As a fan and historian, I pride myself on keeping current with baseball’s comings and goings. So it is with some regret that I completely missed out on a baseball-related death earlier this year. Back in April, former Negro Leagues standout Stanley “Doc” Glenn passed away near his home in Yeadon, Pa. I stumbled upon the news only this week and was saddened to hear about it, particularly because I had the privilege of meeting him just three years ago.
In 2008, noted Pennsylvania sports historian Jim Vankoski invited me to participate in a two-day event in the Philadelphia area featuring a military all-stars game and a remembrance of past players who had given up parts of their careers to serve in wartime. The second day of the event featured a symposium called “Athletes in the Military,” highlighted by the appearance of five war veterans, including two from the National Football League and three from baseball. The three baseball stars were Mickey Vernon, the former Washington Senators standout; retired Philadelphia A’s ace Bobby Shantz; and Stanley Glenn. I was lucky enough to converse with each of these World War II veterans; it would be difficult to find three more gentlemanly fellows.
I did not know much about Glenn prior to that 2008 program. Yes, I had heard of him, if only because I remembered him being honored one year at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. Thankfully, the Philadelphia event gave me a reason to learn much more about Glenn and his connections to the game.
Glenn was discovered by Oscar Charleston, one of the greatest all-round players in the history of the Negro Leagues. Charleston, who saw Glenn play for John Bartram High School in Philadelphia, signed him right away. A right-handed hitter, Glenn would go on to play for the Philadelphia Stars from 1944 to 1950, establishing a reputation as a good defensive catcher with above-average power.
He caught the legendary Satchel Paige for two seasons, while getting to know most of the Negro Leagues stars from the era of the 1940s. Glenn loved talking about Paige. “As hard as he threw,” Glenn once told a reporter, “the ball was like a feather. It was so easy to catch him, mainly because he was always around the plate.”
Still, catching someone with the speed of Paige must have required a special ability. When I went to shake hands with Glenn, I immediately noticed the mammoth size of his hands, which looked like small pitchforks. They were catcher’s hands indeed, with large palms and thick, long fingers that must have been particularly helpful in handling the deliveries of Paige and other flamethrowers.
Speaking in a hoarse but intelligible voice that day, Stanley fondly recalled his days playing in black baseball. It was clear that Glenn was also proud of his military service, but he stressed that he had been drafted and would not have otherwise volunteered for the Army in 1945. It was a sincere answer from a man who had already sacrificed much during his career. It was also the kind of answer that I’ve rarely heard from someone who served in the military. Basically, Glenn admitted that he really wanted no part of wartime military service, but did so because it was his obligation. And he apparently made the best of an undesirable situation, fulfilling his military duty with distinction.
After his playing days, Glenn avoided the problems that have often plagued retired players, especially those from his era who had no financial cushion to lean on. For 40 years, he worked in the wholesale electric supply business. He also kept his hand in baseball, serving as the president of the Negro League Baseball Players Association. He managed to publish a book about his life in baseball, entitled Don’t Let Anyone Take Your Joy Away. And on one memorable day in 1994, Glenn and several other Negro Leagues alumni were honored by vice president Al Gore at the White House.
Sadly, two of the baseball players who spoke at the military symposium are no longer with us. We lost Stanley Glenn this spring at the age of 84. Mickey Vernon died later that year, in September, succumbing to the effects of a stroke at the age of 90. Only Bobby Shantz, another gem of a guy, remains with us. I hope that I have the chance to see Shantz again; maybe he’ll make it up to the Cooperstown area next summer. It would be nice to have a follow-up conversation with Shantz, after never having that chance with Mickey Vernon or Stanley Glenn.
Earlier this month, another notable ex-player died. I had never met him, but I certainly remembered watching him play in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Jesse Jefferson, one of the original members of the 1977 Blue Jays, died at the age of 62, a victim of prostate cancer. That hit home with me, at least indirectly; prostate cancer took my father back in 1997.
