Archive for February, 2013

Negro League Baseball: A Book Review

February 27, 2013
cover of Negro League Baseball

cover of Negro League Baseball

There are a lot of good books about the Negro Leagues. There are also, unfortunately, some bad ones. I haven’t done a book review in forever, so I decided that would be a good way to end this month long journey into black baseball. Here’s a look at Negro League Baseball: Photographs by Ernest C. Withers.

As the title implies, this is primarily a picture book. In format, it’s oversized and one of those coffee table books that people frequently purchase, put on their coffee table to impress people, and never really read. This one is worth a look. Withers was a freelance photographer in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1940s (and later, but the book concentrates on the 1940s) who took pictures of whatever he found in the black community of Memphis. That included pictures at the ballpark.

It shouldn’t surprise you that the majority of pictures involve the Memphis Red Sox. There are pictures of players, owners, fans, umpires, the park in general. Many of the pictures are posed, there are few action shots. And that makes them valuable as portraits of the players, rather than shots of just any ball game. Most 1940s Memphis players are present as well as shots of other players who came to town with the visiting team. Withers also attended the East-West All Star Game and gives us pictures of greats who, because they were in the Negro National League (Memphis belonged to the Negro American League), didn’t come to Memphis on a regular basis. There is a picture of Josh Gibson which the book claims is the last shot of Gibson in uniform.

And as much as the book’s emphasis is on baseball, the pictures of the fans and executives give a wonderful glimpse of black life in Memphis in the era. There is an outstanding picture of the four Martin brothers. All were succesful doctors (one was a dentist) who ran the team. One of them, J.B. Martin, became President of the Negro American League. The picture shows four successful businessmen waiting for a train. They could be any four successful businessmen waiting for a train. They simply happen to be black. In some ways, it is these kinds of pictures that are the most important.

There is a Forward by Willie Mays (who played against the Red Sox), and Introduction by Withers, and an interesting commentary by Daniel Wolff. All are fine, but the heart of the book is the portfolio of pictures. The book was published by Harry N . Abrams Books in 2004. It retails for $35 and is well worth looking over. It is available at an inflated price from, I checked.


That Other League

February 25, 2013
1925 Hilldale

1925 Hilldale

Ask most baseball fans about the Negro Leagues and you’ll get an acknowledgment that they’ve heard of such (which is, I guess, an improvement). Ask them to identify a particular league and if you’re really lucky they’ll reply with Negro National League (without knowing it came in two phases). Or if you’re really, really lucky you’ll find they’ve heard of the Negro American League. Generally if you tell them one of the two existed, they’ll guess the other one. But, of course, those weren’t the only Negro Leagues. For most of the first half of the Twentieth Century they were the most important, but they weren’t alone. For a short period in the 1920s, before the Negro American League was formed, there was another league that could, and did, compete with the Negro National League at the highest level. The first Negro World Series occurred not between the Negro National League and the Negro American League, but between the Negro National League and the other league, the Eastern Colored League.

The Negro National League was formed in 1920 and combined most of the better black independent barnstorming teams into a single entity. The league was not without problems. Rube Foster, founder and President, ran the NNL with an iron hand and a number of  eastern teams felt he favored western teams, especially Chicago, in disputes. In 1923 Ed Bolden, owner of the Hilldale Daisies, proposed the formation of a new league based primarily on the East Coast. He approached New York booking agent Nat Strong (who was white) about forming the new league. Strong handled booking for most East Coast black teams and agreed to support Bolden and handle the booking.  They convinced the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City to join them in jumping from the NNL and the two teams created the Eastern Colored League.

Two teams don’t make much of a league, so both Bolden and Strong actively recruited new members. They went after both NNL affiliated teams and independents. By opening day 1923 “that other league”, as Rube Foster described them, fielded six teams: the Daisies, Bacharachs, Alex Pompez’s Cuban Stars East, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, New York’s Lincoln Giants, and the Baltimore Black Sox. The ECL played between 36 (Royal Giants) and 49 (Hilldale and Baltimore) games with Hilldale taking the first pennant by four and a half games over the Cuban Stars.

