Cleveland Buckeyes

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The Cleveland Buckeyes, the 11th Negro League team from Cleveland, OH was the only one to last more than two years and just the second to last more than one season.

The team's story began at the end of 1941, when Ernest White and business partner Wilbur Hayes bought the semi-pro Cleveland White Sox and the St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League and merged them. This entity became the Cincinnati Buckeyes in 1942, a team which played some games in Cleveland as well as other cities in Ohio. The original plan was for the two partners to build a new stadium for their team in Cleveland, but they settled for using Cleveland League Park. That season ended tragically when one of three vehicles carrying team members crashed on Route 20 outside Geneva, OH at 3 AM on September 7, killing catcher Buster Brown and pitcher Raymond "Smoky" Owens instantly; four other occupants, including general manager Hayes, were injured. In 1943 they moved to Cleveland full-time.

In their first year the Buckeyes had the second-best record yet by a Negro League club in Cleveland as they went 25-20. OF Thad Christopher hit .367, while OF Sam Jethroe (.291) led the NAL in doubles (8) and triples (4). Eugene Bremer (10-3) tied for the NAL lead in victories. In 1944 the team went 40-41 under manager Parnell Woods, who also hit .329 as the main third baseman, finishing third in the loop in hitting. The leader was Jethroe (.353), who also had the most doubles (14) and steals (18). George Jefferson (9-6, 1.99) led the NAL in ERA while Bremer went 10-6 and hit .340 to boot. Still, the team struggled with attendance, rarely drawing over 1,000 fans to a game.

The Buckeyes went 53-16 to take the title in 1945. Quincy Trouppe (.208) was the player-manager. Woods hit .335 and Ducky Davenport .345, but Jethroe continued to shine the brightest as he led the league in average (.394), triples (10) and steals (21). They had three of the top pitchers as well - George Jefferson (12-1, 2.67) was second in wins and fifth in RA, brother Willie Jefferson (10-3, 2.17) was second in RA and third in wins and Bremer went 9-4 with a 2.22 RA, finishing third in RA and fourth in victories. Cleveland wrapped up their great season by sweeping the 1945 Negro World Series from the Homestead Grays in four games, though the Grays had four All-Stars and Cleveland had none and Davenport had jumped the team late in the year. George Jefferson and Frank Carswell pitched back-to-back shutouts in the final two games against a club featuring Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Jud Wilson.

Cleveland fell to 26-27 in 1946 though 1B Archie Ware (.381), Trouppe (.313) and Jethroe (.310, 5th in average, second with 6 homers and leading with 20 steals) all had fine years. Willie Jefferson and Davenport were in Mexico and Chet Brewer (6-9) failed to pick up the slack. That year, the Buckeyes were the only team in Negro League history to use a white player on its roster, left-handed pitcher Eddie Klepp, who was released after three appearances on the mound.

The Buckeyes won another pennant in 1947 under Trouppe. Ware hit .349, Trouppe .352 and Jethroe .340 while Brewer improved to 12-6. Webbo Clarke (11-2) also was effective on the mound. Sam Jones (4-2) and SS Al Smith would later appear in Major League Baseball for another Cleveland team. The Buckeyes lost the Negro World Series to the New York Cubans 4 games to 2. 1947 was of course the beginning of integration in Major League Baseball, with the Cleveland Indians leading the way in the American League when they signed Larry Doby. With the Indians finding great success on the field - they won the 1948 World Series with former Negro Leaguers Doby and Satchel Paige making key contributions -, the appeal of the Buckeyes, who were never a great draw in spite of their success, was critically diminished.

Cleveland went 41-42 in 1948 as Smith (.311) moved to the outfield and led the league in doubles (27) and triples (17) and finished second in homers (12). Ware hit .349 and Jethroe .296. Jones went 9-8 while Brewer (5-5, 3.22) finished fifth in the NAL in ERA. In 1949, the club moved to Louisville, KY - where they were known as the Louisville Buckeyes - before returning for a final largely unsuccessful season in Cleveland in 1950. By that time, with integration in full swing in MLB, the Negro Leagues were doomed; average attendance at League Park was around 1,200, not enough to even cover the team's rental fees for the stadium.

Sources: "The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues" by John Holway, "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues" by James Riley

Further Reading[edit]

  • Stephanie Fleet Liscio: "The Cleveland Buckeyes: Triumph and Tragedy"", in Brad Sullivan, ed.: Batting Four Thousand: Baseball in the Western Reserve, SABR, Cleveland, OH, 2008, pp. 94-95.
  • Stephanie M. Liscio: Integrating Cleveland Baseball: Media Activism, the Integration of the Indians and the Demise of the Negro League Buckeyes, McFarland, Cleveland, OH, 2010.

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