Posts Tagged ‘Birmingham Black Barons’

The Black Barons

February 8, 2016
Birmingham Black Barons logo

Birmingham Black Barons logo

Throughout most of the history of the Negro Leagues, those leagues were strongest outside the American South. Of course, with all the legal restrictions of Jim Crow that made sense. It was simply harder to create a successful team without running afoul of some rule, written or otherwise. There were exceptions. Memphis and Baltimore had successful teams, as did some other towns. But easily the most successful was the team from Birmingham, Alabama-the Black Barons.

The Birmingham Barons were a successful minor league franchise and in 1920, a new black team was formed from players in the local black industrial league using a play on the white team’s name. It rolled off the tongue with great alliteration and it was an instant success. They were part of the Negro Southern League through 1923. It was a black league formed by Rube Foster as something of a minor league that would draw the best black Southern players who could then be filtered into Foster’s Negro National League. The team played in Rickwood Park, a stadium that was rented to both black teams and to white teams (obviously not at the same time). By 1924 they were considered good enough to join the Negro National League itself. They lasted two years then slid back to the Southern League because the team was unable to keep its finances in order (a common theme among early Negro League teams, especially in the South).

They got back to the Negro National League in 1927. They brought with them a right-handed pitcher named LeRoy Paige who bore the nickname “Satchel.” In 1927 the NNL ran their season as two halves with the two winners facing each other in a post season series, the winner of  which went on to the Negro World Series against the winner of the Eastern Colored League. Behind Paige and slugger Roy Parnell the Barons won the second half, but lost the playoff to the American Giants. It was the highpoint of the 1920s for Birmingham. They stacked up losing seasons for the rest of the 1920s.

The NNL folded after the 1930 season and Birmingham moved back to the Southern League where they stayed through 1936. They moved back to the newly formed NNL in 1937, stayed through 1938, then, with both financial and management problems they ended up back in the Southern League. In 1940 they joined the new Negro American League.

It led to their greatest period of success. Under manager Wingfield Welch they won NAL pennants in 1943 and 1944. Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, Lester Lockett, and Jake Spearman led the team into the ’43 Negro World Series, which they lost to the Homestead Grays. The addition of Dan Bankhead and “Double Duty” Radcliffe,  helped them to another pennant in 1944. Again they lost to Homestead in the Negro World Series. They had one last great year in 1948 when, with Davis now managing, they took a final NAL pennant. This time they had Joe Bankhead, Lyman Bostock, and a rookie outfielder named Willie Mays (yes, THAT Willie Mays). Again they couldn’t get past Homestead..

By 1948 the Negro Leagues were faltering. It was the last Negro World Series between the NNL and the NAL. The NNL folded, but the Black Barons hung on in the NAL. They’d lost much of their talent to the white minor (or major) leagues but hung on in Birmingham through the 1950s. In 1953 they picked up a pitcher named Charley Pride (later a significant country music singer). Lacking much money, the team gave the Louisville Clippers a team bus for Pride. In 1959, now named the Giants, they won the championship of what remained of the Negro League (five teams). The next year, 1960 was the end for the NAL. The team hung on two more years by barnstorming, but finally folded in 1963.

Usually, when I hear about or read about Negro League teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, the Monarchs, even the Eagles or Elite Giants names are mentioned. The Black Barons are seldom mentioned. That’s unfortunate. The Birmingham Black Barons were a very good team, putting five former players (Satchel Paige, Mule Suttles, Willie Mays, Bill Foster, and Willie Wells) into the Hall of Fame. They won three pennants in the NAL and a second half championship in the first version of the NNL. Their attendance was generally good and the caliber of play was equally good. They deserve a mention now and then.

 

Homestead Wins It All

February 10, 2015
1943 Homestead Grays

1943 Homestead Grays

The Homestead Grays dominated the Negro National League from its inception. Year after year they easily won the pennant. Without a Negro League World Series they were always seen as a successful team, but there was no way to declare them, unquestionably, the finest Negro League team. That all changed in 1942 when the Negro National League and the Negro American League agreed to play a postseason Negro World Series between their two champions. That hadn’t occurred since the late 1920s. The Grays represented the NNL and were crushed by the NAL Kansas City Monarchs. In 1943, the Grays again won the NNL championship and turned the Negro World Series into a crusade to redeem their 1942 loss.

The 1943 Grays were mostly holdovers from the previous season. Manager “Candy” Jim Taylor had Hall of Fame catcher Josh Gibson who hit .486 with 12 home runs, 62 RBIs, and 64 runs scored in 181 at bats (all stats from Baseball Reference.com’s Negro League section and are admittedly very incomplete). Fellow Hall of Fame players Buck Leonard and Jud Wilson anchored first and second. Neither had Gibson’s numbers, but Wilson hit .279 at age 47. Sam Bankhead played shortstop and Howard Easterling hit .399 and played third (and how he’s been overlooked for the Hall of Fame is utterly unfathomable). The outfield consisted of Sam Benjamin and Vic Harris on the corners with Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell playing center field. The staff included Edsall Walker and triple crown winner Johnny Wright along with Hall of Fame right-hander Ray Brown.

