September 23, 1945: At 49, Jud Wilson becomes oldest player to hit a home run in the Negro Leagues

This article was written by Gary Belleville

Jud Wilson (TRADING CARD DB)The Cleveland Buckeyes swept the venerated Homestead Grays in the 1945 Negro League World Series, clinching the series with a 5-0 win on September 20. The Grays came into the best-of-seven series as the two-time defending champions and winners of eight of the previous nine Negro National League pennants.1 But they were no match for the brilliant pitching and outstanding defense of the youthful Buckeyes,2 who outscored them 15-3 in the series. Although Homestead boasted five future Hall of Famers on its roster, all five had seen better days.

The youngest of the group, 33-year-old Josh Gibson, had been dealing with various health issues over the previous three seasons.3 He died just 16 months after the Series. Thirty-seven-year-old Ray Brown had experienced a steep drop-off in his production in 1945 and was playing in his final major-league season.4 Buck Leonard had just turned 38; he could still swing the bat with authority, but his defense had become suspect.5 Cool Papa Bell remained a productive outfielder at age 42 despite having played on bad knees for several seasons.6 And the eldest of the Grays, 49-year-old Jud “Boojum” Wilson, had been battling epilepsy for the past few years.7

Wilson, whose professional career began in 1922 with the Baltimore Black Sox, was still able to hit .306 in 1945. The stocky left-handed swinger was one of the greatest pure hitters ever, posting a .352 average in 21 big-league seasons.8 Only four major-league players with at least 3,000 plate appearances had recorded a higher batting average as of 2021: Ty Cobb (.366), Oscar Charleston (.364), Rogers Hornsby (.358), and Shoeless Joe Jackson (.356).

Wilson’s hitting prowess was held in extremely high regard by his peers. Satchel Paige ranked him as one of the two toughest batters he ever faced,9 while Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe felt that Wilson was an even better – though less powerful – hitter than Gibson.10

Even though Cleveland’s fourth win over the Grays gave the Buckeyes the title, the teams continued to play exhibition games. Game Six had been scheduled for Yankee Stadium on September 23.11 The Grays and Buckeyes played an exhibition doubleheader on that Sunday afternoon instead. The threat of rain limited the turnout to 8,000.12

The ceremonial first pitch was thrown out by Judge Jonah J. Goldstein, one of the candidates for mayor of New York City in the coming election. Before tossing the first pitch to Gibson, Goldstein had scribbled the word “Discrimination” on the baseball. The candidate promised that if elected he would do his utmost “to assure Negro Americans equal rights in baseball.”13 “There should only be one test [for playing in the National or American League],” Goldstein said. “The ability to play ball.”14

The first game of the doubleheader was a rematch of Game Three starters from five days earlier.15 The Cleveland hurler, 23-year-old right-hander George Jefferson, had thrown a three-hit, complete-game shutout against Homestead at Griffith Stadium to secure a 4-0 victory. It was the first time the Grays had been shut out in a nine-inning game since Paige and Jack Matchett of the Kansas City Monarchs teamed up to turn the trick in Game One of the 1942 Negro League World Series.16

Homestead countered with its ace, Roy Welmaker. The 31-year-old southpaw started – and lost – Games One and Three despite giving up only three earned runs in his 17 innings on the hill. In those two frustrating losses, the Grays could muster just a single run against Buckeyes pitching.

Cleveland got to Welmaker early in the exhibition affair. A single by 28-year-old Sam Jethroe in the top of the first inning brought home the Buckeyes’ Cuban sparkplug, Avelino Cañizares, with the game’s first run.17

The Grays came roaring back, scoring a single run in the second, three more in the third, and another pair in the fifth to take a 6-1 lead. As of July 2021, detailed play-by-play information could not be found for this game. What has been deduced is that in one of those three half-innings, Wilson slammed a home run off Jefferson.

The six-run outburst knocked Jefferson out of the game. He was replaced by his 41-year-old brother, Willie, who limited the Grays to one run in his three innings of work.

