Top Five Black Players In St. Paul Saints 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 careers for the Saints 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 for the St. Paul Saints.
April 15, 1947 is an historic day in baseball history. Jackie Robinson became the first African American in Major League Baseball. Just three months later, on July 5, 1947, Larry Doby became the first African American in the American League. Those two men set the stage for other leagues to follow suit. On May 18, 1948, Roy Campanella broke the color barrier in the American Association with the St. Paul Saints. The Saints were the Triple-A affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After being buried on the Dodgers bench for the first month of the season, the Dodgers sent Campanella to St. Paul.
While there is debate on why Campanella was sent to the American Association, in his autobiography, “It’s Good To Be Alive,” Campanella said that Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who integrated the Major Leagues with Robinson, wanted to also be responsible for integrating the American Association. His arrival was a cultural phenomenon in the primarily black Rondo neighborhood in Saint Paul. Four days after he was sent to Saint Paul, future Hall of Fame Dodger manager Walter Alston, wrote Campanella into the lineup on May 22, 1948. It was a short stay for Campanella as he destroyed American Association pitching. Despite getting off to a slow start over his first few games, Campanella went on a tear for a month hitting ,325 with 13 home runs and 39 RBI in 35 games. By early July, Campanella was in Brooklyn where he would stay until his career ended in 1957.
His home runs have become legendary. Some grow 10 feet in length as each year goes by, none more so than the one he hit in Duluth. He put one organization on his back and they finished off what he started by winning a championship. He was the shot in the arm another organization needed and helped them win a World Series. What Darryl Strawberry did in 1996 is the perfect Hollywood script.
Following the 1994 season, Strawberry was sentenced to 60-days home confinement after being indicted on federal tax evasion plus a 60-day suspension by Major League Baseball for a positive cocaine test. When the Yankees signed him in June of 1995, he hit just three home runs in 32 games with the big club. After not being offered a contract in 1996, Strawberry signed with the St. Paul Saints. It was, and still is, the biggest signing in franchise history. Fans came from all over, both at home and on the road, to watch this “man among boys.” In 29 games for the Saints, Strawberry hit .435 with 18 home runs and 39 RBI, a .538 on base percentage, and a 1.000 slugging percentage.
That would be more than enough for the New York Yankees who elected to re-sign Strawberry on the 4th of July. The Saints would go on to win a championship that season, giving Strawberry his first ring of 1996. While with the Yankees, he hit .262 with 11 home runs and 36 RBI in 63 games while winning his second championship of the season, a World Series title with the Yankees. But it’s what he did over that memorable month of baseball with the Saints that helped him resurrect his career. As Strawberry said on more than one occasion, “St. Paul reminded me how much fun baseball was.”
Don’t mess with the bull or you’ll get the horns. In the case of Leon “Bull” Durham, if you’re a pitcher you could expect a big, powerful swing that more than likely did extreme damage. Durham was out of baseball in 1992, but then something happened in 1993. A brand new Independent Professional Baseball League was formed known as the Northern League. This six-team league in the Midwest and Canada was a first chance, second chance league. First chance for guys who were never drafted out of college and second chance for guys who were released from Major League organizations.
The St. Paul Saints began their first year of existence in 1993 and were managed by former 10-year Major Leaguer, Tim Blackwell. Blackwell had been teammates with Durham with the Chicago Cubs and placed a call to his former teammate inquiring if he was interested in getting back into the game. Durham was interested and the league had its first marquee signing, helping put the Northern League, and the Saints, on the map.
Durham didn’t disappoint, hitting .292 with 11 homers and 59 RBI in 65 games. He led the Saints to a 42-29 record, best in the Northern League, and they would go on to win the first Northern League Championship. Durham would come back in 1994 hitting .241 with eight homers and 26 RBI in 52 games. He turned his time with the Saints into a contract in Mexico later that year and would finish his career in 1996 with the California Angels Triple-A affiliate in Vancouver. But it was his time in St. Paul that perhaps put more eyes on Independent Professional Baseball helping it stay successful nearly 30 years later.
No one knew what to expect when the St. Paul Saints played their first season in 1993. How good would the baseball be? Would the team last past the Fourth of July? Would anyone show up? It didn’t take long to find out the baseball was high quality, the Saints would not only finish the season, but win a championship, and the fans came out in droves. That first team set the tone for the next 28 seasons as 11 players had their contract purchased by Major League organizations, a franchise record that stood each season the organization was an independent franchise. It included the first African American in Saints history to have his contract purchased, pitcher Damon Pollard.
The 5’8, 165 right-hander wasn’t big in stature, but he was a giant at the end of games. The former 14th round pick by the Kansas City Royals in 1990 out of the University of Southern Mississippi, reached High-A in 1992 before being released. He signed with the Saints in 1993 and was instrumental in the back end of the bullpen. He went 2-2 with a 2.27 ERA and 14 saves in 29 games (25 games finished). Across 31.2 innings he struck out 35. Not only that, but he fanned the final batter in the Championship Series as the Saints went on to defeat the Rochester Aces three-games-to-one and claim the first ever Northern League title.
Following the season, Pollard had his contract purchased by the Montreal Expos and spent the 1994 season with the Expos and Milwaukee Brewers Minor League affiliates before going back to the Expos organization in 1995.
While he will always be remembered as the pitcher that finished off that 1993 championship season, Pollard will also be remembered as the first African American to have his contract purchased by a Major League organization from the Saints.
One season is all it took for Charlie Neal to make his mark. He showcased the talents that would lead him to the Major Leagues and an eventual World Series ring just two years after playing in the American Association in 1954. As a 23-year-old, Neal played for the Triple-A Saints and had an incredible season hitting .272 with 18 home runs and 66 RBI across 146 games. He led the team in hits, with 159, doubles (25), triples (13), and extra-base hits with 56. On top of that he swiped a team-leading 20 bases.
Following the 1954 season the Boston Red Sox reportedly inquired about purchasing Neal from the Dodgers for $100,000. The Dodgers turned it down, but had the deal gone through there was a legitimate chance that Neal would have become the first African American player in Red Sox history.
Neal made the Major Leagues in 1956 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, making the move to Los Angeles with the franchise in 1958. Just one year later Neal helped the Dodgers win their second title, and first in Los Angeles. He was a Gold Glove second baseman in 1959 and helped tie the Milwaukee Braves by the close of the 154-game season. He played a key role in helping the Dodgers sweep the Braves in the tie-breaker series with five hits in 12 at bats. He hit .370 in a six-game series victory over the Chicago White Sox in the World Series. Overall, Neal played eight seasons in the Major Leagues for the Dodgers, New York Mets, and Cincinnati Reds.