Bob Trice

This article was written by Jack Morris

On a sunny but windy and cool September Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, Bob Trice toed the pitching rubber at Connie Mack Stadium and peered in to the catcher for his signs. With the release of his first pitch, Trice made history. He was the first person of color to play for the Philadelphia Athletics; in fact, he was the first black man ever to play for a Philadelphia major-league baseball team.

Almost a full 6½ years after the Brooklyn Dodgers brought up Jackie Robinson, Trice had forced the Athletics’ hand after a spectacular season in the International League. During the 1953 season, Trice posted a 21-10 record with the sixth-place Ottawa A’s and was named the International League’s Most Valuable Pitcher and Rookie of the Year. Mentored by Sam Bankhead, both with the Homestead Grays and later in Organized Baseball with the Farnham Pirates of the Provincial League, Trice was a fast study. He transitioned from a semipro player who played everywhere on the field to a full-time pitcher. Not a power pitcher, the right-hander used a slider, curve, and changeup to keep batters off balance.1

On September 13, as a late-season call up to the Athletics, Trice faced the St. Louis Browns. He lost the game but won his next two starts, including a complete-game win over the Washington Senators. His future appeared bright for the pitching-poor A’s.

Seemingly Trice was on his way to fulfilling that promise in 1954. Early in the season, he shut out the defending World Series champion New York Yankees. But on July 11, after losing the first game of a doubleheader, Trice, shockingly, requested to be sent back to Ottawa. His record stood at 7-8 and his seven wins accounted for almost one-quarter of the seventh-place Athletics’ wins to that point. Frustrated with a four-game losing streak and having just been shelled in 3⅓ innings in an 18-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox, he told Art Morrow of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “It just wasn’t fun anymore; it was work. So I decided to ask to be sent back to Ottawa, where I had a lot of fun last year.”2

Hindered by a shoulder injury, Trice never rekindled the magic of 1953 in Ottawa. He made it back to Philadelphia out of spring training in 1955 but lasted only four games before he was sent back down to the minors, this time for good.

Robert Lee Trice was born on August 28, 1926, in Newton, Georgia, to Benjamin and Henrietta (Clark) Trice, the second of three boys born to the couple. Sometime after his birth, the family moved to Weirton, West Virginia, in search of work. Benjamin found work in the area’s steel mills, where he toiled for the rest of his life. Bob Trice blossomed as an athlete at segregated Dunbar High School, where he captained the football, basketball, and baseball teams.3 With the country embroiled in World War II, the 17-year-old Trice joined the US Navy on March 30, 1944. While in the Navy, the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder played first base for various base teams.4

Discharged from the Navy on May 17, 1946, Trice went home to Weirton, where he joined his father working in a steel mill. According to Trice, he didn’t last very long at the mill. “I worked there one day,” said Trice, “and that was enough.”5 He continued to play baseball, pitching for a nearby Steubenville, Ohio, semipro team.6 He also played left field and pitched for the Weirton Negro Stars.7

In 1948 Trice caught the eye of the Homestead Grays. He loved to play in the field, but the Grays had different ideas. “I still thought I was a first baseman when I joined the Homestead Grays,” said Trice. “They had such a team that the only place a fellow had a chance to break in was as a pitcher. So I started pitching.”8 That’s when Sam Bankhead took the youngster under his wing. “(He) taught me about control at Homestead,” said Trice.9

It wasn’t until late in the 1948 season that Trice signed with the Grays, and he ended up playing sparingly. His first known game was in Pittsburgh as the Grays took on the Indianapolis Clowns; he relieved pitcher Ted Alexander in a 4-1 win.10 Three weeks later he relieved Clarence Evans for 1⅓ innings in an 8-4 win over the Clowns at Griffith Stadium in Washington, which was the Grays’ second home after Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.11

Trice played more regularly with the Grays in 1949.12 Homestead had joined the Negro American Association and thoroughly dominated the league in the first half of the season. The Richmond Giants won the second half, setting up a best-of-seven series for the league championship in September. The Grays swept Richmond, four games to none, with Trice picking up the win in Game Two.13

