Baseball's Exclusive Black Aces Club

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When we think of the greatest Major League Baseball players of all time, there are many to choose from. When we think of great pitchers who have landed in the Hall of Fame, the list narrows. When we think of Black American Major League Baseball pitchers, the list dwindles even further.

This article celebrates the greatest Black American Aces Major League Baseball has ever seen, and opens a window into what they are doing today! (A quick note on terminology: In this case, "American" refers to pitchers born in North America [i.e. U.S. and Canada] and does not include black pitchers from South or Central America. Stay tuned for our piece on South American Aces, coming soon!)

As of 2017, the list of Black American MLB Aces includes fifteen 20-game winners. This is a very exclusive group that includes only two MLB Hall of Fame pitchers (Bob Gibson & Fergie Jenkins). Moreover, only five of the fifteen Black American MLB Aces have amassed more than one 20-win season.

With respect to what these pitchers are doing today, it may shock you to learn that only two active pitchers qualify for inclusion on our list!

This certainly underscores a question that sports journalists and commentators have asked with increased frequency in recent years. Since the emergence of dominating pitchers like Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins, black athletes have been drawn less and less to the game of baseball. Indeed, whereas black American players made up 18.3% of MLB rosters in 1986, that number was only 8% in 2016. Even more disconcerting, the percentage of black pitchers in baseball in 2016 was a paltry 3.1%.

These figures beg the question to today's young athletes: Are there cultural, sociological, or economic reasons why the proportion of black players in baseball is on the decline? And for aspiring black players, and pitchers especially, what can be learned from the distinguished success of the men included on this list? How has the example set by these athletes—many of whom struggled against racial prejudices and cultural obstacles—paved the way for the gifted black athletes of today? How can their success serve to inspire those who compete at the college and minor league levels with hopes of one day earning a spot on a Major League roster?

We hope the list of Aces compiled hereafter can lend some insight into each of these questions.

What Makes an Ace?

Winning 20 games in a season has always been a challenge, but there is good cause to argue that this challenge has only grown greater as the role of the pitcher has evolved. When once the game was largely left in the hands of starting pitchers, the role of the pitcher has been deconstructed to include starters, relievers, closers, and specialists. And of course, within each of these categories, there are yet further subsets based on the pitcher's favored hand, arsenal of pitches, velocity, etc. This means that starting pitchers have fewer opportunities than ever to notch win or loss “decisions.” Many times, those stats will go to relievers instead.

Moreover, we recognize that 20 wins is a barometer directly impacted by the quality of the team on which a pitcher is rostered. Pitchers on teams that score a lot of runs and play excellent defense are far more likely to win 20 games than players on subpar teams.

To wit, we respectfully understand that history has seen so many MLB pitchers that have achieved greatness without winning 20 games in one season. However, we draw our definition of “Ace” from Jim “Mudcat” Grant's excellent 2007 compendium, The Black Aces, which places the qualifying mark at 20 wins.

Again, while we recognize this as an imperfect metric, it is certain that those who earned 20 wins in a single season are part of a very special group.

Meet the exclusive club of pitchers who qualify as Black American Major League Aces and find out what they're up to today!

***

Al Downing

Born: June 28th, 1941

Al  DowningAl Downing pitched in the major leagues from 1961 to 1977. In 1971, he became a member of the Black Aces club, logging 20 wins and earning the honor of MLB's Comeback Player of the Year.

Downing is perhaps best remembered for something of an infamous accomplishment. He was the unfortunate pitcher who served up Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run on April 8th, 1974. However, Downing was an accomplished pitcher in his own right.

Downing attended Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA and Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ before beginning his Major League career at just 20 years of age. Over the next 17 seasons, Downing pitched for the New York Yankees ('61 to '69), the Oakland Athletics (1970), the Milwaukee Brewers (1970), and the Los Angeles Dodgers ('71-'77).

Al appeared in three World Series ('63, '64, '74), earned honors as the AL strikeout king in 1964, and was selected for the 1967 All-Star Game.

