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The untold story of one of baseball's greatest pitchers

Uncovering the career of a Negro Leagues legend
(All photos via John Donaldson Network, art by Tom Forget)
@MattMono11
February 15, 2020

When you first Google the name "John Donaldson," you won't find much of anything related to baseball. There's economist John Donaldson, there's Vanna White's longtime boyfriend John Donaldson, there's even this very serious looking chess player named John Donaldson. But keep searching. You’ll find some other John Donaldson, a second

When you first Google the name "John Donaldson," you won't find much of anything related to baseball.

There's economist John Donaldson, there's Vanna White's longtime boyfriend John Donaldson, there's even this very serious looking chess player named John Donaldson.

But keep searching.

You’ll find some other John Donaldson, a second baseman from the 1960s, who comes up first on baseball-reference. Sweet baseball card, but not the one we’re looking for.

Eventually, you’ll find the John in question, but unless you know better, you’ll just move on. Six seasons? A 23-22 record?

But then maybe you'll do a little more sleuthing, and you'll come across The John Donaldson Network. The John Donaldson pot of gold. Thousands upon thousands of newspaper clippings, stats, videos and quotes about the left-handed wonder.

And then you'll see the numbers.

33 years pitching. 413 wins. 5,081 strikeouts. 14 no-hitters. Two perfect games.

It can't be real, you'll say to yourself. How have I never heard of this guy?

But then, the actual newspaper stories. 22 strikeouts during a game in August 1914.

23 as a wily veteran in 1934.

An insane 30 in a June 1915, 18-inning affair.

He struck out 18 batters against a semi-pro team at the age of 13. He whiffed 10 or more batters in a game 234 times. He won 73 percent of his starts and 92 percent of those were complete games.

How could this happen? How could a guy this great fly so far under the radar?

So, I called Peter Gorton, creator of the John Donaldson Network -- the only real source out there for Donaldson's baseball career. He talked to me from his basement (he said he was currently surrounded by thousands of papers about the pitcher). Gorton, a Negro Leagues historian from Minneapolis, started researching the career of the enigmatic barnstormer 20 years ago and hasn't taken one day off. He's reached out and gotten the help of over 500 real and mostly-amateur historians across the country to re-build Donaldson's life through local news accounts. Why?

Donaldson is one of just three players on the famous 1952 Pittsburgh Courier All Black First Team who isn't in the Hall of Fame.

He's mentioned on the all-time greatest Negro Leaguers list for an unprecedented 10 consecutive decades.

He was obviously thought very highly of during his playing career, but where were all his accomplishments? Where are the numbers? Seamheads had him at just 63 total games.

"Nobody has really put it all together," Gorton says. "He ended up playing in 683 different cities that we've found so far. The reason that nobody knows much about him today, is that his career was scattered all over the place. If he had spent 15 years with the Pittsburgh Crawfords or any other Negro League franchise, people could pretty much ascertain that's where he was. But this guy was all over the place."

(Donaldson only played about two part-time seasons in the better-documented Negro National League -- which was formed in 1920. He was one of the founders of the Kansas City Monarchs -- it's even said that he came up with the name "Monarchs" -- but team owner J.L. Wilkinson sent the left-hander back on the road to make more money for him and the Monarchs).

John Donaldson, on the Kansas City Monarchs, top left

Seriously, look at this map of all of the places he played. It's like someone dumped a bag of red hots on a map of America.

So, Gorton has resorted to piecing Donaldson's baseball life together newspaper article by newspaper article.

Most notably, from 1912-17 and again in '23-24, Donaldson played on the All Nations team -- comprised of men (and one woman) of all races from the Midwest, Hawaii, Cuba, Japan and Latin America. Donaldson was the star, averaging an absurd 18 strikeouts per game in 1915 and striking out 500 batters every season during one three-year stretch. He went 44-3 one year for an all-black team called the Tennessee Rats. He pitched two seasons for his hometown Missouri Hannaca Blues and one for the Indianapolis ABCs. He struck out 17 while leading a team dubbed the John Donaldson All-Stars in 1933. He traveled to towns and during times when racial prejudices were at its worst.

Wilkinson, who saw hundreds of legendary hurlers during his Hall of Fame career, said he was "one of the greatest pitchers that ever lived, white or black."

"He was dominating a lot of farmers, let's face it," Gorton says. "But you have to remember, this is what segregation was. Segregation was push 'em out and get 'em out as far away as possible, and that meant some strange and out-of-the-way places where there weren't Major Leaguers."

John Donaldson, on the All Nations, third from left

Donaldson played against everybody and anybody he was allowed to play against -- both because he loved it and it was how he made his living -- and not many were better. He was also the most popular player in these "strange and out-of-the-way places," developing an almost mythical reputation.

