As 1945 dawned, World War II was winding down toward its inexorable conclusion. Allied troops were moving through Europe, making their way toward Berlin – and presenting the question of how to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific Theater after Germany’s surrender.
Sports were in a precarious position as well. High school, college and minor league teams suspended operations as men who would play or coach joined the service. Professional football teams merged, and although Major League Baseball was deemed vital for morale in Franklin Roosevelt’s “green light letter,” travel was kept down.
Things were even more tenuous in the Negro Leagues. If Major League Baseball had a green light, the Negro Leagues, formed as a place for black ballplayers to play for largely black crowds, had an “amber light,” according to the Cleveland Call and Post, the newspaper serving the black community.
In the team’s spring meetings, travel was cut 25 percent, and expansion was limited. But it still looked like a good season was shaping up for Cleveland’s entry into the Negro American League, the Buckeyes.
The Buckeyes had started three years earlier, and originally were scheduled to split their time between Cleveland and Cincinnati. But the team made League Park its full-time home – unlike the Indians, who were splitting time between League Park and Municipal Stadium, which had lights installed for night baseball – the following year. In 1944, the Buckeyes finished one game below .500 with players like Sam Jethroe – who had won the Negro American League batting title – and Sam Jones. Another piece was needed.
And the Buckeyes got it, signing Quincy Trouppe to be the team’s player-manager. Troupe, a catcher, drew favorable comparisons to Josh Gibson, regarded as the greatest player in the Negro Leagues – and probably one of the greatest in any league. “He hits the ball hard and is a fine receiver, with a true fast-throwing arm and the ability to catch and throw with lightning like speed,” said Buckeyes General Manager Wilbur Hayes.
The season would begin on May 6, divided into two halves. The first half would begin with the Buckeyes playing the defending league champions, the Birmingham Black Barons, and end on the Fourth of July, with the Buckeyes playing the Monarchs in Kansas City. The Monarchs had won four straight Negro League championships ending in 1942, and with their newest player, a former UCLA football star named Jackie Robinson, and Satchel Paige, regarded as one of the best pitchers of his day, were expected to contend.
As the Buckeyes made their way through spring training, Jethroe was called to try out for the Boston Red Sox. Could the Buckeyes lose their best player – but to the major leagues, which was all white under a “gentlemen’s agreement?” As it turned out, the tryout was just to keep Boston officials happy, and allow the Red Sox to continue to use Fenway Park for Sunday baseball. Jethroe was never even informed by the team that he didn’t make the cut.
The Buckeyes were ready to open the season against the Barons, who the Call and Post said were feeling cocky. But the Buckeyes were feeling optimistic too. “We put up a good fight and held our own,” Hayes said after splitting a six-game series in Texas with the Cuban All-Stars. “Trouppe’s great catching is making all the difference with our pitching staff.”