When rocket-launching Dontrelle Willis went 22-10 for the Marlins in 2005, it was the baseball equivalent of a backpack rapper going diamond. After Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia’s 21-win AL Cy Young Award season (2010) and Tampa Bay Rays golden-armed David Price’s 20-win Cy Young campaign last season, both upgraded to elite company.
These guys’ pitching excellence earned them a spot in “The Black Aces,” a group of American-born black pitchers who have won at least 20 games in a single season. The term comes from the title of a book written by former MLB pitcher Mudcat Grant, who became the first AL black pitcher to accomplish the feat, winning a league-leading 21 games for The Minnesota Twins in 1965.
Vida Blue (1971, '73, '75), Al Downing ('71), Bob Gibson ('65, '66, '68-70), Dwight Gooden ('85), Grant, *Ferguson Jenkins ('67-72, '74), Sam Jones ('59), Don Newcombe ('51, '55, '56), Mike Norris ('80), J.R. Richard ('76), Dave Stewart ('87-90), Earl Wilson ('67), Willis, Sabathia and Price are the lone dub runners. Gibson is the crème of the black pitching pioneers. He was an intimidator who threw flames. Since 1968, nobody has matched Gibson's 1.12 ERA and his dominance caused baseball to lower the pitcher’s mound.
Dan Bankhead was the first black man to ever pitch in a major league game in 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier. Negro League King, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, was the first to pitch in an AL game (1948) and World Series. Brooklyn Dodger Don Newcombe was the first brother to win the Cy Young award, going 27-7, the first year it was issued in 1956. He was also the first black player to win Rookie of the Year.
Under Mudcat’s direction “The Black Aces” has organized formally to promote its members’ invaluable baseball experiences and encourage the development of future African American players.
"African-American history in baseball is still disappearing," Grant said in a 2012 interview on MLB Network.
Grant’s book also mentions how black players are steered away from pitching by coaches, similar to how black QBs were once pushed towards less cerebral positions in the pros.
”By highlighting this history,” Grant added, “maybe we can make an impression on African-American youngsters to play this game," Grant said. “So, I started with the pitchers.”
A study by Mark Armour and Dan Levitt, published in sabr.org (Society For American Baseball Research), discovered that the majority of the 10,240 African-American players that have played in MLB since 1947 are outfielders.
In fact, according to the study, the positional distribution has not fluctuated much in the past 40 years.
African-American pitchers have never heavily repped MLB rosters — comprising over 6% of the crop just a few times — but there are now 10 times as many Latino pitchers as there are African-Americans.
The Society For American Baseball Research also reports that pitchers now make up a larger percentage of a team’s roster.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, pitchers were between 39 and 44 percent of the total player pool, since 2006, pitchers have been over 50 percent of the pool. The reduction in position players is also one reason for the declining numbers of brothers in MLB overall.
Despite these gutter numbers, the African-American pitchers that have toted the MLB rubber represent a storied history embedded in triumphs and performing under the most undesirable circumstances.
Darryl Grigsby, baseball historian and author of the book “Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball” told The Shadow League, “in 1971 there were nine black pitchers with 25 or more starts. In 2008 only eight black pitchers threw more than 25 innings total, and it’s only getting worse.”
Future candidates outside of Sabathia (13-13) and Price (8-8)—who are both having shady seasons—will be hard to come by. The pickings are super slim, not just for Grade A hurlers, but black pitchers period.
The 33-year–old Sabathia’s already pitched about 2800 regular season innings in his 13-year career. Price, 28, has already had triceps problems. Those are the two All-Stars.
Pittsburgh’s James MacDonald has promise, but he’s pushing 30 and has a dull career record of 42-40 and an ERA over 4.00. Edwin Jackson’s pitched a no-hitter and had his World Series moment with St. Louis in 2011, but overall he has a losing career record (78-87) and has a league-high 16 losses this year for the Cubs. Darren Oliver is 42 and artfully hanging on as a long man for the downtrodden Toronto Blue Jays, but let’s be real, the hood ain’t showing love to any of these double-lead dropping dudes.
The future of young black pitching stars rests fragilely in a couple of hands. Mariners rookie Taijuan Walker, who has made three promising MLB starts since recently being called up to the pros, is 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA. Chris Archer is 24-years-old and the next assassin in the stacked stable of the Tamp Bay Rays organization. Archer was called up in June and in 21 starts he’s 9-7 with a solid 3.02 ERA. Neither young gunner is posting JR Richard 100-mph numbers, but it’s a start. Luckily for these new jacks, an inclusive racial sports climate makes it unlikely that they’ll have to endure the same incredible lows on their road to stardom as Richard and other great black pitchers of the past.
The list of great black pitchers, who have wilted under the pressure of celebrity or fan expectations, varies in tragic intensity from the drug problems of Dwight Gooden, Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd and Dock Ellis to the suicide of hard-luck Angels closer Donnie Moore.
Grigbsy feels that the underlying cause for the dearth of black pitchers dates back to the baseball’s dark days of early segregation.
It’s not because blacks can’t pitch, because the Negro Leagues were populated with great pitchers from Satchel Paige to "Smokey Joe" Williams. Grigsby says it’s because at that time the pitcher’s mound was an undesirable snakes pit for a brother.
“Look at Newcombe and Jackie Robinson. They basically came up together, but it was harder for Newcombe as the first significant black pitcher than it was for Jackie,” Grigsby insisted. “There was more hatred expressed towards Newcombe for a longer period of time because Newcombe was involved in the game on every pitch. Whereas unless the ball was hit to him, or he was at bat, Jackie didn’t even have to think about it.”
Grigsby says old newspaper accounts would refer to Newcombe as the “negro pitcher,” long after they dropped that term in reference to Robinson.
It’s a widespread belief that dealing with these struggles contributed to Newcombe also falling into alcoholism and “all kinds of things that messed his life up for a little while.”
To find an example of this double standard, look no further than the story of John Wright.
Within weeks of Robinson becoming the first African-American player in modern baseball history to sign in pro baseball in 1945, New Orleans native Wright, a slim hurler with a decade-long track record of Negro League-dopeness became the second. Wright also signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and roomed with Robinson for a stretch in the minors, but by the beginning of the 1947 season, as Robinson was gracing Ebbets Field, Wright was back in the Negro Leagues racking up wins for the Homestead Grays.
By all accounts Wright was more than good enough to stick and some even felt he was the better MLB prospect, but they say he wasn’t as mentally tough as No. 42. From the looks of it, Wright never got a proper chance. He had flashes of brilliance in Triple-A, but was reportedly demoted back to the minors by a racist manager after just six weeks of sporadic work. His spirit and desire to play waned after that. There were many stories like Wright’s back then.
Mudcat’s book tells of instances where in the 1950s managers would sabotage their own pennant races by shutting down a black pitcher with 19 wins, rather than give him a crack at 20.
Grigsby says situations like that, “cause us to lose potential role models and turn young kids away from pitching.”
Combine these lasting historical scars with the current high costs of pitching instruction, and playing travel baseball at the grassroots level and the eventual defection of baseball players to other sports, and you get the current baseball landscape.
So when Walker throws his first complete game gem or Archer Ks 15 Yankees, it’ll be a huge deal. Black pitchers are an endangered species in baseball. And nobody seems to be missing them.
*Ferguson Jenkins is Black Canadian