Through the winter of 1923 into early 1924 the two leagues feuded over contracts, stealing teams, hijacking players, and Rube Foster’s complaint that the ECL had too many white owners (the NNL also had white owners). Toward the end of the season, the leagues made peace, agreeing to honor contracts, stop raiding (and all the other things leagues agree to and frequently ignore). With Kansas City winning the NNL and Hilldale repeating in the ECL, they leagues determined to play an end of season Negro World Series, which Kansas City won. The series lasted through 1927.

Hilldale repeated in 1925, winning the Negro World Series, then slipped back in 1926. Founding member the Bacharach Giants replaced them as the ECL’s leading team, winning titles in both 1926 and 1927. They lost the World Series each time. By the end of the 1927 season, the ECL had gone from playing 49 games to a high of 117 games (Hilldale). With the longer season there were increased ticket sales and an appearance of stability.

But the stability was illusionary. Bolden was having health problems and other owners were beginning to chafe under his leadership. As he both owned  Hilldale and was President of the league, several owners and a few newspapers began questioning if Bolden could serve impartially. In 1927 he was replaced as ECL President, becoming secretary in 1928. But Hilldale was hemorrhaging money and pulled out of the league. He took the Royal Giants with him along with the Harrisburg Giants (who’d joined the ECL in 1924).  It left the league with five teams, shaky finances, and few prospects. In May, the ECL folded, with the teams going their independent ways.

The ECL was generally considered the second league behind the NNL, weaker, less stable. All those things were true and the ECL was unable to stay afloat for long. During its existence, it did provide legitimate competition for the NNL, winning one of four Negro World Series. Its collapse followed by the failure of the NNL in 1931 began a long period of independence in black baseball.

El Maestro

February 22, 2013
Martin Dihigo

Martin Dihigo

It’s interesting to read baseball historians debate the issue of the finest Negro League player. Some declaim long and hard for Oscar Charleston. Others spout on and on about Josh Gibson. Pitching fanatics clamor for Satchel Paige. Maybe some of them are right, or maybe they’re all a little nutty. But there does seem to be a general consensus that the most versatile was Martin DiHigo (pronounced Marteen Deego–no H). He’s also one of a handful of players who made an impact off the diamond.

DiHigo was born in either 1905 or 1906, depending on who you believe, in Western Cuba. By 1922 he was playing first base for the main team in Havana. For his career he became a nomad, wandering between Cuba, Mexico, and the US. That makes it sound like he was unwanted, but with Latin teams being able to play in the winter, and seasons that only partially overlapped, the much in demand DiHigo was able to play ball almost all year. Over the course of a 30 year career he managed to star in three leagues, manage in two more, and find his way into the Halls of Fame in Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the US, and according to one source Venezuela (although that seems to be in doubt).

He remained in Cuban baseball through 1932, then returned in 1935 and remained there through 1947. He played every position except catcher. Although the statistics are incomplete, what is available is sufficient to conclude he was a heck of a player. He compiled a batting average of .296, slugged .408, had 17 home runs, 53 stolen bases, and scored 356 runs in 2093 at bats. As a pitcher he was 107-56 with strikeout, walk, and ERA totals unavailable.

When not playing in Cuba, DiHigo played in other places. He spent much of 1937-1944, 1946-1947, and 1950 in the Mexican League. Again he shifted positions a lot. And again the statistics are not complete (although better than in Cuba). Information is available for 577 games. His triple slash numbers are .317/420/,490 for an OPS of .910. He 327 walks, 185 strikeouts, and 57 stolen bases. He hit 55 home runs, 110 doubles, and had 370 RBIs in 1970 at bats. His pitching was even better. He went 119-57 with an ERA of 2.84 along with 1066 strikeouts and 460 walks. In 1938 he was 18-2 with an ERA of 0.92 in 167 innings.

