Posts Tagged ‘Cool Papa Bell’

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 First Negro League All-Star Game

February 18, 2013
Steel Arm Davis

Steel Arm Davis

In an earlier previous post I remarked on the formation and history of the East-West All-Star Game. As with most all-star games some of them are very good and others stink up the place. For my money one of the very best East-West games was the first one in 1933.

Held on 10 September in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, the game consisted of two fan chosen teams that cut across league lines to create two geographically chosen teams. The East starting team had an infield (from first to third) of: Oscar Charleston (Crawfords), John Henry Russell (Crawfords), Dick Lundy (Stars), and Jud Wilson (Stars). The outfield was from left to right: Vic Harris (Crawfords), Cool Papa Bell (Crawfords), and Rap Dixon (Stars). The battery had Biz Mackey (Stars) catching, and Sam Streeter (Crawfords) pitching. The bench consisted of eight players (a few of them not from either the Crawfords or the Stars) including future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Andy Cooper, Judy Johnson and catcher Josh Gibson.

The West team was equally stellar. The infield (again first to third) was Mule Suttles (American Giants), LeRoy Morney (Buckeyes), Willie Wells (American Giants), and Alex Radcliffe (American Giants). From left to right the outfield was Steel Arm Davis (American Giants), Turkey Stearnes (American Giants), and Sam Bankhead (Elite Giants). The battery consisted of  catcher Willie Brown and pitcher Willie Foster (both of the American Giants). The bench comprised seven players (most from either the Nashville Elite Giants or the Kansas City Monarchs) with Newt Allen being the most noted. The West team did not substitute during the game (the only time that occured in the East-West Game), so the subs got the day off.

Steel Arm Davis recorded the first out on a fly from Cool Papa Bell and the East went in order in the first. In the top of the second, Jud Wilson singled to record the first hit, but did not score. The game remained scoreless into the bottom of the third when Sam Bankhead singled, went to second on an out and scored on Turkey Stearnes’ single. The fourth inning saw six runs scored, three by each team. The botom of the third included a two-run home run by Mule Suttles, the first homer in East-West history. The East got two more in the fifth on a single, a hit bastsman, another single, and Wilson’s two run single. That put the East up 5-4. It was their last lead.

The West took the lead for good in the bottom of the sixth on two singles sandwiched around consecutive doubles. They picked up three more in the seventh and a final run in the eighth. By the top of the ninth, the East led 11-5 and were coasting. A single, an error, and two sacrifice flies brought the game to 11-7 with Josh Gibson coming up. He hit a long fly to end the game.

The big heroes were Foster, who pitched the only complete game in East-West history, and Suttles who was two for four with three RBIs, two runs scored, a double, and a home run. More than that, the game was a huge success among fans. It made it certain that the game would be continued.

My Best Negro League Roster

February 28, 2011

A friend of mine who reads this blog called me up the other day. He suggested I post what was, in my opinion, the best Negro League team. I went into a long discourse about why that wasn’t possible because of lack of stats and collaborating info and anything else I could come up with to get out of it. He finally cut me off with a simple, “Wing it.” So for the edification of anyone who happens to run across this, and to cap a long group of Negro League posts, here’s my list of the best Negro League players, with appropriate caveats (You knew those were coming, didn’t you?).

First, I took only guys who played the majority of their careers in the Negro Leagues. In other words guys like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were out, as were Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks. Second, I did a 25 man roster with a manager and an owner, and a couple of special add ons. I included 2 players at each infield position, 6 outfielders, 3 catchers, and 8 pitchers (at least two of which had to be left-handed). I know that almost no Negro League team ever actually had 25 men on its roster and that if they did they weren’t aligned as I’ve aligned my team. But this is the way I wanted to do it. I have an aversion to comparing players in the pre-mound era with those whose career is mostly after the advent of the mound and the 60’6″ pitching distance.  I simply think the game is so different you can’t compare players (feel free to disagree). That led to a real problem for me, Frank Grant. I think he is probably one of the half-dozen or so greatest black players ever, but that’s unquantifiable to me. So I had to leave him out, and wish I didn’t.

So here we go. All players are listed alphabetically by position. That means there is no indication that I think the guy listed first is better, although he may be a lot better. Don’t expect a lot of surprises, and keep the snickers to yourselves.

