Big Bertha

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.

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2 Responses to “Big Bertha”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Seeing that you are a scholar of the Great War, let me recommend a book to you that I recently finished, “To End All Wars” by Adam Hochschild. It’s an outstanding read.
    I appreciate your honesty regarding how great players like Santop really were. There’s just no way to know for sure. Still, they are worth recalling, and you do a nice job bringing them back to life for us.
    Good Work,
    Bill

    • verdun2 Says:

      Have read the book. Good job by the author. Particularly liked the comments on the Pankhurst sisters.
      Thanks for the kind words. Most people get few enough of them in the course of a day, so any kind words are greatly appreciated. I wish it was possible to truly evaluate Negro League players with something like precision.
      v

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