But of course he is mostly famous among Americans for his Negro League work. In 1923, at age 18, he joined the Cuban Stars (East) remaining there through 1927. He spent 1928 at Homestead, 1929 at Hilldale. With the death of the Negro Leagues in the Depression, He played independent ball with the Cuban Stars and Hilldale before returning to Cuba. He was back in the US in 1935 and 1936 and again in 1945. In 1354 documented plate appearances his triple slash numbers were .304/.354/.499 for an OPS of .852. He  had 32 documented stolen bases, 57 home runs, 58 doubles, scored 279 runs, and had 17 triples. RBI totals are unavailable. As a pitcher 22-19 (his ERA is also unavailable) with 69 walks and 158 strikeouts. He led the Negro Leagues in home runs in both 1926 and 1935.

Those are the bare, and incomplete, stats on DiHigo, but they tell us little about this fascinating man. He managed in Venezuela, thus helping to popularize baseball in South America. He taught and mentored numerous black Latin ball players, particularly in the Dominican Republic and his native Cuba. He opposed the repressive (at least to him) government of Cuba, becoming one of the men who helped finance Fidel Castro in his 1950s revolution. As is common with DiHigo there is some dispute about how heavily he was involved with the revolution, just as there is a question about whether he became a Communist or not. After Castro came to power, DiHigo was made Minister of Sport, a job he took seriously. He held the position until his death in 1971 and is credited with expanding opportunities for Cuban League players by improving fields, working to get better equipment, and for supporting other sports (like boxing). In 1951 he was elected to the Cuban Hall of Fame. The Mexican Hall called in 1964, and Cooperstown enshrined him in 1977, the Dominican Republic’s Latino Baseball Hall of Fame put him in 2010. Although his Wikipedia page indicates he is in the Venezuela Hall of Fame, Baseball Reference (which has a list of members) does not list him as a member.

DiHigo is a fascinating ball player. He is versatile, he is very good, he is a great teacher. But he is more than a ball player, something most players aren’t when you really get down to it. DiHigo made an impact on his society away from his sport. Not a lot of that going on in sports. It’s part of what got him his nickname, “El Maestro” (the Master).

Negro Leagues Baseball Graves Marker Project

February 20, 2013
Sol White's grave

Sol White’s grave

Just a short note today. I’ve found a very worthy organization centered around the Negro Leagues. A number of Negro League players died in poverty or near poverty. Some of them were buried without a proper headstone. The Negro Leagues Baseball Graves Marker Project is attempting to remedy that situation. So far, they have placed tombstones (very simple ones) on the graves of at least 24 former Negro League players and leaders (including Hall of Famer Sol White). In researching this, I found that such notable players as Josh Gibson went years without a gravestone.

If you are interested in this project you might have to go through SABR. The project website seems to be down. That may mean they have folded, but other info I’ve found indicates they are still active. Do not consider this a plea for money. I haven’t sent them any money myself and don’t ask you to do so. I merely want to bring this to your attention.

The First Negro League All-Star Game

February 18, 2013
Steel Arm Davis

Steel Arm Davis

In an earlier previous post I remarked on the formation and history of the East-West All-Star Game. As with most all-star games some of them are very good and others stink up the place. For my money one of the very best East-West games was the first one in 1933.

Held on 10 September in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, the game consisted of two fan chosen teams that cut across league lines to create two geographically chosen teams. The East starting team had an infield (from first to third) of: Oscar Charleston (Crawfords), John Henry Russell (Crawfords), Dick Lundy (Stars), and Jud Wilson (Stars). The outfield was from left to right: Vic Harris (Crawfords), Cool Papa Bell (Crawfords), and Rap Dixon (Stars). The battery had Biz Mackey (Stars) catching, and Sam Streeter (Crawfords) pitching. The bench consisted of eight players (a few of them not from either the Crawfords or the Stars) including future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Andy Cooper, Judy Johnson and catcher Josh Gibson.

The West team was equally stellar. The infield (again first to third) was Mule Suttles (American Giants), LeRoy Morney (Buckeyes), Willie Wells (American Giants), and Alex Radcliffe (American Giants). From left to right the outfield was Steel Arm Davis (American Giants), Turkey Stearnes (American Giants), and Sam Bankhead (Elite Giants). The battery consisted of  catcher Willie Brown and pitcher Willie Foster (both of the American Giants). The bench comprised seven players (most from either the Nashville Elite Giants or the Kansas City Monarchs) with Newt Allen being the most noted. The West team did not substitute during the game (the only time that occured in the East-West Game), so the subs got the day off.

