Archive for February, 2017

El Diamante Negro

February 23, 2017
Jose Mendez

Jose Mendez

Recently there’s been a real rash of Caribbean players making their mark in the Major Leagues. With the political troubles the US and Cuba have been through in the last 50 years, few Cubans have made their mark. Back 75 years ago if you were a “white” Cuban you could make your mark in the Majors. If you were a “black” Cuban you couldn’t. Dolf Luque, a pretty fair pitcher managed to pitch in a World Series. For El Diamante Negro (the Black Diamond) there was no chance. So Jose Mendez made his mark in the Negro Leagues.

Mendez was born in Cardenas, Cuba (about 100 miles from Havana) in 1887. By 1907 he was a pitcher for the Almendares team. Seamheads shows him 8-0 in 13 games as his team won the Cuban League pennant. He remained in Cuba through 1916 pitching winter ball there while moving to the US to pitch during the summers. Between 1909 and 1911 he pitched for the Cuban Stars going 15-2 in documented games with an ERA under 1.50.

By 1913 he’d found the team with which he was destined to make his greatest mark. The All Nations was a barnstorming team that traveled around the upper Midwest playing pretty much all comers. It had initially been one of the few integrated teams in the country, but as the long arm of Jim Crow tightened on the US it became more and more a black team. By 1913 it was completely segregated. Well, not completely. The owner, Hall of Famer J.L. Wilkinson, was white. He’d founded the All Nations to show that integrated baseball was possible. He also had contacts in the Major League community, particularly a minor outfielder named Casey Stengel. Guys like Stengel led white barnstorming teams across the US and frequently played black teams. Wilkinson’s contacts with teams like Stengel’s gave him an insight into the best black teams and best black players available. One of those was Mendez, and the All Nations picked him up.

He had a decent year with Wilkinson’s club but developed arm trouble in 1914. He moved to shortstop and continued playing. By 1919 his arm was well and he returned to the mound. The formation of the Negro National League in 1920 gave him a new place to play and he signed with Wilkinson’s team, now renamed the Kansas City Monarchs.

Along with the American Giants, the Monarchs were one of the dominant teams of the NNL. With Mendez and “Bullet Joe” Rogan pitching, Newt Allen and Dobie Moore on the infield Oscar (“Heavy”) Johnson patrolling the outfield they won pennants in 1923, 1924, and 1925. In the latter two years, the team played in the first two Colored World Series (both against Hilldale). With Mendez picking up two wins, including the clincher, they won the first of the two in 1924, dropping the ’25 struggle. Mid-1923 saw Mendez take over the managerial reins for the team. He held the job through the final pennant year of 1925.

Mendez retired after the 1926 season and died in Cuba in 1928 of bronchopneumonia. He still holds the Cuban League record for winning percentage among pitchers. In 2006 he was elected to the Hall of Fame. The Cuban Hall of Fame called him in 1939.

As with other Negro League players of the era, his statistics are all over the place. Baseball Reference.com shows him with 27 wins and 13 loses, all with the Monarchs. Seamheads gives him a 135-58 record over a career from 1907 through 1925. The BR.com ERA is 3.52, while Seamheads has it at 2.16. Either set of numbers shows Mendez as a superior pitcher who was a star in both Cuba and the US Negro Leagues.

 

 

 

 

 

The Monarchs vs the Daisies

February 21, 2017
ticket to the 1925 Colored World Series

ticket to the 1925 Colored World Series

Back in the 1920s there were two significant Negro Leagues: the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League. As a rule the NNL represented Midwestern teams and the ECL covered the East Coast. They were, like the National League and the American League, enemies early in their existence. Eventually intelligence emerged and in 1924 the got together to play the first ever Colored World Series (official title although sometimes called the Negro World Series). The NNL Kansas City Monarchs won it by knocking off the Hilldale Daisies (Daisies was an unofficial nickname). In 1925 it was decided to hold a second postseason series. The same two teams won their league titles so a rematch was in order.

The defending champion Monarchs fielded a team consisting of Lemuel Hawkins, Newt Allen, Dobie Moore, and Newt Joseph in the infield with Dink Mothell, Wade Johnston, Hurley McNair in the outfield, and Frank Duncan as the catcher. The pitching staff consisted of Hall of Famer Jose Mendez, who also managed the team, fellow Hall of Famer “Bullet Joe” Rogan, William Bell, Nelson Dean, and Bill Drake. Rogan was unavailable for the Series. His son had accidentally stabbed him with a needle in his knee and he had to sit out the Series (and you thought freak accidents were new, did you?).

