1. Sports
  2. /
  3. Rays

A Negro League player from Tampa is gone, but he leaves an important legacy behind

Bob Mitchell, who recently passed away in Tampa, fought Major League Baseball for years to make sure Negro Leaguers could get a pension.
Negro League baseball players Bob Mitchell, right, and Wiilie Williams, left, attend a news conference with Sen. Bill Nelson on July 22, 2002, in Tampa. (AP Photo/Scott Martin)
Published Jun. 17
Updated Jun. 17

TAMPA — The world forgets, but Bob Mitchell never did.

Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn in 1947 may have changed the way Major League Baseball looked to outsiders, but it did not change the reality for many African American players in the game. Many remained ignored, marginalized and stuck in baseball’s backlands even as the world assumed the color line had become a relic of bygone days.

Yet by 1954, the year Mitchell made his Negro League debut, half the teams in Major League Baseball still had not integrated.

And it took another 50 years, and Mitchell’s noble persistence, before MLB finally acknowledged its complicity and debt to players still toiling in the post-1947 Negro Leagues by providing them a pension.

MORE ROMANO: If this is farewell, then FSU’s Mike Martin has left a legacy to remember

Mitchell, who moved to Tampa from his native West Palm Beach 25 years ago, died on June 12 at age 86.

“He was never bitter about baseball, but he had an in-your-face personality and he was not afraid to talk to Major League Baseball and tell them they were wrong,” said his wife, Wanda. “He had some regrets about his baseball days because he figured he was just as good as a lot of players in the majors.

“But he was never going to be the Jackie Robinson type. Baseball didn’t want angry black men in their game. He and Branch Rickey would have never gotten along.”

Looking back, Bob “Peach Head” Mitchell was an unlikely choice for a reformer in boardrooms and politics. In the early 1950s, he was just a young righthander looking to make a living throwing a baseball.

Former Negro League pitcher Bob Mitchell with a prized Willie Mays autographed baseball in his collection of memorabilia. (Times, 2001)

Starting with the Florida Cubans out of Lakeland and later joining the Kansas City Monarchs — with legendary manager Buck O’Neil and pitcher Satchel Paige — Mitchell pitched three seasons in the Negro Leagues before giving up to start a family with his fiancee. He ended up working nearly 30 years in a machine shop for Pratt & Whitney in Palm Beach County.

It was only after he retired, and realized the financial plight of so many other former Negro League players, that Mitchell began lobbying MLB officials about setting up a retirement fund.

Baseball had previously created a pension for players who had been a part of the Negro Leagues before Robinson’s MLB debut in 1947, but Mitchell argued that black players were still largely ignored throughout the 1950s. He routinely wrote letters to then-commissioner Bud Selig and others and eventually enlisted the help of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

“Bob wrote a letter to me and made me aware of how Negro League players had been unfairly treated, and we ended up meeting and I eventually made a number of speeches about this,” Nelson said. “We kept getting the run-around from baseball until, all of the sudden, Selig was set to appear before Congress to talk about doping issues in sports.

“I was going to have a chance to interrogate him in front of the Washington press corps and the world and, all of the sudden, they decided to do something for the Negro League players.”

MORE ROMANO: Stu Sternberg and his Wall Street cohorts didn’t set out to change baseball, it just worked out that way

In 2004, MLB came up with a plan for Negro Leaguers who played at least four seasons post-1947. They could either get lump sum payments totaling $40,000, or an annual pension of roughly $4,500 for life.

“Call it discrimination or racism or whatever you like, but the quota system in baseball prevented a lot of black players from having a legitimate opportunity to reach the majors in the 1950s,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “You can’t help but appreciate Bob Mitchell and others who advocated on behalf of a lot of Negro League players, and also Major League Baseball’s willingness to finally act on this issue.

“Bob did not have a lengthy career in the Negro Leagues but his role has been felt, and continues to be felt, by many of these players who count on those pensions.”

Even if baseball hadn’t always been kind to him, Mitchell never turned his back on the game. A few months ago, his son, Marc, was perched in front of the TV, playing a baseball video game.

Bob started inquiring about the game and discovered Marc could create an entire team modeled after players from the Negro Leagues in the 1950s.

Nearly 70 years later, Bob Mitchell was back on a ballfield, if only in the virtual reality world of a PlayStation and a TV.

“Almost every day for the past 2-3 months, we would play a doubleheader,” Marc said. “He had me create all the players he remembered and would tell me all of the attributes each player had. He was really into it. We had a lot of fun.”

Contact John Romano at Follow @romano_tbtimes.


  1. The Rays wrap up their series with the Angels today at picturesque Angel Stadium in Anaheim. MARC TOPKIN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Tommy Pham is hitting leadoff as the Rays go with six righty hitters vs. Angels lefty Sandoval.
  2. From left, Tampa Bay Rays' Joey Wendle, Austin Meadows and Ji-Man Choi meet at home plate after all three were driven in by a bases-loaded double from Travis d'Arnaud during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ  |  AP
    Rays 3, Angels 1: Glasnow’s solid start, and six strong innings from the bullpen are enough as Rays open lead over Indians.
  3. Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Jalen Beeks, left, and Johnny Davis congratulate each other after the Rays defeated the Los Angeles Angels 11-4 in a baseball game Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) MARK J. TERRILL  |  AP
    He shows off that elite speed Friday with a triple for his first hit, then some pent-up emotion afterward.
  4. Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (39) celebrates in the dugout after scoring on a single from Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Daniel Robertson (28) at the bottom of the eighth inning against Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday, Sept. 07, 2019 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.   ALLIE GOULDING  |  Times
    Tyler Glasnow will be on the mound for his second outing since an extended injured list stint.
  5. Tampa Bay Rays' Austin Meadows, right, is greeted in the dugout after a two-run home run against the Texas Rangers during the eighth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. RICHARD W. RODRIGUEZ  |  AP
    Fred McGriff should be at the top, but there is an interesting list that Austin Meadows is already making a case to join.
  6. For several weeks, Rays manager Kevin Cash has had to look over his shoulder to see whether the Indians or Athletics have been gaining in the American League wild card race. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The Rays, Indians and A’s are all projected to win 94 or more games. In the past quarter-century, only one team has won that much and failed to make the playoffs.
  7. Tampa Bay Rays' Austin Meadows, right, gets a hug from Willy Adames after hitting a two-run home run during the third inning of the team's baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) MARK J. TERRILL  |  AP
    Four Rays hit homers, headlined by Austin Meadows’ 30th, as Charlie Morton earns his 15th win.
  8. The Rays' Blake Snell pitches against the Yankees on July 15, 2019, in New York. KATHY WILLENS  |
    The 2018 Cy Young award winner has been out since July 29 surgery to remove bone chips from his left elbow.
  9. The view from the press box in rightfield at Angel Stadium, where the Rays play the Angels this weekend. MARC TOPKIN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Having lost two straight games and dropped from the top wild-card spot, the Rays open a series in Anaheim.
  10. Atlanta Braves' Charlie Morton pitches in the first inning during their MLB baseball game against the Los Angeles Angeles, Saturday, June 14, 2008 in Anaheim, Calif. GUS RUELAS  |  AP
    Charlie Morton made his big-league debut in Anaheim, Daniel Robertson had a blast last year, Ryan Yarbrough helped make history.