Posts Tagged ‘Chicago American Giants’

Big Whitworth

February 20, 2018

Richard Whitworth about 1916

Baseball is full of pitchers with short careers. Some are short because the guy wasn’t very good. Others are short, but have very intense periods of greatness. Hall of Fame pitchers like Dizzy Dean and Sandy Koufax fall into this category. For a handful of years they were truly outstanding then something went wrong. In Dean’s case it was an injury, in Koufax’s it was arthritis. Negro League baseball was no different from its Major League counterpart. One of the more prominent Negro League pitchers with a short, spectacular career that ended much too early was “Big” Richard Whitworth.

Born in St. Louis in 1895, Richard “Dick” Whitworth topped out at 6.5″ and 215 pounds, gaining him the nickname of “Big”. A right-handed pitcher he got to the Negro Leagues in 1914 with the Union Giants, one of the top teams in Chicago. He was famous for his fastball and almost, immediately drew the attention of Rube Foster of the American Giants, another major black team in Chicago. In either 1915 or 1916 Whitworth moved over to the American Giants (sources differ) and became, along with Frank Wickware, one of the team aces. For the rest of the teens he joined Wickware to dominate black baseball in the Midwest.

He was a strikeout pitcher who is one of several hurlers who are given credit as the predominant strikeout artist of the era. If his “stuff” was overpowering, and it seems to have been, he could also be wild, racking up a lot of walks to go with the strikeouts. But he was good enough that Rube Foster let Wickware head to the Detroit Stars while holding on to Whitworth. With Wickware gone, Whitworth understood his value was unmatched on the mound. He held out for a raise in 1919 and seems to have gotten at least a small one.

In 1920 he moved to Hilldale (a team that played in Philadelphia), where he helped found the Eastern Colored League. He remained there through 1921, then, his skills eroding, moved back to Chicago, where he had a couple more good, certainly not great seasons. He was through after 1925.

For Dean the problem was an injury, for Koufax, arthritis. For “Big” Whitworth it was a fondness for the bottle. From early in his career he was known to drink heavily. By the early 1920’s it was effecting his game. He was infamous for stepping under the stands before a game to take a few drinks before heading to the mound. There were rumors he drank between innings, but that was never substantiated (as far as I can tell).

He returned to St. Louis after his career was over and died in 1966.

As usual the question of how good was he cannot be adequately answered. His Seamheads numbers read 72 wins, 35 losses, a 2.56 ERA (133 ERA+), 461 strikeouts, 346 walks, and 249 earned runs given up in 877 innings pitched over 136 games. All that gives him 10.5 WAR.

As with the other Negro Leaguers I’ve looked at this month (Wickware and Barber) Whitworth had a drinking problem. Considering the problems facing black Americans in the 19-teens and early 1920s it’s frankly not surprising. What is a little surprising is how easy they were able to get booze after the Prohibition Amendment was passed. It seems that widespread ignoring of the amendment occurred in both the black and white communities. For a long time liquor was the drug of choice in baseball (both the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues) because a lot of good players like the three I’ve featured this month (and others like Jimmie Foxx and Hack Wilson in the Major Leagues) lost a lot of time to “demon rum.”

 

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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.

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.

Turkey Stearnes

February 23, 2015
Turkey Stearnes

Turkey Stearnes

Although everyone seems to think of Josh Gibson as the ultimate Negro League power hitter, he doesn’t hold the home run title. A few sources cite Mule Suttles as the home run champion. Most, however, give the honor to Turkey Stearnes.

Norman Thomas Stearnes was born in 1901 in Nashville, Tennessee. He was something of a baseball prodigy becoming a local star in the black neighborhoods of Nashville. His running style was considered unorthodox and the nickname “Turkey” was added to him (much like Ron Cey’s running  style got him the nickname “Penguin.”). By 1920 he was playing the outfield for the Nashville Giants, a segregated team that was not considered a top-tier black team.

