It could be a good question in a serious trivia contest: “Who was the first African-American ballplayer honored by the Hall of Fame?” Rather few people would correctly guess Grover Jones.
“My real name is Grover William Jones, Junior,” Deacon Jones explained in a 2008 interview. “Everybody started calling me Deacon because my father was a deacon in the Baptist Church. My brother Johnny and I, we had to go to church every Sunday, all day, belong to the choir, BYPU, usher boys, you name it. … The Jones boys were there. And my mother [Rita] and father were stalwarts of the church.”
Born in White Plains, New York, on April 18, 1934, Deacon Jones appeared in 40 major-league games for the White Sox over three seasons, largely as a pinch-hitter and playing first base in only seven of them. He was 5-feet-10 with a playing weight of 185 pounds, and toiled 11 seasons in the minors – exclusively in the White Sox system – and then served nearly 20 years as an advance scout for the Baltimore Orioles.
Baseball was his calling, but it came at a price. Grover Sr. was of the stricter school, disapproving of play on the Lord’s Day, so on Sundays Deacon would sneak out of the choir and go up on the Aqueduct to play baseball, even though the area was rough and rocky. “And every Sunday, here would come Dad with his belt and I’d always get a spanking.
“Dad and Mom, they didn’t have a college education. Mostly menial jobs. They did housecleaning for people. Rich people’s homes. Dad worked as a custodian at a school, in Scarsdale. He had two or three jobs. My mother went back to school and graduated college at age 64 and earned an associate’s degree in early-childhood development.
“When I did finally make the big leagues years later, I came out of Yankee Stadium one day – Mom and Dad, of course, they went with Johnny and family and friends – I said, ‘Dad, did you enjoy the game?’ He said, ‘Oh, yes, Son. Very well. I’m glad I got a chance to see you play.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m glad he put me in. Al Lopez.’ I said, ‘Dad, do you realize what day it is?’ It was a Sunday. He said, ‘Well, I guess your dad was a little old-fashioned.’
“My dad and mother were very simple people. Very smart. It’s amazing when you look back on it, you realize how wise your parents were, for the fact that they didn’t have an education and all of that. How they stressed that the biggest thing was to work hard and put their sons though college. The Jones boys, we were really blessed. We had good parents. Thank God for that.”
John Jones was Deacon’s younger brother, about a year younger. He was probably a better athlete, Deacon says, but at 15 or 16 years old Johnny was in a bad automobile accident and had a steel plate placed in his leg. “I can remember visiting in the hospital one day and he said, ‘I won’t be able to play, and my dreams of playing baseball won’t be fulfilled, but promise me right now that you’ll make the big leagues.’” Deacon promised he would.
Brother Johnny became a recreation director for White Plains. “Everybody knew Johnny Jones. The cops, everybody. The cops used to bring a kid who was caught doing something mischievous, and instead of taking him downtown, they’d call Johnny, and Johnny would come and get him, or take him over to his house. He worked with kids for a long time.”
Deacon graduated from White Plains High School, and was what he called an “All-Athlete” in basketball, football, and baseball. It was football – he was a halfback – that got him a scholarship to Ithaca College, where he majored in physiotherapy. Even in his freshman year, he realized that football wasn’t the game for him. “First of all, even as good as I was, I didn’t like football. All they did was practice! I have a competitive nature about me. I wanted to play the game. Football, I realized, you don’t play the game. The other thing, every time the center plays the ball somebody’s trying to hurt you. Now in baseball, all you’ve got to do is beat one person. The pitcher. And you play every day.”
In 1951, the American Legion held its national tournament at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, with the Crenshaw, California, club going for its third consecutive championship, behind third baseman (and captain) Billy Consolo and shortstop Sparky Anderson. The final game saw them defending their title against captain Grover Jones and the White Plains team. Though White Plains lost, Jones was selected as the tournament’s outstanding player as well as Legion Junior Player of the Year, leading in average (.408), hits (20), RBIs (20), and tied for the lead in homers with two. [The Sporting News, September 19, 1951]
It was the first time a player from the losing team was designated American Legion Junior Baseball Player of the Year. The winner of the tournament was honored by having a plaque displayed for the following calendar year at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Grover Jones thereby became the first African American honored with a plaque in Cooperstown.
