Mays-Newcombe barnstorming tour of 1955 set records, broke barriers
What he found instead was a stadium filled to one-fifth of its capacity, and a very unamused Gene Woodling.
“I’m sure glad we’re working mostly on guarantees, or else we wouldn’t make enough to buy peanuts,” quipped the Cleveland Indians’ left fielder. “We haven’t had but a couple of good crowds. In the two places where we were working on a percentage basis, I think our takes were eight and 40 dollars.”
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Hoping for higher attendance in Greensboro, the All-Stars took their chances against the Carolina League All-Stars. They lost, in front of a crowd of 221. In response, sportswriter Earle Hellen of the Greensboro Record proclaimed that “barnstorming’s dead around here.”
Hellen’s statement might’ve held true, if the “Say Hey” Kid hadn’t come to town. A mere two days after Lollar’s All-Stars played in McCormick, the Mays-Newcombe All-Stars took the field, nearly packing the ballpark.
“Here we have evidence that there is still gold in the hinterlands if you have the right troupe,” wrote Mallette. “Mays and Newcombe, naturally, have been drawing a large number of Negro fans as could be expected. But that is only part of the magic. Mainly they’re drawing because Mays and Newcombe have just finished good season and the fans want to take a look. The lesson to be learned from the current tours is: If you don’t have a big star for top billing, get a guarantee.”
With all due respect to Mallette, classifying 1955 as a “good season” for the All-Stars was a bit of an understatement – on multiple fronts. Don Newcombe finished the year with a record of 20-5 for the Dodgers and the Giants’ Willie Mays had led the National League in homers with 51. The Cubs’ Ernie Banks was coming off a season in which he hit five grand slams (an MLB record) and Banks’ teammate Sam Jones had tossed a no-hitter. And of course, we can’t forget 21-year old Hank Aaron, who had hit 37 doubles, posting a slash line of .314/.366/.540 with a .906 OPS in his second full season with the Braves.
“I don’t think it would have mattered who we played. That might have been the best team ever assembled.”
But for all the success that the Mays-Newcombe All-Stars had, the historical context in which they had it renders their feats even more impressive. They were in Little Rock only two years before nine black students integrated the city's local high school. They played in Montgomery 10 years before Bloody Sunday took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And they visited Birmingham eight years before the 16th street Baptist church bombing.
Seventeen adult black men were touring the country at a time when racial tension was reaching unprecedented heights. Despite the ease with which they reached 28-0, their experiences off the field were anything but easy. Yet as so many had before - and would continue to after - they pushed forward with their heads held high, giving fans a glimpse of greatness, every stop along the way.
Negro League third baseman Judy Johnson may have said it best, when in an interview he recalled a season in which he hit .392.
“The owner gave me a ten dollar raise, but we played for something greater that couldn't be measured in dollars and cents. The secret of our game was to enjoy and endure."
Alex Coffey is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum