Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Phillies' pioneer John Kennedy now has a card

It's not surprising that a guy whose entire major league career comprised five games in 1957 never had a Topps baseball card.

What is surprising is that so many collectors clamor for such a memento.

The cup-of-coffee major leaguer is John Kennedy, the first black man to play for the Philadelphia Phillies, the last National League team to integrate its roster.

More than 10 years after Jackie Robinson had broken the modern major league color barrier, and four years after the cross-town rival Philadelphia A's had integrated, the Phillies decided the time had come when Kennedy tore up the ball in spring training.

With the aging (30) and sore-armed Granny Hamner being moved from short to second, the Phillies wanted to bring some youth to the infield. Ironically, in choosing to promote Kennedy, they actually got a shortstop who was the same age as Hamner.

Like many ballplayers in that era, especially veterans of the Negro Leagues, Kennedy lied about his age, convincing the Phils he was in his early 20s. Many believe that on the eve of the '57 season, the team discovered his true age and traded five players and $75,000 to the Brooklyn Dodgers for shortstop Chico Fernandez, age 25.

The digest version of Kennedy's pro ball career is that he appears to have started out with the hometown Jacksonville Eagles of the Negro Southern League.

In 1950 and 1951, Kennedy played "up North" in the independent Mandak (Manitoba-Dakota) League. He was with Hall of Famer Willie Wells' Winnipeg Buffaloes in 1950-51, hitting .324 in the latter season. He also played briefly in Organized Baseball in 1951 with Albany of the Eastern League.

In 1952 he played with the Mandak Champion Minot Mallards, impressing a New York Giants scout enough to be signed as a free agent prior to the 1953 season.

With St. Cloud, the Giants' Class C team in the Northern League, Kennedy hit .262 in 1953 and was released prior to the 1954 season.

Kennedy played in the Negro American League in 1954-56, mostly at shortstop and third base. He was with the Birmingham Black Barons (where he was a teammate of Charley Pride) in 1954-55. In 1956 he was with the Kansas City Monarchs and led the team with a .356 average, second-best in the NAL.

Following the 1956 season, he joined the NAL All-Stars, barnstorming throughout the South and West as opposition to the Willie Mays All-Stars team of black major leaguers.

Again, somebody in major league ranks saw something they liked, and the Phillies purchased Kennedy's contract from the Monarchs for 1957.

Kennedy's big league career lasted only five games. He debuted on April 22 when the Phillies played the Brooklyn Dodgers in one of the Bums' "home games" at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. 

In the top of the eighth inning, Kennedy pinch-ran for Solly Hemus, who had doubled. He was left stranded on second, then replaced by reliever Turk Farrell. The Dodgers won the game 5-1.

On April 24 at Connie Mack Stadium against the Pirates, Kennedy again came in as a pinch-runner for Harry Anderson in the bottom of the sixth, with the Phillies down 0-2. He went from first to third on a Solly Hemus single, then scored his only major league run when Ed Bouchee hit a bases-loaded triple.

Kennedy got his first big league at-bat later in the inning, grounding out to end the Phillies' seven-run rally. He was then lifted for relief pitcher Don Cardwell. Philadelphia won the game 8-5.

Facing his third opponent in three games, Kennedy came in at shortstop in the top of the ninth inning after Chico Fernandez had been lifted for a pinch-hitter. Kennedy did not bat in the 3-6 loss to the Reds.

On May 1, after Philadelphia had rallied to tie the Reds 6-6 in the bottom of the 13th, Kennedy came in at shortstop after Hemus had pinch-hit for Fernandez.

In the top of the 15th, Kennedy was charged with an error on a Frank Robinson ground ball, but then started an inning-ending double play. Those were his only two fielding chances in the majors. Coming to bat in the 15th, Kennedy struck out against Warren Hacker. The Reds scored twice in the 16th to win 8-6.

Kennedy made his final major league appearance on May 3, with the Phillies hosting the Cubs. Kennedy once again pinch-ran for Hemus, who had walked in the bottom of the seventh. The Phils took an 8-6 lead as Cubs pitchers walked in a pair of runs and Kennedy advanced as far as third base. 

In the top of the eighth, Kennedy was replaced at shortstop by Roy Samalley. The Phillies won 9-6.

When the Carolina League season started, the Phillies sent Kennedy -- who was said to be suffering from a shoulder injury -- to their Class B affiliate at High Point-Thomasville. He hit .270 for the Hi Toms, with 19 home runs and 26 doubles.

Kennedy played three more seasons for Phillies farm clubs. He was with Tulsa (AA) in 1958, batting .225. At Class B Des Moines in 1959 he hit .228 for the III League champion Demons. In 1960, at Class A Asheville, he hit .246.

In 1961, Kennedy ended his professional career with a single game for the Jacksonville Jets in his home town. The team was the Sally League affiliate of the expansion Houston Colt .45s.

While his pro career was over, Kennedy continued to play baseball in Jacksonville, playing in an over-30 league in the late 1990s at the age of 70.

While I've given you a summary of John Kennedy's baseball career, for a fuller look at the life of the man, I recommend a Sept. 16, 2008, article by Mike McCall on The Florida Times-Union website: ; and an interview by Mark Kram less than a year before Kennedy's death on The Inquirer Daily News site:

I think if you read that, you'll understand why I'm happy to add a John Kennedy card to my collection of custom creations.

1 comment:

  1. Bob, I appreciate the article and card that you created for John Kennedy. I agree that he deserves his own card. That said, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that he does appear on the 1958 Phillies team card (#134). He is in the front row and is listed by his last name only (the same as all of the other players). While I like your creation much better, at least this one exists in reality. Thanks so much!


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