Black's storied life continues to inspire
Former Negro Leaguer was first African-American pitcher to win World Series game
PHOENIX -- The story of Brooklyn Dodgers right-hander Joe Black is certainly complex. A former Negro Leaguer who was among the pioneer players who forever shattered Major League Baseball's color barrier, he was the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game -- Game 1 of the 1952 Fall Classic at Ebbets Field over the New York Yankees.
But there was so much more to Black than just that, as his daughter, Martha Jo Black, illustrates in a new biography, "Joe Black: More than a Dodger."
Black earned his bachelor's degree in marketing from Morgan State, taking classes during the offseason. After his playing days, that degree gave Black the opportunity to teach, and he ultimately became a high-ranking executive for Greyhound, the national bus company. Throughout his life, he was beloved in baseball, helping to raise money for indigent former players through the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), and he was a special assistant for the nascent Arizona Diamondbacks until dying of prostate cancer in 2002.
But even more than all that, Martha Jo said Black was a top-flight dad, earning court-ordered custody of his only daughter and raising her while in his mid-50s. Martha Jo, who co-authored the book with journalist Chuck Schoffner, said her message was abundantly clear.
"That African-American men are good parents," she said by phone this week from Chicago, where she runs the Fan Experience for the White Sox. "There were good African-American parents before 2015 and long before President Obama. My father was one of them, and we don't hear much about that."
Martha Jo obviously is devoted to her late father, and the poignant book that was released this week in conjunction with the start of Black History Month doesn't pull any punches. Still, the timing of its release by Academy Chicago Publishers couldn't have been more apropos.
Black was among the core African-American Dodgers players who helped make that team the powerhouse of much more than the 1950s. From 1947-66, the Dodgers of both Brooklyn and Los Angeles went to the World Series 10 times, winning four of them. That era's Dodgers could have been even better, but they lost the National League pennant on the final day of the '50, '51 and '62 seasons.
Jackie Robinson became the first black to ascend to the Major Leagues in the 20th century on April 15, 1947. Robinson opened the door and Black said he simply walked through it, along with fellow Dodgers Dan Bankhead, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella and Jim Gilliam. Charlie Neal, Maury Wills, Willie Davis and Tommy Davis were among those who followed.
Just like many of his fellow trailblazers, Black came from a poor background, but his family had already moved from the deep south to Plainfield, N.J., where he was born and raised just 30 miles due west of New York City. His mother, Martha, made sure he applied himself in school. Black was a bright kid who wanted to study science and math. And after administrators in Plainfield High School tried to place him on a vocational tract, his mother read the principal the riot act.
"Don't you tell me how poor we are or what's going to happen to my children," his mother is quoted as saying in the book. "You just put Sonny back in those classes with those rich kids or it's going to be me and you."
Black was put back in those classes, and he graduated before going on to play football and basketball at Morgan State. His dream, though, was to play baseball. And in the 1940s, growing up in a multiethnic New Jersey neighborhood, he was unaware that a race line still existed barring African-Americans from playing in the Majors. That is, until a scout apprised him of that fact.
"You're a good player," said the scout, who came out to evaluate the players on his high school and semi-pro teams. "[But] you're colored. Colored guys don't play baseball. They don't play in the big leagues."
Black was shocked. The shock turned into anger and eventually determination. Branch Rickey then signed Robinson and everything changed.
Tall and gangly with big hands, Black played summers for the Elite Giants in the Negro Leagues and he spent his winters in Latin America, and he eventually followed Robinson's footsteps from Triple-A Montreal to Brooklyn in time for the 1952 season. Like Robinson, he was already 28 by the time of his big league debut.
It was Black's best year by far. Brooklyn manager Chuck Dressen used Black almost solely in relief, and the right-hander went 15-4 with 15 saves and a 2.15 ERA. For those efforts, Black won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and barely missed league MVP Award honors, finishing third, only 18 points behind winner Hank Sauer.
Black was basically the entire bullpen, finishing 41 games and pitching 142 1/3 innings -- nearly 50 more innings than any other reliever on the staff. Dressen said the Dodgers wouldn't have won the pennant without Black, but the overextended pitcher would never come close to those numbers again, winning 15 more games during the remainder of his six-year career.
With Newcombe in the military, Dressen surprised all the pundits by starting the rookie Black three times in the 1952 World Series, which Brooklyn lost in seven games to the Yankees. Dressen had given Black two starts all season.
Newcombe had lost both of his starts in a five-game World Series defeat at the hands of the Yankees in the 1949 World Series, so when Black tossed a complete game in a 4-2 win over the Bronx Bombers to open the '52 Fall Classic, he became the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game. There wasn't another until the Cardinals' Bob Gibson beat the Yankees in Game 5 in '64.
Black, who utilized just two pitches -- a hard fastball and a lightly breaking curve -- deserved better in the 1952 World Series. He allowed just six runs on four homers in 21 1/3 innings, losing Game 4, 2-0, at Yankee Stadium, and the finale back at Ebbets, 4-2.
In the sixth inning of Game 7, the score was tied 2-2 in the sixth inning when Black faced Mickey Mantle with one out and no one on base. Black had stymied Mantle that October by busting the switch-hitter, batting left-handed, in on the hands. Imperceptibly, Mantle had moved a bit off the plate. Neither Black nor Campanella, the Hall of Fame catcher, noticed, and when the pitcher tried again to throw inside, Mantle hit it out of Ebbets Field to win the Series.
Forty-five years later, Black was seated in the front row of Miami's Pro Player Stadium next to NL president Len Coleman as the Indians led the Marlins, 2-0, in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. Bobby Bonilla, who was 4-for-26 in the series at that point, led off the seventh inning for the Marlins against Cleveland rookie right-hander Jaret Wright, who was pitching a one-hitter. As Bonilla was waving a weighted bat to warm up, Black called the slugger over and recalled that moment decades earlier pitching to Mantle.
"I threw that same pitch and he hit it out," Black said. "If you step back, [Wright's] not going to notice that you made an adjustment."
Bonilla did just that and he also hit it out, giving Black a knowing glance as he rounded third base. The Marlins came back and won the game -- and the World Series -- in 11 innings.
Thus was the magic of Joe Black, said Martha Jo, who was born in Chicago in 1969 and never saw her father play, of course. A massive long-term slump led the Dodgers to trade him to the Reds midway through 1955 season only months before they won their first and only Brooklyn-based World Series championship by defeating the rival Yankees in the World Series. Black's big league career ended with the Senators in '57 because his pitching shoulder and elbow had deteriorated terribly before he told anybody.
Black handled cancer in a similar fashion, walking around for a year with a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) count so high that by the time he was treated, it was way too late.
"He could be very stubborn," Martha Joe said about her father, who was married and divorced seven times and had a son, Chico, from his first marriage.
Joe and Martha Joe moved to Phoenix when Greyhound shifted its headquarters west from Chicago, and during the course of her childhood, he was a businessman and former player, but mostly a father. By that time, Black had trouble controlling his weight, and Martha Jo never saw him as a lithe young athlete, either. She spent seven years relating their story to Schoffner, who took copious notes and obviously did a massive amount of research. Call it a labor of love.
"We traveled a lot and we did have housekeepers after my parents were divorced," Martha Joe said. "But my father went to every PTA meeting. He'd tell my teachers, 'Hi, I'm Joe Black, I'm Martha Jo's father. If there's any problem, you call me.' My dad was very instrumental in everything that I did. I loved my mother, but my father was a great parent. I just hope people use this as an inspiration. Just be there for your kids."