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"Josh Gibson almost killed me one time! I was playing third base and I was playing really deep, on the outfield grass, and he hit one down at me and I didn't have time to move. It just missed me!"
--Sam Hairston

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4, Kyle McNary, McNary Publishing


Negro Leaguer of the Month

October, 2014
Sam Hairston
Batted and threw right
Ht: 5 ’-10”, Wt: 185
Born: January 20, 1920 in Crawford, Mississippi
Died: October 31, 1997
Positions: catcher, third base
Career: 1944-1960
Teams: Birmingham Black Barons, Indianapolis Clowns, Colorado Springs Sky Sox, Chicago White Sox, Sacramento Salons, Charleston Senators, Indianapolis Indians, San Antonio Missions, Charleston ChaSox

The first American-born Black player in Chicago White Sox history, Sam Hairston was one of the best hitters the Negro Leagues produced in the 1940s.

Hairston was born on January 20, 1920 in Crawford, Mississippi to parents Will and Clara, but his family moved to the Birmingham, Alabama area soon after, as Hairston's dad found work as a coal miner. Hairston was the second of 13 children, and the family settled in the town of Hooper City, a section of about 320 people on the north side of Birmingham.

Hairston played sandlot ball against the children of coal miners, but when he was about 16 he lied about his age, claiming to be 18, and started playing with and against adults in the tough industrial leagues in town, working and playing for ACIPCO (the American Cast Iron Pipe Company), which also featured future Negro League teammates Piper Davis (second base) and Artie Wilson (shortstop).

After several years of semipro ball with ACIPCO, Hairston was signed by the Birmigham Black Barons where he joined Davis and Wilson, along with pitcher/catcher Double Duty Radcliffe, third baseman/outfielder Lester Lockett and pitchers Dan Bankhead, Earl Bumpus, Johnny Markham and Gread McKinnis.

Hairston, who was primarily a third baseman, had trouble breaking into the lineup as the Barons were on their way to their second consecutive Negro League World Series, when his career got a break (pun intended!). "Duty made a catcher out of me," remembered Hairston when I interviewed him. "He got his finger broken and we didn't have another catcher. Winfield Welch, the manager, said, 'Who am I gonna catch?' I said, 'I'm a catcher.' I went down to warm up our pitcher, Lefty McKinnis; he threw a shutout in Montgomery, Alabama. That's the first game I ever caught! Welch said, 'You not a third baseman. You a catcher!' I ain't been back to third base since."

While Radcliffe was out with his injury, he tutored Hairston on the fine points of catching. Hairston remembered: "A rookie didn't do much talking. Duty was a star and he would talk your pants off! You just listened because he always won!" Radcliffe returned to the team later in the year, but Hairston had proven he was a first string catcher, and he was signed by the Cincinnati-Indianapolis Clowns where he blossomed into a star.

Hairston signed with the powerful Cincinnti-Indianapolis Clowns in 1945, joining third baseman Alec Radcliffe, centerfielder Raynaldo Dreke, outfielder Henry "Speed" Merchant and baseball/basketball star Goose Tatum.

Hairston was a singles and doubles hitter with occasional home run power, and he rarely struck out. Some historians have compared him to Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. In his prime, Hairston batted close to .350 with a slugging percentage above .500.

Hairston stayed with the Clowns for several years, making the East-West All-Star team in 1948.

According to SABR researcher Rory Costello, Hairston won the Negro League's Triple Crown in 1950 with a .424 batting average, 17 homers, and 71 RBIs in 70 games. Before the 1950 season was over, Hairston was signed by Chicago White Sox scout John Donaldson, one of the best left-handed pitchers in Negro League history, and was assigned to the Colorado Sky Sox of the Class A Western League. Hairston had again lied about his age, but this time he subtracted five years, claiming to be 26 instead of 31!

Hairston batted .286 in 38 games, then played winter ball with Vargas of the Venezuelan League, leading the league with a .375 average, including a 26-game hitting streak, and he won the league's MVP award.

Hairston returned to the Sky Sox in 1951, and was batting .386 after 15 games when he was called up to the White Sox, making him the first black American to play for the Sox, with Cuban Minnie Minoso beating him to the Sox by three months.

Hairston only started one game as a catcher during his five weeks with the Sox, was used mostly as a pinch hitter, and went two for five with two walks in seven Major League plate appearances.

The owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, Syd Pollack, thought it sad that Hairston was used mostly as a bullpen catcher during his stay with the White Sox, and was not allowed to showcase his great skill as a hitter.

Hairston spent four more seasons with Colorado Springs, and became the most popular player in their history, sporting batting averages of .316, .310, .350 and .318. He was the Western League MVP in 1953 when, along with his .310 average, he slugged 42 doubles, eight homers and 102 RBIs; his .350 average in 1955 led the league. Some other Sky Sox highlights included doubling in five straight at bats, batting in 41 of 42 games, and getting a game-winning hit despite breaking his leg earlier in the game.

Hairston receving his 1953 Western League MVP award (Gazette.Com)

In 1957, at age 37, Hairston batted .254 for the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association; he batted .323 for them in '58, then finished his pro career with Charleston of the South Atlantic (Sally) League, batting .330 in '59 and .263 in '60.

In 1147 Minor League games, Hairston batted .304 with 248 doubles, 35 triples and 53 homers.

After his playing career was over, Hairston scouted for the White Sox, and he signed his own son, Jerry Hairston, while his son John was signed by the Chicago Cubs. Sam made history when his grandsons Jerry and Scott (sons of Jerry, Sr.) both made the Majors, giving the Hairston's three generations of Big Leaguers! As of this writing, Scott is still an active player, and looks remarkably like his grandfather.

Sam spent his last few years in baseball as a coach with the Birmingham Barons of the Southern League, and had the opportunity to coach Michael Jordan in 1994, when Air Jordan briefly retired from basketball. Though he only batted .202 with the Barons, Hairston said he would have like to have coached Jordan when he was younger, rather than a 31-year-old.

Hairston died on Holloween Day, 1997 at age 77.