Thursday, August 27, 2015

203. Sammy T. Hughes: A Second Look at Blackball's Greatest Second Baseman

Now that my book is wrapped up and on the book shelves, I returned to a series I've been working on for a few years: Bluegrass Baseball. Kentucky is my adapted home and I wanted to do a baseball tribute to the wonderful place that has welcomed this journeyman artist with open arms. While there aren't dozens of Hall of Famers that hailed from Kentucky, there are quite a few interesting characters that played a significant part in the history of our National Pastime. Over the past couple of years I've featured a few of them: Happy Chandler, Fred Toney, Casey Stengel, Mickey Stubblefield, Pee Wee Reese, Humpty Badel and Bob Bowman. As anyone who's followed my blog over the years knows, I'm particularly drawn to the history of the Negro Leagues in Baltimore, especially the Elite Giants. One of the early stories and illustrations I posted was of the Elites' second baseman Sammy T. Hughes. All but forgotten today, Hughes was considered by most Negro League players and writers as the best second baseman blackball produced. When I lived in Charm City back in the late 80's and 90's, every old fan I interviewed spoke of the Elites' "Sammy T". Hughes was also a native of Kentucky so when I began planning my Bluegrass Baseball book I knew Sammy T. needed a full page illustration.

The only problem with the Baseball Hall of Fame is that Sammy T. Hughes ain’t in it. 

During the 1930’s and 40’s Hughes was the best second baseman in blackball. According to Cum Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays, Sammy T. was the best second sacker he'd ever seen. This from a guy whose involvement with Negro League baseball stretched back to the 1910's.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1910, Hughes started out as a first baseman with his hometown semi-pro Louisville White Sox in 1929 and two years later the team turned pro and joined the Negro National League. 1932 saw Hughes join the Washington Pilots where he switched to second base. When that franchise folded later that year he joined the Nashville Elite Giants.

Owned by black businessman Tom Wilson, the Elite Giants started out in Nashville but were destined to keep changing home base as they searched for a city with an appreciative fan base. Hughes was a true rarity for the time, a franchise player back when contracts meant nothing and jumping from one club to another was just another part of the game. Hughes was the Elites’ man at second through their moves from Nashville to Columbus to Washington, D.C. and finally in 1938, Baltimore, Maryland.

In Charm City the Elite Giants found a town with thousands of fans hungry for a black team. The great black newspaper, The Afro-American, was based in Baltimore and provided good coverage of the Elites during their tenure in the city. The team thrived in the environment and the fans were rewarded in 1939 when they won the Negro National League Championship in a 4-team playoff between the Homestead Grays, Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles and Elite Giants.

Over 6'-3" and close to 200lbs, Sammy T. Hughes was described by his contemporaries as a superior base runner, line drive hitter and artful bunter. At second he possessed the dexterity of a ballerina equipped with a rifle for an arm. On top of all that, Sammy T. played the game smart and he was a leader on the field. Fans acknowledged his skill and Hughes was voted to the annual East-West All-Star game five times in his career, more than any other second baseman. Usually batting second in the lineup, he consistently batted over .300 and executed the hit-and-run play like he invented it. From 1935 to 1942 Sammy T. was like an automatic double machine, either leading the league or finishing in the top five for two base hits each year. In exhibition games against Major Leaguers Hughes hit the white pitching at a .350 clip.

An event that never actually happened provides the best proof that Sammy T. was one of the best ball players produced by the Negro Leagues: In 1942 the Communist newspaper “The Peoples Voice” arranged a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates for three Negro Leaguers. Of all the untapped blackball talent it was Hughes along with Roy Campanella and pitcher Dave Barnhill who were chosen for the historic tryout. All three men showed up in Pittsburgh but Pirates owner William Benswanger backed out at the last minute. The aborted tryout received much press coverage at the time and sports writers both black and white figured Hughes to be a can’t-miss candidate to break the color line. This high appraisal of Sammy T. wasn't just due to his statistics: like Jackie Robinson, Hughes was evaluated for the way he conducted himself off the field. Sammy T.'s decade of loyalty to the Elite Giants spoke to his dedication towards his team and his clean-living made him stand out from many ball players regardless of color. New York Black Yankees player Dick Seay had this to say of Hughes: “a nice fellow. He wasn’t one of those guys that was drinking and all. He’d stay in the hotel and go get his girl and visit her.”

Unfortunately we never got to see what Sammy T. could do in the major leagues. World War II interrupted Hughes' career and he served three years in the Pacific. After his discharge from the Army he returned to Baltimore, but only after holding out for a bigger pay check. Although he hit only .277, Sammy T. rendered an even greater service by acting as mentor the Elites’ young second baseman Junior Gilliam. The veteran's unselfish tutoring made Gilliam into an All-Star second baseman for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. With Gilliam firmly in place as his replacement, Hughes settled down in Los Angeles and worked for Hughes Aircraft and Pillsbury, passing away in 1981. 

Every time the Hall of Fame convenes one of their Negro League committees, Sammy T. Hughes' name makes the conversation but he's always pushed aside by players of lesser talent who played for more well-known teams or had more friends among the powers-that-be. Someday the Elites' second baseman may get the recognition he deserves, but until then Cooperstown will not complete until Sammy T. gets in there.

Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker - like the creep on Good Reads that said I should have had someone who knows English write the copy (that was a surprise as Simon & Schuster's editing process is quite impressive and very rigorous). I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.

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