The telegram to Pie Traynor and the lost Pirates pennant of 1938

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In the winter of 1937, Chester Washington, a writer for the black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier and later an influential publisher, wrote the following telegram to Pittsburgh Pirates manager Pie Traynor.

“KNOW YOUR CLUB NEEDS PLAYERS STOP HAVE ANSWER TO YOUR PRAYERS RIGHT HERE IN PITTSBURGH STOP JOSH GIBSON CATCHER FIRST BASE B. LEONARD AND RAY BROWN PITCHER OF HOMESTEAD GRAYS AND S. PAIGE PITCHER COOL PAPA BELL OF PITTSBURGH CRAWFORDS ALL AVAILABLE AT REASONABLE FIGURES STOP WOULD MAKE PIRATES FORMIDABLE PENNANT CONTENDERS STOP WHAT IS YOUR ATTITUDE? STOP WIRE ANSWER”

Clearly Washington was trying to gauge the Pirates organization’s stance on the possible integration of baseball. Each of the players mentioned in the telegram were, of course, the biggest stars of the Negro Leagues. Both the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, two of the most popular draws in baseball of any color at the time, played in Pittsburgh. Their fans would no doubt move the turnstiles at Forbes Field. And the talent on the field would have been extraordinary.

The telegram went unanswered and one of the most agonizing “What If’s” in baseball history was born.

Pretty impressive value over replacement players

From a purely statistical stance, the star power that would have been inserted into the Pirates organization for 1938 would have been nothing short of staggering.

Satchel Paige was, besides being the biggest showman in Negro League history, considered to be the hardest thrower in the game. And he mixed his blazing fastball with an assortment of offspeed pitches that kept hitters guessing with little luck. Imagine inserting Pedro Martinez in his prime into a rotation. Imagine an ERA+ of 219 with a WAR of 8.8 like Pedro gave the Expos in 1997.

Ray Brown, also a pitcher, was the opposite of Paige. He relied on his breaking pitches; he supposedly had the most devastating curveball in the game. Picture, along with Pedro Martinez, also adding Bert Blyleven to the rotation. Estmate a 144 ERA + and a 5.2 WAR.

Buck Leonard was the steady force at first base who hit left-handed with extraordinary power. People who saw him play compared him favorably to Lou Gehrig, bringing an OPS+ near 200 and a WAR consistently in the 9 or 10 range. Again, not a bad bat to plug into a squad.

Cool Papa Bell was the greatest leadoff hitter in Negro League history. Along with hitting for a high average, he was the premier base stealer in a league that valued speed. He would have been in his mid-30s at the time of the telegram, but the switch hitter still played for several years more. Picture a veteran Tim Raines, with an OPS+ in the 120s and a WAR around 5 or 6, also being added to the mix.

And of course Josh Gibson was the most legendary hitter in Negro League history. A solid catcher with a cannon for an arm, he may have hit as many as 900 homers. Trying to find an equivalent catcher in big league history is futile. The greatest offensive catcher in big league history was probably Mike Piazza, whose OPS+ would hit around 180 and his WAR would reach 8 or 9. Piazza should be humbled that he is being equated to Josh Gibson.

No matter what method of statistic you prefer, their combined contributions would be revolutionary on any team and make their individual stats shine even more.

Imagine putting a speedster like Cool Papa Bell on the basepaths against unsuspecting catchers. (Stan Hack’s 16 stolen bases led the National League in 1938!)

The left and right power combination of Leonard and Gibson would be the most lethal the game had ever seen. Not until Willie Mays and Willie McCovey would the big leagues have witnessed such a duo. And mixing the flame thrower Paige one day and the breaking stuff of Brown the next would give batters fits.

Of course these players wouldn’t be playing in a vacuum. They would be racial pioneers who would no doubt be facing a torrent of threats and potential violence from fans, players and possibly even teammates alike. But unlike Jackie Robinson, who faced the ugliness alone, Paige, Gibson, Leonard, Brown and Bell, being the biggest names in their league, may have been able to draw strength from each other in a way Jackie never was allowed. Or perhaps the built-in fan base of black fans in Pittsburgh could have made the transition smoother. Integration was going to be painful no matter the era or players involved. But there would be no questioning their talents.

A potential Dream Team in Pittsburgh

And inserting these players specifically into the 1938 Pittsburgh Pirates would have been extraordinary. This Pittsburgh team already had three future Hall of Famers in the lineup. Shortstop Arky Vaughan was a left-handed hitter who hit for a high average, posted a 141 OPS+, was among the leaders in stolen bases, walked a ton and virtually never struck out.

