Archive for February, 2014

Who Got Left Out?

February 28, 2014
"Cannonball" Dick Redding

“Cannonball” Dick Redding

Back in 2006 the Hall of Fame created a special “Veteran’s Committee” to look at Negro League baseball and determine if there were players, owners, managers, executives, and/or others that had been ignored by Cooperstown. A great deal of research went into the files handed to the committee. For the layman, the most important bits of the research was published as Shades of Glory. A panel of baseball historians eventually came up with a list of 94 African-Americans involved with baseball prior to 1946 for the committee (now called the Committee on African-American Baseball) to look over and pass judgment on. Of that list, 39 made the initial cut. The committee then selected 17 for enshrinement in Cooperstown. After all the hoopla of induction and fuss and feathers about who got in and who didn’t, a great stillness settled over the Hall. It was as if they were saying, “OK, team, we’ve done our bit. We put in a bunch of people, so now that’s all. There won’t be anymore.” Of course they never really said that, but any push to add further Negro League players or executives has come more from fans than the powers that be.

So it’s a fair question to ask what about the 77 nominees who didn’t make the cut in 2006? Are they now relegated to the dustbin of history or do they have a chance to make the Hall at a later time? Another question that needs to be asked is this, have we truly reached the end of those Negro League players who should be commemorated in Cooperstown?

If you look over the list of 77 non-inductees (and it’s available on Wikipedia under “Baseball Hall of Fame Balloting, 2006”) there are some really fine players being pushed to the sidelines. Where, for instance, are Bud Fowler and George Stovey, arguably two of the three finest black players of the 19th Century (Frank Grant, who made it, being the other)? Spottswood Poles was an excellent fielding, and not bad hitting outfielder in the early part of the 20th Century. Between 1911 and 1919 “Cannonball” Dick Redding was 40-20 in documented games, a .667 winning percentage. Bill Gatewood was almost as good. In the formal Negro Leagues of the 1920s through 1940s Newt Allen played middle infield, managed, and eventually moved to third base for the Kansas City Monarchs in a career that saw him play in the 1924 Negro World Series and the 1942 Negro World Series. John Donaldson was a crack pitcher for years, then became the first fulltime black scout in MLB when the White Sox signed him in 1949. And then there is Buck O’Neil, manager, first baseman, scout, coach, batting champion, and spokesman for the Negro Leagues.

It seems appropriate to end Black History Month (and my yearly journey through black baseball) by asking what do we make of these men being left out of the Hall of Fame? Perhaps nothing. Their stats are blurred, they are in many cases more legend than fact. But they were real players and they played at the highest level they were allowed. Maybe none of them are Hall of Fame quality players. In O’Neil’s case he is more than worthy as a contributor and ambassador, but maybe some of them are of sufficient quality as players. What I don’t want to see is the Hall of Fame now grow complacent and say “Well, we’ve got enough of these guys. Close the door.” I hope that the Veteran’s Committee that reviews the “Segregation Era” (pre-1947) will continue to look at Negro League players and eventually induct a few more.

The Field in the Middle of Town

February 25, 2014
Hay field

Hay field

The town where I grew up was odd. Most small towns in my part of the world had three sections. There was the “right” side of town (in our case the East side) where the wealthier people lived and where the commercial district with its mom and pop stores existing next to chain  stores like Sears and Montgomery Ward’s. I didn’t live there. Then there was the “wrong” side of town (the West side in our case), which was always just across the railroad tracks from the “right” side of town. The poorer people lived there and walked or drove to the “other side of the tracks” to shop. That was my bailiwick. The third section of town generally abutted upon the ‘wrong” side of town and was politely called “colored town” (and impolitely called something worse). That was where the local black community lived and went to school.

My town was odd because we also had a fourth section of town. As the community grew, it moved West and ran up against the local creek. This creek wasn’t very wide and except for spring wasn’t very deep either. The west bank was much higher than the east bank, so flooding tended to go east toward the town. The city fathers were smart enough to get the state to build up the main road so that it was always above flood level and traffic could cross even in May, our wettest month. A section of town had grown up just west of the creek and took over as the truly poorest section of town, leaving the “wrong side of the tracks” split into two by this big field that was the flood plain of the creek. Our house was the last house in town on the east side of the big field, which meant we lived on “the wrong side of the tracks” but weren’t in the poorest section of town. There was this embankment about five foot high, then the field stretched off into the distance toward the creek.

