I was a fastball hitter," Henry Kimbro would boast. "You
couldn't shoot that ball by me with a rifle. And I was
fast--woooo, I was fast. And strong as an ox."
In truth, the 5'8", 175-pound Kimbro had a blend of speed and
power that was unique for his time. But chances are you've never
heard of him, because Kimbro, who died last week at 87, played
his entire career--from 1938 through 1953--in the Negro leagues.
By the time Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, in
1947, Kimbro was 35 and considered by major league scouts to be
well into his athletic dotage.
Actually, he was close to his prime. In 1944 he led the Negro
National League in stolen bases. In 1946 he hit .371, and the
next season, the year of Robinson's historic debut, he averaged
.363. Negro league statistics were frequently unreliable, but it
is believed Kimbro hit .300 or better at least eight times in
his career. He played in five Negro league all-star games, four
of those coming between 1943 and '47, when he was with the
Baltimore Elite Giants.
He was also considered to be the league's finest defensive
centerfielder, despite an acknowledged weakness in fielding
ground balls. "Fields in those days had rocks, gravel, all kinds
of stuff to make a ball kick up in your face," he once said. "I
got kind of ball shy. A grounder would come to me, and everybody
would hold their breath." But he compensated for this defect
with his speed in the gaps and a powerful throwing arm.
Kimbro excelled in winter league ball, playing with and against
big leaguers. He led the Cuban league with a .346 average in the
After playing most of his career with the Elite Giants, where he
was a teammate of future Brooklyn Dodgers stars Roy Campanella
and Jim Gilliam, Kimbro spent his last two seasons with the
Birmingham Black Barons. He retired in 1953 at age 41. Even near
the end he played with an intensity bordering on ferocity. "He
was the wildest man I ever saw in baseball," said longtime Negro
leaguer Ted Radcliffe. "And absolutely the hardest to manage."
Kimbro was considered aloof by his teammates. A quiet man who
had only a grade school education, he blamed his isolation on
his inability to express himself properly. "It just tore me all
to pieces," he said. "People started calling me 'bad man' and
even 'evil.' It just followed me all around my whole baseball
Nevertheless, Kimbro managed his professional and personal life
skillfully enough after his playing days had ended. He founded
Bill's Cab, a taxi service in his native Nashville, and operated
it successfully for 22 years.
Kimbro is survived by his wife and four children. He was of a
generation of African-American ballplayers who had the bad luck
to be born too soon and, therefore, to die largely unappreciated.