These Men Changed Baseball: Sam Jethroe
Sam Jethroe has one of the most interesting careers on this list. He played only four seasons, winning two stolen base titles, coming in second once, and then being completely done. Want to look at the career of a player destroyed by segregation? Look at Jethroe. So who had this unusual career? Let’s take a look at Sam Jethroe in a little more depth.
Jethroe was born in 1918 in East St. Louis, making him a full year older than Jackie Robinson or Monte Irvin. Jethroe came up briefly with the Indianapolis ABC’s in 1938, then disappeared into the world of semi-pro baseball. He returned to the Negro Leagues in 1942 with the Cincinnati/Cleveland Buckeyes. He had a physical deferment, and thus he did not lose any years to military service. He played center field, winning a pair of batting titles and becoming the Negro Leagues dominant base stealer. He led the Buckeyes to a Negro League World Series win in 1945 and a loss in 1947. In 1948, he impressed the Dodgers enough that they signed him to a minor league contract with their Montreal affiliate. Jethroe lit up the minors, but the 1949 Dodgers already had a budding star in center named Duke Snider. The Dodgers traded Jethroe to the Boston Braves for the immortal Al Epperly, Damon Phillips, and Don Thompson. He debuted on April 18, 1950, at the age of 32, breaking the color barrier in Boston. He was an instant star.
In his rookie year, Jethroe hit .273, with 18 homers and 35 stolen bases. Caught stealing numbers are only available for his next two seasons, when he stole them at an 82% clip, good for one of the best percentages ever. He cruised to the Rookie of the Year, his age is the most relevant part in predicting his performance going forward. After this year at age 32, he followed it up with another excellent year at 33, hitting .280 with 18 homers and 35 stolen bases, leading the league in steals for the second time. Then the wheels came off at 34. In 1952, Jethroe still stole 29 bases, good for second in the league, but his home runs fell to 13 and his average to .232. He spent 1953 in the minors in Toledo, at which point the Braves traded him to Pittsburgh for Danny O’Connell, who had finished 3rd in the ROY voting to Jethroe in 1950. He narrowly missed integrating the Pirates. Curt Roberts would integrate the team on April 13th, while Jethroe played his last two MLB games on the 14th and 15th. In his last play, he pinch hit for the pitcher and hit into a fielder’s choice. He was sent down to Toronto the next day, where he played 5 more seasons.
After leaving baseball, Jethroe moved to Erie, PA, where he owned a bar. He died in 2001, completely forgotten. What might have been? Consider this: On April 16, 1945, the Boston Red Sox invited three Negro League players for a tryout, Jackie Robinson, Marvin Williams, and Jethroe. But Hall of Fame owner Tom Yawkey kept his lily-white roster until 1959, after every other team in baseball had integrated. Robinson would go on to the Hall of Fame, and Jethroe would wait and become the oldest Rookie of the Year in baseball history. In 1997, he won a long-running fight with major league baseball, getting pensions for negro league players that had, due to segregation, been unable to play long enough to qualify by the normal pension system. To quote Sam Jethroe, “over the years, I gave baseball a lot more than it gave me.”