The Waner Brothers still manned the outfield. Both were left-handed hitters. Paul Waner’s average was coming back down to Earth but still combined hits with a low strikeout total. Lloyd Waner hit over .300, got 194 hits and struck out 11 times all season.

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Imagine starting the lineup with the bat control and speed of Cool Papa Bell, having Vaughan and one of the Waners to make contact in the No. 2 and 3 spots to set up the Gibson and Leonard combination in the heart of the order. Then the other Waner would bat behind Leonard to make sure he saw plenty of fastballs. The first six hitters would all be future Hall of Famers. Only second baseman Pep Young and third baseman Lee Handley would not be enshrined in Cooperstown.

The pitching staff had some valuable innings eaters like Russ Bauers, Jim Tobin, Cy Blanton and Bob Klinger. Also relief ace Mace Brown had one of his best seasons. Insert the unflappable Paige and the devastating Brown to that staff and its depth would be outstanding.

Adding the Negro League stars would have of course cost several players their jobs. First baseman Gus Suhr was a good if unspectacular hitter. Rookie Johnny Rizzo had an outstanding debut season, slugging 23 homers with 11 RBIs to a .882 OPS. Veteran catcher Al Todd began to break down as the season progressed.

Making the difference in the 1938 pennant race

That actual 1938 season looked like it was going to be a magical one in Pittsburgh. The Pirates had a 13-game winning streak starting in late June. By July 14, they were in first place by themselves. By Sept. 1, they had a seven-game lead and the pennant seemed all but clinched. But the Pirates stumbled through September, setting up a critical three-game series at Wrigley Field against the charging Cubs. On Sept. 28 with the game on the verge of being called for darkness, Gabby Hartnett hit a two-out walk off homer against Mace Brown to give the Cubs the win. The “Homer in the Gloaming” knocked the Pirates out of first place and they never regained it. The Cubs won the pennant by two games.

Wouldn’t the addition of Paige, Brown, Gibson, Bell and Leonard have equaled three more wins and a pennant?

The Cubs went on to be swept by the Yankees in the 1938 World Series. Simply imagine the drama of the integrated Pirates club facing off against the Yankees that year who featured future Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, Joe Gordon and Lefty Gomez. Could it have been the greatest collision of talent baseball history ever witnessed? Possibly.

And it was not to be.

The racially enlightened Pie Traynor wanted a winner

Despite not answering to the telegram, it would not be fair to paint Pie Traynor as an aloof racist in this scenario. He probably did not have the unilateral authority to bring in whichever players he wanted.

Traynor was also more racially enlightened than many of the high-profile baseball figures on the 1930s. He was interviewed by the famous black journalist Wendell Smith in 1939 and implied that he wanted to bring black players into the league.

“Personally, I don’t see why the ban against Negro players exists at all” he was quoted as saying. This was eight years before Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers, and a year and a half after the telegram was sent. Later as a Pirates broadcaster in the 1940s, he urged the Pirates to integrate the team, not just for social justice, but to make the Pirates a contender.

He was loved by the fans of Pittsburgh and respected by his players. Traynor was, at the time, the second-biggest star in the history of the Pirates (only Honus Wagner was bigger). He was considered to be the greatest third baseman in baseball history and was a key part of the Pirates World Championship season in 1925.

And if the Pirates had Paige, Gibson, Brown, Bell and Leonard on the team with Traynor’s approval, he could have gone a long way in quieting the critics in the Steel City. Remember how Leo Durocher’s unwavering approval of Jackie Robinson helped stop a players insurrection in 1947? Under Traynor it may not have even gotten that far.

The collapse of the 1938 Pirates took its toll on Traynor. During the stressful September, Traynor lost an unhealthy amount of weight and the team spiraled. In the offseason he told Tigers pitcher Bobo Newsom that he wished he had a pitcher who could throw complete games. And, fed up with Al Todd’s abilities as catcher, he traded him to the Boston Braves (then called the Bees).

He needed a new battery. How about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson?

Traynor’s drive went out after the 1938 season and a few years later he resigned from the Pirates. Imagine if he had the integrated team. With that squad, he might have been a Hall of Fame manager as well as a great player.

Was it the right time for integration?

