Donaldson made most of opportunities
Negro Leaguer had his best years with All-Nations team
John Donaldson didn't have the opportunity to display his skills day in and day out and year in and year out against the best of the Negro Leagues. But when the left-handed pitcher got his chances, he generally made the most of them.
"He had his best years with the All-Nations team, which was an independent team that toured the Midwest primarily and was comprised of people of different ethnic groups," noted Negro Leagues historian James Riley. "The opposition he faced on a daily basis was mainly semi-pro and Minor League level. But when he did face the top-flight teams in his prime, he did well."
The Hall of Fame debate on Donaldson could thus be tied to projections as well as performance. Would Donaldson have thrived consistently against Negro Leagues competition? Or does he get penalty marks for not having had the chance to consistently showcase himself against the best of the Negro Leagues?
"Some players who are good but not great rise to the occasion in the World Series," Riley said. "The question is whether Donaldson would have done over the long-term what he was able to do over the short-term, when he went against the best of the Negro Leagues."
Donaldson was born on Feb. 20, 1892, and research shows that he thrived on the mound in the pre-Negro Leagues era thanks largely to a devastating curveball. As the mainstay of J.L. Wilkinson's All-Nations team, Donaldson won more than 250 games during his barnstorming career and averaged better than 11 strikeouts per game.
He continued his career pitching and playing center field for the Kansas City Monarchs through 1923. But it was a decade or so earlier when Donaldson was at his peak.
In 1913, research shows that Donaldson once pitched three consecutive no-hit games. He was reported to have struck out more than 240 batters over a 12-game span while leading his All-Nations team to the 1916 league championship.
"Around 1915 or 1916, those were Donaldson's best years," Riley said. "He pitched against the Chicago American Giants during that time and he would beat them."
After more than 20 years as a player, Donaldson retired in 1934. He settled in Chicago and worked with the U.S. Postal Service before eventually being hired as a scout for the Chicago White Sox. Donaldson died in 1970 at age 78.
"The only rap on him is the level of competition," Riley said. "The question would be whether he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame versus players who were in the Negro Leagues for a much longer period of time."
Robert Falkoff is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.