black Yankees had a rough go of it on the field and financially, but the bottom line is that we had a Negro League team here,’’ Brei said. “No one can ever take that away from us.”
Major League Baseball’s recent announcement that the Negro Leagues are finally going to be classified as major leagues means Rochester can now claim it spent two seasons in the big leagues — with the 1948 Black Yankees joining the 1890 Broncos of the American Association as ballclubs who competed at the highest professional level. “I was thrilled with that news, and that’s the first thing I thought about — that we now have two official big-league teams,’’ Brei said. “Our connection to the Negro Leagues is something we should be proud of, and this just makes it more special.”
As a result of MLB’s decision, Negro League statistics, records and standings from 1920 through 1948 will be officially recognized. That means more than 3,400 players will be added to MLB’s all-time player roster. Among the newly recognized big-leaguers will be long-time Rochester resident Warren O’Neil, brother of baseball ambassador Buck O’Neil, who gained fame as the star storyteller in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary series, and was the driving force behind the formation of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City.
Boxscores and newspaper game stories from Negro League games are sporadic, so stitching together accurate statistics hasn’t been easy. But, through the years, researchers from the Society for American Baseball Research and websites such as Seamheads.com have done a painstakingly excellent job compiling and verifying numbers. MLB and its official statistician, Elias Sports Bureau, will continue the process, which could take several years.
Once research is completed, it’s expected that Gibson, a power-hitting catcher sometimes referred to as the “Black Babe Ruth,” will be MLB’s new single-season batting average record-holder. (He hit .441 in 1943.) It’s unlikely, though, that he will come anywhere near to supplanting Barry Bonds’ all-time home run record of 762. Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque mentions that he hit more than 800 homers in his career, but many of those were achieved in exhibition games, and MLB statisticians and researchers will count only official Negro League games.
“It’s going to be very challenging to get accurate, definitive reads on the statistical data, because I know from my own research, the coverage and information was often lacking,’’ said Brei, a one-time director of game-day operations for the Rochester Zeniths’ minor-league basketball team. “I just worry the stats won’t reflect the greatness of the players. If you list Josh Gibson for, say, 262 homers, are you selling his legacy short? It’s a tough call.”
It is, but Brei agrees the designation of the Negro Leagues as bona fide Major Leagues is long overdue. And it adds significance to what he unearthed 16 years ago; makes Rochester’s baseball story even richer. Brei feels proud each time he dons the Black Yankees cap he purchased a while ago in Cooperstown because he knows he’s representing a hometown team. And he just might want to tip that cap this week to trailblazer Satchel Paige, who inspired millions, including a budding historian in Fairport a half-century ago.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.