|Born: November 30, 1901|
|Died: September 3, 2000 (aged 98)|
|May 23, 1926, for the Cincinnati Reds|
|Last MLB appearance|
|June 7, 1945, for the Brooklyn Dodgers|
|Runs batted in||96|
Clyde Leroy Sukeforth (November 30, 1901 – September 3, 2000), nicknamed "Sukey", was an American professional baseball catcher, coach, scout and manager. He was best known for signing the first black player in the modern era of Major League Baseball (MLB), Jackie Robinson, after Robinson was scouted by Tom Greenwade in the Negro leagues.
Eye injury impaired playing career
Sukeforth was born in Washington, Maine. After two years at Georgetown University, followed by a year in the New England League with the Nashua Millionaires and the Manchester Blue Sox, he was acquired by the Cincinnati Reds in 1926.
Sukeforth batted left-handed and threw right-handed, and was listed as 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) tall and 155 pounds (70 kg) during his active career. He appeared in 486 games over all or parts of ten big-league seasons (1926–34 and 1945), compiling a batting average of .264 with 326 hits, two home runs and 96 runs batted in.
His best year in the Major Leagues was 1929, when he batted .354 for the Reds with 84 hits in 84 games played. Two years later he lost partial sight of his right eye from being hit by a shotgun pellet while bird hunting on November 16. He was able to continue his playing career, but his batting suffered, and in 1932 Sukeforth was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers. In mid-1934, the Dodgers sent Sukeforth to the minor leagues, where he became a player-manager in 1936.
Witnessed Robinson's historic signing
Sukeforth managed in the Brooklyn farm system from 1937–42 with the Clinton Owls of the Class B Three-I League, the Elmira Pioneers of the Class A Eastern League and the Montreal Royals of the top-level International League before his promotion to the Dodger coaching staff in 1943. He also was activated by Brooklyn at age 43 for 18 games during the first three months of the 1945 season, the last year of the World War II manpower shortage, despite not having played competitively since 1939, when he was a player-manager at Elmira. Sukeforth started 13 games as Brooklyn's catcher, and collected 15 hits, although only one was for extra bases, a double struck against Jim Tobin of the Boston Braves on April 24. He batted .288 in 55 at-bats.
Sukeforth soon retired permanently from the playing ranks and resumed his former job as a Brooklyn coach and occasional special-assignment scout. In that capacity, later that season, he would make history. Dodger president Branch Rickey was making secret plans to break organized baseball's six-decades-long "gentleman's agreement" that enforced racial segregation. In August, Rickey sent Sukeforth to Chicago, where Robinson's team, the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues, was slated to play the Chicago American Giants. Rickey told Sukeforth to urge Robinson to come back with him to Brooklyn for a meeting with Rickey and the Dodgers. Sukeforth met Robinson again in Toledo, Ohio, and the two men traveled by railway to Brooklyn for the historic meeting at the Dodgers' Montague Street offices on August 28. He was the only other person in the room when Rickey told Robinson of his plans to sign him to a contract to play in Montreal in 1946.
Then, in 1947, Sukeforth—functioning in the unwanted role of interim manager of the Dodgers after the suspension of Leo Durocher—wrote Robinson's name into the Dodger lineup on Opening Day on April 15 against the Braves at Ebbets Field.
In addition to serving on Durocher's coaching staff and his scouting assignments for Dodgers president Rickey, he worked behind the scenes in 1946 to help create the new Nashua Dodgers of the Class B New England League. Sukeforth helped the Nashua team forge ties with the New Hampshire community, easing the racial integration of the league when Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe were assigned to that club.
Turned down two managerial opportunities
Sukeforth won his only two games as the Dodgers' manager in 1947, 5–3 and 12–6, both against Boston. Durocher had been suspended for the entire 1947 season by Commissioner of Baseball Happy Chandler because of "conduct detrimental to baseball." But Sukeforth and a fellow coach, Ray Blades, both turned down the opportunity to serve as acting manager for the rest of the season; ultimately, Brooklyn scout and longtime Rickey associate Burt Shotton assumed that role, and Shotton led the Dodgers to the 1947 National League pennant.