Our neighborhood was fairly typical. Across from our house were a row of small wooden homes, a couple with big covered porches, that stretched up toward the tracks. Next to us lived the lady who ran the local feed and grain business. She was a great neighbor because sometimes the local kids could go into her store and she’d take us into the back where they had incubators that served as hatcheries for baby chicks or ducks. You could look through this big glass window and marvel at the furry yellow birds. There was an older widow who lived next to the feed store lady. She was a crab and was always yelling at us to stay off her lawn. There was no sidewalk, so it was either her lawn or the highway and everyone had been told to stay out of the street. After her there were two rent places that generally contained at least one or two kids, then a small mom and pop store that served the neighborhood. You could get a popsicle or candy bar there and my grandparents sent me up to the store occasionally to buy an item my grandmother needed to cook dinner.

Directly behind our house, extending up almost to the cross street was a small woodlot of elm trees. It was only a few feet thick and the trees were still small. There wasn’t much undergrowth so if you studied the lot carefully, you could tell the trees weren’t there by accident. They weren’t exactly in a line, but there was too much of a pattern to make the woodlot accidental. When you walked through the woodlot from my backyard you came out at the rear of the schoolyard for the black kids in town. That small green and brown line marked the boundary between the white and black worlds.

The black section of town extended several blocks but from the woodlot you could see a few houses with their small backyards and peeling wooden walls running in a line up at the cross street all the way to the far corner. The black school was down a dirt street directly behind my house. There were a couple of playground items like a swing set and a teeter totter in the yard. The school itself was an old one-story natural stone building that doubled as the local black Baptist church on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday night. Or maybe it was the local black Baptist church and the parishioners let the community use it for a school. I never knew which. The place had no air conditioning so in the summer the windows were open and you could hear much of the service from our house. We had this old folding  aluminum lawn chair with plastic slats that sat on our back porch. My grandmother would, when the weather was warm, occasionally take it out into the back yard on Sunday or Wednesday after dark. She’d sit there listening to the church song service then wait to hear the first few words of the minister’s sermon. If it was going to be a real stem-winder she’d sit through it lost in a moment of sermon and prayer. If she decided it was not going to be worth listening to, she’d fold up the chair, put it back on the porch, and come inside. If she didn’t like the sermon, she’d frequently dismiss it with the comment, “A white preacher coulda preached that.”

The guy who owned the field adjacent to the house was a rancher, so he used the field, and the one across the road, to grow hay for his cattle. He’d plow one half of each field in hay and leave the other half fallow. The next year he’d reverse the halves and do it all over again. For some reason he divided both fields north-south rather than east-west like the rest of the town ran. So one year the part of the field just next to my home would be fallow, the next year it would be in green glory as a hay-field.

He didn’t mind if we played ball in the field as long as we stayed on the fallow side. So every other year we could run down the embankment by the house, set up the plate next to the embankment so we’d have a built-in backstop, then play ball out in the field. We’d play all afternoon until we began to hear mothers and grandmothers calling us home for dinner. If we got real lucky, we could end up with four or five guys a side which gave us a pitcher, a couple of infielders, and an outfielder or two. We tried to keep score, but usually ended up with four or five different versions of the number of runs.

The next year, we’d cut through the woodlot, cut the corner of the black schoolyard, head down the embankment, and again set up home plate near the cliff so we’d have a backstop and again play all afternoon until the inevitable call came for supper. On a  good day we might have seven or eight guys to a side and if we were real lucky you could put together two full teams, minus a catcher (the embankment did the catcher’s job for us) and then we would have a great time.

Why the difference in numbers? In the years we played on the south side of the field, the side nearest my house, the black kids didn’t come over to play. When we were on the north side of the field, the side furthest from the white community, the black kids would wander down and help us fill out teams. The teams were generally integrated because kids would show up late and, black or white, the late comers would go into whichever team was short a player. Several of the black kids didn’t have a glove and a few of the white guys weren’t real sure about sharing their gloves with a black kid, but as a rule we managed to work it out.

It took a while to figure out why the black kids didn’t play ball with us when we were on the South Field and I was an adult before I realized the irony of a segregated South Field and an integrated North Field. To us it was just a game and the more players the better. But apparently the adults didn’t see it that way. My grandparents may have been the only white adults who knew we were playing with the black kids. When we played on the North Field my grandmother would step out to the embankment, which gave a great view all the way to the end of the field, and call me for supper. She had to see what was going on. She never said a thing to me.