Of course there will be people who will wonder if 1938 was the right time for desegregating baseball and if people would accept an integrated team. When would have been the perfect time? When would have been a time when all the i’s would be dotted and the t’s crossed and all of America would have welcomed it with open arms?

Ask Jackie Robinson if 1947 was a stress-free time to carry out the experiment. It is not as if racial tensions were subtle in the 1950s or 1960s either. How about the bussing of students in my lifetime within the suburbs of Boston? There would be no ideal time.

The 1930s, on the heels of Joe Louis becoming the admired champion of the World, could have been as good a time as any. And just a few years earlier, Jesse Owens became the biggest sports hero in America at the Berlin Olympic Games. Another medalist those games was Mack Robinson, whose younger brother Jackie would become a big player in this drama.

Of course Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis did everything within his power to prevent integration, so perhaps the point was moot. According to Bill Veeck, Landis blocked clubs from breaking the color line before. Maybe Traynor and Pirates owner William Benswanger wanted to make the moves but were stopped. Landis’ death in 1944 hastened the destruction of the color line.

The story of the end of the color line is so familiar to baseball fans that it is almost impossible to imagine it unfolding differently. Branch Rickey defied his critics and sought to find an unflappable African-American man to join the Dodgers. He chose Jackie Robinson not because he was the best player (he was far from that) but because he was college educated, religious, had served in the military and was a family man. And under Rickey’s orders, he had to suppress his famously short temper. And like a stoic borderline martyr, he carried the weight of his race on his shoulders and became a champion.

But the story could have been different. Monte Irvin was approached by the Dodgers before Jackie. It could have been Irvin’s whose jersey was retired throughout baseball. Perhaps integration could have happened in a brash showman like way by Bill Veeck. He claimed that he wanted to make the Phillies essentially the Negro League All-Star team but was rebuffed by Landis. There is no evidence other than Veeck’s recollection to corroborate that claim, but Veeck did indeed integrate the American League a few years later bringing Larry Doby and Satchel Paige to the Indians. Maybe Doby and Satchel would have been he great heroes.

Or maybe it could have been Pie Traynor and his great Pirate teams of the late 1930s. Baseball, more than any other sport, weaves its past into the present legacy of the team. Yankee fans crow about their 27 titles, which include the great teams of the 1920s and 1930s The likes of Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Chrisy Mathewson, Bill Terry and yes, Pie Traynor, are honored on the walls of current ballparks. The names Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Buck Leonard would be associated with Pittsburgh sports lore instead of being frustrating symbols of a less enlightened time. And the Pirate championship count would no doubt be greater than five total. The Pirates went from 1927 to 1960 without appearing in the World Series. (The 1960 team was assembled in part by Branch Rickey.)

And of course if integration had happened in the late 1930s, perhaps the Civil Rights conversation would have had a decade head start. We will never know the answers to those questions.

We won’t even know if Pie Traynor even got the telegram.

References & Resources
Besides Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, I used the books “Only the Ball Was White” by Robert Peterson, “Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography” by James Forr and David Proctor as well as “Veeck as in Wreck” by Bill Veeck as sources. The Baseball Biography Project also was used as a source, specifically this page: http://bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&pid=14330&bid=1101


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Dr. Doom
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Dr. Doom

Just a quick note:  Arky’s last name is “Vaughan,” not “Vaughn.”  And I’m pretty sure he was a lefty hitter, not a switch hitter.

bigfun
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bigfun

Great article.

gdc
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gdc
“Rookie Johnny Rizzo had an outstanding debut season, slugging 23 homers with 11 RBIs” Of course it was 111 RBI, along with a .301 BA.  Made me look him up, he only hit 6 in 1939, got traded after a slow start in 1940 but totaled 24 HR.  Dropped back to 4 in 1941.  Brooklyn might have thought he only hit in even-numbered years and gave him a shot and was rewarded with another 4 HR and that was it.  Whether he ended up in the Army or just didn’t have it anymore at age 29 would take some more… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

I did indeed make a few mistakes…

Vaughan was a left handed hitter and it was 111 RBI for Rizzo.

I’ll correct those.

Rizzo had a nice year… not good enough to say “no” to Cool Papa Bell

Dave
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Dave
Not only was Vaughan not a switch hitter, neither Waner brother was either, as far as I know. I have never heard of Buck Leonard equated to Lou Gehrig.  From what I hear, he had middle-range power, but was a high average hitter.  Maybe more like George Brett or so.  Likewise, Bell was no Raines, he was more like Lou Brock (Raines minus the walks). The assessment of Gibson seems to line up with my understanding, though Brown and Paige may be on the optimistic side.  It’s a great premise for the article, but I think you are overrating the… Read more »
Shawn
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Shawn

Inaccuracy on handedness or no, there is no way the virulent racist Judge Landis lets this happen in 1938.

