Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Black Aces

In the 63 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball (MLB), a total of 204 pitchers have won 20 or more games in a season and these 204 pitchers have accumulated a total of 361 20 win seasons. Of these 204 pitchers, only 14 have been African-American and these African-American pitchers have tallied a total of 31 seasons of 20 or more victories. Jim “Mudcat”, Grant affectionaetly named this group of African-American 20-Game Winners as the “Black Aces”.

The Black Aces were celebrated in the 2005 book “The Black Aces” written by Jim “Mudcat” Grant with Tom Sabellico and Pat O’Brien. The book chronicles the 12 African-American pitchers who had won 20 or more games in the major league season (currently, there are 13 Black Aces), and takes a look at the members of the Negro League who Mudcat believes had the talent to win 20 in the majors if given the opportunity, and takes a look at several of the future potential members who could possibly join the club. For more information about the book, the personal appearances by Mudcat and others, check the web site:

As detailed by Tom Singer of (’12 Black Aces’ Span Generations) African-American pitchers had to overcome what was referred as the “last barrier” in MLB, which was the perceived reluctance to put black men on the mound that endured long after baseball’s color line was crossed. Al Downing, the eighth member of the Black Aces says “It was the same question asked of black quarterbacks in football – could you orchestrate a game?”

Each of the Black Aces has a unique story to tell. Some had endured for years in the leauge before finding the secret to success, some dominated the opposition for the majority of their careers, some had their career derailed by personal battles, but whatever the story may be, it is unique to each individual.

The Black Aces are Don Newcombe, Sam Jones, Bob Gibson, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Earl Wilson, Fergie Jenkins, Vida Blue, Al Downing, J.R. Richard, Mike Norris, Dwight Gooden, Dave Stewart, and Dontrelle Willis. As I was researching the backgrounds of each of the Black Aces, I found several interesting facts about each guy.. The players acheivements and a brief biography is detailed below and I encourage the reader to dig a little deeper into each individual for historical perspective. Below are some of the interesting facts discovered during the research process:

Don Newcombe is the only pithcer to win the Rookie of the Year Award, Cy Young Award, and Most Valuable Player Award.

Sam Jones is the first African-American to throw a no-hitter.

Bob Gibson was a member of the Harlem Globtrotters.

Jim “Mudcat” Grant was the first ever starting pitcher for the Montreal Expos.

Earl Wilson was the first African-American Pitcher in Boston Red Sox history.

Fergie Jenkins would win 20 or more games 7 times in his career.

Al Downing was the first African-American starting pitcher in New York Yankee history.

Vida Blue is the last switch hitting AL MVP.

Mike Norris would complete 24 games in 1981.

Dave Stewart is the last pitcher to post 4 straight seasons of 20 or more wins.


First Member of the Black Aces: September 29, 1951 by defeating the Philedelphia Phillies 5-0.


• Recorded 3 20-win seasons (1951, 1955, and 1956).

• Named to four All-Star teams (1949, 1950, 1951, and 1955).

• Only Pitcher to earn Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and MVP Awards.

• First Ever Cy Young Award winner, given to the best pitcher in both the AL and NL.

• First African-American to lead his league in strikeouts.

• First American to play in Japan following the completion of his big league career.

• Pitched the first 8 innings (relieved by Ralph Branca) of the “Shot Heard Round the World Game”.


Played one season for the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues prior to being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. He played three years for the Nashua Dodgers in the New England League, making his major league debut on May 20, 1949. His professional career was delayed for two years (1953 and 1954) as he honarbly served his country in the Korean War. The Dodgers traded Newcombe to the Cincinatti Reds on June 15, 1959. His contract was purchased by the Cleveland Indians in 1960 and his career came to an end in 1961. His last appearance came as a member of the Cleveland Indians on October 1, 1960.

Newcombe finished with a career record of 149-90 with a career ERA of 3.56. He admits that alcoholism derailed his career and has been sober since 1967. He maintains ties to the Dodgers organization and was named a special advisor to the front office in March, 2009.


