1945 Pittsburgh Pirates
Runs Scored: 3rd (753)
Runs Allowed: 3rd (681)
Strengths: starting pitching
Weaknesses: first base, shortstop
Key Players: Preacher Roe, Bob Elliott, Jim Russell, Max Butcher
Pipeline: Billy Cox (signed ’40); Ralph Kiner (signed in ’41)
The 1945 Pirates season was a disappointment. After finishing second in the NL to the Cardinals with a record of 90-63 in ’44, the Pirates only managed to win 82 games in ’45, good for fourth in the NL and barely in the first division. Due to the Pirates’ lackluster 1945, Pirates manager Frankie Frisch was feeling the heat.
As of the end of 1945 Frisch had managed the Pirates for six full seasons. He’d been hired by Pittsburgh to replace the long-time great Pirate Pie Traynor for the 1940 season. Some had claimed that Traynor had been considered “too easy-going with the players (1)” which led to his dismissal. Frankie Frisch who was of the “John McGraw martinet school of managers” was considered to be the logical replacement for the serene Traynor (2).
Since the hiring of Frisch though, the Pirates had only managed four fourth place finishes in 1940, ’41, ’43 and ’45 and one the second place finish in 1944. Frisch’s managing record with the Pirates stood at 477-438 (.520) as of the end of 1945.
Pirate fans and the media were split on Frisch’s performance in 1945. The pro-Frisch camp believed the Pirates were unlucky in ’45, what with pitcher Max Butcher missing time due to asthma and outfielder Tommy O’Brien limited to just 58 games due to appendicitis (3). Frisch’s detractors claimed the Pirates were capable of better and that the Pirate organization was making excuses given that heading into the ’45 season, the Pirates were considered to be a pennant contender (4). Moreover Frisch’s predecessor, Pie Traynor, had done a lot more with considerably less back in 1938 when the Pirates finished just two games behind the NL Pennant winning Cubs.
Pirates President Bill Benswanger was in the pro-Frisch camp. Benswanger retained Frisch for 1946 as Pirates manager and signed him to a one year deal. Benswanger explained: “there was no reason why anyone should have expected us to make a change. We were all disappointed that we didn’t finish any higher than fourth but no one can be fair about it and blame the manager (5).”
In November of ’45, the Pirates announced the hiring of Ray L. Kennedy as Pirates general manager. He was to assume the role on January 1, 1946. Kennedy had previously been the general manager of Newark of the International League which was affiliated with the New York Yankees (6). The general managerial role was a newly created role within the Pirate organization. In the new role, Kennedy would be “an assistant to President Bill Benswanger (7).” The team also made it clear at the time that Kennedy “will not sit in authority over Manager Frankie Frisch (8).” In the spring of ’46 Benswanger made it very clear that Frisch had control of Pirate player personnel. “We do not pick the players for the manager and tell him to go ahead and win a pennant with them. The manager picks our team (9),” Benswanger declared.
With Frisch coming off of a disappointing season but still maintaining a lot of power when it came to player personnel, where did Frisch want to concentrate on improving the Pirates in 1946? “We need pitching, we still have to shore up our weak spots in the infield, and we aren’t going to finish in the first division in 1946 unless our hitting improves (10),” Frisch declared soon after being retained for the ‘46 season.
The Pirates had two of their best prospects coming up in ‘46 in shortstop Billy Cox and outfielder Ralph Kiner. The 26 year-old Cox had been signed by the Pirates back in 1940. After playing a handful of games with the Pirates in ’41, he was inducted into the Army in February of 1942 (11). He had missed the last three full seasons due to military service. Cox was considered to be an excellent fielder. Frisch had Cox penciled in at shortstop for ’46.
Ralph Kiner was 23 years-old. He was signed in 1941. By February of ’46, Frisch’s plan for Ralph Kiner was to place him in center field thus replacing rookie Al Gionfriddo who was known mainly for his fielding. Interestingly at the time, Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph writer Charles J. Doyle compared the young Kiner’s fielding to former Pirate center fielder Vince DiMaggio: “The new Buc centerfield candidate, by the way, is a reminder of Vince DiMaggio. Ralph perhaps is a step faster, but he has the same kind of long stride and his physique is a counterpart of the DiMaggio body (12).” Given Doyle’s assessment of Kiner’s fielding, Frisch may have thought placing Kiner in center over Gionfriddo would not significantly weaken the Pirates defensively.
Frisch made several attempts to acquire players during that offseason, most notably Cardinals center fielder Terry Moore and third baseman Jimmy Brown as well as Phillies left fielder Ron Northey. The soon to be 34 year-old Moore had missed the last three seasons due to the war. He was considered to be a very good fielder and leader (13). Ron Northey was a left-handed bat. He missed the 1945 season due to the war. In ’44 the then 24 year-old Northey hit 22 home runs and slugged .496 for an OPS+ of 145. According to Baseball-Reference he led the NL in intentional walks with 29. The 36 year-old Jimmy Brown was also returning from military service in ’46. Brown was a light-hitting infielder who could play second, third or short. Rumors had Brown linked to the Pirates for most of the offseason.
The acquisition of Brown wasn’t the only rumor swirling around the Pirates that offseason. Two other rumors persisted, the first being the sale of the team to entertainer Bing Crosby; the second being the trading of third baseman Bob Elliott. In terms of the former, that eventually materialized when a four- man syndicate which included Crosby finalized the purchase of the Pirates in August of 1946 for approximately $2.25 million (14). In terms of the latter, Frisch quashed it when he made it crystal clear that Elliott would not be traded:
“I want to make it clear and that is Bob Elliott will definitely not be traded. He’ll play for the Pirates in 1946. Whether he plays at third base or in the outfield is another thing. But he’ll wear a Pittsburgh uniform (15).”
Elliott had played third base in ’45 but Frisch wanted to return him to his natural outfield position in ’46. To do that the Pirates needed to acquire a third baseman which they eventually did in January 1946 when they finally acquired Jimmy Brown from the Cardinals for $30,000. At the time the purchase of Brown was viewed as a way of Frisch being able to move Elliott to the outfield. However, the light-hitting Brown wasn’t going to add to the Pirates offense. Moreover, the Pirates already had players who could replace Elliott at third in Lee Handley and Frank Gustine.
To really improve the offense and shore up the infield which were two of Frisch’s priorities heading into 1946, the Pirates would have had to acquire a hard hitting third baseman as opposed to a Jimmy Brown type player which would allow them to move Elliott to the outfield or another outfield bat such as a Ron Northey who Frisch pursued in the offseason. Acquiring an outfielder would have allowed Frisch to keep Elliott at third.
In terms of the Negro League draft, third baseman Parnell Woods is still on the board. As previously mentioned, Woods didn’t have a particularly strong arm for a third baseman but he could hit. In 1945 Woods hit .335 and stole 16 bases, third in the (NAL) behind Sam Jethroe and Art Pennington, playing for the Cleveland Buckeyes. Woods played in multiple East/West All-Star games. He was also a player manager at the age of 30 back in 1943 and 1944. The role of player/manager was something Pirate manager Frankie Frisch could relate to. Woods although two years younger than Jimmy Brown, the player the Pirates paid $30,000 to play third in ’46, was still older than many of the top tiered players available in the Negro League draft.