They drew the Birmingham Black Barons in the Series. The Barons had been around for a long time, but weren’t one of the premier teams in the Negro Leagues. Manager Gus “Wingfield” Welch had a team without a single Hall of Famer, but won the NAL in a close contest. Lyman Bostock, Sr. (father of the later Major Leaguer) played first, Tommy Sampson and Piper Davis anchored the middle of the infield, while Jake Spearman was at third. Lester Lockett and Felix McLauren were outfielders who both hit over .380. The staff included John Huber, Johnny Markham, and Gready McInnis.

Part of the fun of a study of the Negro Leagues is the quirky nature of their scheduling. The 1943 Series was to be a best of seven, but at that point it begins to diverge from the Major League norms. The games were scheduled for seven different cities: Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, Columbus, Indianapolis, Birmingham, and Montgomery. So each team got one home game (Washington and Birmingham) and one game at a nearby city (Baltimore and Montgomery), along with three games at neutral sites. This was probably great for fans, but not so great for the players. The Series stretched from 21 September all the way to 5 October and covered a thousand miles.

And then it ended up taking eight games to complete. Game two, the one in Baltimore, resulted in a 12 inning tie (5-5). So the next day the teams trekked back to DC to replay the game in the Grays home park.

Another interesting aspect of Negro World Series play was the use of the “loaner.” With small team sizes, injuries, and in the 1940s, the Second World War, teams frequently went into postseason play with short rosters. It was at least somewhat common for teams that weren’t going to make the Series to “loan” a player to a playoff team. In 1943, just before the end of the season, the Chicago American Giants “loaned” Double Duty Ratcliffe to Birmingham. He played for the Barons in the Series (but not overly well–he was 40) but was then returned to Chicago when the Series finished. This sort of thing happened with some frequency and created problems (In the 1942 Series it caused one of the games to be replayed.), especially if the other teams didn’t know about it before hand.

The play-by-play is difficult to find so I’m not going to try to explain every game. Homestead was a big favorite, but Birmingham won the first game (the first of the two in Washington), then lost game three (the replay of the tie). The teams split games four and five, making the Series a best of three. Homestead won game six before the Series shifted to Birmingham.

Game seven was the classic of the Series. Needing a win to force a deciding game, the Barons sent Markham to the mound. The Grays had a runner thrown out at the plate in the fifth, but other than that no one came close to scoring for 10 innings. In the bottom of the 11th Leonard “Sloppy” Lindsay doubled and scored the game’s only run on a single by Ed Steele.

Game eight was 4-2 in favor of Birmingham with two out in the eighth when the Grays struck for six runs and put the Series away. The final score was 8-4 Homestead and the Grays won their first Negro World Series championship (they’d win again in ’44 and ’48). It wasn’t a well-played Series (Birmingham made 19 errors) and despite the need for a full seven (eight) games, Homestead outscored Birmingham 46-28 (5.75 runs vs. 3.5).

For both teams there would be other championship series. Birmingham would never win one (despite having Willie Mays around one year) and Homestead would win two more. By 1951 the Grays were gone. The Barons hung on through 1960.

 

The Grays

February 5, 2014
front of the Homestead Grays uniform

front of the Homestead Grays uniform

Negro League Baseball had a lot of teams. Many were very good, others not so good. Some were famous, others played in obscurity. Three teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, and the Monarchs (alphabetically) were the most well-known. I’ve done a post on the Crawfords and the Monarchs. It’s time to look at the Grays.

Homestead, Pennsylvania is a part of the greater Pittsburgh area. In the period just after the turn of the 20th Century, it was still outside the direct orbit of Pittsburgh. It had a thriving black community and a steel mill that was its major source of jobs. As with most steel mills, this one had a semi-pro baseball team called the Blue Ribbons. Formed in 1909, initially it  played against other industrial teams.

By 1912 the team known as the Homestead Grays (after the color of their uniforms). They’d picked up a new star in Cumberland (Cum) Posey, who quickly became manager and team secretary. He made the team into a fully professional team and moved it away from the local industrial leagues. In 1920 Posey and local businessman Charlie Walker bought the Grays. That same year they made an agreement with the Pirates that allowed the Grays to use Forbes Field, the Pirates’ home field, for games when the Pirates were out-of-town. Having a Major League facility available for games helped make the Grays profitable. Between 1919 and 1928 the Grays were enormously successful as an independent barnstorming team. They stayed away from the newly formed Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League because they found it more profitable to play independent ball. By the late 1920s they were making money and playing 200 or so games a season. In 1926 they were credited with a record of 140-13 with 43 consecutive wins. Many of those games were against quality opponents, but many were also against local semi-pro teams.