He put in three years at Ithaca and spent his fourth year doing practical work in physiotherapy in New York City, with a thought towards a career in sports medicine. The scout who had first sent in a report on him was Joe Holden of the White Sox, but it was White Sox manager Marty Marion who signed him upon his graduation in June 1955 – with general manager Frank Lane and team owner Chuck Comiskey credited, too. He was assigned to Waterloo in the Three-I League, and hit .318 in a half-season there.
In 1956, Jones hurt his arm in spring training. “I hit a triple against Sandy Koufax in Sarasota. I got up and my arm felt funny, and the next day when I got up I couldn’t move it. I went to different doctors. They told me if you have an operation, you won’t be able to throw and play. With all due respect, in those days you had to cut through all that muscle and scar tissue. I majored in physiotherapy in college, and I said, ‘No, no. I’m not going to do this.’ I continued to play in the minor leagues. The pain, even off the field, would hurt. My wife would sometimes reach across and touch it, and my shoulder would be hot. I don’t have much patience for people who complain and bitch. You’ve got to deal with it. So I learned to play in pain, as most athletes do, but I still made the big leagues. Rather briefly, but the point was: I made it.”
Because of the arm injury, the White Sox wanted Jones to play in a warmer climate than in Class B Waterloo, Iowa, where he was struggling early on, so he was sent to Class D ball in the Midwest League, where he flourished with the Dubuque Packers, hitting .409 with 26 homers in an even 100 games. He won a silver bat, and still holds the league record for batting average.
Then Uncle Sam called, and both 1957 and 1958 were spent in the Army. It was peacetime and he was coming off a great year. He was far from pleased. And then, as he put it, he went to war – albeit a war of another sort, stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia. “It was like war down there, trust me. Any time, being a person of color, you left the base… I couldn’t believe I was in the United States. Oh God, the prejudice, the first time I really encountered it. It was incredible. It didn’t make any difference if I wore the uniform of the United States Army. Incredible.”
“My father ... my father got me through those things, when I’d call and relate some of the things that were happening. He told me, ‘I’m going to tell you something. Never let one person or any group of people keep you from realizing that dream of being a big-league ballplayer, boy. Don’t you dare come home!’ And he slammed down the phone on me. Tears coming down my eyes. My father told me not to come home. … I’ll never forget it. That’s the precise moment when I became a man. I realize what the reality of life was in these United States.”
As it did with so many players, baseball made for a better life in the service. The colonel at Fort Benning liked Jones and he liked baseball, and when he found out he had a pro athlete on his base, he changed Jones’s orders and kept him on the base, where he played on the base team until he was mustered out. Baseball truly helps, Deacon agreed: “Sports is really incredible, and especially baseball. It crosses all racial lines, political, and even financial. For just a few minutes or hours or a season, it seems like we’re all together, we’re all human beings. It’s when you leave the stadium that things become so complex. I understand that, so I’m always in my comfort zone when I’m in the stadium.”
In 1959, it was back to the Three-I League, hitting .299 while playing in Nebraska for the Lincoln Chiefs. In 1960, he headed out west to the Pacific Coast League, playing for the San Diego Padres in Triple-A ball and again batting .299. At one point, Jones played winter ball in the Caribbean for four or five years in a row, learning Spanish and learning more about preparing for the game by playing with Roberto Clemente in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for two years.
The next two years were spent in the South Atlantic League, with 1961 in Charleston, South Carolina, and 1962 beginning in Savannah. There he confronted some racism head-on, at one point having a gun drawn on him when he walked into a rest stop and sat down at a lunch counter. This was during the heart of the civil rights movement and being a baseball player offered no immunity. “I had to turn the other cheek,” he says. “I’d never seen so much hate in a person’s eyes in my life. It was reality again. And I was so shaken, I couldn’t talk when I got back on the bus.”
