Posts Tagged ‘Hilton Smith’

Negro World Series: 2.0

February 14, 2014
1942 Kansas City Monarchs

1942 Kansas City Monarchs

Back in the 1920s, the two primary Negro Leagues, the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League champions had met in a set of games called the Negro World Series. The ECL collapsed during the 1928 season, thus bring the postseason games to a close. They remained the only postseason games held between the two most prominent Negro Leagues for years. In 1933 a new Negro National League was formed, with a Negro American League following in 1937. They feuded for a few years, but by 1942 saw the sense of reestablishing a Negro World Series. The first of the new Series’ pitted Negro National League winner the Homestead Grays against the Negro American League winner the Kansas City Monarchs.

The Grays featured an infield of Hall of Fame first baseman Buck Leonard, second basemen were Matt Carlisle or Howard Easterling, shortstop Sam Bankhead, and Hall of Fame third sacker Jud Wilson. The outfield was, left around to right, manager Vic Harris, Jerry Benjamin, and either Easterling or Roy Partlow. Josh Gibson, another Hall of Fame member did the catching of a staff consisting of Partlow, Roy Welmaker, Ray Brown, and Johnny Wright. They’d won their fourth consecutive pennant by three games.

The Monarchs had been around longer than the Grays and were winners of the very first Negro World Series in 1924. Manager Frank Duncan’s 1942 version consisted of an infield of Buck O’Neil at first, Bonnie Serrell at second, shortstop Jesse Williams, and Newt Allen (a holdover from the 1924 Negro World Series). The outfield featured left fielder Bill Simms, Hall of Fame member Willard Brown in center, and Ted Strong in right. The staff of Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith, along with Jack Matchett was caught by Joe Greene.

The teams agreed to spread the wealth around by holding games in various cities. Game one was held in the Gray’s home park in Washington, DC with Paige starting against Welmaker. The two matched zeroes through five innings with Paige giving up only two hits. In the sixth, Allen singled, went to second on another single, then Allen scored when Bankhead and Gibson both committed errors on the same play. Matchett relieved Paige to start the bottom of the sixth and allowed no hits for the remainder of the game. Scoring in each of the last three innings, the Monarchs cruised to an 8-0 victory with Matchett getting the win and Welmaker taking the loss.

Game two was two days later in Pittsburgh, the secondary home of the Grays. The Monarchs jumped on starter Partlow in the first for one run, tacked on another in the fourth, and knocked Parlow off the mound when Serrell tripled with the bases loaded to put them up 5-0. The Grays made it close by putting up four runs in the bottom of the eighth, highlighted by Wilson’s two-run triple. Kansas City returned the favor by adding three more in the ninth to win 8-4. Smith got the win with Paige picking up the save. In the game’s most famous moment Paige gave up three hits to load the bases in the seventh, then with two outs and the bases loaded struck out Gibson on three pitches. Later legend has Paige walking the bases full on purpose so he could strike out Gibson. The record shows that Paige didn’t walk anyone in the inning, but it makes a great story.

The third game was three days later in Yankee Stadium. With Paige starting for Kansas City, Easterling hit a home run in the first inning and picked up another run on a Leonard single. For the first time in the Series the Grays led. It lasted into the third when both Strong and Brown hit home runs to give the Monarchs a 4-2 lead off starter Ray Brown. Matchett replaced Paige in the third and gave up only one unearned run, while Kansas City tacked on two in the fourth and three in the fifth to win 9-3.

Then came one of those things that only happened in Negro League ball. The teams scheduled a seven inning exhibition immediately following game three (KC won it), then Homestead played four exhibition games against the Stars (in Philadelphia), the Elite Giants (in Baltimore), and two against the Eagles (in Hartford). Not to be outdone, the Monarchs scheduled an exhibition game against the Clowns in Louisville. (For what it’s worth KC won their game and the Grays went 0-3-1).

Finally after a week off, the Series resumed in Kansas City in what became the most controversial game. Homestead won 4-1 with Leon Day defeating Paige. But wait, you say, Leon Day? The Grays were having roster problems. Partlow and Bankhead were both out  (a boil for Partlow and a broken arm for Bankhead) and Carlisle was drafted, so the Grays signed Day and three other players for the remainder of the Series. Kansas City objected and protested. The protest was upheld and the game was not counted.