Trice began the 1950 season with Homestead, but he was approached by the Farnham Pirates of the Class-C Provincial League midway through the season. He had been recommended by several of his former Grays teammates who were playing in the Provincial League,14 and he joined Farnham on July 27, playing third base.15 After Farnham’s season ended, Trice rejoined the Homestead Grays.16

Farnham didn’t initially pick up Trice’s contract for 1951, but Sam Bankhead – who had been named the Pirates manager for the 1951 season – needed pitching help. He signed Trice and used him both as a pitcher and an everyday player. Trice played in 70 games, pitching in 23.17

Despite Trice’s 7-12 record, George MacDonald, general manager of the St. Hyacinthe A’s of the Provincial League, liked what he saw and signed Trice to a contract for 1952.18 He again played many positions for St. Hyacinthe but excelled at pitching. By season’s end, he led the league in winning percentage with a 16-3 mark (.842).

In March 1953 the Ottawa A’s of the Triple-A International League signed Trice and three of his teammates, Alfred Pinkston, Joe Taylor, and Hector Lopez. All were players of color.19 Trice went to spring training with Ottawa, but the Philadelphia Athletics, who owned his rights, fully expected Trice to start the season with Williamsport of the Class-A Eastern League.20 Pinkston, Taylor, and Lopez all spent time with Williamsport that season, but Trice pitched well enough to start out with Ottawa. “I was sort of jittery when I first got the news that I was heading for the International League because the jump from St. Hyacinthe is a big one,” Trice said. “But the chance to eventually make the big time kept me digging all the time.”21

At the beginning of the season Ottawa used Trice out of the bullpen and as a pinch-hitter,22 but the team quickly moved him into its starting rotation and he responded with an incredible run. On June 17 he shut out the Montreal Royals, 11-0, on four hits; he also singled and homered, driving in five runs.23 By July 8 he was tied for the league lead in wins with a 10-5 record.24 What made Trice’s record even more remarkable was the fact that Ottawa wasn’t having a good season. Between July 5 and 14 the A’s won only four games – Trice was the winning pitcher in three of them.25 By July 15 Trice was 12-5 for the seventh-place A’s.26

On July 23 Trice entered a game as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning. He hit a three-run home run to tie the game, and then came in and pitched the 10th inning to earn the win.27 Ottawa held a Bob Trice Night during a doubleheader on August 13, and Trice pitched the opener, winning his 16th game of the year with a two-hitter over Springfield, 2-1. Between games he was showered with about 40 gifts and received a surprise appearance by his parents.28 From August 19 to 25, Trice won three more games, all nine-inning complete games.29

By season’s end Trice’s record stood at 21-10. He led the International League in wins and shutouts (four).30 Trice was named the IL’s Most Valuable Pitcher and Rookie of the Year and was named to the league All-Star team.31

Ottawa A’s manager Frank Skaff chalked up Trice’s success to several different factors. “(He’s) one of the best-conditioned athletes I’ve ever seen,” said Skaff. “He helps himself with the bat, and he helps himself on the mound.”32 He added, “He’s not afraid of anything, and he doesn’t let anything bother him.”33 Trice didn’t try to overpower hitters. “I have made up my mind to let the batter hit my pitch,” he said. “I pitch to the man’s weakness, but not too fine.”34

The Philadelphia Athletics noticed. On September 8 the A’s called him up and quickly announced that Trice would start against the St. Louis Browns in the first game of a doubleheader on Sunday, September 13.35 A’s manager Jimmy Dykes told Trice, “I don’t want you to think everything depends on this game. I don’t want you to do anything different from what you’ve been doing.”36 Trice struggled, giving up eight hits and five earned runs in eight innings in a 5-2 loss. One bright spot was the fact that Trice didn’t walk a batter – in fact, he never even went to three balls in a count.37

In his second start, on September 20, Trice broke through for his first major-league win, over the Washington Senators. He struggled again but won 13-9. Trice went six innings, giving up 10 hits and seven earned runs. Finally, in his last start of the season, on September 26, Trice found his International League form. He defeated Washington again, 11-2, pitching a complete game and scattering seven hits.