Another player the Pirates may have been interested in at the time was center fielder Willard “Homerun” Brown. Brown was one of black baseball’s “premier homerun hitters of the 1940’s (16).” Reports indicated that Brown possessed speed and that the power hitting Brown was also an above average fielder with a very good arm. If there was a hole in Brown’s game it was a lack of plate discipline. Apparently Brown made up for his lack of plate discipline by being a very good bad-ball hitter. Brown’s MLE numbers from age 20, which was his first year in professional baseball (1935); to age 28 (1943) are as follows: 4,980 PA, 22.3 WAA, 39.3 rWAR. Players (center fielders) who had numbers most similar to those are Andre Dawson and Andrew McCutcheon:
Dawson- 4,439 PA, 26.4 WAA, 40.9 rWAR
McCutcheon- 4,504 PA, 23.8 WAA, 37.4 rWAR
Andre Dawson is an interesting comp given that Dawson, like Brown, wasn’t a very patient hitter. Willard Brown missed the 1944 and 1945 seasons because of the war. 1946 was to be Brown’s age 31 season. Prior to the war Brown had accomplished the following: five Negro League pennants playing for the Kansas City Monarchs from ’37 to ’42, batting averages ranging from .337 to .371 and two Negro League All-Star Game appearances.
Heading into 1946 Brown was also older than all of the players selected up to this point. Like many other players he had missed multiple seasons due to the war. However, his combination of power and speed and center field ability would be just too much for the Pirates to pass up on. Drafting Brown would allow Frisch to keep Elliott at third base and have an outfield consisting of future star Ralph Kiner in left, Brown in center and Jim Russell in right. With Frisch on the hot seat, he needed immediate results. A veteran like Willard Brown was very capable of delivering those results.
1945 New York Yankees
Runs Scored: 1st (676)
Runs Allowed: 5th (606)
Strengths: first base, second base
Weaknesses: starting pitching, right field
Key Players: Joe Di Maggio, Charlie Keler, Tommy Henrich, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Gordon, Snuffy Stirnweiss
Pipeline: Vic Raschi (signed ’40); Yogi Berra (signed in ’42)
“Yankees Sold Flag to Cubs.”
That was the headline in New York’s Daily News on October 2 1945, two days after the Yankees’ 1945 season had ended. What the headline was referring to was the controversial transaction the Yankees had made with the Cubs back in late July- the selling of Yankee pitcher Hank Borowy to the Cubs for approximately $100,000.
At the time of the sale (July 27) the Yankees were four games behind the Tigers in the AL; sitting in third place with a record of 44 wins and 40 losses. However after ending June with an overall record of 35-25, the Yankees had sputtered in July, posting an 8-15 record up until July 27, the date they sent Borowy to the Cubs. Nevertheless, Yankee President Larry MacPhail took a considerable amount of heat from the media and fellow owners once the “trade” had been announced.
Borowy was 10-5 with a 3.13 ERA with the Yankees in ’45 prior to him being dealt. Borowy’s 10 win total in the first half of ‘45 was fourth best in the majors. His 2.77 ERA in the first half of the ’45 season was good for fourteenth overall in the majors for pitchers having thrown at least 100 innings. The year prior, Borrowy had been named the AL’s starting pitcher for the 1944 All-Star Game. Borowy clearly was one of baseball’s better starting pitchers at the time of the deal which was why MacPhail came under fire for trading him to the Cubs.
“The only reason for making the deal was to help the Yankees ball club,” was what MacPhail said once the deal was announced (17). MacPhail then further explained:
“There are three fine coaches on this team, an excellent manager in Joe McCarthy and a great scout in Paul Krichell, who signed Borowy at Fordham. None of them objected to his being dealt away. I didn’t make any snap judgment in this thing….When Ed Barrow signed Hank last spring, he made it plain to the pitcher that he’d have to produce or be traded away. It was a case of signing him for a load of money after his poor season in ’44 or having him as a holdout. We didn’t want the latter so we yielded. But Barrow warned him that he’d better not repeat his late season failures of last season. It seemed to us that he was doing just that and so we decided to get rid of him (18).”
In October of ’45 MacPhail provided even more insight into the Borowy deal with the Cubs: “Barrow didn’t want any unfavorable publicity about holdouts. It was definite that Borowy wouldn’t sign unless he got what he demanded, somewhere around $17,500 (19).”
Borowy did holdout prior to the 1945 season. In ‘44 Borowy was 17-12 with a 2.64 ERA (133 ERA+) but he was a much better pitcher in the first half of ’44 than the second half. In the first half of ‘44 Borowy was 11-4 with a 1.70 ERA. In the second half he was 6-8 with a 3.65 ERA. Despite his very average second half showing, Borowy held out until the third week of March of ’45 before signing his contract.
In ’45 it appeared as though Borowy was heading down the same path. In Borowy’s previous five starts prior to him being dealt to the Cubs in ’45 (July 1 to July 22), Borowy had been 1-2 with a 7.53 ERA. Incredibly he had struck out only three batters in just under 29 innings while walking 21 during that span. Sensing that Borowy was once again going to peter out down the stretch, MacPhail placed Borowy on waivers. Borowy somehow cleared AL waivers (a whole other story in itself) and was ultimately “traded” to the NL Cubs.
Originally the Yankees had announced the Borowy deal as one that “involved about $100,000 worth of Cub ball players and cash (20).” The media had speculated at the time that the player coming back to the Yankees from the Cubs was hard hitting outfielder Bill Nicholson. In ’44 Nicholson had finished just one point behind Marty Marion for the 1944 NL MVP Award. In ’45 though, Nicholson was going through a difficult year. At the time the Yankees dealt Borowy, Nicholson was hitting just .251 and slugging .383 with eight home runs, a far cry from his 1944 numbers and apparently falling out of favor with Cubs fans (21). The Yankees also had a previous connection to Nicholson which may have led to the rumors at the time. New York had offered Nicholson $5,000 to sign with them back in 1938 but Nicholson had already agreed to a contract with the Philadelphia Athletics one week prior to the Yankee offer (22).
Understandably Yankee fans were angered when the Borowy deal was first announced. Some in the press such as Jim McCulley of the Daily News were willing to give MacPhail the benefit of the doubt:
“Impartial baseball heads, however, must wait for all the evidence and for the full ramifications of the bargain before rendering a verdict. The Yankees announced that the deal involved about $100,000 worth of Cub ball players and cash. Until all the facts in the case are on the table, it would be illogical not to say unfair to judge the Yank’s president’s movements…The circumstantial evidence suggests that MacPhail has given up on his present team even though it is within close shooting range of another pennant, and is selling it down the river…The only thing that will save MacPhail in the eyes of Yankee fandom now is the possibility that he may come up with a player in exchange for Borowy who is a major leaguer of pre-war standard. Say Bill Nicholson, the outfielder (23).”
