On January 15, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt penned the famous “green light” letter to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. In the letter, President Roosevelt addressed Commissioner Landis’s query about playing baseball in the wake of the Second World War. FDR believed that playing the sport would be good for Americans, and he encouraged baseball owners to hold more night games in order to allow workers to attend games.
Here’s a piece by Michael Ceraolo based on the Jun 24, 1946 crash involving a bus carrying the Spokane Indians of Minor League Baseball. The bus crashed on Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State in what is considered one of the worst accidents in the history of American professional sports. Nine players were killed in the accident, and six were injured. Eight of those who died had served in World War II.
Since I was the player-manager
(though only 25),
I will take the responsibility to speak for the rest
Frederick “Marty” Martinez
and me, Mel Cole,
were members of the Spokane Indians team
On June 24, 1946,
enroute to Bremerton for the next day’s game,
our bus swerved to avoid an oncoming car,
falling three hundred feet down and bursting into flames
Marty, George Risk, the three Bobs, and I
were dead at the scene
Vic died on the way to the hospital,
George Lyden died the next day,
and Chris died two days later
Vic, not yet 19, was the best prospect among us;
the rest of us were older and had served during the war,
probably ending any major-league dreams for us
The driver of the oncoming car was never found
Having obtained his parents’ permission, Joe Nuxhall signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds on February 18, 1944 at the age of fifteen years old. Nuxhall would become the youngest player ever to appear in a major league game, tossing 2/3 of an inning for Cincinnati that June, with forty-nine days to go until his sixteenth birthday.
Last year for Jackie Robinson Day, I took a closer look at Robinson’s career as a football player. This year, I decided it would be fun to take a look at his career as a basketball player. In addition to playing professional baseball and semi-professional football, I was impressed to learn that Robinson also played a season of professional basketball.
As many know, Jackie Robinson was, and remains to this day, the only four-sport varsity letterman in the history of UCLA, lettering in football, baseball, basketball, and track. He played forward with the school’s basketball team and was a tremendous leaper, having also set the collegiate broad jump record. In 1940 and 1941, Robinson led the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division (now Pac-12) in scoring (12.4 average in 12 league games in 1940; 11.1 average in 12 league games in 1941). In addition to his scoring, Robinson was known as a quick player with excellent ball handling skills.
After his basketball career at UCLA had ended in 1941, Robinson abandoned his senior year spring track season and left college to pursue outside athletic interests. After some time playing semi-professional football, Robinson found himself drafted into the Army as the United States entered World War II. Following the war, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, eventually being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946 to play for the club’s minor league franchise, the Montreal Royals.
After completing the season with Montreal, Robinson returned home to Pasadena, California. In October 1946, Robinson signed a professional basketball contract with the Los Angeles Red Devils, a racially integrated professional basketball team. The Red Devils only lasted two seasons, but with a lineup that included forwards Jackie Robinson, Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame member George Crowe, and Pasadena City College standout Irv Noren; guards Everett “Ziggy” Marcelle, a former Harlem Globetrotter, and USC All-American Eddie Oram; and Stanford star Art Stoefen at center, the team was a force to be reckoned with.
The Red Devils had been organized seeking to join the National Basketball League (NBL), which, in its merger talks with the NBA, wanted a West Coast franchise. The team played home games at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. During the 1946-47 season, with Robinson on their roster, they crushed the Sheboygan Redskins of the NBL, on two occasions. They also defeated the New York Renaissance, which had a lineup that included future New York City Basketball Hall of Fame member Clarence “Puggy” Bell and future NBA player Hank DeZonie. Like the Sheboygan team, the Red Devils defeated the Renaissance twice.
Jackie Robinson left the Red Devils abruptly in January 1947. At the time, few people understood why. In retrospect, the reason becomes clear: Robinson parted ways with the Red Devils just after a Branch Rickey visit to Los Angeles. A few months later, on April 15, 1947, Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbetts Field and went on to be named the 1947 Rookie of the Year.
In spite of his success on the baseball diamond, basketball still reached out to Robinson from time to time. Abe Saperstein offered Robinson a pro contract worth $10,000 with bonuses to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. Though this amount was double what Robinson made with the Dodgers, he declined the offer. He also received a pro basketball offer from the Canton Cushites, an all-black team that featured future Football Hall of Fame member Marion Motley and future Baseball Hall of Fame member Larry Doby. Robinson declined that offer, also.
Though the Red Devils ultimately did not last, it does seem Robinson had some fond memories of his time with the team. “There were some exceptionally good basketball players with name value on the squad,” he reminisced. “We had, I think, a really fine team.”
Ted Williams won the American League Most Valuable Player award on November 14, 1946. The award was bestowed upon Williams after having finished second to the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio (1941) and Joe Gordon (1942). The Splendid Splinter missed the last three seasons due to serving in the military during World War II, but returned to baseball hitting .342 with 38 homers and 123 RBIs.
On September 9, 1945, Dick Fowler of the Philadelphia Athletics became the first Canadian to throw a major league no-hitter when he defeated the Browns, 1-0. It was Fowler’s first start in three years, having just returned from service in the Canadian Army during World War II. The no-hitter was also the first by an Athletics pitcher since 1916.
Before Jackie Robinson made his mark by breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, he was a four-sport star at UCLA, playing baseball, football, basketball, and running track. He remains the only four-letter athlete in the school’s history. In his final year playing football for the school, Robinson led the Bruins in rushing (383 yards), passing (444 yards), total offense (827 yards), scoring (36 points), and punt return average (21 yards). You can see a bit of footage from Robinson’s football days at UCLA here:
Robinson even went on to play a bit of semi-pro football. In September 1941, he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he played football for the semi-professional Honolulu Bears for $100 a game. His career with the Bears was cut short, however, when Robinson was drafted into the Army during World War II.
After World War II, Robinson briefly returned to football with the Los Angeles Bulldogs. He then was offered a job as athletic director at Samuel Houston College in Austin, and as part of that role, he coached the basketball team for the 1944-1945 season.
It was in early 1945 that the Kansas City Monarchs offered Jackie a place on their team in the Negro Leagues. Robinson then signed with the minor league Montreal Royals following the 1945 season.
The rest, as we know, is history.
Happy Jackie Robinson Day!
Former minor leaguer Bert Shepard began his tryout with the Washington Senators on March 15, 1945 in spite of only having one leg. Shepard had his right leg amputated during World War II after his fighter plane had been shot down on a mission over Germany. Not only did Shepard have a successful tryout, he would go on to pitch one game for the Senators. In the appearance, which took place in August of that year against the Boston Red Sox, Shepard pitched 5⅓ innings of relief, allowing only three hits and one run, striking out his first batter. It made him the first man with an artificial leg to pitch in a major league baseball game.
On December 19, 1936, the Boston Braves purchased second baseman Eddie Mayo from the Giants. Mayo, however, would not see a lot of playing time with the Braves, hitting only .216 in the time he did get to play. After leaving Boston in 1938, Mayo would not appear in a major league game for five years, playing instead for the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League. When World War II broke out, however, and the league was depleted of players, Mayo became a productive player for the Tigers, being named the Most Valuable Player by The Sporting News in 1945.