I was a fastball hitter," Henry Kimbro would boast. "You couldn't shoot that ball by me with a rifle. And I was fast—woooo, I was fast. And strong as an ox."
In truth, the 5'8", 175-pound Kimbro had a blend of speed and power that was unique for his time. But chances are you've never heard of him, because Kimbro, who died last week at 87, played his entire career—from 1938 through 1953—in the Negro leagues. By the time Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, in 1947, Kimbro was 35 and considered by major league scouts to be well into his athletic dotage.
Actually, he was close to his prime. In 1944 he led the Negro National League in stolen bases. In 1946 he hit .371, and the next season, the year of Robinson's historic debut, he averaged .363. Negro league statistics were frequently unreliable, but it is believed Kimbro hit .300 or better at least eight times in his career. He played in five Negro league all-star games, four of those coming between 1943 and '47, when he was with the Baltimore Elite Giants.
He was also considered to be the league's finest defensive centerfielder, despite an acknowledged weakness in fielding ground balls. "Fields in those days had rocks, gravel, all kinds of stuff to make a ball kick up in your face," he once said. "I got kind of ball shy. A grounder would come to me, and everybody would hold their breath." But he compensated for this defect with his speed in the gaps and a powerful throwing arm.
Kimbro excelled in winter league ball, playing with and against big leaguers. He led the Cuban league with a .346 average in the 1947-48 season.
After playing most of his career with the Elite Giants, where he was a teammate of future Brooklyn Dodgers stars Roy Campanella and Jim Gilliam, Kimbro spent his last two seasons with the Birmingham Black Barons. He retired in 1953 at age 41. Even near the end he played with an intensity bordering on ferocity. "He was the wildest man I ever saw in baseball," said longtime Negro leaguer Ted Radcliffe. "And absolutely the hardest to manage."
Kimbro was considered aloof by his teammates. A quiet man who had only a grade school education, he blamed his isolation on his inability to express himself properly. "It just tore me all to pieces," he said. "People started calling me 'bad man' and even 'evil.' It just followed me all around my whole baseball time."
Nevertheless, Kimbro managed his professional and personal life skillfully enough after his playing days had ended. He founded Bill's Cab, a taxi service in his native Nashville, and operated it successfully for 22 years.
Kimbro is survived by his wife and four children. He was of a generation of African-American ballplayers who had the bad luck to be born too soon and, therefore, to die largely unappreciated.