RIP to outfielder Fred Valentine, who played for seven seasons in the American League in the 1950s and 1960s. He also took part in the desegregation of the minor leagues, as the color barriers in professional baseball leagues and teams across the United States fell. Valentine died on December 26 at the age of 87. Valentine played for the Baltimore Orioles (1959, 1963, 1968) and Washington Senators (1964-68).
Valentine’s passing was announced by the Washington Nationals on their social media channels. It was also mentioned by Congressman G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, who noted that Valentine was one of the first African-American ballplayers for the Wilson Tobs in 1958.
“Fred was a family friend for many decades,” Butterfield said in a statement. “He helped to desegregate the whites-only section of Fleming Stadium after the bleachers reserved for African Americans went crashing down during a Sunday afternoon game. He was a positive force full of world-class talent as he played alongside baseball greats like the famous Cal Ripkin [sic]… My thoughts and prayers are with Mrs. Helena Valentine and the entire Valentine family. I also extend condolences to baseball fans who are knowledgeable of Fred Valentine’s contributions to the game. I pray that God will comfort them and Fred’s many friends during this difficult time.”
Fred Lee Valentine was born on January 19, 1935, in Clarksdale, Miss. His family moved to Memphis, where Valentine attended Booker T. Washington High School and played quarterback on the school’s football team. He graduated in 1953 and went on to Tennessee State A&I University. He started his freshman year as the third-string quarterback, but after two games, both QB’s ahead of him were injured. Valentine was made the starter, the team started winning, and he never looked back. The TSU Tigers went unbeaten in 1953 and 1954 and reached the championship game for Black universities on December 10, 1954. The Tigers’ 27-game unbeaten streak was snapped by the North Carolina College Eagles 19-6. A shoulder injury knocked Valentine off the gridiron in 1955, but he was able to raise his profile as a hard-hitting center fielder for the Tigers baseball team. In his two years of baseball at Tennessee, Valentine hit .310 and .325. In July of 1956, he signed a professional contract with the Baltimore Orioles, who beat out other interested teams like the Pirates and Cardinals. Jim Russo, Baltimore scout, spent a solid two years monitoring Valentine, and he brought in a contract with a $4,000 bonus before any other team could sign him. “I chose the Orioles because I figured that I would have the best chance making good with this club,” Valentine explained.
Before he signed, Orioles coaches Lum Harris, Al Vincent and Harry Brecheen had watched Valentine work out in Baltimore before a game and were suitably impressed. After Valentine crushed two home runs to center field, Harris hustled the young hitter off the field before Kansas City manager Lou Boudreau , watching from the visitors dugout, could get too interested.
The switch-hitting Valentine stayed at Tennessee State until August of 1956 to finish his summer courses, and then he joined the team’s Vancouver affiliate for a handful of at-bats to finish out the year. His first full season came in 1957 with Aberdeen of the Northern League, and he hit well, with a .272 batting average, 7 home runs and 59 RBIs. He did even better in 1958 with the Wilson (N.C.) Tobs of the Carolina League, slashing .319/.418/.505 with 16 home runs and winning the Player of the Year Award. He was inducted into the Army late in the season, but none of the other Carolina League batters could top his batting average, so he won the league’s batting title as well. More significantly, Valentine helped end the shameful segregation practices that were a part of Wilson’s team.
Jackie Robinson may have broken the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but he didn’t end segregation throughout professional baseball. There were numerous minor leagues and teams that had to be desegregated one at a time, and many of them were located in the South. Some of them, like the storied Southern Association, refused to integrate until that racism destroyed them financially. Other places accepted African-American ballplayers slowly and begrudgingly, and players like Valentine, Henry Aaron and Dick Allen continued the work that Robinson had started well into the 1950s.
Valentine was interviewed by author Ted Leavengood for his SABR Bio, which discusses some of the racial taunts and harassment he received throughout his travels with the Tobs. The story that Rep. Butterfield alluded to in his statement above took place in the summer of 1958. A group of African-American fans came to a game after Sunday church to watch Valentine, who had been playing so well for Wilson. There were so many fans that the segregated bleachers collapsed due to the weight — with no serious injuries, fortunately. However, there were a large assemblage of fans with nowhere to sit, and the team’s management asked Valentine what could be done. He simply suggested that the African-American fans sit among the white fans in the stand. “Everybody knows everyone in this town anyway, just give it a chance,” he reasoned. The segregated bleachers were never rebuilt.
Valentine continued his ascent up Baltimore’s organization with a strong 1959 season in Miami, and the Orioles brought him to the majors in September. After a couple of hitless games, Valentine got a start against the Chicago White Sox on September 11 and got 2 singles and a walk off Billy Pierce. Valentine hit 6 singles over 19 at-bats to end up with a .316 batting average in his first major-league experience. In spite of the good debut, Valentine spent most of the next four seasons in the minor leagues with Miami and Rochester. He hit and fielded well, but the Orioles never brought him to the majors. Though he stole 28 bases for Miami in 1959, Valentine was never really put in a position to show off his speed and was given just a handful of stolen base attempts per year.