Steel Arm Davis recorded the first out on a fly from Cool Papa Bell and the East went in order in the first. In the top of the second, Jud Wilson singled to record the first hit, but did not score. The game remained scoreless into the bottom of the third when Sam Bankhead singled, went to second on an out and scored on Turkey Stearnes’ single. The fourth inning saw six runs scored, three by each team. The botom of the third included a two-run home run by Mule Suttles, the first homer in East-West history. The East got two more in the fifth on a single, a hit bastsman, another single, and Wilson’s two run single. That put the East up 5-4. It was their last lead.

The West took the lead for good in the bottom of the sixth on two singles sandwiched around consecutive doubles. They picked up three more in the seventh and a final run in the eighth. By the top of the ninth, the East led 11-5 and were coasting. A single, an error, and two sacrifice flies brought the game to 11-7 with Josh Gibson coming up. He hit a long fly to end the game.

The big heroes were Foster, who pitched the only complete game in East-West history, and Suttles who was two for four with three RBIs, two runs scored, a double, and a home run. More than that, the game was a huge success among fans. It made it certain that the game would be continued.

“Outrun the Word of God”

February 14, 2013
Sam Jethroe playing for the Braves

Sam Jethroe playing for the Braves

A lot of players who first integrated Major League Baseball teams are famous only for that. Some go on to glory, some into obscurity. Some, like Sam Jethroe make their mark both on the field and later in life and change baseball’s financial system in doing so.

Sam Jethroe was born in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1918. He was a star at his local (segregated) high school, excelling in baseball and football. After graduating he played semi-pro ball locally, getting a 1938 cup of coffee with the Indianapolis ABC’s. In 1942 he made it to the Cincinnati Buckeyes as a switch-hitting, speedy, weak armed outfielder who could, in the words of one contemporary, “outrun the word of God.” In 1943, the Buckeyes moved to Cleveland, where they remained for the remainder of Jethroe’s Negro League career.

The Buckeyes were never one of the strongest Negro American League. Jethroe was one of the players who changed that. In 1942 Jethroe made his first East-West Game. He won batting titles in 1944 and 1945, pairing both titles with the league lead in stolen bases and in hits, all while tending bar in the off-season. The 1945 Buckeyes won the NAL pennant, then swept Homestead in the Negro World Series. They picked up another pennant in 1947, Jethroe’s last full season with the Buckeyes, but lost the Negro World Series to the Cubans.

For Jethroe, 1948 was a watershed season. While still playing a few games with Cleveland, he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. He spent most of the season at Montreal, and followed 1948 up with another year in Canada. He had OPS ratings of .858 and .923 his two years in Montreal, and stole 89 bases in 1949. He couldn’t make it to Brooklyn despite those numbers. He played center field and the Dodgers had just brought up Duke Snider. Why they didn’t make Jethroe the fourth outfielder I don’t know. Whatever the reason, he found himself traded to the Boston Braves (now the team in Atlanta) for a couple of nobodies.

In 1950 he made the Major Leagues as the Braves first black player. He was terrific. He hit .273, had an OBP of .338, led the National League with 35 stolen bases, but struck out about twice as often as he walked. His reward was the 1950 National League Rookie of the Year award (the second black player, after Jackie Robinson, to win one). He was good again in 1951 raising his batting average five points and duplicating the 35 steals to again lead the NL. He was also 34. He began slipping in 1952 and found himself back in the minors in 1953. He had a two game shot with Pittsburgh in 1954, then went back to the minors to stay. He remained in the minors through 1958 playing mostly with Toronto.

As with all Negro League players, his Negro League stats are incomplete. What we have shows 219 at bats. In those at bats he had a triple slash line of .283/.323/.406. He had 62 hits, two home runs, and nine steals. Considering his stolen base propensity in the Major Leagues, obviously a lot of stats are missing.

