Archive for February, 2019

What We Missed

February 28, 2019

Roy Campanella in gear

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times recently Seamheads takes its players and runs their statistics out to a 162 game schedule. That gives us some idea what we missed by segregating the great Negro League players. It also gives us a rough look at the totality of the career of those players who made the transition from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues.

Let me give you two sets of numbers:

Triple Slash Line A: .327/.385/.488/.872

Triple Slash Line B: .276/.360/.500/.860

OPS+ A: 145; OPS+: 123

Hits A: 183; Hits B: 155

Runs A: 107; Runs B: 84

HR A: 14; HR B: 32

RBI A: 124; RBI B: 114

WAR A: 5.0; WAR B: 3.4

Two good sets of numbers, right? Well, they belong to the same player, Roy Campanella (The picture above gave it away, right?). “A” represents Seamheads interpretation of Campanella’s career over a 162 game schedule in the Negro Leagues (1937-1945). “B” represents the BaseballReference interpretation of Campanella’s career over a 162 game schedule in the Major Leagues (1948-1957).

So what do we make of these numbers? Well, there’s a lot of things we can try to make of them, but let’s start by acknowledging that the first set of numbers begin at age 15 while the last set begin at age 26. Part of the Negro League numbers include a rather steep learning curve as Campy begins his career in his mid-teens. The second set of numbers deal with him as a mature player. Also recall that Roy Campanella is a catcher and catcher’s tend to age poorly. And while we’re at it, remember that the Negro League stats are based on significantly fewer documented games.

Having said that, we can note that he’s a very good player in both leagues. It really can’t tell us the quality of play in the Negro Leagues, because of the age differences and the number of games involved, but it’s one way to give us a taste of the quality of play available in the Negro Leagues.

Sadly, it’s only a taste. Fans of baseball, both black and white, were robbed by the Jim Crow system of the ability to see some of the best players available in the period prior to 1950. Sure, a white person could buy a ticket to a black game, but they weren’t encouraged to do so and the same is true of black people. I finish this yearly look at the Negro Leagues with a bit of wistfulness, because I know a number of baseball fans, almost all of which are gone now, never got to see all the great players of their era.


A Dozen Things You Should Know About Jules Thomas

February 26, 2019

Jules Thomas (picture from Seamheads)

Here’s a brief look at one of the players on my fantasy league team:

1. Julian Thomas was born in December, 1886 in Powhatan County, Virginia, which is near Richmond. In the Wikipedia page describing the county Thomas is not listed as one of the notable people from the county (John Singleton Mosby of “Gray Ghost” fame is).

2. There is confusion from the beginning of his career. The Bullpen says he began play in the Negro Leagues in 1909, Seamheads indicates he began play in 1908. Both agree he started his career with the Brooklyn Royal Giants.

3. Unlike a lot of Negro League stalwarts who played a number of different positions, Thomas was almost strictly an outfielder (Seamheads gives him 10 total games n the infield).

4. In 1912, he led the Negro League teams with three home runs. This is prior to the more formally established Negro Leagues of the 1920s, so the teams were much more loosely organized and barnstormed more, making it difficult to determine any statistics across teams. Seamheads indicates he had five home runs.

5. In 1914 he made is first foray into Cuba playing center field for the New York Lincoln Stars (not the Lincoln Giants). He spent four different seasons in the Cuban winter league and did poorly each year.

6. Between 1916 and 1922 he averaged a triple slash line of .358/.416/.493/.909. He turned 30 in 1916, so this line covers most of his 30s. This line also covers about 150 total documented games. His OPS+ for the period is 169.

7. With the formation of the Negro National League in 1920 and the Eastern Colored League a couple of years later, a more formalized schedule created more “league” games (cutting down on the “barnstorming” games). By this point Thomas was in his middle thirties, but still in demand. The Lincoln Giants (now Thomas’ team) joined the Eastern Colored League in 1923. Thomas hit .271 at age 36 in his first year with the ECL.

8. In 1925 he became player-manager of the Lincolns. The team went 7-39 and finished last. He was let go as the manager.

9. He spent 1926 back with the Brooklyn Royal Giants, then was with the Negro minor league Pennsylvania Red Caps of New York (which had more to do with Penn Station in New York than with the state of Pennsylvania).

10. There is debate about his final year in the Negro League. Seamheads shows 1926 as his last season, while BaseballReference’s Bullpen indicates he played with the Lincoln Giants in 1928.

