Another Hall of Fame election season has come and gone for baseball’s old-timers. On December 5th, the Early Baseball Committee voted two legendary African-American trailblazers into Cooperstown, Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil. The committee will not vote again until 2031, as it votes for candidates once every ten years.
Understandably, the early baseball selections generally do not garner as much press as the modern hall of fame inductees. Many people alive today can still remember watching Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva play baseball, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone opinionated about Bill Dahlen, George Scales, or Grant “Homerun” Johnson. With careers so far-removed from 21st century baseball, is it even possible to accurately assess their accomplishments?
For those in black baseball at the turn of the 20th century, the question is especially puzzling. Not only were African-Americans kept out of the major leagues, but the official Negro National League (NNL) did not form until 1920. Before that, many of black baseball’s biggest stars spent their careers barnstorming and facing various levels of competition, low and high. The record-keeping from that time is shoddy at best.
All of these factors have combined to keep John Donaldson, often regarded as one of the best pitchers of his era, from getting the recognition he deserves. Donaldson may have been the most glaring omission from this year’s voting. The flame-throwing southpaw simply pitched at the wrong time—he had his best years in the 1910s, before the NNL formed. Yet the numbers and eyewitness accounts that we do have make it abundantly clear: at the height of his powers, Donaldson was as good as any pitcher on the planet.
Measuring Donaldson’s Dominance Based On Contemporary Accounts
Across his entire career, John Donaldson is credited with over 400 wins and 5,000 strikeouts. He was at his best in the years 1912-17, when he threw seven of his 11 no-hitters and logged 100-consecutive scoreless innings twice (yes, you read that right).
Yet Donaldson’s numbers are hard to make sense of, which is part of why hall of fame voters have ignored him. After all, Donaldson spent the bulk of his career barnstorming across America with the Kansas City All-Nations team. Many of the teams he faced were not major-league level. Because he pitched against so many varying levels of competition, his numbers are tough to assess.
However, it’s important to remember that Donaldson—like so many other black ballplayers from that era—had no official league to play in. So it would be unfair to exclude him from the hall of fame because of the level of competition. He didn’t have much of a choice. In evaluating Donaldson, we have to ask: how does he stack up to the other black ballplayers of his day? How did his contemporaries rate him?
J.L. Wilkinson, who owned the All-Nations club and got to witness both Satchel Paige and Donaldson pitch for his teams, said “John Donaldson was the greatest pitcher that ever threw a baseball.” White Sox owner Charles Comiskey said “I would give away my whole pitching staff for a chance to sign this guy.” John McGraw said that if Donaldson was white, “I would give 50,000 for him.” In 1927, the Fairmont Daily Sentinel wrote that “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 all time.”
These statements were not outsider perspectives. It’s not like a few baseball aficionados saw Donaldson play and said he was great. In 1952, long after Donaldson’s heyday, The Pittsburgh Courier ran a famous poll of the greatest negro league players of all time. Donaldson was named to the first all-time team, along with four other pitchers: Paige, Smokey Joe Williams, Bill Foster and Bullet Rogan. Historian Bill James, in his Historical Baseball Abstract, rated Donaldson the best pitcher in black baseball in 1914-16, along with Williams.
If you account for all the contemporary praise lavished on Donaldson, it is clear that Donaldson was not just a very good pitcher, but a truly dominant one. The fact that he isn’t remembered as one has more to do with the era than the man.
Donaldson’s Brief Time In The NNL May Have Affected His Hall Of Fame Status
When Rube Foster formed the Negro National League in 1920, Donaldson joined as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs. Donaldson was no longer at his best in 1920, going 6-6 with a 3.78 ERA. Yet the underlying numbers suggest that he was still one of the best pitchers in the league—he led the NNL with a 2.49 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), posted the fourth-best walk-to-strikeout rate, and did not allow a single homerun.
The next season, Donaldson pitched just eight games and spent most of the season playing the outfield. His limited pitching time implies that injuries or arm fatigue may have affected him. Either way, he switched back to barnstorming for the All-Nations team in 1922 and eventually regained his pitching arm, continuing to pitch well into the 1930s.
The fact that Donaldson’s time in the NNL was brief and unspectacular may have hurt his hall of fame case. His best years went largely undocumented. Had the NNL existed earlier, one can only wonder what his numbers would’ve looked like.
Donaldson Deserves A Second Look By The Hall Of Fame Voters
Ideally, the hall of fame would be for the no-doubters—the players who truly dominated baseball, not just players who were good for a long time or amassed some respectable career numbers. There’s a limited supply of such players outside of the hall, but it would be impossible to list them without naming Donaldson. He was coveted by numerous major league teams and regularly regarded as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. When the Early Baseball Committee reconvenes in 2031, they would do well to elect Donaldson.
 James, Bill. The New Historical Baseball Abstract. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY. 2001. Page 176.
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