"He threw as fast as a cannonball could shoot it."

"When it came across the plate, it looked like a pea."

"He made the pill do everything but turn around and come back again, and there were many in the stands who claim that he could do that also."

Although he didn't have a nickname that stuck like "Cool Papa" Bell or "Bullet" Joe Rogan -- a factor that maybe also contributed to his ambiguity -- there are game writeups that refer to him as Smoke Donaldson. Or, very simply, Famous.

Some fans even began to think that Famous was his real first name.

Satchel Paige, the most well-known Negro Leagues player of all-time, is said to have learned much of his style of play from Donaldson. Although Donaldson was 15 years older than Paige, the former served as a mentor for the latter when the two were barnstorming teammates in the late-1930s. "He showed Satchel the way," Buck O'Neil said. Gorton reiterated this point.

"There's these Satchel Paige-isms, right? Outfielders all sit down. Walk the bases loaded, then strike out the next three guys? All these things that Satchel Paige was famed for doing, John Donaldson was doing 30 years before. He had to have that showmanship -- he was entertaining people. But he was doing them in very remote places, so they weren't covered as much. Paige had a road map for his whole thing."

And there are some mythical, Paige-esque stories specifically about Donaldson. In his first documented game Gorton has for him, he broke his catcher's hand with a fastball. He would tell his infield to sit down on the ground and strike out batter after batter. During one game in South Dakota, he took one fielder out of the game after each inning ended. His teams carried lights around with them as early as 1912 so they could have night games -- years before the Monarchs did the same thing in the late-1920s and MLB's first night game in 1935.

O'Neil said Donaldson threw a slider 20 years before anybody else did. And he had a changeup, curve and blazing fastball to go along with it. You won't find many video clips of pitchers from the Negro Leagues era, go ahead and check, but you will find one of Donaldson. Someone felt it was important enough to bring their Kodak video camera -- one of the first of its kind -- out to a ball field in Minnesota in 1925 to film the legend. Present day scouts have looked at the footage and compared him to a left-handed Bob Gibson.

He could also hit and play the field -- he not only pitched for the Monarchs in the team's early days, but played center and batted cleanup.

Donaldson did have a chance to play against MLB talent during his time with the L.A. White Sox -- facing Yankees like Irish Meusel and beating 20-game winners like Pete Schneider. New York Giants manager John McGraw said he was the greatest he's ever seen -- even offering him $10,000 to change his name, move to Cuba and come to the big leagues in order to exploit the loophole on segregation. Donaldson, a man of deep faith, refused.

I am not ashamed of my color ... It would have meant renouncing my family. One of the agreements was that I was never again to visit my mother or to have anything to do with colored people, I refused, I am clean morally and physically.

"For him to say that: I'm black, I'm proud of being a black person, I'm not gonna go to Cuba and change who I am -- that's a huge deal for someone to say in 1910," Gorton says. "But that's who he was."

After 33 years and nearly 700 games, Donaldson retired from playing organized baseball in 1941 -- although he did appear in one final game as a 58-year-old in 1949. He did pretty well. There's a newspaper writeup for that one, too.

That year, he also became Major League Baseball's first African-American scout -- working with the White Sox. Through his lengthy playing career spanning hundreds of places across the country, Donaldson was able to bring up-and-coming Negro League stars like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks to the team (the White Sox unfortunately didn't bite on any). He was responsible for getting star first baseman Bob Boyd and Sam Hairston signed by Chicago.

Donaldson died in 1970 and, as was the case with many black baseball players during the era, one of the game's greatest pitchers was buried under an unmarked grave. In 2004, he was part of the inaugural Negro Leagues class to be given a headstone monument. In the 2006 Special Committee on Negro Leagues Election to the Hall of Fame, he was on the final ballot, but was not one of the 17 inducted.

Since '06, through Gorton and his team's countless hours of research, Donaldson's games-won total jumped from 147 to 413, his strikeout total increased by the thousands, and there's still perhaps hundreds of games unaccounted for. The Center for Negro League Baseball Research has called The Donaldson Network, “The most extensive research project that has ever been undertaken related to black baseball.”

"Look, I've got 26,000 pieces of paper in my basement related to his career," Gorton says. "There isn't one article that has a derogatory thing to say about him. Isn't that what we want in Cooperstown?"

Yes, of course it is. The word should be out there about John Donaldson. People should know about his numbers, his life and his career. His name should be the first thing that pings up on Google -- like when you search Satchel Paige or Cy Young or Babe Ruth. It should definitely show up before Vanna White's boyfriend and that serious chess player.

What's a Hall of Fame without the Famous John Donaldson?

Matt Monagan is a writer for MLB.com. In his spare time, he travels and searches Twitter for Wily Mo Peña news.