Explaining his philosophy on the job of the pitcher, Al Downing observed in a 2007 interview that “if you're out on the mound and the manager hasn't told you to intentionally walk someone, you have to do everything you can to get that batter out.”

Where are they now?
Al lives in Valencia, CA. After his retirement from baseball, Al worked in broadcasting, calling games for the Dodgers and Braves in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He has since retired from broadcasting but continues to be an active part of the L.A. Dodgers community and a member of its Speakers Bureau.

Dave Stewart

Born:  February 19, 1957

Dave  StewartDave Stewart pitched in the major leagues for 17 seasons, from 1978 to 1995. He joined the Black Aces club in 1987 and went on to log more than 20 wins in the next three consecutive seasons.

Dave played for the Los Angeles Dodgers ('78-'83), the Texas Rangers ('83-'85), the Philadelphia Phillies ('85-'86), the Oakland Athletics ('86-'92), and the Toronto Blue Jays ('93-'94). Dave returned to Oakland for his final curtain call in 1995

Dave notched a remarkable five World Series appearances ('81, '88, '89, '90, '93), emerging victorious with the Dodgers in '81, the Athletics in '89, and the Jays in '93. Stewart was nothing short of a post-season hero throughout his career, earning ALCS MVP honors twice ('90, '93) and being named World Series MVP in 1989.

Stewart was also an All-Star that year, as well as a recipient of the Robert Clemente Award in 1990. That same year, Stewart pitched a no-hitter against the Blue Jays, becoming the first black pitcher to do so since Jim Bibby in 1973.

Where are they now?
It appears Dave had quite a bit of success off the field as well on the field. He parlayed a sports career into a sports management business in San Diego called Sports Management Partners. Stewart also served as General Manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2014 to 2016.

Fergie Jenkins

Born: Dec. 13, 1942

Furguson JenkinsFerguson Jenkins is one of only two Black Aces to gain entry into the Hall of Fame and the first Canadian-born player to earn enshrinement. Fergie pitched from 1965 to 1983 and achieved the remarkable distinction of pitching to 7 consecutive 20+ win seasons, the first of these in 1967.

Though he is a legend of the diamond, Fergie really had his choice of sports. As a Canadian-born athlete, Fergie had early aspirations of becoming a professional hockey player. While he did not ultimately pursue this dream, we was a multi-sport star.

During the MLB off-season, Fergie played as a dunking specialist on a traveling basketball team alongside guys named Meadowlark Lemon, “Curly” Neal, and “Geese” Ausbie, to name a few. If those names sound familiar, it's because they, and Fergie, comprised the Harlem Globetrotters.

Still, it is baseball that would make Jenkins an all-time great. His professional baseball career lasted 21 years and began with the Phillies in 1965. From 1967 to 1972, Fergie pitched for the Chicago Cubs, logging six straight 20+ win seasons. He won top pitching honors in 1971 as that year's NL Cy Young recipient.

In 1974, he was traded to the Texas Rangers where he would win the American League Comeback Player of the Year Award. That year, he also won a career-high 25 games. He spent a couple of years with the Boston Red Sox before shuttling back to the Texas Rangers, and ultimately retiring in a Cubs uniform following the 1983 season.

At the time of his retirement, he was the only pitcher in baseball history to strikeout more than 3,000 batters.

Inducted into Cooperstown in 1991, Fergie remains the only Canadian-born player in the Hall. His star still burns brightly in Canada, where he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987. He was Canadian Press Male Athlete of the Year 1967, 1968, 1971, and 1974. He also joined Canada's Walk of Fame in 2001. He received the Order of Canada in 2007 and his likeness was placed on a Canadian postage stamp in 2010.

In 2009, the Cubs retired his number 31 at Wrigley Field, and he remains among the best-loved players to ever don a Cubs uniform.

Where are they now?
I have known Fergie personally for many years and have great admiration for him as a person and for his work as a Major League Baseball Hall Of Fame pitcher. I visited with him most recently at the Cubs Convention 2017 in Chicago. It is quite impressive to see Fergie and his Foundation staff in action.

