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Mudville: June 22, 2024 6:45 am PDT

Rookies of the Year

A player can win multiple MVP Awards. A pitcher can win several Cy Young Awards, and even win the MVP and Cy Young in the same year. Someone could even win the Comeback Player of the Year award twice, but who would want to have to come back more than once?

But a ballplayer can win Rookie of the Year only once.

That’s a rarity in baseball: something you can’t debate. Win it and there’s no more for that person.

There’s another “only” attached to Rookie of the Year. In 1950, both recipients won the award while playing in Boston: first baseman Walt Dropo for the Boston Red Sox and centerfielder Sam Jethroe for the Boston Braves.

The Boston Globe did separate stories on the pair and their achievement. Dropo’s article was on page one. Jethroe’s was on page 30.

Dropo had a cup of coffee the year before and did not do well – and was subsequently sent back to the minors. He started the 1950 season with the AAA Louisville Couriers, but when he was called up to replace injured first baseman Billy Goodman, Dropo went on to have one of the best rookie seasons ever: He batted .322 with 34 home runs and tied his teammate Vern Stephens for the most RBIs in the American League with 144.

Dropo was a native of Moosup, CT. At 6’5” and 220 pounds, he was nicknamed “The Moose from Moosup.” He had a legendary college career at the University of Connecticut (UCONN), He also played football and basketball; George Halas of the Chicago Bears wanted Dropo to play for him, and Dropo briefly played for a professional basketball team in Rhode Island.

(Walt Dropo and his brothers, George and Milton, were star athletes at UConn “and were very generous to the University in establishing endowed scholarships. They are still known as the ‘First Family of UConn Athletics,’” said Mike Enright, deputy spokesperson and as an editorial associate in University Communications at UCONN.)

But the next few years with the Red Sox would see him have a good year, followed by a down year or two, along with being traded several times.

Why the roller coaster of good vs. mediocre (or worse) seasons?

Charlie Bevis, author of Red Sox vs. Braves in Boston: The Battle for Fan’s Hearts, 1901-1952, wrote, “One-season wonder, sophomore jinx, whatever you want to call it in 1951, but the AL pitchers probably simply discovered that Walt couldn’t hit a curve ball consistently and stopped chucking fast balls to him. So, next rookie phenom up at 1B, Dick Gernert, in 1952.

“Dropo also was not a great fielder at first base, and he was no spring chicken age-wise in 1950 at 27 years old” wrote Bevis. College baseball was not the best preparation for pro ball back in the 1940s, so maybe he needed more time in the minors (he was brought up in 1950 to replace injured Sox first baseman Billy Goodman. (Because of service during WWII and his desire to earn his college degree, he did not sign with the Red Sox until he was 24.)

On April 1, 1951, in an exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers, Dropo was hit on the wrist by a pitch. A cast was put on it, and on April 3, Dropo said, “It’s fractured but it’s not too bad. Three weeks later, he told the Globe that his wrist “was hurting.”

By June 26, Dropo was batting .252 with four home runs and 22 RBIs, but that wasn’t enough to keep him in the big leagues. Earlier that day, he was told he was being demoted and caught a flight to San Diego in the Pacific Coast League.

A banner headline in the Globe that day read, “Big Baseball mystery unsolved as Dropo Departs”.

Globe columnist Jerry Nason was particularly hard on Dropo, writing that he “hadn’t learned to be a big leaguer” and “Walt is not the only spoiled boy among the younger (Red Sox) set.

The Globe quoted his mother saying friends had been calling her about how unfair the demotion was.

On July 21, Dropo was batting .303 in San Diego. Dropo was recalled on July 27. Speculation was second baseman Bobby Doerr was hurt, and Goodman would take Doerr’s spot and Dropo would man first base.