Hilldale responded with an infield of George “Tank”  Carr, Frank Warfield (who also managed the team), Jake Stephens, and Hall of Famer Judy Johnson. The outfield was Clint Thomas, Otto Briggs, and George Johnson. Hall of Fame catcher Biz Mackey did most of the back stopping, but fellow Hall of Fame catcher Louis Santop (in his final season) was available off the bench. The staff centered around Nip Winters, Reuben Currie, and Phil Cockrill, all of which were healthy enough to pitch (apparently none of them let their kids near needles).

The Series was a best of nine. Unlike many Negro League World Series’ all the games would be played in the home parks of the teams. Frequently these series turned into something like a barnstorming session with the games being played in a number of cities (but that was also more common in the 1940s series than in the 1920s). Game one was 1 October 1925 in Kansas City.

It was a pitching duel between Drake and Currie. Both teams scored one run in regulation and another in the 11th inning. In the 13th, George Johnson was hit by a Drake pitch, then Warfield singled. A Judy Johnson triple put the Daisies ahead with Johnson later scoring to make the final 5-2.

Game two saw a reversal of the score as the Monarchs won 5-3 with a three run rally in the bottom of the eighth inning, Dean getting the win and Cockrill taking the loss. But game three then proceeded to go extra innings for the second time in three games. With the score tied 1-1 in the top of the 10th, Mendez relieved Bell. Judy Johnson got to him with a single followed by a Washington double to give Hilldale the win and a 2 games to 1 lead.

Game four was the final game in Kansas City. The final score made it look like a blowout, but the game was close, Hilldale leading 3-2, until the ninth. The Daisies put up four runs to take a commanding lead. KC got one back, but Daisies ace Winters got out of it to win the game 7-3 and send the Series to Philadelphia with Hilldale up three games to one.

With games in Baker Bowl, the Colored World Series resumed on 8 October (the ticket pictured above is for this game). In the fourth inning Tank Carr hit a home run, the first of the Series, off Bell to put Hilldale ahead 1-0. In the same inning Mackey doubled and came home on a misplay (type unspecified in the source). Now up 2-0, Hilldale coasted to a win 2-1 with Currie pitching a complete game and giving the Daisies a 4-1 lead in game.

Game six was 10 October, also in Philly. Mackey went three of five with a homer and Hilldale wrapped up the Series five games to one with Cockrill getting his first win. It was a reversal of the 1924 results and gave Hilldale its first ever championship. It turned out to be their only one.

1925 Hilldale Club

1925 Hilldale Club

Before getting on with a Series wrap up, a note about the picture above. You’ll note the picture refers to the team as the Hilldale “Giants” and I’ve used “Daisies” throughout this post. As noted above “Daisies” was an unofficial team nickname. By the time the team folded during the Great Depression, it had become the most common nickname associated with the team. Because that’s true, I’ve used it throughout.

Although specific inning by inning information on the 1925 Series is scant, the guys at Seamheads have, again, provided us with some solid research to indicate how the individual players did during the Series. If you’re interested in the Negro Leagues, it’s a great place to find information and I recommend it highly.

For the Monarchs Dobie Moore led the team with a .364 average, almost 100 points above Hurley McNair’s .279, which was second on the team. Moore’s four RBIs doubled anyone else on the team, while the two Newts, Allen and Joseph, led Kansas City with three runs scored each. For the staff, Dean picked up the only win and his 1.54 ERA was second to Bell’s 1.15. Drake took two losses.

Mackey, Carr, and outfielder Otto Briggs were the hitting stars for Hilldale. Both Mackey and Carr hit a single home run and Briggs hit .404 for the Series. Briggs’ 12 hits led both teams. Mackey was, over the course of the six games, the only player to hit for the cycle (Carr had no triple). Carr and manager Frank Warfield led the team in RBIs with Carr getting six to Warfield’s five. Curry picked up two wins from the mound with Cockrill, Winters, and Red Ryan getting the other three. Cockrill had the only loss. Both he and Curry racked up 10 strikeouts while Winters and Lee had eight each. Curry’s 1.29 ERA led the team.

I was unable to find the winning and losing shares for the Series.

 

 

The Lincolns

February 16, 2017
Lincoln Giants jersey from 1910

Lincoln Giants jersey from 1910

When we think of Negro League teams, most think of the later Negro League teams such as the Crawfords, the Grays, or the Eagles. But way back before the founding of the first of the famous Negro Leagues, the Negro National League of the 1920s, there were other leagues and other teams. One of the more dominant of the early 20th Century teams was the Lincoln Giants of New York.

