The original Buckeyes were a championship-winning Negro League team that played in Cleveland in the 1940s
By Vince Guerrieri
Last month, the Cleveland baseball team unveiled its new name: the Guardians. Of all the names that were thrown around as potential options—nearly twelve hundred in all—one that didn’t get any real consideration was “Buckeyes.”
Like Guardians and Spiders—another name that was frequently suggested—Buckeyes had a history with the city. It also had strong recognition and appeal, not just in the Cleveland area, but statewide. (It was Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown’s choice.) The reason for that statewide appeal is probably why it never gained a whole of traction. When people think Buckeyes, they think Ohio State, which is famously protective of its own brand; this is, after all the university that refers to itself as THE Ohio State University, going so far as trying to trademark the word “The.”
But even before Buckeyes became Ohio State’s official name, it was the name of a Negro League team in Cleveland. The Cleveland Buckeyes were the longest-tenured of Cleveland’s many Negro League teams. They existed only briefly, but brought home a championship, winning the Negro World Series in 1945.
And then, five years later, they were gone, undone by changing times.
It’s a little-known fact that Cleveland was home to more Negro League teams – eleven – than any other city of its size. None of those teams were in Cleveland at the same time; each one existed briefly and then vanished, a sign of mismanagement, poor finances, and the transient nature of Negro League baseball in general. In fact, for every legendary team like the Kansas City Monarchs or Pittsburgh Crawfords, there were several like the Tate Stars, Cleveland’s first Negro League team, which came and went quickly in the early 1920s.The Tate Stars were owned by George Tate, who also built a ballpark on the south side of Cleveland, near the border with Newburgh Heights, not far from the current location of Washington Golf Course, part of the Cleveland Metroparks. Unfortunately, financial problems killed the team. Others followed in rapid succession: the Browns, Elites, Hornets, and Cubs, which featured a young (as far as anyone knew) pitcher named Leroy Paige, who even then had acquired the nickname Satchel.
In addition to Tate Field, later renamed Hooper Field, Negro League teams played at Hardware Field, at the intersection of East 79th Street and Kinsman Avenue on the city’s East Side. As was the practice in many cities, Negro League teams could also rent the local major or minor league stadium, and Negro League teams regularly used League Park, the Indians’ home on the east side, or Cleveland Stadium, the cavernous lakefront facility that opened in 1931.
In 1941, a Cleveland sports promoter, Wilbur Hayes, connected with Ernest Wright, a prominent Black businessman with many interests – some legitimate, others less so – in Erie, Pennsylvania. He operated the Pope Hotel, a safe harbor for Black travelers and a haven for jazz musicians, comedians and other Black performers. (An incomplete list of luminaries who stayed or played at the Pope includes Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington and Aretha Franklin.) Hayes longed to start a Negro League team, and Wright had the financial backing to make it happen.
Initially, the Hayes- and Wright-backed team was called the Buckeyes, for statewide appeal. The plan was to play home games in Cincinnati and Cleveland and wherever else they could find a crowd, but ultimately, Cleveland became home. (Cincinnati became home to another Negro League team, the Ethopian Clowns, which later ended up in Indianapolis, and was the last Negro League team in operation. They were also the first team to give Henry Aaron a professional contract.)
Prior to the strengthening of the players’ union, being a Major League baseball player could be arduous. Players didn’t have the kind of access to trainers and doctors they do now. They played in heavy wool uniforms and traveled by train (some ballplayers said they’d hang the uniforms out the train window for some air—it was as close as they could get to washing them sometimes on the road) and played in-season exhibitions on what were supposed to be days off. Stars like Babe Ruth could sponsor barnstorming tours after the season, playing exhibitions throughout areas that didn’t see a lot of pro baseball, but most players had to hold jobs in the offseason.
It was even more arduous for Negro League players, who played wherever they could find an audience big enough to pay their travel expenses and maybe leave a little left over. In the “Green Book” era, traveling while Black could be dangerous; there were certain towns they couldn’t stay in – or even drive through. They couldn’t stay in white hotels, and often slept on the buses or touring cars they used for transportation. One night, in 1942, two players were killed and several more injured when their Packard touring car was struck by a truck on U.S. 20, in Geneva, Ohio.
In the early ‘40s, war intervened. On Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese forces. World War I had led to a “work or fight” order that had shortened two seasons of the whites-only league, Major League Baseball (MLB). Would the same happen again?
MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis asked for guidance from President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s response become known as the Green Light letter, stating that baseball was vital for national morale and should continue. But if Major League Baseball had a green light, the Negro Leagues had an amber light, according to the Cleveland Call and Post, the newspaper serving the city’s Black community. Play continued, though it had to be done cautiously, and there was no guarantee that the Negro League season would be completed.
