Archive for February, 2012

Kick, Mule

February 27, 2012

Mule Suttles

I don’t suppose there’s anyone who doesn’t believe that Josh Gibson was the ultimate power hitter in the Negro Leagues. And I won’t dispute that. I will, however, point out that the leader in documented home runs is Mule Suttles (other sources say Turkey Stearnes).

George Suttles was born in Louisiana in 1900. He had little formal education, not uncommon for a black man in turn of the 20th Century Louisiana (Huey Long and the free text books were 25 years in the future). He was a coal miner and did some semipro ball playing until he was 21. He got a cup of coffee with the 1921 New York Bacharach Giants (one hit in four at bats in a single game) then went back to semipro ball. In 1923 he caught on with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League. This time he stayed around. He put in three years with Birmingham before heading to St. Louis where he finished his Negro National League career.

In 1930 the Negro National League folded and he went to the Eastern Colored League’s Baltimore franchise (not the Elite Giants) in time to watch the ECL go under also. He went back to St. Louis to play for the Stars in the newly reformed NNL After 1931, it too folded and Suttles settled in with the East-West League’s Detroit Wolves and Washington Pilots. Want to guess what happened to the East-West League?

By 1933 he was back in the new NNL (this time it stayed around). He began with the Chicago American Giants, then in 1936 he went to the Newark Eagles, where he stayed through 1940 He spent 1941 with the New York Black Yankees, then went back to Newark in 1942, finishing his career with Newark in 1944. Retired, he did some umpiring, then retired from baseball. He died in 1966 and made the Hall of Fame in 2006, forty years after his death.

Mule Suttles was a big man for his era, 6’3″ and 215 pounds (officially). By the end of his career he’d put on weight and may have been closer to 250 than 215.  He carried a 50 ounce bat (by comparison, Babe Ruth’s was 54 ounces) and was immensely strong, hence the “Mule” nickname. He made the East-West All-Star game numerous times, being one of its most effective hitters. He’s credited with a .412 batting average in the game, an .883 slugging percentage, and is supposed to have hit the first home run in the All-Star game. he played left field, but spent much of his career at first base. He wasn’t overly fast, but was known for his good hands. In close games in late innings, Suttles coming to bat elicited the cry “Kick, Mule” from both fans and teammates.

As with all Negro League players, his numbers are spotty. Baseball Reference’s Bullpen has some stats on him. They are incomplete but give something of a picture of  his skill. In 763 documented games he hit .327, slugged .571, had 894 hits, 257 walks, in 2731 at bats. Again no OBP is given but 894 plus 257, divided by 2731 gives a partial OBP of .421 for an .992 partial OPS. There are 133 home runs, 167 doubles, 561 runs, and  493 RBIs that are documented. The same page gives his 162 game numbers as 119 runs, 190 hits, 105 RBIs, 35 doubles, 28 home runs, and 10 stolen bases. 

Suttles is a good example of a fairly common type. He’s a big slugger who hits for power and decent average. He’s an every year All-Star, but his teams usually fall short of the championship. Ralph Kiner is one of those, so is Rudy York or Hal Trosky or Barry Bonds. York made it to a World Series, but his team (Boston) lost. So did Bonds. There are a number of others like Gil Hodges or Ted Kluszewski, some currently playing. One of the most interesting things about studying the Negro Leagues is how quickly you discover they’re made up of the same kinds of players as the white leagues. I find that important because it reminds me just exactly how much alike baseball players are in their skills, black or white. That reassures me that maybe we really are all in this together.

The Jackie Robinson Story: A Review

February 23, 2012

Promo shot for "The Jackie Robinson Story"

You do know that the life of Jackie Robinson is great fodder for a movie, don’t you? What you may not know is that it’s already been done. This is a quick look at “The Jackie Robinson Story”, a movie done in 1950 starring (drum roll, please) Jackie Robinson.

Back in 1950, someone figured out there was money to be made in filming a highly fictionalized version of Jackie Robinson’s life. You could make money, especially among black audiences and with baseball fans (or at least some baseball fans), so a short (76 minute) movie was made. They got Robinson to play himself (and I tried but couldn’t find out how much he was paid). Ruby Dee played his wife and did easily the best job in the movie. Her job was to play a supportive wife and she did it well. Longtime character actor Minor Watson (the guy on the right in the picture above) played Branch Rickey and I’m fairly sure the Mahatma would have approved of the interpretation. Richard Lane (on the left of the picture above) is Robinson’s first manager in the minors, Clay Hopper. I’m not so sure Hopper would have approved of the interpretation.  Billy Wayne (who is neither in the picture above nor related to John Wayne) plays Clyde Sukeforth and does a good job.