I remember Jefferson very well for two rather irrational reasons. First, there was his name, Jesse Jefferson. A cool, almost lyrical name. The second: Jefferson was an African American who happened to be a pitcher. Although there were far more African Americans playing in the major leagues in the 1970s than there are today, relatively few were pitchers, particularly starting pitchers. If a team had two black starters at once, that was highly unusual for the era.
They were all good pitchers, too. By comparison, Jefferson was not, at least not as a major leaguer. But at one time, he was a phenomenal prospect in the Orioles system. Pitching for minor league teams in cities like Stockton, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Asheville and Rochester, the tall right hander put up huge strikeout totals while twice reaching double figures in wins. With his size (6-foot-3 and 185 pounds) and his exploding fastball, Jefferson looked like another golden arm in an Orioles vat of pitching riches, a likely successor to the aging Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally.
Jefferson drew favorable comparisons to Baltimore’s resident Hall of Famer, Jim Palmer. In addition to having Palmer’s long, lean build, he threw with a similar pitching motion. With his smooth and straight-over-the-top delivery, opposing hitters must have thought Jefferson looked 6-foot-6. Making his major league debut in 1973, Jefferson threw a 10-inning complete game at Fenway Park, besting the Red Sox, 2-1. As a spot starter and long reliever, the rookie showed flashes of his potential. He won six of 11 decisions, with a 4.11 ERA. He seemed on pace to be part of the Orioles rotation in 1974.
But by June of 1975, the Orioles had given up on Jefferson. Unfortunately, he did not have Palmer’s control. Perhaps the Orioles should have known from the start. In three straight minor league seasons, Jefferson had accumulated over 100 walks. He wasn’t just wild. He was Nuke LaLoosh wild. Or if you prefer a real-life pitcher, Steve Dalkowski wild.
That wildness would prevent him from becoming the pitcher the Orioles had anticipated. Just before the trading deadline, they traded him to the White Sox for a slick-fielding, light-hitting first baseman named Tony Muser. That’s how much Jefferson’s stock had fallen. Over the next two seasons, Jefferson split his time between starting and relieving. The White Sox didn’t see enough from him to protect him in the 1976 expansion draft. Given his talent and his relative youth, the Blue Jays selected him and made him part of their inaugural starting rotation in 1977.
Jefferson received his most substantial shot with the Jays. Over his first two seasons in Toronto, he made 64 starts, cut down on his walks, and showed some promise while pitching for a bad team. He also made a good impression on his teammates, who recognized him as quiet, but good-hearted.
Yet, it all fell apart the next season, the summer of ‘79. He went 2-10 with a 5.51 ERA, and along the way lost his spot in the starting rotation. He continued to pitch poorly in 1980, so poorly that the Jays waived him, with the Pirates placing a claim. Jefferson made one good start for the Pirates, but it was one year too late to join in on the fun of the Bucs’ world championship season.
One never knew what to expect from Jefferson. At his best, he could look like a Cy Young candidate. During that same 1980 season, he pitched a two-hitter against the Mariners and an 11-inning shutout against the A’s. On another day, he could walk the ballpark, as he did one day in 1977 when he walked nine batters in a game against Baltimore.
After a brief stint with the Angels in 1981, Jefferson signed a non-guaranteed deal with the Orioles, his original team. Armed with a spring training invite for 1982, Jefferson tried to latch on as a reliever, but he was released just before Opening Day. That officially ended his big league career.
Jefferson finished with a record of 39-81, a 4.81 ERA, and nearly as many walks (520) as strikeouts (522). By any measure, he was a failed major leaguer.
But he was also a reminder of something else. Jefferson was once the best pitcher on his high school team, likely one of the best amateur pitchers in his home state of Virginia, and then one of the Orioles’ most prized prospects, at a time when the Birds seemed to be teeming with good pitching. At one point, he was one of the best 650 players on the planet, an accomplishment that most of us would give our right arm to be able to say, even for a moment. And yet, even with all that talent, he could not find success at the game’s highest level, against the sport’s most fearsome hitters.
Perhaps we need to see the struggles of great athletes like Jesse Jefferson because they remind us of one basic baseball truth: The game is just not that easy.