In 1921 he moved to Montgomery, Alabama to play for the Gray Sox and then in 1922 he was with the Memphis Red Sox. Neither was considered a major player in black baseball (although Memphis would eventually become one). In 1923, Stearnes moved north to play for the Detroit Stars, one of the teams in Rube Foster’s Negro National League. He was an instant star, clubbing 17 documented home runs in 69 games. For the rest of the 1920s he led the Stars in home runs and is credited with leading the NNL in at least 1925, 1926, 1927, and 1929.

By 1930, the Stars were having trouble meeting payroll and Stearnes left them after 30 or so games for the Lincoln Giants, a team which folded following the season. Back with Detroit in 1931, he again encountered a team with payroll problems. He bailed out toward the end of the season, playing a few games with the Kansas City Monarchs. The 1932 season saw him with the Chicago American Giants, where he stayed through 1935. His .441 batting average over 37 games is the documented NNL (new version) high for 1935, giving him his only documented batting title.

In 1936 he moved on to the Philadelphia Stars (they were paying better than the American Giants), didn’t do as well as before (he was 35). He went back to Chicago (now a member of the Negro American League) to begin 1937. The NAL in 1937 used a split season format and had a postseason playoff between the top teams of each half. Stearnes’ American Giants won the second half, but then lost the playoff to Kansas City.

The year 1938 saw him leave the American Giants during the season and hook up with the Monarchs. He remained through 1940, helping Kansas City to NAL pennants in 1939 and 1940. He was 39 in 1940 and fading. He returned to Detroit and worked in the rolling mills of the area until he retired in 1964. He died in Detroit in 1979. In 2000, he was chosen for the Hall of Fame.

How good was he? As usual with Negro League players it’s impossible to answer that question. His statistics are incomplete and the sources disagree. The Negro League Museum credits him with 183 home runs, seven home run titles, and a batting average of .359. The Baseball Reference.com bullpen site gives him 185 home runs and an average of .345. Using the latter numbers (which originate in the research done for the Hall of Fame 2006 election of Negro League players) he has 1209 hits, 712 runs scored, and 387 walks in 914 documented games. He is given credit for 203 doubles, 104 triples, 183 home runs, 718 RBIs, and 129 stolen bases. His batting average is .345 with a slugging percentage of .619. No OBP is given but if you take the number of walks and at bats and the number of hits and walks (How many hit batsman and catcher interference can there be?) you can get an approximate OBP of .419. That provides an approximate OPS of .1.038. With out other info OPS+ isn’t possible to determine. The Baseball Reference.com bullpen also gives a 162 game average for his career. For a 162 game season he would average 214 hits, 126 runs, 36 doubles, 18 triples, 32 home runs, 127 RBIs, 23 stolen bases, and 69 walks (no strikeout numbers are available). Not a bad set of numbers, and as stressed earlier, very incomplete.

Turkey Stearnes is considered one of the greatest power hitters of the Negro Leagues. His average is also excellent and his RBI numbers are very good. The numbers are admittedly incomplete, but what we have indicate that he was a very good player and a deserving Hall of Famer.

Stearnes grave. There is no marker. The "20" indicates the 20th grave in the line

Stearnes grave. There is no marker. The “20” indicates the 20th grave in the line

 

Negro Leagues World Series, Round I

February 8, 2010

With the 1920’s black baseball began coalescing into more organized leagues playing something like coherent schedules. There was still a lot of barnstorming and such, but league play became more central to the teams. Rube Foster’s Negro National League held primacy of place as the first and finest of these leagues. The Eastern Colored League rapidly became an equal and by 1924 the two leagues were rival enough to decide on a series of postseason games that came to be called the Negro Leagues World Series.