There is a bit of question about their origins. Their Wikipedia page indicates that an ancestry can be traced back to Nebraska in the 1890s, but doesn’t indicate how they got to New York. More conventional sources indicate that Jess McMahon (of the current WWE wrestling McMahon’s) was a prominent sports promoter in New York with extensive interests in Harlem. In 1911 he joined with Sol White to form the Lincoln Giants. It was a formidable team that immediately began to dominate black baseball in New York. With Hall of Famers John Henry Lloyd, Louis Santop, Smokey Joe Williams, and the likes of Spottswood Poles, Bill Pettus, and Cannonball Dick Redding (God, I love old-time nicknames) they dominated Eastern black baseball into 1914. In 1913 they played an unofficial black championship against the pride of the Midwestern black leagues, the Chicago American Giants, led by Rube Foster. The exact number of games and wins in the series is in some question, but there is agreement that the Lincolns won the series.

the 1911 Lincoln Giants

the 1911 Lincoln Giants

By 1914, McMahon was in financial trouble. He sold the Lincoln Giants, but retained the contracts of several of the big stars. He formed a new team, the Lincoln Stars, and competed directly with his old team. The Stars lasted to 1917, folded, and most of the remaining former Giants went back to their old club.

According to the Seamheads website, the Lincoln Giants were still doing well in the 1914-17 period, but fell off some due to the loss of many of their stars. By this point Smokey Joe Williams was doubling as ace pitcher and manager. It was the height of his Hall of Fame career. But the team ran up against a formidable foe off the diamond. Nat Strong (see my post “The Schedule Man” of 20 August 2015) controlled scheduling for black baseball in New York at the time and the Lincolns wanted to play more games than Strong was willing to schedule. They attempted to schedule some games without going through Strong, and were thrown out of the existing league structure in New York. Barnstorming followed.

With the founding Foster’s Negro National League, the eastern teams found it to their advantage to form their own league, the Eastern Colored League, in 1923. The Lincolns were a significant member of the league. They never won a league championship, finishing as high as third in 1924. By 1928 the ECL was on life support. A changing economy, weak teams, chaos at the top of the league (again another story for another time), and the dominance of Foster’s NNL, caused it to collapse.

The remnants of the ECL formed a new league, the American Negro League in 1929. It lasted one year. The Lincoln Giants held on one more year in a declining economy and finally folded after the 1930 season.

During their existence, the New York Lincoln Giants were dominant in the East. They won unofficial championships most of the decade of the 19-teens and led Strong’s New York league most years (which is why they thought they could challenge him). They provided Eastern black baseball with some of the greatest players of the era in Lloyd, Wood, Santop, Redding, and later Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes. Not a bad legacy.

the 1911 version of the Lincoln Giants cap

the 1911 version of the Lincoln Giants cap

Spot

February 14, 2017
Spottswood Poles

Spottswood Poles

If you ask most people what they know about the Negro Leagues, you’ll probably get, presuming you get anything other than a blank stare, something about the leagues or the teams of the 1930s and 1940s. And if you get that, you’ll probably hear something like “they ran a lot.” That’s true as far as it goes. They also hit for power and pitched and did all the other things baseball players do, but for some reason the speed game has become a centerpiece of Negro League baseball. That’s true back well beyond the 1930s. One of the first great speedsters played in the Deadball Era. He was Spottswood Poles.

Poles was born in Winchester, Virginia (another in Bloggess’ tour of Virginia people) in 1887. It was the height of “Jim Crow” and Poles, who could play baseball well, went North catching on with the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Colored Giants in 1906. Sol White, owner and manager of the Philadelphia Giants saw him and brought him to the more prestigious Philly team in 1909 (age 22). He was an immediate success. He played the outfield (center) and frequently led off games. He was fast, according to legend, he stole 41 bases in 60 games in 1911 (obviously not all of those can be verified).

He stayed with Philadelphia through 1910 then shifted to the Lincoln Giants (of New York) in 1911. As with most Negro League stars of the day, he did a stint in Cuba during the winters. Between 1910 and 1915 he starred for Fe (“faith”) in Cuba. Info available at Baseball Reference.com shows him hitting ,369 with 21 stolen bases in 25 games with Fe in 1910 (the only season statistics are available). There are references to him hitting .364 in 1912, but I could find no collaboration of that figure. His Wikipedia page credits him with an overall average of .319 in Cuba. The Seamheads site lists the average as .314.

With the Lincoln Giants he became a star. With a short side trip to the Lincoln Stars (an offshoot of the Giants–a story for another time), Spot Poles stayed with the Lincoln Giants until 1917. His numbers vary, but it is obvious he was one of the finer players of the era. Batting averages like .440 and .487 pop up, but Baseball Reference.com’s best number is .382 in 1914 (over 38 games). Seamheads shows a .375 over 17 games in 1912. All are great numbers but they indicate how difficult it is to pin down Negro League statistics.

