With its low self-esteem and high urban blight, Hartford is the ultimate underdog city. Sad City Hartford documents the joys, sorrows and eccentricities of New England's Rising Star.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Introducing Hartford's Johnny Taylor

Johnny Taylor was one these pictured 1938 Negro League All-Star Game players

February is Black History Month. At Sad City one thing we waste about as much of our time on as Hartford is baseball. While baseball is an amazing sport and America's pastime, it shouldn't be forgotten that until 1947 baseball despicably operated under the even more despicably named "Gentleman's Agreement" in which owners only employed white players and African-Americans were forced to organize their own leagues. Seeing as how many of us are Red Sox fans, it would be remiss to not point out that the Red Sox were the last team to integrate due to well known racist policies (hey, it is Boston) a factor that certainly contributed to the teams mediocrity in the 1950's and early 1960's.

 So yeah, whenever anyone wants to argue that todays players don't match up with Ruth, Cobb, or Gehrig because of expansion, juiced balls or steroids, kindly point out that those pre-integration players weren't even competing with all of the best players in the United States.

Over February we've decided to take a look at some Negro League players, some with Hartford ties, some without. Today we introduce Johnny Taylor with excerpts from just an awesome, awesome article by Jon Daly originally done for Sabr.org (Society for American Baseball Research). Although it might seem like a lot of text below, it's only a small portion of the original article. It's a great read.

Also check out City Hall for a cool display on the Tuskegee Airmen.

"The year 1933 was one of the low points of the Great Depression. Even Babe Ruth was not immune to economic circumstances, as he took a pay cut of $23,000 from his previous year’s salary of $75,000. The Single-A Eastern League had folded in July of 1932 and with it the Hartford Senators. This was back when baseball was pretty much the only game in town. Fortunately, Bill Savitt, a jewelry store owner, gave the Insurance City some peace of mind. He leased Bulkeley Stadium, erstwhile home of the Senators, and had his semipro outfit, the Savitt Gems, take on all comers; barnstorming outfits like the Georgia Chain Gang, colored teams, other local nines, the Philadelphia Athletics.  

Savitt’s best player may have been a pitcher who was still in high school on the Gems’ opening day.  Johnny Taylor went on to have success in the Negro Leagues and Latin America. Had he been born a decade later, he might have made it to the majors.

John Arthur Taylor, Jr. was born in Hartford to John and Etta Taylor, on February 4, 1916. Johnny’s father was a lather in the building trades. Johnny grew up in the South End on Douglas Street. The South End was a predominantly white area at the time. 

At Bulkeley High School, he concentrated on track until his senior year. Johnny was a high jumper and pole vaulter. But when he became a senior, Taylor pitched for a Bulkeley Maroons team that included future major leaguer Bob Repass and future high-school coach and scout Whitey Piurek.
On April 28 he started Bulkeley’s opening game at Goodwin Park, against rival Hartford High School. Three days later he struck out 17 and gave up just two hits against West Hartford High in another home game. A week later he struck out 19 Hartford Hilltoppers at Elizabeth Park to go to 3-0.
On May 20 Bulkeley crushed undefeated Weaver High, 18-1, at Bulkeley Park. Taylor hit a home run over the left-field fence that was the longest hit by a high schooler in that ballpark. But his best performance was yet to come. In the season finale against New Britain, Taylor struck out 25 and gave up just one hit as the Maroons won, 13-4.
Albert Keane of the Hartford Courant reported that New York Yankee scout Gene McCann was interested in Taylor. When McCann found out that Taylor was not white, he tried to get him to pretend he was Cuban. The light-skinned Taylor refused.
Taylor wound up spending most of the rest of the summer pitching for Home Circle of the Greater Hartford Twilight League, which played most of its games at Colt Park, which had 20 baseball diamonds.
There were rumors that Taylor turned down offers from Philadelphia and the Pittsburgh Colored Giants. He signed with the New York Cubans, owned by Alejandro Pompez, after Taylor’s aunt had a chance meeting in NewYork City with Frank Forbes, the business manager of the Cubans. Pompez made his money in the numbers racket, but also dabbled in baseball.
Taylor was signed by Frank Forbes for $175 a month and $2 a day meal money. He went 6-4 and struck out 55, second to teammate Luis Tiant, Sr. Taylor pitched as the Cubans played the Savitt Gems in Hartford in late August. He beat the Gems 7-0 and fanned 15. The Cubans returned in September and lost to the Gems. (On the way to Hartford, the team bus was in an accident on the Berlin Turnpike, near Hartford, but it didn’t keep the Giants from playing.)
Taylor came home to Hartford in 1937 and played for the Savitt Gems. While still hobbled by his injuries, he faced Will Jackman and the Philadelphia Colored Giants in a 20-inning marathon. He struck out 22 and went on to beat Jackman twice more that year. He went 13-1 for the Gems before reinjuring his back.
Several teams sought his services in 1938. Initially, he planned on returning to New York, but he wound up signing with the Pittsburgh Crawfords for $400 a month.
In 1939 an eight-team semipro league called the Connecticut State Baseball League was formed. During the Memorial Day weekend, Taylor pitched for the New Britain entry against New London. Because he was black, the New London team protested the use of Taylor in a game, and representatives of the league’s teams wound up voting 6-2 to ban Negro players
In September 1941 the prodigal son made a visit to Hartford with his Mexican All-Stars. The team included Josh Gibson, Sam Bankhead, Ray Dandridge, and Willie Wells. They played the Saviott Gems, whose starter was hometown rival Pete Naktenis. Taylor and his All-Stars won in ten innings, 7-5, as Johnny fanned 15.
After a two-year layoff, Taylor, by now 33 years old, signed a contract in late May to pitch for the Hartford Chiefs of the Eastern League in 1949. Perhaps the first black member of the Chiefs, he went 6-7, mainly in relief. He was released by the club in November and hung up his spikes.
Taylor was a trailblazer for black golfers in Connecticut. He started as a youth at
the municipal course at Hartford’s Goodwin Park, which was near his neighborhood. 
In 1975 the Boston Red Sox made it to the World Series. In a moment of d├ętente, Cuba let Luis Tiant Sr. and his wife travel to the US to see his son pitch. Taylor went to Fenway Park to see his old teammate and had a tearful reunion.
Johnny Taylor died on June 15, 1987, after an extended battle with cancer. He lives on in a sense as a minor character in Mark Winegardner’s novel The Veracruz Blues.Taylor was the best Negro Leagues player born in the Hartford area and perhaps the best Hartford native to play the game, period."

1 comment:

  1. The Sox' 1st black player was Pumpsie Green. He quickly proved his equality with his white teammates (other than Yaz) because he couldn't hit, run, or field any better than they. Over 5 seasons (4 in Boston and 1 with the Mets) Pumpsie hit a lackluster .246. In his four years with the Sox the team never broke .500 and never finished better than 5th in the standings.