The official game four was held nine days later in Philadelphia, much of the delay being caused by the protest. Recovered from the boil, Partlow started for the Grays. Simms led off the game with a triple and scored on Allen’s single. Paige, who was supposed to start game five was not at the park, so Matchett started for the Monarchs. Homestead put up three in the bottom of the first, but Kansas City got one back in the third on an error and three singles. In the bottom of the third, Chet Williams hit a two-run single to put the Grays up 5-2. By this point Paige had arrived in the Monarchs dugout (and honestly I’ve been unable to find out where he was) and relieved Matchett. He pitched shutout ball the rest of the way, allowing no hits, a walk, and one runner reached on an error.. Meanwhile, Kansas City started chipping away at the Homestead lead. Greene hit a two-run homer in the fourth to narrow the score to 5-4. It stayed that way until the seventh when Brown doubled, O’Neil singled him home, then O’Neil came home on consecutive singles. The Monarchs tacked on three more in the eighth and coasted to a 9-5 win and a sweep of the 1942 Series.

For the Series Serrell led all hitters with a .566 average, O’Neil had six RBIs and two triples, while Strong, Brown, and Green all had home runs. Matchett had two wins, Smith one, and Piage had both a win and a save and a team high 14 strikeouts. Of the Grays, only Easterling (among players showing up in all four games) hit .300. He also had the only team home run. Partlow, Welmaker, Ray Brown, and Wright all took losses with Welmaker’s eight strikeouts leading the team.

It wasn’t a particularly well-played series. Kansas City had six errors and Homestead topped that with 13 (an average of three a game). Interestingly enough Kansas City’s were more critical. The Grays scored only 12 runs, half were unearned. The Monarchs, on the other hand, scored 34 with only four being unearned. For the whole Series, the Monarchs proved that they were much the superior team.

For the Monarchs it marked their final championship. Although they made one more Negro World Series (1946), they lost it. For the Grays it was the first of five tries. They would win back-to-back series’ in 1943 and 1944, before losing in 1945. They would also return to the NWS in 1948, when they would win the last ever series.

It’s certainly a fun and unique series to read about and research. The accounts of the games make it apparent that both teams played hard. The long interlude between game three and game four could only occur in the Negro Leagues (unless there was one heck of a rain delay–or an earthquake). Throwing in exhibition games in the midst of the Series was certainly unique. All in all I find it a fitting way to reestablish the Negro World Series after a 15 year hiatus.

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Thoughts on Enshrining 3 Managers

December 10, 2013
Baseball's newest Hall of Famers (from MLB.com)

Baseball’s newest Hall of Famers (from MLB.com)

So the Veteran’s Committee has put Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre into the Hall of Fame. Although I stated earlier I wouldn’t vote for Cox myself, I have no problem with the three making it to Cooperstown (as if the Committee cares what I think). Here’s a few thoughts on the newest election.

Again, Marvin Miller failed to make the Hall of Fame. According to reports the three winners were unanimously elected and no other candidate received more than six votes (out of 18). I’m surprised that Miller got at most six votes. There were six players on the committee, but I have no idea if any or all of them voted for Miller. So Far I’m unable to find out exactly how many votes anyone other than the three managers received.

And it’s not at all strange that a player was not elected. I went back to 2000 (the entire 21st Century, depending on what you do with 2000) and looked at the Veteran’s Committee inductees. It’s an interesting group. First, I need to remind you that the Committee was, for a  while, not a yearly institution, so in some of those 15 years there was no Committee and thus no one had a chance of election. For the purposes of this comment, I’ve excluded the 17 Negro League players and executives elected in 2006 because they were elected by a separate committee set up specifically to enshrine Negro League members. Only four players have been elected. They are Bill Mazeroski, Ron Santo, Bid McPhee, and Deacon White. Two of the players span the 1960s, the other two play in the 1800s. On the other hand, the Committee has elected two Negro Leaguers (Turkey Stearnes and Hilton Smith), seven managers (including the three just chosen), and seven contributors (executives, commissioners, umpires, etc.). So recently, the Veteran’s Committee has been shorting players.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It may mean that we’ve almost gotten to the end of those players who genuinely deserve Hall of Fame status. It may mean that the selection committee will continue to put up players and the election committee will continue to turn down almost all of them. I want to see what the various ballots look like over the next dozen or so years (remember there are 3 committees, so a dozen years would be four of each). If the same people keep making the list and keep failing election it should indicate that the various Veteran’s Committees have determined that the era for which they vote is devoid of quality candidates for enshrinement. Of course evolving lists and new stat methods can change this very much. The problem is that the pressure to elect someone, anyone, can be great. After all if you go five years without electing someone, then people begin to ask “why do we have a Veteran’s Committee?” This could lead to more marginal players elected or, more likely from what we’ve seen lately, more managers, umpires, owners, and executives making the trek to Cooperstown for enshrinement. Although I admit that the contributors have a major role in baseball and should be commemorated in Cooperstown, let’s not get carried away and start putting in everybody who ever umped a game or owned a team.