When it was clear that the Yankees would not be receiving any players in return, the media began to speculate that MacPhail had sold Borowy to the Cubs because the Yankees were in need of cash given that MacPhail and the new ownership group had just purchased the Yankees in January of 1945 after several years of trying. Those media speculations reinforced the original sentiments Yankee fans had of the deal i.e. the Yankees had given up on the ’45 season and had sold the NL pennant.
Of course MacPhail vehemently denied the money trouble rumors. “There is no truth to the gossip going the rounds that I sold Borowy because I needed money….I showed the Yankee bank statement to a baseball writer before I received the dough for Borowy and he will attest that there was more than enough cash in the account to operate a major league ball club comfortably (24)” a peeved MacPhail declared to the media in October of 1945.
With Borowy enjoying a great deal of success in Chicago as evidenced by his 11-2 won/loss record and a NL league leading 2.13 ERA with the Cubs, the 1945 Yankee offseason began with the new ownership group, Larry MacPhail in particular, under fire. By then both the fans and the media believed the Yankee ownership had given up on the 1945 season by sending their top pitcher to the eventual NL champion Chicago Cubs in a cash only deal. The Yankees ended up in fourth in the AL in ’45, 6.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers.
Yankee fans though had reason for great optimism heading into the 1946 season. Like the Boston Red Sox the Yankees had multiple star players returning from the war. With the exception of Red Rolfe who had retired after the 1942 season, all players from the AL championship teams of ’41, ’42, and ’43 would be available for the 1946 season.
Given all of the star players they had returning, the Yankees were fairly quiet during that offseason. “Let’s wait to see who’s going to play and how well they’ll be able to do it” was Joe McCarthy’s response when asked if the Yankees were involved in any trade discussions during the winter meetings.
The Yankees though did have to decide what they were going to do with second baseman Snuffy Stirnweiss in ’46 given Joe Gordon’s imminent return. Stirnweiss had won the AL batting title in 1945 by hitting .309. He also led the league in runs (107), hits (195), triples (22), stolen bases (33), slugging (.476), OPS (.862) and total bases with 301. He finished third in AL MVP voting. Despite not being guaranteed his second base job in 1946, Stirnweiss elected to hold out for much of the winter.
The Yankees had offered Stirnweiss $16,000 which was the same salary he received in 1945 but he turned it down. Stirnweiss’ holdout naturally led to trade rumors, one of which was Stirnweiss being dealt to the Philadelphia Athletics in exchange for second baseman Benny McCoy and left handed pitcher Porter Vaughan. There was also speculation that Stirnweiss would be sold but Joe McCarthy shot down that rumor in late February of 1946 (25). Earlier that month Joe Gordon had contributed to the speculation when he rhetorically asked, “What are the Yanks going to do with both of us? It looks like one of use will be traded or moved to another position, or draw a fat salary for sitting on the bench. (26)
In March of ’46 the Yankees signed Stirnweiss to a two-year contract worth a total of $40,000 (27). The Yankees then moved Stirnweiss to third base. The team later brought in former Yankee third baseman Red Rolfe to teach Stirnweiss the position (28).
With Stirnweiss signed the Yankee infield for the 1946 season was to be: Nick Etten at first, Joe Gordon at second, Snuffy Stirnweiss at third and Phil Rizzuto at shortstop. In the outfield the Yankees had Charlie Keller in left, Joe DiMaggio in center and Tommy Henrich in right field. New York was loaded with bats.
The media though speculated that the Yankees may be short on pitching heading into ’46. Joe McCarthy disagreed, publicly anyway. In March of ’46 the Brooklyn Citizen stated that, “Manager Joe McCarthy feels that his Yanks are set in the hurling department (29).” New York did have pitchers Spud Chandler and Red Ruffing returning but they were 38 and 41 years-old respectively. Lefty Joe Page was certainly in the mix as was 13 game winner Bill Bevens but after that, the Yankees lacked an impact arm. In fact in 1946 the Yankees ended with 18 different pitchers making at least one start, seven more than what they had used in 1945.
So with the Yankees still feeling the heat from both the media and Yankee fans for selling Hank Borrowy in ’45- a pitcher they could have definitely used in ’46 and a loaded batting line-up, the Yankees would have most likely had their sights set on an impact starting pitcher in a fictional Negro League draft that offseason. Therefore two potential choices for the Yankees to select in the draft are left-handed pitcher Jim LaMarque and right-handed pitcher Max Manning.
James “Lefty” LaMarque was 24 years-old in 1945. He didn’t have great velocity but he had terrific movement. “My top speed was maybe 85 miles an hour…but my fastball always moved. I couldn’t throw a straight fastball, it just moved. I guess just the movement on the ball kept the hitters from hitting it as well as they could if it came straight at them (30),” LaMarque later reflected in an interview with author Brent Kelley.
LaMarque began his professional career with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1941 but didn’t pitch much; understandable considering the Monarchs rotation consisted of legendary pitchers such as Satchell Paige and Hilton Smith as well as Negro League All-Star Booker McDaniel. A broken arm suffered after the 1942 season further limited LaMarque in 1943. In ’44 Lamarque is reported to have a 2-3 record with the Monarchs.
LaMarque finally broke through in 1945. That year LaMarque was 8-2 with a 2.00 runs against average to lead the NAL. Interestingly according to LaMarque himself, the left-hander had at one time conversations with long-time Yankee chief scout Tom Greenwade about signing with the Yankees (31). Greenwade was associated with the Yankees beginning sometime in 1947 so the talks between LaMarque and Greenwade most likely took place in the late ‘40s given that LaMarque’s career ended in ’51. Of course Greenwade was the scout that originally recommended the Dodgers sign Jackie Robinson. Employed by the Yankees, Greenwade later signed Mickey Mantle (31). According to LaMarque, once Monarchs owner Tom Baird found out the Yankees were interested in LaMarque, Baird substantially increased the price to purchase LaMarque. “At your age, I can’t pay this kind of money” is what Greenwade told LaMarque which meant the Yankee purchase of LaMarque was off (32).
LaMarque pitched in two East/West All-Star games. 1948 was perhaps LaMarque’s best season. That year he was 15-5 with a 1.96 runs against average (RA) to lead the NAL. From 1945 to 1949 some sources have LaMarque posting a 55-15 won/loss record and being regarded as one of the top three left-handed Negro League pitchers of the 1940’s (33). Unfortunately MLE numbers are not available for LaMarque.
Max Manning aka Dr. Cyclops was 27 years of age in 1945. Manning was a sidearm pitcher that possessed a very good fastball along with a curveball and a slider. He did have some control issues at the time but he pitched low in the zone that limited the damage that power hitters possessed. Manning was listed as being 6 foot 4 inches tall. He broke into the Negro Leagues at the age of 19 pitching for the Newark Eagles of the NNL in 1938. Interestingly in ‘37 the year prior and while still in high school, Manning was offered a tryout with the Detroit Tigers. Manning on the Tigers’ offer:
“A guy named Max Bishop- he used to play for the Philadelphia Athletics- became a scout for the Detroit Tigers. I got a letter from him and he sent me a scouting form- how you bat, how you throw, your weight and height and so forth and so on. He said in the letter he wanted to be able to see me at spring training. This was in the fall of ’37….In those days, scouts didn’t travel around as much and I was playing on an all-white team and I was the only black on the team. My name- Max Manning- wasn’t what you’d call a traditional Afro-American name (34).”