So far I’ve said some good things about the flick. Time to change that. First, there’s a reason Robinson played second instead of becoming an actor. Honestly, he’s not very good. He doesn’t stumble over his lines (I have no idea how many takes were necessary) but there’s no conviction in them either. Second, large chunks of Robinson’s life are either shot past (like his wonderful college career) or ignored (like his army career with the court-martial and its verdict). You learn he played a little at college and he met Rachel (and Dee does a great job in the early scenes), then it’s on to baseball and glory. Third, except for the Robinsons, Rickey, Sukeforth, and Hopper all the other sports figures are fictional. There’s no Reese, no Walker, no Durocher. There’s a guy who hates him, a guy who likes and admires him, a guy who hates him but comes to like and admire him, but they are fictional people. Maybe they couldn’t get Reese to do the movie, maybe Walker didn’t want to be shown up as a jerk, maybe Leo asked for too much money. I don’t know what happened but they chose to fictionalize the players (at least they didn’t have the Dodgers win the World Series or anything). There’s also the obligatory fan who sits next to Rachel and starts out hating Robinson (not knowing the Rachel is his wife) and begins to like him because of his play.

It’s tough to recommend this movie, because it’s just awful. But having said that both Dee and Watson do great jobs and are worth a look. And it is Robinson playing Robinson. He’s not very good, but you can at least see Jackie Robinson. See it if you want, but don’t expect “Casablanca”.

BTW, I found a copy for one dollar at a thrift store, so it’s available on DVD if you want a copy. The dollar copy had no bells and whistles to go with the movie.

Rating Catchers

February 21, 2012

The "Tools of Ignorance"

With the sad and untimely death of Gary Carter, there’s been a lot of chatter about his place in the pantheon of Major League catchers, so i’m taking a short semi-break (you’ll see why “semi” in a few paragraphs) from my look at black baseball to make a few comments. I’m certainly not going to argue with those that place Carter in the top ten of catchers, because I agree with them. But I noticed a problem (actually problems) developing when I started to put together my own list of the ten greatest catchers.

The first problem of course is fairly self-evident. It’s the question of equipment. Take a look at the rudimentary equipment worn by guys like Buck Ewing way back. Basically, it’s an oversized work glove with some extra padding and a lot of prayer. Take a look at the equipment today. Which would you rather have if you were going to try to catch a Roy Halliday fastball? And that makes a world of difference in evaluating catchers. John Sayles when he did the movie “Eight Men Out” took great pains to be authentic. Take a look at the equipment Ray Schalk wears. Now Schalk was considered a tremendous catcher (without reference to his hitting) in the era. So was Johnny Kling a dozen years earlier. Give them a chance to use modern equipment and they might name their first-born after you. Give someone like Gary Carter a chance to use the old equipment and my guess is that after calling you things you didn’t know you could be called, he’d figure out how to make the best use of what he has available and still be a good catcher.

I remember listening to an interview with Roy Campanella way back in the 1950s. He didn’t particularly like the big “pillow” mitt in use then. He complained that it kept his right hand in constant danger of injury (and it was ultimately a hand injury that curtailed his stats in the year or so before his accident). I’m not sure Johnny Bench was really the greatest fielding catcher ever, but the innovation of the hinged mitt to replace the “pillow” certainly gave him advantages that other catchers had never had before. Now the right hand could be tucked behind the body when the bases were empty (and I’m astounded at the number of catchers who still don’t do that). Now it was possible to squeeze a pop foul rather than two-hand it. It helped Bench, along with his natural ability, to revolutionize the game.

And, of course, none of this has anything to do with hitting a baseball. Guys who are good catchers and hit well tend to go to the Hall of Fame. I might argue that the two best catchers I ever saw were Jim Sundberg and Bob Boone. Neither hit much, but were tremendous catchers. I don’t know many people who think either should be considered in the top 10 of a catching list. So we come again to a problem we see a lot. I mentioned it in a much earlier post on shortstops. It’s the question of how much reliance is to be put on fielding in establishing a player’s greatness. If the guy plays left field (Hello, Ted Williams and Manny Ramirez) no one cares if he’s a good, or even overly acceptable, fielder, when establishing his credentials for greatness. With catcher you can’t do that. It puts a burden on catchers (and shortstops also) that a lot of outfielders don’t have to carry. It’s not exactly fair, but it’s the nature of how the game is played. If I could hit, you could get away with me in left field. If I could hit, you could never use me behind the plate.

Finally, there’s the obvious question of segregation (see what I mean about “semi”?). Most lists of Negro League catchers put Josh Gibson, Louis Santop, Biz Mackey, and Campanella at the top of the charts at the position. We have some idea of the quality of Campanella (although he spent a lot of time in the Negro Leagues). The others never got to play in the white Major Leagues (Santop was dead by 1947). As usual for Negro League players, you’re stuck with anecdotes, not full statistical evidence, in trying to determine the quality of a player. So we make judgement calls (“Do I see a ’10’ from the Bulgarian judge?”) and hope we get it right. Considering that I’m certain that Campanella is a top 10 all-time catcher, I am confident in adding Gibson to a list of the best catcher, but I have no idea how you rate either Santop or Mackey. Maybe they’re in, maybe they’re out.

So having  just put all those caveats out there for you to read, here’s my list of the 10 best catchers ever in alphabetical order: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Carlton Fisk, Josh Gibson, Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez. With suitable apologies to Gabby Hartnett and to Joe Mauer, both of which might slip into the list. I think it’s the best list I can put together at this time. Notice that it’s full of modern guys (seven are post 1945). I think that the equipment has a lot to do with that.

