Remembering Art 'Superman' Pennington: Negro Leagues All-Star and Civil Rights Pioneer
Art "Superman" Pennington played baseball everywhere you could imagine—except the major leagues. But he had no regrets.
Courtesy Billy Valencia
Arthur David Pennington was born in Memphis, Tennessee while his mother was visiting a sister who lived there. This was fitting, because for the first 36 years of his life, Art Pennington didn't do a whole lot of settling down. He played baseball across the United States and Latin America, from Portland, Oregon to Caracas, Venezuela. He homered off Dizzy Dean in an exhibition and out-hit Jackie Robinson one year in the Negro Leagues.
Pennington did everything a ballplayer in the Western Hemisphere could dream of—except one thing. But when he died earlier this month in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—where Pennington finally settled down and into a life of work, community, and civil rights activism—he did so collecting a pension from Major League Baseball. He was 93 years old. At his memorial service, Pennington eulogized himself via a pre-recorded video message. He told the gathered mourners that he had no regrets.
Soon after Pennington was born in 1923, his mother Fanny brought him back to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where the family lived, and where she gave him nickname that would follow him throughout his life: Superman. The story went that when Art was just a boy, 10 or 11 years old, the family car suffered a flat tire. They didn't have a jack, so young Art lifted the car five or six inches off the ground and held it there—high enough to put some bricks under the wheel well and replace the tire. The nickname caught on.
Read More: Remembering Jose Fernandez
Hot Springs was a resort town. Pennington's father worked as an elevator operator at a local spa. His maternal grandparents comprised one of the region's only interracial couples—a fact would come to bear heavily later in Pennington's life. They were a religious family, and when Pennington began playing serious ball, it was a teenager on a local team with his father and uncles.
Pennington played on barnstorming teams called the Zulu Clowns (they wore grass skirts), and the West Indian Royals. At 17, he caught a train to Memphis, the city of his birth, for a tryout with the Chicago American Giants. He recalled his experiences frequently—in interviews, at museums, in classrooms, and in Brent Kelley's oral history book "Voices From The Negro Leagues."
According to Billy Valencia, a friend of Pennington's who managed his affairs in his later years, Pennington recalled that the American Giants gave him a $300 signing bonus—more than enough to compensate for any of his family's misgivings about sending him off to Chicago, where soon he would be playing in Comiskey Park against the likes of Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Josh Gibson. In 1942, Pennington played in his first East-West All Star Game. He was just 19 years old.
Many of the precise details of Pennington's career—who he played for and when; what numbers he put up—are hard to pin down. Sometimes there are newspaper accounts but no statistical record, sometimes it's the other way around. Sometimes Pennington told the story one way, and sometimes he told it another way. But the basic outline is easy to track, from the Negro Leagues to Latin America and finally to the slowly desegregating minor leagues of the 1950s. Pennington's career is punctuated with the racism of the era he played in.
In 1946, Mexican businessman Jorge Pasqual used his fortune to begin recruiting Negro Leagues and Major League talent to the Mexican league. Pennington signed on, and eventually joined the Pericos de Puebla alongside New York Giants pitcher Sal Maglie. (Maglie and other big leaguers who took Pasqual up on his offer would face a three-year ban from Commissioner Happy Chandler.) In Mexico, Pennington found he could make more money than in the United States and live a comfortable life outside the shadow of Jim Crow.
"When I left the United States I never had so much freedom in all my life, because you could eat anywhere and they got the finest restaurants," he told Kelley. "I told my mother, I said, 'Mom, you should see this country. Mexico City, and Monterrey, and Acapulco. Everybody swimmin' together'."
Pennington played summers and winters in Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela, as well as back in the Negro Leagues. He essentially worked as a sort of baseball troubadour—traveling to play wherever the pay was good. He had a big smile, and broad shoulders. And wherever he went, he hit. One headline in Venezuela referred to him as "Art Pennington, Coloso del Bateo."
Pennington was a switch-hitter, he played every position but pitcher and catcher. In the Negro Leagues, he was a three-time East-West All Star. He even stole bases. But he never got the call from a big league front office. It wasn't simply the color of his skin—by the mid-1950s, when Pennington was putting up dominant numbers for major league affiliate clubs, plenty of black players had found their way onto major league rosters. Why didn't Pennington?
The answer lies on the second page of a scrapbook Pennington donated to National Baseball Hall of Fame archives. Pinned to the second page are pictures of all five of Pennington's wives: Mattie, Mary Ann, Jewell, Anita, and Beth. The last two of those wives had white skin
"The wife. That was the whole thing," Pennington told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. "They actually said, 'Would you leave your wife?' I said, 'Man, I wouldn't leave my wife for all of baseball.'''
Pennington was never shy about his white wife or his interracial children, said Valencia. He recalled that Pennington would drive them around the ballpark in a convertible with the top down. He was often the only black player on minor league clubs in rural American towns. As Valencia pointed out in our interview, baseball wasn't just integrated in big cities like New York and Cleveland by Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby. It was integrated slowly, often painfully, in small towns across the country.
Pennington played in towns like Keokuk, Iowa, where he hit .349 and beat out future career .300 hitter Harvey Kuenn for a batting title. And Cedar Rapids, where he out-produced a young Roger Maris and Luis Aparicio—and where he would eventually make his home. "He was the best player to play here until Mike Trout," Valencia said. (Trout spent parts of 2009-10 playing in Cedar Rapids; he met Pennington at the ballpark.)