11. For his career, Seamheads extrapolated his statistics over a 162 game season. They show him with a triple slash line of .310/.362/.444/.806 with an OPS+ of 138. He averages 196 hits, 99 runs scored, 115 RBIs, and 10 home runs, with an average of 4.4 WAR.

12. Jules Thomas died 10 December 1943 in New York.

The Loss of Ted Kimbro

February 22, 2019

Ted Kimbro (from Agatetype)

In 1914, Europe exploded into World War I. It was “The War to End All Wars,” the war to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” It give us such wonderful terms as “mustard gas” and “flamethrowers.” It was a catastrophe that engulfed the United States in 1917. And as with everything else it engulfed, the Negro Leagues suffered also.

Ted Kimbro out of St. Louis, Missouri was an up and coming infielder in the Negro Leagues. Most of his career was with the St. Louis Giants, his hometown team, and later the New York Lincoln Giants. At 19 he was with the West Braden Sprudels, a team in Indiana named for a type of bottled water. He, initially, was a shortstop, but spent most of his career at second and third. What stats are available show him a better second baseman than a third baseman. Over the years his average crept up to peak at .352 in 1917. He was, everyone hoped, a coming star.

What was coming was the First World War. Kimbro was drafted in July 1918, sent for training to Fort Dix, New Jersey. He teamed with Pearl Webster, a catcher, to help make a quality black team at the base. Training over, Webster went to France and an early grave (from flu), while Kimbro stayed on in New Jersey for a short while.

If the war was a problem in 1918, an equally awful issue was the spread of the Influenza Pandemic that shot around the world, aided, most historians agree, by the dislocation of peoples caused by the war, and throwing together infected people with others who ended up catching the disease also. Kimbro was one of those. He developed bronchial pneumonia, one of the things influenza did to people, and died at Fort Dix 29 September, 1918, another casualty of the War to End All Wars.

How good was Kimbro? We’ll never know. He was 23 when he died and just moving into the best parts of his career. Seamheads has a stats page on him and part of it extrapolates his numbers out to a 162 game schedule. For Kimbro they show 90 runs scored, 32 stolen bases a season and a triple slash line of .283/,351/.387/.738 with an OPS+ of 118 and an average of just over 4 WAR (which is based on a total of 104 documented games).


Adios, Newk

February 20, 2019

Don Newcombe

Don Newcombe died yesterday. He was 92. He’s not the last Brooklyn Dodgers player, but he was close. Both Carl Erskine and Sandy Koufax are still around, and I presume there are others. This will be the second of these I’ve done in Black History Month, and it reminds us how many of the black pioneers are gone.

Newcombe spent time in the Negro Leagues, then followed the Dodgers minor league plan (Nashua, Montreal) before arriving in Brooklyn. He was Rookie of the Year in 1949, Dodgers ace by 1950. Ralph Branca gave up the home run that cost the Dodgers the 1950 pennant, but Newcombe was on the mound earlier and couldn’t hold off the Giants. He won 20 games in 1951, went off to the Korean War in 1952 and 1953, then came back for two more great years in 1955 and 1956. The 1956 season got him an MVP and the first ever Cy Young Award. In 1956 they only gave out one Cy Young for all of Major League Baseball.

He faded after that, didn’t make the transition to Los Angeles well, was traded to Cincinnati, then to Cleveland, and was done at 34. For his career he was 149-90 with an ERA of 3.56 (ERA+114), 1.209 WHIP, and 29.6 WAR.

Back then, sportswriters didn’t talk much in public about the dark side of a player. I didn’t know Newcombe had a drinking problem until years later. It certainly curtailed his career (as did Negro League time, although he was only 23 as a rookie). He got over it and became one of those ex-players teams called on to counsel players with personal problems, particularly alcohol. By all accounts, he was pretty good at it. In some ways it is his greatest contribution to the game.

There was always a knock on him; he never won a World Series game. In five starts he was 0-4 with an ERA of 8.59. He gave up 29 hits in 22 innings, but walked only eight while striking out 19. He gave up a couple of critical home runs to Yogi Berra in the Series (Berra did that to a lot of hurlers) and was seen as a bust in postseason play.

