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Baseball Remembers: Henry Kimbro
It’s difficult to quantify how good Henry Kimbro was.
He played in the Negro Leagues, and statistics weren’t kept in the same way they were in the White major leagues. Players didn’t play league games as often, because they would split off as part of a traveling team against semi-pro or local teams. Seasons were shorter, often 80 games or less. We simply don’t have a complete record.
Maybe the best way to illustrate his excellence is to note that, in 1947, the Negro National League still had most of its stars. Future Hall of Famers like Larry Doby and Monte Irvin and Minnie Miñoso and future major leaguers like Jim Gilliam and Luke Easter and Bob Thurman. It had pitchers like Luis Tiant, Sr., and future National League Rookie of the Year Joe Black.
And, in that league, Henry Kimbro won the batting title by hitting .385. He also led the league in runs, hits, doubles, RBI, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases, and WAR. He was well past his prime, already 35-years old.
His career started a bit late. He worked in a gas station, repairing cars, in his hometown of Nashville until he was 24-years old. While playing amateur ball, he was spotted by a scout and asked to join a touring team for the winter, which he did. He liked it enough, and performed well enough, that they asked him join the Elite Giants for the 1936 season. The club moved to Washington, DC the following year, and became part of the Negro National League. Other than another franchise shift to Baltimore, and a one-year-only trade to New York, Kimbro would remain the with club for his entire career.
A fast, stocky player, the 5’8” Kimbro became the club’s leadoff hitter, a role at which he excelled due to his ability to make contact and his willingness to reach base by walk. He batted over. 300 for the first time in 1939, when he hit .313 for the year. In 1940, he led the league in runs, walks, and being hit by a pitch, willing to reach base any way it took. The following year, in New York, he made his first All-Star team, and led the league in stolen bases.
Despite these bright sports, during his first five seasons Kimbro was roughly an average hitter overall. He had a .272 average, and 96 OPS+, perfectly fine marks for a good defensive centerfielder, which he was, but nothing special.
It was during his 30s when Kimbro became a star. From 1942 through 1948 when the league stopped being considered major league, Kimbro hit a collective .315, with a .408 on-base percentage and 144 OPS+. He was an All-Star six times in those years, and led he league in runs three times, plate appearances, hit-by-pitch, and on-base percentage twice each, and in his, doubles, triples, RBI, walks, batting average, slugging percentage and OPS once each. Here’s what a his 162-game averages were in those years:
That’s a star, folks. And that’s as true now as it was then.
He was already 35 by the time the major league color line fell, and he admitted that he wouldn’t have been able to absorb the verbal abuse from other players and fans without fighting back, so he was never signed by a major league team. After his playing days, he bought a gas station and started a cab company back in Nashville, and was successful enough at each that he was able to send all of his kids to college. He lived a long, fulfilling life, frequently going to Negro Leagues reunions. He died at the age of 87, and was inducted posthumously into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.
Still, it’s a pity he wasn’t able to display his talents in the American or National League, where he belonged. Because, if he had, it’s likely he’d be in at least one other Hall of Fame, too.
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