Second Member of the Black Aces: September 12, 1959 by defeating the Philadelphia Phillies 9-1.


• 1959 was his only 20-win season.

• On May 3, 1952, he and Quincy Trouppe formed the first ever black battery in MLB.

• Led the NL in Strikeouts in 1955, 1956, and 1958.

• First African-American to throw a no-hitter by defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0 on May 12, 1955.

• Named to two All-Star teams (1955 and 1959).

• One of only 4 pitchers to walk over 185 batters in a season. Joining Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan, and Bobo Newsom.


Signed as an Amatuer Free Agent by the Cleveland Indians in 1950 and made his debut on September 21, 1951. In September of 1954 he was traded to the Chicago Cubs who in turn sent Ralph Kiner to Cleveland.  In 1956 the Cubs traded him to the Cardinals. During Spring Training of 1959, the Cardinals sent him to the San Francisco Giants. The Giants exposed him to the 1961 expansion draft and he was selected by the Houston Colt-45’s but he never played for them as he was flipped to the Detroit Tigers. Upon his release from Detroit, Jones signed on as a free agent with the St.Louis Cardinals for the 1963 season and as a free agent for the Baltimore Orioles where he made his final appearance on October 3, 1964. Jones finished his career with an overall record of 102-101 with a 3.59 ERA.

Sam Jones passed away in Morgantown, West Virgina on November 5, 1971 at the age of 45.


Third Member of the Black Aces: October 3, 1965 by defeating the Houston Astros 5-2.


•  Recorded  five 20-win seasons (1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, and 1970)

• Elected to MLB Hall of Fame in 1981 garnering 84% of the votes of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA)

• Named to 9 All-Star Teams (1962 [1,2], 1965, 1966,1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, and 1972)

• Won 9 Gold Gloves (1965 through 1973).

• Won 2 Cy Young Awards (1968 and 1970)

• Won the NL MVP Award in 1968.

• Named the WS MVP in 1964 and 1967.

• Holds the record for strikeouts in a WS game with 17 on October 2, 1968.

• Posted a modern day recorcd 1.12 ERA in 1968.

• Threw a no-hitter on against the Pittsburgh Pirates on August 14, 1971.


Bob Gibson attended college at Creighton University starring in baseball and basketball. He was signed as an amatuer free agent by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957. In 1957 Gibson played for the St. Louis minor league affiliates Columbus Foxes and Omaha Cardinals while also playing basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters. Gibson made his major league debut on April 15, 1959. His last appearance came on September 3, 1975. Gibson pitched for 17 seasons compiling a 251-174 record with a 2.91 ERA and striking out 3,117 batters while earning the reputation as the most intimidating pitcher in the game. After his playing career was over Gibson had his number retired (#45) by the St.Louis Cardinals and had a statue erected outside of Busch Stadium. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991 and was named to the MLB All Century Team. Gibson currently serves as Vice President of the Baseball Assistance Team whose function is to aid those members of the baseball family most in need.


Fourth Member of the Black Aces: Septemeber 25, 1965 by defeating the Washington Senators 5-2.


• 1965 was his only 20-win season.

• Started the first ever Montreal Expos game.

• First member of the Black Aces to win 20 games in the American League.

• Led the league in Shutouts in 1965 and was named The Sporting News pitcher of the year.

• Named to Two All Start Teams (1963 and 1965)


