In his 2007 book, “The Black Aces,” pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant paid tribute to the dozen African-American pitchers to have won at least 20 games in a season. Since the book’s initial publication, another three pitchers have joined the club as well.
In this post I will profile each of the pitchers and share baseball cards from each of their Black Ace seasons.
Newk was the club’s first member, winning exactly 20 games in 1951. He accomplished the feat again in 1955 (20-5) and 1956 (27-7), leading the Dodgers to the World Series in both seasons. For his fine 1956 season, he not only won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award but also became the first ever recipient of the Cy Young Award. (A bit off topic, but a quirky feature of Newk’s 1951 Bowman card is the lone fan in the seats.)
Sam Jones led the National League in strikeouts three times in four seasons as a member of the Cubs (1955, 1956) and Cardinals (1958). However, he led the league in walks each of those same seasons and compiled an unimpressive 49-56 record during that stretch. Jones rebounded nicely in 1959, his first season with the San Francisco Giants, going 21-15 with a league-leading 2.83 ERA. Had there been Cy Young Awards in each league, Jones likely would have won NL honors. As it was, he finished second in the voting behind American Leaguer Early Wynn.
Just as Sandy Koufax dominated the first half of the 1960s, Bob Gibson completely owned the second half. Like Koufax, he also spent his entire career with a single team. Gibson won 20 games five times, holds the live-ball era record for single-season ERA, and retired second all-time in career strikeouts. His 1968 season may be the single most dominant in Major League history.
His first time winning 20 games was in 1965, when he went 20-12, following 18-win and 19-win seasons the two years prior. Gibson also fanned 270 batters, a career high, in 1965. His other 20-win seasons were in 1966 (21-12), 1968 (22-9, 1.12 ERA), 1969 (20-13), and 1970 (23-7). Gibson is also one of the greatest pitchers in World Series history, winning MVP honors in 1964 and 1967 and kicking off the 1968 Fall Classic with a 17 strikeout, 5-hit shutout.
Jim “Mudcat” Grant
The American League’s first Black Ace, Mudcat Grant, was a largely .500 pitcher before the career year he posted with the Twins in 1965. In addition to a 21-7 record, Grant also starred in the 1965 World Series for the Twins, posting a 2-1 record and even helping his own cause with a three-run homer in his Game 6 victory. While Grant finished his career with a very respectable 145-119 record and 3.63 ERA, none of his campaigns were anywhere near as memorable as his 1965 season. However, in founding the Black Aces, Grant not only found a way to honor some of the game’s greatest African American pitchers but also to ensure his own time on the diamond would never be forgotten.
Among all the Black Aces, Fergie Jenkins stands alone with an incredible seven 20-win seasons, including six straight from 1967-1972. The only Canadian member of the Black Aces, the presence of Jenkins has prompted some discussion as to how club membership is defined. The subtitle of Grant’s book is “Baseball’s Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners,” suggesting club members should not only be black but also American. For example, the great black Cuban pitcher, Luis Tiant, is not in the club, nor are black Dominicans Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez. In the case of Jenkins, however, his mother’s side of the family descended from escaped American slaves, and Grant deemed this sufficient for membership.
Jenkins enjoyed his first 20-win season in 1967, going 20-13 with a 2.80 ERA to lead a Cubs pitching staff that included notable baseball names such as Joe Niekro, Ken Holtzman, and Don Larsen. Jenkins finished second in the Cy Young vote, the first of five top three finishes he would record over an eight-year stretch. (Keep in mind his competition over this span included Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale, and Tom Seaver!) His other seasons as a Black Ace were 1968 (20-15), 1969 (21-15), 1970 (22-16), 1971 (24-13, Cy Young Award), 1972 (20-12), and 1974 (25-12). Notably, of the 17 full seasons Jenkins enjoyed as a starter, 15 were with the Rangers and Cubs. As incredible as his seven 20-win seasons were, it’s easy to imagine Jenkins having even more had he played for better teams.
Earl Wilson, the American League’s second Black Ace, began his career in 1959 as the first black pitcher in Red Sox history. He would post double digits in wins for Boston each season from 1962-1965 but was traded to the Tigers in 1966 just as his career was taking off. Splitting time between the two teams, Wilson went 18-11 with a 3.07 ERA and 200 strikeouts. He followed that up in 1967 with a 22-11 record and a 3.27 ERA, good for immortality as a Black Ace.
Al Downing will forever be remembered as the pitcher who surrendered Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run. However, he is also a Black Ace. Downing spent his first nine seasons (1961-1969) as a Yankee, posting double-digit wins from 1963-1967. Downing then split time in 1970 between the Athletics and the Brewers before moving to the Dodgers in 1971, as shown on his O-Pee-Chee card. In his first season with Los Angeles, Downing went 20-9 with a 2.68 ERA, good for third in the Cy Young Award voting. He would never again win in double digits, retiring in 1977 with a career 123-107 record.
Just as in 1965 and 1967, Black Aces debuted in pairs in 1971. While Downing attained Black Ace status in the National League, Vida Blue hit the 20-win milestone for the first of three times in his career in the American League. Blue crashed the club in style, notching as impressive a first full season as a pitcher could ever be expected to have: a 24-8 record, a stingy 1.82 ERA, and an amazing 301 strikeouts, good for not only the Cy Young Award but also MVP. Following a sophomore slump, Blue would again notch 20 wins in 1973 (20-9) and 1975 (22-11). After his third all-star season with Oakland in 1977, Blue would cross the Bay and put in three more all-star seasons with the Giants, highlighted by his 18-10 campaign in 1978, before finishing his career with two seasons in Kansas City and two more back in San Francisco.