I also found out something about the Veteran’s Committee rules. According to MLB.com the members of the committee are restricted to voting for not more than five candidates (like the writers and the 10 candidate rule). As with the writers ballot this tends to depress the election results, which may not be bad, but I really wish they’d let the committee members vote for as many as they want. After all, they can vote for as few as they want, including no one.

So congratulations to Cox, LaRussa, and Torre. Now we wait for the Spink and Frick Awards and the big ballot writer’s selections. Those should be interesting, particularly the latter.

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 Last Great Negro League World Series

February 18, 2011

Although the signing of black players to Major League teams began the end for the Negro Leagues, they managed to hold a World Series as late as 1948. But by 1948 the Negro Leagues were on life support. They still had good players. Willie Mays played in the last Negro League World Series (his team lost). But as a whole the leagues were dying. At the end of 1948 the Negro National League folded. But prior to losing most of their best players to the white leagues, the Negro Leagues had one last great Series in 1946.

As with the Major League World Series (won in 1946 by the Cardinals), the Negro League World Series was a best of seven. The 1946 version featured the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. The Monarchs were a well established team that had been victories in previous Negro League World Series’ going all the way back to the 1920s. Manager and back-up catcher Frank Duncan’s team featured NAL batting champion Buck O’Neill at first, Hank Thompson at second, Herb Souell at third, and Series hitting star Chico Renfroe at short (Renfroe had backed up Jackie Robinson earlier). The outfield consisted of Willard Brown in center flanked by Ted Strong in right and a whole group of left fielders including pitchers Robert Griffith and Ford  Smith. The catcher was Joe Greene, who caught a staff that included Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Ford Smith, Chet Brewer, and James LaMarque.

1946 KC Monarchs

The Negro National League winning Newark Eagles weren’t nearly as famous. In fact, their owner, Effa Manley, may have been more famous than the team. They’d never won before, but put up a 47-16 record to take the pennant. Manager Biz Mackey’s (like Duncan the back-up catcher)  infield consisted of  Lennie Pearson at first, Larry Doby at second, Clarence Israel at third, and  Monte Irvin at short.  Cherokee Davis and Bob Harvey patrolled the outfield with pitcher Leon Day taking the other position on days he didn’t pitch. Regular catcher Leon Ruffin backstopped a staff that included Day, Max Manning, Lennie Hooker, and Rufus Lewis.

1946 Newark Eagles

The first two games were in Newark, with the teams splitting the games. Kansas City won the first game 2-1 with a fine relief performance by Paige, who also scored the winning run. Newark evened the Series the next day winning 7-4. The key to the game was a six run rally in the 7th inning. Paige relieved again, and this time the Eagles got to him with Doby providing a key home run.

The Series moved to Kansas City for games 3-5. The first two games in KC were blowouts. In game 3, the Monarchs racked up 15 runs and 21 hits in crushing Newark who put up five runs on seven hits. The Eagles got revenge in game 4, winning 8-1. Doby doubled and tripled for the key runs. Paige again relieved and was again ineffective. Game 5 saw Newark collect ten hits, but score only one run, while the Monarchs made five runs on nine hits. In a key development, right fielder Ted Strong left the Monarchs to play ball in the Puerto Rico winter league making it necessary for pitcher Ford Smith to take his post in right.

