Posts Tagged ‘Alex Pompez’

That Other League

February 25, 2013
1925 Hilldale

1925 Hilldale

Ask most baseball fans about the Negro Leagues and you’ll get an acknowledgment that they’ve heard of such (which is, I guess, an improvement). Ask them to identify a particular league and if you’re really lucky they’ll reply with Negro National League (without knowing it came in two phases). Or if you’re really, really lucky you’ll find they’ve heard of the Negro American League. Generally if you tell them one of the two existed, they’ll guess the other one. But, of course, those weren’t the only Negro Leagues. For most of the first half of the Twentieth Century they were the most important, but they weren’t alone. For a short period in the 1920s, before the Negro American League was formed, there was another league that could, and did, compete with the Negro National League at the highest level. The first Negro World Series occurred not between the Negro National League and the Negro American League, but between the Negro National League and the other league, the Eastern Colored League.

The Negro National League was formed in 1920 and combined most of the better black independent barnstorming teams into a single entity. The league was not without problems. Rube Foster, founder and President, ran the NNL with an iron hand and a number of  eastern teams felt he favored western teams, especially Chicago, in disputes. In 1923 Ed Bolden, owner of the Hilldale Daisies, proposed the formation of a new league based primarily on the East Coast. He approached New York booking agent Nat Strong (who was white) about forming the new league. Strong handled booking for most East Coast black teams and agreed to support Bolden and handle the booking.  They convinced the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City to join them in jumping from the NNL and the two teams created the Eastern Colored League.

Two teams don’t make much of a league, so both Bolden and Strong actively recruited new members. They went after both NNL affiliated teams and independents. By opening day 1923 “that other league”, as Rube Foster described them, fielded six teams: the Daisies, Bacharachs, Alex Pompez’s Cuban Stars East, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, New York’s Lincoln Giants, and the Baltimore Black Sox. The ECL played between 36 (Royal Giants) and 49 (Hilldale and Baltimore) games with Hilldale taking the first pennant by four and a half games over the Cuban Stars.

Through the winter of 1923 into early 1924 the two leagues feuded over contracts, stealing teams, hijacking players, and Rube Foster’s complaint that the ECL had too many white owners (the NNL also had white owners). Toward the end of the season, the leagues made peace, agreeing to honor contracts, stop raiding (and all the other things leagues agree to and frequently ignore). With Kansas City winning the NNL and Hilldale repeating in the ECL, they leagues determined to play an end of season Negro World Series, which Kansas City won. The series lasted through 1927.

Hilldale repeated in 1925, winning the Negro World Series, then slipped back in 1926. Founding member the Bacharach Giants replaced them as the ECL’s leading team, winning titles in both 1926 and 1927. They lost the World Series each time. By the end of the 1927 season, the ECL had gone from playing 49 games to a high of 117 games (Hilldale). With the longer season there were increased ticket sales and an appearance of stability.

But the stability was illusionary. Bolden was having health problems and other owners were beginning to chafe under his leadership. As he both owned  Hilldale and was President of the league, several owners and a few newspapers began questioning if Bolden could serve impartially. In 1927 he was replaced as ECL President, becoming secretary in 1928. But Hilldale was hemorrhaging money and pulled out of the league. He took the Royal Giants with him along with the Harrisburg Giants (who’d joined the ECL in 1924).  It left the league with five teams, shaky finances, and few prospects. In May, the ECL folded, with the teams going their independent ways.

The ECL was generally considered the second league behind the NNL, weaker, less stable. All those things were true and the ECL was unable to stay afloat for long. During its existence, it did provide legitimate competition for the NNL, winning one of four Negro World Series. Its collapse followed by the failure of the NNL in 1931 began a long period of independence in black baseball.

Deceptive Advertising

February 5, 2013
New York Cubans logo

New York Cubans logo

From the beginnings of  segregation of the Major Leagues a certain amount of deception went on. There were those owners and managers who recognized there were black players who were well qualified to play in the big leagues. But custom determined they couldn’t join the party. Creative owners and managers, of which John McGraw was one of the best, tried to find ways around the color barrier. Black players were passed off as American Indians (tribe to be determined if it came up), as Mexicans, and most frequently as Cuban. It never quite worked, but it did lead to the Negro Leagues adopting “Cubans” as one of their more famous names.

There was a “Cubans” as early as 1899. By 1916 there were two of them (known unofficially as “Cubans (West)” and “Cubans (East)”. They spent time in the Negro National League (Cubans West) and the Eastern Colored League (Cubans East). But the Great Depression crippled the already struggling Negro Leagues and both teams folded in the early 1930s. By 1935 the economy was  better, the fans had at least a little more money, and the Negro Leagues were reviving. Alex Pompez (now in the Hall of Fame),  former owner of the Cubans East, resurrected the Cubans styling this team the “New York Cubans.” In 1935 they joined the Negro National League.

The “Cubans” name was always something of a misnomer. Although there were Cubans on the team, the roster generally included Black Americans and players from a number of Latin American countries. For example, Pedro Cepeda, father of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, was a member of the team. The Cepeda’s were Puerto Rican. Tetelo Vargas was from the Dominican Republic.  Easily the best Cuban on the “Cubans” was Martin DiHigo who played the outfield, second base,  and pitched. So essentially if you were too dark for acceptance in the Major Leagues, and a good ball players, the Cubans would take you.

As a brief aside I should point out that Cubans were allowed into the Major Leagues. As early as the 1870s and 1880s, Esteban Bellan played in the National League. During the 1920s and 1930s such players as Bobby Estalella (father of the recent catcher), and Dolf Luque played Major League baseball. The difference was that each of these players was considered “light” enough to play while the players active with the Cubans were too “dark” to get a chance at the big leagues.

In 1935, the Cubans finished third of eight) in the NNL, six and a half games out of first. In 1936, the fell back to fourth (of six). In 1937 and 1938 they were inactive due to the legal troubles of their owner. By 1939 they were back in the NNL finishing last (of six). Between 1940 and 1942 they finished in the middle of the pack, finally taking second in 1943. In 1944 and 1945 they were back in the second division, finally getting back to second in 1946. They broke through in 1947, winning their only NNL pennant by seven and a half games.

The 1947 pennant winners included 40-year-old Luis Tiant (father of the 1960 and 1970 American League pitcher) who went 10-0 on the mound with Lino Dinoso and Pat Scantlebury as the other primary pitchers. Both Tiant and Dinoso were Cubans, Scantlebury was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Pedro Pages, Claro Duany, and Cleveland Clark were the outfield, with Lorenzo Cabrera, Rabbit Martinez, Silvio Garcia, and Minnie Minoso holding down the infield from first around to third. The catching duties were divided between Ray Noble and Louis Louden. Jose Maria Fernandez managed the team. They squared off against the Cleveland Buckeyes in the best of  seven Negro World Series. With game one ending in a tie, they lost game two then came back to win four in a row, thus giving them their only Negro World Series title.

It was the high point for the Cubans. In 1948 they finished second and at the end of the year the NNL folded. the Negro American League took in some of the NNL teams, including the Cubans. They finished fourth (of five)  in the NAL  Eastern Division (the NAL went to two divisions in 1949) in both 1949 and 1950. That was all for the team. It ceased playing after the 1950 season, a victim to lost revenue, lost fans, and the integration of the Major Leagues.