Integrating the Yankees

February 19, 2012

1956 Elston Howard baseball card

There is a tendency to equate levels of racism with the order in which teams integrate between 1947 and 1959. Meaning that somehow the Dodgers, Giants, and Indians (all of which integrated very early in the period) are less racist than teams like the Red Sox who integrated last (“59). Maybe that’s true. I don’t have direct insight into the workings of the minds of Rickey, Veeck, Stoneman, and Yawkey or any other of the leaders of the period. I do know that if it’s true or not, there is one exception that has to be made from this thinking: the Yankees.

Now I’ve never been a Yankees fan but I’m willing to give them a pass on waiting until 1955 to integrate. The reason? Well, there are two of them. First, their unique spot in the baseball pantheon made it imperative that they get it right. Failure of black players in Philadelphia? Not a good thing, but not crucial. Failure of black players in the Bronx? Utterly devastating for integration in baseball.  Three teams absolutely had to get it right. The first was Brooklyn, not because they were Brooklyn, but because they were first. The second team was Cleveland, again not because they were Cleveland, but because they were both first in the American League and they were in a position to prove that Jackie Robinson wasn’t a fluke. The third was, of course, the Yankees.

The second reason I give the Yanks a pass is because they were winning. As we like to say around here, “If it ain’t broke; don’t fix it.” And between Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn and 1955 things in Yankess Stadium were definitely not broke. Between 1947 (Robinson’s first year) and 1953 the Yankees won every American League pennant but one (1948) and every World Series in which they played. Their Minor League system (including that so-call big league team in Kansas City) was churning out players yearly, they were making great trades, there were few serious injuries, and even Korea wasn’t hurting them as bad as other teams (except for Whitey Ford’s loss). Integration was going to be painful and when you’re baeball’s premier team and you’re winning why add pain to the mixture? To integrate risked losing white fans without picking up black ones. If white fans leave in Cleveland, there are black fans to replace them. Same in Pittsburgh. Not in New York where black fans had already gone to Brooklyn. It also meant alienating some of the power brokers in the city, it meant creating problems with the current team members. Both Yogi Berra (from Missouri) and Mickey Mantle (from Oklahoma) were from states that a lot of people saw as “Southern” and why create problems with two of your biggest stars? A quick aside to point out that neither Berra nor Mantle had significant problems with team integration, but the possibility existed. It created travel problems because some hotels refused to allow black patrons. As long as you were winning, why “mess with success?” Of course black players were good, so it didn’t hurt to start finding one and groom him, the team, and the fans for eventual integration.

Enter Elston Howard. Without trying to steal SportsPhd’s thunder with his “These Men Changed Baseball” series, Howard was from Missouri, played outfield for the Kansas City Monarchs, and was picked up by the Yankees (along with Vic Power) in 1950. He spent one year in Muskegon, Michigan, then went off to Korea for two seasons. Back with the Yankees system in 1953 he was at Kansas City then went to Toronto in 1954. He did alright. He hit .300, averaged 16 home runs, struck out more than he walked, and found himself changing positions.

As mentioned above, Howard was initially an outfielder. Most of you know him as a catcher. The switch occurred in the Minors. For some reason, the Yankees thought Howard could be converted to catcher. They asked former catcher Bill Dickey, also from Oklahoma and seen as a Southerner by many, to tutor Howard. Dickey had no trouble with working with a black man and Howard credited him with making him into a good catcher. But here we need to ask what’s going on? It’s not like the Yankees had great left fielders in 1953 and 1954. They had Gene Woodling (’53) and Irv Noren (’54) in left. And, well, that guy they had behind the plate in 1953 and 1954 won the MVP in 1954 (and would do so again in 1955). So it wasn’t like Howard was going to replace Berra anytime soon. So why the change? I’m not sure, but I can speculate that the Yankees saw Berra was aging. He was 30 in 1955, not exactly ready for Social Security, but for a catcher with a lot of games behind the plate, reaching a dangerous age. Give him a good backup, then as he aged, shift him to left field and keep the Berra bat in the lineup. Sounds like a good idea, right?  Meanwhile the new guy could play some left while he backed up (Howard played 75 games in the outfield in 1955, 65 in 1956, 71 in 1957, and by 1958 was in a semi-platoon at catcher). In short it worked, but it also meant that Howard was going to get to the Major Leagues later (he was 26 in 1955) and that integration would come later to the Yankees. I’m not sure how much that last factor (integration coming later) mattered to the Yankees leadership. Maybe it was purposeful and indicates they were reluctant to integrate. Maybe it means that they were serious about getting both a left fielder and a  backup catcher at the same time and were willing to wait on integration. Hopefully it was the latter. And, anyway, they were winning, so who cared? Of course they lost finally in 1954 and you’ll note that Howard made the roster the very next season.

The one thing I’ve been unable to determine in all this is the attitude of  Casey Stengel towards integration. Stengel was also from Missouri (there are a lot of those in this post, aren’t there?), and was frequently heard to use the “N” word (and originally refered to Howard as “Eightball” ). It seems to have been a carryover from his childhood and a normal way of expressing himself (as if Casey Stengel ever had a “normal” way of expressing himself) without particularly racist connotations. Stengel had, over his career, recommended a number of black players to Negro League teams (including Hall of Fame pitcher Joe Rogan), so he knew black talent was available. Maybe he did believe in “separate but equal”, maybe he just expressed himself in ways we now find offensive, but it does seem that he had at least a little problem with accepting a black player to the team. Also, maybe I’m being overly critical of him, I don’t know.