James Grant signed as an amatuer free agent with the Cleveland Indians in 1954. He spent four years in the minor leagues in such outposts as Fargo, North Dakota, Keokuk, Illinois, Reading, Pennsylvania, and San Diego, California. He joined the Indians and made his MLB debut on April 17, 1958. James Grant roomed with Larry Doby who gave him the nickname Mudcat by saying that James was as ugly as a Mississippi Mudcat. Mudcat pitched for the Cleveland Indians through 1964. After the 1964 season he was traded to the Minnesota Twins. He led the Twins to the 1965 World Series where he posted a record of 2-1 with an ERA of 2.74, unfortunatley the Twins lost the World Series 4-3 to the Los Angeles Dodgers with Mudcat winning Game 6 to force Game 7. The Twins traded Mudcat to the L.A. Dodgers during the winter of 1967 where he would pitch until 1968. He was drafted in the 1968 expansion draft by the Montreal Expos. The Expos would traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals in June, 1969. The Oakland A’s purchased his contract in 1970 and converted him to a reliever. The transition to reliever seems to have worked as he found success in the bullpen compiling 24 saves in 1970. In mid-September of 1970, Mudcat was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates where he’d pitch until returning to Oakland in 1971. He made his final appearance on September 29, 1971. Mudcat Grant compiled a record of 145-119 with an ERA of 3.63.

After retiring from baseball, Mudcat worked for the North American Softball League. He also worked as an executive for the Cleveland Indians as well as a broadcaster for both the Cleveland Indians, L.A. Dodgers, and Oakland A’s. He has been active on the board of the Negro League Baseball Museum, Baseball Assistance Team, and the Major League Alumni Association. In 2006 he released his book “The Black Aces” documenting the 12 African-American Pitchers to win 20 or more games in the major leagues. In February 2007 President Bush honored Mudcat and fellow Aces, Feguson Jenkins, Dontrelle, Willis, and Mike Norris.


Fifth Member of the Black Aces: September 6, 1967 by defeating the Oakland A’s 6-3.


• 1967 was his only 20-win season.

• Tied for the American League in Wins with 22 in 1967.

• Became the first Black Pitcher in Boston Red Sox History in 1959.

• Threw a No-Hitter versus the Los Angeles Angels on June 26, 1962. Making him the first African-American to throw a no-hitter in the AL.


Earl Wilson  signed as an amatuer free agent with the Boston Red Sox in 1953. His MLB debut with the Boston Red Sox came on July 28, 1959. The Red Sox traded him to the Detroit Tigers in mid-season 1966. He went on on to win 22 games for the Tigers in 1967 and was a key member of the 1968 World Championship Detroit Tigers. The San Diego Padres purchased his contract on July 5, 1970. Wilson made his final appearance on September 22, 1970. Earl Wilson finished his career with a record of 121-109 and an ERA of 3.69.

After retiring from the Major Leagues, Wilson would go on to found an automotive parts store. Wilson died of a heart attack in his home in Southfield, Michigan on April 23, 2005.


Sixth Member of the Black Aces: September 29, 1967 by defeating the Cincinnatti Reds 4-1.


• Recorded 7 20-win seasons (1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974).

• Elected to MLB Hall of Fame in 1991 garnering 75.4% of the votes of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA)

• Named to three All-Star Games (1967, 1971, and 1972).

• Won the NL Cy Young Award in 1971.

• Led the NL in wins in 1971 and the AL in wins in 1974.


Fergie Jenkins signed with the Philedelphia Phillies as an amatuer free agent in 1962 and made his MLB debut as a member of the Phillies on Septembe 10, 1965. The Phillies traded Jenkins to the Chicago Cubs in April, 1966. Jenkins career blossomed in Chicago as he won 20 or more games for 6 consecutive seasons, a feat not accomplished since Warren Spahn did it from 1956 to 1961. The Cubs traded Jenkins to the Texas Rangers in October of 1973. Jenkins rediscovered himself as a member of the Rangers by leading the American League in victories with 25 and in complete games with 29. Texas traded Jenkins to Boston in 1975. Jenkins spent the 1976 and 1977 seasons as a member of the Red Sox and was dealt back to the Texas Rangers following the 1977 season. In 1981 Jenkins signed as a free agent with the Chicago Cubs where he made his last appearance on September 26, 1983. Fergie Jenkins finished his career after 19 seasons with a record of 284-226 with an ERA of 3.34 while striking out 3,192 batters.

