Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

Barber, Berber, Barbour?

February 15, 2018

Jesse Barber, middle of the back row.

One of the better, but more unknown players in Negro League history was Jesse Barber. He was a fine outfielder who spent time playing, as was usual for a lot of Negro Leaguers, a lot of positions. Considering how much time I’m taking looking at various aspects of the Detroit Stars, it shouldn’t surprise you that he wandered through Detroit.

Jesse Bernard Barber was born in 1888 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Before starting this post I looked at The Baseball Bloggess blog. She has a Virginia-born project there that is worth reading over. It tracks players, both white and black, who were born in Virginia. Had she done Barber, there would have been no need for this post, but she hadn’t. It’s still worth it to go check her out.

By 1909 he was playing ball in Philadelphia. He started as a shortstop with foot speed and a decent glove for the era. He got the attention of the Chicago American Giants, who lured him away from Philly. He played a little at short, a little all over the infield, and finally settled in the outfield. As the Giants lead off hitter he set the table for such Negro League stalwarts as John Henry Lloyd (who replaced him at short) and Pete Hill. He remained with the American Giants through 1919, then moved on the Bacharach Giants (Atlantic City), Hilldale (Philadelphia), and the Stars before finally finishing up in 1925 back with the Philadelphia Giants.

The career was basically successful, but beginning in the late 19-teens he developed a “fondness for the bottle.” As one writer put it “he lost his batting eye” to drink. It plagued him throughout the latter part of his career and is partially responsible for his frequent movement in his later career. As with the post on Frank Wickware, I’ll point out that drinking was a significant problem for both Negro League and Major League players in the period.

Again, you have to ask “how good was he?” And again the answer is incomplete. Seamheads lists his triple slash line as .296/.349/.387/.735 over 549 documented games. He has 683 hits, 143 for extra bases (11 home runs), and 239 RBIs with 57 stolen bases. All that gets him 6.8 WAR (and again remember that WAR is calculated over only 549 games).

“So,” you ask, “what’s with the title to this little rambling?” Well, it has to do with the frequent disagreement with how he spelled his last name. Newspapers of the era tend to drift between “Barber” and “Barbour” seemingly at will. One census form gives it as “Berber.” Considering we have no idea how Barber/Barbour pronounced it, have no idea how literate the census taker was, how much he was paying attention, it’s not a bad garble of the name. But it still doesn’t solve the problem. But we do have his World War I draft card.

Barber’s World War I draft card from Ancestry

There it is written “Barber.” Solves the problem, right? Well, not exactly. He later signed up for the draft in World War II:

Barbour’s draft card for World War II (same source)

And whattaya know, he spells it “Barbour” here. Maybe he didn’t know which was right and started with Barber, then changed to Barbour when he kept seeing it in the papers. I don’t know, but it makes for an interesting sidelight into his life. It’s, in fact, this sort of thing that helps make the study of the Negro Leagues fascinating.

Whether it was “Barber” or “Barbour,” Jesse died in Connecticut in 1959. And for what it’s worth I couldn’t find a picture of his headstone to see how it was spelled.

As a quick aside, one of the early governors of Virginia was James Barbour of Orange County (which isn’t far from Charlottesville) and in 1974 Charles Barbour became the first black mayor of Charlottesville. Roosevelt Barbour was city assessor for Charlottesville, and there is a Barbour Street in the town. All that leads me to believe that “Barbour” was probably the original spelling. But don’t bet the farm on that.

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Power Play

February 13, 2018

John Tenny Blount

Being head of a league has to be difficult. You have to make sure of scheduling, of player contracts, of all sorts of things. It was also true of the fledgling Negro National League. In 1925 something like a power play occurred that attempted to topple Rube Foster as head of the league.

As mentioned in the post on the Detroit Stars, ownership of the team belonged to John Tenny Blount, which is true, sort of. Blount was born about 1871 in Montgomery, Alabama and migrated north to Detroit. By 1919 he ran a major gambling establishment in Detroit and was heavily involved in the numbers racket. Some sources claim he ran it in the black neighborhoods of the city, others don’t want to go that far. In either case, he was fairly wealthy, a major player in the black community, and knew Rube Foster. Desperate to have a functioning team in Detroit, Foster approached Blount about running the team. He offered a set of his own American Giants (of Chicago) players, albeit older players, to help “seed” the team. Blount accepted and became “owner” of the Detroit Stars.

Here’s where it gets a bit murky and complicated. My wife assures me I can complicate even the simplest things (It’s a gift). It seems that Blount didn’t actually own the team, at least not in its entirety. Foster, having more money than Blount, seems to have held a controlling interest in the team while Blount acted as more of a general manager than owner. He ran the team locally, scheduled games, took care of paying players, looked for talent, but Foster would ultimately call the shots. By 1920, this arrangement was part of the newly formed Negro National League, which had a rule against one man owning two teams (“syndicate baseball”) so it had to remain under the table (or at least be winked at by other owners).

On top of this issue, the Stars played in Mack Park, which wasn’t owned by either Blount or Foster. John Roesink, who happened to be white, owned the stadium and charged rent, thus adding to the influence Foster had on the team (someone had to pay the rent). But that meant also that Foster could control the scheduling of games at Mack Park, not Blount. Further, Foster got, as booking agent, 10% of the gate. The contract also established 20% of the gate as the rent, leaving Blount with only 70% of the revenue for team expenses (like paying players). As something of a quick aside, Mack Park burned in 1930 and the Stars had to find a new stadium. By that point the ownership issue in Detroit had boiled over.

The complicated ownership issue in Detroit was bound to create riffs within the upper management. By 1925 Blount was openly complaining that Foster was slighting the Stars in favor of his (openly owned) Chicago American Giants. They were getting the best venues, the best dates, the best players, and the Stars were suffering. Blount, by now league vice president, complained openly to the other owners that Foster was playing fast and loose with the league money. He argued Foster was drawing more money than his salary allowed and should be forced to resign. Foster responded by offering to open his book for the other owners to look over and further offered to resign. A league meeting in Chicago renominated Foster for NNL president and the vote was unanimous. Then the owners stripped Blount of the vice presidential job. By this point even Blount knew he was beaten. One source calls the episode a power play on Blount’s part. It failed and the upshot was, as you should have guessed by now, that Blount lost any control he had over the Stars.

It was, other than the decline in Foster’s health, the greatest crisis the Negro National League faced prior to the Great Depression. Foster weathered it easily, but it did point out to the other owners the continued risk of any like syndicate baseball in the league. Blount went back to his other businesses and died in 1934.

The Man Who Beat Johnson

February 8, 2018

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

 

The Stars

February 6, 2018

Stars logo

It’s February and that makes it Black History Month in the US so it’s time for my monthly look at the Negro Leagues. This time I want to begin by looking at one of the better, but more obscure teams, the Detroit Stars.

With the major migration of American black citizens to the North just before and during World War I, the American Midwest black population boomed, mostly in the major towns of the area. Detroit was one of them. There had been baseball, and black baseball in the area for years, but the city was never a noted hotbed of “colored” baseball. Chicago and Indianapolis were leaders  with the American Giants and Leland Giants (both of Chicago) and the ABCs in Indianapolis.

By 1919, Rube Foster was beginning to form the Negro National League. He had the teams in Chicago and Indianapolis willing to join. Kansas City was available. But there was no team in Detroit that was capable of playing at NNL level. Noted Detroit numbers man John Tenny Blount (known almost universally as “Tenny”) had the money, the clout in the black community, and the willingness to join Foster in creating a team that could compete in a major black league. Blount founded the Stars in 1919 and Foster was more than happy to help him.

With the American Giants stocked with talent, Foster agreed to “loan” Blount a number of good players including future Hall of Famers Pete Hill and Jose Mendez to form a talented team. The addition of players like Frank Wickware and Edgar Wesley made the Stars a formidable team.

Twice the team came in second, and once dropped below .500, but were never quite good enough to win. During the 1920s they added Hall of Famers Turkey Stearnes, Andy Cooper, and John Donaldson to their roster (Stearnes essentially replaced Hill, although it wasn’t exactly a one-for-one replacement).  Much of their problem was the inability to put all these greats on the field at the same time.

By 1931 the NNL was in trouble. Foster was gone, finances were drying up, the Great Depression, was killing attendance. The league folded after that season. Several of the teams hung on by barnstorming, but the Stars, despite being good, had never grabbed the attention of the town in such a way as to overcome all the problems. When the NNL failed, so did the Stars.

There were attempts to revive the Stars. In 1933 a new Negro National League was formed. The ABCs from Indianapolis moved to Detroit, adopted the old name, and failed after one season. They tried again when the Negro American League was formed in 1937, but the results were the same as 1933, one year and disbandment.

The Stars today, if they are remembered at all, are known for the great players that moved through their roster during their short existence. Never a top-tier team, they were competitive but that was all. It would take integrating the Tigers in the 1950s to reintroduce black baseball to the Motor City at the highest level.

