Black History Month: Top Players in Fort Wayne's Franchise History
In celebration of Black History Month, throughout February, teams across Minor League Baseball are taking a look back at five of the best Black players to suit up for their club. While some of these standout performers went on to long and illustrious Major League careers, others simply had great
In celebration of Black History Month, throughout February, teams across Minor League Baseball are taking a look back at five of the best Black players to suit up for their club.
While some of these standout performers went on to long and illustrious Major League careers, others simply had great Minor League careers or, in some cases, just one incredible season that went down as “a year for the ages.”
Here is a look at five of the best Black baseball players ever to suit up in Fort Wayne.
Fort Wayne's Black baseball history dates back to at least the 1880s. Over the years, the Summit City hosted Hall of Fame players like Hank Aaron, Rube Foster, Smokey Joe Williams, and Sol White. Fort Wayne was even the site for Game 4 of the 1932 Negro League World Series. You can find out more about that rich history here. But meanwhile, it's also fitting that in the modern era of Minor League Baseball in Fort Wayne, the legacy of those legends lives on.
LaTroy Hawkins (1993)
Indiana native LaTroy Hawkins was a member of the inaugural Fort Wayne Wizards in 1993. Not only did the right-hander from Gary go on to become the first player in the organization's history to reach the big leagues when he debuted with the Minnesota Twins in 1995, he also put together one of the most respected careers in MLB history. Hawkins ranks 10th all-time in career appearances for a pitcher with 1,042 games pitched across 21 seasons in The Show with 11 clubs. He was included on the ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame's 2021 class.
Hawkins set the tone for his prolific career during his first full professional season in '93 as he won the Midwest League's pitching triple crown, leading the circuit in ERA (2.06), strikeouts (179), and wins (15). "Hawk" established Fort Wayne franchise records that still stand nearly 30 years later for ERA, strikeouts, complete games (4), and shutouts (3).
Hawkins remains very involved in the game today in a variety of ways, such as coaching, broadcasting, and advocating on behalf of The Players Alliance, which works to improve representation of Black Americans in all levels of baseball.
Fun Fact: LaTroy is Patrick Mahomes' godfather.
Follow: @LaTroyHawkins32 on Twitter & Instagram
Check out the video below as LaTroy reminisces about his season in Fort Wayne.
Torii Hunter (1994)
A season after Hawkins established the standard for Fort Wayne pitchers, the franchise was fortunate to have Torii Hunter do the same for position players. Hunter, a first-round selection of the Twins out of high school, was only 18 years old for most of his time as a Wizard. Nevertheless, despite being a few years younger than most of his competition, he more than held his own, slashing a .293 batting average / .358 on-base percentage / .439 slugging percentage (.796 OPS). During his days at the old Memorial Stadium, Hunter also showcased his amazing ability as an outfielder. Take a look back at some highlights.
Hunter went on to reach the big leagues with the Twins by the age of 21 in 1997. He was selected as an American League All-Star five times and won nine consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 2001-09, playing for the Angels and Tigers as well. Hunter has been included on the last two National Baseball Hall of Fame ballots, and will be again next year, too.
Fun Fact: In 2018, former Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. played at Parkview Field against the TinCaps with the Burlington Bees (then an Angels affiliate).
Torii Sr. is still staying busy today, in part by running restaurants.
Torii Hunter earned more than $170 million during his career. But when he bought into a restaurant, no job was too big, including Torii doing the dishes.— danhayesmlb (@DanHayesMLB) February 15, 2022
"I was sweating for nine months." #MNTwins #LAAngels #Tigers #MLBhttps://t.co/mbCX5POTwa
Follow: @toriihunter48 on Twitter & @tnutts48 on Instagram
Will Venable (2006)
Will Venable originally went to Princeton to play basketball. While he was a First Team All-Ivy League guard who played in March Madness, as a sophomore, he joined the baseball team, too. Eventually, he was a seventh-round pick of the Padres in 2005 and assigned to Fort Wayne the following year.
The left-handed hitting outfielder put together one of the best seasons in franchise history. Venable slashed .314 / .389 / .477 (.866 OPS). His 91 RBIs that year set a franchise record that's only been passed by one player since (Fernando Perez, 95 in 2014). Beyond that, in terms of club history, Venable ranks fourth in average, fifth in OPS, sixth in slugging, and 10th in on-base. He was a 2006 Midwest League Mid-Season and Post-Season All-Star.
