By IAN WILSON
He was, in his prime, the best pitcher in the world.
In a playing career that covered more than three decades, John Donaldson traveled to hundreds of cities across North America, where he collected 413 wins and recorded 5,081 strikeouts.
Donaldson struck out more than 500 batters in three straight years and he registered 14 no-hitters, including one that dazzled baseball watchers in Saskatchewan.
“He was a fantastic left-hander who once pitched three no-hitters in a row, and he was throwing a slider – a hard curve, as hard as a fastball – before anyone knew you could throw a hard curve,” noted Buck O’Neil in his autobiography I Was Right on Time.
“John Donaldson also influenced Satchel (Paige). He was the first guy to go barnstorming his way up and down the Dakotas, pitching for whatever team would pay him. He showed Satchel the way, and the fact is, there are many people who saw them both who say John Donaldson was just as good as Satchel.”
As much as he was a tour de force as a pitcher, the hurler from Glasgow, Missouri was a pioneer, as well. Donaldson was a player on the multi-racial All Nations barnstorming team, and he was credited with giving the Kansas City Monarchs – the longest-running squad in the Negro Leagues – its handle.
“He was the best southpaw I ever saw, black or white,” J.L. Wilkinson, the founder of the Monarchs and All Nations teams told Winnipeg Tribune columnist Herb Manning.
In a just world, Donaldson would have stood 60 feet and six inches away from Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium and the superior competitor would have been revealed at the major league level. Perhaps Donaldson – who was also an outfielder and a hitter accustomed to batting cleanup – would have faced Ruth, the pitcher, in such a setting.
Alas, it was not to be. This scenario faded into history as a hypothetical matchup. And there was only one reason why events never unfolded that way … John Donaldson was black.
The colour of his skin, however, didn’t prevent Donaldson from receiving offers – both futile and disgraceful – that sought to circumvent the existing powers of baseball.
“If Donaldson were a white man, or if the unwritten law of baseball didn’t bar negroes from the major leagues, I would give $50,000 for him – and think I was getting a bargain,” John McGraw, the long-time manager of the New York Giants was quoted as saying in a 1915 edition of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix newspaper.
That offer would later be doubled to $100,000.
“If he’d been white! We heard that a lot about a lot of our players through the years,” said O’Neil in his book.
Donaldson said he was also presented with a dicey proposition that would’ve paid him $10,000 to attempt to change his identity.
“I am not ashamed of my color. There is no woman whom I love more than my mother, I am light enough so that baseball men told me before I became known that I could be passed off as a Cuban. One prominent baseball man in fact offered me a nice sum if I would go to Cuba, change my name and let him take me into this country as a Cuban,” recounted Donaldson in the Ironwood Daily Globe in 1932.
“It would have meant renouncing my family. One of the agreements was that I was never again to visit my mother or to have anything to do with colored people. I refused, I am clean morally and physically. I go to my church and contribute my share. I keep my body and mind clean.”
Despite such discrimination, Donaldson did what many of his colleagues of colour did – he played ball. And he did that very well.
PERFECT ON THE PRAIRIES
Donaldson was a frequent visitor to Canada throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
A summer Kiwanis tournament in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan – which also featured a Scobey, Montana team that included disgraced Black Sox players Happy Felsch and Swede Risberg – served as the stage for what he was capable of on the diamond.
Donaldson opened the week with a club from Radville, Saskatchewan by going 1-for-4 at the plate, while striking out 11 Climax batters during a 5-3 triumph in front of 500 people at the exhibition grounds.
“It was a sparkling game of ball in which the sound work of Donaldson on the mound, and airtight support, carried Radville to victory … Donaldson is one of the best pitchers ever seen in the city,” read the game report in the Regina Leader-Post on July 21st, 1925.
The complete-game effort was just an appetizer for those gathered at the tournament.
On the second day of the event – just 24 hours after he tossed a nine-inning gem – Donaldson struck out 19 batters during a perfect game.
“Considered the finest pitching feat in Western Canada baseball history is the no-hit, no-run game hurled by … Donaldson. A review of the records shows no parallel,” proclaimed the Leader-Post.