Trice had planned to head south after the season to play winter baseball. But the Athletics told him to not go out of fear that he might hurt his arm after a long season. “The money is fine down there but the real payoff is the majors,” said Trice. “And I don’t want to risk my chances with the A’s because of a sore arm.”38 Instead, Trice joined Jackie Robinson’s barnstorming team, which included Al Rosen, Gil Hodges, and Luke Easter. Robinson’s team played the Indianapolis Clowns in a series of games throughout the United States.39

Philadelphia general manager Arthur Ehlers projected Trice to be the Athletics’ fourth or fifth starter for 1954.40 In December the A’s traded for Vic Power, who became the second player of color for Philadelphia. In addition, the A’s made former Negro League great Judy Johnson, who had been scouting for Philadelphia, a “special coach” for Trice and Powers to “supervise their activities off, as well as on the field.”41

Spring training in 1954 didn’t begin well for Trice. He was the first Athletic hurt, falling on his left shoulder during a drill.42 When he got back from his injury, he pitched well and left spring training as the team’s fourth starter.43

Trice continued to pitch well during the regular season. He won his first four starts, going the route in all four. Most impressively, he shut out the reigning World Series champion Yankees on six hits. On May 1 Ben Phlegar, an Associated Press sportswriter, declared Trice the early favorite for Rookie of the Year.44

Trice’s calm demeanor on the mound won him many accolades. “I do not believe I have ever seen a more relaxed pitcher in the crisis than he has been,” wrote W. Rollo Wilson, a baseball writer for the Pittsburgh Courier.45 “Trice looked like the calmest person in the place,” wrote correspondent Art Morrow in The Sporting News about Trice’s outing against the Yankees.46 United Press sports writer Carl Lundquist wrote that the “serious Bible-reading pitcher” was buoyed by his faith. “Trice thinks his religion gives him moral inspiration,” wrote Lundquist. “But emphasized that ‘you’ve got to work on those hitters, too.’”47 New A’s manager Eddie Joost liked Trice’s preparation. “He’s a conscientious guy, studies the hitters and gets the ball over the plate,” said Joost. “He doesn’t overpower you but he had good stuff.”48

However, Trice’s shoulder started to bother him. A lump formed on his shoulder and never went away. After his injury, Trice was unable to completely follow through to throw a fastball. Though he had gotten by through the first four games without throwing one,49 it didn’t take too long for opposing teams to figure this out. Trice’s first loss came against the Yankees on May 9, a game in which he lasted but two innings. The next day he lost again when Joost brought him into the game in relief against the Baltimore Orioles in the bottom of the ninth. He gave up two hits before the Orioles won on Sam Mele’s walk-off sacrifice fly.

Trice didn’t win another game until June 1. After being knocked out of a game early on May 23, he refused to eat his steak dinner on the train ride back home.50 He hit rock-bottom on July 11 when he was shelled in the first game of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox got to Trice for eight earned runs and 10 hits in just 3⅓ innings. The losses were wearing heavily on Trice. Between games, he shocked Joost and the Athletics management by asking to be sent back to Ottawa.51

Trice insisted that even if he had won the game, he would have asked to be sent back. “I planned to make the move anyway,” said Trice.52 “Everything here has been fine and I want to come back,” Trice told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Art Morrow. “But right now, I think I’d be better off in Ottawa.” His teammates were incredulous. He still led the team in wins despite his woes. “Everybody I talked to says I’m crazy and maybe I am,” said Trice. “But I thought about this a long time and I think I am doing the right thing.”53

Philadelphia obliged Trice and sent him and Ozzie Van Brabant to Ottawa. In return, pitchers Johnny Gray and Charlie Bishop were recalled.54 Trice tried to rekindle the magic but he never did. He finished the season at Ottawa with a 4-8 record, though his ERA was a respectable 3.23 and he completed 12 of the 13 games he started.55 His last game tantalized the Athletics with his potential. He pitched 11 innings of four-hit ball and won the game with a home run.56 Despite pitching only half a season for the Philadelphia Athletics, Trice was still second on the team in wins.

