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Tales of the Toothpick: Marion County’s Sam Jones was the first Black Major Leaguer to pitch a no-hitter

MONONGAH — Wait ’til next year.

Now, the above is a baseball cliche, even more beat-up than your old Rawlings glove from Little League.

Back then, though, it was a mantra and soothing balm for Chicago Cubs fans getting their tickets torn for a game — during those Technicolor afternoons in the mid-20th century at Wrigley Field which occasionally made the black-and-white newsreel.

Cubs fans where already stoic and philosophical about the whole thing, anyway.

They at least knew they were going to get a pleasant, leisurely day out of the deal at the venerable neighborhood park.

While the jukes on the South Side were ruled by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Wrigley on the North Side could boast Ernie Banks (“Mr. Cub”) and, for a couple of good seasons anyway, another teammate equally known by his nickname:

Sam “Toothpick” Jones, of Grant Town, Marion County.

The first Black player in Major League history to pitch a no-hitter.

Ernie was smooth and consistent, like the pistons in a V-8 Cadillac Eldorado, but Sam was the one to watch — because he couldn’t help but make everything into a page-turner of a mystery novel, when he’d nod at the sign and launch the seamed sphere.

But on to that game. The game.

Mighty Roberto has struck out

Thursday afternoon, May 12, 1955: The Pittsburgh Pirates were in town, and Sam was on the mound, making it (sort of) look pleasant and leisurely — in his jittery-Sam sort of way.

In the vernacular of the time, the lanky pitcher who stood 6-foot-4 (which isn’t how he got his nickname, which we’ll get to) was cooking with gas.

His fastball knew where to grab the corner of the plate and his slider couldn’t have been more stealth in the strike zone that afternoon.

That signature, physics-defying curve ball of his broke every time.

Sam was toeing the mound on his way to a perfect game when — all of a sudden — he started floundering, like a leaky canoe in the middle of Lake Michigan.

At the top of the 9th, he walked three in a row.

What was worse, the trio on deck was known to reduce bats to kindling.  

Dick Groat, who once studied to become a Roman Catholic priest and never had to pray for a base hit: Out.

Roberto Clemente, just three years in the league but already achieving Great One status: Out.

Then Frank Thomas, who could always pull one to the opposite field for a quick single or double, stepped up.

“That’s one more pitch, for you-know-what,” came the call from Cubs announcer Harry Creighton for the WGN Channel 9 audience.

Out. Whew. Cubs, 4-0.

In Wrigley, there was much joy.

On that newsreel afternoon now nearly 70 years ago, that coal camp kid with a memorable moniker from north-central West Virginia, had his perfect game.

All the marbles

Jones was born in Belmont County, Ohio, right next to West Virginia’s northern panhandle, in 1925.

The lure of a coal miner’s paycheck brought his family over the border to West Virginia when he was little.

Bob Armstead, who was a pretty good Golden Gloves boxer before he went to the mines, grew up with him in Grant Town.

“I never did have a knockout punch,” Armstead told this reporter in 1995, three years before his death. “I was always a ‘finesse’ kind of fighter.”

Sam showed his finesse early on, Armstead said, in the game that was the Great American Pastime for West Virginia youth.


Armstead, with the collaboration of area journalist S.L. Gardner, told that story in his well-received autobiography, “Black Days, Black Dust: Memories of an African-American Coal Miner,” published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2002.

The once-and-future baseball star was the state’s Marbles champion in 1937, coming back from Charleston with a new bicycle and a cash prize, Armstead remembered.

Later, they lost touch for a time, as childhood friends do.

Armstead went into boxing and then underground, to carve coal.

Jones got drafted and after his hitch in the military, began working his way through the Negro Leagues as a pitcher.

He was a star when the Cleveland Buckeyes rolled into Fairmont for an exhibition game at East-West Stadium in the early 1950s, Armistead remembered.

The Buckeyes packed the place, and the crowd was the most boisterous for Sam.

“I was there,” Armstead recalled in his autobiography, “and I couldn’t believe my eyes how good a pitcher he was.”

For the Negro Leagues playing around here, East-West Stadium was a big venue.

Teams played several games on a makeshift diamond near Grant Town. Satchel Paige once did a memorable turn there during a series of barnstorming games.

Then came The Show.

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey opened the door. Sam broke into the Bigs in 1951 when he was 26 and his arm was strong and sound.

He was solid, even if he wasn’t always consistent in Cleveland, but in Chicago, he really had his way at Wrigley.

The Cubs signed him in 1955 for that season when he showed what a guy with a fair amount of talent, and a whole lot of tenacity, could do.

Sam gnawed on it, like that toothpick he always had in his mouth which gave him his moniker.

By all accounts, he hated cigarettes and plug tobacco. Clamping down on that toothpick helped anchor him — especially on the days when he wasn’t pitching.

He lasted until 1964, in a mainly journeyman’s career that included other stops in Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit and San Francisco.

Home stretch

After that, he and Mary came back to West Virginia, the way most ex-pat Mountaineers always manage to do.  

For three-game stands at Forbes Field, he always managed to make a jaunt to Grant Town.

In the off-season, because most ballplayers didn’t make that much money then, he came home to work, running a car wash and other enterprises.

After that 1964 season, Sam and Mary settled in Monongah, another coal camp that held on a few ridgetops over, to raise their two sons.

Their basement rec room was full of trophies, signed baseballs and other artifacts of a life in the game.

Armstead would remember Sam’s flashy yellow Cadillac and how he was always happy to buy a round for the bar.

Fans in the know could count for a Mr. Cub sighting now and then in the mountains, back when the two were still teammates and after they retired, even.

“Hey, I just saw Sam and Ernie Banks down at Fazio’s,” someone might sing out. “That cool, or what?”

Cancer took Sam in 1971. He was just 46 when he died in Morgantown at the old WVU Medical Center.

Gold standard

Opening Day for baseball is just down the road on March 28.

Meanwhile, just down the road in Monongah these days, there’s not much left of the Major Leaguer who also struck out the Color Barrier.

There’s that Sam “Toothpick” Jones road sign (official) and that commemorative plaque at the post office.

Know where to look, and you might catch a glint of an exclusive toothpick, also.

In one of those great baseball coincidences, Creighton, in a pre-game interview that afternoon, told Sam he’d buy him a gold toothpick if he could manage a no-hitter.

They shook hands on it and the announcer honored the deal.

Armstead, again: “For everyone in our area, especially Blacks, he was our hero. He made it.”

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