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.