He climbed out of the quaint, central Missouri River town of Glasgow and chased his baseball dreams – and perhaps would have become a household name across America had he come of age in a different era.
And yet John Donaldson soldiered on. Despite Major League Baseball refusing to employ black ballplayers. Despite the little pay and little exposure. Despite it all.
In fact, Buck O’Neil, a Missouri Sports Hall of Fame inductee who later in life championed stars of the Negro Leagues, likened the flame-throwing left-handed pitcher to Satchel Paige, one of the greatest arms of all time. It sums up why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to posthumously induct Donaldson with the Class of 2017.
Said O’Neil, the former Monarchs manager and baseball scout, “John Donaldson … showed Satchel the way, and the fact is, there are many people who saw them both who say John Donaldson was just as good as Satchel.”
Donaldson enjoyed a 33-year career (1908 to 1941) in baseball as he played for 25 teams, both in the Negro Leagues and barnstorming circuits – including on the inaugural Kansas City Monarchs team of 1920.
By pitching in 500 cities across the United States, Donaldson still opened eyes. He won more than 400 games – the most in segregated baseball history – and struck out more than 5,000 batters, according to the Donaldson Network, whose extensive research is building his case toward induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
However, those statistics likely could be far greater, considering that more than 150 of his known pitching performances have no published strikeout total and more than 200 wins by teams he played for report no pitcher of record.
But his impact was great, even after his playing days. You see, in 1949, Donaldson was hired by the Chicago White Sox as a scout, becoming the first African-American full-time scout in Major League Baseball. He passed away in 1970.
Overall, it’s an incredible story, given all roads to the big leagues were blocked for black players from 1889 until Jackie Robinson’s 1947 arrival with the Brooklyn Dodgers led to a desegregated game.
Donaldson certainly experienced those challenges.
“I am not ashamed of my color,” Donaldson was once quoted as saying. “There is no woman whom I love more than my mother; I am light enough so that baseball men told me before I became known that I could be passed off as a Cuban. One prominent baseball man, in fact, offered me a nice sum ($10,000 in 1917) if I would go to Cuba, change my name and let him take me into the country as a Cuban. It would have meant renouncing my family. One of the agreements was that I was never again to visit my mother or to have anything to do with colored people. I refused.”
Donaldson got his start by attending George R. Smith College in Sedalia. In 1911, he pitched for the Tennessee Rats based in Holden, Missouri and, on one day, Donaldson struck out 31 in an 18-inning game.
Four years later, he pitched three consecutive no-hitters for the All Nations team operated by Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson, whose All Nations team of Chinese, Japanese, Cubans, Indians and Hawaiians proved players of any ethnicity could form a winning club.
His time there launched his career. Eventually, Donaldson became the highest-salaried black pitcher in baseball, earning $450 a month at his peak.
Along the way, he pitched for the Chicago Giants, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABC’s, Los Angeles White Sox and the Satchel Paige’s All-Stars, earning much respect.
For instance, Wilkinson in 1940 made one of the boldest statements regarding Donaldson’s ability, saying “Satchel isn’t the best colored pitcher. He’s tied with John Donaldson. Satch hasn’t got a thing that old John didn’t have.”
Which helps explain why Donaldson was among 13 black “All-Time Greats” documented by the Pittsburgh Courier in 1952. (Donaldson is one of only two of that group not enshrined in Cooperstown – a list that includes four pitchers, notably Paige and 119-game winner Bullet Rogan.)
Nevertheless, one newspaper back in his heyday flat-out called him the best.
Wrote the Fairmont (Minn.) Daily Sentinel, “John Donaldson is – and there is no one that is qualified to speak authoritatively that will dispute it – the greatest colored baseball player of today and of all time.”