His Major League numbers show a triple slash line of .261/.337/.418 for an OPS of 755 (OPS+ of 107). He had 737 total bases over 460 total hits with 80 doubles, 25 triples, and 49 home runs. He scored 280 runs, had 181 RBIs, and stole 98 stolen bases. He was also 33 when he arrived in Boston..

After retirement, Jethroe worked in an Erie, Pennsylvania factory, opened a bar, and complained  about not getting a pension. Pension rights were based on Major League service and because Negro League players were excluded from the Majors, few of them were eligible for one. Jethroe, in 1991, sued the Major Leagues demanding a pension. He lost the case, but in what may be his most important achievement in baseball, got the attention of Major League leadership. It took until 1997, but Negro League players not otherwise eligible for a pension were granted stipends. Jethroe received a pension until his death in 2001.

Sam Jethroe is not in the Hall of Fame and probably shouldn’t be. He is, however, very important. Mostly he is known for integrating the Braves, but he is also important as the second black player, and the first to spend significant time in the Negro Leagues, to win the Rookie of the Year award (Jackie Robinson spent only one year in the Negro Leagues). But equally important is his stand for compensation for Negro Leaguers who were unable to play in the Major Leagues simply because of their tan. Getting these men a pension, even a small one, was of significance and for that alone Jethroe should be remembered.

The East-West All Star Game

February 11, 2013

In 1933 Major League Baseball instituted its All-Star game. The game is now an institution, despite its exhibition nature. They’ve added all sorts of bells and whistles, like a home run hitting contest and making home field in the World Series dependent upon who wins, but at heart it hasn’t really changed since 1933. Of course black ball players weren’t invited to the 1933 shindig. Not to be outdone, they staged their own version. It became the centerpiece of American black baseball.

Following up on Major League Baseball’s own All-Star game, the black teams decided to hold their own. Writers Roy Sparrow and Bill Nunn proposed to Gus Greenlee, owner of the Crawfords, that black teams hold their own game. Comiskey Park in Chicago agreed to allow the game to be played there. There was one big problem for the organizers. There weren’t two quality leagues in black baseball.

With the coming of the Great Depression, Negro League baseball was hit hard. Marginal at best, the leagues were devastated by the downturn in the economy. The two primary leagues, the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League, both folded. By 1933, things were getting a bit better and a new Negro National League was formed. There were other leagues around, but they were small, regional, and lacked the best teams and players. Many teams, like the Kansas City Monarchs, survived primarily by barnstorming. So the idea of having the Negro National League play one of the other leagues was simply unacceptable. Greenlee hit on another idea. Rather than create two league based teams, the opposing sides would be determined geographically. There would be an “East” team, composed of teams that played east of the Pennsylvania-Ohio state line, and a “West” team that consisted of teams playing from Ohio westward. The major black newspapers would count the votes and fans would be allowed to pick the teams. The idea was wildly popular and the first game occurred 10 September 1933.

As there was no Negro League World Series in the 1930s (the Negro World Series occurred in two stages: one in the 1920s, the other in the 1940s) the All Star game rapidly became the high point of Negro League baseball, remaining so even after the reestablishment of the Negro World Series. The game drew well with Comiskey Park generally being  mostly full and good games predominating. Over the course of the series, the game was almost always played in Chicago (there were a couple of games in other towns) and in 1939 and 1946 there were two games. In 1937 they tried a North-South game played in Memphis. The idea didn’t catch on and East-West remained the format for the duration of the game.

And the game lasted for a long time. The final game was in 1962. With the advent of integration in the Majors, the Negro Leagues floundered. Many died, but the All-Star game hung on. By the early 1950s it was in deep trouble. The players were no longer first-rate (most of those were in the Majors or the white Minor Leagues), and one (1955) actually ended in a tie (and you thought Bud Selig invented tied All-Star games). After 1962 it was determined that the games was no longer viable and it was discontinued. Over the course of the games, the East won 11 and the West won 19 (with the one tie). In the single North-South game, the North won 10-7.