With the US entering World War I in 1917, Poles joined the Army. He was part of the 369th Infantry (sometimes known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”) and served in France. His unit, a segregated regiment was attached to the French Army during 1918 and served conspicuously. Poles himself earned a Purple Heart during his service.

Back in the Negro Leagues in 1919 he played with Hilldale (Philadelphia), the Bacharachs (Atlantic City), and again with the Lincoln Giants, remaining a player into 1923. In retirement he ran a taxi service, then worked at an air base. He died in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1962. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Remember, he was a veteran of World War I.

These are his numbers from the research by Seamheads: in 290 documented games his triple slash line reads .307/.385/.380/.765 with  60 stolen bases, 228 runs scored, 350 hits, 51 doubles, four home runs, and 114 RBIs. Not at all bad numbers. In contrast, Baseball Reference.com gives the following stats: in 165 documented games a triple slash line of .318/.386/.389/.775, 56 stolen bases, 159 runs scored, 245 hits, 35 doubles, two homers, and 61 RBIs. Either set you pick, you have a great ballplayer.

It’s obvious, if you notice the differing stats listed here, that Poles (one of whose nicknames was the equally obvious “Bean”) is a great case of how difficult it is to get a true handle on Negro League players. It’s certain he was good. It’s almost impossible to tell just how good. When I mentioned on an earlier post about my fantasy league team and how it showed me just how much we were only “glimpsing” the Negro League players, Poles (who is on my team) is one of the players I meant.

In 2006 the Hall of Fame formed a committee to look over and choose Negro League players for Hall enshrinement. Poles was one of the players on the list. He made it through the first round and to the final cut, but did not make it into the Hall of Fame. It will be interesting to see if the new Veteran’s Committee tasked with looking at pre-integration players takes another look at either him or other Negro League players.

Poles grave in Arlington

Poles grave in Arlington

 

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Pete Hill

February 9, 2017
Pete Hill batting about 1911

Pete Hill batting about 1911

1. John Preston Hill was born in 1882 in Culpeper County, Virginia. There is some evidence that his family was owned during slavery by the family of later Confederate General A. P. Hill. The family lived in Culpeper County. Even that basic statistical information is in dispute. Although the information in the first sentence is the most commonly accepted information, some sources indicate his name was Joseph Preston Hill and he was born in Pittsburgh in 1880. All sources seem to agree his birthday was 12 October.

2, By 1899 he was playing outfield for the Pittsburgh Keystones. The 1900 US Census shows him living in Pittsburgh which is possibly where the confusion about his birthplace occurs.

3. He spent most of the first half of the first decade of the 20th Century playing center field for the Philadelphia Giants (led by Hall of Famer Sol White) and the Cuban X-Giants (which weren’t Cuban but worked out of Trenton). He did spend much of the same period playing winter ball in Cuba, leading the league in hitting in the winter of 1910-11.

4. He joined the Leland Giants in 1908 and teamed with Rube Foster to dominate teams in the Chicago area.

5. When Foster formed the American Giants (also of Chicago) in 1911, Hill became both his primary offensive weapon and the team field captain. He is supposed to have gotten at least one hit in 115 games in 1911. The team played 116 games. The feat is not well documented and may be apocryphal. What little statistical information available shows batting averages of .400 and .357 for 1911 and 1912. Again those numbers are in dispute.

6. In 1919, Hill joined the Detroit Stars as player-manager. In his last year with Detroit, 1921, he hit .388 at age 39.

7. He remained a player and a player-manager through 1925 when he retired.

8. In retirement he ran the Buffalo, NY Red Caps and also worked for Ford Motors.

9. Pete Hill died in Buffalo in 1951.

10. Incomplete numbers at Baseball Reference.com show Hill with a .328 batting average, a .481 slugging percentage, 818 hits in 692 documented games, 513 runs scored, 47 triples, 48 home runs, and 455 RBIs. For 1911 and 1912 the information at Baseball Reference.com gives him batting averages of .365 and .399 as opposed to the numbers listed in point five above. Of the 116 games played in 1911 (of which he’s supposed to have gotten a hit in 115) only 26 are documented (and show 35 hits).

11. In 2006, Pete Hill was elected to the Hall of Fame.

12. For years Hill’s grave was unmarked. The Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project has discovered the site.

