Advertisement
  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 jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2019, file photo, Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter smiles as he speaks during a news conference in Miami. Derek Jeter is among 18 newcomers on the 2020 Hall of Fame ballot, announced Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, and is likely to be an overwhelming choice to join former New York Yankees teammate Mariano Rivera in Cooperstown after the reliever last year became the first unanimous pick by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) WILFREDO LEE  |  AP
    Former Rays Carlos Pena and Heath Bell are also among the 18 up for election for the first time.
  2. Long faces dominate some of the remaining Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans during the fourth quarter of the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, November 17, 2019, in Tampa. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: What remaining game will Tampa Bay be favored to win?
  3. The cover of the book Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin Courtesy Jean Fruth
    The 224-page book features a chapter on Tampa, and an essay by Hall of Famer Wade Boggs.
  4. Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell (4) delivers a pitch in the fourth inning against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the American League Division Series on Oct. 10 in Houston. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Rays Tales: Team execs on Houston’s big problem, a base for winter acquisitions, trophy time and an upcoming owners meeting.
  5. Jameis Winston (3) points to fans after the Bucs' 2017 victory over the New Orleans Saints. Tampa Bay Times
    Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Previewing Bucs-Saints, justice for the Astros, answers for the Lightning.
  6. FILE - In this July 24, 2019, file photo, Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander throws to an Oakland Athletics batter during a baseball game in Houston. Verlander has been awarded his second AL Cy Young Award. MICHAEL WYKE  |  AP
    The Mets’ Jacob deGrom wins the NL award for the second straight year.
  7. Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash talks with reporters in the dugout the day after clinching a playoff spot. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Former Ray Rocco Baldelli wins top honors after his first season with the Twins, Aaron Boone was second.
  8. Erik Neander, Tampa Bay Rays senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager, addresses the media during a press conference at Tropicana Field Friday, Oct. 11, 2019 in St. Petersburg. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Award came from a vote of team executives; Yankees Cashman was second.
  9. Flanked by his mother, Michelle Alonso, left, father Peter Alonso (blue shirt, standing), girlfriend Haley Walsh, right, and friends, New York Mets rookie first baseman Pete Alonso, 24, reacts as he finds out he has won the National League Rookie of the Year award on Monday at his home in Tampa.  Alonso, a Plant High graduate, made a grand entrance to the big leagues, hitting a major-league rookie and team-record 53 home runs for the Mets. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The easiest part of the day for the travel-weary first baseman may have been receiving the prestigious award.
  10. Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash speaks at a news conference before an Oct. 1 American League wild-card game practice in Oakland, Calif. JEFF CHIU  |  AP
    Marc Topkin: The Twins Rocco Baldelli and Yankees Aaron Boone are the other two finalists for the hard-to-define award.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement