SABR

Johnny Taylor

This article was written by Jon Daly.

The year 1933 was one of the low points of the Great Depression. Even Babe Ruth was not immune to economic circumstances, as he took a pay cut of $23,000 from his previous year’s salary of $75,000. The Single-A Eastern League had folded in July of 1932 and with it the Hartford Senators. This was back when baseball was pretty much the only game in town. Fortunately, Bill Savitt, a jewelry store owner, gave the Insurance City some peace of mind. He leased Bulkeley Stadium, erstwhile home of the Senators, and had his semipro outfit, the Savitt Gems, take on all comers; barnstorming outfits like the Georgia Chain Gang, colored teams, other local nines, the Philadelphia Athletics. These were all Gem opponents in 1933. Savitt’s team included some players with Eastern League experience. Many ballplayers in the 1930s found it more lucrative to get a nonbaseball job and play for semipro teams. But Savitt’s best player may have been a pitcher who was still in high school on the Gems’ opening day.  Johnny Taylor went on to have success in the Negro Leagues and Latin America. Had he been born a decade later, he might have made it to the majors.

In 1933 Little Johnny Taylor hit the music charts with “Part Time Love.” There was an Irish Johnny Taylor in boxing. There was a Steel-Arm Johnny Taylor who pitched in the Negro Leagues, but he was a generation older. There was even a local racecar driver named Johnny Taylor. This story is about Schoolboy Johnny Taylor. John Arthur Taylor, Jr. was born in Hartford to John and Etta Taylor, on February 4, 1916. Johnny’s father was a lather in the building trades. Johnny grew up in the South End on Douglas Street. The South End was a predominantly white area at the time. The lawyer Edward Bennett Williams and the boxer Willie Pep, younger than Johnny by a few years, grew up in the same area.

When Johnny was a lad, Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg played for Hartford Senators. Johnny outfitted his sandlot team by shagging fouls and collecting the Senators’ cracked bats.  In 1932 he struck out 475 in 26 sandlot games. At Bulkeley High School, he concentrated on track until his senior year. Johnny was a high jumper and pole vaulter. 

But when he became a senior, Taylor pitched for a Bulkeley Maroons team that included future major leaguer Bob Repass and future high-school coach and scout Whitey Piurek. Babe Allen coached the Bulkeley baseball team, as he would from 1926 to 1963. For some reason, the Hartford papers sometimes referred to Taylor as Jackson Taylor. On April 28 he started Bulkeley’s opening game at Goodwin Park, against rival Hartford High School. (They had been rained out before that date.) Taylor was wild in the first inning but settled down; going six innings before being relieved. Three days later he struck out 17 and gave up just two hits against West Hartford High in another home game. A week later he struck out 19 Hartford Hilltoppers at Elizabeth Park to go to 3-0. This topped what was believed to be a Greater Hartford scholastic record. Just the previous spring, future major leaguer Pete “Lefty” Naktenis had struck out 18 in a game.

On May 20 Bulkeley crushed undefeated Weaver High, 18-1, at Bulkeley Park. Taylor hit a home run over the left-field fence that was the longest hit by a high schooler in that ballpark. But his best performance was yet to come. In the season finale against New Britain, Taylor struck out 25 and gave up just one hit as the Maroons won, 13-4. (Taylor was a bit wild. He walked nine.) When all was said and done, Taylor went 8-1 and hit .428 for Bulkeley. He was named to the Greater Hartford Scholastic team. Albert Keane of the Hartford Courant reported that New York Yankee scout Gene McCann was interested in Taylor. (Other reports indicated that the Athletics were interested in him as well.) When McCann found out that Taylor was not white, he tried to get him to pretend he was Cuban. The light-skinned Taylor refused. This was not unheard of. Negro Leaguer and major leaguer Quincy Trouppe (Cleveland, 1952) claimed that around the same time, a scout advised him to hole up for a while south of the border, learn Spanish, and he could come back to the major leagues.

Buck O’Neil on Taylor: “Good ballplayer. Yes I hit against him. Didn’t get much on it.”

Soon after his final high-school game, it was announced that Taylor would pitch for the New England Colored Stars. But he had injured a finger on his right hand earlier that week, so he didn’t pitch, but he did play center field, for the team, the position he usually played when not on the mound. Taylor wound up spending most of the rest of the summer pitching for Home Circle of the Greater Hartford Twilight League, which played most of its games at Colt Park, which had 20 baseball diamonds.[1] On September 10 Taylor and Home Circle had a long anticipated matchup with Mayflower Sales and Pete Natkenis. Taylor and Home Circle lost, 6-2, in front of 5,000 at Colt Park.

