Like me, you probably never heard of John Donaldson. But as Hall of Fame stories go, there may not be a better one to share in 2021.
In some ways, it’s a tale as tall as they come, about a legendary left-handed pitcher of color who achieved mythical status a century ago barnstorming in the farms and factory towns and mining communities of the upper Midwest and Canada.
He was the marquee, Sunday-come-to-ballfield attraction for folks who witnessed firsthand, long before Jackie Robinson, that black and white could play together. Some said he was as good as the great Satchel Paige. Some said he was better. Some said he was as good a pitcher as ever lived, black or white.
Donaldson pitched in 724 towns, 132 in Iowa alone, another 130 in Minnesota, often pitching a tent and sleeping on the same fields on which he pitched. He pitched in Plentywood, Montana, and Grand Forks, North Dakota, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and Kearney, Nebraska. In 1915, he struck out 35 batters in a 1-0, 18-inning loss in Sioux Falls. He pitched 14 no-hitters and two perfect games, won 413 games and struck out 5,091 batters.
He was the headliner for the barnstorming, multi-racial All-Nations team based in Des Moines, Iowa, before the U.S. entered World War I — pitching 100 consecutive scoreless innings in both 1914 and 1915 — and later for the fabled Kansas City Monarchs at their conception. But he was more valuable to Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson as a gate attraction on the road, generating the cash that allowed Wilkinson to build his Negro League powerhouse, than he was playing for the Monarchs at home.
He could have pitched in the big leagues, or so the story goes. In 1917, a team reportedly offered to sign Donaldson if he would pass himself off as Cuban. But there were strings attached, unacceptable to a person of Donaldson’s dignity and inner strength.
“I am not ashamed of my color,” he said. “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 Cuban. It would have meant renouncing my family. One of the agreements was that I was never again to visit my mother or have anything to do with colored people. I refused.’’
The cheers eventually faded, and so did the legend. After doing a turn as a scout for the Chicago White Sox, the first African-American scout in that team’s history, Donaldson eventually went to work for the post office. When he died, at age 79 in 1970, he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in the Chicago suburb of Alsip, forgotten by all but a few.
And so the story ends — except it doesn’t.
Visit the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip and you will find a marker on Donaldson’s grave, courtesy of White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and a Peoria doctor named Jeremy Krock, who is now responsible for the grave markers of 50 former Negro Leaguers (nlbgmp.com). Krock had been in search of the final resting place for Jimmie Crutchfield, a gifted Negro League outfielder who had grown up in the same hometown in Missouri (Ardmore) as Krock’s grandparents, who had fired their grandson’s imagination. When Krock found Crutchfield’s unmarked grave, he also found Donaldson's.
White Sox PR man Scott Reifert learned of Krock’s discovery and alerted Reinsdorf, who quickly came on board. “Some people say he is the greatest pitcher you never heard of,’’ Krock said.
Go to Donaldson’s hometown of Glasgow, Missouri, the place hard by the Missouri River where a Black man was lynched when Ida Donaldson was 8½ months pregnant with her son, and you will find John Donaldson Field, and a statue of Donaldson, erected by the descendants of white folks who once denied him the chance to play alongside their sons. Fitting that the eyes of the bronzed Donaldson are gazing toward the same plantation house viewed by field hands who could never have imagined a statue of a Black man standing where they once toiled.
And now, Donaldson is on the cusp of Cooperstown, his name one of 10 under consideration by the Hall of Fame’s Early Baseball Era committee. Negro Leaguers and pre-Negro Leaguers will be eligible for Hall of Fame induction for the first time since 2006, when a special committee voted 17 Negro Leaguers and pre-Negro Leaguers into the Hall.
Donaldson’s name was on the ballot then, too, but now he has an angel on his side. That’s assuming your definition of angel makes room for a guy who has worked as a freelance writer, Uber driver, painter, construction worker, audio engineer, video producer, political campaign manager, Negro baseball historian and, my personal favorite, “monitor for Russian Federation Ice Hockey for gambling sites.”
Peter Gorton is the Minnesota native who has held all of those jobs. But for the last 21 years — with the full backing, he says, of his wife, Kelly — he has devoted himself to dusting off Donaldson’s legacy, a herculean research project he took on after his old social studies teacher told him he was writing a history of black baseball in Minnesota and wondered if Gorton might help him flesh out Donaldson.
“John Donaldson played in Bertha, a small town near my hometown of Staples,’’ Gorton said. “Bertha is 13 miles away from my hometown. I played my last high school game in Bertha. I didn’t know at all who he was.’’
Now, there isn’t a person alive who knows more about Donaldson than Gorton, who decided that if he didn’t tell Donaldson’s story, we would all be the poorer. Relying on a coterie of researchers he has dubbed The Donaldson Network -- folks who have haunted libraries and historical societies throughout the Midwest at Gorton’s behest to dig up whatever they could find on the great pitcher -- Gorton is the one who has painstakingly verified through thousands of newspaper clippings the arc of Donaldson’s career, game by game, win by win, whiff by whiff.
But while the numbers may inspire awe, it is the character of the man that has informed Gorton’s devotion. He calls him “an American hero.’’
“The important thing is he was able to show people in all the different places he went to what an African-American man can be, and how we should be accepting of other people who don’t necessarily look like us,’’ Gorton said. “That’s a story I’m impassioned to tell.
“When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, people in central Minnesota thought that was no big deal. Why? Because John Donaldson did that 20, 30 years before. We’d been doing integrated baseball a long time before the major leagues. That’s why, in my office behind me, there are pictures of John Donaldson as the only African-American on all-white teams.
“This is what John Donaldson’s significance is. People might say this is a 100-year-old guy on an antique ballot, but what John Donaldson was able to show was that integrated baseball could actually happen.’’
For induction into the Hall, Donaldson will need 12 votes from the 16-member committee, a daunting proposition, especially when the beloved Buck O’Neil also is on the ballot. The results will be announced on the MLB Network on Dec. 5. For Gorton, it is triumph enough that John Donaldson is part of the Cooperstown conversation. That he is remembered. And, he hopes, revered. Segregation left him with a narrow fairway, but it could not render him a ghost.
“All those legacies — Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson — were dependent on somebody first cracking that mold, and John Donaldson was that guy,’’ Gorton said.