While J.R. Richard won 20 games only once (1976), he would follow up his 20-win campaign with three straight years of 18 wins and set the record in 1978 for most strikeouts in a season by a National League righty, a mark he would then break again the following season. By 1980, Richard appeared to be the heir apparent to Bob Gibson and was in the midst of his best season ever when a stroke ended his Major League career. I take a more complete look at his career and his cards in an earlier post, “Sermon on the Mound,”
Norris began his career with a 12-25 record over five seasons in Oakland (1975-1979), giving no hint of what he had in store for 1980. His 22-9 record and 2.53 ERA was good for second in the Cy Young race behind Steve Stone, and he even added the first of two straight Gold Gloves for good measure. He would recapture his All-Star form the following season, but the labor strike would keep his victory total in check at only 12, two wins shy of the league lead. Norris went an unremarkable 12-16 over the next two seasons (1982, 1983) and seemed to be out of baseball for good but made a brief comeback a full seven years later, giving the A’s 27 solid innings out of the bullpen in 1990.
When Dr. K arrived on the scene, he brought absolute GOAT potential with him. While his career failed to live up to the other-worldly expectations we may have had for him as a teenage phenom, his 1985 sophomore campaign still holds up as one of the best seasons put in by any pitcher ever. His stat line was downright filthy: 24-4, 1.53 ERA, and 268 strikeouts. Doc was so good that season that when all he did at age 21 was go 17-6 and lead his team to a World Series, fans were wondering what went wrong!
Funny story. I met Dave Stewart in person at an Emeryville (Oakland area) Denny’s just after the 1988 World Series. I was able to chat with him for a bit and he was kind enough to sign a scrap of paper for me, which was the best I could find at the time for a signature. (Lesson learned: Bring your cards with you everywhere!) I was so excited to meet him that I couldn’t wait to tell my friends. As it happened, the first friend I ran into was not a baseball fan at all, but I didn’t let it stop me.
“Karen, I met Dave Stewart at Denny’s last night?”
Her face went pale. I wasn’t expecting it, but it looked like she was genuinely impressed. “From the Eurythmics?!” Oh well.
But back to baseball, this man was every bit as vital to the A’s dynasty as Bash Brothers Canseco and McGwire, reeling off four straight 20-win seasons from 1987-1990 and absolutely owning Roger Clemens in the postseason. Stewart was remarkably consistent over that stretch, posting records of 20-13, 21-12, 21-9, and 22-11. He never won the Cy Young Award but finished in the top four all four seasons.
Between Vida Blue, Mike Norris, and Dave Stewart, Oakland had already established itself as Ground Zero for Black Aces. No surprise then that this next hurler, even if he pitched for the Marlins, was from Oakland, California. Willis earned Rookie of the Year honors in 2003, going 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA. His sophomore season was unremarkable, but he put it all together for 2005, leading the National League with his 22-10 record, 7 complete games, and 5 shutouts. (I know these last two stats must look like typos to younger fans!)
Carsten Charles Sabathia, who was also born in the Oakland area, began his career with 13 consecutive seasons of double-digit victories. He spent his first seven seasons as a Cleveland Indian, making the all-star team three times and winning Cy Young honors in 2007, going 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA. Off to a slow start the next season, the Tribe shipped him to Milwaukee where he turned his season completely around, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA as a Brewer. So of course the Yankees signed him for the following season, and CC instantly became the ace of their staff.
Following a 19-8 debut season with the Yankees in 2009, CC turned in his Black Ace season in 2010, going 21-7 and finishing third in the Cy Young race. He notched 19 wins in 2011 and finished the 2018 campaign only one victory behind Bartolo Colon for most among active pitchers.
David Price, at last a World Series hero as well, has been one of baseball’s top starters over the last decade. He won 19 games in only his second full season (2010), good for a second place finish in the Cy Young voting. Two years later, he turned in the finest season of his career and became a Black Ace with a record of 20-5 and a 2.56 ERA. His win totals in his last three full seasons (2015, 2016, 2018) have been 18, 17, and 16, but in spite of this slight downward trend Price remains very much a threat for additional 20-win seasons.
Black Ace Timeline
The infographic below shows each of the Black Ace seasons from Don Newcombe’s first in 1951 through the present day.
One thing the timeline clearly shows is what a remarkable period 1965-1976 was for black starting pitchers, even omitting the 20-win seasons of Juan Marichal (1963-1966, 1968-1969) and Luis Tiant (1968, 1973, 1974, 1976). However, while we might have expected the success of Gibson, Jenkins, Blue, and others to pave the way for even more Black Aces in the decades to come, only three new Black Aces emerged in the next 28 years (1977-2004). Even since that drought, baseball today looks about the same as the 1950s in terms of 20-win seasons by African American pitchers.
A number of reasons may be offered for the decline of the Black Ace–
- Heavy influx of Latin talent
- Move from four-man rotations to five-man rotations
- Increased use of bullpens
- Draw of the NBA and NFL for top black athletes
While the first of these reasons seems like only a positive for MLB, the reality is that teams are investing in Latin America instead of our own inner cities not because Latin Americans are intrinsically better at baseball than African Americans but because teams aren’t bound by labor laws and kids work very, very cheap in Latin America. From a strictly economic perspective, which is practically the only perspective teams take today, the return on investment outside the US is greater than the ROI inside the US.
The last of these reasons may sound zero-sum (i.e., what baseball loses basketball gains), but it’s worth asking–particularly in the case of the NFL–why a top black athlete would rather pursue a sport practically guaranteed to give him serious brain damage, lower his life expectancy, and pay him less than take up our country’s National Pastime.
We have no gone seven seasons since our last Black Ace. While I’m hopeful that David Price finds another 20-game season in his left arm, I also wonder if Major League Baseball has already seen its last Black Ace. Sadly such a thing does not seem impossible, only unthinkable.