Yesterday, I was reading from a book I have with stories of baseball players from the 20s to the 40s told by themselves. When I was scrolling through the contents, I saw many names I am familiar with: Dizzy Dean, Lefty Grove, Charlie Gehringer, Johnny Mize, Billy Herman, etc. Finally, I came across one name I was unfamiliar with- Clyde Sukeforth.
I began reading Sukeforth’s chapter, and I discovered that this man had played a part in history as large as any other. He was instrumental in the scouting and signing of both Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, two of the greatest players of all time.
Here’s the story. Sukeforth held many jobs in baseball, including manager at both the minor and major league level, scout, player, and coach. During his time as a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, Sukeforth was working under Branch Rickey. Rickey gave Sukeforth an assignment to scout “that fellow Robinson” on the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs.
The way Sukeforth tells it, he had been instructed to get a look at Robinson’s arm, and how he could throw from the hole (he played shortstop at that time). However, when Sukeforth arrived at the ballpark, Robinson told him that his shoulder was busted and that he couldn’t throw the ball across the infield. As Sukeforth said, “Mr. Rickey has had this fellow scouted. The only thing he’s concerned about is his arm. Is it a shortstop’s arm? Well, I had heard reports that he was outstanding in every way. A great athlete. So I thought: Supposing he doesn’t have a shortstop’s arm? There’s always second base, third base, outfield.”*
So Sukeforth brought Robinson to Rickey’s office in New York, and there the famous meeting between Rickey and Robinson took place. Apparently Sukeforth was present for the historic meeting, just worrying about Robinson’s arm!
After reading this, I was amazed that I had never heard of this guy. Maybe he stretched the truth a little in his account of the story, but there is no doubting that he had a very big role in the signing of the first African-american player in the major leagues. Sukeforth had yet another claim to fame, though.
After his work with the Dodgers, Branch Rickey moved over to the Pirates organization. Being somewhat his main scout, Clyde Sukeforth moved with him and kept that job.
In 1954, Sukeforth was sent on another scouting job, this time to the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal. He had been told to stay there until a guy named Joe Black pitched, because Rickey was considering a deal for Black. The first day he arrived in Montreal, Joe Black wasn’t pitching. However, when watching the Montreal players take fielding practice before the game, Sukeforth noticed a kid with a terrific arm out in center field. However, when the game started, the kid (Clemente wasn’t playing.
Later in the game Clemente came up to pinch hit. He hit an easy ground ball to the shortstop, but nearly beat the throw at first. As Sukeforth describes it, “he could fly.” Sukeforth stayed and watched Clemente for a week, and as it was uncertain when Joe Black would pitch, he left Montreal and headed back to Pittsburgh to talk to Rickey. Since Pittsburgh was finishing last that year, they had the first pick in the amateur draft the coming year, and Sukeforth had his eye on Clemente.
The reason a player with as much talent as Clemente would even be attainable was because the Dodgers had made a mistake. Sukeforth explains it as, “…at that time there was a thing called the $4,000 bonus rule. Any boy that had signed for more than $4,000 had to go through the draft before he could be taken up to the big leagues- if he had been signed to a minor league contract. The Dodgers had made a critical mistake here. They’d given Clemente the $10,000 and signed him to a Montreal contract instead of protecting him by siging him to a Brooklyn contract and optioning him down.”** Sukeforth also reasoned that the Dodgers were trying to hide Clemente’s talent (in order to keep him) by playing him as little as possible.
But Sukeforth was no fool. He saw Clemente’s talent and reccomended him in the Pirates’ draft meeting. So they picked him up, and what do you know, that kid Clemente became one of the best of all time.
I think that in many ways these stories tell a little about Sukeforth as a person. In times when there were few players of minority races in baseball, Sukeforth not only scouted and helped sign the first African-american player in the sport, but later a Latino player that became an amazing player. To me it seems that Sukeforth saw them (Robinson and Clemente) not as people with a certain skin color, but as baseball players. They had talents that he thought a team could use, and so he brought them to his team. He didn’t seem to really mind what color skin they had, he saw them as good ballplayers.
It may not be heartwarming or even kind, but it is an attitude I can respect.
*, **- both major quotes from “Baseball When the Grass was Real,” by Donald Honig
Thanks for reading.