After retiring from major league baseball, Jenkins went on to pitch for two more years for the London Majors of the Intercounty Major Baseball League in London, Ontario. Jenkins has gone through many trials and tribulations in his personal life and has written several books detailing the adversities that has helped frame who he is now, like his autobiography The Game is Easy, Life is Hard. Fergie Jenkins runs a charitable organization called the Fergie Jenkins Foundation.


Seventh Member of the Black Aces: August 7, 1971 by defeating the Chicago White Sox.


• Recorded 3 20-win seasons (1971, 1973, and 1975).

• Named to the 5 All Star Teams (1971, 1975, 1977, 1978, and 1980).

• 1971 AL CY Young Award Winner.

• 1971 AL MVP Winner (Last switch hitter two win MVP).

• Threw a no-hitter on September 21, 1970 by defeating the Minnesota Twins 6-0.

• Combined with Glenn Abbott, Paul Lindblad, and Rollie Fingers to No Hit the California Angels on September 25, 1975.

• Only All Star pitcher to be credited with ASG victories for the AL and NL.


Vida Blue was drafted by the Kansas City Athletics in the 2nd round of the 1967 amatuer draft. He made  his MLB debut on July 20, 1969 a little more than a week before he turned 20. He went on to win 24 games in 1971 against 8 losses and won the AL MVP and AL Cy Young Awards. He continued to play for the Oakland A’s until he was dealt to the San Francisco Giants for 7 players and cash in March of 1975. It should be noted that Blue was one of the contracts purchased by the New York Yankees that commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided invoking the “best interest in baseball clause”. Additionally, a trade of Blue to the Cincinnatti Reds was voided by Kuhn in 1977. Blue pitched for San Francisco Giants for four seasons and was dalt to the Kansas City Royals in March of 1982. He pitched one season in Kansas City and returned to the San Francisco Giants as a free agent in 1984 where he finished his career and made his last appearance on October 2, 1986. Blue compiled a 209-161 record with an ERA of 3.27.

After retiring from the major leagues, Blue went on to pitch for two more seasons in the Senior Professional Baseball Association (SPBA). In 1994, Blue was named as Commissioner of the Junior Giants. A program run by the San Francisco Giants that provides equipment and accomodations to a youth baseball league designed for disadvantaged children in the San Francisco an Oakland Bay area. In 2002, the Junior Giants program was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame as the “Single Best Program” run by a professional sports team. The program has grown from an initial 18 to 65 communities, and now extends from the Bay Area into Oregon and Nevada.


Eighth Member of the Black Aces: September 24, 1971 by defeating the Atlanta Braves 2-0.


• 1967 was his only 20-win season

• Named to the 1967 All Star Team.
• Led the AL in strikeouts in 1964 with 217.

• 1971 Comeback Player of the Year.

• Led NL in Shutouts with 5 in 1971.

• First Black Starting Pitcher in NY Yankee history.


Al Downing  signed by the New York Yankees as an amatuer free agent in 1961 and made his MLB debut on July 19, 1961 at the age of 20 years old. Downing had a successful nine year run in New York before being traded to the Oakland A’s. Downings’ time in Oakland was brief as he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in mid-season 1970. The Brewers traded him to the Dodgers in 1971 after a very unsuccesful season in Milwaukee. In his first year with the Dodgers, Downing went on to win 20 games against only 9 losses, led the league in shutouts, and won the Comeback Player of the Year Award. Downing was on the field when Hank Aaron hit his famous 715th home run, unfortunately, it was Downings delivery that Aaron hit out of the park. Downing finished his career as a Dodger and made his last start on July 13, 1977. Downing compiled a 123-107 record with an ERA of 3.22.

Currently, Downing works in community service for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He also assits at a youth clinic in Cary, N.D. for USA Bseball, and spends a couple of weeks at George Foster’s “Baseball Boot Camp” in Vero Beach, Florida.

J.R. Richard

Ninth Member of the Black Aces: October 2, 1976 by defeating the San Francisco Giants 10-1.


• 1980 was his only 20-win season.

• Named to 1980 All Star Team.

• Led the NL in ERA and Strikeouts in 1979.


