- Bats Both, Throws Right
- Height 6' 1", Weight 178 lb.
- High School Lincoln High School (East St. Louis)
- Debut 1938
- National League Debut April 18, 1950
- Final Game April 15, 1954
- Born January 23, 1917 in Lowndes County, MS USA
- Died June 18, 2001 in Erie, PA USA
Sam Jethroe was a fleet-footed Negro League player who eventually played three years in the major leagues, starting in 1950 at the age of 33. He was Rookie of the Year in 1950 with the Boston Braves. A bonafide speed merchant, Jethroe stole 98 bases in three full major league seasons and was pretty good hitter, besides. After being demoted to the minors way past his prime, Jethroe played until age 41, compiling a sterling .295 career minor league BA, and an OBP close to 40 percent.
Negro League Career
Jethroe played semi-pro ball for the East St. Louis Colts and St. Louis Giants and appeared briefly with the 1938 Indianapolis ABCs, then played from 1942 to 1948 with the Cincinnati Buckeyes and Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League. He hit .487 his first year, but did not play enough to qualify for the league lead in average. He did appear in both editions of the East-West Game that year; he was retired as a pinch-hitter in the first and went 1 for 5 with a run scored as the leadoff hitter and center fielder for the West in game two. In 1943, when the club moved to Cleveland, he hit .291 but led the NAL in doubles (8) and triples (4). In 1944, the 26-year-old flyhawk hit .353 to lead the league; he also led the loop in stolen bases (18) and doubles (14). He went 0 for 3 in the 1944 East-West Game, but threw out Josh Gibson at the plate during the game.
An indisputable Negro League star, Jethroe had a tryout with the Boston Red Sox, which was held as the result of political pressure in Boston in 1945. The tryout included him, Jackie Robinson, and Marvin Williams, and took place in front of 78-year-old Hugh Duffy (who was said to have remarked, "they looked good to me"), Joe Cronin, and Tom Yawkey. But none of the players were taken by the Red Sox at that point.
Jethroe continued to shine in Cleveland, hitting .393 to lead the NAL for the second straight season, and leading in triples for the second time (10) and in steals (21) for the second time. he was arguably the league's brightest star, outshining the likes of Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. He hit .333 to lead Cleveland past the Homestead Grays in the Negro World Series.
In 1946, "The Jet" hit .310 (5th in the league), homered six times (second to Willard Brown) and led in steals once more with 20. While no data are available for doubles and triples, it would be fair to presume he remained among the leaders in those categories as well. In the 1946-47 Cuban Winter League, he led the league with 22 steals and batted .300, good enough to place fourth. In the first East-West Game of 1946, Jethroe hit third for the West and went 0 for 4 with a run. In game two, he again hit third and was 0 for 3 with a run (and a steal this time).
Jethroe hit .340 in 1947 but other statistical data are much more limited as the Negro press more closely followed the integration of Major League Baseball instead of the Negro leagues. In the Negro World Series, he went 6 for 19 and was stranded on third in a tied game one when the rain came down. For the first time, Sam put up a fine show in the East-West contests. In game one, he was 1 for 3 with a triple, RBI, run, steal and hit by pitch in the West's 5-2 run, again hitting third. In game two, he was 3 for 5 with a triple, run, 4 RBI and steal in the West's 8-2 victory. Overall, Jethroe hit just .208/.269/.375 in his 24 AB in East-West contests, albeit a small sample size against the best of Negro League competition.
Jethroe hit .296 for Cleveland in 1948, to close out his Negro League career at age 30 and jumped to the newly-integrated Organized Baseball, even though he was considered past his prime. Jethroe hit .330 in his Negro League career.