Welmaker held the Buckeyes off the scoresheet for the remainder of the game, and the Grays gained a small measure of revenge with a 7-1 victory over the new champions. Welmaker’s outing wasn’t pretty. He allowed 12 hits and walked two batters, although he managed to wiggle out of several jams and strand 13 Cleveland baserunners.

Gibson led the Homestead offense with two hits, a pair of RBIs, and three runs scored. Wilson and Sam Bankhead also knocked in two runs each, while center fielder Jerry Benjamin chipped in with three hits, including a pair of doubles.

Although it appears that the press failed to comment on Wilson’s homer, his blast was the game’s most significant event. At the age of 49 years, 206 days, Wilson became the oldest player to hit a home run in a major-league game.18

The previous record holder, Biz Mackey of the Newark Eagles, had set the standard less than three months earlier. The future Hall of Fame catcher homered against the Philadelphia Stars on July 1 at the age of 47 years, 339 days. Mackey’s round-tripper was also hit at Yankee Stadium. As of the start of the 2021 season, the four oldest players to hit a home run in a big-league game (in descending order of age) were Wilson, Julio Franco, Mackey, and Jack Quinn.19

This contest was one of the last major-league games in Wilson’s storied career,20 and he retired from baseball after the 1945 season with little fanfare. There was no “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” moment for Jud Wilson.

After Wilson’s baseball career ended, he worked on the road crew that constructed the Whitehurst Freeway in the District of Columbia and, later, as a janitor.21 He was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

Brown, the losing pitcher in Game Four of the Negro League World Series, was the hitting star in the second game of the twin bill. He played in the outfield and drove in four runs with a homer and a double to lead the Grays to another 7-1 victory.22 It was also one of Brown’s final big-league games, although he went on to play four more years in México and another five in Québec.23

The Grays and Buckeyes played six exhibition games between Game One of the Negro League World Series and the end of September. The peripatetic Grays also played an exhibition game at the Polo Grounds against the New York Cubans on the day between Games Three and Four and another the day after Game Four at Dexter Park in Queens, New York, against the independent semipro Brooklyn Bushwicks.24

Homestead won five of the six exhibition games against the Buckeyes and outscored them 24-9.25 One might be tempted to suggest the Grays were the better team and that they lost the championship simply because of poor timing. It was more likely that the Buckeyes eased up with nothing on the line.26 “Despite their creaking joints and long, gray beards,” wrote Wendell Smith in the Pittsburgh Courier, “the Grays are still the second-best team in baseball.”27

 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Gary Ashwill for his guidance and invaluable research assistance.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Negro Leagues Database at Seamheads.com, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

https://www.retrosheet.org/NegroLeagues/boxesetc/NgLg/B09231HOM1945.htm

 

Notes

1 The only year in which the Grays did not win the Negro National League pennant between 1937 and 1945 was 1939, when they were upset by the Baltimore Elite Giants in the league championship series. According to Seamheads.com, the Grays had posted a league-best 36-19-1 record against Negro National League opponents in the regular season.

2 Bob Williams, “Sports Rambler,” Cleveland Call and Post, September 29, 1945: 6B.

3 Bill Johnson, “Josh Gibson,” SABR BioProject, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/josh-gibson/, accessed July 12, 2021.

4 Brown went 11-1 with a 2.71 ERA in 1944 and 3-2 with a 4.50 ERA in 1945.

5 Russ J. Cowans, “Sport Chatter,” Michigan Chronicle (Detroit), September 15, 1945: 15.

6 Lonnie Wheeler, The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell (New York: Abrams Press, 2021), 216-17.

7 Wheeler, 239.

8 Wilson’s .352 career batting average was according to Baseball Reference as of July 12, 2021.

9 Chino Smith was the other player Paige mentioned.

10 Joseph Gerard, “Jud Wilson,” SABR BioProject, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/jud-wilson/, accessed July 12, 2021. According to Baseball Reference, Gibson had a higher career batting average than Cobb. Since Gibson was credited with fewer than 3,000 plate appearances, he is not listed among the career leaders in batting average.

