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Johnny Taylor: Hartford’s First Professional Black Athlete

John “Johnny” “Jackson” “Schoolboy” Arthur Taylor Jr.

Born: 2/4/1916 – Hartford, Connecticut

Died: 6/15/1987 – Hartford, Connecticut

During the 1930s and 1940s, Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor pitched his way into baseball legend. Taylor began his playing days as a phenom for Hartford’s Bulkeley High School. In the summertime, he dominated the Hartford Twilight League at Colt Park and later overpowered batters as an ace for the Savitt Gems at Bulkeley Stadium. Throughout his career, Taylor threw more than a dozen no-hitters and became an all-star in the Negro National League, the Mexican League and the Cuban League.

At the time, Major League Baseball owners barred black athletes from organized baseball. Despite racial discrimination and segregation, Taylor’s perseverance and passion for the game helped him prevail. With a high leg kick and a sharp fastball, he earned his way into the hearts of baseball fans beyond borders and across racial lines. In the last stage of his career, Taylor became Hartford’s first black athlete to break the color barrier when he signed with Hartford Chiefsof the Eastern League in 1949.

In 1933, Little Johnny Taylor hit the music charts with “Part Time Love.” There was an Irish Johnny Taylor in boxing.  There was a Steel-Arm Johnny Taylor who pitched in the Negro Leagues, but he was a generation older.  There was even a local race car driver named Johnny Taylor.  This story is about “Schoolboy” Johnny Taylor, the world-class pitcher.  John Arthur Taylor, Jr. was born in Hartford, Connecticut, 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 lawyer Edward Bennett Williams and the boxer Willie Pep, younger than Johnny by a few years, grew up in the same area. When Johnny Taylor of Hartford was a young lad, Lou Gehrig and Leo Durocher played for the Hartford Senators.  Taylor outfitted his sandlot team by shagging fouls and collecting the Senators’ cracked bats.  At Bulkeley High School, he concentrated on track, until his senior year. 

Johnny was a high jumper and pole vaulter but would soon be allowed to to play on his school’s baseball team. In 1933, Taylor pitched for Bulkeley High School Maroons in his senior year. His team that included future major leaguer, Bob Repass and future high school coach and professional scout, Whitey Piurek.  Babe Allen coached the Bulkeley baseball team, as he would from 1926 to 1963.

On April 28,1933, Taylor started Bulkeley’s opening game at Goodwin Park, against rival Hartford High School. Taylor was wild in the first inning but settled down; going six innings before being relieved.  Three days later he struck out 17 and gave up just two hits against West Hartford High School in another home game.  A week later he struck out 19 Hartford Hilltoppers at Elizabeth Park.  This topped what was believed to be a Greater Hartford scholastic record.  Just the previous spring, future major leaguer Pete “Lefty” Naktenis had struck out 18 in a game.

On May 20, Bulkeley High 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.  Taylor, pitching in his final high school game, set the Connecticut record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game. In the season finale against New Britain on June 2, 1933, Taylor struck out 25 and gave up just one hit as the Maroons won, 13-4.  (Taylor was a bit wild.  He walked nine.) 

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1933.

When all was said and done, Taylor went 8-1 and hit for an average of .428 for Bulkeley High.  He was named to the Greater Hartford Scholastic Team.  His achievement might well be a national high school record, too, because no definitive high school records exist for nine-inning games. Regulation high school games, since the mid-1980s in many states, including Connecticut, have been seven innings.

Albert Keane of the Hartford Courant reported that New York Yankees scout Gene McCann was interested in Taylor (other reports indicated that the Athletics were interested in him as well).  When McCann found out that Taylor was not white, he tried to get him to pretend he was Cuban.  The light-skinned Taylor refused.  This was not unheard of.  Negro Leaguer and major leaguer Quincy Trouppe (Cleveland, 1952) claimed that around the same time, a scout advised him to hole up for a while south of the border, learn Spanish, and he could come back to the major leagues.

Johnny Taylor (left) on the Savitt Gems and the team’s business manager, Bernie Ellovich (right), Bulkeley Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut,1935.

Soon after his final high-school game, it was announced that Taylor would pitch for the New England Colored Stars. But he had injured a finger on his right hand earlier that week, so he didn’t pitch, but he did play center field for the team; the position he usually played when not on the mound.  Taylor wound up spending most of the summer pitching for Home Circle of the Hartford Twilight League who played most of its games at Colt Park which had more than a dozen baseball diamonds. 