In 1958, Pennington was 35 years old, a year away from retirement, playing right field for the Saint Petersburg Saints in the Florida State League. It would be Pennington's last great season—he'd hit .339 with a .935 OPS as the Saints won their first pennant in 36 years. But one afternoon, after word got out he was married to a white woman, an opposing pitcher threw at him.
"He didn't hit me, he missed me," Pennington said in an interview with WeAllBeTV. "You had to be pretty good to hit me. I just went out and shook my bat at the doggone pitcher. I didn't say nothing bad. I just said, "Throw the damn ball over the plate not at me." Man the people were gonna run out of the stands and kill me. They thought I was gonna hit the pitcher with the bat."
The next day, Pennington recalled, he was so mad, that he refused to come out of the dugout for the Star Spangled Banner. This was nearly sixty years before Colin Kaepernick's protest, and it was the South. "Oh, they wanted to kill me then," Pennington said. After the game, St Petersburg's player-manager, a white man from Texas named Tom Hamilton, stood up for Pennington and rallied the team behind him. As the team drove off in station wagons (they didn't have a bus), they were followed by a group of angry fans. When the fans caught up to the team at a filling station, they saw Pennington's teammates clutching their baseball bats and simply drove on.
Pennington retired after the 1960 season. He had always told his friends that when baseball got hard, he would hang them up. So that's what he did. He returned to Cedar Rapids and quickly got a job with the Collins Radio Company (later Rockwell Collins.) It did not take long before Pennington was recruited to play on the company baseball team.
In Cedar Rapids, Pennington became something of a local fixture. In the 1960s, he opened the city's first integrated restaurant, called the Home Run Club. He booked national music acts and even brought the Playboy Bunnies to town. Local police once gathered outside to raid the place, but Pennington was able to fend them off—the mayor's wife was inside playing cards. Eventually, the Home Run Club was shut down after the city trumped up charges about the quality of its drinking water.
Pennington also began to run for office. He ran for sheriff, he ran for county commissioner. He would have run for dog catcher. "There needed to start being black folks on the ballot," he told his friends later on. Even if there was no chance he could win.
"In essence he opened the door for guys like me," said Dale Todd, who became the first African-American City Councilmember in Cedar Rapids history. "He was a stabilizing influence in the neighborhoods."
Cedar Rapids was still a predominantly segregated city when Pennington was running for office.
"Sports was one of the few areas where people actually interacted and socialized across races," said Todd. "Art was sort of a trailblazer in a sense—people of all socioeconomic levels respected him."
From the 1970s until the end of his life, Pennington drove only Cadillac convertibles. He wore a gold chain with a Cadillac logo pendant. And he favored four-pocket guayabera shirts like the ones popular in the Caribbean countries where he once played ball. He was also—like his grandparents back in Hot Springs half a century before—a part of one of the town's most prominent interracial relationships.
"Art was a fun-loving, bigger than life guy," said Thomas Moore, executive director of the African-American Museum of Iowa, in Cedar Rapids. "From the museum's standpoint, we see Art as having broken down barriers and helped, through sports, to bring better understanding and exposure and to bring people together. "
In 1980, Pennington retired from Rockwell Collins. And later in his life, he began receiving that pension check from Major League baseball. The checks, Valencia said, were stamped with the phrase, "pre-1947."
"They felt so bad they give me a pension," Pennington said in an interview.
In 2008, Pennington's home of fifty years was completely destroyed when floods devastated Cedar Rapids. Nearly all of his belongings were gone, including a lifetime of collected baseball memorabilia. But even more immediately harrowing was the fact that the 86-year-old Pennington's homeowners insurance did not cover flood damage.
He was moved into temporary housing as the Cedar Rapids community and the international baseball community gathered donations to allow Pennington to rebuild the home. Topps began including signed Art Pennington cards as inserts in its "Allen & Ginter" collection. By the summer of 2009, Pennington was back home. A new apartment building constructed on his block after the flood was named The Pennington in his honor.
At an earlier point in his life, a flood like the one that hit Cedar Rapids and his home might not have been something Pennington could recover from. But the Cedar Rapids that Art Pennington grew old in was not the city he settled down in in 1960.
"I was one of the first guys over to start cleaning it," said Dale Todd. "I took a picture of the house. It was like the only thing that was untouched by the flood was a picture of Barack and Michelle Obama. I don't want to sound corny but it was sort of a spiritual moment. Here was a guy who couldn't use hotels and water fountains while he was playing baseball, and living long enough to see a black guy in the White House. He had this record album of Martin Luther King Jr's speech in Washington. But this one picture of Barack and Michelle Obama survived."
Pennington was one of the last remaining bridges to glory years of Negro Leagues baseball. He was a fixture at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, where he made appearances and reconnected with ballplayers from his younger days
"He was probably the last great East West All Star player," said Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. "After his time, the Negro Leagues were starting to kind of fade."
It's easy to think of the fading of the Negro Leagues and the breaking of the color line as the official ending of racism in baseball. Art Pennington's life shows that it was not that—the racism that prevented him from playing in the American or National League before 1947 didn't just go away. The Boston Red Sox didn't integrate until 1959, the year of Pennington's national anthem protest in Florida. It still hasn't gone away.
"I could do it all in those days," Pennington said in the WeAllBeTV interview. "I just had a lot of problems in different towns and different states about white and colored."
One of America's greatest ballplayers had to cross a border to feel like a free man. And then, after he retired, when he wanted to have a drink out in public with his white wife in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he had to open his own club to do it in. But he did it. He was Superman. And he wasn't bitter.
Before he died, Pennington would tell Valencia this. He would notice mixed race couples in Cedar Rapids and observe, contentedly, that nobody was staring at them or giving them a hard time.
"America is a better place now," he would say.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.