He joined forces with Mayflower Sales to play in a New England baseball championship sponsored by the United States Amateur Baseball Association. But the highest level of competition he faced that year was with the Savitt Gems. He was with the team in October and was its biggest-drawing pitcher. On the 8th he faced Bridgeport Industrial League power McKesson-Robbins, and lost in a 1-0 pitchers’ duel.

In 1934 Taylor continued pitching on the Connecticut semipro circuit. He pitched for Check Bread of the Twilight League, as well as Yantic in the Norwich City League, as well as the Savitt Gems. On August 31, he had the first no-hitter of his career for the Northwest Athletic Club of Winsted. The Negro Leagues were watching. The lanky (168-pound) right-hander had an overhead curve and a fastball with a hop. On October 14, he faced the Negro League Philadelphia Giants and Will Jackman.

Despite the name, the Giants were actually a Boston-based nine. Jackman was an ancient submariner, probably around 40 at the time, who roamed New England sandlots and ball fields for years. Some, like the late Dick Thompson, thought he was the greatest unknown pitcher in baseball. In a seven-inning affair, Taylor no-hit Philadelphia. He and Jackman would meet again.

There were rumors that Taylor turned down offers from Philadelphia and the Pittsburgh Colored Giants. He signed with the New York Cubans, owned by Alejandro Pompez, after Taylor’s aunt had a chance meeting in NewYork City with Frank Forbes, the business manager of the Cubans. Pompez made his money in the numbers racket, but also dabbled in baseball. He spent $60,000 renovating the Dyckman Oval in Harlem, and the Cubans joined the Negro National League. The Oval sat 10,000 and was in effect Harlem’s community center. The great Martin Dihigo, 30 years old at the time, was the Cubans’ player-manager. (Dihigo was one of the most versatile players ever, playing well at all positions except catcher.) Others on the team were Alejandro Oms, a great Cuban outfielder in the twilight of his career; the pitcher Cocaina Garcia, so-named because he made hitters look like cokeheads when he faced them; and Lazaro Salazar, who was Taylor’s best friend on the team. Taylor was signed by Frank Forbes for $175 a month and $2 a day meal money. He went 6-4 and struck out 55, second to teammate Luis Tiant, Sr. Taylor pitched as the Cubans played the Savitt Gems in Hartford in late August. He beat the Gems 7-0 and fanned 15. The Cubans returned in September and lost to the Gems. (On the way to Hartford, the team bus was in an accident on the Berlin Turnpike, near Hartford, but it didn’t keep the Giants from playing.) Winning 28 games and losing 24, the Cubans finished in third place in the Negro National League, but they won in the second half of the season to make the playoffs. Their opponent was a great Pittsburgh Crawfords team.

Taylor lost Game Three of the playoffs. He was pitching in Game Six and the Cubans were winning, but Dihigo pulled Taylor and inserted himself as pitcher, and blew the game. Frank Forbes, the team business manager, was already in the clubhouse counting out the winners’ share. The Cubans lost again in Game Seven to lose series.

After the season Taylor faced the Dizzy Dean All-Stars on October 13 at Yankee Stadium, and struck out 14 but lost, 3-0.

In 1936 Taylor received a $10-a-month raise. He went 5-2 for the Cubans and had 58 strikeouts, second to Satchel Paige, who had returned to the Pittsburgh Crawfords after spending 1935 in Bismarck, North Dakota. As in the previous summer, Taylor and the Cubans made a Hartford appearance and he thrilled the hometown fans by striking out 18 and shutting out the Gems. The Washington Elite Giants led the Negro National League in the first half of the ’35 season and Pittsburgh won the second half. 

Roy Campanella on Taylor: “Man, did he have good stuff.”

In the fall of 1936 Taylor faced Babe Ruth at Dyckman Oval. During the season New York Giants coach Dolf Luque had encouraged Taylor to spend the winter on his home island of Cuba, and in November Taylor took a train to Miami and hopped on a boat to Havana. He played winter ball for Dihigo’s Marianao club at Tropical Stadium in Havana. (Tropical was a Cuban brand of beer and the brewery had the naming rights to the stadium.) Taylor went 1-6 that winter. It was no help that he was struck by a trolley car in Havana and suffered a ruptured disc. Still, the fans loved him, calling him Escolar Taylor, el Rey (King) de Hartford. Marianao faced the Santa Clara Leopards in a three-game postseason playoff and defeated the Leopards, two games to one.