With Newark down 3-2, the Series went back to the East Coast. Game 6 developed into an offensive slugfest. Irvin and Lennie Pearson both slugged two homers, Buck O’Neill and Willard Brown each  had one. The Eagles evened the Series with a 9-7 win. That set up game seven, only the second time the Negro League World Series had gone the full seven games (1943). The key development occurred prior to the game when Paige didn’t show up for the game. No one seems to know exactly why. Stories about bribes, drinking, loose women, and all sorts of other things pop up, but there seems to be no definitive answer to Paige being MIA. The way he’d pitched in the Series, it might have made no difference. Newark scored first, but KC tied it in the sixth and went ahead 2-1 in the seventh. In the bottom of the eighth, both Doby and Irvin walked. Cherokee Davis followed with a two run double to put the Eagles ahead 3-2. KC failed to score in the ninth and Newark won its only Negro League World Series.

The Series had a usual assortment of heroes and goats. For the Eagles Irvin, Pearson, and Davis had great games with Irvin hitting .462 with eight RBI’s and three home runs. For the staff Lewis was 2-1 and Manning 1-1. Hooker was also 1-1, but with an ERA of 6.00. Ace Leon Day ended up 0-0, also with a 6.00 ERA. For the Monarchs, Renfroe hit .414, O’Neill had two homers, and Brown had three, despite hitting only .241. The loss of Strong was a blow, but as he was hitting only .111 when he left the team, it may have effected the pitching more than the hitting. Hilton Smith was 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA and hit well when he played the outfield. But the rest of the staff didn’t do as well. Paige was also 1-1, but with a 5.40 ERA, a blown save, and of course missed game 7 entirely.   LaMarque won his only decision, but had an ERA over 7.

There would be two more Negro League World Series matchups before the NNL folded. Both were played with depleted rosters and neither lived up to the 1946 version. It was to be the final Negro League World Series with the top quality players available and in many ways was the true end of an era.

The Dynamic Duo

February 14, 2011

With appropriate apologies to Batman and Robin, the above title can apply to a great number of teammates who have played baseball. In pitching there is Mathewson and McGinnity, Ruffing and Gomez, Koufax and Drysdale, Maddux and Glavine, Johnson and Schilling to name a handful. As befits its status as a quasi-Major League, Negro League baseball also has its dynamic duo: Paige and Smith.

Stachel Paige

Satchel Paige is arguably the most well-known Negro League player. Over the years he’s become the stuff of legend, some of it even true. He’s easily the most quotable of the Negro League players and his “Don’t look back” line has entered American lore. He was also a great pitcher. He spent time in the Negro Leagues, in independent all-black leagues, in Mexico, and the Dominican Republic and he was successful everywhere. There were those who thought he might be the man who broke the “color barrier” and integrated Major League baseball, but he proved too outspoken and controversial. He did eventually get to the big leagues with Cleveland and was among the first black men to play on a  World Series champion when the Indians won the World Series in 1948. He became the first black player to pitch in the Series when he came into game 5 of the ’48 World Series in the seventh inning. He pitched two-thirds of an inning in relief  giving up neither runs nor hits nor walks (and not striking out anyone either). He eventually got enough time in to earn a pension from Major League Baseball and was the first Negro League player elected to Cooperstown in 1971.

Hilton Smith

Hilton Smith isn’t nearly as well-known, which is a great shame. Smith was from Texas, born in 1912. He got to the Negro Leagues in 1932, then spent time with a semi-pro team in North Dakota. In 1937, he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs staying through 1948. Between 1940 and 1947 he teamed with Paige to create a great one-two pitching punch for the Monarchs. The team won the first of the newly restarted Negro League World Series’ in 1942 and played in the 1946 Series. In 1940 and 1941, prior to the advent of the new World Series, the Monarchs won the Negro American League pennant. For the period they pitched together Smith was as good as Paige. Some of his contemporaries considered him better (In Paige’s defense, he was considerably older and on the decline phase of his career.). Unlike Paige, Smith never made the Major Leagues. He retired after 1948 and lived in Kansas City. He died in 1983 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001.

How good were they? Generally, that’s a question you really can’t answer when discussing the Negro Leagues because the statistics aren’t available. But with these two at least a partial answer is available. In 2007 the Hall of Fame inducted a whole group of players, owners, contributors from the Negro Leagues. In order for the special committee doing the voting to have some basis for making an informed, intelligent decision a group of statisticians and baseball researchers were commissioned to find as much statistical information as possible. They also looked for information on then-current Hall members like both Paige and Smith so as to give the committee a set of comparison points. In his book Shades of Glory Lawrence Hogan compiled those stats and made them readily available for readers. Admittedly, the stats are incomplete, but they do offer a glimpse into the quality of the players involved. As the researchers got closer to 1947 (the year Jackie Robinson first appeared in a Brooklyn uniform) the stats became at least a little more complete, but still not definitive. As Paige and Smith both pitched into the 1940s that gives us a somewhat truer view of them than otherwise possible with many earlier pitchers.