Bill
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Bill

Would recommend “The End of Baseball”, a good novel by Peter Schilling, Jr.  Interesting take on the Veeck angle that covers some of the potential issues that could have occurred.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
The scenario you sketch out is fascinating and would have been cool to see.  But, some times may have been better than others for integration.  In 1947, coming after WW II, many Americans were more sensitive to civil rights because of what the Germans had done in the name of race.  It certainly was not easy for Robinson, but, arguably, 1947 was more ripe for integration that the late 1930s, in the middle of the Great Depression, would have been.  Not to mention that Landis was no longer Commissioner by 1947. Another oddity here is that it was the Cubs… Read more »
ralf
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ralf
@Dave- The Pittsburgh teams did indeed have most of the top Negro League stars in the 1930’s. Owning a Negro League team was always a risky business venture. It was common for teams (or even entire leagues) to fold in midseason or fail to pay all of their players the salary that had been agreed upon, as well as for players to simply walk out on teams to make more money elsewhere. Negro Leaguers played so many more games than white MLB players because they couldn’t live on what they made in 150 games. The Grays and Crawfords were powerhouses… Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder
This is a terrific and provocatively interesting piece.  But I do agree with those commenters who suggest that MLB integration almost certainly couldn’t have taken place in 1938.  True, Robinson’s breakthrough was only nine years later, but those were an extremely eventful and transformative nine years. The American political culture was quite different in the ‘30s than it would become by aftermath of WWII.  In 1938, a Father Coughlin was very successfully broadcasting a radio program that was virulently anti-Semitic and racist; he would be forced off the air in 1942 and such a program was pretty much out of… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

Of course all “What ifs” are wildly speculative and not taking into account the factors in life that seem to be random.

I will say to the people who think the late 1930s was the wrong time, I can think that if Integration happened in 1957 rather than 1947, people would have scoffed at the notion of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson’s experiment as “Too soon… the wrong time.”

There would NEVER be a right time. And the idea of a quintet of amazing players doing it might have been a success. We will never know.

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
As or overrating the Negro League talents, who knows if I did or not? It’s another agonizing element just in terms of baseball fandom about the whole notion of segregation. When you look at how the black players who did indeed enter the game dominated the 1950s, it isn’t far fetched to think that the premier players of the late 30s would also have been comparable. The Negro Leagues didn’t have the reserve clause that kept a player to one team. They had a sort of defacto Free Agency. So the teams like the Crawfords in the 1930s and the… Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder
“I can think that if Integration happened in 1957 rather than 1947, people would have scoffed at the notion of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson’s experiment as ‘Too soon… the wrong time.’” Certainly true.  But the issue is that it wasn’t mere coincidence that Rickey and Robinson achievement took place in 1947 and not a decade earlier.  An arrangement of environmental factors was in place by that time that hadn’t been earlier. There is no arguing the notion that there never was going to be a perfectly “right” time, and even less so an easy time.  But that doesn’t mean… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

Buck O’Neil (who had a good eye for talent) compared Leonard with Gehrig.

If Leonard was indeed a George Brett type and Bell a Lou Brock type… those are still two pretty good players to just plug into a ballclub

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

Not sure why I listed the Waners and Vaughan as switch hitters.

A well… mistakes happen

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
“There is no arguing the notion that there never was going to be a perfectly “right” time, and even less so an easy time.  But that doesn’t mean that all times are the same.  Baseball doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is part of the cultural and political landscape. “ I totally agree. I made the argument that perhaps in the wake of Jesse Owens and Joe Louis that people would have embraced more black stars. Then again, they were in individual sports kicking Nazi butt. They weren’t in team sports taking jobs away from white people in the depression.… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

I wish they had the Negro League players in whatif sports so I could do a simulation of the 1938 World Series between the Yankees and an integrated Pirates team