The story goes that once the Tigers discovered Manning was black the offer was rescinded (35).
In 1939 the then 20 year-old Manning managed a runs against average of less than 1.00, 0.93 to be exact. In 1940 Manning was third in the NNL in wins, fourth in runs against average and third in strikeouts. In 1941 and 1942, Manning is listed as having a combined record of 11-8 for Newark. Those numbers may be understated as some sources have Manning winning as many as 100 games overall in his nine- year Negro League career (36). Manning missed the 1943, ’44 and ’45 seasons due to time spent in the military. His MLE numbers heading into 1946 which were produced from the age of 19 to the age of 22 were a 4.10 WAA and a 12.9 WAR. For context the pitcher with WAA/WAR numbers closest to Manning’s at that age is Felix Hernandez who accumulated a 5.6 WAA and a 12.0 rWAR between the ages of 19 and 22.
So the Yankees’ choice: the crafty lefty Jim LaMarque who was coming off a brilliant 1945 season to lead the NAL in runs against average or the flame throwing right-handed Max Manning who had impressed the Detroit Tigers at such a young age but had missed the last three seasons due to the war.
The Yankees were a strong favorite to win the AL in ’46, so an immediate impactful pitcher would have made sense. That pitcher could have been the difference as to whether the Yankees won the AL or not. Moreover, acquiring an immediate impactful pitcher would have helped Yankee fans forget about Hank Borowy. Jim LaMarque could have been that pitcher given that he was coming off an excellent 1945 season. LaMarque was also left-handed which the Yankees pitching staff lacked. Therefore the Yankees select Jim LaMarque with the tenth pick in the draft.
1945 St. Louis Browns
Runs Scored: 5th (597)
Runs Allowed: 1st (548)
Strengths: starting pitching, shortstop
Weaknesses: catcher, second base, left field
Key Players: Vern Stephens, Nels Potter, Al Hollingsworth
Pipeline: Ned Graver (signed in ’44)
The St. Louis Browns entered the 1945 season as the defending American League Champions. In ’44 the Browns surprised all of baseball by winning the AL Pennant with a record of 89-65, one game better than the second place Detroit Tigers. The ’45 version of the Browns fell to third place in the AL, six games behind the World Series winning Tigers. In ’45 the Browns won 81 and lost 70.
Run production was the primary reason as to why the Browns failed to repeat as AL champions in 1945. In 1944 the Browns scored 684 runs, 52 runs better than the AL average. They allowed 587 total runs which was 45 runs better than average. In 1945 the Browns were actually better in run prevention than in 1944. The ’45 Browns allowed 49 runs less than league average; however, they produced 597 runs which was exactly the AL average that year.
The reason for the reduction in runs produced in ’45 was mainly due to the Browns’ outfield. In 1945 the Browns were able to create more runs at each infield position except second base than they had in 1944. However, the drop in runs created from the outfield as well as Don Gutteridge’s drop at second base in 1945 negated the improvements the rest of the Browns infield had made.
In 1944 the combination of Al Zarilla, Mike Kreevich, Gene Moore, Chet Laabs and Milt Byrnes created a combined 226 runs. Leftfielder Al Zarilla missing the 1945 season due to military service forced Browns’ manager Luke Sewell to be a little more creative with his outfield line-ups that year. In ‘45 Sewell had five different Brown players making at least 20 starts in left. He had three different players make at least 20 starts in center. The total amount of Browns players that made at least 20 starts in the outfield in ’45 was seven. Those players were: Babe Martin, Chet Laabs, Pete Gray, Lou Finney, Mike Kreevich, Milt Byrnes and Gene Moore. Combined they accounted for 200 runs created.
The combination of Martin/Laabs/Gray/Finney in left totaled 68 runs created in ’45. Conversely, the left field combination Sewell utilized in ’44 of Zarilla/Byrnes/Laabs created 133 runs. As a result, the Browns’ WAA total from the left field position went from 0.4 in ’44 to -2.0 in ’45, a -2.4 drop off. That drop was the biggest amongst all positions for the Browns including starting pitching and relief pitching. In fact, the ’45 Browns had improved in WAA in the following areas: catching (+2.2), first base (+1.4), right field (+0.8), starting pitching (+0.6), relief pitching (+0.9). The second biggest drop in WAA for the Browns in ‘45 came at the center field position (-1.1).
Two Browns in particular, Pete Gray and Mike Kreevich, were the main reason for the drop-off in Browns outfield run production in 1945. Gray was the one-armed outfielder the Browns had signed in ‘44. Many have written that Gray was signed just to increase attendance which may have been in large part true. However, reports at the time indicated that Bill Terry was trying to convince the Giants into purchasing Gray (37). Moreover, the Boston Braves had also been reportedly interested in Gray back in ’43 (38). When asked about the Gray purchase and the Browns’ reasoning for acquiring Gray, specifically whether or not the acquisition of Gray was purely to sell tickets, Browns’ travelling secretary Charles Dewitt (brother of Browns GM Bill) answered by saying:
“We couldn’t afford to use him merely as a ‘draw.’ Sure he’d (Gray) draw one time around the circuit, but if he couldn’t play ball we might have lost so many games that we couldn’t draw the rest of the season because we’d be out of the running. We’re out to win and we think Gray can help us (39).”
Gray hit .218 for the year; he was sold to Toledo of the American Association in November of ‘45. Gray though had become a Browns fan favorite for a fair amount of time that summer. Upon Gray’s release, St. Louis Globe-Democrat sports columnist Martin J. Haley opined:
“Letting go of Gray, the Browns sold what probably was their best individual drawing card of 1945. The lanky outfielder was a ‘natural’ as a fan magnet…and many fans, both in St. Louis and around the circuit, paid their way through the turnstiles for the express purpose of watching Gray in action (40).”
Unlike Gray, the 37 year-old Mike Kreevich did not finish the 1945 season in a Browns uniform. After hitting .301 with an OPS+ of 107 in 1944, Kreevich struggled in ’45. Kreevich was hitting .237 and slugging .302 when the Browns waived him in early August of that year.
Despite the meager run production from the outfield in ’45, St. Louis was optimistic heading into 1946, what with the pending returns of center fielder Wally Judnich and left fielder Al Zarilla from military service. Nevertheless though, the Browns were in serious talks with the Indians regarding the disgruntled Jeff Heath after Heath let it be known that he wanted to play in St. Louis. “I’d rather play in St. Louis than Detroit or New York, providing I can get the salary I want. That’s my ball park down there. And while I’m not bragging about myself as a hitter, I believe I can give the Browns the desired lift as the pennant winner in 1946 (41),” was what Heath was quoted as saying while the Indians were shopping him around that offseason.