In 1944, the Buckeyes finished a game below .500. The team was laden with talent, most prominently Sam Jethroe, a speedy outfielder nicknamed “The Jet.” Jethroe got a tryout at Fenway Park for the Red Sox prior to the 1945 season, alongside Jackie Robinson, a star athlete in four sports at UCLA whose name you might have heard. (The tryout has become a notorious part of baseball lore, regarded now as window dressing for a city councilman who agitated for integration.)
Around the same time, Quincy Trouppe was hired by the Buckeyes as player-manager. Trouppe was one of those baseball lifers who just happened to come along when the game was segregated. He played high school and American Legion ball – and was a celebrated amateur boxer in his native Missouri – before bouncing among several Negro League teams. He also played winter ball in Mexico, which wasn’t as committed to segregation as American baseball was. Trouppe was a gifted athlete, a good game-caller as catcher, and an excellent strategist.
The Buckeyes were in command throughout the season, champions of the first and second halves. They would face the vaunted Homestead Grays in the World Series. The Grays, started in the eponymous Pittsburgh suburb but playing largely at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C., had no fewer than five future Hall of Famers on the team: Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Jud Wilson.
But the Buckeyes prevailed. Not only that, they swept the Grays. “A betting man with a mad crazy hunch could have gotten rich, literally rich off that series,” wrote Bob Williams in the Call and Post. “Nobody with a grain of reasoning power would have conceded that [sic] Buckeyes four straight victories over the Grays.”
The Buckeyes’ championship season occurred in the midst of a memorable sports year in Cleveland history. The Barons, the city’s American Hockey League team, won the Calder Cup earlier that year. And the Rams, the city’s NFL team, finally put everything together, with quarterback Bob Waterfield leading the team to the NFL title, beating Washington in the championship game at Cleveland Stadium—and then leaving for Los Angeles a month later.
It was also the most overlooked. “The way the city responded, you wouldn’t have thought we won anything,” Jethroe said in a 1982 Plain Dealer story. “I was a part of bigger celebrations in the minors.”
Two years after the Buckeyes won the World Series, they advanced to the World Series again, this time falling to the New York Cubans in five games. But it was a vastly different baseball landscape at that point.
In 1945, Jackie Robinson, who was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, had signed a contract with the Dodgers organization. He made his debut for Montreal the following spring (among his teammates were Youngstown native George “Shotgun” Shuba; a handshake between them is now immortalized in bronze downtown). The year after that, he joined the parent club, becoming the first Black player in the modern major leagues and sinking the “gentlemen’s agreement” that formed the color line.
Ten weeks later, Larry Doby, who’d played for the Newark Eagles, made his debut with the Indians. By the end of the year, a total of five Black players were playing Major League Baseball. The writing was on the wall for the Negro Leagues.
In 1948 – the same year the Indians, aided by Doby and ageless wonder Satchel Paige, won their last World Series to date – the Negro National League broke up. Some teams folded. Others went independent. But the end was at hand for the Negro Leagues. (A similar fate befell minor league baseball. As Major League Baseball expanded to the west coast – and other cities that previously were home to minor league teams – and more people were able to watch major league games on television, minor leagues folded by the dozens in the 1950s.)
In 1950, Buckeyes officially became the nickname for Ohio State. By then, the Cleveland Buckeyes were no more. Their home field of League Park was falling into disrepair as well. Indians owner Bill Veeck had moved his team to Cleveland Stadium full-time in 1947. League Park was turned over to the city, which razed most of it, citing safety hazards. A section of the grandstand stood into the 2000s, but the field fell into disuse as Hough became notorious as the site of the Cleveland uprisings in 1966.
Sam Jethroe ended up in the majors MLB, in Boston – for the Braves, not the Red Sox, who would be the last team in the majors to integrate. (But sure, go ahead and blame curses for their fallow period.) He remains the oldest player to win Rookie of the Year.
Even Trouppe finally had his day in the majors. His career with the Indians lasted less than a full season, but he went on to become an important historian of the Negro Leagues; he shot video that later appeared in Ken Burns’ Baseball miniseries, and wrote a seminal, self-published autobiography, titled “20 Years Too Soon.”
As Negro League history was periodically rediscovered by Major League Baseball—which occurred perhaps not coincidentally, as the percentage of Black MLB players dropped—the Buckeyes enjoyed an occasional day back in the sun. The Indians (along with the Cincinnati Reds) occasionally wore Buckeye throwbacks. They may wear them again in the future. But it’ll be as the Guardians. ■
Vince Guerrieri was born in Youngstown three weeks before Black Monday, and left there without ever really escaping it. He’s an award-winning journalist and author now living in the Cleveland area.
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