Venable's success continued as he debuted with San Diego in 2008. With the Pads into 2015, Venable finished ninth in the National League in stolen bases twice, while he was top eight in triples four times. He also played for the Rangers in 2015 and finished his playing career with the Dodgers in 2016.
In short order, Venable has become one of the top rising young coaches in MLB. He served as the Cubs' first base coach in 2018 and '19 before moving to third base coach in '20. The upcoming season will be his second as bench coach for the Red Sox.
Fun Fact: His father, Max, who also played in the majors, was his hitting coach in Fort Wayne in 2006... By the way, the only other student-athlete in Ivy League history to be First Team all-conference in both baseball and basketball is Chris Young, who was teammates with Will at Princeton. Young, a pitcher, also spent part of his career with the Padres and now is the General Manager of the Texas Rangers.
Joe Ross (2012-13)
Joe Ross was a first-round pick of the Padres out of high school in 2011. After spending part of the 2012 season in Fort Wayne as a teenager, he returned in '13 to headline a loaded rotation that included fellow future MLB starters Max Fried (Braves) and Zach Eflin (Phillies).
Ross got the Opening Day start and rolled from there, earning Midwest League All-Star status.
He made his big league debut with the Nationals in 2015. The righty from Northern California, who pitched in the Midwest League Playoffs in both of his seasons as a TinCap, started Game 5 of the 2019 World Series, as Washington went on to win the title.
Fun Fact: Joe's older brother, Tyson, also pitched in the majors. Their mother, Jean, is an emergency room nurse, while their father, Willie, is a doctor.
Follow: @JoeRoss21 on Twitter & [@jross21](https://www.instagram.com/jross21/)_
Mallex Smith (2013-14)
While Ross was on the mound, Mallex Smith, at just 19 years old, was Fort Wayne's leadoff batter on Opening Day in 2013. Smith homered in his Midwest League debut, though his game is more about speed than power. The lightning fast outfielder had a solid '13 campaign, highlighted by stealing 64 bases -- just one shy of tying the franchise record. (Smith accomplished that in 110 games compared to Rymer Liriano and Jeremy Owens swiping 65 in 116 and 129 games, respectively.)
The Padres reassigned Smith to the TinCaps to begin the following year. He then found another gear, as his average, on-base percentage, and slugging all rose significantly. Midway through the season, the center fielder had stolen 48 bases in 64 games, prior to a promotion to High-A. The effervescent Floridian capped off his Fort Wayne career in the Midwest League All-Star Game, where he also won the "Lost Art of the Bunt Contest" that was held by the West Michigan Whitecaps in lieu of a home run derby. He finished the year leading all players in both Minor League and Major League Baseball in stolen bags with 88 in 119 games.
Congrats to Mallex Smith on winning the 1st ever MWL "Lost Art of Bunting Contest" before the All-Star Game! pic.twitter.com/PHlBDRr2C0— Fort Wayne TinCaps (@TinCaps) June 17, 2014
Later, Smith made his MLB debut with the Braves in 2016. He hasn't slowed down. After time with the Rays, Smith led the big leagues in stolen bases in 2019 with 46 for the Mariners. He spent the 2021 season in the minors for the Blue Jays and remains under contract with Toronto.
Fun Fact: Believe it or not, in the story below, Mallex says he's not even the fastest runner in his immediate family. He's credited his base-stealing and hitting success, in part, to writing scouting reports on pitchers in a marble notebook.
Also Of Note
The Wizards and TinCaps have had many more outstanding Black players, including outfielder Matt Lawton (1993), a two-time MLB All-Star... Kyle Blanks (2006), a Midwest League All-Star who went on to play for the Padres, A's, and Rangers... Keyvius Sampson (2011), a Midwest League All-Star who's pitched for the Reds.
Shortstop CJ Abrams (2019) is the top Padres prospect, and ranked by MLB.com as the No. 6 prospect in all of baseball... Infielder Xavier Edwards (2019) was a Midwest League All-Star and now ranks as the No. 70 overall prospect in the sport as a member of the Rays' farm system... Outfielder Joshua Mears is considered the top power-hitting prospect for the Padres. The 21-year-old grew up in the state of Washington and was committed to play collegiately at Purdue before being drafted and signing with San Diego. He's projected to call Parkview Field home in 2022... Outfielder James Woods was San Diego's second draft pick in 2021 and is already regarded as a top five prospect for the Pads. He could be a TinCap in the next year or two.