Then the Great Depression hit and profits began drying up. Posey, now running the team alone, decided the Grays needed a league to insure financial stability. He helped form the American Negro League (not to be confused with the Negro American League of the 1940s). It lasted one year and folded. The Grays managed to hang on and by 1931 were fielding what was chosen by a panel of experts the finest of all Negro League teams. The roster included such Hall of Fame names as Oscar Charleston, Bill Foster, and Josh Gibson. In 1932, the Grays joined the new East-West League, but it folded midway through the season.

Homestead began losing money and was unable to meet the lavish salary offers of the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords. Many of the Grays jumped ship, most to the Crawfords, and by 1934, in order to keep the team afloat, Posey was forced to bring in a new partner. One of the wealthiest men in Homestead was Rufus Jackson, the leader of the local numbers racket. Posey made Jackson team President, while he (Posey) continued to run the team. In many circles in Pittsburgh, Jackson was seen as nothing short of a gangster, which hurt the reputation of the team. Ruined reputation or not, the team now had money and again became competitive in black baseball. And of course it still had Forbes Field.

In 1934, the Grays joined the newly established Negro National League (not to be confused with Rube Foster’s Negro National League of the 1920s). In 1935 Vic Harris replaced Posey as manager, although Posey remained team secretary (more or less equivalent to the modern general manager job). The team was an instant success, being competitive for the entire period of the NNL’s existence. In 1939 they won the NNL pennant. They were to repeat as league champions every year through 1945, then won another pennant in 1948.

The 1940s saw several major changes involving the Grays. In 1940 they made an agreement with the Washington Senators to use Griffith Stadium when the Senators were out-of-town, thus moving the team’s home field to DC (although they continued to play a few games in Pittsburgh off and on during the decade). Despite the move, they retained the Homestead name. In 1942, the participated in the revived Negro World Series (there had been games in the 1920s but none in the 1930s). They lost the first one to the Kansas City Monarchs, but won both the 1943 and 1944 Series before dropping the 1945 Series to the Cleveland Buckeyes. In 1948 they won the final Negro World Series defeating Willie Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons.

In 1946, Posey died. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. Posey’s wife and Jackson now jointly owned the team. They tried to keep it going, winning, as mentioned above, the last NNL pennant in 1948. With the NNL gone after 1948, the Grays hung on into 1950, when devoid of stars, lacking money, and short of an audience they folded.

We can argue back and forth for a long time about which team was the greatest or the most famous or the most important Negro League team. You can pick your own candidate for each category. But the odds are pretty good that in each case, you’ll have the Homestead Grays on your short list.

Kick, Mule

February 27, 2012

Mule Suttles

I don’t suppose there’s anyone who doesn’t believe that Josh Gibson was the ultimate power hitter in the Negro Leagues. And I won’t dispute that. I will, however, point out that the leader in documented home runs is Mule Suttles (other sources say Turkey Stearnes).

George Suttles was born in Louisiana in 1900. He had little formal education, not uncommon for a black man in turn of the 20th Century Louisiana (Huey Long and the free text books were 25 years in the future). He was a coal miner and did some semipro ball playing until he was 21. He got a cup of coffee with the 1921 New York Bacharach Giants (one hit in four at bats in a single game) then went back to semipro ball. In 1923 he caught on with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League. This time he stayed around. He put in three years with Birmingham before heading to St. Louis where he finished his Negro National League career.

In 1930 the Negro National League folded and he went to the Eastern Colored League’s Baltimore franchise (not the Elite Giants) in time to watch the ECL go under also. He went back to St. Louis to play for the Stars in the newly reformed NNL After 1931, it too folded and Suttles settled in with the East-West League’s Detroit Wolves and Washington Pilots. Want to guess what happened to the East-West League?

By 1933 he was back in the new NNL (this time it stayed around). He began with the Chicago American Giants, then in 1936 he went to the Newark Eagles, where he stayed through 1940 He spent 1941 with the New York Black Yankees, then went back to Newark in 1942, finishing his career with Newark in 1944. Retired, he did some umpiring, then retired from baseball. He died in 1966 and made the Hall of Fame in 2006, forty years after his death.

Mule Suttles was a big man for his era, 6’3″ and 215 pounds (officially). By the end of his career he’d put on weight and may have been closer to 250 than 215.  He carried a 50 ounce bat (by comparison, Babe Ruth’s was 54 ounces) and was immensely strong, hence the “Mule” nickname. He made the East-West All-Star game numerous times, being one of its most effective hitters. He’s credited with a .412 batting average in the game, an .883 slugging percentage, and is supposed to have hit the first home run in the All-Star game. he played left field, but spent much of his career at first base. He wasn’t overly fast, but was known for his good hands. In close games in late innings, Suttles coming to bat elicited the cry “Kick, Mule” from both fans and teammates.