So back to “How good were they?”. For his career, using stats available, Paige won 103 games, lost 61 (a .628 percentage), pitched 1506.2 innings over 263 games with an ERA of 2.02. He gave up 1174 hits, 253 walks, and struck out 1231. Smith won 71, lost 31 (a .696 percentage), pitched 812.1 innings over 146 games with an ERA of 1.68. He gave up 674 hits, walked 96, and struck out 430. From 1940 through 1947, their time together on the Monarchs, Paige was 27-24 (.529 percentage) to Smith’s 43-20 (.686 percentage). Paige pitched 104 games, Smith 84. Paige gave up 352 hits, Smith 412. Paige walked 69 to Smith’s 56. Paige struck out 395 to Smith’s 208. Both had lower ERA’s than their career number. You can figure the WHIP yourself if you want. As far as I know, the research on Negro League ballparks is too incomplete to determine ERA+ numbers for either. To show you how incomplete these numbers are, I found a quote from Smith indicating he won 161 games. Apparently only 71 (44%) can be verified.

When I first sat down those numbers, my initial reaction was “Big deal.” Those aren’t bad numbers, but a lot of pitchers have much better statistics. But after a couple of minutes I realized who I was dealing with and what it meant. Even with truly great Negro League players like Paige and Smith it’s tough to really get a handle on them. The seasons are so short, the non-league barnstorming games don’t count, the numbers are so fragmentary that some sense of greatness gets lost. From just the numbers I have I’m not sure I wouldn’t consider Smith the superior pitcher, but they are so incomplete I can’t make that an informed statement. And that’s really too bad.

Whatever their actual numbers, Paige and Smith represent one of the truly finest pair of pitching teammates in baseball.  Had they played together on a Major League team they would be, in my opinion, both Hall of Fame pitchers. It’s right that they both made it to Cooperstown even without a chance to dazzle white audiences while in their prime.

The Kings of Kansas City

February 7, 2011

Monarchs uniform

I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that Negro League baseball has three teams that are truly famous. Oh, there are a lot of good teams and teams with great names like the Daisies, but three teams really stand out as famous: The Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Homestead Grays, and the Kansas City Monarchs. I hit the Crawfords last year and this post is about the Monarchs, so I guess that means I’m stuck with doing the Grays next year.

James Leslie Wilkinson (J.L. to his friends and players) was a former pitcher turned Hall of Fame baseball entrepreneur. In 1912 he formed the Des Moines All Nations team. Unlike most teams of the era it was multi-racial. The team was hugely successful, made Wilkinson a lot of money, and when the Negro National League was formed in 1920, Wilkinson became the only white man granted a franchise. He took the best players from the All Nations, and on a heads up from his friend Casey Stengel (yes, THAT Casey Stengel) combined them with the 25th Infantry Wreckers, an all black Army team (there’s a post waiting to happen), into the Kansas City Monarchs.

The monarchs were an immediate success winning titles in 1923, 1924, 1925, and 1929. In 1924 they participated in the first Negro League World Series against the Eastern Colored League champion Hilldale Daisies. With players like Heavy Johnson, Newt Allen, and Hall of Famers Bullet Joe Rogan and Luis Mendez they won it. The 1925 Series was a rematch. This time Hilldale won. In 1931 the Negro National League collapsed, but the Monarchs survived as a barnstorming team until 1936.

1939 Monarchs

In 1937 they joined the newly established Negro American League. Again they were hugely successful winning pennants in 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1946. In 1942, the Negro League World Series was reestablished with the Monarchs winning the first one against Homestead. Playing for them were Buck O’Neill, Newt Allen (still), and Hall of Famers Willard Brown, Andy Cooper, Hilton Smith, and Satchel Paige. With essentially the same team (OK, Allen was finally gone), they lost the 1946 Series to the Newark Eagles. During the period, they also picked up, for the 1945 season only, a shortstop named Jackie Robinson.