It was Deacon’s wife, Virginia, who took some action of her own, with Don Buford’s wife, Alicia, in Savannah in the first part of the 1962 season. The wives would usually come out to the home games, arriving around the third inning, and they had to sit in segregated seating, down the left-field line past third base. One game, when he was playing first base and Buford was at second, and as a pitch headed to the plate, Jones looked in, and behind the batter and catcher he saw his wife and Alicia Buford sitting behind the plate. Frantic waving to them solved nothing. The team’s general manager, Tom Fleming, went to visit the ladies. “My wife’s got her arms closed and shaking her head. I said, ‘That’s it. Don, we’re going to die tonight in Savannah, Georgia.’”
After the game, she had to try and calm down a frantic husband, but her words were firm: “Alicia and I decided, on the way to the ballpark, at the last minute, we’re not going to sit there. We’re part of this team. Our husbands are the better ballplayers on the team. This is ridiculous.” Jones asked his wife what the GM was saying, and she said he was trying to get them to move. “We’re going to lose our advertising,” he said. “I’m sorry, Tom,” she answered. “We’re not going to leave. You do what you have to do.” It was Rosa Parks at the ballpark.
The following morning, a representative from the NAACP came to their home and introduced himself, saying he understood they’d had a problem at the ballpark and that they were going to picket the park. He asked Deacon to join them, but that wasn’t going to happen. The next game, there was a heavy police presence and a large crowd of black people who applauded them as they went through, but attendance dropped sharply, and not long afterward, Fleming announced that the franchise was going to move – to Lynchburg, Virginia. The name of the city might be intimidating, but the experience was a good one. “People were very kind.” Despite the controversy and the relocation, Jones hit .319 and knocked out 26 home runs. He got called up to the White Sox and made his debut on September 8, 1962. “I fulfilled my dream and my brother’s wish, and I was happy. I got a hit, I think, the first time up. I was a pinch hitter.” He singled to right field, driving in the sixth Chicago run in a 6-3 win over the Washington Senators at Comiskey Park.
Jones appeared in 18 games in 1962, hitting for a .321 average in his first stretch in the major leagues. He opened with the White Sox in 1963, but didn’t get a base hit until June, in his 12th game. The triple boosted his average to .100, but he still got sent to Triple A, where he played for the Indianapolis Indians, hitting .343. Returning to Chicago in September, he collected six more at-bats and two more hits, winding up the year at .188. Both hits came in the last game of the year, one of them his lone major-league home run, which accounted for his only two runs batted in of the year.
In 1964, Jones split his time between Lynchburg and Indianapolis, and in 1965 he dropped down to Single A, in Sarasota. He hit .325, but was called into the office and thought they were going to release him. Instead, they told him, “We’d like you to become a player-coach.” Jones spent ’66 in Appleton, Wisconsin, with the Fox Cities Foxes (Midwest League), coaching and playing first base and batting .353. He was rewarded with one more trip to the big leagues after the Fox Cities season was over, and hit .400 (two singles in five pinch-hit at-bats). Deacon finished his brief major-league career with a .286 average and 10 RBIs.
He returned to Appleton in 1967, playing in fewer games but with a nearly identical average (.352). He’d hit .319 in his 11 seasons of minor-league ball. It was time for a transition.
The White Sox made Jones a roving hitting coach in their minor-league system and he did that for several years until 1973 when, for one season, he managed in Appleton. “Didn’t do well at all,” he offered. [The club’s record was 44-76.] “Managing is not for me. No way. I couldn’t sleep well. I don’t know how managers can do it … at any level. Because at 4 o’clock in the morning, your eyes are still open, what can I tell [a given player] tomorrow? How can I get him to understand? How can I get him going? How can I get the rotation right? The lineup? And then you find out that the kids are running around at night and the word gets back to you in those small towns, and you go ballistic. You know, it’s tough. It wasn’t for me. Too many things. You couldn’t relax. You’ve got your family at home. You want to be congenial to them. You find out some of your frustrations rubbing off at home. Can’t do that. It takes a special man.”