I was 10 when I moved to a new town. Ultimately I lost contact with all the kids, white or black, who played out in the field. The town and the Corps of Engineers figured out how to channel the creek so that it no longer flooded, then they paved over the field. The old hay-field across the road is now the town mall. Our field is a long row of small shops and gas stations. The old black school (or church, whichever it was first), is still there, but they tore down my old house (and the others on my block) and put a parking lot where it used to stand. It’s the lot for a fast food place that now sits where the woodlot stood. I ate there once with my wife and son. Typical fast food, but I couldn’t help but notice there were both white and black faces in the place. I wondered if any were kids I’d played with. I didn’t ask, but I did grin when I realized the woodlot and what it meant were gone and the school still stood.

The Roommate

February 24, 2014
Dan Bankhead

Dan Bankhead

Back when I was growing up there was a joke going around. The big time sports, baseball, football, college football, and basketball were all just beginning to integrate. Most of the teams had a star, so the joke went that you needed two black guys per team: the star and his roommate. You see, most people thought the idea of a white guy and a black guy sharing a hotel room was down right evil. Dan Bankhead was a roommate.

There were five Bankhead brothers in the Negro Leagues: Sam, Fred, Garnett, Joe, and Dan. Sam was the oldest and is generally considered the best of the five (he made the first cut in the 2006 Hall of Fame balloting for Negro League players, but failed to make the second cut). He was a middle infielder with the Grays. Fred was also a middle infielder. Both Garnett and Joe were pitchers. Dan was the middle child and also a pitcher. Both Sam and Garnett were shot to death (although they were 70 and 63 when they died, not young, rash ball players). The family was from Alabama and grew up in a segregated world where they had their “place” and God forbid they should step out of it or forget it.

Dan became a pitcher for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1940, That year and the next (1941) he went 8-2 (in confirmed games) and pitched in the 1941 East-West All Star game. He also played in 1942, then spent much of 1943 and all of 1944 and 1945 in the Marines, being discharged in 1946. His primary job was to pitch. Signing with the Memphis Red Sox, he managed to pitch well enough to get into both East-West games (they played two in 1946), starting the first and picking up the win in the second. His seasonal record for 1946 (again with spotty data) was 7-3 with a league leading 42 strikeouts.

In 1947, Bankhead was 11-5 with the Red Sox when Branch Rickey signed him to play for Brooklyn. Rickey paid the Red Sox $15,000 for Bankhead, a big amount in 1947. On 26 August 1947, Bankhead, now Jackie Robinson’s on the road roommate, became the first black man to pitch in the Major Leagues. He hit the first batter. He went three and two-thirds innings that day, gave up eight runs (only six were earned), and ten hits. In his first at bat, Bankhead hit a home run off Fritz Ostermuller (the same pitcher that gives up the big home run to Robinson in the final game of the recent movie “42”).

In many ways it was a typical Bankhead game. He was wild and had been so in the Negro Leagues. He gave up a lot of hits and walks. For his Major League career he had 110 walks (and 111 strikeouts) and gave up 161 hits in 153 innings. For the 1947 season he got into four games pitching all of ten innings (with a 7.20 ERA).

That got him a trip to the minors for 1948 and 1949. He was back in Brooklyn in 1950 going 9-4 with a5.50 ERA. He pitched in 41 games, starting 12, and picking up three saves. It got him one more year at Brooklyn. He pitched in only seven games, went 0-1 with an ERA of 15.43. He claimed he had a sore arm, but he was sent to Montreal (being replaced by later “Boys of Summer” stalwart Clem Labine). The Bankhead experiment ended in 1952, when the Dodgers released him from a minor league contract in July.

Bankhead played in the Latin leagues as late as 1966 when he was 46 years old. In retirement he worked delivering food to restaurants in Houston. Dan Bankhead died of lung cancer in 1976.

Dan Bankhead was not a particularly effective pitcher in the Major Leagues. But he was important. He served as Jackie Robinson’s roommate and was the first black pitcher in the Major Leagues. He should be remembered for the last.

Dan Bankhead's grave

Dan Bankhead’s grave

The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues: a Review

February 20, 2014
Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues

Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues

There are a lot of good works on the Negro Leagues. Most tell the stories of a particular player, or of a team, or of a season. James A. Riley has compiled a wonderful book that presents biographies of each Negro League player. It’s well worth having if you’re interested in Negro League players.