11 “Series Schedule,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 15, 1945: 12.

12 “Goldstein Says He’ll Fight Jim Crow in Sports,” New York Amsterdam News, September 29, 1945: 1. The New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers both played doubleheaders at home that day. The Giants drew 10,596 fans at the Polo Grounds, while 10,476 faithful came out to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers.

13 Goldstein finished a distant second in the race for mayor behind William O’Dwyer.

14 “Goldstein Says He’ll Fight Jim Crow in Sports.”

15 Senator Happy Chandler was in attendance for Game Three of the Negro League World Series in Washington. He would soon play an important supporting role in Jackie Robinson’s journey to integrate baseball. Although Chandler had been elected baseball commissioner five months earlier, he did not take over the reins until he resigned his Senate seat on November 1. He called the Buckeyes a “marvelous playing organization.” “Key Personalities Who Sparked Amazing Championship of Cinderella Team,” Cleveland Call and Post, September 29, 1945: 6B.

16 “Cleveland Captures 1945 World Baseball Crown: Buckeyes Win 4 Straight from Tottering Grays Capital Clan,” Baltimore Afro-American, September 29, 1945: 23. The Grays were also shut out by Frank Carswell in Game Four of the 1945 Negro League World Series at Shibe Park.

17 Jethroe, along with Jackie Robinson and Marvin Williams, had taken part in a bogus tryout with the Boston Red Sox just five months earlier. The Boston Braves became the fifth National or American League team to integrate when Jethroe debuted with the Braves on April 18, 1950. He won the National League Rookie of the Year Award that season at the age of 33. 

18 Jud Wilson’s birthdate was unclear until the early part of the twenty-first century. Negro Leagues historian Gary Ashwill spent a significant amount of time researching Wilson’s birthdate. In an email to the author on July 7, 2021, Mr. Ashwill confirmed that Wilson was likely born on February 29, 1896.

19 Franco hit his final major-league home run on May 4, 2007, at the age of 48 years, 254 days. Quinn’s last big-league homer was in the second game of a doubleheader on June 27, 1930, at the age of 46 years, 361 days.

20 The Grays played at least three more games in 1945 after Wilson homered on September 23. In addition to the second game of that twin bill, they also played exhibition games on September 28 and 30 against the Buckeyes. As of July 12, 2021, no box scores had been uncovered for those three games.

21 Gerard, “Jud Wilson.”

22 “Grays Snatch 2 Games from Clevelanders,” New York Amsterdam News, September 29, 1945: 22.

23 Bill Young, “Ray Brown in Canada: His Forgotten Years,” The National Pastime, Volume 27 (2007), https://sabr.org/journal/article/ray-brown-in-canada-his-forgotten-years/, accessed July 12, 2021.

24 The Grays lost by identical 4-2 scores to the New York Cubans on September 19 and the Brooklyn Bushwicks on September 21.

25 The six exhibition games between the Grays and Buckeyes were played on September 14, 1945, at Hudson Field in Dayton, Ohio (Homestead 3, Cleveland 1); September 22 at Wilmington Park in Wilmington, Delaware (Cleveland 4, Homestead 1); September 23 at Yankee Stadium (Homestead 7, Cleveland 1 in both games of the doubleheader); September 28 at Hudson Field (Homestead 4, Cleveland 2), and September 30 at Cleveland Stadium (Homestead 2, Cleveland 0).

26 In the September 29, 1945, edition of the Cleveland Call and Post, sportswriter Bob Williams suggested that the Buckeyes played “letup baseball” in the exhibition games.

27 Wendell Smith, “The Sports Beat,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 29, 1945: 16.

Additional Stats

Homestead Grays  7
Cleveland Buckeyes 1
Game 1, DH


Yankee Stadium
New York, NY

 

Box Score + PBP:

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