By Chris Meiman, Exhibits Director / Curator
Black History Month is rightly full of biographies and remembrances of great African-American ballplayers in both the Negro Leagues and later in Major League Baseball. Names like Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige dominate our understanding of a time when separate was not equal in terms of baseball and society. Still, I wondered what kinds of Louisville stories can be told, which led me to the Encyclopedia of Louisville. There, they point to one player who played in the Negro Leagues in Louisville, in the integrated minor leagues with the Colonels, and in the Major Leagues – Dave Hoskins. Hoskins isn’t a household name or a Hall of Fame level player, but his story intrigued me as he kept popping up at interesting points in baseball history.
Hoskins was born in Mississippi and grew up around Flint, Michigan. As a teenager, he played semi-pro and lower-level Negro League baseball. By 1944, the 18-year-old debuted with the legendary Homestead Grays (pictured above) alongside regulars like Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Ray Brown and Jud Wilson. The youngster wasn’t intimidated by the star power of his teammates, hitting .324, second only to Josh Gibson amongst the regulars. Hoskins impressed so much that he was asked to join an MLB tryout in April 1945 with two other Negro League stars – Sam Jethroe and Jackie Robinson. While the other two players worked-out for 90 minutes in front of Red Sox and Braves talent evaluators, management of the Grays denied Hoskins the opportunity, perhaps due to injury.
After two more seasons with the Grays , Hoskins signed with the Grand Rapids Jets, becoming the first black player in the Class-A Central League. He hit .393 in 1949, despite being the target of racial taunting from the stands and head-high fastballs from opposing pitchers. Even with his good showing, Hoskins found himself back in the Negro Leagues with the short-lived Louisville Buckeyes in 1949. Hoskins hit .305 with Louisville and was named to the All-Star Team, gaining the notice of former Negro League star and Cleveland Indians pitcher, Satchel Paige, who encouraged the Indians to sign him.
Many Negro League players used Louisville Slugger bats, but most were ordered by the teams rather than individual players. When Hoskins joined an MLB affiliate, he started ordering bats to his liking. Those bats were generally lighter than many of his contemporaries, averaging 34 inches long and 32 ounces in popular models of the day, like the K55, S2 and U1, putting him ahead of his time with regard to bat size. However, being with an MLB affiliate did not stop the racial taunts or prevent pitchers from throwing at his head. In fact, one pitcher’s head shot was successful in sending Hoskins to the hospital. John J. Watkins’s SABR biography of Hoskins quotes him as saying, “I was tired of having pitchers throw at me…I made up my mind I would start throwing at other guys.” With Paige’s encouragement, Hoskins gave up the outfield and became a full-time pitcher.
In 1952, Hoskins became the first black player in the Texas League, suiting up for Dallas. If the racial slurs bothered him, it didn’t show in his play as Hoskins won 22 games with an ERA of 2.12 over 280 innings. The next year, he earned a spot in the Majors, tossing over 100 innings for Cleveland (pictured below), with a few spot starts mixed in. One of those starts came on August 21, 1953 against the St. Louis Browns, where he was matched up against his old mentor, Satchel Paige. Though neither pitched well that historic day, it marked the first time two African-American hurlers faced off in an MLB game.
Many thought Hoskins would be in line for regular work with the Indians again in 1954, but a loaded pitching staff limited him to only 14 appearances. Watkins notes that despite pleas from his teammates, Hoskins was left off the playoff roster after Cleveland won the AL Pennant. In a show of solidarity from his teammates however, Hoskins was voted a full share of money earned in the team’s playoff run. Sadly, this would also be Hoskins’s last taste of the Major Leagues, as he spent 1955, 1956 and 1957 languishing in the minors, including a return to Louisville in a Colonels uniform.
While playing again for Dallas, at the age of 32 in 1958, Hoskins racked up 17 wins with a respectable 3.18 ERA, leading to a minor league deal with the Dodgers. The reprieve was short lived, however, as Hoskins failed to impress in 1959 and retired after the 1960 season spent with Jackie Robinson’s old team the Montreal Royals. Hoskins returned to Michigan where he bought a farm with his 1954 playoff check.