Over the course of its run, the East-West game provided black baseball with a showcase that matched Major League Baseball. It died with the Negro Leagues. It did provide a unique atmosphere for the finest black ball players of the 1930s and 1940s to prove their quality.

The Character Clause

February 7, 2013
Alex Pompez

Alex Pompez. Love the tie

As most of you know, baseball’s Hall of Fame has a character clause. Basically it says the voters have to take into account the man’s (and except for Effa Manley it’s always been a man) character when electing him to Cooperstown. There’s been a varied history of enforcing this clause. Some notable rogues have gotten in despite the clause. As my son pointed out when we talked about this post, most of them have taken at least a couple of elections before being enshrined among the baseball immortals.  But it seems to be more baseball foibles, rather than actual “character” issues that have kept players from the Hall. Whitey Ford and Gaylord Perry, both noted for doctoring a ball or two, took a while to get in. Roberto Alomar was surely hurt by the spitting incident. And of course the steroids controversy which currently dogs the Hall should be noted. But if your problem is away from the diamond, like, say a Ty Cobb, well, you have less problem. Case in point, Alex Pompez.

Alejandro Pompez was born in South Florida in 1890 to Cuban parents. His dad was a member of the Florida State Assembly and ran a cigar factory. When the father died in 1896 he left his estate to the Cuban independence movement, leaving the family penniless. By 1902, the family was back in a now independent Cuba. Pompez returned to the US, played a little ball, the moved on to New York to work as a cigar roller. He did well, finally opening a cigar store in Harlem.

It’s here that the character clause kicks in. The cigar store made money, but not a lot. Pompez began running numbers, eventually rising to control much of the numbers racket in Harlem. A friend of Nat Strong (who is worth a post by himself), he became instrumental in helping funnel Latin players to the Negro Leagues. By 1916, with help from Strong and his numbers racket, Pompez formed the Havana Cuban Stars baseball team, stocking it with Latin American players.

In 1923, The Cubans, now known as the New York Cuban Stars, joined the Eastern Colored League. Although the team never won a ECL pennant, Pompez became a major player in both the league management and in Negro League baseball in general. In 1924 he led ECL negotiations for setting up the first Negro World Series against Rube Forster’s Negro National League. Until the ECL collapsed in 1928, Pompez was one of its most influential members (although never league President).

He kept his team afloat during the early 1930s by barnstorming. In 1935 he joined the newly reformed Negro National League, renaming the team the New York Cubans. For the first time, he added local Black American talent to his Latin players.

But Pompez was having legal troubles. In the late 1920s the mobster Dutch Schultz was moving into the numbers racket. In 1932 he and Pompez met and the Pompez network was absorbed (probably at gunpoint) into the Schultz mob. It cut into Pompez’s money and at the same time drew attention to him from federal prosecutors who wanted Schultz. In 1935 Schultz was killed and Pompez regained control of his numbers route. But by now he was a federal target. Pompez fled to Europe, returned, was indicted on racketeering charges, fled to Mexico. Eventually he was picked up by Mexican authorities and returned to New York. He made an agreement with the prosecution team (led by future New York governor and Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey) and turned states evidence against the rackets. For his trouble, he received probation only and promised to stay clear of the number route in Harlem.

Now free to run the team again, Pompez led the Cubans to their sole pennant in 1947 and saw his team win the Negro World Series that year. But the club, and all of black baseball, was in trouble. Integration was killing the fan base and taking the best players into white leagues. The Cubans hung on through 1950 before folding. But Pompez was not through with baseball. He’d made an earlier arrangement with the New York Giants that gave his team use of the Polo Grounds and the Giants first call on his players. With the team gone, the Giants hired Pompez as both a scout and as a mentor for their black and Latin players. As the team’s Director of International Scouting, he was instrumental in finding Latin talent, especially in the Dominican Republic, for the Giants.

In 1971 he retired from the Giants. He still wasn’t through with baseball. The Hall of Fame chose him to serve on the special committee designed to choose Negro League players for the Hall. He remained in the position until his death in 1974. In 2006, he was chosen for the Hall of Fame as a Negro League executive.