Walt Dropo (right) of the Boston Red Sox, in Sarasota, Florida, March 8, 1949. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The fickleness of headline writers was evident on August 10 when the Globe ran this headline: “Dropo saves the Sox Double Licking”. In the second game of a double header against the Philadelphia Athletics, he launched a three-run home run to win the game.

All told, Dropo played in only 99 games with Boston, and wound up hitting .239 with 11 four-baggers and 57 RBIs.

On June 3, 1952, he was hitting .265 with six home runs and 27 RBI. Also on that day, Dropo was involved in a nine-player deal between the Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. The Motor City must have been Dropo’s kind of town, as he went on to hit .279 with the Tigers along with 23 home runs and 70 runs batted in.

Two of his 1953 numbers dropped: .239 with 13 home runs, but he did drive in 96. He managed only four home runs in 1954, to go along with 44 RBIs and a .281 average. In December, he was part of a trade between the Tigers and Chicago White Sox. He rebounded in Chicago in 1955 batting .280 and hitting 19 home runs while driving in 76 runs. The pattern of his up then down seasons continued, although his 1957 stats were not terrible (.226, eight HR and 52 RBIs in 361 plate appearances). But he was 34, and had played a good deal of baseball, plus other sports in college, not to mention his time in the US Army in the Corps of Engineers.

From 1958 to 1961 he became a part time player with the Cincinnati Reds and later Baltimore Orioles, who released him on May 24.

According to a SABR profile by Bill Nowlin, “Baltimore General Manager Lee McPhail offered him a job in the organization, but Dropo declined. ‘I didn’t want to get involved in managing, coaching, or anything else. I had a good career. I had some young children growing up and I just chose to leave baseball.’”

Nowlin also wrote: “Dropo’s family background was important to him. As an ethnic Serb, he saw similarities with the struggles of other minorities entering baseball around the same time. He talked frankly to writer Pete Zanardi about his later White Sox teammates Larry Doby and Minnie Minoso and some of the ways in which people tried to discourage him from dining with black players. ‘A frowning upon the socializing. I told them to pound sand,’ he recalled, along with evenings enjoyed when he and Doby saw the likes of Nat King Cole.”

Walt Dropo #8 of the Chicago White Sox swings during an MLB Spring Training game against the New York Yankees on March 12, 1956 in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Yankees catcher is Yogi Berra #8. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)

From 1942 to 1948, Sam Jethroe played for the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League, but appeared in a total of only 146 games. He did hit .300 or better in five of those seasons.

On July 11, 1948, he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He joined the team’s AAA squad, the Montreal Royals, and in 76 games batted .322 with 19 doubles, 11 triples, one home run, 25 RBI and 18 stolen bases. In a full season with Montreal in 1949, he batted .326, with 17 home runs, 83 RBIs and 89 steals.

But on October 4, 1949, he was traded with Bob Addis to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Al Epperly, and  Dee Phillips and $100,00 for  Don Thompson. Supposedly, Rickey earned 10 percent of the $100.000.

(Rickey said trading Jethroe was the biggest mistake of his career.)

Braves owner Lou Perini thought adding a black player would help the team in more ways than one.

Bevis, in his book Red Sox vs. Braves in Boston, wrote:

“After watching Larry Doby’s heroics for Cleveland against the Braves in the 1948 World Series and seeing Jackie Robinson lead Brooklyn to the National League pennant in 1947 and 1949, Perini purchased the contract of Sam Jethroe, another black player in the Dodgers organization, to play for the Braves in 1950. Besides being a move to improve the prospects of the team, Perini may also have sensed a possible edge to convert some Red Sox fans into Braves fans. In an avowed racially unfriendly city like Boston, that was asking a lot. Even though Jethroe led the National League in stolen bases in 1950 and was named Rookie of the Year, his presence in the Braves outfield did not generate more spectators at Braves Field.”

The sale of Jethroe to the Braves was also reported in The Integration of Major League Baseball by Rick Swaine.