I remember him from my childhood. He was huge on the mound and intimidating (not Bob Gibson intimidating, but intimidating nonetheless). He was never a particular favorite of mine. I leaned toward Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, and Carl Furillo. And later Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres overshadowed him in my world (Koufax didn’t hit his stride until Newcombe was gone). I’ve come to realize that was youthful ignorance and he should have been right up there with the others. So this is by way of mourning a loss and making a belated apology to him.

RIP, Don Newcombe, and please, God, let’s not do any more of these this month.

Chicago Leads the Way

February 14, 2019

Willie Foster, 1927

When the Negro National League was formed in 1920, the Chicago American Giants were the top of the league. They remained there a few years before being bested by J.L. Wilkinson’s Kansas City Monarchs. It took a while for the American Giants to return to the top of the league. By that time a new league, the Eastern Colored League had formed and the two leagues were involved in the first version of the Negro World Series (there was a new version beginning in the 1940s). In 1926 and 1927 the American Giants squared off against the ECL winner, the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants for the Negro League championship.

With Dave Malarcher, third baseman, as manager, the American Giants fielded a team dominated by pitching. Hall of Famer Willie Foster, Rube Foster’s brother, as the primary lefty and Willie Powell, Rube Currie, George Harney, and Webster McDonald from the right side, the staff was deeper than most Negro League teams. The infield had Charlie Williams at second, Malarcher at third, and Pythias Russ at short. The big guns in the outfield were Steel Arm (Walter) Davis and George Sweatt.

The Dick Lundy managed Bacharachs had Oliver Marcell at third and Lundy at short, with Chancy White and Ambrose Reid in the outfield. Luther Farrell and Hubert Lockhart were the two main pitchers. Both were lefties.

There’s not a lot of play-by-play available, but it was a streaky series. The American Giants won the best of nine 5 games to 3 with games being played in both Atlantic City, and Chicago. I mention that because frequently the Negro World Series did a barnstorming tour playing games in several cities. The series produced a tie. Chicago won the first four games, all in Chicago With scores of 6-2, 11-1, 7-0, and 9-1 none of the games were close. Then the Bacharachs won game five 3-2. The tie was game six. Games seven and eight saw Atlantic City tighten the series with 8-1 and 6-5 victories. In game nine, Chicago won 11-4 to finish out the series and claim their second straight championship.

It was the end of the road for the first version of the Negro World Series. The ECL folded in 1928 and the NNL followed in 1930. I’ve been looking for the winners and losers shares for the series and couldn’t find them. If you do, let me know.

RIP Frank Robinson

February 12, 2019

Frank Robinson

I hate writing these. It means that someone I liked long ago is now gone. It reminds me that not only are they mortal, but so am I.

By now you’ve read all the glowing tributes, the mention of his hitting ability, his MVP, this Triple Crown, his role as the first black manager in the Major Leagues. You’ve probably seen the umpire stare down that became a part of the Robinson legend. I remember Robinson as a player and a proud African-American and somehow it’s appropriate that if he had to die, it should be in Black History Month.

What I remember most about Robinson is not his stats, but his ferocity at the plate. He was no placid hitter who walked to the plate and looked out at the pitcher. He stalked to the plate, glared at the pitcher, dared him to try to throw something by him. Few did. But to me Robinson was summed up in two incidents that I will never forget (both watched on TV).

Bob Gibson

It was somewhere in either 1964 or 1965 and the Reds (Robinson’s team) were playing the Cardinals. Bob Gibson, who had the only glare in baseball greater than Robinson’s was pitching. They stood there staring at each other until Gibson motioned Robinson into the batter’s box. Being Robinson, he continued to stare, rather than move. Gibson motioned again and again nothing from Robinson. Finally the umpire told Robinson to get into the box. Gibson’s first pitch missed Robinson’s head by inches (very few of them). Robinson dusted himself off, got back up, stepped back out, and started the glare again. Eventually, after a couple of knock downs and a couple of strikes, Robinson tapped one to short (Dal Maxvill, I think). The was out by a bunch. Then he and Gibson engaged in a long stare down as Robinson returned to the dugout. It was good baseball, but it was better theater.

Sandy Koufax

The other one occurred about the same time. This time the Reds were playing the Dodgers with Sandy Koufax on the mound (he never glared at a batter). Koufax threw three of the greatest curves anyone ever saw and Robinson looked silly trying to hit them (Koufax could do that to you). He stepped out of the box, looked at Koufax for a moment, then nodded. Only time I ever saw him do that to a pitcher.

So adios, Frank. You were one of the greats and all of us who saw you play are better for it. RIP, Frank Robinson.