He currently lives in Anthem, AZ with his wife and works very hard to this day raising money for The Fergie Jenkins Foundation. Founded in 1997 under the mission statement of "Serving Humanitarian Need Through the Love of Sport,” the Foundation supports nearly 400 charities in the United States and Canada.

Bob Gibson

Born:  November 9, 1935

Bob  GibsonAlongside Ferguson Jenkins, Bob is one of only two Black Aces in the Hall of Fame. Bob logged five seasons of 20 or more wins.

Bob Gibson had an illustrious athletic career to say the least. Bob was a college basketball star, averaging 22 points per game for Creighton University in Omaha, NE. Like Fergie, Gibson also moonlit for the Harlem Globetrotters during his baseball career. But truly, it was his 17-year tenure as the staff ace for the St. Louis Cardinals that made Bob a legend. Bob spent his entire career with the same team, a rarity even in the era before free agency.

Bob received numerous honors and awards during his baseball career. Bob won the Cy Young twice, in 1968 and 1970. He was also the NL MVP in 1968, a year in which he pitched to a microscopic ERA of 1.12. It remains the lowest mark of the live-ball era, even to date. In 1971, Gibson notched the ever-elusive no-hitter.

He also appeared in, won, and earned MVP honors for two World Series, in 1964 and 1967. When all was said and done, the notoriously fearsome pitched earned nine trips to the All Star Game.

He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1981 and selected for Major League Baseball's All Century Team in 1999. The Cardinals retired his jersey #45 in 1975. To say he is one of the greatest to play the game is an understatement.

His reputation in the game is probably best summed up in a word of wisdom that slugger Hank Aaron once offered to Dusty Baker. Baker recalled Aaron advising:

Don't dig in against Bob Gibson
He'll knock you down
He'd knock down his own grandmother.
Don't stare at him, don't smile at him, don't talk to him.
He doesn't like it.
If you happen to hit a home run don't run too slow
And don't run too fast.
If you want to celebrate get in the tunnel first.
And if he hits you don't charge the mound
Because he's a Golden Gloves boxer.

Where are they now?
Bob most recently appeared at the St. Louis Writers Convention on January 15th, 2017 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1967 World Series Championship team along with Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Orlando Cepeda.

J.R. Richard

Born:  March 7, 1950

The imposing and overpowering JR Richard came into the league in 1971 and spent his entire 10-year career with the Houston Astros. Though he struggled to establish a steady role for the first several years of his career, Richard ultimately broke into elite company by the mid-70s.

JR joined the Black Aces Club with a 20-win performance in 1976. He would also top 300 strikeouts to lead the National League in 1978 and 1979. During this phase of his career, Richard was known for his intimidating presence on the mound and a fastball that topped out over 100mph. Though he was an All-Star in 1980, an unthinkable tragedy would strike that year.

At just 30 years of age, JR suffered a stroke while on the mound. He attempted to return to the game over the next several seasons, but never made a successful comeback.

Where are they now?
By the winter of 1994, the once-great hurler was homeless and destitute, living under a highway overpass in Houston. With the help of his baseball pension and the support of a local minister, Richard found salvation and support in more recent years.

I had the privilege of meeting JR several years ago and, based on his size and his overpowering arsenal of pitches, I have no doubt that this man would have earned Hall of Fame honors had his career not been cut cruelly short.

J.R. remains active in the Astros community today, engaging in charity events and throwing out first pitches at Astros home games.

Vida Blue

Born:  July 28, 1949

VIda BlueVida Blue is one of five left-handed pitchers to make our list. Vida topped 20 wins during three of his 17 seasons in the majors.

Vida attended Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge before going on to play with the Oakland Athletics ('69–'77), San Francisco Giants ('78–'81; '85–'86), and the Kansas City Royals ('82–'83).

Vida compiled a career of impressive accomplishments. He was a six-time All-Star and a three-time World Champion, helping the Athletics to consecutive titles in '72, '73, and '74. In 1970, Vida pitched his first no-hitter. His second would come in 1975, when he combined with three other pitchers (including Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers) to shut down the California Angels.

