“Uncommon Common” is a new series that I hope other authors will continue. What are the cards out there that have stories far exceeding their price tags?
Trust me on this one. If you don’t know the name Dave Hoskins (SABR bio) you owe it to the man, to yourself, and to Baseball to learn it. Today’s post certainly isn’t the most authoritative or encyclopedic account of this incredible ballplayer, but it should at least get you started.
My introduction to Dave Hoskins came from reading the book “Black Aces” by Jim “Mudcat” Grant. Hoskins was one of the ten “Early Aces,” along with Satchel Paige, Rube Foster, Smokey Joe Williams and other Negro League greats, selected by Grant as pitchers who would have been MLB 20-game winners if not for Baseball’s color barrier.
As a baseball card collector, it was inevitable that the book immediately prompted a quest to pick up cards of each of the Aces, early or otherwise. And yes, that is a Gummy Arts ORIGINAL of Chet Brewer!
Some of you know I am turning these cards into a gift for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. I should have a finished product to show off in a couple months.
1954 Topps Dave Hoskins RC #81
When it came time to choose a Dave Hoskins card for the collection I was pleasantly surprised to learn that cards existed from his playing days. His 1954 Topps rookie card really called my name since it brought to mind visually and historically the more famous rookie cards of Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks from that same set. It was a thrill for me when the card arrived last month and also a reminder never to sleep on the card back.
“INSIDE BASEBALL: When Dave was with Dallas on June 9, ’52, he got 2 letters threatening his life if he pitched that day. But Dave wouldn’t be frightened. He hurled the game and won! And that year chalked up 22 wins.”
The cartoon really brought to life something I heard Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president and national treasure Bob Kendrick say when I was lucky enough to tour the museum with 2018 Hall of Game inductees Eddie Freaking Murray, Dick Freaking Allen, Kenny Freaking Lofton, and J.R. Freaking Richard—
“The story of the Negro Leagues is not adversity. The story of the Negro Leagues is triumph in the face of adversity.”
If a man’s response to death threats is to go out and win 22 games I’d say that qualifies big time as triumph in the face of adversity.
“If I’m going to die, I’m going to die throwing a fastball 90 miles per hour. That’s the way you thought…” — Mudcat Grant on the approach Hoskins, himself, and other black pitching pioneers followed.
If I didn’t type another word I think you’d agree that Dave Hoskins would already qualify as a first ballot Black Ace, unbelievable bad-ass, and decidedly uncommon common. Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface. Let’s back up a decade.
Yes, you are indeed looking at one of the most fearsome lineups in baseball history: Sam Bankhead, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Dave Hoskins, and Jerry Benjamin. Cool Papa Bell was on this same squad but was so fast he posed for the picture, went home, changed into his street clothes, and had a sandwich before the photographer could open the shutter. (For the entire lineup, including Cool Papa, go here!)
You may notice the caption under Dave’s picture has him as a rightfielder rather than pitcher. This is no mistake. While the man could definitely pitch, his batting and fielding abilities were what first drew the attention of the baseball world. His first professional contract came at the age of 17 (or 24) when he signed with the Ethiopian Clowns in 1942. Two years later the legendary Homestead Grays came calling. He joined the club in 1944 and proceeded to hit .355.
As speculation grew as to which black player had the best shot at breaking the Color Barrier, his combination of youth, versatility, and talent earned Hoskins frequent mention. You may already know about the sham tryout the Boston Red Sox offered Jackie Robinson in 1945. Hoskins was originally to be there too, but the Grays would not release him to attend.
Hoskins would continue to star for the Grays, both as a pitcher and a hitter, but it was only a matter of time before white teams came calling. Hoskins joined the Grand Rapids Jets (Class A, Central League) in 1948 where his .393 batting average proved he could compete against the “superior talent” of white clubs. After a one-year return to the Negro Leagues (Louisville Buckeyes), Dave spent 1950 with the Dayton Indians (Class A, Central League). It was there that he made his decision to pursue pitching in earnest. (There’s a story to it, but I’ll let you read it in Mudcat’s book.)
Texas Leaguer (noun) – a pop fly that falls to the ground between the infield and the outfield. Also see blooper.
Come 1952, a year BEFORE Hank Aaron, Horace Garner, and Felix Mantilla integrated the Southern Atlantic League, Hoskins became the Texas League’s first black player. His early reception there was every bit as horrific as expected. Less expected was that Hoskins would quickly become the league’s top gate attraction, leading his Dallas Eagles not only to the pennant but to new attendance records, black fans, and integrated seating.
All told, Hoskins played pretty well in 1952. As the league’s top pitcher by a mile, he went 22-10 with a 2.12 ERA. Meanwhile, he still made enough trips to the plate to finish third in the batting race with a .328 average. He was a Cleveland Indian the very next year.