Most importantly, it worked. Howard became an All-Star, became the first black player to win the American League MVP. The Yankees kept winning and integration kept going in baseball. Integrating the Yankees is crucial to making the experiment work. If there are great problems with baseball’s premier team, then integration can be checked. If the Yankees start losing, then the black guy can be blamed and another check can be applied. It didn’t happen and integration went on. The Yankees weren’t in the forefront of the issue, but they did handle it well and that, I believe, helped ensure it would continue apace. So I’ll give them a pass on late integration, something I’m not prone to do for other teams.

E-Lite

February 16, 2012

Elite Giants logo

Negro League baseball is the story of a multitude of teams. Some, like the Monarch, Grays, and Crawfords, are famous. Others are utterly obscure, playing only a few years with little success and dying a quick death. Most teams are somewhere in the middle. One of those, a team that had some success but was never seen as a truly first rank team, was the Baltimore Elite Giants.

Thomas T. Wilson was a black businessman in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1918 he formed a black baseball team called the Nashville Standard Giants. They were semipro and played mainly in the South. By 1921 they were one of the more successful black teams in the South. They had reached elite status and the name change was an obvious. Wilson pronounced the word “e-lite” rather than “e-leet” and the odd pronunciation stuck for the remainder of their history.

In 1928 they were good enough and professional enough to attempt entry into the existing Negro Leagues. It didn’t work. The Negro National League wanted to stay away from adding Southern teams as much as possible and frankly Nashville was no one’s idea of an Eastern team (Eastern Colored League). In 1930 the Elite Giants finally made it into the NNL, only to see the league collapse after the next year. They finished seventh (of nine) in 1930 and last in 1931 (after moving to Cleveland and calling themselves the Cubs).

The years 1931 and 1932 saw the team surviving in the Negro Southern League. The league was considered “minor” in 1931, but with no other viable Negro Leagues it became a de facto “major” league for the 1932 season. By 1933, with economic times improving slightly, there was a movement to recreate a new Negro National League. The Giants were charter members, finishing fifth of seven in 1933. By 1934 they were up to fourth, but failing in attendance. Attempting to reverse the trend, Wilson moved the team to Columbus, Ohio for the 1935 season. Again they finished fourth and attendance wasn’t better in Columbus. In 1936 they made another move, this time to Washington, DC, becoming the Washington Elite Giants. They stayed there two seasons, finishing fifth of six in ’36 and third of six in ’37.

Attendance still wasn’t good, and Baltimore had been without a team since 1934. Wilson made one last move, this time to fill the Baltimore void (a new team moved into Washington, failed, and was ultimately replaced by the Homestead Grays). This time they found a permanent home. Between 1938 and 1948 they were the Baltimore Elite Giants, the name by which they are most frequently known.

They also got better. In 1938 they finished second. In 1939 they finished third, but qualified for the NNL playoffs. They beat second place Newark 3 games to 1 to advance to the NNL championship against the Grays. They beat Homestead 3 games to 1 for their first championship. In 1940 there were no playoffs and they finished second. In 1941 they finished first. In 1942 they were again second. Several good things happened to propel the Elite Giants into championship contenders. First, they were now stable in Baltimore. Fans were up, revenue was up, and the league itself was now more stable. Second, they managed to put together a very good lineup. Hall of Famer Biz Mackey was there through 1938 (before moving to Newark). He was instrumental in mentoring fellow Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella. Charlie Biot played center field, and Henry Kimbro in left were in their prime. Here’s a shot of the 1941 team. Campanella is on the left of the first row and Biot is on the left of the back row.

1941 Elite Giants

  By 1943 things were changing. The war was effecting attendance and play quality as team members went off to war. They finished with a losing record in 1943, finished second in 1944, but were barely over .500. In 1945 they were again second, but in 1946 dropped all the way to next-to-last (fifth).  

1946 saw two major changes for Baltimore. First Wilson, health failing. sold the team and second, the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson and changed the entire face of black baseball. Campanella went to Brooklyn, other players retired or got a look at the white minor league. In 1947 they dropped to fourth. The 1948 season was a split season with Baltimore winning the first half and Homestead the second half. There was no playoff. By this point the Elite Giants had managed to reverse course for at least a short while. They picked up Leon Day and Toots Ferrell to go along with infielders Jim Gilliam and PeeWee Butts and new pitcher, Joe Black. It was enough to make the team good for a final few seasons.

The NNL folded in 1948, tried to revive in 1949 and failed. The Elite Giants were one of its premier teams. They won the 1949 pennant, came in second in 1950, and lost a ton of money. The team was sold back to Nashville where it hung on for one final year. They folded after the 1951 season.

Unlike the Monarchs, Grays, or Crawfords, or the Yankees for that matter, the Elite Giants were a more typical baseball team. As with most teams they were periodically good, sometimes wretched. As with most Negro League teams they were frequently on the move trying to establish themselves in new towns with new fans willing to support them. They finally hit pay dirt in Baltimore and stabilized for a  long period of time. They also fielded some good teams and produced a lot of decent players (Gilliam, Black, etc) and one great one: Campanella. I sometimes wonder what the true sports (as opposed to social) legacy of the Negro Leagues should be. Keeping the sport alive in segregated times is number one, but I’m not sure that proving the depth of talent among black ball players wasn’t a close second. In that way the Elite Giants are both typical and important.

