Is Donaldson worthy of Hall induction?

Is Donaldson worthy of Hall induction?

Peter Gorton won't let John Donaldson rest in peace.

Gorton, a member of the Minnesota Historical Society Press, has orchestrated a campaign to get Donaldson, a star pitcher in "black baseball" at the turn of the 20th century, inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Much as a lawyer might, Gorton has to build a case for Donaldson, a case stronger than what a 12-member committee of Negro League historians and baseball experts had at their disposal when they voted earlier in the year on Donaldson and 38 other candidates.

The committee picked 17. Donaldson, however, wasn't among them.

"That's the only guy I really want to know about," said Gorton, a presentation services coordinator for Minneapolis law firm. "There's a lot of stuff we don't know about Donaldson, but we'll find it."

Since 1999, Gorton has been working, often single-handedly, on telling Donaldson's story. With the Hall of Fame receptive to another review of Negro League and pre-Negro League ballplayers, Donaldson might get another look.

For that to happen, men like Gorton, who have lobbied for various figures, must first do more to build a case, said Dale Petroskey, president of the Hall of Fame.

"We've always said that if more information comes to light and we know more that we're always open to doing something down the road again," Petroskey said. "I think for that to happen, there has to be new information coming to light. That's usually the nature of information; it usually comes to light."

Gorton understands that fact well. But he also knows his mission might fall into the impossible category unless he can do something that historians elsewhere haven't been able to do -- fill in the missing pieces of Donaldson's extraordinary career.

"The stuff is out there," Gorton said. "It has to be."

His hope is that the records, if found, will prove what he and other Negro League historians think, which is that Donaldson had a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career.

"He's a legitimate, bona fide great pitcher," said Larry Lester, a historian and one of the 12 members of the Hall of Fame panel. "The problem is he played before the league started."

Lester said Donaldson's heyday on integrated teams that barnstormed came before the 1920, and his stats were compiled against non-Negro League teams.

"How do you judge the quality of the teams he pitched against?" Lester wondered aloud. "Was it semi-pro? Was it a local YMCA? That was the problem the selection committee had."

In selecting the inductees, Lester and other committee members looked for stats -- cold, hard facts on Donaldson, infielder Dick Lundy and shortstop "Home Run" Johnson -- that might highlight a career that nobody alive can speak about it first-hand.

And those cold, hard numbers will speak to "black baseball" and about the men who played it in a way that oral histories might not, some historians say.

"I get a little gun-shy when we start to talk about statistics, because statistics won't tell the entire story of how important 'black baseball' was in our country," said Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. "So any effort that looks or puts too great an emphasis on statistical combinations, I wouldn't say it worries me, but I don't want fans out there to be misled.

"You're not going to get every result."

As Kendrick pointed out, rebuilding that historical record has proved a painstaking endeavor, which men like Gorton, Lester, James A. Riley and other historians and baseball experts have turned into a cottage industry since the 1970s.

Many of those top historians and experts collaborated on the initial research that led to the list of 39 candidates. They combed the archives of newspapers in small towns across the country, looked at box score after box score wherever they found them and gathered pictures that spoke to the era.

Yet how much of black baseball can still be documented today, no matter how hard men like Gorton search? How much of that which can be documented will complete the historical record of men like Donaldson?

"I think he could pitch in the Major Leagues," said Riley, a baseball historian and author of the respected "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues." "I think he probably could be called a 'great pitcher' -- in his prime, at least he was.

"But the documentation is not there."

That's the point Petroskey made, pointing to the study that led to the election itself.

"No question it was the most comprehensive research study ever done on the Negro Leagues," he said. "We have much more information than we ever had before. I'm sure, down the road, more will be learned."

Gorton has made learning "more" his mission, particularly as it relates to Donaldson.

Gorton's research on Donaldson, a man from his native Minnesota, has become a cause. He plans to continue to scour the heartlands and visit small towns where independent black teams and integrated teams barnstormed, in an effort to find yet another box score with Donaldson's name on it.

"It's not easy to find those box scores," Gorton said. "You get sore eyes from looking at microfilm. We have a list of about 75 or 100 more games that he played in, but I'm not sure if he pitched in those games.

"We just need to go to those places and a dig and see what's left."

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.