Obituary: Solly Drake (1930-2021)


RIP to Solly Drake, who with his brother Sammy Drake (1934-2010) made up the first African-American siblings in Major League Baseball history. He died on August 18 at the age of 90. Drake, who was for many years the pastor at Greater Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, played for the Chicago Cubs (1956), Los Angeles Dodgers (1959) and Philadelphia Phillies (1959).

Solomon Louis Drake was born in Little Rock, Ark., on October 23, 1930. He attended Dunbar High School there and then went to Philander Smith College, an HBCU school that was founded in 1877 and became a four-year college in 1883. Drake was a member of the Panthers football team as a receiver, kicker and punter. Even during his college years, Drake was also playing baseball all over the country as a member of the Elmwood Giants, an independent team in the Manitoba-Dakota League. Drake’s time with the team dates back at least to 1948. In 1949, Elmwood beat the Brooklyn Cuban Giants 9-8, thanks in part to Drake’s two home runs. The first one bounced off a Holt Renfrew department store sign in center field.

Source: Des Moines Tribune, August 2, 1954.

The Manitoba-Dakota League, also known as the Mandak League, was home to many Negro League ballplayers who were too old to sign with an MLB team in the post-integration era. The only year the Giants are listed on Drake’s Baseball Reference page is 1950. That season, the 19-year-old Drake was teammates with 43-year old Cowan Hyde and 40-year-old Red Longley, both of whom were long-time veterans of the Memphis Red Sox. Leon Day, Willie Wells and Lyman Bostock Sr. were all at the tail end of their playing days in the Mandak League then. Though statistics are limited, Drake hit an even .300 with 13 stolen bases as one of the league’s youngest players.

Drake moved to the Topeka Owls of the Western Association in 1951. He signed with the team, which was a Chicago Cubs farm club, in March. He was only there through August before he was called to serve in the U.S. Army. In the 85 games he played with the team, he hit .324 with 6 home runs and was named to the league’s All-Star Team.

In 1952, Drake did his playing for the Fort Leonard Wood Hilltoppers baseball club in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. There were a number of Cubs farmhands on the team, so the Cubs’ execs watched them closely. Fort Leonard Wood entered the 18th annual National Baseball Congress, and Drake became one of the unlikely stars of the tournament. The young outfielder had a powerful arm, and he threw out two runners at home plate in a game against the Fort Myer Colonials. He also gunned down a runner at second base and had three singles in four trips to the plate as part of a 9-8 win. The tournament was some of the last baseball Drake was able to play before being sent to Korea.

Solly Drake with the broken ankle that torpedoed his chance to be the Cubs’ starting center fielder in 1955. Source: Des Moines Tribune, April 26, 1955.

Drake returned to the Cubs organization in 1954 and was assigned to the Des Moines Bruins of the Western League. Now 23 years old, Drake hit .282 in his first full season of pro ball and homered 7 times. Two of them came in one game against Denver, and the switch-hitter hit one from each side of the plate. He was hitting over .300 when he broke his collarbone diving for a fly ball, and it took some time to regain his form once he returned to the lineup.

Injuries took their toll on Drake’s development for the second year in a row in 1955. He broke his ankle on the final day of spring training. At the time, he was hitting .478 and was poised to win the center field job with the Cubs. The injury came while he was sliding into second base. “When my foot caught, there was no pain but I heard a ‘pop’ and saw the expression on Ernie Banks’ face. He was covering,” Drake related. “Well, when I looked down at that foot pointing the wrong way, I thought to myself, ‘Uh-oh Solly. There goes the majors. You’re gonna be on your way home to Little Rock soon.'” Instead, he made up his mind to come back and continue to play in his style. A self-described reckless ballplayer, he vowed to continue sliding and diving if that’s what it took to win.

Drake managed to return from his gruesome ankle to play 44 games for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. He hit .261, though he didn’t show much power or speed. He was recovered enough in 1956 to make the Cubs’ Opening Day roster. Drake was hitless in his first at-bat as a pinch-hitter on April 17, but then he started all four games against the Cincinnati Reds on April 20-22. In the first game, he had 2 doubles, drove in a run, walked twice and stole a base as the Cubs pasted the Reds 12-1. He had 2 more hits in the April 21 game and then hit a 2-run home run off Joe Black in the first game of an April 22 doubleheader. The only thing that could stop Drake from getting a hit in the second game was the sunset — he was hitless in 3 at-bats before the game was called as a 1-1 tie after seven innings due to darkness.