The First Negro League World Series

February 13, 2012

The concept of a championship game, or series of games, isn’t new. It goes back in baseball into the 1880s when the National League and American Association squared off in a series of games that were as much exhibition as serious. The modern World Series comes out of this same desire to see the best two teams face off one last time (or for a first time as the case may be). Black baseball had its own segregated versions of the same thing dating back to around 1910. But with the establishment of, first, the Negro National League, and then the Eastern Colored League in the early 1920s, something like a black version of the World Series could be contested. The first of those was 1924. Some baseball scholars maintain it was also the best of the lot.

Winners of the Negro National League, the Kansas City Monarchs featured decent hitting to go along with great pitching. Future Hall of Fame inductees Joe Rogan and Jose Mendez were on the mound. The infield included Nate Allen, who would still be around for the 1942 Negro League World Series, and Dobie Moore. Heavy Johnson, all 250 pounds of him, was in left field. Mendez did double duty as the manager and the team was owned by J.L. Wilkinson.

The Hilldale Daisies were winners of the new Eastern Colored League (formed in 1923). The owner was Ed Bolden with second baseman Frank Warfield managing. The team included Hall of Fame catchers Louis Santop and Biz Mackey, infielders Judy Johnson (also a Hall of Fame player) and Tank Carr, with Clint Thomas in left field. Nip Winters was their star pitcher. It was to be a best of nine series.

Opening game, 1924 Negro League World Series

Above is a photo of the opening ceremonies of the 1924 Negro League World Series. It’s a wonderful photo of some truly great players. The Monarchs are the team to the right of the photo. The fifth person from the left (fourth in Monarchs uniform) is Heavy Johnson, Rogan is beside him, Newt Allen next, and Mendez beside Allen. Of the men in the middle in the suits, Wilkinson is the man on the left, Bolden on the right. Rube Foster is to Bolden’s right and Alex Pompez is to Foster’s right. Next to Bolden is Louis Santop, the first of the Daisies. Winters is in uniform beside Santop. Carr is three to the left of Winters, and Judy Johnson second from Carr’s left. Biz Mackey is second from Johnson’s left Manager Warfield is the next to last man in uniform on the left side of the photo. You can click on the photo to get a bit better picture.

Games one through three were to be held in Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. However, game three was held on a Sunday. Because of Pennsylvania blue laws the game was played in Baltimore. Games four through six were to be in Kansas City, with the final three games played in Chicago, a neutral site and Rube Foster’s current home town (he was born in Texas but lived in Chicago).

 Game one was a 6-1 affair won by Kansas City. In the sixth inning, Warfield booted a ball allowing two runs to score. Three more errors by pitcher Phil Cockrell brought the damage to five runs. The Monarchs tacked on another run in the top of the ninth. Then with two out, Rogan gave up a pair of runs to reach the final score. Game two saw Hilldale even the series with an 11-0 explosion. Winters gave up four singles, none bunched, and the Daisies scored five runs in the first, and two each in the second and third innings  to blow the game open. Game three was a 6-6 tie. With the score tied going into the ninth, both teams put up one run, then both scored one in the twelfth. The Monarchs committed five errors, two leading to runs, Mackey was intentionally walked three times (wonder how often that happens?), and the game was called because of darkness after 13 innings. The next day the game was replayed with Hilldale winning 4-3. With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth, Kansas City pitcher Cliff Bell walked consecutive batters, then back-to-back errors brought in the winning run. 

Game four shifted to Kansas City. Hilldale went ahead in the series at 3-1 with a 5-2 win. The Monarchs got two runs in the first. Joe Rogan went into the top of the ninth ahead 2-1. With two on Judy Johnson slammed a three-run inside-the-park home run to put the Daisies ahead. Winters shut down 25 of the last 26 hitters he faced to dominate after the first inning. Game five saw Kansas City score four runs in the first, lose the lead in the third, retake the lead in the fourth, then see Hilldale tie it up again in the sixth. In the bottom of the eighth with one on, outfielder George Sweatt tripled in the winning run.  The final game in Kansas City went 12 innings. Rogan, playing second rather than pitching, had three singles, the last of which drove in the winning run. Winters pitched the entire 12 innings for Hilldale. 

