The year was 1952. A young, eager man steps up to the plate. Jersey adorned with a tomahawk and a chief. Following in the footsteps of his friend Jackie. Sending a message in a new era of baseball, in an exhibition game, Sam Jethroe takes a breath and knocks one out of the park. It was not just any hit, a three-run homer over the left field wall in Fenway. Running the bases with pride as the spring air whips across his face.
On this Jackie Robinson day, we remember the color barrier that was broken by one of the greatest ballplayers of all time. Sam Jethroe, also a star of the Negro leagues and a Boston Brave, made an impact on the organization. He is the oldest player to ever win the Rookie of the Year award in the majors, at age 33. That record still stands today.
Jethroe, from East St Louis, IL, played in the Negro Leagues for six years between 1942 and 1948. During those six years, he played for the Cincinnati and Cleveland Buckeyes. He made four East-West All-Star game appearances. In the 40’s, Jethroe and Jackie Robinson were both signed to the Kansas City Monarchs. Both Jethroe and Jackie were later asked to “try-out” for the Boston Red Sox at the time due to pressure to sign a black player, but both men were passed up. The Red Sox would not integrate until 1959 as the last team to integrate. In 1945, Sam’s batting average was incredible at .393 and he won the Negro League batting title that year. But in 1946, Jackie Robinson was called up to the Dodgers instead of Jethroe.
In 1948 Branch Rickey bought Jethroe from the Buckeyes for $5,000 where he was signed to the Montreal Royals. With Montreal, he batted .326 / .401 / .520 and lead the league in runs, hits, triples, and steals. Not to mention he hit 17 home runs and walked 79 times. He was great at the plate but also in the outfield, according to SABR.org, in 1949 he was clocked sprinting across a 60-yard span in 5.9 seconds. This time was two-tenths of a second faster than the world record in 1949. But after only a season and a half with Montreal Jethroe was sold again. This time he was sold to the Boston Braves for $150,000 and several other players.
Jethroe’s appearance in Boston in 1950 was ground-breaking. He was the first African American Major League player in Boston. As the Braves’ center fielder, Jethroe was an amazing addition to the team. Despite being Rookie of the Year in 1950, he enduring some racism from cities that were not yet integrated, but for the most part, Boston fans welcomed Jethroe.
I loved the Boston fans,” Jethroe said nearly 50 years later. “They used to chant, ‘go, go, go,’ every time I got on base. Never had a problem in Boston.” – Boston Globe via SABR.org
In Jethroe’s first seven games at Braves Field he had nine hits. He hit .273 / .338 / .442 in his first year and interestingly enough this same year, Braves’ legends Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain won 20 games. It was a big year for the Braves. Jethroe led the National League with 35 steals and scored over 100 runs. In an AP caption for a photo in the Boston Herald, it was reportedly said that Jethroe was “regarded as the greatest baserunner since Ty Cobb was in his prime.”
Jethroe or “the Jet”, continued to shine the next season with outstanding numbers .280 / .356 / .460, he stole more bases and was fourth in the National League in triples, with 18 homers. In 1952 his numbers started to decline slightly but still was in the top ten in most steals in the league. As the ‘52 season continued to go downhill for Jethroe, he was optioned to the minors.
In 1953, the Braves moved to Milwaukee and Jethroe never played for the Milwaukee Braves.
He spent the next 6 years in the minors playing for the Toledo Mud Hens and Toronto Maple Leafs. On December 26, 1953, he was traded to Pittsburgh Pirates for $100,000 and other players. He had one last at-bat in the majors in 1954 with the Pirates. In 1954 a few years after Sam was sent back to the minors, another legendary outfielder took his place in the outfield for the Braves, Hank Aaron. Imagine if both Jethroe and Aaron were covering the outfield together; what a team they would have been. Jethroe ended his career with Toronto in 1958.
After his baseball career ended he ran a bar in Erie, Pennsylvania for over 30 years. His post-career life was rough. He had to sell his Rookie of the Year trophy for money and his home burnt down in 1994 forcing him to live in his bar. One of the interesting highlights of his life after baseball was that he sued Major League Baseball because he had not received a pension because of racism and unfortunately he did not win his case because the statute of limitations had run out. But later on, with the help of other Negro League players from the time, Jethroe and others were awarded limited pensions.
He died at age 83 in 2001 from a heart attack.
I’m not the type of person to be bitter,” Jethroe once said. ”I was honored to play. I’m thankful that I was able to do what I did.” – NY Times Richard Goldstein, June 19, 2001
As we remember Jackie Robinson and the impact that he had on the game we so dearly love, guys like Sam Jethroe make the game more special for those of us who are Braves fans. He is forever cemented in Braves’ history as one of the fastest center-fielders ever. Players like Jackie and Sam had to go through hell and back for the game that they loved. It makes one stop and just take a moment to appreciate all that Jackie and so many other Negro League players did to help shape not only a game, but morals and ideas about how we view life. These men stood tall in the face of much adversity to pursue their passions and that sort of strength and bravery is something that we should all strive for in our daily lives.