RIP John Mahoney

February 5, 2018

John Mahoney (right) as Kid Gleason in Eight Men Out

Just saw that the actor John Mahoney died at age 77. Over a long and very successful career he played a ton of roles and always did them well. For the purposes of this blog he played manager Kid Gleason in the movie Eight Men Out. Mahoney did a great job as the manager of the 1919 Chicago White Sox who simply found it impossible to believe eight of his players, the “Black Sox,” would willingly throw the World Series. In many ways he became the most sympathetic figure in the entire flick.

RIP, John Mahoney

Green Cathedrals: A Review

February 1, 2018

Green Cathedrals cover

Haven’t done a book review in a bit, so here’s a new one.

Back in 1991 Philip Lowry did a wonderful book on baseball stadia titled Green Cathedrals. The religious reference is intentional. Then in 2006 he updated it with new info and new parks. It is the second edition I want to write about.

The book is simply an homage to ball parks. After a quick introduction the heart of the work is an alphabetical by city list of each professional ball yard. With each city is an array of information about each ballpark and each version of the ballpark (including several different versions of the Polo Grounds, as an example) giving dimensions, capacity, teams that called them home. There are specifics on the quirks within the stadium (like Duffy’s Cliff in Fenway) and comments about the surrounding area. A total of 410 ballparks are listed. Some of the information is sketchy on the older, 19th Century parks, but all in all there’s more available than anyplace else. Additional to the Major League stadia, there is also information of Negro League parks. These are not just the Major League parks that allowed Negro League teams to use them, but parks that were used exclusively by the Negro League teams. And of course there are pictures, some fairly standard, well-known views, others are much more obscure views.

The book, in both editions, is available a number of places on-line and the prices vary depending on whether it’s a new or used copy. The book is certainly worth the money if you’re at all interested in the fields on which the great stories of baseball were and are played out.

 

RIP Oscar Gamble

January 31, 2018

Oscar Gamble and ‘Fro

Saw that one time Yankees outfielder Oscar Gamble died at age 68. He was, by now, probably more famous for his hairdo than for his baseball skills. But he hit .265 with 200 home runs in 17 years. He made the World Series in 1976 and 1981, playing with a losing team each time. He retired in 1985.

He liked to say he had the biggest Afro in baseball. Most people agreed.

RIP, Oscar.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Rip Williams

January 30, 2018

Rip Williams (from Find a Grave)

Continuing a look at the players who make up my fantasy baseball team, here’s some things you ought to know about one of them.

1. Alva Mitchel Williams was born in 1882 in Carthage, Illinois to a farming family..

2. He was good at baseball and in 1906 began his minor league career as a catcher for Keokuk in the Iowa League. He stayed through 1907. In late 1907 he was traded to Terre Haute in the Central League. It was a step up to a higher league.

3. In 1909 he moved on to Buffalo, a Class A league, and got the attention of the big leagues. The Red Sox signed him for 1911.

4. He hit .239 for Boston filling in at both first and behind the plate. He demanded a raise for 1912 and was sent to the New York Highlanders (now the Yankees) who subsequently shipped him on to Washington (the Senators, not the current Nationals).

5. He started the 1912 season as the third string catcher for the Senators, but injuries put him into the lineup on a more frequent basis than a normal third stringer. He hit .318 for the season. It was his career high.

6. Having no power, he hit his first home run in 1913. It was a pinch hit, an inside the park homer, and his first home run at any professional level, Major or Minor League.

7. He remained with Washington through 1916, then was traded to Baltimore (a minor league club in 1916). He played the entire year in the minors.

8. He was back in the big leagues in the war year of 1918, playing for Cleveland. In a bit of symmetry Aristotle would love he hit .239, the same as he hit in his rookie campaign.

9. He went back to farming after his baseball career ended.

10. For his career, his triple slash line reads .265/.328/.352/.680 over 1186 at bats in 497 games. He had two home runs (the other a three run shot in 1914), 23 triples, 51 doubles in 314 hits for 417 total bases and an OPS+ of 97. He had 145 RBIs and racked up 5.3 WAR.

11. He died in Keokuk in 1933.

12. I have been unable to determine the origin of the “Rip” nickname.

Random Musings on the Class of 2018

January 25, 2018

A few random thoughts on the Hall of Fame Class of 2018:

1. First, congratulations to Jack Morris, Alan Trammell of the Veteran’s Committee and Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Chipper Jones, and Jim Thome on election to the Hall of Fame.

2. There is a certain amount of hope for both Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina for next year. Both showed a rise in percentage of votes, with Martinez landing over 70%. He ended up 19 votes short of election.