JR Richard was drafted by the Houston Astros in the first round (#2 pick) of the 1969 amatuer draft and made his MLB debut on September 5, 1971 at the young age of 21. He bounced between Houston and the minor leagues during parts of the next 4 seasons and became a mainstay of the Astros rotation in 1975. Richard was one of the National Leagues most dominant pitchers from 1976 through the All Star break of 1980 when tragedy struck. Prior to a game on July 30, 1980, Richard had a stroke while playing catch and was rushed to a nearby hospital and had to have surgery to remove a blod clot from his neck. Richard attempted several comebacks over the next several years, but he was unable to regain his depth perception or reaction time. Richard compiled a record of 107-71 with an ERA of 3.15.

After his baseball career ended, Richard found difficulty in marriage and a few business deals and had to deal with homelessness. This was documented in a 2005 movie titled “Resurrection – The JR Richard Story”. Richard turned to Reverend Floyd Lewis and the Now Testament Church for help. Richard is now a minister at the church.


Tenth Member of the Black Aces: September 16, 1980 by defeating the Texas Rangers 4-2.


• 1980 was his only 20-win season

• Named to 1981 All Star Team.

• Won Gold Glove in 1980 and 1981.


Mike Norris was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the first round of the 1973 January draft and made his MLB debut on April 10, 1975 at the age of 20. He bounced between the A’s and the minor leagues over the next several years before becoming a mainstay in the A’s rotation in 1979. Norris had a breakout season in 1980, with a record of 22-9 and an ERA of 2.83. Norris was one of several A’s players that year to complete what they started by completing 24 games. The wear and tear on his arm may have short-circuited Norris’ career as he succumbed to a shoulder injury after average seasons in 1982 and 1983. Norris battled injury and drug and alcohol addictions while attempting to comeback. He perservered and made a return to the major leagues in 1990 as a reliever. He pitched his final game as a major leaguer on July 4, 1990. Norris compiled a record of 58-59 with an ERA of 3.89 ERA.

Most recently, Norris was working for the Oakland Chapter of Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (R.B.I.).


Eleventh Member of the Black Aces: August 25, 1985 by defeating the San Diego Padres 9-3.


• 1985 was his only 20-win season.

• Named NL Rookie of the Year 1984

• Named NL Cy Young Award Winner 1985

• Named to 4 All-Star Teams (1984, 1985, 1986, and 1988)

• Youngest player to appear in an All-Star Game (1984, 19 years old).

• Threw a no-hitter on May 14, 1996 by defeating the Seattle Mariners 2-0.


Dwight Gooden was drafted by the New York Mets in the first round (#5 overall) of the 1982 draft. Gooden dominated during his year and a half in the minors and was elevated from A ball to the majors in 1984 and made his MLB debut on April 7, 1984 and won the 1984 Rookie of the Year Award at age 19. In 1985, Gooden put together such a dominant performance that it can only be compared to Bob Gibson’s season in 1968. Gooden won the pitchers version of the Triple Crown by leading his league in Wins (24), ERA (1.58), and Strikeouts (268) . He also led the league in complete games (16) and innings pitched (276.1). Gooden battled personal demons and injuries through much of his remaining time with the Mets. Gooden signed on with the New York Yankees in 1996 where he threw a a no-hitter by defeating the Seattle Mariners 2-0 on May 14 of that year. Gooden moved on to pitch for the Cleveland Indians for the 1998 and 1999 seasons. Gooden finished the 2000 seasons pitching for the Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and New York Yankees. He pitched in relief for the 2000 New York Yankees and made his final regular season appearance on September 29, 2000. He finished his career with a 194-112 record and an 3.51 ERA.

Dwight Gooden has continued to battle his personal demons since his retirement from baseball. He was worked in an advisory position for the New York Yankees and in the community relations department of the Atlantic League’s Newark Bears. He was inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame in August, 2010. Gooden detailed his personal struggles in the book Heat: My Life On and Off the Diamond which was released in 1999.