Published in 2002, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues by James A. Riley is a big book, both physically and in length. It’s heart is a series of baseball biographies of black ball players from 1872 until 1950. Players as early as Bud Fowler and as late as Ernie Banks show up. Some of the biographies are very short, as little is known of the player, some are much longer. As some players are so obscure their first name is unknown, a few of the bios list only the last name of a forgotten player and a few simple facts such as who he played his handful of games for. Other than a few of the more well-known players all the biographies are strictly baseball oriented, meaning there is little information about their parents, children, wives, and non-baseball related jobs. There are also a small selection of photographs and embedded in the biographies are occasional statistics.

If the heart of the book is a series of player biographies, the “gravy” is another series of short articles on various Negro League teams covering some of the early barnstorming teams as well as the more well-known and well established teams of the “classic” Negro League era of the 1920s through the 1940s. Finally there are also biographies of various executives, umpires, and contributors who were instrumental in making the Negro Leagues what they were to the players and their fans.

Want to know info on Josh Gibson? It’s there. How about Effa Manley? It’s also there. Steel Arm Davis? He’s there too, as is Charles Thomas, the Ohio Wesleyan player whose embarrassment led Branch Rickey to later integrate the Major Leagues (Thomas played a few games in the negro Leagues before becoming  a dentist).

The book is well-worth the admittedly high $78.30 price at Amazon.com. You can probably find it for less in used condition.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Bud Fowler

February 18, 2014
Bud Fowler

Bud Fowler

1. John W. Jackson, Jr. was born in Fort Plain, New York in 1858. He was the son of a barber and learned the profession from his dad.

2.In 1860 the family moved to Cooperstown (of all places), where Jackson (Fowler) learned to play baseball.

3. In 1878 he joined the integrated Chelsea, Massachusetts amateur team, now using the name Fowler (the exact reason for the change is unknown). His habit of calling other players “Bud” got him his nickname.

4. Later that season he played for the Lynn Live Oaks, a team in the International League, becoming the first acknowledged black professional.

5. He spent the next several years in and out of the minor leagues playing for integrated teams or for all black independent teams.

6. He began his career as a pitcher, but in 1884 moved to second base, where he played most of the remainder of his career.

7. In 1886, he helped form the League of Colored Base Ball Players, the first “Negro League.” The league folded 10 days into its first season.

8. In 1887, he played for Birmingham in the International League. He was released, apparently because of racial turmoil on the team, in late June. In July the International League formally banned black ball players, grandfathering in a handful who were currently on team rosters.

9. Fowler spent the remainder of the Nineteenth Century moving from team to team playing second and watching team after team either fold or implement segregation rules. He formed several teams of his own, none of which were successful in the long run.

10. He played his last game in 1909, retiring to Frankfort, New York.

11. He died in 1913.

12. He is credited with inventing shin guards to protect his legs from sliding players while covering second. Those guards later became standard equipment for catchers. It’s fair to note that Frank Grant is also credited with inventing shin guards.

Fowler's grave. Stone provided by SABR

Fowler’s grave. Stone provided by SABR

Negro World Series: 2.0

February 14, 2014
1942 Kansas City Monarchs

1942 Kansas City Monarchs

Back in the 1920s, the two primary Negro Leagues, the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League champions had met in a set of games called the Negro World Series. The ECL collapsed during the 1928 season, thus bring the postseason games to a close. They remained the only postseason games held between the two most prominent Negro Leagues for years. In 1933 a new Negro National League was formed, with a Negro American League following in 1937. They feuded for a few years, but by 1942 saw the sense of reestablishing a Negro World Series. The first of the new Series’ pitted Negro National League winner the Homestead Grays against the Negro American League winner the Kansas City Monarchs.

The Grays featured an infield of Hall of Fame first baseman Buck Leonard, second basemen were Matt Carlisle or Howard Easterling, shortstop Sam Bankhead, and Hall of Fame third sacker Jud Wilson. The outfield was, left around to right, manager Vic Harris, Jerry Benjamin, and either Easterling or Roy Partlow. Josh Gibson, another Hall of Fame member did the catching of a staff consisting of Partlow, Roy Welmaker, Ray Brown, and Johnny Wright. They’d won their fourth consecutive pennant by three games.

The Monarchs had been around longer than the Grays and were winners of the very first Negro World Series in 1924. Manager Frank Duncan’s 1942 version consisted of an infield of Buck O’Neil at first, Bonnie Serrell at second, shortstop Jesse Williams, and Newt Allen (a holdover from the 1924 Negro World Series). The outfield featured left fielder Bill Simms, Hall of Fame member Willard Brown in center, and Ted Strong in right. The staff of Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith, along with Jack Matchett was caught by Joe Greene.