Once Heath was dealt to the Senators, Browns GM Bill DeWitt expressed his disappointment in failing to land the power hitting left-fielder. “We made every effort to obtain Heath,” said DeWitt. DeWitt then continued, “Offering players, plus money. You can’t force another guy to trade with you….manager Lou Boudreau apparently preferred Case to the players we submitted for his approval (42).” Heath would later be traded to the Browns from the Senators in June of ’46. Upon failing to land Heath, the Browns later signed 34 year-old Joe Medwick to play left field in March of ‘46. Medwick though failed to make it out of spring training and was released just one month later.
Heath wasn’t the only significant acquisition the Browns sought and failed to make during the 1945 offseason. The Browns also had their sights set on Lou Kretlow, a promising young and very hard throwing right-handed pitcher, who was set to return from military service in ‘46. The 24 year-old Kretlow had left the University of Oklahoma in 1942 and spent the last three years serving in the military. He pitched sparingly for various service teams in ’44 and ’45. According to the Detroit Free Press, Kretlow’s fastball was equal to that of Detroit Tiger Virgil “Fire” Trucks (43). The Detroit Tigers ended up signing Kretlow for a whopping $30,000.
According to GM DeWitt, the Browns had offered Kretlow $25,000 but were willing to go as high as $50,000 for the young power pitcher: “The $25,000 was our first offer and we probably would have gone as high as $50,000. But instead of talking it over with us, Kretlow failed even to keep an appointment with Jack Fournier (former MLB first baseman and Browns scout), and we learned today that he had been signed by the Detroit club (44).”
So in the span of just one week, the Browns had missed out on two-time all-star Jeff Heath and a promising pitching prospect in Lou Kretlow. The attempt to trade for Heath was to shore up their outfield and increase its production. The attempt to acquire Kretlow though was in line with what the Browns had been doing for the last several years i.e. focusing on pitching. Manager Luke Sewell acknowledged both his and DeWitt’s focus on pitching in the winter of ’45:
“Bill De Witt and I agreed when this war situation struck baseball that we’d go after pitchers. We considered them the safest risk under the circumstances. If you buy an outfielder or an infielder you buy batting eyes and a good pair of hands. Two, three or four years in the war could do a lot of damage to these assets. When you buy a pitcher, you buy one strong arm. Even after a few years in the Army or Navy, that pitcher, unless he suffers an injury, will still have that strong arm, his ability to pitch. So we did bear down on trying to get pitchers (45).”
The Browns had certainly succeeded in acquiring very good pitching during the war years under Dewitt and Sewell. In November of ’42 the Browns picked up Nels Potter via the Rule V draft. From ’43 to ’45 Potter was 44-23 with a 2.68 ERA (133 ERA+) for the Browns. Reliever George Caster was purchased off of waivers in November of 1940 after losing a league leading 19 games that year with the Athletics. Caster led the AL in saves in 1944. The Browns also attained Sam Zoldak in a trade with the Athletics prior to the beginning of the ’44 season. The highly touted prospect Ned Garver was also in the Browns’ system by the end of 1945.
Heading into ’46 the Browns still considered themselves as pennant contenders. In fact, GM Dewitt predicted that with the war coming to an end, his club along with the Yankees was going to add the most talent that year. “Don’t get the wrong slant on my forecast, DeWitt commented, “I figure we have added more strength than the Tigers and other clubs for 1946, excepting the Yankees of course, and we trailed those Detroiters by no more than six games at the close of 1945 (46),” DeWitt said in an interview in November of ’45.
The Browns’ desire to focus on pitching was also evident when their star shortstop, Vern Stephens, held out just prior to the 1946 season. Stephens believed he was entitled to a raise in pay in ’46 given that he had led the AL in home runs with 24 and finished sixth in AL MVP voting the previous year. Stephens was seeking a salary of $17,500, a raise of $5,000 from the $12,000 he earned in 1945. The Browns on the other hand reportedly offered Stephens $10,000 with a $2,000 bonus provision for “good conduct (47),” which was code for Stephens being able to stay in physical shape.
With both sides dug in for weeks the trade rumors began to circulate. One in particular had Stephens being traded from the Browns to the Washington Senators. When asked about sending Stephens to Washington, DeWitt responded by saying, “They (Senators) don’t have two pitchers that would interest us (48).” DeWitt went on to say that if the Browns were to trade Stephens to Washington then the Senators would have to send two pitching prospects in return because the Senators did not possess a pitcher on their major league roster that interested the Browns (49); presumably DeWitt was including 16 game-winner Mickey Haefner and a 26 year-old Early Wynn who had missed ’45 due to the war in his assessment.
Aside from the pursuit of the power-hitting Heath, when the Browns discussed adding players heading into 1946, pitching was their focus which means the Browns may have had a strong interest in the aforementioned Max Manning who is still on the board; however, Manning was returning to baseball in 1946 after a three-year stint in the military. How long would it take to get Manning major league ready and once ready, could he crack the Browns’ pitching staff? Manning still had some control issues. Moreover, Manning was going to turn 27 years-old in ’46 so there was a chance that he wouldn’t be major league ready until his late 20’s.
Another option for the Browns would be to draft a younger pitcher, similar to Lou Kretlow whom they claim were willing to dish out $50,000 to acquire. A pitcher that fit that bill was Clifford Johnson, aka Connie Johnson, aka “Cannonball” Johnson. At the time, the six foot 4 and 23 year-old Johnson already had three years of professional baseball under his belt. He had though missed the last three seasons (’43, ’44 and ’45) serving in the military.
Johnson began his career in 1940 at the age of 16 with the Toledo Crawfords. The Crawfords were half owned by legendary Olympian Jesse Owens. After the Crawfords went out of business, Johnson joined the Kansas City Monarchs. As previously mentioned, the Monarchs were loaded with pitching in the early 40’s. Johnson was part of a staff that included Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Booker McDaniel and the aforementioned Jim LaMarque.
Johnson possessed a blazing fastball. He later developed an excellent curveball after he injured his arm in the late 40’s. However in late 1945, Johnson was considered to be a power pitcher. Below is Johnson in an interview describing the strength of his arm early in his career:
“My arm used to get so strong (during a game) that I had to put alcohol on it to weaken it. That’s how strong my arm would get. So I put alcohol on it…..Nobody would warm me up (pre-game warm-up). Some guys would say, ‘I ain’t warming him up, he’s throwing too hard.’ (Others) said, ‘I’ve got to catch tonight, I ain’t gonna warm him up (50)."
Johnson eventually broke into the majors at the age 30 with the White Sox in 1953. He was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in 1956, formerly the St. Louis Browns.
Since Johnson had also missed the last three years due to military service, he too may have not been immediately available for the Browns in ’46. However, Johnson was only 23 years-old in 1945 so the Browns could be more patient with Johnson. Once Johnson was major league ready, he would still only be in his mid-twenties. Given Johnson’s youth, the similarities between Johnson and Lou Kretlow, the pitcher the Browns had pursued heavily in 1945 and that they were willing to purchase for $50,000, the Browns select Connie Johnson with the eleventh pick in the draft.
