The 1945 Negro League World Series was taking place in a postwar America. Japan had surrendered, World War II was over, and the famous “kiss” of a sailor and nurse in a celebratory Times Square sparkled on the cover of Life magazine. Yet old issues remained. “Jim Crow must go!” African American soldiers demanded, in opposition to the laws in the South that enforced segregation. Wendell Smith of the African-American Pittsburgh Courier had recently reported on a mystery meeting between black star Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey. Baseball would help guide American society toward the path of desegregation. But we weren’t there yet.
“Don’t get the idea that baseball was all fun and games for us,” George Jefferson said of the Negro Leagues to Dwayne Cheeks of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1982. “We played a lot of cards and dice to break the monotony of the long bus rides. You saw more trees and bushes than you ever thought existed.”1 There must have been a lot of card playing for Jefferson and the upstart Cleveland Buckeyes as the 1945 Negro League World Series against the champion Homestead Grays was held in Cleveland, Washington, and Philadelphia.
The upstart Buckeyes, winners of the Negro American League pennant, had taken both games in Cleveland: Game One with a tight 2-1 win at Cleveland Stadium, followed by a late-inning comeback to win Game Two, 3-2, at League Park. Both were venues the Buckeyes called “home,” although the true home team, the Cleveland Indians, required both teams to use the visitors’ locker room.2 The teams left the wintry weather in Cleveland by train and headed to Pittsburgh for Game Three. Umpire Harry Walker taught rummy to fellow umps Moe Harris and Fred McCleary as they listened to the falling rain as they traveled south. When they reached Forbes Field, one of the Homestead Grays’ home parks, they learned the game had been canceled. They proceeded to their next location, Griffith Stadium in Washington, another home of the Grays. The Washington Senators and Detroit Tigers had just finished an afternoon game in muddy conditions. Game Four would be played at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, and Game Five in New York, if necessary.
The Homestead Grays were a dynasty in Negro League baseball in the 1940s. They had won back-to-back championships in 1943-1944 and seven out of eight consecutive Negro National League pennants. Their roster included several Negro League legends who were getting up in years: Jud Wilson (49 years old), Cool Papa Bell (42), Buck Leonard (37), Ray Brown (37), Jerry Benjamin (35), Bee Jackson (35), Sam Bankhead (34), and a comparatively “young” Josh Gibson (33).
By contrast, the average of the Buckeyes was under 30. They included Sam “The Jet” Jethroe, the speedster who batted .3393 and would one day be Boston’s first black major-league player. Jethroe had been involved in a “tryout” at Fenway Park with Jackie Robinson earlier in the year. The tryout was more of a publicity stunt, but greater days were ahead when the Boston Braves signed Jethroe.
Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, an opponent of integration, had died. Happy Chandler, his successor, who would soon take office following his term as Kentucky senator, arrived at Griffith Stadium to watch Game Three.4 A supporter of integrating the national pastime, Chandler would later throw that support behind Rickey when he signed Jackie Robinson to a contract. “Some of the things he did for Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe when he was commissioner of baseball,” said Newcombe, who would follow Robinson to the integrated major leagues, “those are the kinds of things we never forget.” He remembered Chandler as someone who cared about blacks in baseball “when it wasn’t fashionable.5
Chandler was joined by anywhere from 6,000 to 7,500 fans that night, depending on the account. Wilbur Hayes, the Cleveland sports promoter, who with nightclub owner Ernest Wright had built the Buckeyes from scratch just three years prior, received a telegram from Ohio Senator Harold H. Burton, who sent his best wishes. Earlier that day, Burton was nominated by President Harry S. Truman to the United States Supreme Court. Burton would play a crucial role in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling which declared that segregating public schools according to race was unconstitutional. The presence of Chandler and Burton foreshadowed changes on the horizon.