The Pride of Chicago

February 7, 2019

Chicago American Giants logo

Although baseball as we know it begins on the East Coast, Chicago has traditional standing as one of the earliest hotbeds of the sport. William Hulbert, founder of the National League lived in Chicago. His team, the White Stockings (now the Cubs) won the first ever National League pennant. But the Windy City was also the home of a number of Black Americans who liked the game as much as their white counterparts. If the Cubs were White Chicago’s team, the American Giants were Black Chicago’s team.

In 1887 the Chicago Unions were formed by Abe Jones, a local catcher and William S. Peters, a local black business owner and first baseman. Peters managed the team. The team was successful, being one of only two black teams to survive the economic downturn in 1893 (the “Panic of ’93” to historians). In 1899, the Unions were joined by the Chicago Columbia Giants. The Columbia Giants were the lineal descendants of the Page Fence Giants (a story for a later time) and included such stars as William Patterson and Sol White (who is now a Hall of Famer). They defeated the Unions in a championship match.

Frank Leland

By 1898, Frank Leland gained control of the Unions, and in 1901 worked a merger of the two clubs which he renamed the Union Giants. They were immediately successful. In 1907, Leland renamed them after himself, the Leland Giants. They were easily the finest black team in the upper Midwest. With the name change, came a bevy of stars from Black Baseball that made the Leland’s even more formidable. Pete Hill took over in center field, “Big” Bill Gatewood was on the mound, but the greatest find was pitcher Andrew “Rube” Foster. To Leland’s dismay, Foster had big plans and wanted to found his own team.

Rube Foster (with the team logo on the uniform behind him)

By 1910, Foster made his move. He claimed control of the team (and the team name) and renamed the team the Chicago American Giants. Leland hung on to a handful of the players and continued games as the Chicago Giants. But Foster had the big names, John Henry Lloyd, Pete Hill, Bruce Petway, and Frank Wickware.

The team was as successful as ever, but Foster dreamed of creating a black league to rival the Major Leagues. In 1920, he created the Negro National League with the American Giants as a founding member. They were, for most of the period of the NNL’s existence, the best team, winning pennants in 1920, 1921, and ’22. In 1926, with Foster’s failing health, and questions of his favoritism as league president toward the American Giants, Dave Malarcher took over the team and led it to pennants in 1926 and 1927. By that point, the NNL had a rival, the Eastern Colored League. The two leagues staged the Negro World Series which the American Giants won in both 1926 and 1927. In 1928, the ECL folded.

Economic crisis once again afflicted Black Baseball in the 1930s as the Great Depression caused the folding of the NNL. The American Giants remained viable and transferred to the Negro Southern League in 1932, winning the pennant before the NSL also collapsed. That began a period of transition for both the American Giants and Black Baseball in general.

A new Negro National League was formed in 1933, which the American Giants joined. They were good, but the Pittsburgh Crawfords were an all-time team and the Giants were unable to capture a pennant. In 1936, they played as an independent team, barnstorming games as they could find them. By 1938, they’d joined the newly formed Negro American League, but were never able to compete with the Kansas City Monarchs as the NAL’s top team.

With the admission of Jackie Robinson and other players to the Major Leagues, the Negro Leagues went into decline. The American Giants hung on through 1956, when they finally folded. By that point they were hiring white players and had lost much of their Negro League identity. But early on, the American Giants were one of Black Baseball’s premier teams.

Fear and Trembling

February 5, 2019

It’s February again, meaning it’s Black History Month in the US. It also means that it’s time for my annual sojourn through the Negro Leagues. I always enter February, blogwise, with a certain amount of trepidation.

I research and find information, but I know that whatever I find will be mostly incomplete. Some of it will be wrong. I don’t fault the people doing research on the Negro Leagues, you find what you can; you report what you find. Considering the state of Negro League knowledge even 10 years ago, the people working to restore the record of these leagues and their players have done a magnificent job. But it’s still an incomplete job and the info passed along will be, frequently incomplete. It is probably fated to be that way always.

So I caution people who come here and read the works of February to be careful. Know that much of the information will be incomplete and some of it will be just plain wrong. But we’re trying.

Having said all that, it’s always a pleasure to help restore, even a tiny bit, the history of the Negro Leagues and their players, executives, and staff. I hope you will enjoy all this, and more importantly, that I’ll get at least most of it right.