As with all Negro League players, his numbers are spotty. Baseball Reference’s Bullpen has some stats on him. They are incomplete but give something of a picture of  his skill. In 763 documented games he hit .327, slugged .571, had 894 hits, 257 walks, in 2731 at bats. Again no OBP is given but 894 plus 257, divided by 2731 gives a partial OBP of .421 for an .992 partial OPS. There are 133 home runs, 167 doubles, 561 runs, and  493 RBIs that are documented. The same page gives his 162 game numbers as 119 runs, 190 hits, 105 RBIs, 35 doubles, 28 home runs, and 10 stolen bases. 

Suttles is a good example of a fairly common type. He’s a big slugger who hits for power and decent average. He’s an every year All-Star, but his teams usually fall short of the championship. Ralph Kiner is one of those, so is Rudy York or Hal Trosky or Barry Bonds. York made it to a World Series, but his team (Boston) lost. So did Bonds. There are a number of others like Gil Hodges or Ted Kluszewski, some currently playing. One of the most interesting things about studying the Negro Leagues is how quickly you discover they’re made up of the same kinds of players as the white leagues. I find that important because it reminds me just exactly how much alike baseball players are in their skills, black or white. That reassures me that maybe we really are all in this together.

Negro Leagues World Series, Round II

February 10, 2010

After a 13 year hiatus, the Negro Leagues restarted a postseason series. The old Eastern Colored League was gone, replaced by the Negro American League. The Negro National League had been revived and by 1942 the two leagues agreed to work together, at least enough to play a World Series. Unlike the 1920’s series’ the new set would be four games out of seven for victory. The series’s ran from 1942 through 1948. The premier American League teams were the Kansas City Monarchs, the Birmingham Black Barons, and the Cleveland Buckeyes. In the National League, the New York Cubans and Newark Eagles each had good seasons, but the league was dominated by the Homestead Grays, who played in 5 of the 7 World Series’. Ironically both the Cubans and Eagles won their series’ while the Grays went 3-2. Below is a short summary of each series:

1942: Kansas City Monarchs defeat the Homestead Grays 4 games to none. Timely hitting by players like Buck O’Neill and Newt Allen, coupled with Hall of Fame pitching by Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith shut down the Grays power in a sweep. Grays players Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Sam Bankhead, Jud Wilson couldn’t get timely hits, while pitcher Ray Brown was vulnerable.

1943; The Grays win a seven game series against the Birmingham Black Barons 4 games to 3. The power hitting Grays, supplemented by an aging but still fast Cool Papa Bell squeak out a victory against a Barons team that featured Double Duty Radcliffe still playing after starring in the 1920s World Series.

1944: The Grays pound the Barons again, this time winning in five games.

1945: The Cleveland Buckeyes win their first pennant and stun the Grays in a four game sweep. Buckeyes stars Quincy Trouppe,  future National League Rookie of the Year Sam Jethroe, and Arch Ware proved you could beat the Grays without great power.

1946: The Newark Eagles dethrone the Grays to win the Negro National League title. With future Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Biz Mackey (yes, he was still around), and Leon Day, the Eagles take on the Kansas City Monarchs of Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Buck O’Neill, Chet Brewer, and Hank Thompson. The Eagles and Monarchs battle for the full seven games before Leon Day wins game seven making the Eagles champs. It was a unique series for two reasons. It was the only Word Series won by a team with a female owner, Effa Manley, and the last series before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

1947: The New York Cubans make the series for the only time in their history. Their Latin based roster includes Luis Tiant (father of the later American League pitcher), Minnie Minoso, Jose Fernandez, and pitcher Dave Barnhill. They face off against the Buckeyes who had won it all two years previously. Trouppe, Ware, and Jethroe were still around and were joined by pitcher Toothpick Sam Jones. The Cubans won 4 games to 1. The season had been rocked by the arrival of Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn and the departure of the first black players to the white leagues.

1948: The Grays returned to the series for the first time since 1945. Gibson was gone, but Leonard and Bankhaead were still around. They were joined by power hitting outfielder Luke Easter. They took on the Black Barons, also returning to the series, for the first time since 1944. Most of their old gang was gone, but they had a new outfielder named Willie Mays who looked promising. Despite Mays, the Barons lost 4 games to 1, thus giving the Grays the last Negro League World Series title.

After 1948 the Negro Leagues floundered. The National League folded, the American League hung on as nothing much more than a minor league. Many teams took to being independent and went back to barnstorming. The era of the great Negro League teams was over. So was their World Series.