The teams agreed to spread the wealth around by holding games in various cities. Game one was held in the Gray’s home park in Washington, DC with Paige starting against Welmaker. The two matched zeroes through five innings with Paige giving up only two hits. In the sixth, Allen singled, went to second on another single, then Allen scored when Bankhead and Gibson both committed errors on the same play. Matchett relieved Paige to start the bottom of the sixth and allowed no hits for the remainder of the game. Scoring in each of the last three innings, the Monarchs cruised to an 8-0 victory with Matchett getting the win and Welmaker taking the loss.

Game two was two days later in Pittsburgh, the secondary home of the Grays. The Monarchs jumped on starter Partlow in the first for one run, tacked on another in the fourth, and knocked Parlow off the mound when Serrell tripled with the bases loaded to put them up 5-0. The Grays made it close by putting up four runs in the bottom of the eighth, highlighted by Wilson’s two-run triple. Kansas City returned the favor by adding three more in the ninth to win 8-4. Smith got the win with Paige picking up the save. In the game’s most famous moment Paige gave up three hits to load the bases in the seventh, then with two outs and the bases loaded struck out Gibson on three pitches. Later legend has Paige walking the bases full on purpose so he could strike out Gibson. The record shows that Paige didn’t walk anyone in the inning, but it makes a great story.

The third game was three days later in Yankee Stadium. With Paige starting for Kansas City, Easterling hit a home run in the first inning and picked up another run on a Leonard single. For the first time in the Series the Grays led. It lasted into the third when both Strong and Brown hit home runs to give the Monarchs a 4-2 lead off starter Ray Brown. Matchett replaced Paige in the third and gave up only one unearned run, while Kansas City tacked on two in the fourth and three in the fifth to win 9-3.

Then came one of those things that only happened in Negro League ball. The teams scheduled a seven inning exhibition immediately following game three (KC won it), then Homestead played four exhibition games against the Stars (in Philadelphia), the Elite Giants (in Baltimore), and two against the Eagles (in Hartford). Not to be outdone, the Monarchs scheduled an exhibition game against the Clowns in Louisville. (For what it’s worth KC won their game and the Grays went 0-3-1).

Finally after a week off, the Series resumed in Kansas City in what became the most controversial game. Homestead won 4-1 with Leon Day defeating Paige. But wait, you say, Leon Day? The Grays were having roster problems. Partlow and Bankhead were both out  (a boil for Partlow and a broken arm for Bankhead) and Carlisle was drafted, so the Grays signed Day and three other players for the remainder of the Series. Kansas City objected and protested. The protest was upheld and the game was not counted.

The official game four was held nine days later in Philadelphia, much of the delay being caused by the protest. Recovered from the boil, Partlow started for the Grays. Simms led off the game with a triple and scored on Allen’s single. Paige, who was supposed to start game five was not at the park, so Matchett started for the Monarchs. Homestead put up three in the bottom of the first, but Kansas City got one back in the third on an error and three singles. In the bottom of the third, Chet Williams hit a two-run single to put the Grays up 5-2. By this point Paige had arrived in the Monarchs dugout (and honestly I’ve been unable to find out where he was) and relieved Matchett. He pitched shutout ball the rest of the way, allowing no hits, a walk, and one runner reached on an error.. Meanwhile, Kansas City started chipping away at the Homestead lead. Greene hit a two-run homer in the fourth to narrow the score to 5-4. It stayed that way until the seventh when Brown doubled, O’Neil singled him home, then O’Neil came home on consecutive singles. The Monarchs tacked on three more in the eighth and coasted to a 9-5 win and a sweep of the 1942 Series.

For the Series Serrell led all hitters with a .566 average, O’Neil had six RBIs and two triples, while Strong, Brown, and Green all had home runs. Matchett had two wins, Smith one, and Piage had both a win and a save and a team high 14 strikeouts. Of the Grays, only Easterling (among players showing up in all four games) hit .300. He also had the only team home run. Partlow, Welmaker, Ray Brown, and Wright all took losses with Welmaker’s eight strikeouts leading the team.

It wasn’t a particularly well-played series. Kansas City had six errors and Homestead topped that with 13 (an average of three a game). Interestingly enough Kansas City’s were more critical. The Grays scored only 12 runs, half were unearned. The Monarchs, on the other hand, scored 34 with only four being unearned. For the whole Series, the Monarchs proved that they were much the superior team.

For the Monarchs it marked their final championship. Although they made one more Negro World Series (1946), they lost it. For the Grays it was the first of five tries. They would win back-to-back series’ in 1943 and 1944, before losing in 1945. They would also return to the NWS in 1948, when they would win the last ever series.

