July 17, 2012

HOVG Heroes: John Donaldson


SCOTT SIMKUS on JOHN DONALDSON

If you go back to the days before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, you'll discover a treasure of forgotten baseball talent, performing on the fringe. Athletes who, because they had no other alternative, loaded up inside rattle trap cars, criss-crossing the nation, playing baseball for peanuts, in small towns and big cities alike.

African-American pitcher John Donaldson was born in Glasgow, Missouri on February 20, 1891, and became a folk hero in his own time; a left-hander with a blazing fastball and wicked curve, known for racking up unprecedented strikeout numbers in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1916, he was credited with 240 strikeouts over a 12 game stretch.

He was Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and Johnny Appleseed, dressed up in a flannel baseball costume.

Donaldson first rose to prominence with J.L. Wilkinson's All Nations ballclub during the teens, pitching against small town clubs in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and the Dakotas. The All Nations were an interesting attraction, and as their name implies, their roster featured players from around the globe: Asians, Cubans, blacks, whites. A couple seasons, they carried two female players; one of whom, known as "Carrie Nation," anchored first base, dazzling fans with her steady glove work.          

They were a good club who, playing against mainly amateur competition, won more than 70% of their games, season after season. But it was Donaldson who really carried the club. He not only dominated with his arm, but hit well and played a steady centerfield when not on the mound, grabbing the majority of headlines. He was a regional sensation whose exploits were celebrated in newspaper wire stories across the country, in the years before the actual Negro leagues were formed.

Owner J.L. Wilkinson got out of the barnstorming baseball business during World War I and Donaldson took his services to several of the better known independent all-black clubs of the era, including the Indianapolis ABCs, Brooklyn Royal Giants and Detroit Stars. Finally getting an opportunity to compete against big league caliber black clubs, including top notch pitchers such as Smokey Joe Williams and Cannonball Dick Redding, Donaldson fared okay, finishing with a record around .500, and an ERA and rate stats (k/9, h/9, bb/9) slotting him firmly among the top black pitchers in the country.

When the Negro National League was formed in 1920, Donaldson returned to the Midwest, rejoining J.L. Wilkinson's new team, the Kansas City Monarchs. Curiously, Donaldson emerged as the team's fourth starter, behind Rube Curry, Sam Crawford and future Hall of Famer Joe Rogan. He finished 6-5 and his 3.54 era was highest among the starters. Donaldson made his biggest contributions as the team's starting centerfielder, batting .295 with a team-high 5 home runs in 75 games. The next season, the 30-year-old Donaldson appeared in 101 games, mostly in the outfield, batting .284 with a team-high 20 sacrifice hits. He pitched sparingly (and poorly), going 0-3 with a 4.97 era.

In 1922, Donaldson appeared in 25 games for the Monarchs (none as a pitcher), then left to spearhead Wilkinson's new side venture: a reincarnation of the old All Nations club, playing the same bush league amateurs as the original edition. Although Donaldson was rumored to have suffered some arm troubles*, he was immediately back on the mound, going 13-5 in games thus far uncovered by researcher Pete Gorton.

*It should be noted that NO one has yet found any confirmation (or even any evidence) of arm trouble for J.D., not in game stories or interviews. Its one of those assumptions which has been passed down from one historian to the next, based on (I believe) what was a rather pedestrian record in the official black leagues.

The next season, after another brief non-pitching stint with the Monarchs, Donaldson was shipped out to run Wilkie’s All Nations group again, which now served as the unofficial minor league team for the big club. Future Negro league stars William Bell and Newt Allen played for the All Nations at this time. Donaldson was the star attraction and manager of the group, marking what may have been the first time an African-American skipper was in charge of white professional ballplayers. According to Gorton’s figures, Donaldson went 18-3 in games that have been thus far uncovered.

In 1924, Donaldson bolted the Wilkinson-owned clubs, signing with an all-white semipro club in Minnesota. Although he’d make brief, periodic returns to the Monarchs in the 1930s, when he was well past his prime, Donaldson basically spent the rest of his active career playing in Minnesota, with an assortment of mostly white semi-pros.

John Donaldson’s career has had its own warming and cooling periods, in terms of how serious baseball fans and analysts view his accomplishments.

In 1952, five years after Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier, the African-American Pittsburgh Courier newspaper ran a poll honoring the veterans of the old Negro baseball leagues. They compiled several all star clubs featuring the greatest black ball players from before integration, based on the input of 31 former players, team officials and sports writers. John Donaldson was selected as one of the top five pitchers of all-time, alongside Smokey Joe Williams, Satchel Paige, Bullet Joe Rogan and Bill Foster.

In 1970, author Robert Peterson featured Donaldson among the top twenty-five or so black ballplayers of all time in his watershed book, Only the Ball Was White. Then in 2006, Donaldson was included on the short list of candidates being considered for induction into the Hall of Fame during a special election honoring blackball veterans, but failed to gain enough support for enshrinement.

Donaldson went from hot, to less hot, to cold in a span of about 50 years. What’s interesting to me is during the entire time-- in fact, from the year Donaldson basically retired from major black baseball (1923) until to 2006, there was very little statistical information to verify or debunk the mythology.

The good news is a lot has changed in the last five years, thanks in large part to the efforts of baseball researcher Pete Gorton of Minneapolis. He’s assembled a team of baseball sleuths, running what they call The Donaldson Network, whose work is hosted at http://johndonaldson.bravehost.com.

Using data from the TDN, I've rebuilt one of Donaldson's prime seasons, before the Negro leagues existed. In 1914, when he was 23 and the ace of the All-Nations barnstorming troupe, he rolled up a 23-12 record with a 1.15 era, 304 innings pitched, 135 hits allowed, 72 base on balls and, wait for it, 509(!) strikeouts. Granted, he was pitching against mostly farm boys from small town teams in Iowa and Nebraska, but still. For comparisons sake, his teammate Jose Mendez (who IS in the Hall of Fame,by the way) went only 10-4 with a 3.56 era and 126 strikeouts in 134 innings pitched, although he was said to be battling a dead arm during this period. (Mendez's arm problems have been confirmed as accurate)

Using the latest and most accurate Negro league data, Donaldson finished his major black baseball career with a 22-22 mark and a fine 2.82 era. Although he regularly fanned 15-plus against white town ball clubs, he only struck out 5 men per nine innings in the black big leagues.

Against the stiffer competition, quite a bit of the luster is lost from Donaldson's glow. A very good pitcher? Yes. A Hall of Famer? Probably not.

But when all is said and done, when all the box scores have been collected and the figures added up, it's likely Donaldson will exceed 500 wins against all levels of competition. And more than 6,000 career strikeouts isn't out of the question (he fanned more than 500 several times before World War I), and there are already dozens of no-hitters which have been gathered up.

There HAS to be a place for a man like John Donaldson. And that place is probably the Hall of the Very Good.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Scott Simkus is editor of a subscription baseball e-zine called the Outsider Baseball Bulletin.  He also served as the lead consultant on the Negro league set issued by the Strat-O-Matic Game Company in 2009. His work has been written about in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and the USA Today. He can be found on twitter at @scottsimkus1.

1 comment:

Aaron Stilley said...

Enjoyed it, Scott.

This isn't worth much, but I did find a 1948 article in which J.L. Wilkinson reminisced about Donaldson having arm troubles at a non-specified date during his Monarchs tenure. Says getting rained on started the arm troubles...weird. You can read the article on page 16 of this pdf: http://johndonaldson.bravehost.com/pdf/00815.pdf