Catcher: Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop. This was actually pretty easy. There seems to be a consensus between statheads, historians, and old Negro League players that these three were head and shoulders above the other catchers in Negro League play. Fleet Walker was also a catcher, but I don’t think he was the quality of these three and he also fails to meet the post-mound criteria. Sorry, Fleet.

1st Base: Buck Leonard, Mule Suttles. There were two problems here. The first was the necessity of leaving out Buck O’Neill. I don’t suppose there is a more important Negro Leaguer (except for Jackie Robinson), but the information on him makes it evident that he wasn’t really at the top of the line of Negro League first basemen. The second problem is that Mule Suttles spent a lot of time in the outfield. But it was common for Negro League players to do “double duty” in the field, so Suttles at first isn’t actually a bad idea.

2nd Base: Newt Allen, Bingo DeMoss. I think I had more trouble settling on the second basemen than on any other position (OK, maybe pitcher). First, I wanted to put Grant in, but just couldn’t because of the problems mentioned above. I also think it might be the weakest position in Negro League play. The list of truly great players here is awfully short. I think these two are probably the best, but I could be talked into someone else.

3rd Base: Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson. Again an easy pick. There seems to be universal agreement that Dandridge was a fielder unlike any other in the history of the Negro Leagues, and that Johnson could outhit anyone who played the position. Who am I to argue with universal agreement?

Shortstop: John Henry Lloyd, Willie Wells. Lloyd was an easy pick. If Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop who ever shortstopped, says he’s pleased to be compared with Lloyd, I’m gonna take him at his word. Wells was also pretty easy. Again there seems to be a consensus among the sources that he was a terrific shortstop.

Outfield: Cool Papa Bell, Willard Brown, Oscar Charleston, Martin DiHigo, Turkey Stearnes, Christobal Torriente. First, I didn’t worry about getting two each Right, Center, and Left. I ended up with two Right Fielders (Brown, DiHigo), one in Left (Stearnes), and the rest are Center Fielders. One of the things about studying and researching for this list is how quickly you find out Bell is seriously overrated. Now I don’t mean to imply Bell wasn’t a heck of a ballplayer; he was. He may have been the very best Negro League outfielder ever. But there seems to be this idea that he was just head and shoulders above the others (Charleston and Torriente). From what I read, I just don’t see that. Maybe he was better, but if so not by much. Certainly he wasn’t better by the amount a lot of people seem to want to think. It reminds me of what I call the “Derek Jeter Aura”. Is Jeter the best shortstop who started his career in the last 15 or so years? Yes. Is he the  greatest since the position was invented (as some would have us believe)?  Not even close, but try telling that to legions of his fans. And Bell seems to be running through that same situation. Personally, I think Charleston was better (and again that’s a personal opinion, not bolstered by much in the way of facts) and I’m not sure that DiHigo wasn’t the finest Negro League outfielder of the lot (or maybe he wasn’t, it’s tough to tell). I am fairly sure that DiHigo is the most under appreciated of the lot.

Pitcher: Ray Brown, Andy Cooper, Leon Day, Bill Foster, Luis Mendez, Satchel Paige, Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith. This may have been the hardest of the lists to determine. First, there aren’t a lot of really good left-handed pitchers in the Negro Leagues, so finding two (and one-quarter of the list being left-handed didn’t seem unreasonable) became a pain. Next, there were more than six righty’s that had to be considered. I hated to leave any off, but this list is my best guess.

Manager: Rube Foster. OK, he had to be here somewhere. He seems to have been a better pitcher than manager and a better manager than executive, but the founder of the Negro Leagues ought to be here.

Owner:  Cum Posey. I said that both second and pitching caused me the most problem. That’s true of players, but finding the best owner to put on the team was almost a nightmare. Who do you take? J.L. Wilkinson owned the most famous team (the Monarchs), Effa Manley of Newark was probably the most famous owner, Gus Greenlee owned the best team (the Crawfords). I looked at all of them and chose Posey, the man who owned the Grays. I think the Grays were the most consistantly successful team in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. I decided that made Posey the owner.

One of a kind: Double Duty Radcliffe. Radcliffe was known to pitch one game of a double-header, then catch the other game. You have to be kidding me. 