In 1951, when Dodger manager Chuck Dressen needed a reliever to face the New York Giants' Bobby Thomson in the ninth inning of the decisive third game of the National League pennant playoff, Sukeforth, coaching in the Dodger bullpen, passed over Carl Erskine and sent in Ralph Branca, who gave up Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world". On January 9, 1952, Sukeforth resigned as a Dodgers coach, then a few weeks later signed to be a coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where Rickey was executive vice president and general manager. There, as a coach and occasional scout, he played a pivotal role in the drafting of Roberto Clemente from the Brooklyn organization in the 1954 Rule 5 draft.
Once again passing up a Major League managing assignment after turning down the chance to succeed Pirate skipper Bobby Bragan on August 3, 1957, Sukeforth retired as a coach at the end of the 1957 season.
Sukeforth remained in the Pirates organization as a scout and occasional minor league manager through 1965. Rickey, who was now general manager of the Pirates sent Sukeforth to Montreal to scout former major league pitcher Joe Black. While there Sukeforth became interested in another Dodger prospect named Roberto Clemente. Sukeforth told Pirates beat writer Les Biederman, "I knew then he'd be our first draft choice." Before leaving Richmond, he recalled, "I told Montreal manager Max Macon to take good care of 'our boy' and see that he didn't get hurt." Good to his word, the Pirates drafted Clemente on November 22, 1954, using rule 5.
In popular culture
In 42, the 2013 theatrical sports film about Robinson's breaking of the baseball color line, Sukeforth — played by actor Toby Huss — is portrayed as meeting Robinson at a rural filling station where the Monarchs' team bus had stopped (rather than the actual locale, Comiskey Park in Chicago), and urging Robinson to travel with him to Brooklyn for his meeting with Rickey. Another scene has Huss/Sukeforth (hitting fungos right-handed) teaching Robinson how to play first base, an unfamiliar position for the shortstop and second baseman, but the one Robinson played as a rookie in 1947. In addition, the on-screen Sukeforth, wearing uniform #40, is shown in one of the film's last scenes as the Dodgers' third base coach who congratulates Robinson on hitting a dramatic home run.
- "Clyde Sukeforth". Baseball-Reference.Com. Retrieved September 29, 2012.
- "Sukeforth Certain Vision Not Impaired". The Sporting News. December 3, 1931. p. 2.
- UP (January 9, 1952). "Billy Herman Brooklyn Coach; Ex-Manager Succeeds Sukeforth". The Pittsburgh Press. Retrieved April 14, 2020.
- "Sukeforth Signed to Coach Pirates". Toledo Blade. January 27, 1952. p. 44. Retrieved 4 March 2016.
- Biederman, Les (June 24, 1955). "The Scoreboard". The Pittsburgh Press. Retrieved April 14, 2020.
- Biederman, Les (July 29, 1956). "The Scoreboard: Bob Clemente Discovered by Clyde Sukeforth". The Pittsburgh Press. Retrieved April 14, 2020.
- Hernon, Jack (September 16, 1956). "Roamin' Around: Potentially a Great One!". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved April 14, 2020.
- O'Toole, Andrew (2000). Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh: Baseball's Trailblazing General Manager for the Pirates. pp. 140-142. ISBN 0786408391.
- "Bragan Ousted". Sasakatoon Star Phoenix. Associated Press. August 3, 1957. p. 18. Retrieved 4 March 2016.
- "Firing Coaches From Big Leagues Will Continue". Meriden Record. Associated Press. October 31, 1957. p. 9. Retrieved 4 March 2016.
- Thornley, Stew. "Appendix: Statistical Summary of Roberto Clemente's 1954 Season With the Montreal Royals". The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History. Volume 26; 2006. pp. 68–69. Retrieved January 14, 2016.
- Anderson, Dave (September 6, 2000). "Clyde Sukeforth, 98, Is Dead; Steered Robinson to Majors". New York Times. Retrieved 4 March 2016.
- Honig, Donald (1975). Baseball When the Grass Was Real: Baseball from the Twenties to the Forties Told by the Men Who Played It. New York City: Coward, McGann & Geoghegan. pp. 178–191. SBN 698-10660-1 – via Wayback Machine.
- Wulf, Steve (December 30, 2020). "The Forrest Gump of baseball? How Clyde Sukeforth played a pivotal role in baseball's biggest moments". ESPN.com. Retrieved December 30, 2020.