Leaguer of the Month
Raynaldo “Verdes” Drake
Born: 1923 in Havana, Cuba
Ht: 5'-6", Wt: 140
Batted and threw left
Position: center fielder
Playing Years: 1940-58
Teams: Cincinnati Clowns, Indianapolis Clowns, Cuba
I thought I knew just about every great player in Negro League history, but one player that I must have missed over my many years of research was Verdes Drake, considered by Indianapolis Clowns owner Syd Pollack to be the greatest center fielder, and possibly the best player he ever saw.
Though many people considered the Indianapolis Clowns a novelty act, once the game started, the Clowns played with fire and hustle, and were one of the top Negro American League teams, top drawing cards, and top traveling teams from the early 1940s through the late-1950s; Verdes Drake was the best player on most of those teams.
Drake was small in stature, standing barely five and a half feet tall, and weighing less than 150 pounds, but he did things on a baseball field that few others could. Drake was a great leadoff hitter, spraying the ball to all fields, he was an excellent bunter, could steal bases, and occasionally blasted one out of the park.
But what made Drake truly special was the way he played centerfield. According to those who saw him play on a regular basis, Drake was as good or better than Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Cool Papa Bell, and Mickey Mantle.
In fact, in the late 1940s, Drake, who played shallower than all of his peers, regularly led the Negro American League in outfield putouts (a sign of range), with Willie Mays of the Birmingham Black Barons being the only other outfielder remotely close. Also, despite his lack of size, Drake had one of the most powerful throwing arms in all of baseball, and was usually among the league leaders in assists.
Sid Pollack’s son, Alan, who traveled with his dad and the Clowns for many years, thought it “impossible to be better” than Drake in center field, and considered only basketball’s Michael Jordan to be as magical an athlete as Drake.
Whereas Willie Mays’s over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series was considered by many to be the best play ever by a center fielder, those who played with and against Drake believed a catch that Drake made was the best ever—but most of those players singled out a different play!
Some thought a catch Drake made off a long drive by the Kansas City Monarchs’ Hank Thompson in which he climbed the center field fence and stole a home run was the best. Others thought a triple play he started to beat Satchel Paige was the best. Still others thought a catch and throw home from the center field fence, 400 feet on the fly, was the most impressive.
In 1957, when the Milwaukee Braves’ Bill Bruton went down with an injury, Syd Pollack wrote to the Braves owners, offering the services of Drake, writing, “Drake has the experience, can field among the best in the business, and can out-hit Bruton [who was a .270-.280 hitter].”
Pollack thinks Drake’s age (mid-30s), and small size were the only things that kept him from the Big Leagues.
Drake, who hailed from Cuba and wore a large cross necklace, was admired by his teammates, and he was somewhat of a father figure to the young Latin players on the Clowns as he was fluent in both Spanish and English.
Verdes Drake proved that great things sometimes come in small packages!
(some information from
“Barnstorming to Heaven,” by Alan J. Pollock.
“The Denver Post Tournament,” by Jay Sanford, www.attheplate.com/)