Drive northwest on Highway 10 from Minneapolis for about two hours, and you’ll reach the town of Staples, Minn.
Population 2,981, Staples is home to the state’s longest fishing pier, an Amtrak stop and the starting place of one man’s quest to bring attention to a former Negro Leagues pitcher.
Chances are, you’re not familiar with left-hander John Donaldson’s career, which began in the early 20th century, but Peter Gorton wants to change that. Since 2000, Gorton has worked to celebrate to a pitcher who was born in 1892 in Glasgow, Mo., and collected 399 career wins and 4,995 strikeouts during his 33 years of playing in the Negro Leagues and semi-pro ball.
Gorton created the John Donaldson Network, which he says has 550 members dedicated to finding any morsel of information via historical societies and newspaper archives around the nation. The latest goal for Gorton: induction for Donaldson into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
When nomination Donaldson, Gorton secured letters of recommendation from White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, the Glasgow chamber of commerce, the chairman of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) and others.
Donaldson was part of the first Kansas City Monarchs team and while barnstorming, pitched for teams all over the state and the country before his career closed in 1941 and he later was a scout for the White Sox. Donaldson’s credentials are sterling, but why would a guy from Minnesota spend so much time pleading the case of this particular pitcher?
“It’s not a question of why — it became a question of how,” Gorton wrote in an email. “I feel like he became my responsibility and in some way he drives me. A part of me feels like Donaldson’s tattered legacy found me.”
In a way it did. A former high school teacher who was writing a book on the history of black baseball in Minnesota started Gorton on this journey. He was asked to research Donaldson’s time in Bertha, Minn., which is 13 miles from Gorton’s hometown of Staples.
“I was curious that such a great player could be so unknown even for someone who spent his entire life in the area, played ball and yet virtually nobody knew the story of John Donaldson,” Gorton wrote.
Donaldson pitched for the Bertha Fishermen, a white team in 1924, the year after the left the Monarchs, according to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s eMuseum. Donaldson went 18-3 with 300 strikeouts that season.
Donaldson’s career started 16 years earlier with a hometown club in Glasgow. Quickly making a name for himself, Donaldson joined the mixed-race All-Nations team in 1910. The NLBM’s eMuseum notes that Donaldson averaged nearly 20 strikeouts per game with the All-Nations team and threw three consecutive no-hitters in 1913.
After serving in World War I, Donaldson pitched in New York before joining the Monarchs when the Negro National League was formed in 1920.
It would be another six years before Hall of Famer Satchel Paige would join the Monarchs, but he was influenced by Donaldson.
“To me, it tells you how good that Satchel Paige was, because he has become the standard of how good a player is,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the NLBM. “Of course, he was also known for his charisma and showmanship. … But Donaldson was a star. He was a big star. He was a great player. In my mind, there is only one Satchel Paige. But any time you’re compared to Satchel Paige, you’re pretty doggone good.”
Buck O’Neil had high praise for Donaldson in O’Neil’s autobiography “I Was Right On Time.”
“(Donaldson) was the first guy to go barnstorming his way up and down the Dakotas, pitching for whatever team would pay him,” O’Neil wrote “He showed Satchel the way, and the fact is, there are many people who saw them both who say John Donaldson was just as good as Satchel. …
“He was throwing a slider — a hard curve, as hard as a fastball — before anyone knew you could throw a hard curve. They say John McGraw said he’d give fifty thousand dollars for Donaldson if he’d been white. If he’d been white! We heard that a lot about a lot of our players through the years.”
Racism in baseball in those days is a big reason for Gorton’s push for Donaldson’s recognition. It goes beyond the numbers, which admittedly are impressive
“The color line took away Donaldson’s ability to have a lasting legacy as a ballplayer,” Gorton wrote. “John Donaldson is a player whose long-standing narrative is incorrect for so many painful historical reasons. I desire to be a part of changing this narrative.”