As a 27-year old (or 34-year-old) rookie, Hoskins posted an impressive 9-3 record in limited action, having both the fortune and misfortune to be paired with arguably the greatest four-man rotation in MLB history. His .259 average at the plate showed he could also hit at the Major League level. With such a promising MLB debut, it would be easy to imagine that Hoskins would have been given even greater opportunities the following year. However, his innings were cut from 112.2 to a paltry 26.2 in what would prove to be Hoskins’ final season as a big leaguer.
1955 Topps Dave Hoskins #133
Just as his Topps card from 1954 told a story, the Hoskins card from the 1955 Topps set does too. There are enough mirror images in the cartoon quiz to make one dizzy.
Babe Ruth was a pitcher before he was an outfielder. Dave Hoskins was an outfielder before he was a pitcher. Babe Ruth was given the chance to do both at the major league level. Dave Hoskins was given the chance to do neither. Babe Ruth ushered in the “live ball” era and received a hero’s welcome everywhere he went. Dave Hoskins ushered in integrated baseball and received death threats. Babe Ruth of course went on to become the most famous baseball player of all time. Dave Hoskins remains largely anonymous.
1955 Topps Double Header Dave Hoskins/Ed McGhee #77/78
The final Topps card of Hoskins to tell a story is his 1955 Topps Double Header card, in which he shares the stage with White Sox outfielder Ed McGhee.
As was the approach for much of the release, the Hoskins artwork mimics the action shot from his 1955 base card but enlarges the image significantly, expands on the artistry of the original colorization, and adds the puzzle-piece stadium background that any collector is amazed to learn about for the very first time.
However, my focus with this card is on another notable feature of the Double Header set. When folded just right, the “half card” on the back became whole. This Ernie Banks illustrates the finished product. (And by the way, could there be a more fitting card in the Double Header set than Mr. Let’s Play Two!)
Now imagine for a minute that it’s 1955. This is 8 years after Jackie, but 6-8 months before Rosa Parks would refuse to take that back seat, 8 years before MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a decade before the Voting Rights act, and two decades before Frank Robinson would become baseball’s first black manager. Our country is still peak Jim Crow.
Let’s take the Hoskins card and fold it so our outfielder-turned-pitcher turns into an outfielder once again. We get Ed McGhee of the Chicago White Sox.
And yet this is not Ed McGhee, at least not fully. His legs are not his legs. They are the legs of a black man. They are the legs of Dave Hoskins.
This is a puzzle that could have worked nowhere in Jim Crow’s America other than right here and perhaps the US Army. It works because these men (at last) could wear the same uniforms and play on the same diamonds. And it works precisely because you barely knew who Dave Hoskins was.
1986 Larry Fritsch Negro League Baseball Stars #81
Here is the final baseball card of Dave Hoskins I’ll feature, his 1986 Larry Fritsch “Negro League Baseball Stars” card, which coincidentally reprises its #81 from his Topps RC. The key phrase on the back of the card is “8-year career.”
I ordered this set in high school, and like most collectors, immediately flipped to the cards of Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson. I had no interest at that time in the various “no names” sprinkled into the set. When I was gathering up cards of Black Aces for my Museum project, I didn’t even realize I had a Dave Hoskins card already.
Meanwhile, imagine if there had been no Jackie. Imagine if the integration of MLB had taken ten more years. Imagine if Dave Hoskins had had an eighteen year career in the Negro Leagues. It is not a stretch to think that the name Dave Hoskins would be up there with more familiar names like Leon Day, Bullet Joe Rogan, Judy Johnson, and Mule Suttles if not the immortals such as Satchel, Josh, Oscar, and Cool Papa. I would even suggest that it’s extremely likely Hoskins would have a plaque in Cooperstown.
Instead, Dave Hoskins is what the Standard Catalog and most collectors refer to as a “common player.” Negro League and Texas League historians aside, Dave Hoskins is a player most collectors have never heard of, a man whose anonymity was not due to talent but timing, the difference of a decade.
Had baseball integrated ten years earlier, Hoskins might have been one of the greatest Major Leaguers ever. Had baseball integrated ten years later, Hoskins could have been one of the greatest Negro Leaguers ever. Instead, his is a little known name suspended between two worlds, belonging to neither but connecting the two, a fateful Texas Leaguer landing in that singular spot between the players going out and the players coming in.
I can almost hear the ghost of the great Buck O’Neil saying it right now with a smile.
For anyone thinking about adding a Dave Hoskins card to their collection, I have good news. When I said uncommon common, I wasn’t kidding. According to the Standard Catalog all three Topps cards I featured, even his RC, are “Common Players.” Double Headers are never cheap for any player, but I managed to grab the 1954 RC in pretty good shape for $8 including shipping.