The Tragedy of Pearl Webster

Pearl “Specks” Webster (from his Wikipedia page)

Pearl (his real name, not a nickname) Franklin Webster was a Negro League player whose entire career occurred prior to 1919. He was good, not necessarily great. His death 100 years ago today was a tragic result of World War I and its aftermath.

Webster was born in 1889 in Missouri and became a leading catcher and sometime first baseman in the early Negro Leagues (the period before Rube Foster set up the Negro National League). He shows up in 1911 as a catcher for the Chicago Leland Giants, then moved to the American Giants (also of Chicago). He also put in time with the Brooklyn Royal Giants and the Lincoln Stars along with a couple of Cuban League teams. He played several games at first and served in the outfield, primarily left field, but was mostly a catcher. In 214 verified games he hit .301 with an OBP of .368, a Slugging percentage of .382, and an OPS of .750 (OPS+ of 129). He had 248 hits, 149 runs scored, and 90 RBIs. His WAR is 5.9, but remember the lack of verified games in the Negro Leagues. The Seamheads website (from which I got all his numbers) puts his stats into a 162 game context which gives him a yearly total of 188 hits, 113 runs, 68 RBIs, and four home runs, with an average WAR of 4.5.

In 1918 he was 28 and in the midst of a fine season with Hilldale when Uncle Sam came calling. He was drafted into the United States Army (18 July 1918), trained, and sent to the 807 Pioneer Infantry one of the black units in France. Being in a “pioneer” unit means he was most likely a combat engineer of some type, but I don’t know his job exactly (pioneer units also have cooks and supply personnel, etc.). He served honorably and survived the war. What he didn’t survive was the Influenza Pandemic that was, caused largely by the war, raging across the globe. He contacted the disease while still in the army and still in France. It was fatal. He died 100 years ago today. I’m not certain if he is buried in France or not.

Pearl Webster died because he went to war. It may have been the flu that killed him, but he was only in France because of World War I. He was far from the last casualty, and certainly wasn’t the only Negro Leaguer who died (Ted Kimbro. a third baseman, also died [also of flu] and there may have been others). It’s tough to tell what the baseball world lost when Webster died, but he’s certainly a tiny part of the larger tragedy of the First World War.


One Response to “The Tragedy of Pearl Webster”

  1. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    It’s so important to recognize and honor those who serve … and, especially so, I think, to honor those black soldiers who fought — and died — for freedom … a freedom they didn’t really even have. Thank you, v., for sharing this.

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