Game seven (the eighth played because of the tie) moved to Chicago with the teams tied 3-3. It became one of the most famous of all Negro League games. For five innings the game was a scoreless pitchers duel with Rogan pitching against Rube Currie. Hilldale broke through for a single run in both the sixth and seventh innings.  The bottom of the ninth became famous. With one out and a run in, Rogan beat out a slow roller to short that Mackey, playing third because of an injury, failed to break on (Mackey had played a lot of short when Santop was behind the plate so it wasn’t like he’d never been out there before.). Moore singled off Judy Johnson’s glove (Johnson was at short), putting runners at the corner. Frank Duncan raised a foul pop which Santop proceeded to drop. Given new life, Duncan hit a single through Mackey’s legs that scored both Rogan and Moore giving the Monarchs a 3-2 win. After the game Manager Warfield publicly called out Santop blaming him for the loss (like Santop had put Rogan and Moore on base). Game eight was the next day, with Winters winning his third game for Hilldale as the Daisies evened the Series at 4 games apiece. Winters gave up two early runs, then Hilldale tied it in the fifth, went ahead in the top of the eighth, then saw the Monarchs tie it again in the bottom of the eighth. In the top of the ninth, the Daisies picked up two more runs, including a big hit by previous day’s goat, Santop. Winters shut down Kansas City in the bottom of the ninth to set up a decisive game nine (10 counting the tie). The final game was played Monday, October 20th. For seven and a half innings the pitchers, Jose Mendez and Scrip Lee, were close to unhittable. In the bottom of the eighth, Hilldale pitcher Lee tired and Kansas City pushed across five runs, Mendez scoring a key one, to take a 5-0 lead. Mendez shut out the Daisies in the ninth and Kansas City claimed the first Negro League World Series title. 

It was a heck of a series and deserves a few comments. 1.) Santop was made the goat of the Series because of his error. Of course the loss put Hilldale down one with two to play. Had they won the game they would have been up one with two to play. Who knows what would have happened in game eight if the Monarchs were down. Besides, it’s not like Santop cost the Daisies any of their other four losses. It could be argued that Warfield was the goat because he didn’t pull Lee when he tired in game nine. 2.) Because there was concern that the umpires in the Series might be biased, the leagues agreed to used four white umpires from the Minor Leagues during the Series. There were no complaints (beyond a standard “What? Are you blind?” kind of gripe) about the umpiring. 3.) The winner’s share worked out to $307.96 per player and the loser’s share was $193.22. I checked and the 1924 white World Series winning players (Washington) received $5,959.64 and the losers (New York) got $3, 820.29. 4.) Statistically, Winters was 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA and 21 strikeouts. Rogan was 2-1 with a 2.57 ERA and hit .325 for the Series. Mendez was 2-0 with an ERA of just 1.42. Among hitters, Judy Johnson managed .365 with a Series leading seven RBIs. There were 38 total errors over the 10 games. 

The NNL and ECL continued to play a season ending World Series through 1927. None of the others lived up to the hype or the play of the first. There was, however, a measure of justice, or at least revenge, in the 1925 Series. The same two teams squared off again. This time Hilldale beat the Monarchs five games to one. It was the only Series the ECL team won (In case you’re curious, the Chicago American Giants won the other two 1920s Series’ over the Bacharach Giants).

Big Bertha

February 9, 2012

Louis Santop around 1920

The first in a long line of Negro League sluggers who redefined the role of power in the Negro Leagues was Louis Santop. He was born Louis Santop Loftin in Tyler, Texas in 1890. He began his professional career in 1909 in Texas, moved up through Oklahoma, and arrived on the East Coast in 1910. He was big, powerful, and a catcher. There is no question of his hitting prowess or of his power. Everyone agrees he hit well and the ball went a long way when he connected.  There does seem to be, however, some question about his abilities as a catcher. Some sources imply he was a hitter who happened to play behind the plate. Other sources indicate he was a great catcher with soft hands, quick feet (which didn’t age well), and a good ability to call a game. Whichever is correct, there is universal agreement that he was, as much because of his size as anything else, excellent at blocking the plate even in an era with minimal catcher’s gear.

Bertha Krupp von Bohlen

He spent the 19-teens floating among the better black teams of New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Chicago. He was big and powerful and even for “Dead Ball” baseball prolific at home runs and especially gap-power doubles. He picked up the nickname “Big Bertha” during World War I. The German .420 cannon was nicknamed for the Krupp heiress Bertha (a fairly large woman) and packed quite a punch in action. That seemed, to fans and fellow players, to describe Santop also. In the period just before World War I, Santop played with the New York Lincoln Giants. He’s credited with batting  averages of .470, 422, .429, and .455 between the years 1911 and 1914. As usual with Negro League statistics, don’t hang your hat on those numbers. Whether they are exaggerated or indicate lousy pitching, or whatever, they do indicate that Santop could hit well.

A .420 Morser (“Big Bertha”)

In 1917 he found something like a permanent home. Excepting a stint in the military during and just after World War I, Santop played the rest of his career with the Hilldale Daisies of Philadelphia. Hilldale was a dairy company that fielded a youth team. By 1916, they turned professional and barnstormed throughout the East with an occasional foray into the Midwest. In 1923 the Eastern Colored League was formed with Hilldale as a charter member. They won pennants in 1923, ’24, and ’25. Santop was the starting catcher in 1923 but was aging. He began splitting playing time with Biz Mackey (a fellow Hall of Fame inductee) and by late in 1924 was in something like a platoon situation with Mackey. In the 1924 Negro League World Series Santop, playing for Mackey, made a significant error that helped lead to the Daisies losing the World Series to Kansas City. Sources all agree that Santop never recovered from the error and the public tongue-lashing his manager gave him after the game. He lingered into 1926 when he retired.

Out of the Negro Leagues, he played semipro ball for five years then did some broadcast work for a Philadelphia radio station (WELK). He left that job to tend bar. He died in Philadelphia in 1942 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006.