“To encompass his masterpiece, Donaldson did not hit a batter or issue a walk and not a single member of the Moose Jaw team reached first during the nine frames. He fanned nineteen and did not allow a single ball to be driven out of the infield. No member of his club except the catcher and the first baseman had putouts.”
Donaldson also proved to be the club’s best hitter that day, going 2-for-3 at the dish during the 2-0 win for Radville. The report noted that the all-star squad assembled to represent Moose Jaw were no pushovers. They had defeated Risberg, Felsch and their Scobey teammates a month before the tourney.
Sadly, no matter how momentous the occasion, Donaldson could never escape the racism of the era. In the same newspaper report that celebrated his perfect game was an abbreviation of the N-word attached to his name, as well as this comment: “His color is an insurmountable barrier to participation in recognized professional league baseball on the other side of the border. The box score of the chocolate boy’s great feat follows.”
SASKATCHEWAN SECOND ACT
The former Kansas City Monarch returned to the Kiwanis tournament the following summer, but Moose Jaw had no interest in trying to fend off his unhittable pitches, so they added him to their squad. Word had spread about Donaldson’s abilities by this point, resulting in huge crowds at the tourney. About 2,500 people showed up to witness an unusual, yet entertaining, mound matchup between Donaldson and Risberg – who normally took the field as a shortstop – on July 8th, 1926.
“The game between Moose Jaw and Plentywood was one of the finest exhibitions of baseball here this year, and it was a great duel between the pitchers, Donaldson and ‘Swede’ Risberg,” stated the Leader-Post.
Both pitchers recorded 10 Ks apiece in the evening affair. Plentywood managed nine base hits off Donaldson, while Moose Jaw was limited to four hits against Risberg in what ended up being a 2-1 win for the hometown Millers.
Moose Jaw met Regina in a semi-final contest that pitted Donaldson against George Clink in a back-and-forth battle that went 11 innings and lasted two hours and 40 minutes. Donaldson was a menace in the batter’s box, going 2-for-5 with four runs scored, and he punched out 15 opposing hitters when he took to the bump. But the opposition got to him, collecting 17 hits in the game. Add in a half-dozen Moose Jaw errors and the result was a 10-9 loss to Regina. Attendance swelled to 4,000 fans for the game, which was reported as Donaldson’s first defeat in Canada.
(Clink, incidentally, ended up pitching in the championship tilt later that day – Regina lost 8-4 to Climax and Clink logged 16 innings between the two games.)
THIRD TIME’S A CHARM
It was Donaldson’s third trip to the Kiwanis tourney in Moose Jaw in July of 1927 that gave both the community and the famed pitcher reason to celebrate.
Although Donaldson, now 36 years old, was less dominant than he had been in his previous Saskatchewan outings, he proved unbeatable. He also had the help of former Kansas City Monarchs teammate Hooks Foreman behind the plate.
Donaldson struck out six batters and went 3-for-4 with a pair of runs scored in a 9-2 win over Ponteix to open the tournament.
Moose Jaw then squared off against Felsch and his Regina Balmorals while 1,500 people looked on. In a rematch against Clink, Donaldson limited Regina to five hits and three runs, and the Millers prevailed 4-3.
“A home run clout by Foreman, with Donaldson on base in the sixth, gave the home team the victory,” read the recap in the Leader-Post.
“John Donaldson and Foreman, the colored battery, were the chief reason why the Millers triumphed and while errors put Donaldson in several bad holes he managed to pull himself out by real head work.”
In addition to scoring a run himself, Donaldson singled to drive in a teammate in the fourth inning. On the hill, he racked up eight strikeouts during the game, and he retired the side on three pitches in the seventh frame. Regina was able to put a runner on third base in the ninth inning, but that was as close as they would come to tying the game.
The finals matched Moose Jaw against Gravelbourg. Instead of taking his familiar place atop the mound, Donaldson shifted to first base and batted cleanup. He did commit an error, but he also went 2-for-4 and crossed the plate twice in a 7-2 tournament-clinching win, which paid out $600 in prize money for his team.
“This is the first time in history that a Moose Jaw team managed to win first money in a baseball tournament on the local diamond, and only the stellar work of the colored battery … made this possible,” said a July 21st, 1927 article in the Leader-Post.
It wouldn’t take long for Donaldson and Felsch to renew acquaintances. The well-known baseballers tangled again at a four-game exhibition series at Wesley Park in Winnipeg in 1928.