In 1937 police forces in some US cities were cracking down on the policy rackets. This led to the decline and fall of the Crawfords, one of the best Negro League teams. Hall of Famers Judy Johnson, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige left the team. (The New York Cubans had dropped out of the league because of the heat that Pompez was feeling. He had fled the country in the spring of 1936 to avoid a tax evasion indictment.) Many players heard the siren call of the Dominican Republic. The small Caribbean country was baseball-mad and Dictator Rafael Trujillo was determined to have the best team money could buy. Because white major leaguers wouldn’t jump to the island, Trujillo sought out Cubans and Negro Leaguers.

But Taylor came home to Hartford in 1937 and played for the Savitt Gems. While still hobbled by his injuries, he faced Will Jackman and the Philadelphia Colored Giants in a 20-inning marathon. He struck out 22 and went on to beat Jackman twice more that year. He went 13-1 for the Gems before reinjuring his back.

On September 19, 1937, Taylor pitched for the Negro National League All Stars against Satchel Paige and the Trujillo All Stars. The great Biz Mackey was his catcher. According to Johnny, Mackey advised him to keep the ball down that day. Future New York Governor and presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey, who had been chasing Pompez, was among the 20,000-plus at the Polo Grounds. Shifty Jim West of the Washington EliteGiants and Chester Williams of the Crawfords had spectacular plays in the field. Going into the eighth, there was no score and Taylor had held the Trujillo All Stars hitless. West homered in the ninth to put the Negro National Leaguers ahead, 2-0. In the bottom of the inning, Taylor retired George Scales, Spoony Palm, and Cool Papa Bell to preserve no-hitter. But he lost rematch a week later, 9-4.

Monte Irvin on Taylor: “A tall good-looking right-hander with the damnedest [overhand] curveball you ever did see.”

The no-hitter made Taylor a hot property. Several teams sought his services in 1938. Initially, he planned on returning to New York, but he wound up signing with the Pittsburgh Crawfords for $400 a month. Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee preferred to keep Taylor and dump Paige, whom he viewed as a prima donna always shuffling off to the Badlands or Hispaniola. Taylor made the East-West All-Star Game . The style of play in the All-Star Game reminded whiteand finished the season with an 11-2 record. The Crawfords also used him in a utility role and he hit .368. While in Pittsburgh, he palled around with John Henry Lewis, the light heavyweight champ and the jewel of Greenlee’s boxing stable.

That winter Taylor returned to Cuba and played on the Santa Clara team with Josh Gibson. The great Gibson called Taylor “One Lung” because he was thin. This time, he had a poor record: 3 victories, 8 losses.

In 1939 an eight-team semipro league called the Connecticut State Baseball League was formed. During the Memorial Day weekend, Taylor pitched for the New Britain entry against New London. Because he was black, the New London team protested the use of Taylor in a game, and representatives of the league’s teams wound up voting 6-2 to ban Negro players. Taylor was in the news again, in absentia, when on September 16 the Hartford Courant reported that signatures on petitions to get the Communist Party on the ballot were fraudulently obtained by canvassers who told residents in some black neighborhoods that the petition was on behalf of Taylor’s attempt to play semipro ball. As all of this was happening, Taylor was far away south of the border.

In 1939 Mexico had begun luring Negro Leaguers including Cool Papa Bell

And Lazaro Salazar, a friend of Taylor’s from the Dyckman Oval days. Salazar urged Taylor to join him in Mexico. Taylor played for $600 a month at Cordoba. He went 11-1 with a 1.19 ERA. Ballplayers were literally treated like royalty in Mexico. In a Mexico City bar Taylor met King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who had fled his country when a republic was declared. Taylor played in Mexico through 1942. In 1940 he was joined by nearly two dozen more black ballplayers, incluiding Josh Gibson, Willie Wells, and Sam Bankhead. Taylor went 3-1 that season. He also pitched some for the New York Cuban Stars, who were back in the Negro National League.

Taylor had a banner year in 1941, playing for Vera Cruz with Josh Gibson as a teammate. He won 14 games, lost 5, struck out 115, and hit .295. Vera Cruz was perhaps Mexico’s best team ever. Team owner Jorge Pasquel was a teetotaling liquor mogul who could pay more than any Negro League team. He bought Taylor a new suit every time he pitched a shutout. His closet got pretty full. Before that season started, Taylor told Bill Lee of the Hartford Courant that it was tough to pitch in Mexico City because of the altitude. He couldn’t get any hop on his fastball or any curve on his curve. He said games were played in the morning in Mexico. Bullfighting was the most popular sport in the country and when there was a conflict between the bullring and baseball, it was felt at the gate. 