As with any Negro League player the statistical evidence for his career is slim. Baseball Reference’s Bullpen gives some stats for the Eastern Colored League years (1923-26) and some for the period 1920-22 when the Daisies were associate members of the Negro National League (that means they played meaningful games against quality competition, but those games didn’t count for championship purposes for Hilldale). Be aware that the numbers are both incomplete and reflect Santop’s numbers in the latter stages of his career (in other words, there is no string of hitting .400 four years in a row).

Over seven years, Santop appeared in 190 documented games hitting .324 with a slugging percentage of .461. No OBP is given so no OPS or OPS+ can be figured with preciseness. I did do a quick hits plus walks divided by at bats and came up with .396 (how many catcher’s interference and hit batsmen could there be?). That would give an OPS of .857 (and no park info for OPS+). He had 189 hits, 29 doubles, 13 home runs, and scored an even 100 runs. He had  87 RBIs, 13 stolen bases, and 42 walks (no strikeout totals available). The stats are also broken down for a 162 game schedule giving 85 runs, 161 hits, 25 doubles, 11 home runs, and 74 RBIs over a 162 game season. Not bad for an old man in the 1920s.

Which brings me to the usual question about Negro League players, “How good was he?” And as usual the answer is, “Got me.” The information is spotty but all indications are that Santop was a first-rate player who would have done well in the white Major Leagues. Would he have been spectacular? I don’t know. In looking for info on Santop I ran across a number of lists of Negro League players trying to rank them by position (Bill James has one in his book if you want to look at a representative example.). There’s something like complete agreement that Santop is second on the catching list behind Josh Gibson (and that Mackey is third). Maybe it’s enough to say that if you’re second behind Gibson, you’re awfully good. Maybe that’s all we can finally say about Santop.

The White Guy

February 7, 2012

It’s with a certain sadness that I write this. Adding another post will consign Mrs. Posada to the second page of this blog and that’s a shame. Well, I’ll manfully carry on anyway. With the return of February, it’s time for my month-long sojourn into black baseball. In honor of Black History Month, I want to look at some of the ins and outs of the Negro Leagues and other aspects of black baseball prior to about 1960. Having said all that, I’m going to start off with a white guy.

James Leslie Wilkinson (J. L. to most people) was born in 1878 in Iowa. He was something of a budding pitcher, hurt his arm, and decided to remain with the game by being a manager and owner. He started with a women’s team in 1909. There were allegations that some of the players were guys in drag (the “five o’clock shadow” was a dead give away), but the team did well. In 1912, he moved on to form the All Nation’s Team. It was one of the first barnstorming multi-racial teams. At various times there were white Europeans, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, and Africans on the team. They were good, usually winning their games with big scores. The stars were Jose Mendez, and John Donaldson. In 1915 Wilkinson moved the team to Kansas City, but still barnstormed around the country. Over time, the “All Nations” aspect was disappearing as the team became increasingly black in composition.

By this point Wilkinson had met Rube Foster. The two men got along and when Foster formed the Negro National League in 1920, he wanted Wilkinson to take over one of the teams, the only white owner in the new league. Wilkinson took the best players from his All-Nations team, added a group of players from other teams, including Joe Rogan from the 25th Infantry Wreckers, an all-black Army team in Hawaii (there’s a post waiting to be written, but the info is sketchy, so maybe next year). Rogan was recommended to Wilkinson by Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel. With the new team in place, Wilkinson named them the Kansas City Monarchs.

1922 NNL leadership

 
Above is a picture of the movers and shakers of the Negro National League in 1922. Wilkinson is seated on the left of the front row. Foster is third from the left on the same row. It’s a rare  and wonderful look at the men who made the Negro National League, the first of the famous Negro Leagues (there were other all-black leagues prior to 1920).
 
The Monarchs were good from the beginning. They won their first pennant in 1923,  repeating in 1924. With the creation of the Eastern Colored League, there were now two major Negro Leagues. In 1924 they got together for the first Negro League World Series. The Monarchs defeated the Hilldale Daisies (of Philadelphia) over a nine game series. The Monarchs repeated in 1925, but lost the rematch with the Hilldale five games to one. The Monarchs never again won the NNL pennant, but were contenders most years. As an owner, Wilkinson pioneered the use of black umpires (the NNL used white umpires at the beginning) in the league and pushed for a unified umpiring system that would increase the professionalism of the umps.
 
With the failure of the NNL in 1931 and the loss of Foster to mental problems, Wilkinson led the Monarchs back to the barnstorming days. That lasted until 1937 when new Negro Leagues began to form. The Monarchs joined the new Negro American League, winning the first pennant. They lost in 1938, then came back to win consecutive pennants in 1939-1942. In 1942, the Negro League World Series was renewed between the NAL and a new version of the Negro National League. The Monarchs won the first Series in four straight games. They fell back in 1943 through 1945, winning again in 1946. This time they dropped the Series to the Newark Eagles in seven games. While the Monarchs weren’t winning, they managed to find a pretty good shortstop in 1945 named Jackie Robinson. It was his only year with the team or in the Negro Leagues.
 
