Outside Looking In
February is Black History Month and it's hard not to think about how race wasn't a factor nearly 100 years when a slender black man named John Donaldson strolled to the mound in Minneota and threw bullets to batters.
Donaldson, a left-hander, was a barnstormer who historians say was better than legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige. Donaldson never played in the Negro Leagues, but Peter Gorton and the Donaldson Network who have been researching and compiling Donaldson's statistics, have turned this unknown man's legacy come to life.
Racism, the attempted erasure of the Negro Leagues by baseball historians, and time have led to Donaldson’s fall from the minds of baseball purists. However, that gap in knowledge and the inability to find chronicles of Donaldson’s playing career led Gorton on a 20-year path through old newspaper clippings from hundreds of cities across North America to explore the career of the winningest Negro Leagues pitcher.
Donaldson’s professional baseball career spanned 32-years (1908-1940), and during that period he claimed more segregated wins (413) and strikeouts (5,091) than any other Negro Leagues player.
It was Gorton who discovered a few years ago that Donaldson pitched in three games in Minneota during his barnstorming days. Donaldson's brother, James, was a member of Minneota's 1923 semi-pro team and John played two games with his sibling and one without while donning a wool jersey with MINNEOTA letters sewn across the chest.
James, who pitched and played shortstop, passed away suddenly at age at age 23 after a brief illness. So John Donaldson returned one last time to Minneota and took his brother's turn in the rotation as a tribute.
Through Gorton's extensive research, he and the Donaldson Network which includes researchers across America, are continually discovering new information about the talented southpaw.
A 16mm film was unearthed a few years ago from a man in Fergus Falls showing 52 seconds of Donaldson pitching. Baseball historians who has viewed the film said Donaldson's pitching style rivals current moundsmen and not the unorthodox style of that era.
Gorton took all his data and began camping at the Baseball Hall of Fame Museum's doorstep in hopes of educating others about Donaldson's talent. Although he has yet to be inducted, more than likely because he did not play in the Negro Leagues where statistics are more readily available, Gorton's relentless pursuit has included a documentary produced about Donaldson, and, this past summer, a baseball field and statue dedicated were dedicated in his honor in his hometown of Glasgow, Missouri.
Gorton spoke to me this past weekend of the importance of Black History Month and Donaldson's legacy:
"It is Black History Month and, to me, it is important to reject the racist ideal of our shared past. If we know better, we must do better through actions not just compelling words. To me, this is embodied through John Donaldson's legacy. It is obvious that he was someone we cannot continue to choose to forget. Hopefully, we will continue to do this because we now know better. Yes, I think Black History Month does hold greater significance this year because of what we accomplished over the past year. We were able to reject the past and show America how it could be different and actually provide actions to help resurrect his legacy. We have provided proof of his hero status and need to work each day to continue to tell his story and therefore restore his legacy."
In a period where racial divide is high, it's interesting to think how many white men and women would pack the stands when they heard Donaldson would be in their town to pitch, including Minneota. An article in a 1923 Mascot told of the large crowds Donaldson drew in Minneota.
"It was the same everywhere he went." Gorton said. "People wanted to see this extraordinary man pitch. Sometime he would pitch both games of a doubleheader, travel to another town and pitch again the next day. That was because the promoters could only sell a lot of tickets if they could assure the fans Donaldson would be pitching."
Donaldson was a founding member of the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs and went on to be the first African American scout in the history of Major Leagues baseball. He was also inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2017. Donaldson died in April, 1970.
Gorton, a freelance journalist in Minneapolis, and I have been in touch for several years since I was made aware of Donaldson's exploits in Minneota. Because Donaldson's story is so fascinating, Gorton has agreed to come to Minneota to talk about it when the pandemic cools down. Gorton calls Donaldson the "Best pitcher no one was heard of".
It makes you feel good to see color doesn't matter when it comes to doing the right thing.
I also received a "thumbs up" response from former NFL referee Mike Spanier when asked if he would be interested in speaking in Minneota sometime soon.
Spanier was a linesman in the NFL for 27 years before retiring after officiating the Pro Bowl in 2019. He is from Paynesville and was a middle school principal in the Sartell school district for many years. The story of his climb to the professional ranks is interesting and inspiring.
Spanier also has some interesting stories on some of the NFL players and coaches he officiated for during his lengthy career.