It’s certainly a fun and unique series to read about and research. The accounts of the games make it apparent that both teams played hard. The long interlude between game three and game four could only occur in the Negro Leagues (unless there was one heck of a rain delay–or an earthquake). Throwing in exhibition games in the midst of the Series was certainly unique. All in all I find it a fitting way to reestablish the Negro World Series after a 15 year hiatus.

Buck

February 12, 2014
Buck Leonard

Buck Leonard

Baseball history is full of truly fine one-two punches. There’s Ruth and Gehrig. There’s Aaron and Matthews. There’s Mays and McCovey. There is also Leonard and Gibson. This is the story of Buck Leonard, generally considered the greatest of all Negro League first basemen.

Walter Leonard was born in North Carolina in 1907. By 1924 he was playing and managing (yes, managing at age 17) a local black semi-pro team. He also worked for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad in their repair shop. He lost his job in 1932 during the Great Depression. His only means of employment being baseball, he signed with Portsmouth Black Revels for $15 a month. In 1933 he and his brother Charlie (a pitcher) signed with the Baltimore Stars, a barnstorming team that promptly went bankrupt (but not from signing the Leonard brothers). Buck Leonard had already caught the eye of other Negro League teams and was scooped up by Brooklyn Royal Giants. In 1934 Cum Posey signed him for $125 a month (and 60 cents meal money daily) to play with the Homestead Grays. There he teamed with Gibson, Jud Wilson, Vic Harris, and Howard Easterling to win consecutive Negro National League pennants from 1937 through 1945 inclusive. After a two-year hiatus, they won again in 1948 when Leonard was 40 (and Gibson was dead). His salary had changed. He was now earning about $10,000 a year.

With the collapse of the Negro National League and the Grays, Leonard continued to play baseball in the Latin Winter Leagues and the Mexican League as late as 1955. Too old to play in the Majors after the color line was broken in 1946, Leonard did play 10 games in the Piedmont League in 1953. He hit .333.

In retirement Leonard worked a number of jobs, truant officer, physical education teacher, ran a realty company, and in 1962 served as vice president of the Carolina League team in Rocky Mount. In 1972 Leonard was elected to the Hall of Fame. He died in 1986.

There are limited statistics available to help us determine just how good Leonard was as a player. Baseball Reference.com shows him playing 412 games for the Grays between 1934 and 1948, an average of 27.5 a year. In those games he hit .320 and slugged 527. There is no on base percentage listed, but if you add his hits (471) and walks (257) you get a preliminary OBP of .495. Obviously that leaves out catcher’s interference and hit by pitch stats, but, frankly, how many of them could there be over 412 games? Anyway, that gives a preliminary OPS of 1022. He had 1427 hits, 275 RBIs, scored 351 runs, and had 60 home runs. Baseball Reference.com gives a 162 game average for the available stats, which works out to 138 runs, 185 hits, 108 RBIs, 101 walks, and 24 home runs per 162 games. There are no strikeout numbers listed and manages only 25 stolen bases for his career. His highest single season average is .533 but is for only 11 games in 1947. His highest home run total is eight in both 1940 and 1941 (44 and 36 games). His highest RBI number is 44 in 1940 (again the 44 games). His highest hit total is 60, also in 1940. In 55 games in 1943 he scores 55 runs, his highest run total.

Obviously, Leonard was very good. He is, unquestionably, a Hall of Famer. He is generally compared to Lou Gehrig.  I don’t think he was that good, but he was very close.

Leonard's burial site in North Carolina

Leonard’s burial site in North Carolina

The Black Ump

February 10, 2014
USPS Negro League stamp featuring a black umpire

USPS Negro League stamp featuring a black umpire

There’s an interesting article online concerning Jacob Francis, who appears to be the first black man to umpire a game between two white teams. The article is by Sean Kirst appeared in 2011 in the Syracuse newspaper (It can be found via Google. I found it by typing in Jacob Francis umpire). It’s an excellent article and well worth your time to read. Here’s some of the information paraphrased for you.

In June 1885, the Syracuse minor league team played an exhibition game against the Providence Grays. The Grays were the current world’s champions, having completed a three game sweep of the New York Metropolitans in the first of the 19th Century’s versions of the World Series. Their ace was Hall of Fame pitcher Charles Radborne. Francis was a known umpire in the town and both teams agreed to his calling the game. Providence won 4-1 and there were no complaints about Francis’ umpiring. He seems to have umpired a number of other games, but by 1890 his services were no longer used. It’s possible racism cost him his umpiring position, after all the Anson/Walker confrontation was 1883. It’s also possible he was dead by 1890 or had moved from Syracuse.