Representing a club from Melrose, Minnesota, Donaldson played all over the diamond, upsetting some fans who paid upwards of 75 cents to watch him dominate would-be hitters. He did pitch some innings, but he spent more time at first base and patrolling the outfield. Donaldson went 2-for-4 in the opener, but Felsch and his mates from Plentywood, Montana prevailed 4-0.
“The crowd was rather disappointed when Smiling John Donaldson was not selected to pitch the opener,” stated a story in the Winnipeg Tribune.
“Felsch particularly showed his major league schooling in his hitting, running the bases and chasing the pill. He runs out every hit and covers plenty of territory when on the defensive.”
The former Black Sox outfielder got the better of Donaldson throughout the four games, which ended up being a sweep for Plentywood. Donaldson produced five hits and one run to Felsch’s 10 hits and two scores.
THE HOUSE ALWAYS WINS
Donaldson served as the manager of an intriguing barnstorming venture in 1929. The Colored House of David aggregation (reportedly from Havana, Cuba, despite having few, if any, players from Cuba on the roster) built on the success of the touring House of David teams that preceded them.
The House of David was a religious commune that was formed in Benton Harbor, Michigan in 1903. This society embraced sports as a way of nurturing physical and spiritual discipline. Members also believed in letting their hair grow, so touring players would typically show off long beards and a full head of hair. They popularized a “pepper game” that was reminiscent of the antics of basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters, and signed big-name players like Hall-of-Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in an attempt to draw large crowds. Profits from their games were typically sent home to support the colony in Michigan.
The Colored House of David squad was not affiliated with the religious society – team organizers simply hoped to capitalize on a successful formula.
With that goal in mind, they hit the road for Western Canada. After wowing audiences in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Donaldson brought his players to Alberta.
The Medicine Hat News promoted them as “baseball’s greatest sensation,” capable of drawing “enough laughs to make any comedian jealous” prior to their arrival in The Gas City on July 15th, 1929 for a game against a Canadian Pacific Railway team dubbed the Cee Pees.
The Colored House of David club “proved themselves to be as nifty a team as has visited the Hat in some time. Their hitting was timely and they had the knack of placing them ‘where they ain’t’ down to a fine point. It was the best fielding aggregation that has shown up here this season and they had to be as the Cee Pees hit the ball hard and often, but a whiskered gent most times contrived to get his hooks on it,” reported the News after the Cee Pees fell 10-5 to the visiting team.
A trio of mid-July contests at Hillhurst Park in Calgary against a Solloway-Mills squad followed.
“The visiting Cuban House of David nine (completed) a clean sweep of the three-game series and left local fans memories of a hard hitting and good fielding club. The Cubans entered the series as a highly-touted ball team and their exhibitions in this city stamped them as real ball tossers,” chronicled the Calgary Daily Herald.
The visitors outscored the home side 27-11 in the three games, which drew a total of 3,000 spectators. Donaldson pitched and played the outfield in the series.
Little opposition was mounted to the Colored House of David club when they traveled to Drumheller and pounded the Nacmine Athletics 12-3 or when they made their way to Lethbridge’s Henderson Park and defeated a local all-star team 6-1.
BATTLE OF THE BEARDS
After months of Donaldson’s team toying with some the best baseball teams in Western Canada, word broke in August that Albertans would be treated to a rivalry that was worth checking out.
The House of David club from Benton Harbor was set to square off against the Cuban House of David side in exhibition games in Lethbridge, Calgary and Edmonton.
“Fans of this vicinity will witness the two greatest traveling baseball clubs that the country has ever known. This game will be bitterly fought, as each club is very anxious to score a win over the other one. The rivalry is very keen – in fact, it is so keen that neither club will associate with the other one,” stated an article in the Lethbridge Herald.
“Fans will be anxious to compare the two teams in action. It will be the greatest game ever to be put on in this city.”
The Lethbridge game took place on Aug. 20, 1929 and Donaldson was the starting pitcher. The Cubans struck early and often, tallying nine runs in the first two innings en route to a 13-8 victory.
When the competition moved to Calgary, the original House of David team responded with three straight wins at Hillhurst Park, including triumphs of 10-7, 11-10 and 16-8.