Without trying to condone Pompez’s foray into the world of racketeering and the mob, I would remind you that options for black entrepreneurs was limited in the first half of the 20th Century. Many of them turned to what “the better element” in American society labeled ‘shady’ or worse. Black baseball was no exception to that. Pompez is not the only owner who made his money in ways that might offend some of that “better element.” Of course that can be true of people in a lot of professions.

Deceptive Advertising

February 5, 2013
New York Cubans logo

New York Cubans logo

From the beginnings of  segregation of the Major Leagues a certain amount of deception went on. There were those owners and managers who recognized there were black players who were well qualified to play in the big leagues. But custom determined they couldn’t join the party. Creative owners and managers, of which John McGraw was one of the best, tried to find ways around the color barrier. Black players were passed off as American Indians (tribe to be determined if it came up), as Mexicans, and most frequently as Cuban. It never quite worked, but it did lead to the Negro Leagues adopting “Cubans” as one of their more famous names.

There was a “Cubans” as early as 1899. By 1916 there were two of them (known unofficially as “Cubans (West)” and “Cubans (East)”. They spent time in the Negro National League (Cubans West) and the Eastern Colored League (Cubans East). But the Great Depression crippled the already struggling Negro Leagues and both teams folded in the early 1930s. By 1935 the economy was  better, the fans had at least a little more money, and the Negro Leagues were reviving. Alex Pompez (now in the Hall of Fame),  former owner of the Cubans East, resurrected the Cubans styling this team the “New York Cubans.” In 1935 they joined the Negro National League.

The “Cubans” name was always something of a misnomer. Although there were Cubans on the team, the roster generally included Black Americans and players from a number of Latin American countries. For example, Pedro Cepeda, father of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, was a member of the team. The Cepeda’s were Puerto Rican. Tetelo Vargas was from the Dominican Republic.  Easily the best Cuban on the “Cubans” was Martin DiHigo who played the outfield, second base,  and pitched. So essentially if you were too dark for acceptance in the Major Leagues, and a good ball players, the Cubans would take you.

As a brief aside I should point out that Cubans were allowed into the Major Leagues. As early as the 1870s and 1880s, Esteban Bellan played in the National League. During the 1920s and 1930s such players as Bobby Estalella (father of the recent catcher), and Dolf Luque played Major League baseball. The difference was that each of these players was considered “light” enough to play while the players active with the Cubans were too “dark” to get a chance at the big leagues.

In 1935, the Cubans finished third of eight) in the NNL, six and a half games out of first. In 1936, the fell back to fourth (of six). In 1937 and 1938 they were inactive due to the legal troubles of their owner. By 1939 they were back in the NNL finishing last (of six). Between 1940 and 1942 they finished in the middle of the pack, finally taking second in 1943. In 1944 and 1945 they were back in the second division, finally getting back to second in 1946. They broke through in 1947, winning their only NNL pennant by seven and a half games.

The 1947 pennant winners included 40-year-old Luis Tiant (father of the 1960 and 1970 American League pitcher) who went 10-0 on the mound with Lino Dinoso and Pat Scantlebury as the other primary pitchers. Both Tiant and Dinoso were Cubans, Scantlebury was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Pedro Pages, Claro Duany, and Cleveland Clark were the outfield, with Lorenzo Cabrera, Rabbit Martinez, Silvio Garcia, and Minnie Minoso holding down the infield from first around to third. The catching duties were divided between Ray Noble and Louis Louden. Jose Maria Fernandez managed the team. They squared off against the Cleveland Buckeyes in the best of  seven Negro World Series. With game one ending in a tie, they lost game two then came back to win four in a row, thus giving them their only Negro World Series title.

It was the high point for the Cubans. In 1948 they finished second and at the end of the year the NNL folded. the Negro American League took in some of the NNL teams, including the Cubans. They finished fourth (of five)  in the NAL  Eastern Division (the NAL went to two divisions in 1949) in both 1949 and 1950. That was all for the team. It ceased playing after the 1950 season, a victim to lost revenue, lost fans, and the integration of the Major Leagues.