A few remarks are called for at this point. 1870 and 1880 census data available at Ancestry.com show Francis was a “mulatto” (we’d call him mixed race) but don’t state which parent was white and which black. He was born about 1851 in Virginia, although the 1880 census specifies West Virginia. West Virginia was split off from Virginia in 1863 to form the current state, so it’s possible he was born in Virginia but that the specific county later became part of West Virginia. Being born in 1851 of a mixed race couple it is probable he was  born a slave, but not absolutely certain. As manumitted freemen were, by law, required to leave Virginia, it’s most likely he was born a slave, but it’s also possible (but not very likely) that he was born free of a mixed race couple who was living in West Virginia. There were few slaveholders in West Virginia, but it wasn’t unheard of at all. His census data does not appear in 1860, at least that I can find. His wife Sarah was born in New York (location not specified) and was a year older than her husband.

I have no idea when or how he became interested in baseball, just as I have no idea how or when he ended up in Syracuse. He is, frankly, a very difficult person to find out much about. The 1890 census was destroyed in a fire. He does not appear, again as far as I can determine, in the 1900 census.

I trust you will read the article I referenced above. If you happen to know anything more about Francis, I’d love to know. Please comment on this post if you do.

The Top Negro League Team

February 7, 2014
The 1931 Homestead Grays

The 1931 Homestead Grays

Back in 2007 Major League Baseball put together a panel of experts. This was the year after the Hall of Fame let in, what has so far been the last group of Negro League players. The task of the panel was to determine the best ever single season Negro League team. I emphasize  they were looking for a single season team, not looking for a single team that dominated for a long period of time. There were a lot of obvious contenders, the various Crawfords teams of the 1930s, the Monarchs of both the early 1920s and the 1940s, the 1920s Daisies, and of course various Homestead Grays teams. Ultimately, the panel concluded that the top Negro League team of all time was the 1931 Homestead Grays.

It was a very good team, but it’s also a fairly typical Negro League team. The roster is small, the players man multiple positions, statistics are sketchy, newspaper accounts are infrequent, and there are various numbers used for their win-loss record. In what’s below, I am going to use what statistics I can find (most notably on Baseball Reference.com) and what other records are easily available. In other words, this isn’t going to be a thorough enough look to serve as someone’s term paper, let alone a dissertation. But then someone else already did that (see the final paragraph below).

Over the course of the season the Grays played a lot of barnstorming ball, some against quality teams, some against thrown together teams, some against all-star teams, some against white teams, some against black teams. Their exact record is unknown. One source indicates they were 10-2 against minor league teams while winning 143 games. Baseball Reference.com can verify at least 10 losses by the various pitchers on the team. Their exact totals are unknown.

So who made up this team? As usual with Negro League teams, players took up a lot of positions during the season. In many ways the Negro League team rosters remind me of an 1800s Major League team with small rosters that put a premium on multi-position players.  The main infield consisted of Ted Page, George Scales, Jake Stephens, and Hall of Fame third baseman Jud Wilson. Both Bill Evans and George Britt (not Brett) also played in the infield. Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, Vic Harris (who later managed the Grays), Ambrose Reid, Ted Radcliffe did most of the outfield work. The 19-year-old catcher was Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, with Benny Jones as his backup. The pitching staff consisted of  Britt, Hall of Fame hurlers Bill Foster and Joe Williams, Roy Williams, Charles Williams, and Radcliffe. Both Foster and Charles Williams were lefties. Radcliffe was nicknamed “Double Duty” for his ability to pitch one game of a double-header then either catch or play the outfield in the other game. Cumberland (Cum) Posey served as manager and was responsible for scheduling most games.

What records are available on Baseball Reference.com show Foster with an 8-1 record as the ace. He struck out 64 while walking only 24 with a 0.987 WHIP. Smokey Joe Williams shows 34 strikeouts, nine walks, a1.116 WHIP, but a 4-3 record. Charleston’s .346 leads the team in average, while Wilson’s .586 leads in slugging percentage. Wilson also has three home runs, tops on the team. Gibson has the RBI lead with 10. another set of stats available at the same site has Gibson with six home runs (see what I mean about stat lines).

Whether the 1931 Grays are truly the finest single season Negro League team or not is certainly debatable. As mentioned in the first paragraph the Crawfords teams of 1935 or 1936 certainly can be considered (and are my personal choice). Having said that, you can’t go too far wrong if you pick the Grays.