“Shortly after Larry Doby’s heroics against the Braves in the 1948 World Series, they signed their first Black prospect, Waldon Williams,” but he never got past B ball in the Braves minor league system.

“In 1949, the Braves dropped to fourth place and attendance slipped. The fact that it was the Dodgers, with their trio of Black stars, who had taken the pennant away from his ball club was not lost to Perini,” Swaine wrote. “The Braves owner had also noted the effects of integration on the turnstiles and determined that the Black ballplayers were a valuable commodity. They could certainly play major league ball, and people would pay to see them do it. For the sake of profit, the Braves were anxious to join the ranks of Major League Baseball’s integrated franchises.”.

Former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Joe Louis talks with baseball players Sam Jethroe, Centerfielder for the Boston Braves and Hank Thompson, Third Baseman, Outfielder and Second Baseman for the New York Giants as Leo Durocher, team manager of the New York Giants looks on before their opening day game on 18th April 1950 at the Polo Grounds Stadium in New York City. (Photo by Curt Gunther/Keystone View Company/Getty Images)

The Braves did not know how old Jethroe really was – apparently, not many people knew his real age. It’s been determined he was 33 in 1950, making him the oldest person to win the Rookie of the Year. That season he batted .273, with 18 home runs and 58 RBIs and led the National League with 35 stolen bases. Dom DiMaggio led the American League in swipes with 15. People might not have known his age, but they gave him a nickname: “The Jet” because of his otherworldly speed.

The Globe’s story on Jethroe’s Rookie of the Year honor read, “Last spring, they thought Branch Rickey had sold a “lemon” when he peddled Jethroe from his Brooklyn farm club at Montreal to Boston. Jethroe failed to impress during Spring Training. His hitting was off and his throwing was poor.

“Once the bell rang, Jethroe started to go for a sensational first half season until he was injured in July. He had stolen 24 bases, 18 of them in a 33-game span, and was hitting .286 in 75 games. After he returned to the lineup he never regained his stride.”

Bevis said his older brother went to see the Braves, and “he told me about how all the kids would congregate in the left-field pavilion seating area at Braves Field and shout “go, go, go,” and bang on the seating there whenever Jethroe got on first base, encouraging him to try to steal second base. That was his biggest memory of Sam.”

The “Jet” was also the first Black major leaguer to play in Boston. The Red Sox would not integrate their team until 1959 when Pumpsie Green took the field.

But Jethroe had been to Boston five years before.

Responding to pressure from Black leaders and African-American newspapers, the Red Sox brought three players to Fenway Park for a tryout: Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams. But none of the players were signed.

Afterwards, an angry Robinson said the event was only for show, and he and the others weren’t taken seriously. Publicly, Jethroe downplayed how the team went through the motions of the tryout, but privately he told a Negro League teammate it was a joke. He said Red Sox General Manager Joe Cronin was in the stands but had his back to the field and didn’t turn around.

(Original Caption) Chicago: Sam Jethroe slides home safely on a double steal in the fifth inning of game with Cubs as Cub catcher Al Walker stretches high for a bad throw from Shortstop Roy Smalley. Braves won, 3-0.

Howard Bryant, author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, wrote that in January, 1951, Jethroe attended the Boston Baseball Writers annual dinner. Bryant reports that Jethroe was seated next to Eddie Collins (the man who had his back to Jethroe and Robinson and Williams) of the Red Sox, who told the ballplayer that he was pleased to see Sam’s success. “Jethroe thanked him and without bitterness replied, ‘You had your chance, Mr. Collins. You had your chance.’”

On August 1, 1950, Boston Globe columnist Jerry Nason wrote a piece with the headline: “Negro League Ball Players May Monopolize Major League Honors”. He suggested that Jackie Robinson would win the batting title and possibly the MVP, Larry Doby would win the MVP in his league, Luke Easter would lead the league in home runs. Only Jethroe copped an award.