Vida's best season was 1971, a year in which he went 24-8 and led the league with a 1.82 ERA. In addition to joining the Black Aces club that year, the 21-year-old southpaw won the Cy Young and American League MVP, while appearing on the covers of both Sports Illustrated and Time magazines.

Vida once summed up the experience thusly:

It's a weird scene. You win a few baseball games and all of a sudden you're surrounded by reporters and TV men with cameras asking you about Vietnam and race relations.

Where are they now?
Vida remains active with charity and community work. On August 7, 2017, Vida will be at the 5th Annual Golf Fore Giving Tournament & Banquet to raise money to feed the hungry of the St. Vincent De Paul Free Dining Room in San Rafael.

Dontrelle Willis

Born:  January 12, 1982

Dontrelle  WillisDontrelle's career was marked by ups and downs. The D-Train was sadly derailed by injury, but at his peak, Willis was an enthralling young pitcher.

Drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2000, Dontrelle made his debut with the Florida Marlins in 2003. His 14-6 record was good enough for NL Rookie of the Year honors. He would also earn his first of two All-Star Game selections and a triumphant trip to the World Series that year.

It was two years later that he joined the Black Aces club with a 22-10 record. Dontrelle would go on to brief stints with the Tigers (2008-'10), Diamondbacks (2010), and the Reds (2011) before retiring in 2012.

Dontrelle has expressed “hope that more [African-Americans] decide to play after seeing the things that I was able to accomplish; not only myself, but other African-American players. Hopefully, they pick up a bat and a ball and go out there and play.”

Where are they now?
Dontrelle now coaches his daughter's Little League team in Phoenix, AZ.

“Mudcat” Jim Grant

Born:  August 13, 1935

Mudcat Jim  GrantMudcat Jim Grant was an amazing baseball player and an amazing man, not only piecing together an impressive on-field career but succeeding as a singer, jazz musician, and author as well.

Indeed, as you might recall, his written work is the inspiration for this article. Mudcat was both the first African American pitcher to win 20 games in the American League and author of The Black Aces, Baseball's Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners.

Mudcat played for the the Cleveland Indians ('58–'64), Minnesota Twins (‘64–'67), Los Angeles Dodgers (1968), Montreal Expos (1969), St. Louis Cardinals (1969), Oakland Athletics (‘70-'71) and, oddly enough, also the Pittsburgh Pirates ('70–'71).

Mudcat was a two-time All-Star, earning the honor in both 1963 and 1965. He was both the American League wins leader and a World Series hero in '65, helping the Minnesota Twins to victory by pitching two complete games and clubbing a 3-run homer in Game Six. This made him the first black pitcher to win a World Series for the American League. (Joe Black was the first black pitcher to win a World Series game when he did so as part of a losing NL effort for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952).

It was also in 1965 that Mudcat joined the Black Aces club. Though NL pitchers Don Newcombe (1951) and Sam Jones (1959) had notched the feat, Mudcat was the first to do so for an American League team. NL pitcher Bob Gibson joined him in the club that same year.

Where are they now?
Mudcat remains active with several of his former teams, appearing at the Indians Fantasy Camp in Goodyear, AZ and Twinsfest at Target Field to celebrate the Twins 1987 World Championship, both in January of 2017.

Don Newcombe

Born: June 14, 1926

Don  NewcombeDon played in the Major Leagues for 11 seasons, interrupted briefly by his service in the Korean War. Newcombe emerged after just one season in the Negro Leagues to pitch for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (1949–51;1954–58), Cincinnati Reds ('58–'60) and the Cleveland Indians (1960).

Newcombe's career would be one of firsts. Among the distinctions to his credit, he became the first black pitcher to win a World Series game in 1949, the first black pitcher to reach the 20-win mark in 1951, and the only pitcher to have won Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP honors in his career (until Justin Verlander finally matched the feat in 2011).

He also holds the important distinction of being Major League baseball's very first Cy Young award winner, earning the honor in 1956. Newcombe was a four-time All Star and a World Series Champion with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955.