Post Negro League Career: Charley Pride. One of the great things about being married to my wife is that every morning I get to “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.” Now I may be wrong about this, but “Just Between You and Me,” as far as I can tell, Pride had the best non-sports related career of any Negro Leaguer.

A Charley Pride baseball card

The musical information shown here tells me this card is a fake, but I just couldn’t resist putting it up for show and tell.

Here’s hoping you’ve learned something from this sojourn into the Negro Leagues and black baseball in general. Failing that, I hope you enjoyed them. With the end of Black History Month, I’ll think I’ll take up something else.

The Crawfords

February 9, 2010

A lot of people have spent a lot of time writing books and articles   expounding on which team was the greatest ever. The 1927 Yankees frequently win. Recently there have been pushes for the Yankees of 1939 and of 1998. Might I suggest there is another contender; the 1930s Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro National League. They may not have been the greatest team ever, but they were close.

In 1931, Gus Greenlee purchased the Crawfords, named for a prominent black grill in Pittsburgh. He set out to make it the premier black ballclub in the United States. To do that he needed to do a couple of things. He managed to get a handful of other owners to join in reestablishing the Negro National League. This gave his team a place to play with a certain amount of guaranteed gates and a way to showcase his team in other locations outside western Pennsylvania. Of course, he also needed players. Between 1932 and 1936 he put together a powerhouse that may have been the greatest concentration of players ever.

He picked up Oscar Charleston first. Charleston was toward the end of his career and had moved from the outfield to first base. He could still play and he could still hit but Greenlee wanted him to be his player/manager. It was a good choice. Charleston was well liked and well respected by the team.

The rest of the infield consisted of Dick Seay at second, Chester Williams at short, and Judy Johnson at third. Johnson was the star. He played an excellent third base, hit for good average, had speed, and was supposed to be a good clubhouse man. Williams could hit pretty well, but had no power. He was good in the field and was considered the premier fielding shortstop of his day. Seay hit eighth for a reason. As a second baseman he was terrific, but didn’t do much with the bat. 

The four primary outfielders were Cool Papa Bell in center with Jim Crutchfield, Sam Bankhead, and Rap Dixon flanking him at various times. Bell led off and was noted for his speed and bat control. In the field he was fast enough to cut down shots into the gaps and had a decent arm. Crutchfield, Bankhead, and Dixon were a step down from Bell, but could all contribute with both the bat and the glove.

Josh Gibson was the catcher. He is almost universally conceded to be the finest player in Negro Leagues history. Some baseball historians contend he was the best catcher to ever play, regardless of race. His power was legendary, the stories mythic. He is in many ways the Negro Leagues equivalent of Babe Ruth, not just in playing ability, but also in the level of myth surrounding him. He gets credit for 800 or more home runs, but less than 200 can be documented, so nobody knows how many he hit, but apparently it was a lot.

The pitching staff could stand up to most teams in any league. Led by Satchel Paige, Gibson’s only rival for the title of most famous Negro Leaguer, the team also consisted of Double Duty Radcliffe, William Bell, and lefty LeRoy Matlock. Paige was a legend in the era. He was supposed to have the best fastball of the age and could make a baseball do whatever he wanted. There are stories of him sending his fielders to the bench so he could strikeout the side without being distracted (the same sort of stories also exist about Dizzy Dean, among others). Radcliffe was known for pitching one end of a double header then turning around and catching the other game. Matlock became famous for stringing together 18 consecutive wins in 1935.

The 1934-1936 Crawfords are the specific teams that get consideration as the finest Negro League team. They won the pennant in 1934 and 1935. In 1936 there was a dispute with the Washington Elite Giants over the pennant winner. A seven game series to determine the champion was suggested, but cancelled after only one game, which the Elite Giants won.

By 1937 the team was getting old. A number of players like Paige, Gibson, and Bell went to Latin America to play for more money. By 1939 the team was in such bad shape both economically and in talent that Greenlee sold the team, which was moved to Toledo.

For a few years the Crawfords dominated Negro League baseball. Their players produced 5 Hall of Famers in Gibson, Paige, Bell, Charleston, and Johnson and a number of other players who were much more than role players. they fell prey to the economics of the era and of Negro League baseball in general, but are still remembered as a premier franchise in black baseball.