This coming Saturday – June 23 – will mark 35 years since the death of one of the greatest athletes that Wilcox County has ever produced – professional baseball pitcher Jimmy Newberry.
Newberry, who was born James Lee Newberry in Camden on June 9, 1919, passed away on June 23, 1983 at the age of 64 in Cook County, Ill. During his 64 years, Newberry lived an eventful life that saw him play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues and in Japan after World War II. In fact, he was one of the first two African Americans to ever play on a professional baseball team in Japan.
Most sources agree that Jimmy (sometimes spelled “Jimmie”) was the sixth child of Wilcox County residents, Will and Lula Newberry. By 1935, their family had moved to Birmingham, where in 1944, Jimmy, who went by the nickname “Schoolboy,” broke into professional baseball as a 25-year-old, right-handed pitcher for the Birmingham Black Barons. Jimmy played for the Black Barons in 1945, 1946, 1947 and 1948.
Four seasons later, in 1952, Jimmy made history when he and former Black Barons teammate John Britton became the first two African American players to play on a Japanese professional baseball team, the Japanese Pacific League’s Hankyu Braves. Jimmy, then 33 years old, pitched for the Braves just that one season, but it was a notable season. He went 11-10 overall with an earned run average of 3.23 and 100 strikeouts.
Jimmy returned to the United States and bounced around minor league baseball for three more seasons. He played for the Abilene Blue Sox in the West Texas-New Mexico League in 1954. In 1955, as a 36-year-old, he played for three different teams – the Port Arthur Sea Hawks of the Big State League, the Amarillo Gold Sox of the West Texas-New Mexico League and the Big Spring Cosden Cops of the Longhorn League.
The 1956 season was Jimmy’s last in professional baseball. That year, he played his final season for the El Paso Texans, a team in the Class B Southwestern League. Jimmy started in just five games that season and posted an overall record of just 0-1 in those games. He must have realized that the time had come to hang up his spikes.
Despite my best efforts, I was unable to find out much more about Jimmy’s life after professional baseball. Apparently, he moved to Illinois and settled in the Chicago area. Jimmy died in Bremen Township, Ill., which is southwest of Chicago in southern Cook County. Some sources say that Jimmy was buried in Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, but I was unable to find his grave among available cemetery records.
In the end, there is no doubt that Newberry was one of the greatest professional athletes to ever call Wilcox County home, and it’s a shame that more isn’t known about his life and career. If anyone in the reading audience has any additional information about Newberry’s life and baseball career, please let me hear from you. Chances are, Jimmy still has relatives in Wilcox County today, and I think many readers would be interested in hearing about what Jimmy did with his life between 1956 and 1983.