The Buckeyes’ Negro League championship was a big deal – to the black community.
Although the team was covered regularly by the Call and Post, it received little notice in the mainstream press. But it wouldn’t be long before black baseball players were the toast of Cleveland – although not with the Buckeyes.
Integration was at hand.
The Buckeyes took a commanding lead of two games to none in the 1945 Negro World Series with them into Pittsburgh – but they were playing the Homestead Grays, so the lead was by no means insurmountable.
The Grays fielded a team with no less than five future hall of famers, and had won the previous eight Negro National League pennants and two Negro League World Series. They hadn’t even been shut out in four years.
Playing baseball in the Negro Leagues was a nomadic existence. It wasn’t uncommon for a team to play in multiple home fields in the same season. The Buckeyes started as a team dividing its time between Cleveland and Cincinnati. The Clowns divided their schedule between Cincinnati and Indianapolis, and the Homestead Grays – started in their eponymous city outside of Pittsburgh – played most of their home games at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C.
It also entailed numerous exhibitions (although in the days before a strong players’ union, the same thing occurred in Major League Baseball as well). So it wasn’t too out of the ordinary to see the Cleveland Buckeyes take on the Chattanooga Choo Choos in an exhibition on September 9, four days before they were slated to take on the Grays in the Negro World Series.
There was little more than a month left in the Negro League regular season after the East-West All-Star Game, and the Buckeyes, already winners of the first half of the season, had designs on taking the second half as well – and a date in the Negro World Series.
The Buckeyes didn’t have the star power of some other teams – the Homestead Grays had Josh Gibson, regarded as the best power hitter in the Negro Leagues (and possibly all of baseball), and the Monarchs had Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson – but they played well together and had more than their fair share of talent. The entire lineup was hitting over .300, led by Sam Jethroe, who had raised his batting average to a robust .409, and led the league with 16 stolen bases and eight triples. Buddy Armour was fourth in the league with a .360 average, and Archie Ware led the league with 36 RBI.
The East-West All-Star Game for the Negro Leagues started in the same year as the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, 1933. In fact, they were both played at Comiskey Park in their first year.
The Major League All-Star Game was originally conceived as a one-off by Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward to coincide with the Century of Progress World’s Fair of 1933, but became an annual tradition, for decades providing the only opportunity outside of exhibitions and the World Series where players from the National and American Leagues would meet.
The East-West game was divided not by leagues but by geographic regions, with Pittsburgh serving as the westernmost point to be considered part of the “east.” The game was created to be a moneymaker for owners of Negro League teams, who were subject not just to the Depression, but to the prejudices of the day – which could also take a toll on their pocketbooks.
The Cleveland Buckeyes started out as an Ohio team, with the plan to play home games in Cincinnati and Cleveland. But they proved more popular in Northern Ohio than Southern Ohio (and travel distance became a problem), and soon made Cleveland their permanent home.
Cincinnati then became home to the Clowns, who began as an independent barnstorming team, the Ethiopian Clowns. They then split their time between Cincinnati and Indianapolis (ultimately making Indianapolis their full-time home starting in 1946). And after the debacle in the night game the previous week at Municipal Stadium between the Buckeyes and the Birmingham Black Barons, the Clowns would be coming to Cleveland for a two-game series, one at League Park and one under the lights on the lakefront.
Municipal Stadium, built on the lakefront in downtown Cleveland, had more than double the seating capacity of League Park, roughly 60 blocks east.
It also had lights. Those were the two main reasons the Buckeyes would open the second half of the season with a two-game night series – the first home night games of the year for the Buckeyes – against the two-time defending champion Birmingham Black Barons. The Buckeyes had a significant lead on the Barons, in part because the Barons played a larger exhibition schedule on the East Coast.
As the Cleveland Call and Post said, the Buckeyes were “drunk with recent successes” with “blood in their collective eyes and a yen for bear” when the Chicago American Giants came to League Park for a doubleheader on June 17, 1945. The Buckeyes had just beaten the Kansas City Monarchs 5-0 in Belleville, Ill., coming within one hit of a perfect game. But the Buckeyes were only able to split the twin bill against the American Giants – and might not have even done that were it not for a controversial call.
The first game seemed interminable, locked in a tie going into the 13th inning. Avelino Canizares walloped a double to lead off the home half of the inning. Ducky Davenport hit a comebacker to the pitcher, Gready McKinnis, who tried unsuccessfully to take Canizares out at third. Davenport was safe at first, and the winning run was 90 feet away from home. An intentional walk loaded the bases, and Parnell Woods was up to bat.
Nearly 10,000 fans crammed into League Park at East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue for the 1945 home opener for the Buckeyes, who would play the Memphis Red Sox in a doubleheader. The two teams were tied atop the standings of the Negro American League.
Led by player-manager Larry Brown, the Red Sox, like their major league namesakes of the same time, were always regarded as long on talent but short on results (they were also one of the few Negro League teams to have their own ballpark, Martin Park).
Almost immediately, Buckeye fans were given excitement. Avelino Canizares hit an inside-the-park home run, and Parnell Woods stole home (pictured) for another run as the Buckeyes won the first game 3-1. George Jefferson started for the Buckeyes in the first game, but he gave way to brother Willie. The Buckeyes were able to turn a pair of double plays, a testament to the improved fundamentals player-manager Quincy Trouppe had been pushing since spring training dawned. The Buckeyes exploded for five runs in the fifth inning of the second game to propel the Buckeyes to a 6-2 win and a sweep of the doubleheader.
The Cleveland Buckeyes opened the 1945 season on the road, against the two-time defending Negro American League champion Birmingham Black Barons in Alabama.
The two teams played a doubleheader to start the season on May 6. Eugene Bremer (sometimes spelled Bremmer) got the nod in the first game. Closing in on 30, the 5-8 pitcher had 13 years experience and three all-star appearances (he would add a fourth in 1945).
Bremer, a native of New Orleans, Bremer started his pro career with his hometown Crescent Stars in 1932. Three years later, he latched on with the Shreveport Giants, followed by a stint with the Cincinnati Tigers, which found a home in the Negro American League when it was founded in 1937. A year later, Bremer ended up in Memphis, where he spent three years. He sat out 1941, but split 1942 between Memphis and the newly formed Ohio Buckeyes, which would split their time between Cleveland and Cincinnati. (Negro League teams were slightly more nomadic than their white counterparts; the Homestead Grays were named for a city near Pittsburgh, but played “home” games in Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C.)
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.