John Donaldson: the Unknown Ace, the Greatest Pitcher to Never Play in MLB

Jacob BieleckiContributor IIJuly 11, 2011

Cy Young might not be the greatest pitcher of his era.  That title could easily go to John Donaldson.
Cy Young might not be the greatest pitcher of his era. That title could easily go to John Donaldson.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Three-hundred and fifty plus wins, over 4,500 documented strikeouts (perhaps as many as 5,000), 11 recorded no-hitters and one perfect game. Surely these accomplishments would land a man in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That did not happen to John Donaldson though. He died on April 12, 1970, at the age of 79 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Burk Oak Cemetery in Illinois. 

It remained that way until money was raised to put a headstone there. The omission of John Donaldson from the Hall of Fame is without a doubt one of the biggest mistakes that the Hall of Fame voters have made.

Donaldson was born on February 20, 1891, in Glasgow, Missouri. In 1908 at the age of 17, Donaldson started playing baseball professionally with local Glasgow teams. By 1910, he was barnstorming with teams that traveled all over the Midwest. 

During the 1911 season, Donaldson was the ace for the Tennessee Rats. He won 44 games and lost three. He struck out 31 men in 18 innings during one game that went into extra-innings. He also struck out 19 men four different times during the season.

The 1915 season was Donaldson’s best season. He averaged 18 strikeouts a game and struck out 30 in 18 innings. He struck out 500 batters that season and accomplished this feat three years in a row. After the First World War, the Negro League team Kansas City Monarchs was formed. Legend has it that it was Donaldson who came up with the name Monarchs. Donaldson was clearly the star of the team and crowds of 5,000 plus would turn up to see Donaldson play. Donaldson continued to play for the Monarchs throughout the '20s.

In 1920, New York Giants Manager John McGraw approached Donaldson with an offer few could pass up. McGraw offered Donaldson $50,000 to play for the Giants but on one condition. Donaldson had to go to Cuba and pose as a Cuban pitcher in order to exploit the loophole in the MLB’s segregation rule. 

However, this meant Donaldson had to renounce his heritage and even his family. Because of the conditions, Donaldson turned the offer down. By 1923, Donaldson had so much star power throughout the Midwest he formed his own team called Donaldson Stars. The team was later renamed the All-Nations.

In 1941, after more than 30 years as a player, John Donaldson retired. He supported himself for a while working for the U.S. Postal Service but eventually became the first black MLB scout when he was hired by the Chicago White Sox.

Despite never getting to the Majors, Donaldson never felt sorry for himself.  He was already loved by thousands of people all over the country.  Baseball historian Pete Gordon summed up Jon Donaldson’s life with the following words, “This is a story of a man who was covered by the media and adored by fans and had an outstanding career on the baseball diamond.”