Glasgow honors legendary Negro Leagues pitcher
Glasgow Public Schools unveiled a statue and dedicated its new baseball field Friday in honor of local baseball great John Wesley Donaldson.
The dedication comes three years after Donaldson was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2017 for his renowned Negro Leagues pitching career, and within that short time span the legend of Donaldson has only continued to grow.
Although Donaldson’s resurgence comes 50 years since his death in 1970, it is a welcome sight to Negro League historians as Glasgow immortalized one of baseball’s best over the weekend.
“John Donaldson is one of the greatest baseball players who you’ve probably never heard of,” said Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick before Donaldson’s induction to Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
“Before there was Satchel Paige, before there was Bullet Rogan, before Hilton Smith, José Méndez and Andy Cooper — all Hall of Fame Kansas City Monarch pitchers — there was John Donaldson.”
Donaldson had 413 wins and 5,091 strikeouts during his 32-year playing career from 1908 to 1940. Each set records in the Negro Leagues. He was also a founding member of the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs and would later be the first African American scout in the history of Major League Baseball.
Although Paige became the first former Negro Leagues player to be welcomed into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, Donaldson and other notable Negro Leagues athletes are still on the outside looking in.
There was speculation following the 1971 hall of fame induction on who would be the next Negro League great to be enshrined in Cooperstown. According to Peter Gorton, a member of the John Donaldson Network who has researched the pitcher over the past 20 years, many thought it would be Donaldson.
However, Gorton is less concerned with a hall of fame vote and more focused on making sure people know who Donaldson was. He is working to bring Donaldson back to the national conversation after baseball’s segregated past.
Gorton was shocked to find out that Donaldson played in Bertha, Minnesota, less than 20 miles from his hometown of Staples. He never knew one of the greatest pitchers of all time played there nearly 70 years earlier.
“I played my last high school baseball game in the same town that he played in and I had no idea who he was,” Gorton said. “I had no idea that my small central Minnesota town or central Minnesota region could have had so many of the greatest black baseball players in history right here in our backyard. Nobody had any idea about that history.”
Gorton had already started researching Donaldson’s career when he was invited to visit his grave in 2004. It was an enlightening experience.
“I asked a bunch of Negro League historians who were gathered around his grave: Does anybody really know who this guy is?” Gorton said recently. “They all said no.”
Researching Donaldson’s career came with accepting that several ideas surrounding the Negro Leagues weren’t true. He believed the notion that the public wasn’t interested in Negro Leagues baseball or that newspapers didn’t cover these athletes couldn’t be further from the truth, and that’s exactly what he found.
“We’ve found 7,854 newspaper articles pertaining to John Donaldson’s career,” Gorton said. “That means newspapers wrote about him and they wrote about African American (athletes). It was just a part of our biased history that had kept him from being rediscovered.”
Donaldson pitched 14 no-hitters and two perfect games during his career, which spanned more than 700 cities in the U.S and Canada, according to information gathered by the Donaldson Network. He also threw 30-consecutive no-hit innings in 1913 and 90% of his pitching appearances ended in complete games.
Only the color line, which wouldn’t be dismantled until the 1940s, separated Donaldson from playing in the major leagues.
“John Donaldson physically dominated everybody he played against hist entire career,” Gorton said. “Major League teams, owners and managers wanted him on their teams. The same way the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals would want him today. He was a left-handed power pitcher. That is a rare entity in baseball. I’m convinced that if Donaldson, in his prime, was standing in front of me today he would walk straight into Busch Stadium and play for the Cardinals.”
Gorton knows that he could stand near the steps of the baseball hall of fame with a megaphone and a clenched fist screaming out the numerous accomplishments of Donaldson and nothing would likely happen.
He has no idea if Donaldson will ever be inducted. That’s something that he’ll never be able to control and he sees no reason to worry about it now, he said.
Glasgow’s statue unveiling and field dedication for Donaldson is another step forward in the fight to help people discover Donaldson’s importance to African Americans in baseball and his place among the pitching greats, Gorton said. That’s all he ever wanted his research to do.
“I often say that the government doesn’t make this state great,” Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe said at Donaldson’s dedication. “It’s the people. The people leaving legacies like John Donaldson. Being great means impacting those around you. Focusing on your purpose by serving others. Missouri’s greatness comes from seemingly ordinary people, who excel in their work, who rise to meet an expectation, who create sparks of innovation. These ordinary people are in fact extraordinary. Occasions like today continue our shared objective to move Missouri forward, helping us to better understand and appreciate our heroes from the past.”
It’s that sentiment that drives Gorton forward. Segregation and racial bias kept the legend of Donaldson from being passed on since his death, but that doesn’t have to be the result for any Black athlete moving forward.
“We’re going to change the way people view African American athletes whose legacies have been taken away from them by our segregated past,” Gorton said. “It’s important that people understand that the systematic elimination of African American heroes is a long list and John Donaldson needs to be one of the first people need to remember again.”