1945 Brooklyn Dodgers
Runs Scored: 1st (795)
Runs Allowed: 6th (720)
Strengths: Left field, center field, second base
Weaknesses: starting pitching, shortstop
Key Players: Augie Galan, Eddie Stanky, Dixie Walker, Pee Wee Reese, Pete Reiser
Pipeline: Ralph Branca, Duke Snider, Clem Labine,
Branch Rickey was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers in late 1942 after the Cardinals decided to part ways with Rickey by not renewing his contract for the 1943 season. The reason for the decision not to retain Rickey according to Cardinals’ President Sam Breadon was purely due to the Cardinals’ uncertain financial future caused by the war:
“Uncertain world conditions, as I saw them last year, forced me to notify Branch that his contract would not be renewed when it expired this December 31, 1942….A clause in the contract provided for such notification. We hardly ever had a hard word. We discussed everything in connection with the club and I knew everything that was done. If we failed to agree on a policy we would iron it out and we never had any hard feelings. There’s none now (51).”
Reportedly the Dodgers had heard that Rickey would not be retained by the Cardinals toward the end of the 1942 season. The Dodgers then made Rickey a formal offer to join the Dodger organization during the 1942 World Series (52). Rickey was to replace Dodger President Larry MacPhail who had resigned his position in September of ’42 to become a lieutenant-colonel in the United States Army.
Rickey asked the Dodgers for the same $50,000 salary plus bonuses that amounted to a total of $85,000, the amount MacPhail had earned in ’42. Rickey ended up settling for slightly less. The fact that Rickey’s son, Branch Rickey Jr., who at the time was the head of the Brooklyn Dodger farm system, may have played a role in the elder Rickey accepting less from the Dodgers (53).
Shortly after his hiring Rickey unveiled his plan for the Dodger minor league system during wartime baseball:
“We are sticking to our farm system wherever possible. As a matter of fact, I would like to expand, but the problem of stocking the teams with players advises against it. It is my belief that every major league team should operate a system of eighteen minor league clubs in order to compete with their rivals favorably and in order not to be forced into bidding for players in the open market (54).”
Rickey’s plan to expand the Dodger farm system differed from the other New York teams, the Giants and Yankees. Both the Giants and Yankees announced they would simply try to maintain their farm systems during the war years. Conversely clubs such as the Detroit Tigers were selling off the minor league teams that they had owned outright (55).
By June of 1944 Rickey’s farm expansion plan and youth movement was in full swing. Veterans such as future Hall of Famers Lloyd Waner and pitcher Fritz Ostermueller were released or traded and youngsters such as Eddie Miksis (17 years-old), Gene Mauch (18 years-old) and Ralph Branca (18 years- old) were called up to the majors. In August of 1944 Rickey even called up a 16 year-old Tommy Brown to be the Dodgers starting shortstop for the remainder of the season, making Brown the youngest position player ever to appear in a major league game.
Rickey on the number of young Dodger call-ups in ‘44:
“I had the wrong slant on the war situation. Back in April (of ’44) I thought that, with the invasion near, the Army would clean out all the manpower everywhere. I sent out some grand kids and stocked up with the Waners, Cooney and other older players. If the situation in 1945 is unchanged, our chances will rest on our boy wonders. I am bringing in at least three more. The question is who to cut off the list? (56)”
The Dodgers finished seventh in the NL in ’44 with a 63-91 record but were loaded with young talent heading into 1945. In addition to the aforementioned Miksis, Mauch, Branca and Brown, the Dodgers also had the likes of Clyde King, Rex Barney and Cal McLish in their system and who had also made their major league debuts as teenagers in ’43 and ’44.
Since the hiring of Branch Rickey in late ’42 and up until the end of the 1945 season, the Dodgers had signed 25 amateur free agents including future Hall of Famer Duke Snider and future star first baseman Gil Hodges according to Baseball-Reference.com. When asked about the abundance of talent within the Dodger organization at the time, Pirate manager Frankie Frisch replied by saying that the Dodgers would “be able to field three complete major league teams (57)” given the number of players under their control.
In March of 1945 three sports editors, Nat Low of the Daily Worker, Joe Bostic of the Harlem’s People’s Choice and Jim Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier sponsored a try-out with the Brooklyn Dodgers for two Negro League players: pitcher Terris McDuffie and first baseman Dave (Showboat) Thomas (58).
Terris McDuffie was about two months shy of his 35th birthday at the time. He was coming off a 5-6 record with Newark in ‘44 and had started the East/West All-Star Game for the Eastern Team that year. Along with pitching in the Negro Leagues, McDuffie had also pitched in Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican and Venezuela during his long career. By 1945 McDuffie was one of the highest paid players in the Negro Leagues.
Dave “Showboat” Thomas was a first baseman known mainly for his fielding. Thomas at the time claimed to be 34 years-old; however, four months after his Dodger try-out, Thomas was arrested for theft while moonlighting as a security guard at Army Port of Embarkation located in Brooklyn. At the time of his arrest it was learned that Thomas was actually 39 years of age (59).
When asked by Rickey why the three editors had singled out the Dodgers for the McDuffie/Thomas try-outs, the editors responded by saying that “the seventh-place finish of the club last year made it seem that the Dodgers offered the most fertile field for the introduction of Negro players (60).” Rickey allowed for the tryout to occur but wasn’t impressed with either player. Rickey felt that McDuffie “left much to be desired as a prospect” and that Thomas “definitely was not big league material and could not hit a change of pace pitch with a bull fiddle (61).” Rickey further elaborated on Thomas by saying that he, “would not take Thomas if he were 24 years-old, instead of the 34 that he is (62).” Little did Rickey know that Thomas was actually 39 years-old at the time.
By singling out the Dodgers and believing that McDuffie and Thomas could actually help the Dodgers in 1945, the editors sponsoring the tryout had clearly underestimated Brooklyn that spring but did identify two areas in which the Dodgers could have used veteran help- pitching and first base. Dodger starting pitching in ’45 ended up being ranked second last in WAA with a mark of 2.4. At first base youngsters Ed Stevens (20 years-old) and Howie Schultz (22 years-old) split time with veteran Augie Galan who was a natural outfielder.
By the middle of June of ’45 the Dodgers shared first place in the NL with the Pirates. They held on to first place until July 7 but faded as the summer wore on. The Dodgers finished the 1945 season with an 87-67 record, a 24 win improvement from the previous year but still a distant 11 games behind the NL Pennant winning Chicago Cubs. The Dodgers’ Achilles heel in ’45 was run prevention. Brooklyn was third last in least runs allowed in the NL, in front of only the lowly Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Braves. In fact, the Dodgers allowed a total of 727 runs in ‘45, almost 200 more runs than the Cubs. The Dodgers’ 230 errors, second most in the NL, certainly contributed to their run prevention woes. The first base combination of Galan, Stevens and Schultz accounted for 20 of those errors. Youngsters Tommy Brown and Ed Basinski, committed a combined 58 errors at shortstop.
After the conclusion of the 1945 season, in December of that year, Rickey summed up the state of the Dodger organization by saying, “I’m satisfied with what we have for the long pull but for the short haul, no. Some of our coming stars won’t be ready this year. The Cards for instance have 25 major league pitchers. We’re not nearly so far advanced. Prospectively, we’re strongest at first base, with catching second (63).”