After spending much of April beating up on Reds pitching, Drake struggled to hit in May and was sent to the minors when the roster size was cut down. He hit .333 for the St. Paul Saints and was brought back to the majors in July. He played semi-regularly as part of a platoon with Pete Whisenant in center field, and he ended his rookie campaign with a .256/.331/.335 slash line. He had 2 home runs — the only ones of his major-league career — and drove in 15. He also stole 9 bases in 14 attempts. As a center fielder, he had 4 outfield assists and just 1 error in 144 chances for a .993 fielding percentage.

Drake did not return to the big leagues with the Cubs. The Cubs tried and failed to trade him to the Yankees for utilityman Bill Renna, and he was sent to Portland for the 1957 season when the deal fell through. He batted .290 for the Beavers and stole 36 bases, and the Los Angeles Dodgers purchased his contract in February of 1958. He played for the Montreal Royals in ’58, and manager Clay Bryant loved his speed. Drake was even the lead runner on a rare triple steal against Columbus. His hitting was impressive as well, as he hit for the cycle once, had a 26-game hitting streak and finished with a .301 batting average.

With very little left to prove in the minor leagues, Drake went into 1959 with the chance to win an outfield job with the Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the eventual 1959 World Champion Dodgers had an extremely crowded outfield, with sluggers Wally Moon, Duke Snider and Don Demeter in the starting lineup and Ron Fairly, Carl Furillo and Rip Repulski competing with Drake for playing time. Drake appeared in just 9 games, mostly as a pinch-runner, pinch-hitter or defensive replacement. He had 2 hits in 8 at-bats, scoring 2 runs and stealing a base. Those 2 hits came in his one and only start with the Dodgers. The Phillies purchased his contract on June 9, and while he appeared in 67 games with Philadelphia, he had just 62 at-bats. He was almost exclusively a late-inning defensive replacement in all three outfield positions. He had 9 hits in 63 at-bats for a .145 batting average. He hit better as a starter, batting .195, but he was in the starting lineup for 11 of his 76 combined games with the Dodgers and Phillies. At the end of the season, Philadelphia optioned him to Buffalo of the International League. Drake spent all of 1960 and a portion of 1961 with team, retiring in May of 1961 to find a job working with Los Angeles youths. He came back later that season to play for the Portsmouth-Norfolk Tides, a class-A team for Kansas City in the Sally League, before retiring for good.

In parts of two seasons, Drake appeared in 141 games in the major leagues. He had a slash line of .232/.311/.295, with 10 doubles, 1 triple and 2 home runs among his 66 hits. He drove in 18 runs and scored 41 times, with 15 stolen bases in 25 attempts. He also had 8 seasons in the minors with a .288 batting average, 50 home runs and 95 stolen bases.

Following baseball, Drake returned to Los Angeles. He frequently participated in baseball camps as an instructor, but he found his true calling in more spiritual matters. Drake first attended Greater Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in 1962, according to the church. He preached his first sermon there in 1968, was ordained in 1970 and was named pastor of his first church in 1975. Following the death of Pastor Rev. Alzo Lott in 1982, Drake was called back to Greater Ebenezer to serve as its new pastor. He had been pastor of Good Fellowship Baptist Church, which he had organized, and the two congregations merged. In his 30+ years at Greater Ebenezer, he shared his pulpit with many visitors from across the country, and in 1992, the Southern California School of Ministry presented him with an Honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. He transitioned to the role of Pastor Emeritus in 2016. That same year, he was recognized as a “Living Legend” by the California State Baptist Convention.

“Pastor Drake’s ministry has been characterized by love — love for God and for God’s people,” the church states on its website. “He has believed and espoused the power of prayer and lived a life of integrity and faith in the face of challenges, while remaining true to his calling.

“We thank God for a life well lived and the testimony of faithful servanthood that he modeled.”

Drake is survived by his wife, Isabelle, sons Gary Cunningham and Ronnie Drake, and daughter, Dr. Yvette Drake.

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