(See UPDATE below.)
The 29-year-old rookie Pat Venditte caused a stir the other day with his ambidextrous debut for the A’s, pitching two scoreless innings against the Red Sox with both his right and left hands. (He has since appeared in a second game, retiring the one batter he faced on Sunday.)
He’s not the first to try pitching from both sides, though it is understandably quite rare. Cheryl Wright profiled the other five major leaguers known to have tried it, four of them from the nineteenth century. There’s also an entire blog devoted to switch pitching, which chronicles a much larger list of ambidextrous minor leaguers and amateurs. The collection of players there includes two Negro leaguers, Larry Kimbrough of the Philadelphia Stars in the 1940s and Ulysses “Two-Way” Greene of the Indianapolis Clowns in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The other day, after Venditte’s first game, Bill Staples tipped me off about two additional Negro league switch-pitchers, heretofore unknown to researchers (or unknown to me, anyway). I’ll get to those guys; but first let’s take a look at the two known ambidextrous Negro leaguers.
There’s a great interview with Kimbrough in Brent Kelley’s indispensable book, The Negro Leagues Revisited. Kimbrough, a natural left-hander, became ambidextrous after he caught his left arm in a washing machine as a child. With his throwing arm in a cast for a year, he learned to throw right-handed. He thought he would never use his left arm again, but his mother patiently forced him up to build up strength in it, and within a few he could throw equally well with either hand. Pitching right-handed for Ben Franklin High School in Philadelphia, Kimbrough decided to switch to his other hand when a left-handed hitter came up. He got him out, and went on to win the game.
He joined the pro ranks during the war. Although he still switch-pitched for the Grays and Stars, he didn’t do it that often: “They wouldn’t allow me.” Still, according to Kimbrough, he pitched both lefthanded and righthanded in the first game he started for the Philadelphia Stars, twirling a 6-hit shutout to beat Max Manning and the Newark Eagles. The Negro league umpire Bob Motley remembered that Kimbrough would “pitch the first nine-inning game of a doubleheader right-handed and then the second seven-inning game left-handed (or vice-versa).”
Kimbrough was also a switch-hitter, and played both infield (mostly shortstop) and outfield—as an infielder he threw righthanded, and as an outfielder he threw with either hand. He also sometimes filled in at catcher, and after his professional career was over he became a catcher for a semipro team. This might make him the most versatile professional ballplayer of all time, in a sense: he both threw and hit with both hands, pitched, and played outfield, infield, and catcher. (Martín Dihigo, by comparison, pitched and played every position except catcher, and also switch-hit at times, but to my knowledge never tried to throw with his left hand.)
He served in the U.S. Army from August 1943 to January 1946. Kimbrough said that he had a tryout with the Cleveland Indians organization when he was 28 (which would have been in 1952), but that they decided he was “too old” (even though he’d told them he was 22).
Larry Nathaniel Kimbrough was born on September 23, 1923, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; he died on January 29, 2001, also in Philadelphia.
Ulysses “Two-Way” Greene
Lesser-known than Kimbrough, Ulysses Grant Greene, Jr., switch-pitched for the barnstorming Indianapolis Clowns from 1958 to at least 1960. Unlike Kimbrough (as far as I can tell), and reflecting the different circumstances of black baseball in its twilight compared to its 1940s heyday, Greene’s ambidexterity was promoted as a gate attraction. One newspaper story in 1960 highlighted “the hilarious antics of zany ‘Two-Way’ Greene, ambidextrous switch-pitcher,” and claiming also that he was the “jitterbug champ of South Carolina and in the words of another Indianapolis funnyman, first-sacker Natureboy Williams, ‘when Two-Way gets going in that rock-n’roll show, he looks like he’s got a thousand legs’” (Delaware County Daily Times, August 2, 1960, p. 26).
(Odessa American, May 15, 1960, p. 31)
I don’t know whether or not Greene continued pitching after 1961. He was only 22 then, after all.
Ulysses Grant Greene, Jr., was born March 26, 1939, in Tobaccoville, N.C. He died May 14, 2006, Lumberton, N.C.; he is buried in Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery in Cumberland County, N.C.
On top of Kimbrough and Greene, Bill Staples has found two more switch-pitching Negro leaguers, both playing professional ball in Texas. In 1929, a 20-year-old rookie named Horace Cole from Little Rock, Arkansas, signed with the Dallas Black Giants of the new Texas-Oklahoma League. He was originally publicized as a right-hander (note the casual racism sprinkled through the Dallas papers’ coverage):
But within a month his ambidexterity was being highlighted:
In early June, the Associated Press distributed a short article about Cole that ran in newspapers all across the country:
If this article was accurate about Cole’s usage (pitching three times in four days), it might explain why he was beginning to have arm trouble by mid-June:
I wonder if the manager decided that, with two arms for throwing, he could pitch twice as much? In any case, he continued to pitch well, for a while anyway:
But by July, he was again being called a right-hander:
The last mention I’ve found of him in 1929 has him missing out on his ninth win of the season, losing to the San Antonio Black Indians 6-to-1 on July 20. The following year, 1930, Horace Cole appeared briefly for the Black Giants early in the season, then disappears—or at least I didn’t find any further mentions. I wasn’t able to come up with any indication that his baseball career continued past 1930, though that’s hardly definitive.
Given the state of evidence right now, it looks like Cole experimented for about a month to six weeks with throwing from both sides, and—maybe—tried to use his ambidexterity to pitch more innings. For whatever reason, it seems that the experiment ended before the season was over, and so far nothing is known of what became of Cole after this.
Horace Cole was born about 1909, most likely in Little Rock, Arkansas (that’s where his family can be found in the 1910 census). He appears in the 1930 census, taken in the winter April 1930 following his 1929 debut with the Black Giants, still living with his family in Little Rock, and listed as a professional ball player. In the little bit of research I’ve done, I haven’t traced him past 1930.
Washington (no first name), Beaumont Black Aces, 1944
Bill also sent me this little item from 1944:
At the moment, this is the totality of my knowledge about Washington—I don’t know his first name, whether he pitched before or after 1944, how good he was, or anything else about him.
Thanks again to Bill Staples for uncovering Cole and Washington and bringing them to my attention. Maybe in the coming weeks we’ll be able to add more to their stories.
It appears that his full name was Horace Lee Cole and he was born 1/11/1908 in Little Rock, per his Arkansas WWII Draft card. Despite the fact that he was living in Little Rock in 1943, I haven't yet found him in the 1940 census (his father and siblings are listed under the surname "Cale" in the 1940 census, but Horace is absent). I can't seem to find any death or burial for him either, although his immediate family is buried in Haven of Rest Cemetery in Little Rock. He was still alive in 1954 when his brother Clarence died, per an Arkansas State Press item. Clarence, by the way, managed the Dubisson Tigers of Little Rock, and both Clarence and youngest brother Lawrence played with the C&C Hotel All-Stars of Little Rock in 1947.