Willie’s First World Series

Willie Mays, Birmingham's finest

Willie Mays, Birmingham’s finest

In 1948 the Negro World Series featured the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League facing the winners of the Negro American League, the Birmingham Black Barons. It would become an important Negro World Series for two reasons. First, it would be the final confrontation between the NNL and the NAL. Second, it would be the first time Willie Mays tasted postseason action.

The Black Barons were led by an infield of Alonzo Perry at first (he also pitched and put up a 10-2 record), manager Piper Davis at second, NAL batting champion Art Wilson at short and John Britton at third. Pepper Bassett did the catching, back stopping a staff that included Perry, Jim Newberry, Bill Powell, and Bill Greason. Ed Steele and Steve Zapp were the other outfielders (besides Mays). Joe Scott played first when Perry pitched.

With Josh Gibson dead, Homestead seemed less fearsome than earlier, but it was still a formidable team. Future Hall of Famer Buck Leonard was still at first, manager Sam Bankhead was a short, and Luis Marquez, Luke Easter, and Bob Thurman could hit. Wilmer Fields (who both pitched and played in the field), joined Thurman (who did the same), Ted Alexander, Bill Pope, and R. T. Walker on the staff. Eudie Napier did much of the catching.

As usual with Negro World Series’ there were some points we’d consider odd today. Game one was in Kansas City, hometown of the Monarchs. Game four was in New Orleans. Game one was played 26 September. It took until 5 October to get to game five. And of course, being the Negro Leagues, rosters were a bit fluid. The series was a best of seven format.

It’s difficult to find play-by-play for each game, I’m going to give more of a summary of each game than I usually do. According to the Cleveland Afro American  (essentially all scoring information is from the Cleveland newspaper),  game one was played in Kansas City because neither team could use their home stadium (both teams shared a stadium with a white team). In the top of the second inning, Birmingham outfielder Steele walked, went to third on a Zapp single, and scored the first run of the Series on Scott’s sacrifice fly. In the bottom of the same inning,  Thurman singled leading off for the Grays, went to third on a Napier double, and a Pope triple scored both runners. Marquez then doubled to score Pope and put Homestead up 3-1. The Black Barons got another run in the eighth on a walk, a single, and a Davis run scoring single. But Alexander got through the ninth without allowing Birmingham to score and Homestead won the game 3-2.

Game two was 29 September in Birmingham. Again, the Black Barons scored first. Davis singled, Steele walked, and Scott brought both men home with a double. Homestead scored five runs in the sixth inning to take the lead. Marquez singled, then, with one out, scored on an Easter double. After walking Leonard, a fielder’s choice got Leonard for the second out, but Marquez scored. Napier then doubled to score two runs and Pope crushed a two run home run to put the Grays up 5-2. Birmingham got one run back in the ninth on a Zapp single, a walk, and a double. But that was all as Homestead took game two by a 5-3 score.

Game three was 30 September, also in Birmingham. The Black Barons won 4-3. With two out in the bottom of the ninth and a 3-3 score and runners on first and second, up came Willie Mays. His single through the box into center drove in the winning run. It would not be the last time Mays would win a ballgame.

Game four was 3 October in New Orleans. It is the most obscure of the entire Series. There seems to be no information on why the game was held in New Orleans (at least that I can find) nor is there anything like a story on the game (again, at least not that I can find). Homestead won the game 14-1 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the Series.

Game five was October 5 back in Birmingham. The best information available (so far as I can determine) shows the Grays scoring two runs in the first, the Black Barons getting one back in the second, another in the fourth, and taking the lead with two in the fifth. Homestead retook the lead with three in the sixth, only to see Birmingham go back on top with two in the eighth. A single Grays run in the ninth tied the score 6-6 and the game went into extra innings. In the top of the tenth, Homestead scored four runs, then shut down Birmingham to claim the game 10-6 and claim the Series 4 games to 1. It sounds like a great game, but I can find nothing to describe any of the scoring in the game (the line score shows runs; hits; errors, of which there were nine total); and the batteries only.

And that was it for the Negro World Series. Before the 1949 season the NNL folded (with the remaining teams either joining the NAL or going independent). Within a couple of years the NAL was on life support and the Negro Leagues were dying. But the last Negro World Series did manage to give Willie Mays his first chance at postseason glory. At least in game three he took it.

1948 Birmingham Black Barons. Mays at left on the front row

1948 Birmingham Black Barons. Mays at left on the front row

 

 

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2 Responses to “Willie’s First World Series”

  1. Gary Trujillo Says:

    I love baseball history like this! Thanks for bringing it v.

  2. Precious Sanders Says:

    I’m perpetually impressed with how the Negro Leagues handled itself. Dealing with things like sharing stadiums with white teams and general governmental bigotry in various cities could have made it a really short-lived league (it still was, really), but they managed to establish a legacy for themselves.

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