As a man who broke so many barriers, Newcombe was once praised by no less an authority than President Barack Obama, who referred to Newcombe as "someone who helped... America become what it is. I would not be here if it were not for Jackie and it were not for Don Newcombe.”

Where are they now?
Don turned 90 in June 2016 and has been with the front office of the Los Angeles Dodgers for 40+ years. Amazingly, Don still attends every home game and has been a huge part of player and community relations.

Sam Jones

Born: December 14, 1925

Sam  JonesSam “Toothpick” Jones played in the Major Leagues for 13 years, pitching for the Indians ('51-'52), Cubs ('55-'56), Cardinals ('57-'58), Giants ('59-'61), Tigers (1962), and the Baltimore Orioles (1964).

Sam became only the second member of the Black Aces club, joining Don Newcombe in this distinguished company with 21 wins in 1959. Jones was a two-time All-Star who amassed a 102-101 career record with 1,376 strikeouts. He was also the first Black American to pitch a no-hitter in Major League Baseball, accomplishing the feat in 1955

All-time great hitter Stan Musial once observed that “Sam had the best curveball I ever saw. He was quick and fast and that curve was terrific, so big it was like a change of pace. I've seen guys fall down on sweeping curves that became strikes. Right-handers thought Sam had the most wicked curve, and as a left-handed hitter, I thought that it was positively the best.”

Where are they now?
Sam died of cancer in 1962 and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Fairmont, WV. Sadly, he was only 42 years old.

Earl Wilson

Born: October 2, 1934

Earl  WilsonEarl Wilson pitched across 11 seasons for the Boston Red Sox ('59-60; '62-'66), the Detroit Tigers ('66-70), and the San Diego Padres (1970). He was with the Tigers when he joined the Black Aces club, racking up 22 wins in 1967.

Wilson made his debut for the Red Sox in 1959, becoming the first black pitcher to break the majors in Boston. (The Sox had become the last of 16 Major League teams to break down the color barrier when infielder Pumpsie Green was called up earlier in the season.)

Wilson once observed that “A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings.”

Obviously, Wilson didn't let it get to him. In 1962, he laid the Dodgers out with a no-hitter and helped his Tigers snag a World Championship in 1968.

Where are they now?
After he retired from baseball, Wilson became a high school physical education teacher and basketball coach. He passed on in 2005 at the age of 70 and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit, MI.

Dwight Gooden

Born: November 16, 1964

Dwight  GoodenDwight had a 17-year stay in the Major Leagues with the Mets ('84-'94), Yankees ('96-'97), Indians (98-'99), Astros (2000), the Devil Rays (2000), and once more, with the Yankees (2000).

Dwight “Doc” Gooden was among the most exciting pitchers of his generation, entering the league with the upstart New York Mets in 1984, pitching his way to the NL Cy Young in 1985, and helping the Mets secure a World Series victory in 1986. Sadly, like others from that notorious team, Gooden's career would often be overshadowed by personal struggles, including drug abuse and incarceration.

Still, Gooden was a four-time All-Star and the MLB strikeout leader for two consecutive years in '84 and '85. It was also the latter year in which he joined the Black Aces club, securing 24 wins alongside a dazzling 1.53 ERA.

He also pitched a no-hitter in 1996, a year in which he otherwise struggled on the mound. Gooden retired from the game in 2000 and was inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame in 2010.

Offering advice to younger pitchers, Gooden once suggested that "If you can get an out on one pitch, take it. Let the strikeouts come on the outstanding pitches. Winning is the big thing. If you throw a lot of pitches, before you know it, your arm is gone.”

Take it from a guy who ended his career with an impressive 2,293 strikeouts.