Twelfth Member of the Black Aces: September 30, 1987 by defeating the Cleveland Indians 4-3.


• Recorded 4 20-win seasons (1987, 1988, 1989, and 1990).

• The last ML pitcher to post 4 straight 20+ win seasons.

• Named to the 1989 AL All-Star Team.

• Threw a no-hitter on June 29, 1990 by defeating the Toronto Blue Jays 5-0.


Dave Stewart was drafted as a catcher by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 16th round of the 1975 amatuer draft. The Dodgers immediately converted him to a pitcher and he quickly ascended through their minor league systems to make his MLB debut on September 22, 1978 only to return to the minors until 1981. He pitched the 1981 through 1983 seasons primarily in relief for the Dodgers. The Dodgers traded him to the Texas Rangers on August 19, 1983. Stewart would pitch the remainder of the 1983 campaign and into September 13, 1985 with the Texas Rangers who traded him to the Philedelphia Phillies. The Phillies granted Stewart his release in May of 1996. Shortly after his release from Philedelphia, Stewart signed on with the Oakland A’s who inserted him into there starting rotation. Stewart responded by posting a 9-5 record with a 3.74 ERA. The next four seasons  Dave Stewart was arguably the most dominating pitcher in the league. He won 20 or more games in each season 1987 (20), 1988 (21), 1989 (21), and 1990 (22). Stewart won the WS MVP in 1989 and the ALCS MVP in 1990. Stewart left Oakland following the 1992 season and signed a free agent deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. Stewart pitched two seasons in Toronto with limited success in the regular season, but once again shined in the post-season winning the ALCS MVP award in 1993. Stewart  returned to Oakland as a free agent and pitched part of the 1995 seson making his final appearance on July 17, 1995. Stewart compiled a record of 168-129 and an ERA of 3.95.

Since retiring from the major leagues, Dave Stewart has served as a pitching coach for the San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers, and Toronto Blue Jays. Stewart was also the assistant GM in Toronto. Stewart left the Blue Jays front office to become an agent and launched Sports Management Partners.


Thirteenth Member of the Black Aces: September 7, 2005 by defeating the Washington Nationals 12-1.


• 2003 was his only 20-win season

• Named NL Rookie of the Year in 2003.

• Named to the 2003 and 2005 NL All Star Teams.


Dontrelle Willis was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 8th round of the 2000 amatuer draft. He was traded to the Florida Marlins on March 27, 2002 and made his MLB debut with the Marlins on May 9, 2003. Willis won the NL rookie of the year award in 2003 posting a record of 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA and he won  the NL Cy Young Award in 2003. Willis pitched for the Florida Marlins through the 2006 season. Prior to the 2007 season, Willis was traded to the Detroit Tigers. Willis was unalble to duplicate his early success he had in Florida. His time in Detroit was marred by personal problems and injuries. Willis was given his outright release on June 1, 2010. Willis  briefly pitch for the Arizona Cardinals prior to being released on July 6, 2010. Willis finished the 2010 seaon with the San Francisco Giants minor league affiliate Fresno Grizzlies of the Pacific Coast League. He returned to the big leagues as a member of the 2011 Reds.

C.C. Sabathia

Fourteenth member of the Black Aces: September 18, 2010 by defeating the Baltimore Orioles 11-3.

• Recorded 1 20-win season (2010)

• Named AL Cy Young Award Winner (2007)

• Named to the 2003, 2004, 2007, 2010,  and 2011 AL All Star Teams.


C.C. Sabathia was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 1st round (20th overall) of the 1998 amateur draft. He made his major league debut with the Indians on April 8, 2001 at the age of 20. Sabathia spent the first 7+ years of his career with the Cleveland Indians where he compiled a record of 106-71. In 2008, Sabathia was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers where he posted a record of 11-2. After the 2008 season, Sabathia signed a contract with the New York Yankees where he has pitched since 2009 and compiling a record of 60-23. Sabathia has a career record of 180-96 and an ERA of 3.52.