The Man Who Beat Johnson

Frank Wickware with the Mohawk Giants about 1913

Frank Wickware was born the son of a janitor in 1888 in Kansas. It wasn’t the South, but it wasn’t exactly wonderful for a black American. The Populist movement was growing and thriving in Kansas. There was an element of Populism that believed in racial equality, but another strain that was virulently racist. Black Americans, many of which were freed slaves remained loyal to the “freedom party,” the Republicans and by the 1890s the racist strain of Populism, reacting to the continued support for the GOP by blacks, had gained superiority and a new phase of Jim Crow grew, in Kansas as well as in the American South.

In all of this Frank Wickware’s family moved to Coffeyville and he began playing organized baseball. In 1907 he joined a black team in Muskogee, Oklahoma and threw a no-hitter. That got him a gig with the Dallas Black Giants. He was successful and that success got the attention of Rube Foster in Chicago.

By 1910 Wickware was pitching for the Leyland Giants in the Windy City. Teaming with Hall of Famers John Henry Lloyd (shortstop) and Pete Hill (outfield) the Leyland Giants had a terrific season. Wickware went 18-1 (couldn’t find who beat him). The next season he moved with Foster to the American Giants (also of Chicago) and put up more good numbers.

For the next several years Frank Wickware enjoyed a nomadic life jumping from team to team, a not uncommon practice in the black leagues of the era. He finally settled in Schenectady, New York pitching for the Mohawk Giants. He remained through the 1914 season. There he found both a home and controversy. He was lured away during the season to pitch for the Lincoln Giants in a series against the American Giants (his old team). The owner of the Mohawks, obviously missing his best pitcher, swore out a warrant for Wickware’s arrest because he’d not paid his boarding bill in Schenectady. Wickware returned, pitched  and drove in the winning run, then was arrested (after the game of course). He was found guilty and fined (a teammate paid the fine).

While still with the Mohawks, he was contacted by a white minor league team in Rutland, Vermont. They were to play an exhibition against the Chicago Cubs and wanted Wickware to pitch it. He agreed, but the Cubs refused to play against an integrated team. In August 1913, his wife got into a fight with the Mohawks’ owner’s wife that resulted in the owner’s wife receiving a stab wound. Wickware’s wife was arrested.

All of that got him a ticket out-of-town, but not before he had a chance to play a barnstorming team led by Walter Johnson. The game went five innings before darkness made it impossible to continue. The Mohawks won the game 1-0 and Wickware was forever known in the area as “the man who beat Johnson.”

Between 1914 and 1918 he played for Foster’s American Giants again, becoming their ace. It was a new lease on his baseball career. He made the most of it by leading the American Giants in wins, ERA, and strikeouts for the period. He also found a new wife (If my wife knifed another woman, I’d look for a new wife too.). In 1918 he entered the Army but was still in Illinois when World War I ended.

Discharged, he moved to the Detroit Stars in 1919 with Foster’s blessing. By this time Foster was trying to start a new black league and needed a viable team in Detroit. Wickware was one of several aging American Giants that were sent north. He had a decent year there, then began a new nomadic phase of his career. His numbers were slipping, the black teams were in turmoil as Foster’s Negro National League was setting up shop and there were lots of teams wanting in and others wanting nothing to do with the NNL. So teams were looking for talent (as they always do) and aging stars were getting chances to improve their finances and their team prospects.

He hung on through 1921, had a brief comeback in 1925, but was essentially finished. There were allegations of too much liquor (a not uncommon allegation in both the Negro Leagues and the white Major Leagues), there was an allegation he shot a man in Harlem in 1925. He was freed when it was proved another player did the shooting. The boozing allegations continued (and somewhere along the line he picked up yet a third wife) and he had trouble finding work in baseball. His last record game was in 1930 for a Connecticut barnstorming team named for him.

After he left baseball he returned to Schenectady to settle down. He got in trouble for hitting his third wife with a stick and in 1948 was working at a nearby Army Depot. He was arrested for stealing a pair of boots and served four months in jail. He died in 1967 and is buried in Schenectady.

How good was Frank Wickware? Seamheads gives the following statistical line for him: 60 wins with 50 loses, an ERA of 2.84, 318 walks, 669 strikeouts, and 1027 innings pitched over 155 games (119 starts). That gives him 1.18 WHIP. They give him a total of 12.4 WAR. Those numbers are admittedly incomplete and Negro League WAR is frequently low due to the lack of games that are verifiable.

In the 2006 mass induction into the Hall of Fame, Frank Wickware was one of the pitchers considered. He failed to receive enough votes for election. But he could still say he was “the man who beat Johnson.” Not a bad legacy.

Frank Wickware’s final resting place from Find a Grave

 

One Response to “The Man Who Beat Johnson”

  1. wkkortas Says:

    As someone with many contacts in New York’s Capital District, I can assure you that Schenectady’s long and proud tradition of stabbings is very much alive and well to this very day.

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