Houston manager Bill Virdon asked for permission to talk with him and Deacon became hitting coach for the Astros from 1976 through 1982. Virdon lost his job and so did Jones, but he took a position scouting for the Yankees in Texas and Louisiana for a little over a year, in 1983. George Steinbrenner offered him a two-year contract, but he found a major-league coaching job with the Padres and served as the hitting coach in San Diego for four years, 1984-1987. That was the end of his on-field work.
The Yankees position hadn’t been his first work scouting. He’d done some work for the White Sox in the New York and New Jersey area. The Yankees job was his first work as a regular area scout, though.
After spending a year out of baseball in 1988, Jones got a call from Roland Hemond, general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, asking him to become minor-league hitting coach. He worked in the minors for four years. “Then all of a sudden Frank Robinson was the manager and Larry Lucchino was the president and they asked me to be their advance scout. I scouted for the Orioles for 18, 19 years until last year . That’s a really long time. Only Hank King with the Philadelphia Phillies has been there longer [as an advance scout]. Most people told me when I took the job, you only last eight years because the mental stress, the traveling … but I enjoyed it. I was the 26th guy on the club. The guy you couldn’t see.”
If the camaraderie of working with a team is rewarding, work as an advance scout can be a lonely pursuit. Any advance scout travels ahead of the team and rarely does the scout see his own team because he’s always checking out the opposition. “The only time I’d see them would be spring training or … sometimes during the season, I’d take a few days off and go see them play. Then I’d go back on the road again. But usually when I had some time, I wanted to get home. You need to recharge your batteries.” Jones would meet the other advance scouts, but there aren’t as many of them as there used to be. “There’s only a few of them. The teams that can afford them. They’re trying to do it now by television or dish, but you need people on the ground. You need people in the ballpark. I am an information gatherer like you are. You can’t see everything on TV. You can’t see a defense. You can’t see how a guy breaks on a ball. You can’t see his arm. You can’t see a lot of things. Just little things that help a manager win.
“Former Baltimore manager Johnny Oates, he told me scouts win three to four games a year. Maybe five, as an advance scout. He said a manager wins anywhere from eight to 10. So you stop and think about it. Combine those two people who don’t even play, and help them win about 11 or 12 games. Was it worth it over the long haul? With that in mind, I felt like a very integral part of the team. I always got the criticism, never got the credit. But that you understand.”
It was never as simple as just staying one series ahead, scouting the very next team your club would play. “No, you’d have to go maybe a week ahead because of offdays you’d be butting up against. What you try to do is see the starting rotation. Five guys. Count up the days and say, “This guy’s going to pitch against Baltimore.” That takes a lot of planning. Detail. And I’ve made mistakes. I’ve had to go back over it. I’ve had to call the airlines … change. One time, I got a cold sweat. I got up and said, ‘I’m supposed to go to Chicago.’ Well, hell, Chicago’s playing in Cleveland. I go over my schedule a dozen times in the wintertime.” And you’ve got to be ready to adjust it on short notice. The scout would never see the same group of people in his travels. “Never. You’re a loner. You have to like that job. You have to love your own company.”
After nearly 20 years, in his early 70s, it finally became time to call it a day. Jones called Andy MacPhail and simply said, “Andy, I think it’s about time for to cut back.” MacPhail responded, “You’re amazing. I don’t know how you did it this long.”
In 2008, Jones switched to professional scouting for the Orioles, mostly from his home in Houston.
Virginia and Deacon have one child, a daughter, Monica. “She’s a computer graphic artist. My grandson, that’s my heart. D.J. He’s only 2. For Christmas, he’ll get his first bat and ball.”
Most of the sources used for this story are explicitly mentioned within the article. In addition, the author relied heavily on an interview with Deacon Jones done on December 1, 2008.
Thanks to Gary Gillette for assistance in the preparation of this biography. And thanks to Lou Gorman.