With The Montreal Royals
Jethroe took a pay cut from $700 a month to $400 in joining the Montreal Royals. He batted .322/~.379/.473 and led the International League with 18 steals despite joining the team close to the midway point of the year. He legged out 11 triples, tied for fourth despite his limited time. For Montreal in 1949, Sam dazzled the IL. The 32-year-old hit .326/~.401/.520 and led the league in runs (154 in 153 games), hits (207), triples (19) and steals (89). He also hit 17 homers and drew 79 walks. The run, triple and steal totals are phenomenally high for the era, though all were at least 10 shy of records set at prior times more conducive to those stats. His time in the sprints that year was timed close to a world record despite his age.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were concerned that they had too many black players to suit all of their fans, so they traded Jethroe with Bob Addis to the Boston Braves for Don Thompson, Damon Phillips, and Al Epperly. In Boston, although Jethroe was Rookie of the Year, he was the subject of much criticism and racism. He roomed with basketball star Chuck Cooper.
Both Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain won 20 games for the Braves in 1950, Jethroe's rookie year. He hit .273/.338/.442, led the National League with 35 steals and scored 100 runs. Jethroe became the oldest player ever to win Rookie of the Year honors (through 2006). With the Braves in 1951, The Jet hit .280/.356/.460, stole 35 in 40 tries, was 4th in the league with 10 triples, led in steals, was sixth with 101 runs and homered 18 times for the second straight season. Jethroe, at age 34, slipped to .232/.318/.357 in 1952 but was still second in the NL with 28 steals. After he slipped in batting average in 1952, and partly as a result of a fight with manager Charlie Grimm, he went to the minors, returning only for one at-bat with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1954.
Minor league stardom once more
Sam put on a show in the 1953 American Association for the Toledo Mud Hens, hitting .309/~.423/.560 and leading the AA in walks (109), OBP and runs (137) while going deep 28 times, stealing 27 bases and tying for the lead in times hit by pitch (11). He tied for fourth in steals, was third in total bases (304) and tied for third in homers. His 408 putouts were the most by an outfielder in the AA that year and he had 16 outfield assists. In 1954, he moved to the Toronto Maple Leafs and put up a .305/~.385/.499 line with 23 steals (4th in the IL), 113 runs (leading the league), 36 doubles (tied for second), 8 triples and 21 homers. It was the third time in three full AAA seasons that he had topped the circuit in runs scored. He led IL outfielders in putouts (415).
In 1955, he slipped to a .262 average and .410 slugging with Toronto at age 37. He scored 105 runs for the 1956 Maple Leafs (leading his league once more), missed the 20-20 mark by one homer and batted .287/~.399/.446. He was third in the league with 103 walks (trailing Cal Abrams and fellow ex-Negro League star Luke Easter). He led IL outfielders in putouts (351). In 1957, the old-timer batted .277/~.363/.439 and stole 24 bases, scoring 83 times. He was only two steals behind league leader Len Johnston. He finished his career for Toronto in 1958 by hitting .234 and slugging .326.
He ran Jethroe's Bar and Restaurant in Erie, PA, for 30 years. When things got tough, he sold his Rookie of the Year trophy. His home burned down, and he lived in the Bar. He sued Major League Baseball, saying that he had not been able to receive a pension due to racism which prevented his breaking in. The case was dismissed as having been brought after the statute of limitations had passed. Eventually, though, Jethroe and some other Negro League players began receiving limited pensions from Major League Baseball, perhaps as a recognition that it was good public relations.
Sources include The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues by James Riley, The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues by John Holway, The International League: Year-by-Year Statistics by Marshall Wright, The American Association by Bill O'Neal, 1953-1955, 57-58 Baseball Guides, Black Baseball's National Showcase by Larry Lester
- 1950 NL Rookie of the Year Award
- 4-time NAL All-Star (1942, 1944, 1946 & 1947)
- NAL Doubles Leader (1942)
- 2-time NL Stolen Bases Leader (1950 & 1951)
- 100 Runs Scored Seasons: 2 (1950 & 1951)
- Won one Negro World Series with the Cleveland Buckeyes in 1945
|NL Rookie of the Year|
|Don Newcombe||Sam Jethroe||Willie Mays|
- Matt Monagan: "The story of the oldest Rookie of the Year: Sam Jethroe was 33 years old when he won in 1950", mlb.com, November 14, 2021.