Of course Robinson’s leaving for Brooklyn began the long, slow decline of the Negro Leagues. In 1948, seeing the inevitable collapse, Wilkinson sold the team. It remained in the Negro American League until 1961, when the league finally folded. After 1948, the Monarchs won a couple of league championships, but with much inferior talent.  By the 1950s, Negro League baseball was a shadow of its former glory, but the Monarchs hung on as one of the better teams. They did manage to run Ernie Banks and Elston Howard through their much depleted lineup, but overall quality slipped drastically. In 1955 The Athletics moved to Kansas City from Philadelphia, displacing the Monarchs as the premier team in town. The team headquarters moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan but the team retained the Kansas City name. The Monarchs took to barnstorming and remained alive until 1965, when they finally folded.

There are a number of ways to measure the impact of the Monarchs. They won a lot of games and pennants. They had some of the finest talent of any Negro League team. They continued to produce good talent well after the Negro Leagues were deep into collapse. They last longer than almost any other Negro League team. But maybe most significantly, when the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame was established, it went to Kansas City. They could have chosen a lot of places, but they picked Kansas City, home of the Monarchs.

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.

Some Random Thoughts on the Negro Leagues

February 6, 2010

February is Black History Month around the US. It seems appropriate to look at the Negro Leagues during February, so I’m going to do a couple of posts. Let me start them with a disclaimer. I’m no expert on the Negro Leagues. I find them interesting and the info fascinating, but I’d never pretend to be an expert on the matter. That being said, a few comments follow:

1. There were several of them. Most famous were the Negro American League, the Negro National League (1920s version), the Negro National League (1930s-40s version), and the Eastern Colored League. There were a host of  others, but these four dominate most of the conversations about segregated baseball.

2. The leagues were led by the same sorts of people who led the white Major Leagues, entrepeneurs and opportunists. I’ve heard some less than favorable comments about a number of the owners because they made their money in less than “savory” occupations. A couple ran pool rooms (“You got trouble right here in River City”), some were loan sharks, others ran numbers. Of course if you were a black American in the era you had to live in specific places and keep to specific jobs, very few of which were of the “best” quality. I’m reminded of the Christian attitude towards Jews in the Middle Ages. Put them in cramped ghettos, make them hold specific jobs, and then be astounded when they ended up dirty and usurers. So I find it stunning when people are shocked (“Shocked to find there’s gambling going on”) to find so-called disreputable types running teams. I’m also remined that the owners of the white teams frequently weren’t among “the salt of the earth.”

3. Not all the owners were black and male. Two of the most successful franchises were the Kansas City Monarchs and the Newark Eagles. The Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson was white and the Eagles owner, Effa Manley, was female (she ran the team, but co-owned with her husband). Both ran very successful franchises, each winning a Negro League World Series and both eventually were elected to the Hall of Fame.

4. The quality of play seems to have been about on par with the Major Leagues. There are few reliable stats about the Negro Leagues, but anecdotal evidence and the few stats that do survive indicate that the top players and top teams were very much the equal of the Major League teams. Certain of the weaker teams may have been only minor league quality, but then the same can be said of a number of Major League teams in a given year.

5.  Judging by the impact black players, many of them coming over from the Negro Leagues, made in the majors, especially in the National League in the 1950s, it is evident that the top line players were equal with the best of the Major League players. Between 1949, when Jackie Robinson became the first black player to win the National League MVP and 1963 when Sandy Koufax won his (a 15 year period) black players won 11 National League MVP awards (Robinson, Roy Campanella-3 times, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks-twice, Frank Robinson, and Maury Wills) to only four for white players (Jim Konstanty, Hank Sauer, Dick Groat, and Koufax). They also win five of the next six. I can’t prove it, but my guess is that black players would have also done well in the 1930s and 1940s.

6. Finally, there is no way to compare the Negro Leaguers with their Major League counterparts. They play in totally different leagues and even if the stats were available they exist isolated from each other. Does hitting .350 in the National League in 1935 mean the same thing as hitting .350 in the Negro National League? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else. I would guess that Josh Gibson, Louis Santop Satchel Paige, and Hilton Smith were the equal of any of their contemporaries in the Major Leagues, but I can’t prove it. Great shame.

It’s important to celebrate the Negro Leagues, not to deify them. Josh Gibson doesn’t need an apotheosis, he was good enough as is. But let us remember to celebrate them. Hopefully we won’t see their like again.