Robinson’s signing by the Brooklyn Dodgers hurt the Negro Leagues badly, eventually leading to their collapse. Wilkinson saw the end coming and in 1948 sold the Monarchs. Already ailing and almost blind, Wilkinson retired. He lingered to 1964, dying in a Kansas City nursing home. When the Hall of Fame made their big push to add Negro League players and executives in 2006, Wilkinson was one of the people elected to the Hall. It was, in my opinion, overdue.

“Pretend It’s Commie’s Wake”

February 2, 2012

Comiskey during his playing days

If you’ve been following along, I presume you’re expecting to see a short bio of Joe Jackson here. I’ve not gone that direction for two reasons. First, Jackson has been done to death. Second, I’ve done Jackson to death. Instead, I want to focus on the team owner, Charles Comiskey, a man many people blame as much as the players for the Black Sox Scandal. In the flick “Eight Men Out” as a measure of the player’s disdain for Comiskey, when it’s time for the team picture, how do you get the players to smile? You tell them to “Pretend it’s Commie’s Wake.” Whatever you think of the Black Sox or the scandal, it  happened on Comiskey’s watch.
 
Comiskey was from Chicago, born in 1859 to parents that had connections. His dad was at various times Cook County Clerk and a member of the City Council. So Comiskey, unlike his players, knew a little about politics. He took to baseball very early, apparently got into fights with his parents over it, left home at 17 to play ball, and became a successful pitcher and first baseman in the Northwest League.
 
In 1882, he joined the newly formed American Association’s St. Louis Browns as their first baseman. He was good in the field, not as good with the bat, and something of a team leader. By 1883 he was the team’s player-manager. Under Comiskey, the Browns ran off four consecutive Association championships, including a victory over the National League’s Chicago team in an 1886 version of the World Series.
 
I was surprised to learn that Comiskey was a follower of Monty Ward’s Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players Union (it doesn’t fit with his later record). He joined Ward and other Major Leaguers in the 1890 Player’s League. With the folding of the Player’s League (and the Brotherhood), Comiskey went back to St. Louis, was traded to Cincinnati, and retired as a player after the 1894 season. His record is unspectacular. He hit .264, with an OBP of .293, slugged .337 for an OPS of .630 (OPS+ of 82). He had 1956 total bases, 883 RBIs, and 992 runs scored. His postseason numbers are almost dead on with his regular season stats. He managed parts of 13 seasons, coming in first four of them, second twice, and fourth three times. His managerial winning percentage is .608.
 
In 1894, while still active, he joined with Ban Johnson, a Cincinnati sportswriter, to form the Western League. Comiskey bought the team in Sioux City, Iowa but immediately moved it to St. Paul, Minnesota. He eventually moved the team to Chicago, joined with Johnson in renaming the league the American League, and in 1901 won the first pennant for the fledgling Major League (His manager was Hall of Famer Clark Griffith.). His team repeated as champion in 1906, winning its first World Series over the crosstown rival Cubs. By 1910, his team was successful, the league was a success, and he was making a ton of money.

Comiskey about 1910

 
 To all the world the team seemed a success. Comiskey owned a big, modern ballpark, gave tickets away to children, lavished food and drink on reporters, and otherwise looked like a wealthy man. But how do you do that in 1915 Chicago while running a baseball team? Well, one of the ways you do it is by shorting your players. Comiskey was beginning to pick up a reputation as a miser when it came to his players. He paid them poorly, gave them less meal money than other teams, put them in cheap hotels, gave them flat champagne as a bonus (1917), and didn’t do the laundry very often. He was known to belittle them in public and complain that they loafed on the job when they lost. All of which led to a World Series victory in 1917 and a loss in 1919.
 
And it’s the loss in 1919 that was the problem. Eight of the players conspired to fix the Series (the level of complicity varies from player to player). Comiskey and others had suspicions from the beginning, Comiskey going so far as to hold World Series shares until a private detective investigation was finished (the players eventually got their money). In 1920 it blew up in public court, ridicule, and shame (but there were no late night comics to give it a funny undertone). The players were put on trial, Comiskey testified, the players were acquitted and Comiskey, who had been one of the first to urge the creation of an independent Commissioner, found his players barred from baseball by his handpicked Commissioner, Judge Landis.
 

The Hollywood version of Comiskey (Clifton James)

 Comiskey continued to run the White Sox through 1931. His team never again finished near first (and didn’t do so again until 1959). It never won another World Series in his lifetime (and only won again in 2005). He made the Hall of Fame in 1939.

When I was in the army people got screwed with in basic training. Then they were screwed with in advanced training. And when they got to their new post, they were screwed with again by the guys who’d been there a while. Well, eventually most guys reached a point where they were the old guys. People tended to learn one of two lessons. First, you got even by screwing with the poor guys who were new or under your command. Second, you refused to be a jerk because you recalled what it felt like to be screwed with and didn’t want other people to feel the way you felt when you were the bottom rung. Most people learned the first lesson. I’ve always been a little surprised that , as an ex-player, Comiskey treated his team with utter contempt. In light of my army experience maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. I know that my sympathy for Comiskey as wronged owner would be greater if he wasn’t a former player who knew what it was like to be the guy on the bottom. I understand why he’s in the Hall of Fame, but sometimes I wish he wasn’t.