In his statement above, Rickey had singled out three areas of concern: pitching and first base, the two areas the writers had identified back in April of ‘45 and the catcher position. Over the long term Rickey was satisfied with the Dodger outlook in those three areas. Prospectively, in terms of first basemen, Rickey had no less than seven players that were under consideration to be the Dodgers’ starter at the cold corner in ’46; the aforementioned Ed Stevens and Howie Schultz as well as Jack Graham, Les Burge, Jack Bolling, Jack Douglas and Lou Rochser (64). Youngsters Stevens and Schultz, 21 and 23 years-old respectively heading into ’46, had the inside track for the job; however, given their youth and their defensive performance the year prior, Rickey expressed concerns over them being ready to make an immediate contribution. In terms of catching and “prospectively” speaking, Rickey was referring mainly to both Gil Hodges, who was originally signed as a catcher in ’43, and Roy Campanella who had signed just weeks prior to Rickey’s assessment of his club. Hodges was converted to a first baseman approximately one year later.
Rickey’s dissatisfaction with the Dodgers’ catching situation for the “short haul” was compounded by the fact that their four-time All-Star catcher, Mickey Owen, had been serving in the Navy since the middle of the 1945 season. The 30 year-old Owen would eventually be discharged from the Navy in April of 1946; however, he ended up signing with the Veracruz Blues of the Mexican League which cost the Dodgers a veteran catcher until either Hodges or Campanella were ready to take over.
Thanks in large part to comments made by Dodger manager Leo Durocher regarding his concerns about the catching situation, rumors began to circulate that the Dodgers were seeking to acquire a catcher during the 1945 off-season. That December, reports had the Dodgers interested in Reds catchers Ray Lamanno and Ray Mueller. Both players had missed the 1945 season due to the war but were scheduled to return in ’46. Mueller had been an All-Star in ’44. The player the Reds were reportedly seeking in return for one of their catchers was Dodger outfielder Luis Olmo (65). The deal never materialized for the Dodgers and Olmo ended up signing a three year contract to play in the Mexican League in February of 1946 (66). Another report had the Dodgers trading Dixie Walker to the Braves in exchange for catcher Phil Masi but that rumor was shot down by Branch Rickey himself when he stated that, “Such a trade has emphatically not been discussed (67).”
In his statement regarding the state of the Dodgers in December 1945, Rickey indicated that besides first base and catching being immediate needs for the club until their young stars were ready for the majors, the Dodgers were also concerned about their pitching, an accurate assessment given the Dodgers’ next to last finish in WAA by their starters in ’45. Rickey expressed his pitching concerns further in February 1946 when he stated, “We haven’t a pitcher here with us whom we can count on to win before ’48. We need pitchers this year and next and I am considering buying them, if possible (68).”
Indeed in December of 1945, Rickey and the Dodgers were rumored to have offered $100,000 for Cardinals pitcher Fred Martin. At the time Martin was 31 years-old and considered to be ready for the majors given his vast minor league experience. Rickey had signed Martin for the Cards back in 1935 (69). Further underscoring the point that Rickey was concerned about his pitching heading into the 1946 season was another statement Rickey had made in February of that year. At that time Rickey had announced that “a major league club has asked for waivers on nine pitchers, some of whom are good pitchers, and I claimed all nine (70).” The team Rickey was referring to was most likely the St. Louis Cardinals. Rickey had made it abundantly clear that he was seeking immediate help in the pitching department.
So heading into the 1946 season, Rickey and the Dodgers had accumulated a vast amount of young talent that was on its way to the big club; however, in the immediate short-term the Dodgers needed veteran help in the pitching department as well as at first base and catcher to be a factor in the NL in ‘46. Most of Rickey’s efforts though were concentrated on acquiring veteran pitching.
In terms of acquiring Negro League talent, the Dodgers were the only team prior to the beginning of the 1946 that had actually signed Negro League players which provides us with a somewhat better idea as to what the Dodgers may have done if a Negro League draft had existed. The Dodgers’ first signings of Negro League players were:
Jackie Robinson, October 1945
John Wright, January 1946
Roy Campanella, April 1946
Don Newcombe, April 1946
Obviously Robinson was signed by Rickey for reasons that went well beyond a purely baseball talent standpoint. The signings of Campanella and Newcombe fit Rickey’s philosophy of acquiring young talent. The signing of John Wright though may have been to address the Dodgers’ immediate need for veteran pitching. Wright was signed just one month prior to Rickey declaring that he was seeking to purchase a pitcher that could immediately contribute to the Dodgers and one month after Rickey reportedly had offered $100,000 for Cardinals pitcher Fred Martin.
At the time of Wright’s signing in January of 1946, the right-handed pitcher had just turned 27 or 29 years of age the previous November, depending on the source, and was quite the accomplished pitcher in the Negro Leagues.
Wright began his professional baseball career in 1936 in New Orleans. He wasn’t used much in his first four years of professional ball and there isn’t much in the way of reported statistics for Wright in the years 1941 and 1942. In 1943 though, while pitching for the Homestead Grays, John Wright began making a name for himself. According to Seamheads, Wright won 20 games and lost only four in ’43 pitching for the Grays. That year Wright earned himself the opportunity to pitch in the East-West All-Star Game.
Wright missed most of the 1944 season due to his enlisting in the Navy although he did pitch competitively. Wright was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. During the war the training facility, for entertainment purposes, created baseball teams made up of professional players. In fact the Great Lakes’ teams “had 68 major leaguers at one time or another, including five Hall of Famers (71).” According to his SABR biography, Wright posted an 8-2 record with an era under 3.00 in the Navy and an overall record of 15-4 as well as the lowest ERA of any pitcher in the armed forces (72). While pitching for Navy at the Floyd Bennett Naval Air Station Field in the summer of ‘45, Wright pitched a complete game in an exhibition versus the Chicago White Sox. He allowed 14 hits and nine runs in nine innings (73).
Wright returned to professional baseball in the late summer of 1945, again pitching for the Homestead Grays. Wright’s Grays returned to the Negro League World Series in ’45 but lost in four straight games to the Cleveland Buckeyes. Wright lost game two of the series by a score of 4-2. In October of 1945 Dodger coach Charley Dressen saw Wright pitch for a Negro League All-Star team at Ebbets Field. Wright was interviewed by Rickey just several days later and signed by the Dodgers approximately three months after his meeting with Rickey (74).
At the time, the Dodger organization tried to downplay Wright’s signing. In his January 30, 1946 column for the Brooklyn Eagle titled “Wright Another Crack Prospect,” sportswriter Tommy Holmes wrote the following regarding the Dodgers’ downplaying of the Wright signing:
“The chance of the colored ballplayer to succeed in organized baseball will be considerably enhanced, Rickey believes, if players like Robinson and Wright are allowed to play without attracting undue attention. He’d like to protect them from inordinate fanfare but he probably won’t succeed….At the time of Robinson’s signing, Rickey already decided to add a second Negro to the roster of the Royals. His motives were simple. If the second colored player did nothing else, his mere presence at the Daytona Beach camp would tend to relieve some of the strain on Robinson (75).”