In September 1941 the prodigal son made a visit to Hartford with his Mexican All-Stars. The team included Josh Gibson, Sam Bankhead, Ray Dandridge, and Willie Wells. They played the Saviott Gems, whose starter was hometown rival Pete Naktenis. Taylor and his All-Stars won in ten innings, 7-5, as Johnny fanned 15.

Taylor returned to Connecticut in 1942. He worked in a defense plant for United Aircraft during the week and pitched for the New York Cubans on weekends. (This happened in the white big leagues as well. For example, several Cleveland Indians players worked in war plants and played only in home games.) A back injury (probably the one from the trolley accident) got Taylor a draft deferment. During the war years, Taylor also played for the Savitt Gems, Fred Davey’s team in Waterbury, and the Highland Lake Athletic Club of Winsted. 

In 1945, with the Second World War almost over, Taylor returned to Mexico to play in the Mexican League. This time he had family. Taylor had married the former Estelle Singleton. She was a maternity nurse and the first black nurse at New Britain General Hospital. They had a young son when they flew south of the border. He played for Monterey in 1945. Then, in ’46, he played for Vera Cruz. But he hurt his arm after only a couple of weeks. This was the year that the Mexican League was trying to challenge the majors. White players like Danny Gardella, Sal Maglie, and Mickey Owen were lured south of the border. Commissioner Happy Chandler blacklisted them for five years. The Negro National League gave eight of its players, including Taylor and Ray Dandridge, five-year bans as well. The league must have reconsidered this stance because Dandridge went on to manage the Cubans in 1948. SABR researcher John Holway has written that Taylor faced Babe Ruth again in Mexico in 1944. But if this reunion happened, it more likely took place in 1946. A couple of Ruth’s biographers mention his travels in Mexico that year.

After a two-year layoff, Taylor, by now 33 years old, signed a contract in late May to pitch for the Hartford Chiefs of the Eastern League in 1949. Perhaps the first black member of the Chiefs, he went 6-7, mainly in relief. He was released by the club in November and hung up his spikes.

After baseball ended, Taylor worked for his father’s construction business. He was a lather for 30 years. He was also a consummate golfer. He did pitch in some Twilight League Old-Timer games along with former big-league hurlers like Pete Naktenis and Walter “Monk” Dubiel.

Taylor was a trailblazer for black golfers in Connecticut. He started as a youth at
the municipal course at Hartford’s Goodwin Park, which was near his neighborhood. He later played at Edgewood in Cromwell, which is the current site of the Tournament Players Club.[2] He was one of the first first black men in Connecticut to have a state handicap card, perhaps the first. “It was a liberal place.” said Doug Pierson, who was the son of Edgewood’s owner. He said Taylor was a member in 1959, when Jackie Robinson couldn’t join a private club in Stamford. Andy Pierson, Edgewood’s owner, liked Taylor and let him stock the club’s pond with bass.  Golfer Lee Trevino, who was married to a Wethersfield woman, once got permission through Taylor to fish in the pond, and caught a fish for a fry.

John Taylor said his father started out as a typical baseball star golfer: a big hitter with an 8 handicap. However, he strove for perfection, studied Ben Hogan’s book The Fundamentals of Modern Golf, and sacrificed a whole season to refine his swing.  His son said this changed Taylor from a hitter to a golfer with a solid 3 handicap.

In 1975 the Boston Red Sox made it to the World Series. In a moment of détente, Cuba let Luis Tiant Sr. and his wife travel to the US to see his son pitch. Taylor went to Fenway Park to see his old teammate and had a tearful reunion.

Johnny Taylor died on June 15, 1987, after an extended battle with cancer. He lives on in a sense as a minor character in Mark Winegardner’s novel The Veracruz Blues. Taylor was the best Negro Leagues player born in the Hartford area and perhaps the best Hartford native to play the game, period.

February 2011

Sources

Hartford Courant

Hartford Times

Alexander, Charles C. Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Hogan, Lawrence D. Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2006.

Holway, John. The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues—The Other Half of Baseball History. Fern Park, Florida: Hastings House Publishers, 2001.

Lanctot, Neil. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Ribowsky, Mark. A Complete History of the Negro Leagues, 1884 to 1955. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1995.




[1] The Greater Hartford League still exists to this day (2010). Although it is long past its heyday, future major leaguers including Bernie Williams and Ricky Bottalico competed in the league.

[2] The PGA holds an annual tournament there. As of 2010, it was known as the Travelers Open.

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