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 for Jacksonville, plus a legendary Negro leagues star with ties to the city.
At just 15 years old in 1949, Aaron earned a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but his unorthodox batting grip likely contributed to the team deciding not to offer him a contract (incidentally, the first time Aaron hit conventionally with his right hand on top of his left, which he was instructed to do in 1952, he homered). He signed instead with a semi-pro team called the Mobile Black Bears, collecting $3 per game. Aaron’s mother, Estella, only granted Henry permission to play with the Black Bears on the condition that he did not travel with the team, thus limiting him to games in their hometown of Mobile.
Two years later, Henry inked a deal for $200 per month as a shortstop with the Negro American League champion Indianapolis Clowns. Immediately, Aaron excelled, batting .366 with five home runs and nine stolen bases in 26 games to help Indianapolis win the 1952 Negro Leagues World Series. He was just 18 years old.
Aaron’s instantaneous stardom quickly caught the eye of several major league organizations. He signed with the Braves, who assigned him to Class A Jacksonville for the 1953 season. Along with Black teammates Horace Garner and Felix Mantilla, Aaron integrated the South Atlantic League. Despite the pressure of breaking the color line in places like Montgomery, Ala., Augusta, Columbus, Macon and Savannah, Ga., and Charleston and Columbia, S.C., Aaron led the league in batting average (.362), runs scored (115), hits (208), doubles (36), total bases (338) and RBIs (135). He spurred Jacksonville to the league championship and was named MVP. As one scribe wrote in regards to Aaron’s performance while navigating the Jim Crow laws that still governed the South at the time, “Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations.”
The next season, Aaron made his major league debut for the Milwaukee Braves, sparking a career that can be argued as the greatest in baseball history. He wound up launching 755 home runs in an extraordinary 23-year career, but even if he didn’t hit a single long ball in his career, Aaron still would have totaled more than 3,000 hits. He accumulated an MLB record 6,856 total bases; second-place Stan Musial is closer to 10th-place Carl Yastrzemski than he is to Aaron in first. Aaron knocked in 2,297 runs, the most in major league history. When he finally retired, he had scored 2,174 runs, the most of any National League player (he has since been passed by Barry Bonds).
Add it all up, and Aaron was a 25-time All-Star (some seasons during his playing days had more than one All-Star Game). That number is so staggering it blows the mind. It’s more All-Star Games than Tom Seaver and Frank Robinson combined. It’s as many All-Star Games that Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Schmidt can tally up. Even fellow Jacksonville Hall of Fame alums Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Phil Niekro combined for 23 All-Star Games between the three of them.
Aaron’s greatness is synonymous with more than just baseball because of how much he had to endure outside of the ballpark. Sadly, the blatant racism he began encountering with Jacksonville in 1953 was a harbinger of things to come. Aaron still rose above it in every single step of the journey anyway.
The Kansas City Royals’ first-round pick in 1974, Willie Wilson batted .253/.309/.325 with Double-A Jacksonville in 1976. Though he was still growing his game as a 20-year-old talent, he made his major league debut the same season for Kansas City and go on to play 19 seasons for the Royals.
Wilson did virtually everything during his big league career; he was a two-time All-Star, earned two Silver Slugger Awards and one Gold Glove Award, won the 1982 American League batting title (.332), set a league and club record in 1979 with 83 stolen bases and set all-time Royals records with 612 steals and a preposterous 13 inside-the-park home runs. Simply put, he was a dazzling player, finishing with 46.1 career bWAR and earning induction into the Royals Hall of Fame.
After playing 15 seasons with the Royals, including the 1985 campaign that saw the franchise win its first World Series title, Wilson played two years with Oakland before a pair of seasons with the Cubs to finish his career.
The 2009 season for Giancarlo Stanton, then known as Mike, was a remarkable campaign on his rise towards stardom in the major leagues. At just 19 years old, Stanton wound up leading both High-A Jupiter and Double-A Jacksonville in home runs despite playing in just 50 and 79 games, respectively, with the clubs.
Stanton returned to Jacksonville to start the 2010 campaign and mashed 15 home runs in his first 28 games, tallying 28 walks, 28 runs and 33 RBIs with a batting line of .340/.481/.854 during that stretch. After 52 games, he was hitting .313/.442/.729 with 21 home runs and 52 RBIs before the Marlins called him up to the major leagues.
In 12 MLB seasons since with the Marlins and New York Yankees, Stanton has walloped 347 long balls while batting .268/.358/.543 (143 OPS+). A four-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger Award winner, Stanton was named the 2017 NL MVP after leading MLB in both home runs (59) and RBIs (132). His slugging percentage (.631) and OPS+ (169) topped the National League during that campaign.
Stanton also finished second in the MVP balloting in 2014 after besting the NL in homers (37) and slugging percentage (.555).
Frank White is perhaps the most successful graduate of the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy - established by team owner Ewing Kauffman and run by Syd Thrift – a flagship program that sought to refine the skills of athletically-gifted prospects who had been neglected by other major league teams because they had not played much baseball in high school or college. Like many of the Academy's projects, Frank White had not been drafted. The Royals developed him into one of the leading second basemen of his generation.