The Orioles, meanwhile, were a good team that finished in the first division of the American League consistently, but the team never had any truly great outfielders during the time Valentine was languishing in the majors. It wasn’t until Boog Powell debuted in 1962 that the Orioles found an outfielder worth keeping. Valentine, in the meantime, continue to grow another year older year after year in the minors. He missed much of 1962 after another stint in the Army but hit .291 when he did play. He didn’t return to the majors until 1963, and even then it was primarily as a pinch-hitter due to a sore ankle. He batted .268 for Baltimore in 26 games.
The Washington Senators purchased Valentine’s contract in October of 1963, finally giving him a chance to play in the majors. The outfielder said that he and his wife were thrilled about the acquisition, and he looked forward the next season. “When you’re 29 years old and haven’t made it big yet in the majors, you really have to get moving,” he said.
He played all three outfield positions for the Senators in 1964, getting into 102 games. He hit his first major-league home run off Angels pitcher Ken McBride on April 27, 1964. The hitting didn’t come around, however, as Valentine slashed just .226/.304/.307. He spent most of 1965 with the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League, where manager George Case let Valentine run wild — literally. He stole 58 bases in 71 attempts and also smacked 28 doubles and 25 home runs. Along with setting a team record with his stolen bases, he also set one with 116 runs scored.
Valentine was the Islanders’ best player, and the team rewarded him with his own special night on August 25, 1965. He and his wife, Helena, were given numerous gifts from an appreciative fanbase, including a portable television set. A young fan even made his way onto the field and handed him a five-dollar bill. Valentine was so overcome with emotion that he forgot his prepared remarks. But he delivered once the game started, with a home run, a stolen base and an outfield assist. After the game, he expressed no bitterness about the fact that he was still in the minors.
“I know I can do a good job in the majors. That’s the only thing I want — the opportunity to prove it,” he said, adding, “Maybe I’m psyching myself into believing it, but I think the Senators will give me a good chance next spring. That’s all I ask — a chance.”
Valentine wasn’t wrong. The Senators brought him back to the majors in September of 1965, and he batted .241 in 12 games. He stole 3 bases, which was third-most on the team — Ken Hamlin led the Senators with 8. In 1966, he finally saw regular playing time, with more than 500 at-bats. Valentine got into 146 games, led the team with 29 doubles, a .455 slugging percentage and .351 on-base percentage, and tied for second with 16 homers. He batted .276 and stole 22 bases, which accounted more than 40 percent of the team’s total steals. Valentine was particularly vicious against the Angels. In 18 games, he slashed .448/.525/.776 against them, with 4 home runs and 21 of his season’s 59 RBIs. After the season, Valentine even earned a couple of MVP votes for his breakout year.
Valentine remained the starter for 1967, though his performance dropped off. He slashed .234/.330/.346 with 11 homers and 44 RBIs, though he still had a better-than-average OPS+ of 104, thanks to the general decline in offense in the game. He still stole 17 bases and drew 56 walks while playing in a career-high 151 games. After a slow start in 1968, Valentine’s playing time decreased. He was batting .238 when he was traded back to the Orioles on June 15 for pitcher Bruce Howard. The Orioles acquired him as insurance in case the team lost center fielder Paul Blair to an Army deployment. Blair stuck around and played in 141 games (though he batted .211), so Valentine was left as a part-time player and hit .187 in 47 games with Baltimore. Those were his final major-league games.
Valentine spent all of 1969 back with Rochester, where the 34-year-old was the oldest player in the International League. He batted .287 with 18 home runs and secured a contract with the Hanshin Tigers of the Japan Central League for 1970. Hehit .246 in his only season overseas, adding 11 home runs and 46 RBIs. He retired with his family back to Washington D.C., which had been his home since the start of his major-league career.
In 7 major-league seasons, Valentine slashed .247/.330/.373. He had 360 hits that included 56 doubles, 10 triples and 36 home runs. He drove in 138 runs, scored 180 times and added 47 stolen bases. He had above-average fielding percentages in all three outfield spots. Baseball Reference credits him with 3.6 Wins Above Replacement, and his lifetime OPS+ is 106.
Valentine worked for years at Clark Construction Group in Washington D.C., where he retired as a vice president. He was remembered as one of the Hawaii Islanders’ All-Time All-Stars and was named to the team’s all-time starting lineup in 1985, along with the likes of Bo Belinsky, Mike Bielecki, Rick Sweet and Rod Gaspar. His SABR biography notes that Valentine was part of a group of ballplayers in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. area who started the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association and was very involved in it, as well as in his church and community. He and Helena were married for 63 years. In addition to his wife, Valentine is survived by children Valca, Fred Jr., and Valena.
For more information: McGuire Funeral Service