3. The bad news for Martinez is next year is his last year on the writers ballot. At 70% it should still be relatively easy for him to make the Hall.

4. The next three guys down ballot were Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens. The one I’m most interested in is Schilling. It seems his post career activities are hurting him (some writers admit it) and I’m not sure whether to accept that as a legitimate concern or not. The “character clause” is so ill-defined as to allow for about anything to be considered “good character” or “bad character” and doesn’t seem to know whether those definitions (such as they are) involve on the field issues, baseball related issues, or just about everything a fellow does. Is having unpopular political views “bad character” or not? Is cheating on your wife “bad character” or not? I have my opinion, but it’s strictly my opinion and it seems the Hall is allowing every voter to have his “my opinion” and that leads to all sorts of swings in meaning. Personally, I presume the “character clause” to relate strictly to those things that directly effect a player’s baseball career. I’m not sure how much Babe Ruth running around on his first wife changed what he did on the field (maybe yes, maybe no). I do know that Joe Jackson joining in throwing a World Series (and that’s 100 years next year) effected baseball. I also know that we may not think much of Ty Cobb’s views of race, but in 1910 a lot of people agreed with him (it’s possible to say he was even in the majority in 1910), so we have to be careful how much the standards of our time effect how we look at players who played even just a few years back.

5. The purging of voters and adding of new guys didn’t seem to help either Clemens or Bonds much. They’re up a little with four years remaining on the ballot. It will be interesting to see how much movement there is over the four years. It’s possible they’ll get there in four years, but I’m still betting on the writer’s kicking it to the Veteran’s Committee and letting them make a final decision. That could be particularly interesting as the Hall does present the Committee with a ballot and forces them to confine their vote to the 10 people listed. The appearance of any of the steroid boys on a ballot (McGwire would come first) will tell us something about the Hall’s own stand on the issue.

6. Next year is a walk over for Mariano Rivera. The guy I’m most interested in his Todd Helton. He played in Colorado and that seems to matter a lot to voters. We’ll see what happens (see Walker, Larry).

7. I love the idea of “light” votes and “dark” votes. That’s the way they’re describing the votes. Light votes are those that were published prior to election and dark votes aren’t. Kinda catchy. I wonder if anyone’s tried to use “Hey, kid, I have a dark ballot for the Hall of Fame” as a pickup line?

The Hall elections are always fun and next year promises more of the same. Ain’t it grand?

Watching the Tracker

January 22, 2018

Jim Thome

Wednesday marks the announcement of the latest class in the Hall of Fame. It appears to be a significant class.

I’ve been following along with the balloting by checking in on a Hall of Fame Tracker run by Ryan Thibodaux. He scours the internet and social media looking for Hall of Fame voters who announce their ballot early. He then posts a running total without commentary. It’s a quick and convenient way to keep track of who’s in and who’s out.

As I type this he’s recorded a little less than 50% of the total voters. It’s possible to see as many as six or as few as three players enshrined in Cooperstown. Polling at over 90% (remember that’s 90% of the 50% recorded, not 90% of the total vote) are Vlad Guerrero, Chipper Jones, and Jim Thome. Edgar Martinez is at 80% while both Trevor Hoffman and Mike Mussina are in the 70% range (Hoffman just over 75% and Mussina just under the magic line). Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds are all in the 60% range, with Schilling being just ahead of the other two. Larry Walker is the only other player above 40%.

Depending on the way the other 50% of the vote goes Martinez and Hoffman are currently in and Mussina will just miss. The other three would almost have to totally whiff on the rest of the votes to fail election.

I’m not sure what I think of all this. I’m not a supporter of the “steroid boys” getting elected, so I’m OK with them waiting another year. I’m happy to see Walker doing well and thrilled that Edgar Martinez is finally getting his due. Even if he doesn’t make it this year, it’s a good sign for next year. And Hoffman I would support, but he’d be toward the bottom of my list of 10. He’d certainly come in below Mussina. But it’s also a good sign that Moose is moving up the line enough. We might see him jump over the magic 75% next year (or just maybe this year). I also wonder how much the utterly ill-defined “character clause” is effecting Schilling. Don’t care much for his politics, but they’re not electing him mayor, they’re electing him to the baseball Hall of Fame.

So there the vote stand less than a week from the big reveal. Good luck to all six who are close and the others can remember the old Brooklyn cry, “Wait ’til next year.”

 

Having just gone through a major family crisis, I’ve been away from here for a while (except for the post just below). Although the problem isn’t yet completely solved we’re mostly through it, so I hope to get back to something like a regular musing again. Thank you for your patience.