The World Series lasted four years before the Eastern Colored League got into deep financial trouble. Like troubles hit the National League and the Series stopped after 1927. Each Series was a best of nine format, only the first going the full nine (actually it went 10, there was a tie). The National League dominated the competition, winning three of the four, but only the one win by the Eastern Colored League team was a blowout. Below are brief looks at each Series:
1924:  Kansas City Monachs  (NNL) vs Hilldale Daisies (ECL) won by the Monarchs 5 games to 4. Key Monarchs players included Newt Allen at 2nd, Dewey Creasy at 3rd, Heavy Johnson in the outfield, and pitchers Bullet Rogan and Luis Mendez who also managed the team. The Daisies featured Tank Carr at 1st, Biz Mackey at both short and behind the plate, Judy Johnson at 3rd, Lois Santop behind the plate when Mackey was at short, and southpaw pitcher Nip Winters. With the Daisies ahead in the series 4 games to three, Santop muffed a foul in the last inning of the the game. The Monarchs turned the error into the decisive run and won the series the next game.

1925:  A rematch of the last series. This time the Daisies won the Series 5 games to 1.  Winters pitched well, Mackey moved behind the plate where he became a Hall of  Fame catcher (an aging Santop backing him up and doing most of the pinch hitting).

1926:  The National League’s Chicago American Giants (Foster’s old team) beat the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants 5 games to 3. The American Giants featured player/manager Dave Malarcher at 3rd, Jelly Gardner in the outfield, and Rube Foster’s brother Bill pitching. The Bacharach Giants countered with Dick Lundy at short, Oliver Marcelle at 3rd, and pitchers Luther Ferrell and Claude Grier, both of which tossed no hitters in a losing cause.

1927:  The same two teams met with the same result, a 5-3 victory for the American Giants.

After the season the World Series was discontinued for 13 years, but a number of great players (Santop, Mackey, Rogan, Mendez, Bill Foster) managed to eventually reach the Hall of Fame. So did Rube Foster, founder of the National League. The new Series would feature a revived National League and a brand new league, the Negro American League.

Rube Foster

February 7, 2010

Rube Foster

The Negro Leagues, at least the ones we think of, had a specific founder. His nme was Rube Foster.  He was a visionary, an entrepeneur, and one heck of a pitcher.

Born in Texas in 1879, Foster took a path north to baseball glory. A number of other black players from the same era did much the same. Hall of Fame catcher Louis Santop, for instance, went from Texas through Oklahoma to Philadelphia. Foster ended up in Chicago. Between 1902 and 1910 he established himself as the dominent pitcher in black baseball. Through stints with the Union Giants, X-Giants, and Leland Giants, Foster gained a reputation not only as a great pitcher, but a knowledgable baseball man. This led to stints as manager of the Leland Giants and ultimately the Chicago American Giants. Foster took over managerial duties of the American Giants in 1911 and remained field leader until 1926, by which point he was no longer pitching. Between 1911 and 1919 the American Giants ruled black baseball in the midwest, their only rival being the Indianapolis ABCs.

By 1920 it was becoming evident that black baseball needed more structure, more accountability, more set schedules, in short it needed a league. Foster moved to set up the Negro National League with himself as president. As both president of the league and owner of one of the clubs, Foster immediately ran into problems with other teams accusing him of favoring his own team in matters of scheduling and player dispersal. This led to an early split in the league and the founding of a rival Eastern Colored League in 1923. The existence of two leagues occasioned the adoption of a postseason set of games dubbed the Negro Leagues World Series.

Foster, by 1926 was developing signs of mental instability. He was confined to a sanitarium in Kankakee, Illinois and died there in 1930 and was buried in Blue Island, Illinois. Due to economic problems his Negro National League collapsed the following season.

Foster was the most influential figure in early 20th Century black baseball. He was a great pitcher, an excellent judge of talent, and a decent manager. His skills at running a league weren’t altogether good, but the very idea of establishing a league and making it successful until the Great Depression are memorable events in their own right and largely overshadow his skills at running a league. In 1981, he was elected to the Hall of Fame.