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
“I can think that if Integration happened in 1957 rather than 1947, people would have scoffed at the notion of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson’s experiment as ‘Too soon… the wrong time.’”” This is a rather odd statement.  It happened in 1947, not 1957.  It’s not as if we are trying to go back in time and stop integration.  The statements saying that the 1940s were more conducive than the 1930s are simply positing some reasons why it didn’t happen in the 1930s.  I don’t think anyone is saying that it wouldn’t have been great if the Pirates had tried… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
”  It happened in 1947, not 1957.  It’s not as if we are trying to go back in time and stop integration.  “ Not what I meant at all. I am saying that if indeed the Jackie Robinson experiment either failed or didn’t happen at all and integration happened a decade later, people would look back and say “the time wasn’t right in the late 1940s.” The time was NEVER going to be right. But we both agree about that. “You were the one that started speculating so you shouldn’t be opposed to others speculating just because you don’t like… Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder
“I feel that history is a chain reaction of events and how people react to those events.” I share that view.  One of the reasons I’m so drawn to create “virtual history” examinations myself is to combat the notion that things in the past had to happen the way they did.  Things could quite plausibly have happened any number of different ways than they did, and you’re exactly right that the implication of one thing happening differently is that other subsequent things might be influenced to happen differently too. But I do think the comparison of a late-1930s vs. late-1940s… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

I can’t deny the effect of WWII.
But remember you are also painting this analysis with hindsight.

Remember it was two black American athletes who famously rubbed Hitler’s nose in it. The narrative could have unfolded with American’s embracing black athletes as the way to show that Hitler’s whole point of view was wrong (this coupled with the rise of Hank Greenberg.)

But, as I said in the article, all of this speculation is moot. Landis had the most control and there probably would be no integration in his lifetime.

Anyway, thanks for reading the article. It was a fun one to write

zubin
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zubin

I love the article Paul.  Nice job!

Digressing a bit, I seriously doubt that baseball could have been intergrated in 1938 for all the reasons cited above and more.  However, I do think that baeball could have been intergrated (or not segregated) in the 1870s and 1880s.  To me that would have been an even more interesting scenario to explore.

HP3
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HP3

Not to nit pick too much, but there was a Lefty-Righty homerun hitting duo before Mays-McCovey that might be on par.

How about that Hank Aaron-Eddie Mathews duo that mashed for five seasons before McCovey’s rookie year in 1959?

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

Fair enough about Aaron and Mathews

Paul G.
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Paul G.
Good article. Another question is whether the Pirates would have been allowed to absorb this much talent.  It’s one thing to break the color line and yet another to break the color line, add five Hall of Fame caliber players, and threaten to dominate the league.  That would not go over well, at least from the other teams in the National League.  With that said, I see some scenarios forming. 1. The other teams in the league block integration out of self-interest.  History plays out the same. 2. Integration is allowed, but some sort of draft or bidding system is… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

Great points Paul G

I think scenario #2 would happen if the Pirates went through with it.

The element that would have made integration go through would have been the profits.

Baseball moves forward when there is money involved

I’ve got to figure out how to insert BRown/Paige/Bell/Leonard/Gibson into the 1938 Pirates and run a “What If” season

Steve Treder
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Steve Treder
“The element that would have made integration go through would have been the profits. Baseball moves forward when there is money involved” Entirely true.  But in acknowledging this truth, it’s important to bear in mind the very real concern on the part of probably every owner in organized baseball, major and minor league, that integrating the rosters would provoke a net negative reaction from both fans and sponsors.  Whatever we think of the morality of this concern, it would be naive not to recognize that it was a prominent, actual, and not at all irrational business concern. Again, bear in… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
All great points Steve… And of course the events of the world helped make the integration of baseball possible But as we know, Jackie’s integration wasn’t exactly embraced with open arms when it happened. And I suppose, as I said before, had integration happened in 1957 rather than 1947, people would have said “The time wouldn’t have been right 10 years prior.” Of course we see things through our present lenses of racial tolerance. But then again we also make this analysis with hindsight. Had it worked in 1938, people would have said it was the natural progression from Jesse… Read more »
David in Toledo
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David in Toledo

Paul, wonderful article created from your source (Chester Washington’s telegram).

Your back-and-forth with commenters is great, too.  Historical context provides the opportunity for the success of particular actions; brave such actions can, if they succeed, then shape history.  Perhaps a determined and creative effort at integration might have succeeded before Robinson/Rickey/1947.  The odds against it would have been greater, but not necessarily impossible ones.

Cliff Blau
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Cliff Blau

What evidence do you have that Landis “did everything in his power to prevent integration”, other than Veeck’s debunked story about trying to buy the Phillies?  Have you read Norman Macht’s article on Landis in the Summer 2009 Baseball Research Journal?

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