And for anyone interested in the team, there’s a decent book about them. Phil Dixon (who’s a greater expert on Black Baseball than me) wrote American Baseball Chronicles: The Great Teams, the 1931 Grays. It’s available at Amazon.com for $17.99 in paperback and his numbers differ (at least somewhat) from Baseball Reference.com.

The Grays

February 5, 2014
front of the Homestead Grays uniform

front of the Homestead Grays uniform

Negro League Baseball had a lot of teams. Many were very good, others not so good. Some were famous, others played in obscurity. Three teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, and the Monarchs (alphabetically) were the most well-known. I’ve done a post on the Crawfords and the Monarchs. It’s time to look at the Grays.

Homestead, Pennsylvania is a part of the greater Pittsburgh area. In the period just after the turn of the 20th Century, it was still outside the direct orbit of Pittsburgh. It had a thriving black community and a steel mill that was its major source of jobs. As with most steel mills, this one had a semi-pro baseball team called the Blue Ribbons. Formed in 1909, initially it  played against other industrial teams.

By 1912 the team known as the Homestead Grays (after the color of their uniforms). They’d picked up a new star in Cumberland (Cum) Posey, who quickly became manager and team secretary. He made the team into a fully professional team and moved it away from the local industrial leagues. In 1920 Posey and local businessman Charlie Walker bought the Grays. That same year they made an agreement with the Pirates that allowed the Grays to use Forbes Field, the Pirates’ home field, for games when the Pirates were out-of-town. Having a Major League facility available for games helped make the Grays profitable. Between 1919 and 1928 the Grays were enormously successful as an independent barnstorming team. They stayed away from the newly formed Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League because they found it more profitable to play independent ball. By the late 1920s they were making money and playing 200 or so games a season. In 1926 they were credited with a record of 140-13 with 43 consecutive wins. Many of those games were against quality opponents, but many were also against local semi-pro teams.

Then the Great Depression hit and profits began drying up. Posey, now running the team alone, decided the Grays needed a league to insure financial stability. He helped form the American Negro League (not to be confused with the Negro American League of the 1940s). It lasted one year and folded. The Grays managed to hang on and by 1931 were fielding what was chosen by a panel of experts the finest of all Negro League teams. The roster included such Hall of Fame names as Oscar Charleston, Bill Foster, and Josh Gibson. In 1932, the Grays joined the new East-West League, but it folded midway through the season.

Homestead began losing money and was unable to meet the lavish salary offers of the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords. Many of the Grays jumped ship, most to the Crawfords, and by 1934, in order to keep the team afloat, Posey was forced to bring in a new partner. One of the wealthiest men in Homestead was Rufus Jackson, the leader of the local numbers racket. Posey made Jackson team President, while he (Posey) continued to run the team. In many circles in Pittsburgh, Jackson was seen as nothing short of a gangster, which hurt the reputation of the team. Ruined reputation or not, the team now had money and again became competitive in black baseball. And of course it still had Forbes Field.

In 1934, the Grays joined the newly established Negro National League (not to be confused with Rube Foster’s Negro National League of the 1920s). In 1935 Vic Harris replaced Posey as manager, although Posey remained team secretary (more or less equivalent to the modern general manager job). The team was an instant success, being competitive for the entire period of the NNL’s existence. In 1939 they won the NNL pennant. They were to repeat as league champions every year through 1945, then won another pennant in 1948.

The 1940s saw several major changes involving the Grays. In 1940 they made an agreement with the Washington Senators to use Griffith Stadium when the Senators were out-of-town, thus moving the team’s home field to DC (although they continued to play a few games in Pittsburgh off and on during the decade). Despite the move, they retained the Homestead name. In 1942, the participated in the revived Negro World Series (there had been games in the 1920s but none in the 1930s). They lost the first one to the Kansas City Monarchs, but won both the 1943 and 1944 Series before dropping the 1945 Series to the Cleveland Buckeyes. In 1948 they won the final Negro World Series defeating Willie Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons.

In 1946, Posey died. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. Posey’s wife and Jackson now jointly owned the team. They tried to keep it going, winning, as mentioned above, the last NNL pennant in 1948. With the NNL gone after 1948, the Grays hung on into 1950, when devoid of stars, lacking money, and short of an audience they folded.

We can argue back and forth for a long time about which team was the greatest or the most famous or the most important Negro League team. You can pick your own candidate for each category. But the odds are pretty good that in each case, you’ll have the Homestead Grays on your short list.