After the season Trice joined Roy Campanella’s barnstorming tour. The team – which included Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Junior Gilliam, and Don Newcombe – was scheduled to play 33 games from October into November. Trice played well on the tour. On October 12 he pitched a complete-game win against the Birmingham Black Barons in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Later, in Houston, Trice hit a home run against the Negro American League All-Stars. And on November 6 in Laurel, Mississippi, he pitched a six-hitter against the NAL All-Stars.57

In January 1955 Trice signed with the Athletics, who had moved to Kansas City in the offseason.58 He flashed some of the old magic in spring training. “Trice has been impressive,” wrote Ernest Mehl of the Kansas City Star.59 Based on his performance, he made the Athletics roster but as a reliever rather than a starter. He pitched well in his first two appearances but was hammered for four earned runs on five hits in 1⅓ innings of work against the Chicago White Sox. Nine days later, on May 2, he pitched 3⅔ innings against the Washington Senators, giving up five earned runs on six hits. It was his last game in the major leagues.

On May 3, the Athletics sent Trice and infielder Hal Bevan to the Columbus Jets of the International League.60 Trice continued to struggle at Columbus and, in late July, was sent to the Savannah A’s of the Class-A South Atlantic League.61 With Savannah Trice went 3-5 with a 5.00 ERA. On September 15 Kansas City released Trice outright to Columbus.62

In the offseason Trice played with Spur Cola of the Panama winter league. Meanwhile, Columbus sold his contract to the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League.63 Toward the end of the winter-league season, Trice left the team to be with his wife, Florence, for the birth of their first child, Henrietta.64

On March 3, 1956, Trice signed with Sacramento.65 But in early April he was sent back to Columbus. From there, Columbus sent him to the Mexico City Reds of the Mexican League.66

Trice spent the next three seasons with Mexico City. Both pitching and playing in the outfield, he enjoyed his time in Mexico. “Trice is happy,” wrote The Sporting News correspondent Miguel A. Calzadilla. “He’s having fun pitching, playing in the outfield and hitting.”67 On April 9, 1957, his second child, Robert, was born.68 He also played winter-league baseball between the 1956 and 1957 seasons, this time with Cerveza Balboa in Panama.69

Right before the 1959 season, Trice decided to retire.70 He went home to Weirton, West Virginia, where he played semipro basketball and worked as a Hancock County property appraiser.71 Florence and Bob had their third child, Andre, in 1961. In 1967 he opened a bar in Weirton, the After Five Club.72 He eventually took a job with the Weirton Steel Corporation,73 and he also became an assistant baseball coach for Weirton Madonna High School in 1971.74

On September 16, 1988, at the age of 62, Trice died of pancreatic cancer at the Weirton Medical Center.75 He was survived by his wife, Florence, and their three children. He is buried in St. Paul Catholic Cemetery in Weirton.

 

This biography appears in "Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, the Grays, and the 1948 Negro League World Series" (SABR, 2017), edited by Frederick C. Bush and Bill Nowlin.

 

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Negro League experts Scott Simkus and Wayne Stivers for their help.


Notes

1 Dan Daniel, “Pitcher’s Year – With A.L. Out in Front,” The Sporting News, May 19, 1954: 13.

2 Art Morrow, “Promising A’s Hurler (7-8) Wanted Back in Ottawa,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 18, 1954: 33.

3 Art Morrow, “A’s May Call Up Trice, First Negro to Join Club,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 6, 1953: 33.

4 Jack Hand, “Rookie Ace Bob Trice Looks Easy, but Isn’t,” Elmira Star-Gazette, May 10, 1954: 13.

5 Art Morrow, “A’s May Call Up Trice.”

6 Jack Hand.

7 “Canonsburg Elks Win Double-Header Sunday,” Canonsburg (Pennsylvania) Daily Notes, July 21, 1947: 8; “Wellsville’s Giants Edge Weirton Stars,” East Liverpool (Ohio) Review, August 1, 1947: 19.

