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Baseball history: Donaldson greatest ever? He played in southwest Minnesota

SUBMITTED PHOTO A presentation will be made at the Murray County Fair this week that should make every baseball fan remember the name of John Wesley Donaldson.

SLAYTON — John Wesley Donaldson might be the greatest African-American baseball player you never heard of.

According to some, in fact, he just might be the greatest baseball player of all time.

Donaldson’s legacy will be on display this week at the Murray County Fair where baseball historian Peter Gorton will deliver a presentation titled, “The Greatest Colored Pitcher in the World: When John Donaldson Played in Murray County.” Gorton, a former broadcast journalist presently in the employ of Faegre Baker Daniels, an international law firm based in Minneapolis, is the founder of “The Donaldson Network,” a group of more than 500 researchers, authors and historians devoted to the recovery of Donaldson’s career. His talk will begin at 3 p.m. Wednesday under the tent.

In a telephone conversation recently with the Daily Globe, Gorton’s fascination with Donaldson’s career came across as unstoppable as the great left-hander’s fastball.

Donaldson pitched from 1908 to 1940. He is known to have won at least 398 games and struck out at least 4,904 batters. He was extremely fast and possessed an excellent change-up at a time before the change-up was fashionable. He had a modern delivery before its time, Gorton said, “which gave him a huge advantage.” His exaggerated follow-through, generating power through his hips and legs, allowed for his long and successful career.

Many Americans have been led to believe Satchel Paige, who lived from 1906 to 1982 and performed in the Negro Leagues until breaking into the major leagues in 1948, lays claim to the best black pitcher — certainly the best of his era — but Gorton isn’t so sure.

“Paige was the greatest black pitcher who was documented by the media,” he said.

Donaldson’s career, however, has been lost to the generations until The Donaldson Network began working to recover it. “His greatest success came before radio,” Gorton said.

And it came largely on the barnstorming circuit. Donaldson, performing in an era before black ballplayers were admitted entry into the major leagues, spent many years performing throughout the Midwest. He lived in Nobles County, Minnesota, in 1926 and played for the Lismore Gophers. A June 1931 newspaper clipping preserved on the Donaldson Network website (johndonaldsonbravehost.com) documents a game played in Worthington with the Colored House of David team.

Also from the website, a 1917 entry relates a reported comment from Hall of Fame New York Giants manager John McGraw calling Donaldson the best southpaw he’d ever witnessed. A 1918 clipping out of New York identifies Donaldson as the “highest salaried colored baseball player who ever wore a uniform.”

No doubt

Gorton stops short of calling Donaldson the best ballplayer of all time. He prefers to present the information and let baseball fans decide for themselves. But he admits to believing Donaldson should “be in the conversation.” And he adds, “If you want to talk about the greatest left-hander in history, I don’t think there’s any doubt.”

Donaldson, he says, was very influential during the 1920s in bringing African-American players to Minnesota. At that time, the greatest black players were forced to endure hardships that made it more difficult for them to perform at a high level. Despite that, Donaldson finished 92 percent of his games during his career. He pitched at least 377 innings in 1914.

“He might have been sleeping on the ground instead of at The Four Seasons,” Gorton said.

What is known about Donaldson has nearly doubled over the last 10 years, but Gorton maintains there is still much more to be learned. At Wednesday’s presentation, however, Gorton will be able to show a 39-second film clip of Donaldson throwing three pitches and batting twice.

Early in his research, Gorton learned that Donaldson was buried in an unmarked grave in Chicago when he died in 1970. But the Chicago White Sox, who employed him as the first African-American scout in major league baseball history, installed a headstone there. That was the beginning of Gorton’s realization that Donaldson’s career had been sadly underrepresented, said the researcher.

Gorton, who grew up in Staples, Minn. — just 13 miles from Bertha, where Donaldson established himself as a local legend — enjoys listening to arguments over who was the best baseball player ever.

So could Donaldson really be the guy?

“It is possible,” he responds. “The big over-arching cloud that hangs over John Donaldson’s legacy and career is the color line … People in these times can’t even get their arms around that period.”

That’s why, Gorton maintains, he has devoted so much of his life to “try to give people a glimpse.”

Local history, too

Besides the Donaldson presentation, the Murray County Fair will also feature a talk by Mike Springman at 4 p.m. on Friday titled, “The First Night League: Baseball in Murray County in the Early ‘50s.”

Springman will highlight the career of his father, Clair Springman, a Wilmont ballplayer who signed with Iona during the heyday of the league.

The First Night League is regarded as the first league in Minnesota to schedule all its games under lights and is credited with bringing Class A and AA quality baseball to the region.

Springman grew up on a farm near Lismore and currently resides in Ashburn, Va., with his wife, Tracey.

The Murray County baseball exhibit will remain open to the public year-round. Local history will be added throughout the year.

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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