On September 10, 1933, Taylor and the Home Circle team had a long anticipated matchup with Mayflower Sales and Pete Natkenis.  Taylor and Home Circle lost, 6-2, in front of 5,000 fans at Colt Park. He then joined forces with Mayflower Sales to play in a New England baseball championship sponsored by the United States Amateur Baseball Association.  But the highest level of competition he faced that year was with the Savitt Gems.  He was with the Gems in October and was its biggest-drawing pitcher.  On the 8th he faced Bridgeport Industrial League power McKesson-Robbins, and lost in a 1-0 pitchers’ duel.

Savitt Gems vs. New York Cubans and Johnny Taylor (sp.) at Bulkeley Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, Aug 22, 1935.

In 1934, Taylor continued pitching on the Connecticut semi-pro circuit.  He pitched for Check Bread of the Hartford Twilight League, as well as Yantic in the Norwich City League, as well as the Savitt Gems.  On August 31, he had the first no-hitter of his career for the Northwest Athletic Club of Winsted.  The Negro Leagues were watching.  The lanky (168-pound) right-hander had an overhead curve and a fastball with a hop. 

On October 14, Taylor and the Gems faced the Philadelphia Colored Giants and Will Jackman. Despite the name, the Giants were actually a Boston-based nine.  Jackman was an ancient submariner, probably around 40 at the time, who roamed New England sandlots and ball fields for years.  Some, like the late Dick Thompson, thought he was the greatest unknown pitcher in baseball. In a seven-inning affair, Taylor no-hit Philadelphia.  He and Jackman would meet again.

1935 New York Cubans – Johnny Taylor identified under number “7”.

Taylor reportedly turned down offers from Philadelphia and the Pittsburgh Colored Giants in 1935. Instead, he signed with the New York Cubans, owned by Alejandro Pompez after Taylor’s aunt had a chance meeting in New York City with Frank Forbes, the business manager of the Cubans. Pompez made his money in the numbers racket, but also dabbled in baseball.  He spent $60,000 renovating the Dyckman Oval in Harlem, and the Cubans joined the Negro National League.  The Oval sat 10,000 and was in effect Harlem’s community center.

The great Martin Dihigo, 30 years old at the time, was the Cubans’ player-manager.  (Dihigo was one of the most versatile players in the Negro Leagues, playing well at all positions except catcher.)  Others on the team were Alejandro Oms, a great Cuban outfielder in the twilight of his career; a pitcher, Cocaina Garcia, so-named because he made hitters look like “cokeheads” when he faced them; and Lazaro Salazar, who was Taylor’s best friend on the team. 

Dyckman Oval, Harlem, New York, 1932.

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 only to teammate Luis Tiant, Sr.  Taylor was on the mound when 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.) Winning 28 games and losing 24, the Cubans finished in third place in the Negro National League, but they won in the second half of the season to make the playoffs.  Their opponent was a great Pittsburgh Crawfords team.

Taylor lost Game 3 of the playoffs.  He was pitching in Game Six and the Cubans were winning, but Dihigo pulled Taylor and inserted himself as pitcher, and blew the game.  Frank Forbes, the team business manager, was already in the clubhouse counting out the winners’ share.  The Cubans lost again in Game 7 of the series. After the season Taylor faced the Dizzy Dean All-Stars on October 13, at Yankee Stadium, and struck out 14 but lost, 3-0.

In 1936, Taylor received a $10-a-month raise.  He went 5-2 for the New York Cubans and collected 58 strikeouts, second to Satchel Paige.  As in the previous summer, Taylor and the Cubans made a Hartford appearance and he thrilled the hometown fans by striking out 18 and shutting out the Gems.  The Washington Elite Giants led the Negro National League in the first half of the ’35 season and Pittsburgh won the second half. 

“Man, did he have good stuff.”

Roy Campanella on Taylor

In the fall of 1936, Taylor faced Babe Ruth at Dyckman Oval. During the season New York Giants player Dolf Luque had encouraged Taylor to spend the winter on his home island of Cuba, and in November Taylor took a train to Miami and hopped on a boat to Havana. He played winter ball for Dihigo’s Marianao club at Tropical Stadium in Havana.  Taylor went 1-6 that winter. It was no help that he was struck by a trolley car in Havana and suffered a ruptured disc. Still, the fans loved him, calling him Escolar Taylor, el Rey (King) de Hartford.  Marianao faced the Santa Clara Leopards in a three-game postseason playoff and defeated the Leopards, two games to one.

“Good ballplayer. Yes I hit against him. Didn’t get much on it.”

Buck O’Neil on Taylor

In 1937, the New York Cubans dropped out of the Negro National League. Alejandro Pompez fled the United States to avoid a tax evasion indictment. Many black players like Johnny Taylor heard the siren call of the Dominican Republic.  The small Caribbean country was baseball-mad and its dictator, Rafael Trujillo was determined to make the best team money could buy.  Because white major leaguers wouldn’t jump to the island, Trujillo sought out Cubans and Negro Leaguers.

Johnny Taylor’s Negro League contracts.

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.

On September 19, 1937, Taylor pitched a no-hitter for the Negro National League All Stars against Satchel Paige and the Trujillo All Stars. The great Biz Mackey was his catcher. According to Johnny, Mackey advised him to keep the ball down that day. Future New York Governor and presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey, who had been chasing Pompez, was among the 20,000-plus at the Polo Grounds.

Shifty Jim West of the Washington Elite Giants and Chester Williams of the Crawfords had spectacular plays in the field. Going into the eighth inning, there was no score and Taylor had held the Trujillo All Stars hitless. West homered in the ninth to put the Negro National Leaguers ahead, 2-0. In the bottom of the inning, Taylor retired George Scales, Spoony Palm, and Cool Papa Bell to preserve his no-hitter. It was a great achievement even though he lost rematch a week later, 9-4.

Johnny Taylor (right) after his no-hitter on September 19, 1937 at the Polo Grounds in New York for the Negro National League All Stars against Satchel Paige (left) and the Trujillo All Stars.

The no-hitter made Taylor a desirable free agent for teams of the Negro Leagues.  Several clubs sought his services in 1938. Initially, Taylor planned on returning to New York, but he wound up signing with the Pittsburgh Crawfords for $400 a month.  Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee preferred to keep Taylor and dump Paige, whom he viewed as a prima donna always shuffling off to the Badlands or Hispaniola.

Taylor turned in a solid 1938 season with an 11-2 record. He made the 1938 East-West Negro League All-Star Game held at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. The Crawfords also used Taylor in a utility player role and he hit .368.  While in Pittsburgh, Taylor spent time with John Henry Lewis, the light heavyweight champ and the jewel of Greenlee’s boxing stable.

1938 Negro League All-Star Game at Comisky Park, Chicago, Illinois.

During the Winter of 1938 and 1939, Taylor and many of his colleagues signed with the Santa Clara Leopards of the Cuban League. They won the league title behind the great pitching of Taylor and great play from his peers like catcher Josh Gibson who shattered a Cuban League home run record (11 homers in 163 at bats). 


“A tall good-looking right-hander with the damnedest overhand curveball you ever did see.”

Monte Irvin on Taylor

In the summer of 1939 an eight team semi-pro league called the Connecticut State Baseball League was formed.  On 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 black players.  Then on September 16, 1939, the Hartford Courant reported petitions to get the Communist Party on the ballot were fraudulently obtained by canvassers who told residents in black neighborhoods that the petition was on behalf of Taylor’s attempt to play semi-pro ball. 

L to R: Indian Torres, Cocaina Garcia, Lazaro Salazar, Johnny Taylor, and Ray Brown, pitchers for the Santa Clara Leopards, Cuban League (a winter league), 1938.

As all of this was happening, Taylor was far away south of the border. The Mexican League had begun luring Negro Leaguers including Cool Papa Bell and Lazaro Salazar, a friend of Taylor’s from the Dyckman Oval days. Salazar urged Taylor to join him in Mexico.  Taylor played for $600 a month with the Cordoba Cafeteros.  He went 11-1 with a 1.19 ERA.  Ballplayers were literally treated like royalty in Mexico. 

In Mexico City, Taylor met King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who had fled his country when a republic was declared. Taylor played in Mexico through 1942. In 1940, he was joined by nearly two dozen more black ballplayers, including Josh Gibson, Sam Bankheadand Willie Wells. Taylor went 3-1 that season.  Taylor also pitched some for the New York Cuban Stars, who had rejoined the Negro National League.