8 Jack Hand.

9 Art Morrow, “A’s May Call Up Trice.”

10 “Mesa’s Miscue Is Costly to Clown,” Chicago Defender, August 21, 1948: 11.

11 “6,000 Fans Pay Tribute to Grays’ Buck Leonard,” Baltimore Afro-American, September 18, 1948: 7.

12 “’48 NAA Champs Make First Appearance in D.C.,” Baltimore Afro-American, June 4, 1949: 15; “Homestead Grays Play Ral. Clippers Here Tomorrow,” Beckley (West Virginia) Post-Herald, June 24, 1949: 12; “Association All-Stars Meet Homestead Grays Today,” Greensboro (North Carolina) Daily News, August 14, 1949: 6; “Bushwicks Seek Revenge Against Homesteaders,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 3, 1949: 6.

13 “Grays Twice Nip Richmond in NAA Title Play,” Baltimore Afro-American, September 10, 1949: 28.

14 Art Morrow, “A’s May Call Up Trice.”

15 Player card in Trice’s Baseball Hall of Fame file; George Beahon, “In This Corner …,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, August 31, 1953: 15.

16 “Bushwicks Host to Grays Sunday,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 22, 1950: 19.

17 Lionel Hampton, “Show Biz Buzzes,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 15, 1954: 19; George Beahon, “In This Corner.”

18 Lionel Hampton.

19 “Caught on the Fly,” The Sporting News, March 11, 1953.

20 Art Morrow, “A’s May Call Up Trice.”

21 Jack Koffman, “Lofty Trice Tops Int Hurlers With 7th-Spot Ottawa,” The Sporting News, July 22, 1953: 25.

22 “Ottawa,” The Sporting News, June 17, 1953, 26; Cy Kritzer, “International League,” The Sporting News, June 24, 1953: 27.

23 “Ottawa.”

24 “INT Averages,” The Sporting News, July 15, 1953: 42.

25 Jack Koffman.

26 Ibid.

27 “Ottawa.”

28 “Ottawa,” The Sporting News, August 26, 1953: 23.

29 Art Morrow, “A’s Get Peek at Pair of ’53 Farm Prizes,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1953: 6.

30 Art Morrow, “A’s May Call Up Trice”; Art Morrow, “A’s Get Peek.”

31 Art Morrow, “Trice, Ottawa Hill Ace, First Negro to Join Athletics,” The Sporting News, September 16, 1953: 5; “Royals Dominate All-Stars; Walker Named Pilot of ’53,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1953: 23.

32 Art Morrow, “A’s May Call Up Trice.”

33 George Beahon, “In this Corner.”

34 Ibid.

35 “A’s Call Up Star Negro, Bob Trice,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, September 9, 1953: 23; “A’s Give Rookie Negro Sunday Starting Job,” Rockford Morning Star, September 9, 1953: B1.

36 Art Morrow, “A’s Get Peek.”

37 Ibid.

38 Antonio Lutz, “4 Venezuelan Clubs Line Up O.B. Players,” The Sporting News, October 7, 1953: 22; “Major Flashes,” The Sporting News, November 4, 1953: 20.

39 “Rosen and Hodges to Appear With Jackie’s Barnstormers,” The Sporting News, October 7, 1953: 24.

40 Art Morrow, “A’s in No Spot to Shout Wares, But Will Lend an Ear to Offers,” The Sporting News, October 28, 1953: 19.

41 Art Morrow, “Salary Fuss? It’s News to A’s and Gus,” The Sporting News, February 3, 1954: 23.

42 “Growing Player Casualty Lists Turning Grapefruit League Managers Sour,” Troy (New York) Times Record, March 3, 1954: 22.

43 Rip Watson, “23 Walks Feature Exhibition Game,” Aberdeen (South Dakota) American-News, March 22, 1954: 10; Art Morrow, “Fiery Bat Backs Rookie Finigan’s Bid for A’s Post,” The Sporting News, April 14, 1954: 23.

44 Ben Phlegar, “Athletics’ Bob Trice Is Earliest Candidate for Rookie of Year,” Kingston (New York) Daily Freeman, May 1, 1954: 6.

