Nine of the Most Significant Black Players in Syracuse Baseball History
In celebration of Black History Month, throughout February, teams across Minor League Baseball are taking a look back at some of the most significant Black players to suit up for their club. While some of these standout performers went on to long and illustrious Major League careers, others simply had
In celebration of Black History Month, throughout February, teams across Minor League Baseball are taking a look back at some of the most significant Black players to suit up for their club.
While some of these standout performers went on to long and illustrious Major League careers, others simply had great Minor League careers or, in some cases, just one incredible season that went down as "a year for the ages."
In honor of Jackie Robinson’s number nine, which he wore in his lone minor league season with the Montreal Royals in 1946, here is a look at nine of the most significant Black baseball players ever to suit up for Syracuse.
Moses Fleetwood Walker
Moses Fleetwood Walker played for the Syracuse Stars in 1888 and 1889 and is known as the first Black man to play in the major leagues. Although research shows that William Edward White was the first Black man to play in the majors (playing as a substitute in one game), White passed as a white man, whereas Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first to be open about his heritage. Walker played one season in the majors with the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884, playing in 42 games, primarily as a catcher. After stops with other minor league teams, Walker finished his professional baseball career with Syracuse. He helped the Starts win the International Association pennant in 1888. The Stars were in the International League in 1889, and Walker played in 50 games before he was released from the team near the end of the season. Walker was the last Black player to play in the International League before Jackie Robinson did so in 1946 with Montreal.
Vic Power is the first Black player to play a full season with the Syracuse Chiefs. Power played for the Chiefs in 1951 as part of the New York Yankees organization, hitting .294 with 22 doubles and 56 RBI as a first baseman and outfielder. By some accounts, Power should’ve been the first Black Yankee player, but he wasn’t, and Elston Howard holds that title. Instead, Power combined for a .284 career batting average in 12 seasons in the majors between the Philadelphia Athletics, Kansas City Athletics, Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Angels, and California Angels. Power was inducted into the Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame in 2008.
Willie Smith pitched for the Syracuse Chiefs in 1963 and played two games in 1964 while he was a member of the Detroit Tigers system. Smith earned the nickname “Wonderful Willie” while putting together an outstanding 1963 season with Syracuse, going 14-2 on the mound with 14 complete games in 19 appearances and 145 innings pitched, including a franchise-record ten consecutive games with a win. Smith’s 2.11 ERA was the best in the league, as was his winning percentage. After his first eight wins, including seven complete games, Smith was called up and made his major league debut on June 18, 1963. After a few other appearances, Smith was sent back to Syracuse where he was named the starting pitcher for the league’s All-Star team in an exhibition against the defending champion New York Yankees. Smith threw three scoreless innings of no-hit baseball while allowing just one walk. Smith was named the International League’s best pitcher of the 1963 season and was also solid at the plate with a .380 batting average (30-for-89). Smith went on to be used primarily as a hitter in nine major league seasons, including a .301 batting average in 118 games with the Los Angeles Angels in 1964 while pitching nearly 32 innings with a 2.84 ERA. Smith was inducted into the Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame in 2000.
Willie Horton played briefly with the Syracuse Chiefs in 1963, but his breakout season happened in 1964. After starting the season with Detroit, Horton struggled and was sent down to Syracuse where he flourished, hitting .288 in 135 games with 28 home runs and 99 RBIs. His production in Syracuse earned him a late-season call up to Detroit. Horton remained in the majors from 1964-1980, earning four All-Star Game selections with the Tigers and winning the 1968 World Series with Detroit. Horton finished his career with a .273 career batting average and 325 career home runs in 18 seasons between the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Oakland Athletics, Toronto Blue Jays, and Seattle Mariners. Horton is also a member of the Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame Class of 2000.
Deion Sanders is one of the best athletes of all time and is possibly the greatest multi-sport athlete ever. Sanders played 14 NFL seasons while playing 11 seasons of professional baseball, including nine years in the Major Leagues. Sanders played part of just one season with Syracuse, but it was where he ended his professional baseball career, playing 25 games with the Syracuse SkyChiefs in 2001. In his final professional baseball game, Sanders hit a home run and had an RBI single for Syracuse in a 12-6 win against Toledo. Sanders is the only person to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.
Terry Whitfield played three seasons with the Syracuse Chiefs from 1974 to 1976 and was named an International League Mid-Season All-Star all three seasons. Whitfield worked his way up to Syracuse, the New York Yankees’ top minor league affiliate at the time, after he was drafted by the Yankees in the first round of 1971 MLB June amateur draft. Whitfield played briefly in three seasons with the Yankees from 1974 to 1976, but his best Major League seasons came from 1977 to 1980 with the San Francisco Giants where he played 514 games and had a .289 batting average in his four seasons with the Giants. After three years in the Japan Pacific League, Whitfield played for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1984 to 1986. Whitfield is a 2008 inductee of the Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame.
Greg “Boomer” Wells
Boomer Wells was a team leader and fan favorite while he played for the Syracuse Chiefs from 1978 to 1981. In those four seasons, Wells combined for a .274 batting average, 50 home runs, 64 doubles, and 226 RBIs in 379 games. Wells was a 1979 Minor-League Gold Glove winner at first base and a 1981 International League Post-Season All-Star. Despite his solid stats, Wells only played parts of two seasons in the Majors: 32 games in 1981 with Toronto and 15 games in 1982 with Minnesota. In 1983, Wells went to the Japan Pacific League where he played ten seasons. Wells is a member of the Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame Class of 2008.
Clarence “Choo-Choo” Coleman
Choo-Choo Coleman played one season in Syracuse but was a member of the New York Mets in their inaugural season in 1962. Coleman hit the first home run in Mets history, albeit during an exhibition game, on Match 11, 1962 against the Cardinals. Despite this, Coleman did not make New York’s Opening Day roster and instead was sent to Triple-A Syracuse where injuries limited him to a .195 batting average in 71 games. Coleman did get an opportunity later in the season with the Mets where he hit .250 in 55 games as New York’s catcher. Coleman went on to play with the Mets in 1963 but then did not play in the majors again until 1966 where he played just six games with New York.
Bobby Mitchell played three seasons with Syracuse from 1969 to 1971 as a member of the New York Yankees organization. Mitchell played 69 games with the Chiefs in 1969 where he had a .328 batting average with 13 home runs, 18 doubles, 8 triples, 57 RBIs, and 18 stolen bases. Mitchell’s 1969 season included a five-hit game on July 16, 1969 at Louisville. He is one of 45 Syracuse players to have at least five hits in a game since 1961. In 1970, Mitchell played 107 games with Syracuse and ten games with the New York Yankees where he made his Major League debut. Then, Mitchell played 73 games with Syracuse in 1971 before he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. Mitchell played parts of four seasons with the Brewers before he played the rest of his career in the Japan Pacific League with the Nippon Ham Fighters.