The Grand Experiment

February 1, 2013
Fleet Walker (far left of middle row) and Welday Walker (third ffrom left top row)

Fleet Walker (far left of middle row) and Welday Walker (third from left top row)

It’s now black history month in the USA, so it’s time for my annual journey into black baseball. For this blog it’s a very successful month. I’ve noted a major uptick in hits during February. Most of the hits are on articles involving black baseball. I ascribe this to a bunch of school kids trying to find something to write about or present for black history month. So, I think I’ll oblige all those students who need the help. Don’t take it too badly, kids, you’ll survive even this.

When Moses Fleetwood Walker died in 1924, the Brooklyn Eagle commented that his one year in the Major Leagues in 1884 was a “Grand Experiment.” Walker was black and played a single year in the Majors. The 19th Century was a tough century for black ball players. They were allowed to play, they were excluded, they were cheered, they were vilified. It was, in other words, a fairly standard period of black Americans.

The close of the Civil War may have changed the nature of freedom in the US, but it didn’t do much for the acceptance of Black Americans in baseball. Many universities were open to integrating teams, some not so much. The newly emerging professional teams and leagues tended to follow current trends. Some teams were integrated, others segregated. Some leagues were integrated, others segregated. The first truly professional league (and quasi-major league), the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, had no black players in its 1871-75 existence. I can find no evidence it was official policy to segregate the league, but when players the quality of Bud Fowler aren’t playing in the league you have to wonder.

Bud Fowler (middle of back row)

Bud Fowler (middle of back row)

The National League replaced the National Association in 1876 and things improved (sorta). As early as 1879 a black player may have been on a Major League team. On 21 June 1879, the Providence Grays first baseman, Joe Start, was unable to go. The team added a one-day replacement named Bill White to the team. White went one for four and scored a run. In 2003 SABR research noted that the Brown University baseball team had a player named William Edward White on its roster. White was of mixed race (which in 1879 American made him “black” regardless of his skin tone). They concluded that the two White’s were probably the same person, thus making White the first Black American (and only American born a slave) to play in the Majors. There is much speculation about this so don’t take it to the bank just yet.

Frank Grant while playing at Buffalo

Frank Grant while playing at Buffalo

By the mid-1880s black players like Frank Grant, a middle infielder who is in the Hall of Fame and pitcher George Stovey were excelling in minor leagues. Neither ever got a chance to play in the Majors. Fleet Walker did. He was a catcher for the minor league Toledo Blue Stockings when Toledo made the move from the Northwestern League (a minor league) to the American Association (a Major League) in 1884. Toledo finished eighth, Walker caused a great deal of controversy for not only the opposition but also within his own team. As a catcher he was supposed to be superior. If you line up his hitting stats with the other first string catchers in the 1884 American Association he ends up firmly in the middle of the pack. In 1885 Toledo, and Walker, along with his brother who played a handful of games with Toledo in 1884, were back in the minors. As a short aside, Hank O’Day, who was just elected to Cooperstown as an umpire, was a teammate of Walker’s.

After 1884 the National League (followed by the American League after its founding in 1901) became a segregated league. There was never an official written policy excluding Black Americans, but none ever showed up on either an NL or AL field during a game. Cap Anson of the Colts (now the Cubs) gets much of the blame for this. He was apparently an ardent racist and led a move to exclude blacks from the game. But it’s a little unfair to blame Anson for the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” (considering what was being agreed to the word “gentleman” certainly seems out-of-place here, doesn’t it?). It’s not like Anson was a bastion of reaction in a sea of tolerance. The mass of players, executives, owners, and fans had to acquiesce to Anson’s views or they could not have prevailed.

By 1890, segregation in both baseball and the United States in general was firmly in place. There were still a few places where a black ball player could join an integrated team, but the number of such places was dwindling. The black response was to form all black teams that would play either independently or in leagues of their own. Some of them did well, others poorly. This system was to remain in place in to the 1940s when it would be broken down gradually and a modern integrated Major Leagues would emerge.