Joseph Gomes

Inducted: 1988
Born: 1910
Died: 1986

Most Rhode Islanders recognize the strong relationship between their state and professional baseball at major and minor league levels. Few, however, are aware that this connection extends to the professional Black teams in the Negro Leagues during the age of racial segregation in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. In those years, African Americans participated in leagues of their own in response to the exclusionist policies of white major league baseball. Joseph Gomes, with close ties to Rhode Island, participated in the Negro Leagues and distinguished himself as an outstanding athlete. He successfully competed “in the shadows” of segregation and thrilled loyal fans who appreciated his performance as a distinct form of social and cultural expression. Baseball strengthened community within Black neighborhoods, but fans and players never lost their determination to integrate America’s national pastime. Outstanding players like Gomes used the power of their abilities to demonstrate that they were second to none and, as such, acted as pioneers in the struggle to desegregate the game and the country they honored.

Gomes was born in East Providence, Rhode Island, on May 8, 1910. He led his East Providence High School baseball team to a state championship in 1928, where he garnered all-state recognition. An outstanding athlete, Gomes also earned All-State honors in football and golf. He became a superstar for the famed East Providence Townies, Rhode Island’s semi-pro football champions when Sunday football was very popular in Rhode Island. After graduation, he enrolled at Providence College and, for two years, was a baseball and football standout for the Friar teams of that era. He dropped out of Providence College after a racial incident in which he was not allowed to take the field in a game against William & Mary in Virginia.   

John McGraw, manager, and co-owner of the New York Giants approached Gomes with a plan that would send the talented right-handed pitcher to Cuba for a season or two with the idea that he would later join the Giants as a “Cuban” player, eligible to play in the major leagues. Gomes affirmed his heritage as a Cape Verdean and declined the offer. He is, perhaps, the only person of Cape Verdean ancestry to play in the Negro Leagues.

Gomes began his professional career as a pitcher/outfielder for the Philadelphia Bacharach Giants in 1932. Unfortunately for Gomes, the Bacharach Giants were one of the weakest teams in the league, finishing last most seasons. Poor attendance and weak talent finally forced them out of the league after Gomes finished his first year. The team went on national tours, playing semi-pro teams across the nation. Gomes spent the next seven seasons barnstorming the country, playing local and semi-pro teams.  He developed arm trouble in 1937 and left the team. After his professional career ended, Gomes played for several local semi-pro and amateur teams in Rhode Island.

Branch Rickey was involved with baseball in various capacities — as a player, coach, manager, and owner — for more than sixty years. His Hall of Fame plaque mentions his creation of baseball’s farm system in the 1920s and his signing of Jackie Robinson. Rickey’s interest in integrating baseball began early in his career. When he worked for the Cardinals, he had been particularly troubled by the policy of barring African Americans from grandstand seating in St. Louis.

In 1942, Rickey joined the Dodgers and quietly began plans to bring Black players to the team. The first Black baseball player to cross the “color line” would be subjected to intense public scrutiny, and Rickey knew that the player would have to be more than a talented athlete to succeed. He would also have to be strong and agree to avoid open confrontation when subjected to hostility and insults. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the player who would break the color line, was born in Cairo, Georgia, on January 31, 1919. An outstanding athlete, he lettered in four sports at UCLA — baseball, football, basketball, and track — and excelled in others, such as swimming and tennis. Consequently, he had experience playing integrated sports. After a successful season with the minor league Montreal Royals in 1946, Robinson officially broke the major league color line when he wore a Dodger uniform. 

In his Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in 1966, Ted Williams made a strong plea for inclusion of Negro league stars in the Hall. After the publication of Robert Peterson’s landmark book Only the Ball Was White in 1970, the Hall of Fame found itself under renewed pressure to find a way to honor Negro League players who would have been in the Hall had they not been barred from the major leagues due to the color of their skin. Many baseball pundits now believe that had Josh Gibson played in the major leagues, he would have surpassed Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs before Hank Aaron had even hit his first. And the great Dizzy Dean acknowledged that the best pitcher he had ever seen was not Lefty Grove or Carl Hubbell, but rather “old Satchel Paige, that big lanky thrower.”

At first, the Hall of Fame planned a “separate but equal” display, which meant that the Negro league honorees would not be considered members of the Hall of Fame. Satchel Paige insisted he would not accept anything less than full-fledged induction into the Hall of Fame. The Hall relented and agreed to admit Negro League players on an equal basis with their Major League counterparts in 1971. A special Negro League committee selected Satchel Paige in 1971, followed by (in alphabetical order) Cool Papa BellOscar CharlestonMartín DihigoJosh GibsonMonte IrvinJudy JohnsonBuck Leonard, and John Henry Lloyd. Of the nine selected players, only Irvin and Paige spent time in the integrated major leagues. The Veterans Committee later selected Ray Dandridge, as well as Rube Foster, on the basis of meritorious service.

Other members of the Hall who played in both the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball are Hank AaronErnie BanksRoy CampanellaLarry DobyWillie Mays, and Jackie Robinson. Except for Doby, their play in the Negro leagues was a minor factor in their selection: Aaron, Banks, and Mays played in Negro leagues only briefly and after the leagues had declined with the migration of many Black players to the integrated minor leagues. 

The story of Johnny Gomes’ baseball career is that of gifted athletes and determined owners, of racial discrimination, and triumphs and defeats on and off the field. It is a perfect mirror for Black America’s social and political history in the first half of the twentieth century. But most of all, the story of the Negro Leagues is about players like Gomes who overcame segregation, hatred, terrible conditions, and low pay to do one thing they loved more than anything else in the world: play ball. 

Joseph Gomes died on February 8, 1986. He was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1988. 

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