Sunday, February 12, 2012

105. Eddie Boland: Major League Recycling

Let’s play a game: It’s 1943 and you’re the owner of a cellar-dwelling major league baseball team. What good players you’ve managed to scrounge up for your team have been drafted into the service and won’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Cuban players you imported to fill their place all scurried back home when they realized as residents of the U.S. they too were liable for the draft. As you contemplate your lot in life, you gaze out your office window which happens to look onto the magnificent baseball stadium that is named after you. Two semi-pro teams are warming up to play a game while your big league team is on the road (probably losing, you think to yourself). You notice the crowd. There’s over 10,000 fans in the stands and this isn’t even a major league game - in fact most sports fans have no idea who these players are. Trying hard not to think of your own team and to avoid the temptation to check the scores, you settle down to watch this baseball game below.

Right away, three players catch your attention and you follow their play during the course of the game:

Player A is a 23 year-old right handed pitcher. Over the course of 9 innings he strikes out 3 and gives up a single walk. Besides a spot of trouble in the 3rd inning where he gave up 4 hits, he scatters 5 hits harmlessly across 9 innings of work. Not a strike-out power-pitcher, he lets the batters hit the ball harmlessly to his fielders. This player is not currently in organized ball and is available to be signed immediately.

Player B is a 35 year-old right fielder. Over the course of the game he hits a single and a double in 4 at bats and commits an error when he misplays a fly ball. Asking around you find he once played for Philadelphia 8 years ago and in 38 games he hit just under .250. This player is not currently in organized ball and is available to be signed immediately.

Player C is a 31 year-old catcher. He smashes an RBI triple and a home run in your cavernous ballpark that was so impressive the entire crowd of 10,000 stood as one and cheered wildly. Looking at the crowd you can see he is the most popular player on the field. This player is not currently in organized ball and is available to be signed immediately.

Now all of these players are available to be signed to your team ASAP. In fact, they would love the opportunity to play in the big leagues. As a veteran appraiser of athletic ability, you can spot major league talent like no one else and you decide to offer a contract to one of those three men you watched today. Which one would it be? Washington Senators’ owner Clark Griffith was put in this same position as he watched those 2 teams play in his stadium in 1943 and was faced with the exact choice of ballplayers I offered above.

Griffith chose to sign Player B. But before we find out about Griff's pick, let‘s take a quick look at the 2 players he passed up:

If you picked Player A, you decided on Johnny Wright. He was the young ace of the Homestead Grays, one of the two teams playing that day. He was selected to pitch in the East-West All-Star Game that year as well as finish the season with a 31-5 record against all levels of competition. He would go on to be signed by Branch Rickey along with Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in 1946. Although his major league career wasn’t terribly successful, he only got his chance after serving 2 years in the Navy during the war so he was not at his prime as a player. In 1943, he was.

Player C was the indomitable Josh Gibson. Although he might have been slowing down a touch at age 31, Gibson was still an unbelievable slugger whose home run totals in Griffith Stadium usually surpassed the home run total hit in that stadium by the entire Senators team. His average for the 1943 season was an astonishing .474 and the next year it was .345. Along with Satchel Paige, Gibson was the most popular black baseball player in 1943 and his presence on a major league team would bring in a huge amount of fans just to see him play.

But to Griffith, Player A and Player C have a major flaw: Wright and Gibson are black. While Griffith had to have realized that their talent was better than anyone on his roster, he was not a brave man and being the first to integrate the majors was not something he could bring himself to do. Upholding a sinister unwritten ban on blacks was more important than fielding a winning team his fan base could be proud of. No, Griffith looked over the field that day and decided on Player B: Eddie Boland.

Eddie Boland was a 35 year-old ex-pro ballplayer from New York City who was playing outfield for the Brooklyn Bushwicks that day in 1943 against Wright, Gibson and the Homestead Grays. Boland had spent 8 years toiling in the minor leagues and had a cup of coffee in the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies in 38 games spread over 2 seasons where hit just under .250. Stuck in the high minors with Buffalo, Boland called it quits after the 1938 season and went home to New York where he took a job with the Department of Sanitation.

Back in the 1920’s-40’s the metropolitan area was a hotbed of sizzling semi-pro ball clubs, some equalling the level of a AAA minor league team. The New York City public servants such as the police, fire and sanitation department all fielded highly competitive ball clubs chock-full of major league castoffs.

Boland played for the best of the city servant teams, the Department of Sanitation, and his skills so renown that he also played for 4 other top-draw semi-pro teams. His extra-curricular schedule for 1943-44 was kind of hard to believe:

Thursday: night game for the Stamford (Connecticut) Pioneers
Friday: night game for Cederhurst, Long Island club
Saturday: day game for the inmates at Kings Park prison
Sunday: double-header day games for Mt. Vernon plus a night game with Cederhurst again.

If you weren’t counting, that makes a total of 6 games a week. Boland was definitely in playing shape if nothing else. So while he was no where near as talented as Wright, let alone Gibson, Boland was a decent prospect considering the depleted talent pool to choose from.

When the Senators approached him with a contract, initially Boland balked - his job at the Department of Sanitation was much more steady than restarting a big league career at age 35. Eventually he agreed to play the outfield for Washington, but only during his annual vacation from his job and with one major stipulation - that he be free to participate in the annual game between his Sanitation team and the New York City Police Department in the Polo Grounds in September.

So while other garbage men took their late summer vacations at the Jersey Shore or up in the Poconos, Eddie Boland spent it roaming the outfield for the Washington Senators. In 19 games he batted a respectable .271 with 4 doubles and 14 RBI’s. Not bad for a guy that was, as the the sportswriters of the day liked to say, was "literally picked off the scrap heap."

The next season Boland decided to give in to the temptation of professional ball again and played for Buffalo in the International League but the war ended and he was out of pro ball again after 1947.

While the white press made much out of the signing of Boland, kind of a rags-to-riches, feel-good underdog story, the black press had a conniption over it. It was bad enough that the majors brought up sub-standard talent to keep the leagues going, and sure it was really tough to stand by and watch as teams like the Senators imported foreigners to fill their depleted rosters, but Boland’s signing was just too tough to take. Here was 2 whole leagues (the Negro National and Negro American Leagues) filled with at least 2 dozen can’t-miss major leaguers and the Senators go and sign up a has-been semi-pro garbage man?

It was a slap in the face to black Americans and the outrage it caused helped spur on the movement to get the major leagues to integrate. In the late summer of 1944, that moment was barely 2 years away...

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