That set the table for an historic series of games in the provincial capital. Donaldson was on the bump again, hoping to will the Cubans to another win once more.
“An error, fielder’s choice, walk and a lusty three-base hit, proved to be the undoing of ‘Lefty’ Donaldson, star chucker of the Colored House of David team from Cuba, for when these things happened in the first half of the eighth inning, they combined to make three runs for the representatives from … Benton Harbor,” said the opening sentence in the game summary of the Edmonton Journal on Aug. 24th.
Benton Harbor took the contest in a 5-2 final, with the three eighth-inning runs breaking a tied score. Donaldson’s effort was described as “a trifle shaky all evening, but he had managed, with some excellent support, to weather the various storms that threatened him in practically every inning.”
Despite the loss, the Cuban House of David continued to leave everything on the field. A Saturday afternoon rematch at Diamond Park resulted in a 13-inning marathon that saw the Cubans tied the game in the bottom of the ninth. Donaldson played centre field and went 2-for-3 with a run in what was ultimately a 6-5 win for the Benton Harbor crew.
The elite calibre of play between the two clubs resulted in a record crowd when they met for their final game on Sunday. Conservatively estimated at 5,000, it was the largest crowd assembled to watch a baseball game in Edmonton’s history.
“Long before umpire Frank Drayton gave the signal to open hostilities in the battle of the whiskers, both grandstands were jammed to capacity and a steady procession of fans were making their way towards the space surrounding the playing field. By the time the game had started, between fifteen hundred and two thousand spectators were lined several deep on the side of the west gate and police and other officials were bustily engaged directing the jostling hundreds that were still pouring through the entrance,” observed the Journal about the game, which was won by the Cubans 6-4.
“It’s safe to say that not a single person in this vast throng was sorry that he or she took the trouble to journey down the hill. Baseball that positively scintillated, was dished up to the crowd in a thrilling contest.”
Both clubs renewed their hostilities south of the border after their Alberta appearances, with the road warriors splitting more games in North Dakota and Minnesota to close out their head-to-head schedule. (The original House of David squad ended up with more wins during the course of the popular series).
TOURS AND TAUNTS
Donaldson’s travels created countless memories for baseball fans across Canada and the United States. He spent a lot of time on the road, and he returned to Western Canada again in the 1930s. The House of David battles continued. At times, Donaldson would face off against them in his familiar Kansas City Monarchs uniform. One such matchup saw Donaldson and the Monarchs sweep Grover Cleveland Alexander and the House of David team in a five-game series at Wesley Park in Winnipeg in 1934.
With praise, however, came prejudice. Donaldson could never escape the overt racism that plagued him and his teammates.
Even in newspaper articles that were seemingly complimentary or promotional, the descriptions used of Donaldson were laced with bigotry. One example was a July 21st, 1934 story in the Leader-Post that was highlighting the Kansas City Monarchs upcoming games in Saskatchewan.
“A Kansas City Monarchs vs. House of David ball game is just about the best thing touring clubs can serve up. But to Moose Jaw and Reginans fans today there will be an added attraction – John ‘(N-word)’ Donaldson, one of the greatest of all colored heavers,” read the Regina newspaper report, which included an abbreviated version of the racial insult in the headline.
Donaldson, who became the first full-time black scout in Major League Baseball with the Chicago White Sox in 1949, was aware of the vitriol that was being expressed. The ball diamond only provided partial sanctuary to the abuse.
“When I go out there to play baseball it is not unusual to hear some fan cry out: ‘Hit the dirty (N-word).’ That hurts. For I have no recourse. I am getting paid, I suppose, to take that. But why should fans become personal? If I act the part of a gentleman, am I not entitled to a little respect?” said Donaldson.
The best pitcher of his era deserves at least that.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Careful consideration was given to the racial descriptions that were discovered in newspaper archives and how to present them in this story. We avoid offensive language in the use of our articles, but we also often try to reflect the language of the time. Please feel free to share your opinions on this matter with us in the comments, on social media or by emailing us at AlbertaDugoutStories@gmail.com.
For those hoping to learn more about John Donaldson, we strongly encourage you to check out The Donaldson Network website, which contains an abundance of information about him. In addition, if you’d like to learn more about barnstorming tours in Western Canada, please go to this page.