This is an excerpt of Gaylon H. White’s “Left on Base in the Busch Leagues: Legends, Near Greats, and Unknowns in the Minors” published May 30 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Copies can be purchased here.
Jackie Robinson broke Organized Baseball’s color barrier in 1946. By 1951, Robinson had three black teammates on the Brooklyn Dodgers: Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Dan Bankhead. Larry Doby and Luke Easter were starring for the Cleveland Indians; Satchel Paige was pitching for the St. Louis Browns; Sam Jethroe of the Boston Braves was fresh from winning the National League’s rookie-of-the-year award and a kid phenom named Willie Mays was primed to join the New York Giants and their black sluggers, Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson.
James “Jay” Haney was born in Dallas, married a Lamesa girl, and operated a Humble gas station in Lamesa. He spent most of his 15 years in baseball managing and playing for teams in Texas. He knew using black players in a small Texas town was risky business. But it was a risk worth taking. The Korean War was syphoning off young prospects and salaries for veteran or so-called “class” players were rising and making it difficult for teams to be both competitive and financially stable.
The Longhorn League team in nearby Big Spring, the Broncs, was made up entirely of light-skinned Cuban players with the exception of Pat Stasey, the white player-manager-owner who was winning and smiling all the way to the bank. Why not, Haney reasoned, mix in a few black Cubans?
Walter Buckel never wrote about this, probably because it exposed the racism of the times and the bigotry of some of his friends and neighbors. West Texans don’t take kindly to criticism from outsiders and he was a transplanted Californian.
He made this point in a story about Joe Kelly, the New York-born sports editor of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal who “wrote in the style of upstate New York” and “bathed in hot water most of the time” with the players owners and fans. “Kelly epitomized the New Yorker – haughty, cocky and everything,” Buckel noted.
Kelly “never quite understood the fans reaction when he took a pot shot at some opposing player or city,” Buckel said, adding “West Texas and Eastern New Mexico sports fans are different. They were in 1948; they still are in 1978.”
If Kelly’s column, “Between the Lines,” crossed the lines, Haney was trying to blur and erase them with black players in what had always been a snow-white league. Kelly broke the story about Lamesa using “Cuban Negroes” after a telephone conversation with Haney. “I’m willing to try an experiment,” Haney said.
Kelly was the son of a Presbyterian minister and his column the perfect pulpit for Haney to spread his message.
“I’m a Southern boy myself,” Haney told Kelly. “I dropped any resentment to Negro ball players in the service when I played with them and against them. They’re good ball players, and that’s what matters to me. I won’t take them unless they’re good players, but if they are, they’ll play on my team.”
In December 1949, Buckel and Haney attended baseball’s winter meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, “looking for an outfielder and a pitcher to bolster the fortunes” of the Lobos. They acquired two Puerto Rican players – centerfielder Pedro Santiago and pitcher Israel Ten.
The 5-foot-5, 150-pound Santiago “set the league afire and captured the imagination of Lamesa fans” by batting .356 in 1950 and .324 in 1951. He opened the 1950 season with a 30-game hitting streak that included a string of 11 consecutive hits. Ten compiled a won-loss record of 8-7 in 1950.
Buckel called the purchase of Santiago and Ten “the best $750 Lobo management ever spent in trying to build a baseball winner.”
Harry Gilstrap, a columnist for the Amarillo Daily News, piggybacked on Kelly’s story about Haney using Cubans by asking in his sports column: “Why is the Lamesa club chancing this, with the certain knowledge that it will arouse violent objection, even bitterness, among some baseball fans?
“The answer is simple. The Cubans are draft-exempt. Also, they come cheap, and a cheap ball player is a rara avis in the West Texas-New Mexico League, as indeed in most other leagues, these years.”
In announcing his plans to sign Cubans, Haney cited a player shortage due to the U.S. military drafting men for the escalating war in Korea. “We have our quota of $200 players. What we need now is some good material. And the veterans are all sticking us up, knowing that it will be hard to get players.”
