The legend of John Ritchey.
The above photo is of the San Diego American Legion Post No. 6 team and was taken prior to the 1940 American Legion World Series which was held in Albemare, North Carolina. Teammates John Ritchey (2nd row, with his face in hand) and Nelson Manuel (2nd row, 2nd from right) had both starred for the San Diego team during the tournament but were barred from playing in the final series against a team from St. Louis which was held in Albemare due to being black. Even with not being allowed to play in the actual final series and with his team eventually losing, Ritchey was still awarded the tournament’s leading hitter trophy.
Unfortunately this was not the first time these young players had experienced such prejudice. 2 years prior when the team made the 1938 tournament, both Ritchey and Manuel were barred from playing in a series held in Shelby, North Carolina. However, in 1940 both players were told they would be allowed to play in Shelby if their team ended up playing there again (which did happen). This was not the case in Albemare and therefore Ritchey’s body language in the photo above makes complete sense. To read a more detailed article about the tournament and what Ritchey and Manuel went through, click HERE. Unfortunately, I have no idea what became of Manuel as I can not find any record of him ever having a career in Baseball on any level. On the other hand, Ritchey played professional Baseball for a decade and made quite the name for himself…
The significance of the San Diego American Legion Post No. 6 team and both the 1938 & 1940 American Legion World Series is well known to those familiar with San Diego Baseball history and the old Pacific Coast League due to John Ritchey. For those not familiar with him, Ritchey later went on to become a Baseball star at San Diego State University, quickly became a star during his short time in the Negro Leagues with the Chicago American Giants, and eventually broke the color barrier in the Pacific Coast League when he signed to the San Diego Padres in 1948. This was one year after Jackie Robinson did so in the Major Leagues.
It’s not a surprise that more people are not familiar with John Ritchey as he never made it to the Major Leagues and never made it higher than AAA in the Minors. Why he never made it probably has to do a several reasons: The fact that he was black and many teams were still hesitant to sign black players and the fact that he was an “older” rookie and didn’t start playing in the PCL until he was 25 due to spending time in World War II.
As far as the Major Leagues go, I know that at one point he was to be called up to the Indians during his time with the Padres during their time as an affiliate of Cleveland. However, this never happened for some reason. In addition, at some point (I assume during his time with the Chicago American Giants?) he was also given tryouts with the White Sox and Cubs but was never signed. You would think that a Catcher with the numbers he put up would have been called up at some point or another. At least as a back-up or to cover during an injury?
With all that said, I must say that the fact that he never made it to the big leagues does not lessen the impact he left on the game. Outside of the Padres, he also played with other PCL teams such as the San Francisco Seals, Sacramento Solons, and Portland Beavers. Also, as I mentioned earlier, he also played in the Negro Leagues and in the 1947 season with the Chicago American Giants, Ritchey was the American Negro League batting champ in with a .369 batting average.
Now days it seems as if Ritchey’s legacy seems to mainly resonate with Baseball fans from San Diego, history buffs of the old Pacific Coast League and Negro Leagues, and those who follow Baseball author and historian, Bill Swank. Bill has done a great job of spreading the word of Ritchey to those who will listen and I suggest that anyone who is the least bit interested in Ritchey and that era of Baseball to check out Swank’s books and personal blog “Baseball Santa Swank.”
Also, if you ever find yourself at Petco Park in San Diego, I suggest checking out the PCL Bar & Grill and pay your respects to John Ritchey by visiting his bronze bust which is on display. I hope that by writing this short post in the blog, that I opens some reader’s eyes to John Ritchey and in turn plant some seeds of curiosity in some of you to do your own research on him and his life.
On a TOTALLY unrelated note: featured in the American Legion team photo at the top of this page is a very young Bob Usher (top row, 3rd from left). Usher played with the Padres and Angels in the PCL and with the Reds, Cubs, and Senators in the Major Leagues. I met Bob last year at the Northern California Pacific Coast League Reunion and for an 87 year old, he was a very cool and funny guy. To check out a photo of myself along with Bob, click HERE. Bob is 2nd to right (to the right of me). Also featured in this photo is ex-Padres and Portland Beavers Pitcher Pete Mesa (far left) and my friend and Baseball historian, Bill Swank (2nd to left).