Posts Tagged ‘Joe Williams’

The Lincolns

February 16, 2017
Lincoln Giants jersey from 1910

Lincoln Giants jersey from 1910

When we think of Negro League teams, most think of the later Negro League teams such as the Crawfords, the Grays, or the Eagles. But way back before the founding of the first of the famous Negro Leagues, the Negro National League of the 1920s, there were other leagues and other teams. One of the more dominant of the early 20th Century teams was the Lincoln Giants of New York.

There is a bit of question about their origins. Their Wikipedia page indicates that an ancestry can be traced back to Nebraska in the 1890s, but doesn’t indicate how they got to New York. More conventional sources indicate that Jess McMahon (of the current WWE wrestling McMahon’s) was a prominent sports promoter in New York with extensive interests in Harlem. In 1911 he joined with Sol White to form the Lincoln Giants. It was a formidable team that immediately began to dominate black baseball in New York. With Hall of Famers John Henry Lloyd, Louis Santop, Smokey Joe Williams, and the likes of Spottswood Poles, Bill Pettus, and Cannonball Dick Redding (God, I love old-time nicknames) they dominated Eastern black baseball into 1914. In 1913 they played an unofficial black championship against the pride of the Midwestern black leagues, the Chicago American Giants, led by Rube Foster. The exact number of games and wins in the series is in some question, but there is agreement that the Lincolns won the series.

the 1911 Lincoln Giants

the 1911 Lincoln Giants

By 1914, McMahon was in financial trouble. He sold the Lincoln Giants, but retained the contracts of several of the big stars. He formed a new team, the Lincoln Stars, and competed directly with his old team. The Stars lasted to 1917, folded, and most of the remaining former Giants went back to their old club.

According to the Seamheads website, the Lincoln Giants were still doing well in the 1914-17 period, but fell off some due to the loss of many of their stars. By this point Smokey Joe Williams was doubling as ace pitcher and manager. It was the height of his Hall of Fame career. But the team ran up against a formidable foe off the diamond. Nat Strong (see my post “The Schedule Man” of 20 August 2015) controlled scheduling for black baseball in New York at the time and the Lincolns wanted to play more games than Strong was willing to schedule. They attempted to schedule some games without going through Strong, and were thrown out of the existing league structure in New York. Barnstorming followed.

With the founding Foster’s Negro National League, the eastern teams found it to their advantage to form their own league, the Eastern Colored League, in 1923. The Lincolns were a significant member of the league. They never won a league championship, finishing as high as third in 1924. By 1928 the ECL was on life support. A changing economy, weak teams, chaos at the top of the league (again another story for another time), and the dominance of Foster’s NNL, caused it to collapse.

The remnants of the ECL formed a new league, the American Negro League in 1929. It lasted one year. The Lincoln Giants held on one more year in a declining economy and finally folded after the 1930 season.

During their existence, the New York Lincoln Giants were dominant in the East. They won unofficial championships most of the decade of the 19-teens and led Strong’s New York league most years (which is why they thought they could challenge him). They provided Eastern black baseball with some of the greatest players of the era in Lloyd, Wood, Santop, Redding, and later Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes. Not a bad legacy.

the 1911 version of the Lincoln Giants cap

the 1911 version of the Lincoln Giants cap

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The Top Negro League Team

February 7, 2014
The 1931 Homestead Grays

The 1931 Homestead Grays

Back in 2007 Major League Baseball put together a panel of experts. This was the year after the Hall of Fame let in, what has so far been the last group of Negro League players. The task of the panel was to determine the best ever single season Negro League team. I emphasize  they were looking for a single season team, not looking for a single team that dominated for a long period of time. There were a lot of obvious contenders, the various Crawfords teams of the 1930s, the Monarchs of both the early 1920s and the 1940s, the 1920s Daisies, and of course various Homestead Grays teams. Ultimately, the panel concluded that the top Negro League team of all time was the 1931 Homestead Grays.

It was a very good team, but it’s also a fairly typical Negro League team. The roster is small, the players man multiple positions, statistics are sketchy, newspaper accounts are infrequent, and there are various numbers used for their win-loss record. In what’s below, I am going to use what statistics I can find (most notably on Baseball Reference.com) and what other records are easily available. In other words, this isn’t going to be a thorough enough look to serve as someone’s term paper, let alone a dissertation. But then someone else already did that (see the final paragraph below).

Over the course of the season the Grays played a lot of barnstorming ball, some against quality teams, some against thrown together teams, some against all-star teams, some against white teams, some against black teams. Their exact record is unknown. One source indicates they were 10-2 against minor league teams while winning 143 games. Baseball Reference.com can verify at least 10 losses by the various pitchers on the team. Their exact totals are unknown.

So who made up this team? As usual with Negro League teams, players took up a lot of positions during the season. In many ways the Negro League team rosters remind me of an 1800s Major League team with small rosters that put a premium on multi-position players.  The main infield consisted of Ted Page, George Scales, Jake Stephens, and Hall of Fame third baseman Jud Wilson. Both Bill Evans and George Britt (not Brett) also played in the infield. Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, Vic Harris (who later managed the Grays), Ambrose Reid, Ted Radcliffe did most of the outfield work. The 19-year-old catcher was Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, with Benny Jones as his backup. The pitching staff consisted of  Britt, Hall of Fame hurlers Bill Foster and Joe Williams, Roy Williams, Charles Williams, and Radcliffe. Both Foster and Charles Williams were lefties. Radcliffe was nicknamed “Double Duty” for his ability to pitch one game of a double-header then either catch or play the outfield in the other game. Cumberland (Cum) Posey served as manager and was responsible for scheduling most games.

What records are available on Baseball Reference.com show Foster with an 8-1 record as the ace. He struck out 64 while walking only 24 with a 0.987 WHIP. Smokey Joe Williams shows 34 strikeouts, nine walks, a1.116 WHIP, but a 4-3 record. Charleston’s .346 leads the team in average, while Wilson’s .586 leads in slugging percentage. Wilson also has three home runs, tops on the team. Gibson has the RBI lead with 10. another set of stats available at the same site has Gibson with six home runs (see what I mean about stat lines).

Whether the 1931 Grays are truly the finest single season Negro League team or not is certainly debatable. As mentioned in the first paragraph the Crawfords teams of 1935 or 1936 certainly can be considered (and are my personal choice). Having said that, you can’t go too far wrong if you pick the Grays.

And for anyone interested in the team, there’s a decent book about them. Phil Dixon (who’s a greater expert on Black Baseball than me) wrote American Baseball Chronicles: The Great Teams, the 1931 Grays. It’s available at Amazon.com for $17.99 in paperback and his numbers differ (at least somewhat) from Baseball Reference.com.