One of the greatest defensive second basemen in major league history, White reached Double-A Jacksonville at just 21 years old in 1971. He slashed .252/.316/.318 with 13 stolen bases in 16 attempts over 91 games. Sadly, he was the only African-American player with Jacksonville at the time, so at various stops, his teammates would bring him food and drinks while he remained on the bus. White moved up to Triple-A Omaha to start the 1972 season before making his big league debut for the Royals later in that 1972 campaign.
Along with Wilson and other Royals legends like George Brett, White helped form the nucleus of Kansas City teams that won six division titles, two AL pennants and the 1985 World Series from 1976-85. Over a remarkable 18-year career, White earned eight Gold Glove Awards, five All-Star appearances and a Silver Slugger Award.
White’s No. 20 was retired by the Royals in 1995, the same year he was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame.
JOHN JORDAN “BUCK” O’NEIL
One of six members of the incoming Hall of Fame baseball class in 2022, John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil lived perhaps the most impactful life in baseball history.
Raised in Sarasota, Fla., O’Neil made his way to Jacksonville after receiving a scholarship to Edward Waters College, where he played both baseball and football. In 1937, he began his 11-season playing career in the Negro leagues, 10 of which would come with the legendary Kansas City Monarchs. O’Neil won a pair of batting titles, hitting .345 in 1940 and .350 in 1946 and developed a reputation as a smooth-fielding first baseman. He also managed the Monarchs from 1948-1955, leading the team to four Negro American League titles.
Though he never reached the major leagues as a player, O’Neil is credited with becoming both MLB’s first Black scout and coach. O’Neil is credited with scouting Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Lou Brock and Lee Smith, as well as other prominent major leaguers like Joe Carter and Oscar Gamble.
In addition to his work as a player, manager, scout and coach, O’Neil spent much of the later decades of his life as an advocate for the Negro leagues. He served as founder and board chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum before dying in 2006 at the age of 94.
The Baseball Hall of Fame honors O’Neil’s legacy with the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, which is given to individuals whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society, broadened the game’s appeal and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O’Neil.
BONUS: JOHN HENRY “POP” LLOYD
Though it is not certain where exactly Lloyd was born in Florida, he was raised by his grandmother in and around Jacksonville during his childhood. Often regarded as the greatest shortstop in the history of the Negro leagues thanks to his batting, fielding and base-stealing prowess, Lloyd enjoyed a 25-year career in which he regularly batted over .300.
As a player, Lloyd spent time with the Cuban X-Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Chicago Leland Giants, New York Lincoln Giants, Chicago American Giants, New York Lincoln Stars, Brooklyn Royal Giants, New York Bacharach Giants, Columbus Buckeyes, Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, Hilldale Daisies and the Harlem Stars. Lloyd also managed four of those teams over a span of six years while playing.
During his playing career, Lloyd was often compared with Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner. While playing in Cuba, Lloyd earned the nickname “El Cuchara” (translated to English meaning “The Tablespoon” or “The Shovel”), for how he characteristically scooped up a glove-full of dirt from the ground every time he fielded a ball, similar to the style of Wagner.
Unfortunately, like many Negro leagues players, Lloyd passed away before he was elected into the Hall of Fame. His election came in 1977, 13 years after his death.
BEST OF THE REST
Grissom batted .299/.365/.414 with Jacksonville in 1989 before embarking on a 17-year major league career. He helped the Atlanta Braves win the 1995 World Series and also spent time with the Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers and Cleveland Indians. Grissom was a four-time Gold Glove Award winner and two-time All-Star.
Like Grissom, DeShields was a member of the 1989 Jacksonville Expos, slashing a robust .270/.413/.371. He went on to play 13 seasons in the major leagues for the Montreal Expos, Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, tallying eight seasons with at least 35 stolen bases.
Kemp hit .327/.402/.528 in 48 games with Jacksonville in 2006, a season that saw him later make his MLB debut. A three-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glover and two-time Silver Slugger over a 15-year career mainly with the Dodgers, Kemp finished playing with 1,808 hits and 287 home runs. He finished second in the NL MVP balloting in 2011 after batting .324/.399/.586 while leading the league in both home runs (39) and RBIs (126).
Roberts put up stellar numbers with Jacksonville in both 1997 and 1998 as a Detroit Tigers farmhand. He is perhaps most well-known in his playing career for stealing second base in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, helping to ignite the Boston Red Sox to a historic 3-0 series comeback over the New York Yankees and eventually leading the club to its first World Series title since 1918. Roberts has served as the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers since 2016, winning five NL West division titles, three NL pennants and the 2020 World Series.
Loney slashed .264/.339/.378 as a member of both the 2004 and 2005 Jacksonville Suns. He made his debut for the Dodgers in 2006 and wound up playing 11 seasons in the major leagues with Los Angeles, the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Mets and Boston Red Sox. He owns a career MLB batting line of .284/.336/.410.
A member of the Jacksonville Suns in both 2003 and 2005, Jackson played for 14 different MLB teams in his 17-year career. He was an All-Star with Detroit in 2009, when he went 13-9 with a 3.62 ERA in 33 starts covering 214.0 innings. Jackson also helped the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals capture the franchise’s 11th World Series championship.