Posts Tagged ‘Frank Wickware’

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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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.