Jethroe had near identical numbers in 1951, as he batted .280, drove in 65, and repeated his numbers of home runs and stolen bases from the prior year (he again led the league in steals).

In his SABR biography, Nowlin wrote in 1952, after undergoing intestinal surgery early in the year, Jethroe’s performance fell off significantly across the board. He struck out quite a bit more and saw his batting average drop to .232. The Braves finished in seventh place.

Charlie Grimm had taken over as Braves manager early in the 1952 season and he had once called Jethroe “Sambo,” which didn’t endear him to Jethroe. “Charlie Grimm was a prejudiced man and he didn’t like me,” he told the Globe in 1979

In 1952, Jethroe’s numbers dropped, particularly his average at .232, but his other stats were not far off from his first two years, as he hit 13 home runs, drove in 58 (the same as his rookie season) and stole 28 bases. He struck out quite a bit more. Those numbers (by a 35-year old who had surgery early in the year) earned Jethroe a trip to the Braves AAA team in Toledo in 1953. All he did was hit .309, with 28 home runs, 74 runs driven in and 27 stolen bases.

For that, he was traded by the now Milwaukee Braves on December 26, 1953, along with Larry Lassalle, Sid Gordon, Curt Raydon, Max Surkont, Fred Waters and $100,000 to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Danny O’Connell.

Branch Rickey, who initially signed Jethroe, said in a UPI story on the trade, “I don’t figure on Jethroe for the Pirates, although I have always been a Jethroe man.”

Et tu, Branch, Et tu….

On April 15, 1954, Jethroe pinch hit in a game against the Dodgers and went 0-1. It was his final game in the majors.

For the next five years (some newspapers have reported it was seven years), he played with minor league teams in Toledo and Toronto.

Why did the Braves give up sod quickly on him?

His vision was declining, and the Braves bought him eyeglasses, but they didn’t seem to help.

And while Jethroe could run to the ball, catching it and throwing it weren’t automatic. For his three seasons in Boston, he led the league in errors.

When the Braves acquired him, he had a reputation for having a weak throwing arm. Yet he led the National League in assists for a center fielder in 1950 and 1951 and ranked second in outfield assists in 1950 and third in 1951.

According to Bob Bloss’ 2005 book, Rookies of the Year, “Only two other Rookies of the Year, Joe Charboneau and Ken Hubbs had shorter careers.” Hubbs, who won the award in 1962, played one additional season and died in an airplane crash in February of 1964.

On June 16, 2001, Jethroe died of a heart attack in Erie, PA while he was recovering from pacemaker surgery a few weeks earlier. He was 83, but his granddaughter said the family never found his birth certificate.

Nowlin wrapped up his Jethroe profile with the following: “Sam Jethroe’s story is that of a solid if not stellar major leaguer whose fate was to have been born the wrong color for his time and his chosen profession. But if he came to the majors late, it was not quite too late; he was one of the handful of African-American players who followed Robinson and, less gifted than he, still proved that blacks belonged in the middle tier of major leaguers as much as whites did. Boston Globe editor Marty Nolan, in an appreciation of Jethroe written after his death, said it this way: ‘The lesson in equality Jethroe taught is the civil right to be less than the best.’”


NOTE: On April 16, 2024, Carl Erskine, the last of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ “Boys of Summer,” died at the age of 97. I was fortunate to speak with him several times for columns. He sounded frail, and I saw he used a walker, but his mind was still sharp and he was generous with his time. Erskine’s fourth child, Jimmy, was born with Down Syndrome. He and his wife Betty made the choice to raise him in their home in Anderson, IN. They supported the Special Olympics and related causes. (Jimmy passed away in 2023. He had a job at a restaurant for more than 20 years and lived with three other men with Down Syndrome, but a few years ago, his father said, “We see him all the time.”) I told a college student about Erskine and Jimmy, and she thought that was wonderful. I called Erskine and told him about the young woman’s reaction. “That’s the kind of story I like to hear!” he said.

 

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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