Where are they now?
If you're looking for Dwight Gooden, check his twitter handle @DocGooden16. In January of 2017, he told his followers, “getting ready to take the mount at Fantasy camp….my fantasy today 3K'S lol”

Mike Norris

Born: November 16, 1964

Mike  NorrisMike Norris played his entire career for one team, spending eight seasons with the Oakland Athletics. Mike joined Mudcat Grant's club of Black Aces in 1980, pulling down 22 wins, and an amazing 24 complete games. Coach Billy Martin rode the workhorse pitcher hard that year and he responded with a stellar 2.53 ERA. He earned a Gold Glove for his defensive skills to boot.

Mike won another Gold Glove in 1981, as well as a trip to the All-Star game. Mike was a “screwball extraordinaire” and a pitcher that many say probably should have won the Cy Young in 1980. His career was plagued, though, by injury and cocaine addiction.

By 1983, Mike was kicking around the minor leagues, whiling away on the staff of the independent league San Jose Bees. This would set up one of the unlikeliest (and briefest) comebacks in Major League history. In 1990, Mike returned from a 7-year absence in the majors to pitch out of the bullpen for the ‘As. Though he would only see 27 innings of action, it would be enough to make Mike the lone pitcher in Athletics history to earn a win in three separate decades.

Recalling his entrance into the league all those years prior, Mike Norris told Hardball Times that “When I signed that contract, I was taught that I had to be twice as good as any of those white guys, or I wasn't going to make it. I digested that, but didn't keep it in the front of my mind—that wasn't good motivation.”

Where are they now?
In 2014, Mike released a calendar promoting education and positive values for children. He has also started a Bay Area baseball league for boy's ages 8-11.

David Price

Born: August 26, 1985

David  PriceDavid Price is the youngest member of the Black Aces club and the only #1 overall draft pick (2007) on the list. Price secured the top draft spot as a standout college player.

David attended Vanderbilt University on an academic scholarship, was a Freshman All-American, and, in 2007, was National Collegiate Player of the Year. In fact, that year, he became the first player in history to fully sweep the top college baseball awards.

David also pitched for the USA National team in 2005, and in 2006, won a gold medal at the World University Baseball Championship.

Making his Major League debut in late-2008, David promptly found himself in World Series action with the Tampa Rays. He would remain with the Rays until being traded to the Detroit Tigers in 2014. After a brief stint with the Blue Jays in late-2015, Price joined the Boston Red Sox.

David is a five-time All-Star and 2012 Cy Young winner. That same year, he joined the Black Aces club with 20 wins. He remains the Red Sox staff ace today.

On his philosophy as a player, David has said that “I believe we must seek God's will, never presuming to identify it with our own program or power.”

Where are they now?
In addition to pitching for the Red Sox, David runs a foundation called “Project One Four” whose mission is to fund organizations supporting the growth and well-being of children in the middle Tennessee area that David calls home.

CC Sabathia

Born: July 21, 1980

CC  SabathiaAlongside David Price, CC Sabathia is one of only two active pitchers in the Black Aces club. Coming out of high school, the multi-sport star received Division 1 offers to play football and made the US Olympic Team as a pitcher in 2000. CC made his debut for the Cleveland Indians in 2001 and, at 20 years old, was the youngest player in the majors that season. CC built a reputation as an increasingly dominant pitcher during his tenure in Cleveland, winning a Cy Young award in 2007.

A late-season trade in 2008 sent him to Milwaukee, where he figured prominently into a short-lived playoff run. He went on to sign a blockbuster contract with the New York Yankees, who got their money's worth when he led the staff to a World Series championship in 2009. He joined the Black Aces club the next year with a 21-7 record.

CC is a six-time All-Star and remains on staff with the New York Yankees. CC has notched more than 2700 strikeouts and more than 200 wins in his illustrious career.

As far as his competitive drive is concerned, CC once said that “I grew up with video games. My generation kind of grew up with the Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. Then, I had a Dreamcast and, finally, the PlayStation. So yeah, I've always been a big gamer.”

Where are they now?
In addition to pitching with the Yankees, Sabathia has a foundation called “PitCChIn Foundation” whose goal is to “Enrich the lives of inner city youth.” Also, his foundation, “Backpack Program,” has distributed 25,000 supply-filled backpacks to elementary school students in need.

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