Marker from Find a Grave memorial

Marker from Find a Grave memorial

 

A Glimpse at Reality Through Fantasy

February 7, 2017
John Henry Lloyd in Cuba

John Henry Lloyd in Cuba

February is Black History Month in the US and I generally spend the entire month looking at black baseball. This month I wanted to finish the posts on the 1948-50 Boston Red Sox, so I’m starting this year’s look just a little late.

I’m in a Fantasy Baseball league. Kevin, our commissioner, wanted to add in Negro League players (we’re replaying the 1911 season) and because the statistics were really sparse, he had to jury rig a system that would allow the black players to function within the rules of the league but not tip play balance either for against them. As neither he nor I (nor anyone else for that matter) knew if what he’d done would work, I ended up with an experimental all black team. The idea was to find out how well each player functioned without teams (other than mine) having to figure out how to work with experimental statistical information. So far I’m in first place with about a dozen games to play which says a lot more about the quality of the work our commissioner did and the quality of the players than it does about my managerial and general managerial abilities.

I’m telling you this because it reinforces one of the primary problems when dealing with black baseball before 1950. The statistical information is spotty. In the case of my fantasy team John Henry Lloyd only has enough information available to get him into about 50 games of a 154 game season. Pete Hill gets about 75 games. Louis Santop can make about 100 games. All three are Hall of Famers. And some of the statistics are quite simply a best guess (or at least close to it–Kevin did a great job figuring out how to add the player’s information in to the existing system). And this brings up one of the greatest problems with trying to deal with the black leagues of the era.

Exactly how good were these guys? Frankly I don’t know and neither does anyone else. I, and everyone else, can make educated guesses and the working around of stats in something as unimportant in the grand scheme of things like a fantasy league can provide a glimpse of what almost all of our parents and grandparents missed. But ultimately, it is only a glimpse.

And that’s what I can provide here; a mere glimpse. I hope you’ll enjoy this year’s glimpses (many of which are short biographies of players on my fantasy team).

The Best Team Never to Win (What went wrong?)

February 2, 2017
Fenway Park

Fenway Park

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time detailing the players and the one playoff game that composed the three-year period that was the 1948-1950 Boston Red Sox. They finished second twice (’48 and ’49) then slipped to third in 1950. Look over the roster (including the manager) and you can’t help but wonder why they never took a pennant. This is a musing on some of the things that went wrong for the team.

The easiest, and most obvious, answer to what went wrong is that the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians were formidable teams also. New York won both the pennant and the World Series in 1949 and repeated again in 1950. Consider some of the names on the Yankees roster: Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Johnny Mize, Allie Reynolds, and in 1950 Whitey Ford. Earlier in 1948 it was Cleveland that took both the pennant and the World Series title. And now consider some of the names on the Indians roster: Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Joe Gordon, Lou Boudreau, Larry Doby, Ken Keltner. In ’48 the Red Sox had a winning record against every team except one (they were 14-8 against the Yanks): Cleveland. They finished the season 11-11 against Cleveland, then lost the one game playoff described below. For what it’s worth, Cleveland had a winning record against everyone except Boston and New York (10-12), but did better against the second division teams. In both 1949 and 1950 the Red Sox couldn’t beat the Yankees. In 1949 they finished one game back of New York but went 9-13 in head-to-head games. They also had a losing season against Cleveland (8-14). New York, on the other hand had a winning record against every team except Detroit, a team they played .500 ball against (11-11). In 1950 both Cleveland and New York handled the Red Sox, and this time Detroit joined the crowd with a 12-10 record against Boston.

In 1950 there was another problem in Boston. Ted Williams was hurt for much of the season (an elbow) and his replacement, Clyde Vollmer, was OK, but he wasn’t Ted Williams. The Bosox slipped to third in 1950.

Additionally, a look at the team statistics shows that the Red Sox pitching wasn’t all that great. Although the hitting consistently finished in the top two or three in most categories the hurlers tended to finish just slightly lower (3 to 4 in an 8 team league). It’s not that an individual pitcher, like a Mel Parnell, wasn’t good, but the overall quality of the staff didn’t hold up to Cleveland (Bob Feller and Bob Lemon) or to the Yanks. In 1949 Parnell finished second on the team (to Williams–who else?) in WAR and in 1950 he actually led the team (remember Williams was hurt). But the staff had a bad habit of putting a lot of men on base and too many of those men scored. In all three years an inordinate number of pitchers allowed more hits than they had innings pitched and walked more men than they struck out. Those aren’t recipes for winning pennants (especially if Cleveland has guys like Feller and Lemon).

It’s tough not to like this team. It was a genuinely terrific team, but at the same time you almost can’t help but feel sorry for it. It should have won more and it’s kind of a shame it didn’t.