1939 Cordoba Cafeteros, Mexican League – Johnny Taylor identified under number “3”.

Taylor had a banner year in 1941, playing for Vera Cruz with Josh Gibson as a teammate. He won 14 games, lost 5, struck out 115, and hit .295. Vera Cruz was perhaps Mexico’s best team ever.  Team owner Jorge Pasquel was a teetotaling liquor mogul who could pay more than any Negro League team.  He bought Taylor a new suit every time he pitched a shutout. His closet got pretty full. 

Before that season started, Taylor told Bill Lee of the Hartford Courant that it was tough to pitch in Mexico City because of the altitude.  He couldn’t get the same hop on his fastball or the same bend on his curve.  Taylor said games were played in the morning in Mexico.  Bullfighting was the most popular sport in the country and when there was a conflict between the bullring and baseball, it was felt at the gate. 

In September of 1941, Taylor 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 Savitt Gems, whose starter was hometown rival Pete Naktenis.  Taylor and his All-Stars won in ten innings, 7-5, as Johnny fanned 15 batters.

Taylor returned to Connecticut in 1942 and worked in a defense plant for United Aircraft in East Hartford. During the week he would work but would pitch for the New York Cubans on weekends. A back injury (probably the one from the trolley accident) earned Taylor a World War II draft deferment.  During the war years, Taylor played for the Savitt Gems in Hartford, Fred Davey’s team in Waterbury, and the Highland Lake Athletic Club of Winsted. 

In 1945, as the war ended, Taylor returned to Mexico to play in the Mexican League for Monterey. This time he had a family with him. He had married the former Estelle Singleton and had son, John Jr.  Estelle Taylor was a maternity nurse and the first black nurse at New Britain General Hospital. In 1946, Taylor played for Vera Cruz, but he hurt his arm after only a couple of weeks.  This was the year that the Mexican League was trying to challenge the majors. 

White players like Danny Gardella, Sal Maglie, and Mickey Owen were lured south of the border. Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler blacklisted them for five years.  The Negro National League gave eight of its players, including Taylor and Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, Ray Dandridge, five-year bans as well. The league must have reconsidered this stance because Dandridge went on to manage the Cubans in 1948 and Taylor returned to baseball in 1949.

After a two-year layoff, Taylor, 33 years old, signed a contract in late May of 1949 with the Hartford Chiefs of the Eastern League.  Taylor was the first black member of the Hartford Chiefs. He went 6-7, mainly in relief.  He was released by the club in November and hung up his spikes. After baseball, Taylor worked for his father’s construction business.  He made his last pitching appearances in Hartford Twilight League old-timer games along with former big league hurlers like Pete Naktenisand Walter “Monk” Dubiel.

Johnny Taylor, Hartford Chiefs, 1949

Taylor was also a trailblazer for black golfers in Connecticut.  He learned the game as a youth at Hartford’s Goodwin Park. Taylor played at Edgewood in Cromwell, the current site of TPC Cromwell. He was one of the first first black men in Connecticut to have a state handicap card, and perhaps the first.  “It was a liberal place,” according to Doug Pierson, son of Edgewood’s owner. He said Taylor was a member in 1959, when Jackie Robinson couldn’t join a private club in Stamford. 

Andy Pierson, Edgewood’s owner, liked Taylor and let him stock the club’s pond with bass.  Golfer Lee Trevino, who was married to a Wethersfield woman, once got permission through Taylor to fish in the pond. Johnny Taylor Jr. said his father started out as a typical baseball star golfer: a big hitter with an 8 handicap. However, he strove for perfection, studied Ben Hogan’s book The Fundamentals of Modern Golf, and sacrificed a whole season to refine his swing.  His son said this changed Taylor from a hitter to a golfer with a solid 3 handicap.

In 1975 the Boston Red Sox made it to the World Series.  During a moment of détente, the dictatorship of Cuba allowed 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. A dozen years later 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 BluesWhen all was said and done, Taylor was the best Negro Leagues player from the Hartford area and is one of Connecticut’s top pitchers of all-time.

“Schoolboy” Johnny Taylor, left, in a Hartford Chiefs uniform, and Satchel Paige, right, 1950.

Sources

SABR article by Jon Daly, February of 2011.

Hartford Courant

Hartford Times

Alexander, Charles C. Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Hogan, Lawrence D. Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2006.

Holway, John. The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues—The Other Half of Baseball History. Fern Park, Florida: Hastings House Publishers, 2001.

Lanctot, Neil. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Ribowsky, Mark. A Complete History of the Negro Leagues, 1884 to 1955. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1995.