“Big” George Jefferson (6-feet-2, 185 pounds) was the Game Three starter for Cleveland. His older brother, Willie, was the Game One winner, while Eugene Bremer won Game Two. “We’d get a few hits and then let the pitchers and the defense do the rest,” remembered manager Quincy Trouppe.6 Jefferson was opposed by the Grays “brilliant southpaw” Roy Welmaker, who “has been the mainstay of the Grays’ pitching corps,” wrote the Pittsburgh Courier.7
This would be a game of pitching and defense as well, with very little play-by-play detail provided in the weekly black newspapers. The Buckeyes plated all the runs they needed in the third when errors by catcher Gibson and pitcher Welmaker and singles by Parnell Woods and Buddy Armour gave the Buckeyes a solid 3-0 lead. Armour scored an insurance run in the ninth on a grounder to short by Jefferson. Armour was credited with two RBIs, Jefferson and Willie Grace with one each. Armour, Jethroe (who also tripled), Woods and Archie Ware accounted for all the runs scored. Each pitcher struck out three; Jefferson walked three, Welmaker two.
“They hit and fielded all of them; made the crowd shout for joy,” Walker wrote. “The Washington fans almost jumped out of their seats when [Johnny] Cowan threw a ball on one knee to retire the side, and [shortstop Avelino] Canizares had them nuts fielding ball after ball that should have been hits,” Walker wrote. “The Buckeyes looked like the New York Yankees in their great days.”8
“Jefferson would turn his body into a windmill and hurl screaming fastballs which broke [a]way from the hitter,” Cheeks wrote. “After feeding them a series of fastballs, Jefferson would throw his sneaky curve ball.”9 Jefferson was definitely on his game this day. He allowed only three scattered hits (some accounts gave two or four hits) en route to the victory. His performance was reported as the first shutout of the Grays since Jack Matchett of the Kansas City Monarchs accomplished the feat in 1942.10 “A pitcher had to get in shape to survive,” Jefferson said in 1982. “Teams carried very few relievers, so you knew that most of the time you would be going the distance.”11
Securing the final out, Jefferson was first greeted by Hayes, the exuberant owner in his “checkered sports shirt which he wore at every game for luck,” who ran onto the field to embrace his victorious pitcher.12
Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier called the Buckeyes a “Cinderella team” who were “fired by determination and youth” and “pulled one of the biggest surprises in baseball history.” The legendary Grays, Smith wrote, were “creaking in the joints, in dire need of replacements, and exhausted from that last siege when they had to win nine games in six days to beat out Baltimore and Newark (for the pennant). The Grays just didn’t have it in ’em against the inspired, fiery Clevelanders.”13
The Buckeyes swept the series with a Game Four shutout, a 5-0 gem by Frank Carswell. It was the only title in the history of the Cleveland Buckeyes.
Cincinnati Enquirer (Associated Press). “Series Game Postponed,” September 18, 1945: 12.
Seamheads Negro League Database. https://seamheads.com/NegroLgs/index.php
1 Dwayne Cheeks, “The Cleveland Buckeyes Remembered,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 18, 1982: 7-D.
2 Bob Dolgan, “Championship Memories: The Underdog Cleveland Buckeyes Were Negro League Champs in 1945,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 26, 1996: 1C.
3 According to the Seamheads Negro League Database
4 “Buckeyes Win, 4-0; Need 1 More,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 19, 1945: 14.
5 Robert McG. Thomas Jr., “A.B. (Happy) Chandler, 92, Dies; Led Baseball Integration,” New York Times, June 16, 1991.
6 Cheeks; “Here’s Buckeye Pitching Staff, Rated Peerless,” Cleveland Call & Post, September 15, 1945. Negro League statistics vary from source to source. Bob Williams called this a “sloppy, slipshod method in which official figures are compiled for the league which calls itself bigtime, intelligent baseball business,” “Sports Rambler,” Call & Post, September 8, 1945.
7 “Grays and Cleveland Set for World Series,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 15, 1945: 12.
8 Harry Walker, “World Series — Dots and Dashes,” Cleveland Call & Post, September 29, 1945: 6B.
10 “Cleveland Captures 1945 World Baseball Crown,” Baltimore Afro-American, September 22, 1945: 26.
13 Wendell Smith, “The Sports Beat,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 29, 1945: 12.