The highlight of my pandemic summer was last Friday in Glasgow, Missouri. It was the dedication of the John Donaldson statue at John Donaldson Field at Glasgow High School that is nicely described by Missourian reporter Christina Long.
Even if you claim to be uninterested in baseball, please read on for it’s a feel good story that can be replicated in many communities across America. It’s the story of a local Black kid, who does good, is not fully appreciated in his time, who is later re-discovered in a state far away by a white man who immediately saw the injustice and went to work to amend it. In addition to the heroics of Donaldson and the town of Glasgow, the third hero is Pete Gorton of Minnesota, the founder of the Donaldson Network, who worked for 20 years to accumulate Donaldson’s baseball statistics.
I learned of Donaldson about two months ago by listening to Columbia’s baseball historians Bill Clark and John Kelly describe a Missouri pitcher as good as Satchel Paige. When I saw the announcement of the statue dedication at Glasgow High School, I zipped up on a beautiful sunny day. I appreciated the attention given Donaldson’s achievements but wondered “how do they know all this?” Several speakers thanked Pete Gorton and the Donaldson Network. I expected that Gorton was a local boy who escaped to a big city and returned to remind townsfolk of his success. I was surprised to learn otherwise.
Pete Gorton, a lifelong resident of Minnesota, was asked in 2000 by his former social science teacher to write a chapter for a book on baseball in Minnesota when he became aware of Donaldson’s success in Berta, near his home. Gorton started searching old local newspapers from that era and found plenty of evidence of Donaldson’s achievements. He followed the newspaper trail and at lest count 7,814 newspapers articles have been uncovered by the Donaldson Network, now consisting of at least 700 volunteers.
Donaldson (1891-1970) played professional baseball for 33 years, from 1908 to 1941, but was barred from Major League Baseball because he was Black. He played for 25 different teams, appearing in at least 725 different towns, mainly in the Midwest. Donaldson was a co-founder of the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs, and the first Black scout in Major League baseball with the Chicago White Sox in 1949 where he scouted Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Henry Aaron.
Donaldson was considered the best pitcher of his era; some say of all time. The left-hander won 73% of games he pitched. To circumvent the color barrier, he was offered a sweet deal to go to Cuba, change his name, discontinue contact with his family, never to return to Glasgow to visit his mother and come back as a Cuban ballplayer. He refused saying “I am not ashamed of my race.” His integrity may have been intact, but Donaldson was forgotten by history and buried in an unmarked grave in Chicago in 1970.
To date, the researchers have documented his more than 5,091 strikeouts in at least 413 wins. They are aware of about 200 games that Donaldson’s teams won for which no pitcher is mentioned. Just this spring, the Donaldson Network became aware of a game in Upham, North Dakota, in which there is good reason to believe Donaldson had pitched. A volunteer will soon be headed there to go through old local newspapers for evidence.
Gorton first visited Glasgow on June 10, 2005, for “John Donaldson Day” when he was invited to speak by the local historical society. He has visited several times since, once in 2011 to see a local play about Donaldson. He spoke in Springfield in 2017 when Donaldson was inducted to the Missouri Hall of Fame.
Gorton said he undertook this task to right a racial injustice that he calls a “systematic elimination of a legacy” that denied Donaldson the recognition he is due. The color barrier of Major League Baseball owners kept Black players in small towns where local newspapers often did not report baseball box scores but often reported on the huge crowds attending games when Donaldson’s barnstorming games came to town. Sometimes Black players risked their lives to play in towns where lynchings had occurred. These games were often between Black and white teams that included Major Leaguers in the off-season, among them Babe Ruth. Donaldson was usually the draw and the highest paid player in many leagues.
Donaldson was passed over by the Major League Hall of Fame in 2006 but was to have another shot with the Early Baseball Era Committee this December, a meeting postponed due to COVID-19. Hopefully the work of Gorton and the Donaldson Network, which will be stored forever online, will be persuasive this time.
Speaking at the dedication in Glasgow on Sept. 4, Bob Kendrick, president of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said: “It’s worth noting that when statutes symbolizing hate are being torn down around this country, Glasgow is erecting a statue to positive achievement.”
My learning about Glasgow and Gorton reminded me of a Robert Kennedy quote: “It is from the numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Glasgow, which apparently has a mixed record on racial history, as does Columbia, began its effort to recognize Donaldson at least 15 years ago. The people of Glasgow and Gorton deserve kudos for addressing one injustice of history.