Haney made his case in an open letter published by the Lamesa Daily Reporter:
“Personally, I feel if we are able to obtain two very ‘above average’ Negro men who can really play ball, it should be a credit to the league as well as to our own town.
“Baseball is strictly a business just like any other business with employees. In any other business we choose the worker who can do the job best and at the most reasonable price. We are all aware of the fact that there is a definite shortage of ball players due to the drafting of our younger and most promising talent into the Armed Services.”
Haney received several threatening letters, all of them anonymous. One that was signed by a man from Big Spring was printed by the Daily Reporter: “Jay, I personally know you and I wish you well in your baseball career, but you had better take a fan’s advice and not try to cram a Jackie Robinson deal down a bunch of red-blooded West Texans’ throat. They won’t go for it at the gate.”
Haney was not to be deterred. He scheduled a one-day all-Negro tryout camp, believed to be the first for professional players in the United States, and invited blacks from throughout the country.
“The announcement of the tryout camp brings a sudden realization that not only Cuban Negroes – as previously reported – will be considered by the Lobo club,” the Daily Reporter informed readers.
Twenty hopefuls showed up.
“Nearly everyone in Lamesa was out at one time or another during the day to see what was taking place,” Marvin Veal wrote in his Daily Reporter column. “When the tryouts ended, there were probably 250 or 300 persons in the grandstand.”
Haney singled out two Texans, shortstop J.W. Wingate from Beaumont, and outfielder Connie Heard from Texas City, as “pretty good prospects and they would have the same chance as the rest of the players to make the team in spring training.”
By opening day Haney decided they “fell short of the rigid standards he had set for the first Negro players in Organized Ball in Texas only on ability.”
He quickly changed his mind about Wingate, calling him back to join pitcher Roberto Leyva and catcher Douglas McBean, described by one sportswriter as “Cuban Negroes fresh from the cane-breaks, and quite capable ball players.”
After winning a game, the Cuban combo was “fired” suddenly by Haney “because he couldn’t speak Cuban and they couldn’t talk English and the signals got mixed.”
Haney’s dismissal of the Cubans left the 23-year-old Wingate as the lone black on the team. He hit safely in his first six games, including three doubles.
“The crowd cheers lustily when he makes a play afield or gets a hit and his appearance in the line-up has packed the Negro bleachers every night,” one wire-service reported after the Lobos’ first home stand.
A week later in Abilene, Wingate socked a home run and two singles prompting Collier Parris, sports editor of the Abilene Reporter-News, to write: “A better than average crowd of about 1,650 gave the colored player a big hand for the homer and applause for some sparkling work at shortstop.”
Parris became Wingate’s biggest and most outspoken supporter and let his disgust be known when Wingate was released after 27 games because, as Haney put it, “fans might be staying away from the games on account of his presence in the lineup.”
Wingate was batting .250 at the time.
“We understand he was erratic and flouncy on other fields, including that of his home team,” Parris said. “But Abilene fans are surprised by his departure. Lamesa fans, being sturdy, southern home-towners to whom Negroes mean cotton pickers, shine boys and car-washers, never did give Wingate a chance….”
Parris confronted Haney about the decision to release Wingate.
“We weren’t drawing many fans,” Haney said. “So we let him go. We still ain’t drawing many fans.”
West Texas is known for its extreme heat, extreme wind, extreme cold, and extreme attitudes.
Buckel recalled a conversation with a local farmer named Dan who was one of the Lobos biggest fans.
“Is Haney going to play that black boy?” Dan asked.
“Yeah,” Buckel replied.
“I’ll never come to another game,” Dan said.
Dan wasn’t alone as attendance dropped 32 percent to 59,283 even though the Lobos won 81 games and placed third, both franchise bests.
Crowds were shrinking throughout the minor leagues, this Sporting News headline summing it up best: MINORS’ GATE TOBAGGONED 20 PERCENT IN ’51.
Lamesa and the rest of the minors were on a slippery slope, television and increased competition for the entertainment dollar dropping attendance from the all-time high of nearly 42 million in 1949 to slightly under 28 million in 1952.
The ’52 season was the end for Haney as Lobo manager and Lamesa’s last in the WT-NM League.