All Time Lists: 20 Greatest Players of the Negro Leagues

(Photo Credit: Bowman Gum) Boston Braves centerfielder Sam Jethroe on a 1953 Bowman baseball card.
(Photo Credit: Bowman Gum) Boston Braves centerfielder Sam Jethroe on a 1953 Bowman baseball card.

Sam Jethro, Center Fielder

Samuel “The Jet” Jethroe (January 20, 1918 – June 18, 2001), was born in Columbus, Mississippi, but grew up on East St. Louis, Illinois. He earned his nickname for his amazing speed on the field.

He played semi-pro ball in St. Louis, and briefly with the Indianapolis ABCs in 1938, but became a regular with the Cleveland Buckeyes from 1942 to 1948, He led the league in stolen bases three times. In his first year, we batted .487 in 39 at bats.  Although he received a physical deferment from military service, in 1943 he batted .291 and led the league in both doubles and triples. In 1945 he was instrumental in leading his team to World Series victory, hitting a .393 average with 10 triples and 21 stolen bases. He continued as a leading hitter throughout his Negro League career through 1948.

In 1948, he was recruited by the Dodgers, and after briefly in their minor system, played in late 1948 in Brooklyn. In 1949, he led the league with 89 stolen bases and 154 runs. Rickey sold him in October 1949 for $150,000 to the Boston Red Sox, the first black player on that team. He excelled in Boston, being named as the 1950 Rookie of the Year with a .273 average, 100 runs, 18 home runs and 58 RBIs. His 35 stolen bases led the National League and was the team best since 1913. He played even better the following season, with a .280 average, 101 runs, 65 RBIs, 160 hits, 29 doubles, 10 triples, 18 home runs, and again led the league with 35 stolen bases.

However, he slumped badly in 1952, causing rumors to spread that he had lied about his age and was no longer a viable ball player. He was sent to the minors, and although being picked up by the Pirates, he only played four games with them.  His short 4-year major league career, with a .261 average, 260 hits, 49 home runs, 280 runs, 181 RBIs and 98 stolen bases in 442 games makes us wonder what sorts of records he could have held had he had a full career in the major leagues. Don Newcombe once said that he was “the quickest human being I’ve ever seen.”

He retired to Erie, Pennsylvania where he played some semi-pro ball and opened a bar, He died of a heart attack there in 2001.


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