A baseball legend worth knowing

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“It was the thrill to play for the Padres. The fans cheered and my feeling was it was because I was a San Diego boy making good. It had nothing to do with race.” — John Ritchey, the Jackie Robinson of the Pacific Coast League.

05-09-2006
By TOM SHANAHAN, San Diego Hall of Champions

If you’re a San Diego baseball fan you should know the name and history of John Ritchey, the Negro Leagues baseball star from San Diego High and San Diego State.

You should know of his talent as a catcher with the Chicago American Giants and his place in history as the man who broke the Pacific Coast League color line with the San Diego Padres in 1948, one season after Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Whether you grew up on San Diego baseball or, like most of us, relocated here and adopted San Diego baseball, you probably don’t know Ritchey’s place in San Diego baseball history, and that’s a shame.

Maybe you shouldn’t know his name as well as Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox Hall-of-Famer from Hoover High, but John Ritchey deserves a place in San Diego baseball history alongside other San Diego Major Leaguers from that era – Ray Boone, Don Larsen, Bob Skinner and Bob Elliott.

Williams, you know, was an American League batting champion whose career was interrupted by World War II and Korea.

Ritchey, you should know, was a Negro Leagues batting champion in 1947 when he hit .381 for the Chicago American Giants. He played football and baseball at San Diego State before he served in World War II in the Army Engineer Corps and then played pro baseball. Staff sergeant Ritchey earned five battle stars from combat and construction duty in Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and in Berlin.

When the minor league Padres signed Ritchey in 1948, he played his first PCL games at old Lane Field and the hometown crowd cheered him. He hit .323 for the season. Remember, this was a time when the PCL was so talented it was considered by many as the third major league of baseball.

Ritchey retired after the 1955 season having never played in the Major Leagues, but don’t forget that even though the color line had been broken, integration was moving at a snail’s pace. There were a handful of roster spots for black players, but it wasn’t until 1959 when the Red Sox became the last team to fully integrate baseball.

The modern-day Padres honored the Negro Leagues last weekend at Petco Park, a tribute that included wearing 1948 PCL Padres uniforms in honor of Ritchey in Saturday’s win over the Chicago Cubs.

The Padres did the Negro Leagues tribute justice in a pre-game ceremony by bringing in Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon; Buck O’Neil, the Kansas City Monarchs manager and ambassador to the game; and players Don Newcombe and Sweet Lou Johnson. The Padres also included Neale “Bobo” Henderson and Walter McCoy, San Diego High alumni who played in the Negro Leagues, and Ritchey’s daughter, Johnaa Battle.

Dave Winfield, the Padres vice-president who started his Hall-of-Fame career with the Padres just a quarter-century after Ritchey broke the PCL color line, presented Buck O’Neil with a check for $39,000 for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

But it’s a shame Ritchey and other San Diegans who played in the Negro Leagues – Henderson, Walt McCoy, Gene Richardson and Curtis Everett – don’t provide enough name recognition to catch the attention of the average San Diego baseball fan.

“You hear about Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, but there were so many other great players in the Negro Leagues who could have been great players in the Major Leagues,” said Padres outfielder Dave Roberts. “It’s unfortunate their names aren’t household names. The talent was there, but they didn’t get the opportunity.”

Ritchey first experienced discrimination in baseball as a 15-year-old in 1938 playing south of the Maxon-Dixon Line for San Diego’s American Legion Post 6 in what was then a nationally prestigious American Legion tournament. The team had advanced to the national semifinals in Spartanburg, S.C., but the Ritchey and another African-American, Nelson Manuel, weren’t permitted by South Carolina officials to play.

The team was coached by Mike Morrow, the legendary San Diego High coach who played whites, blacks and Hispanics on his high school teams. In those days Morrow had all his players sleep together in the Long Beach Poly gym if a local hotel wouldn’t accept his black players along with his other players.

In the summer of 1940, before Ritchey’s senior year, Morrow’s team again advanced to the national semifinals in North Carolina and he wanted to prevent a repeat of 1938. He received assurances from officials and Ritchey and Manuel played in San Diego’s semifinal win over St. Louis, Mo., in Shelby, N.C.

But for the finals in Albemarie, N.C., Ritchey and Manuel were barred from competition against an all-white team. Ritchey was awarded a trophy as the tournament’s leading hitter, but San Diego played the best-of-five series without him and Manuel and lost in the fifth game, 9-8.

When family and friends raised funds for a bronze bust of Ritchey that can be found in the Hall of Fame for the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in Petco Park’s PCL Bar and Grill, San Diego baseball historian Bill Swank came across some stories that tell us about John Ritchey as a man.

“One guy said Johnny Ritchey didn’t know him, but he knew Johnny,” Swank said. “He donated $200 because every time he saw Johnny around campus he would smile and say hello. He said he never forgot what a nice guy he was, and he knew what Johnny had been through in North Carolina.”

Swank said a woman donated money because Ritchey had once rescued her from being taunted on campus by some bullies. Think about that for a moment: In 1940, Ritchey, a black man, stopped white bullies from tormenting a white girl.

“She said Johnny Ritchey’s bust should be made out of gold,” Swank recalled.

In those days around San Diego, Ted Williams was known as Teddy Ballgame and Johnny Ritchey as Johnny Baseball. Jim Gleason, a Hoover High alum who pitched at San Diego State and for the PCL Padres, says his idols growing up in San Diego were Williams and Ritchey.

Ritchey’s sunny disposition eventually soured in pro baseball when he forced to endure the taunts of racism while playing outside San Diego in the PCL. But you won’t see the wounds of racism on his proud face on his bronze bust.

The next time you’re at Petco Park, stop into the PCL Bar and Grill and pay your respects to a San Diego baseball legend.

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