45 Lionel Hampton, “Show Biz Buzzes,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 15, 1954: 19.

46 Art Morrow, “Bob Trice,” The Sporting News, May 5, 1954: 19.

47 Carl Lundquist, ”Bob Trice Beats Tribe For Fourth Pitching Triumph,” Niagara Falls Gazette, May 5, 1954: 47.

48 Jack Hand, “Rookie Ace Bob Trice Looks Easy, but Isn’t,” Elmira Star-Gazette, May 10, 1954: 13.

49 Lionel Hampton, “Show Biz Buzzes.”

50 Art Morrow, “Losses Won’t Spur A’s Into Panic Moves,” The Sporting News, June 2, 1954: 12.

51 Art Morrow, “Promising A’s Hurler (7-8) Wanted Back in Ottawa,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 18, 1954: 33.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid.

54 Art Morrow, “Bob Trice Requests Return to Minors to ‘Have Fun Pitching,’” The Sporting News, July 21, 1954: 31.

55 “Ottawa,” The Sporting News, September 22, 1954: 28.

56 W.S. Coughlin, “Ottawa Scores 4-3 Victory Over Bisons in Extra Inning Game,” Buffalo Courier-Express, September 3, 1954: 21.

57 “Lopat May Miss Barnstorm Trip; Campy Stays Out,” The Sporting News, October 6, 1954: 21; Smith Barrier, “Campy’s All-Stars, Black Barons Draw Better Than in ’53,” The Sporting News, October 20, 1954: 22; “Campy’s Stars 50 Pct. Under their ’53 Gate,” The Sporting News, November 10, 1954: 19; Bill Keefe, “Campy’s Tourists Drew 60,231 in 26-Game Trip,” The Sporting News, November 17, 1954: 18.

58 “DeMaestri Heads 5 A’s in Fold,” Dallas Morning News, January 17, 1955: 22.

59 Ernest Mehl, “Kansas City Athletics,” The Sporting News, April 13, 1955: 5.

60 “A’s Send Bevan, Trice to Columbus,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 4, 1955: 39.

61 “Deals of the Week,” The Sporting News, July 27, 1955: 42.

62 “A’s Release Bob Trice to Take on Youngster,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 16, 1955: 36; “Deals of the Week,” The Sporting News, September 28, 1955: 34.

63 Leo J. Eberenz, “Panama Presidential Pitch Will Open League Play, Dec. 1,” The Sporting News, November 30, 1955: 30; “Solons Buy Trice,” Buffalo Courier-Express, December 3, 1955: 22.

64 Leo J. Eberenz, “Hec Lopez’ 10th Home Run Ties Panama Record,” The Sporting News, February 8, 1956: 27.

65 Tom Kane, “Solon Officials Count 19 on Unsigned Roster,” Sacramento Bee, March 3, 1956: 12.

66 “Trice Is Dropped,” Sacramento Bee, April 12, 1956: 32.

67 Miguel A. Calzadilla, “Trice Having Fun Pitching, Hitting,” The Sporting News, July 30, 1958: 35.

68 “Weirton General Hospital,” Weirton (West Virginia) Daily Times, April 9, 1957: 6.

69 Leo J. Eberenz, “Nine Flingers Used in Game – Loop Record,” The Sporting News, January 23, 1957: 25.

70 Roberto Hernandez, “Tame Tigers Land 4 in Talent Search,” The Sporting News, May 6, 1959: 33.

71 “Three Exciting Games Forecast in Today’s Action,” Weirton Daily Times, April 3, 1959: 22; “Eight Field Deputies for County Tax Program,” Weirton Daily Times, September 12, 1961: 14.

72 “Club Chartered,” Weirton Daily Times, May 1, 1967: 16.

73 “Robert Lee Trice Taken by Death,” Weirton Daily Times, September 19, 1988: 3.

74 “Wellsburg Is Site for ’71 Opener,” Weirton Daily Times, March 31, 1971: 17.

75 West Virginia Death Certificate in Trice’s Baseball Hall of Fame file; “Robert Lee Trice Taken by death.”