#Shortstops: Art Pennington: An Equal among Greats
Born in Memphis, Tenn., in 1923, Pennington played professional baseball for 20 years, in the Negro Leagues, the Mexican League, in Venezuela and Cuba, and the integrated minor leagues. He was a switch hitter, and played every position except catcher (“It’s bad on your fingers”).
Still, there were elements of playing with the American Giants that were painful. Players on Negro League teams couldn’t sleep in most hotels, couldn’t eat in most restaurants, couldn’t swim in the local pools. And the antics during barnstorming tours weren’t too far from those of the Zulu Clowns, like watermelon eating contests that he called “just embarrassin’.”
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In 1946, Jorge Pasquel and his brothers shook up the baseball world by offering players huge contracts to come to the Mexican League, which he wanted to build up to a major league level. Pasquel targeted the biggest names:Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Bob Feller. He had long lured Negro League players to the Mexican League, including Willie Wells, Ray Dandridge and Josh Gibson. In 1946, Pasquel signed Superman, giving him $1,000 a month (a $400 raise). Pennington soon realized that he could earn additional money by playing in the Cuban and Venezuelan winter leagues, bringing his annual income up to $12,000 a year.
But what he found in Mexico was more valuable than money.
When I left the United States, I never had so much freedom in all my life because you could eat anywhere and they got the finest restaurants, the beautifulest women – all colors, don’t make no difference – and they’re crazy about athletes. They got dance halls and I used to love to dance. I just told my mother, I said, ‘Mom, you should see this country. It’s beautiful. Mexico City and Monterrey and Acapulco. Everybody swimmin’ together.’
He excelled on the field in Mexico, playing most for the Pueblo Pericos (Parrots), hitting .300 with on-base percentage over .400 across three seasons. Newspaper clippings in the scrapbook show him sliding into third on triples and being welcomed by teammates at the plate after home runs. One headline called him the “Coloso del Bateo” – The Colossus of Batting.
His mother, however, wanted Pennington to come home. By 1949, the Mexican League was suffering financially, and many players were heading back to the States, so Pennington, reluctantly, moved to Arkansas, where his parents lived. He ran into problems right away: He was told on the train ride home that he couldn’t sit with the white woman at his side. In the stations, they were forced into different segregated waiting rooms. Anita only spoke Spanish, and Pennington said, “I’m so glad she didn’t understand a lot of the stuff they was callin’ me.”
Near the back of the Art Pennington scrapbook, there is a small, square, black and white photo. Most of the image is of water, with a sliver of beach in the background. Just beyond the beach stands a thicket of trees, so leafy that the ground is lost in shadows. Above the branches, a sky is dotted with clouds. In the center of the image, near a small wave, with right shoulder submerged and left shoulder rising out of the water, bare and muscled, head angled to the surface, eyes directly on the camera, is Art Pennington, swimming.
Larry Brunt was a digital strategy intern in the Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development.