Febuary 26, 2006

February 26, 2006

Gem of local baseball history found

Scott Pitoniak
Staff writer

When he came across the newspaper stories on microfilm, Doug Brei felt a bit like an archeologist who had just unearthed dinosaur bones.

It was true, after all. The Black New York Yankees of the old baseball Negro Leagues had indeed once called Rochester home.

With photocopies in hand, Brei set out to correct a decades-old oversight. The mortgage loan officer from Fairport, with the lifelong passion for local sports history, was able to convince the editors of the Baseball Encyclopedia to finally give Rochester its due regarding the Negro Leagues.

Lost history had been found.

"I realize it's only one line in a book the size of the Manhattan phone book," Brei said. "But for a geek like me who loves sports history and the history of the Negro Leagues, this is huge."

Brei discovered that the Black Yankees had relocated from Yankee Stadium to old Red Wing Stadium on Norton Street before the start of the 1948 season. The move was precipitated by Jackie Robinson's integration of Major League Baseball the summer before, and by the fact there already were three Negro League teams in the metropolitan New York area.

Team owner James Semler felt the move upstate made sense because Rochester had strongly supported Negro League exhibition games here through the years. The Red Wings were more than willing to allow the Black Yankees to set up shop at the old ballpark on Norton Street because it meant additional revenue for the Rochester club.

"They could move here and still retain their name as the New York Black Yankees," Brei said. "The New York would go from referring to the city to the state."

Their Black Yankees' Rochester debut on May 25, 1948, drew a crowd of nearly 2,000 spectators, who were treated to a doubleheader sweep of the Newark (N.J.) Eagles. In the nightcap, New York pitchers Albert Stevens and John Stanley teamed up to pitch a no-hitter.

That gem would be the highlight of an otherwise dismal season. The Black Yankees wound up winning just eight of 40 games before folding. At the end of the '48 campaign, the Negro National League went belly-up — its demise hastened by the integration of the heretofore white-only major leagues.

One of the more prominent Black Yankees that summer was George Crowe, who became the third African American to sign with the Boston (now Atlanta) Braves. His best big-league season occurred in 1957, when he batted .271 with 31 home runs and 92 RBI for the Cincinnati Reds.

The third-base coach for the '48 Black Yankees was George "Mule" Suttles, who retired four years earlier as the third-leading home run hitter in Negro Leagues history. Brei believes Suttles, who died in 1966, has an excellent chance of being inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame when the results of a special election of NegroLeaguers are announced.

"That would give us a Rochester connection to this year's induction ceremonies," he said.

Since the time his dad took him to his first Red Wings game in 1971, Brei has been smitten with local professional sports. He recalls leafing through the Pro Football Encyclopedia as a kid, looking for former Rochester Jeffersons.

"I guess those were my first attempts at research," he said.

As a sophomore at Fairport High School, Brei found part-time work with the Zeniths of the old Continental Basketball Association. At age 17, as a high school senior, he became the team's director of game-day operations when Paul Cross quit.

Brei played lacrosse and earned a degree in accounting at the University of Toledo before embarking on a career in sports sales. He landed a job with Sports Productions Inc., which sold advertising for minor-league teams and college athletic programs.

In 1989, he left SPI to become assistant general manager of the Spartanburg (S.C.) Phillies.

"They had just been named the worst organization in all the minor leagues by Baseball America," Brei said. "I was 23, and I figured I could turn things around and make a name for myself. I quickly discovered otherwise."

After working 53 consecutive days and earning less than minimum wage, Brei decided he had enough. He quit Spartanburg and spent several years working for various minor-league sports teams before returning to Rochester in 1993. He worked five years as the business manager of a local car dealership before entering the banking business.

But his true passion remains sports. He loves the Bills, Yankees, Sabres and L.A. Clippers.

"I might be the only Clippers fan in western New York," he said. "But there's a method to my madness. A few decades ago, they were the Buffalo Braves."

This isn't the first time Brei's research has resulted in the alteration of a book. Brei was instrumental in making sure the old Rochester Colonels were included in the most recent edition of the Continental Basketball Association media guide. And the 2006 Red Wings media guide will include some won-lost records from the 1880s unearthed by Brei.

Still, his biggest coup is Rochester's connection with the Black Yankees. He had studied the Negro Leagues for nearly 20 years when he came across an item in Neil Lanctot's book, Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution.

"I did a double-take when I originally saw that," he said. "I had a strong inclination that it had to be an error. But I decided to check it out anyway."

He scoured his voluminous collection of baseball history books and spoke to experts from the Society for American Baseball Research, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame and the Red Wings.

No one had heard of any Rochester tie to the Black Yankees until, one day, Larry Lester, an SABR co-chair for Negro Leagues research, e-mailed Brei back to tell him he might be on to something. He gave Brei a date to research, and that's when the banker hit the mother lode on microfilm.

He sent his information to Gary Gillette. The co-editor of the Baseball Encyclopedia was so excited, he agreed to delay the printing of one of the book's pages so Rochester could be included in the 2006 edition, scheduled for publication this week.

Brei also convinced author Philip Lowry to include mention of old Red Wing Stadium in the fourth edition of Green Cathedrals, the definitive book on Major League and Negro League ballparks.

Folks at the National Baseball Hall of Fame's library and the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame have included Brei's research in their Black Yankee files.

"The thing that makes me feel good is that we were able to fill in a piece of the puzzle that was missing," he said. "Forever more, Rochester will be a part of Negro Leagues history, and I think that's kind of cool."