Holmes went on to write the following about John Wright:
“As it develops, the second colored player is a real prospect, too. He is a right-hander of considerable experience in Negro baseball. He turned in some tasty pitching performances as a member of coast guard teams. At Floyd Bennett Field he was a team mate of Gene Hermanski, Dodger outfielder. In an exhibition he lost to the Dodgers, but he allowed the Brooklyn team only seven hits and drew the attention of Coach Charley Dressen, who considers his sharp-breaking over-hand curve to be real top drawer stuff (76).”
According to Wright’s SABR biography, at the time of his signing, Wright was considered to be, “one of the brightest pitching prospects in Negro baseball (77).” However, despite all that Wright had accomplished in the Negro Leagues up until that point, the downplaying of the Wright signing by the Dodgers for Wright’s own protection may have contributed to the thinking that the sole purpose for acquiring Wright was so that Wright could keep “Jackie company” in Montreal. In fact it was Rickey’s detractors who perpetuated that thinking. According to the April 5, 1946 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “The boys in the back room laughed when Branch Rickey signed John Wright to a Montreal contract. ‘He’s there to keep Jackie company,’ they scoffed. ‘They’ll be no more Negroes in organized baseball (78).’”
Just prior to Wright’s signing, the Dodgers were also rumored to be interested in Negro League left-handed pitcher Roy Partlow (79). Branch Rickey Jr. denied the rumor. The original source for the story was the Puerto Rican newspaper “El Dia” who had interviewed friends of Roy Partlow. The Dodgers though did end up signing Partlow, another veteran pitcher, in May of ’46 to join Robinson and Wright in Montreal. Partlow may have been the player signed by Rickey to be a confidant for Robinson and Wright.
There is little doubt that Rickey wanted a second black player to make Robinson’s transition to integrated baseball easier; however, John Wright offered much more than being a good roommate. At the time of his signing, Wright was already an accomplished pitcher. A breakdown of his yearly MLE numbers is not available; however, his career MLE numbers are available. Wright’s MLE numbers cover the years 1940 to 1954 with some missing data in the years 1948, ’49 and ’52 to ‘54. His pitching MLE numbers for that span are: 2,930 IP, 27.0 WAA and 56.4 WAR. Those numbers are incredibly close to major league pitching greats Tommy Bridges and Dave Stieb:
John Wright: 2,930 IP, 27.0 WAA, 56.4 WAR
Tommy Bridges: 2,826 IP, 26.1, 51.6 WAR
Dave Stieb: 2,895 IP, 30.7 WAA, 56.5 WAR
Wright never made it to the majors. He returned to the Negro Leagues in 1947. Jackie Robinson, the person who probably knew Wright the best summed up Wright’s experience in the Dodger organization by way of the following:
“John had all the ability in the world as far as physical abilities were concerned. But John couldn’t stand the pressure of going up into this league one of the first. The things that went on up there were too much for him, and John was not able to perform up to his capabilities….Because John was the first Negro pitcher, every time he stepped out there he seemed to lose that fineness, and he tried a little bit harder than he was capable of playing. He tried to do more than he actually was. If he had come two or three years later when the pressure was off, John could have made it to the major leagues (80).”
PHN- Roy Campanella, catcher
PHA- Jackie Robinson, shortstop
CIN- Larry Doby, second base
BSN- Monte Irvin, outfielder
BOS- Sam Jethroe, outfielder
CWS- Don Newcombe, right-handed pitcher
CLE- Hank Thompson, utility infielder
NYG- Dan Bankhead, right-handed pitcher
PIT- Willard Brown, centerfielder
NYY- Jim LaMarque, left-handed pitcher
SLB- Connie Johnson, right-handed pitcher
BRO- John Wright, right-handed pitcher
Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph: October 2, 1945 (1, 2, 4)
Pittsburgh Press: Oct 1, 1945 (3, 5, 10)
Pittsburgh Press: Nov 27, 1945 (6)
The Gazette and Daily: Nov 9, 1945 (7, 8)
The Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph: March 25, 1946 (9)
SABR Biography: Billy Cox (11)
Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph: Feb 19, 1946 (12)
SABR Biography: Terry Moore (13)
The Daily Republican (Monongahela, Pa): Aug 9, 1946 (14)
Pittsburgh Press: Dec 2, 1945 (15)
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum: Willard Brown (16)
The Daily News: July 29, 1945 (17, 18, 21)
The Daily News: Oct 6, 1945 (19)
The Daily News: July 29, 1945 (20)
SABR Biography: Bill Nicholson (22)
The Daily News: Oct 2, 1945 (23)
The Daily News: Dec 30, 1945 (24)
The Brooklyn Citizen: Feb 27, 1946 (25)
Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY): Feb 8, 1946 (26)
The Gazette and Daily (York, Pa): March 1, 1946 (27)
The Daily News: March 6, 1946 (28)
The Brooklyn Citizen: Mar 19, 1946 (29)
The Negro Leagues Revisited: Conversations with 66 More Baseball Heroes (30, 32, 33)
SABR Biography: Tom Greenwade (31)
Voices from the Negro Leagues: Conversations with 52 Baseball Standouts (34, 35, 36, 50)
St. Louis Star and Times: March 13, 1945 (37, 39)
St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Dec 12, 1944 (38)
St. Louis Globe-Democrat: Nov 21, 1945 (40)
St. Louis Star and Times: Dec 12, 1945 (41)
St. Louis Star and Times: Dec 15, 1945 (42)
Detroit Free Press: Dec 16, 1945 (43)
St. Louis Post Dispatch: Dec 11, 1945 (44)
St. Louis Post Dispatch: Dec 28, 1945 (45)
St. Louis Star and Times: Nov 30, 1945 (46)
St. Louis Star and Times: Feb 18, 1946 (47)
St. Louis Post Dispatch: March 27, 1946 (48, 49)
St. Louis Post Dispatch: Oct 30, 1942 (51)
Star Gazette: Oct 23, 1942 (52, 53)
The Daily News: Dec 11, 1942 (54, 55)
The Post Star: June 22, 1944 (56)
The Daily News: Dec 15, 1945 (57)
St. Joseph News Press: April 16, 1945 (58, 60, 61, 62)
Rickey and Robinson: The True Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball (59)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Dec 6, 1945 (63)
The Daily News: Jan 26, 1946 (64)
The Brooklyn Citizen: Dec 6, 1945 (65)
Times Herald: Feb 18, 1946 (66)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Dec 11, 1946 (67)
The Daily News: Feb 14, 1946 (68)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Dec 24, 1945 (69)
The Troy Record: Feb 14, 1946 (70)
SABR Biography: John Wright (71, 72, 77)
Tampa Tribune: July 26, 1945 (73)
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Jan 30, 146 (74)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Jan 30, 1946 (75, 76)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle: April 5, 1946 (78)
Brooklyn Citizen: Jan 24, 1946 (79)
How to be Like Jackie Robinson: Life Lessons from Baseball’s Greatest Hero (80)