Posts Tagged ‘Josh Gibson’

The Catcher Question

October 27, 2016
Buck Ewing's Hall of Fame plaque

Buck Ewing’s Hall of Fame plaque

Recently somebody asked me who I thought were the greatest catchers ever. I made the appropriate reply, “Got me.” I think that rating catchers is the hardest rating job in baseball (well, maybe pitchers). The position is so different and so many factors that don’t weigh on other positions come into play that I don’t think any of us have yet come up with a definitive set of statistical information to answer that simple question.

There are a lot of reasons this is true. Let me give you one quick example: Buck Ewing. How good was he? It is evident from the information we have that he was a great, great player. But he was a great, great player in a game that was different from the modern game. Ewing’s career spans the 1880s and 1890s and for almost all the 1880s and the first part of the 1890s pitchers were restricted on how they could throw, and however they threw, they didn’t do it from a mound 60″6′ away from a home plate that was shaped differently than the modern one. Also, Ewing is a catcher. And that really does matter. “The tools of ignorance” are still evolving today and in the 1880s were in their infant stage. His glove might have kept his hand warm in winter, but wasn’t going to do much else. There was some padding, but not much. According to SABR, the catcher’s mask was an Ivy League invention of the mid 1870s and was essentially an adaption of the fencing mask. The chest protector comes in the early 1880s and is sometimes credited to Deacon White (again according to SABR). Flimsy is the operative word here. So how good was Buck Ewing at doing his fielding job? Well, the numbers show him not bad for 1880, but simply lousy for today. And part of that has to do with the equipment he’s using. And that’s a major problem with comparing catchers. The equipment today is just better.

We also have to deal with a factor of American history: segregation. By general consensus the best Negro League catchers were (alphabetically) Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, and Louis Santop. How good were they? Again, “Got me.” I have some records available, but they are spotty and almost all of them are hitting, not fielding records. At the current stage of our knowledge we can determine that the Negro League catchers were good, but exactly how good is still a question.

And for course for catchers, fielding matters. Most people who saw both Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski play will tell you that Yaz was the better fielder. And nobody cares. If you hit like Williams no one cares if you can catch, they’ll find a place to play you (Hello, Harmon Killebrew). Greg Maddux was a superior fielding catcher and no one ever said that about Randy Johnson. Why? Because deep down inside no one cared. Maddux was there to pitch and if he could field well then that was gravy. Johnson had less gravy but did his main job more or less as well and that’s what mattered. It doesn’t work that way with catchers (and shortstops). You have to be able to field your position and with all the work that SABR and Bill James and the various stat guys have done, fielding stats are still a work in progress, and catching stats are less far along than other positions (probably because there are so many more to consider).

Until these problems are solved answering the “greatest catcher” question is at best a crap shoot, although by now we can call it a more “educated” chap shoot than it used to be when I was a kid. I am comfortable in saying that almost all the “greatest” catchers played since World War II (with possible exceptions like Ewing, Gabby Hartnett, and the 3 Negro Leaguers I mentioned above). Beyond that I’m shooting craps with everyone else.

Negro League Lessons, Seven Years On

February 25, 2016
The 1929 St. Louis Stars

The 1929 St. Louis Stars

Seven years ago (is it really that long?) I started taking part of February to look at Negro League history. A year or so later I made it a month-long project. I had a couple of goals in doing this. One was to learn what I could about the black players, teams, owners, and all those other things that make a baseball team work. The second was to chronicle that information so that others could learn something also. Of course I’ve had to correct some of the things I initially put down because new information became available, or I found a source I’d overlooked, or I was just plain wrong (which happened occasionally). Seven years down the road it seems like a good time to take stock of the project.

The first thing I learned was just exactly how much mythology surrounds the Negro Leagues. Of course that sort of thing occurs with Major League Baseball, the origins of the sport, and various other aspects  of the game. It seems baseball nurses mythology more than any other sport and revels in those myths. Negro League Baseball is no different. The early players take on heroic proportions. Babe Ruth is a giant among men who can slay all sorts of ogres with one swing of his mighty sword (or bat). It seems Josh Gibson is the same way. Lou Gehrig is the doomed youth who heroically faces his end. So does Dobie Moore. There’s trickster Dizzy Dean and there is trickster Satchel Paige. If you listen to the myths, Homer himself would be proud of some of them.

The reality is even more fascinating, because you end up with a particularly interesting set of men, men much like the white players that were gracing the Majors. Some were scoundrels, some were men of great compassion and of high character. Some you wouldn’t want your family or your friends to be around while others were “the salt of the earth.” All that’s equally true of white players. As a whole they are complicated men who are generally defined by their ability to play ball (something I usually stick to here) but most are much deeper, although there aren’t many profound thinkers in the lot (which is true of people in mass).

It was tough being a Major Leaguer in the era of the Negro Leagues. It was tougher being a Negro Leaguer. The pay was wretched. In the 1924 World Series, the winning Senators received a $5959.64. The Monarchs, winners of the Negro World Series of the same year, received a winner share of $307.96. The transportation was sometimes very basic, including old buses and occasionally individual automobiles. The hotels were of poor quality, assuming they could find a hotel that would take them. By compensation there were individual families in the frequented towns who would take them in. Most of them enjoyed the same off-season drudgeries and joys as their white counterparts. The fields were sometimes in terrible shape, sometimes they were Major League fields rented for an individual game or for a season.

As with the white players the Negro Leaguers could be the toast of the town, although it was the segregated “colored towns” of the era. They provided one of the few community wide black venues for entertainment in many towns and in some cities. It seems, and this is strictly an anecdotal observation, that they were even more important to the black communities than the Major League teams were to the white communities.

The owners were much like the white owners. Players were chattel or they were employees. Some were treated well by their teams, some not so much. The owners frequently came from what the “better element” of the white community would call “the shady side of life.” There were gamblers, pool hall owners, barmen, numbers touts, even a woman (Effa Manley). They also stole players under contract to other teams at an alarming rate. They are as a group, in some ways, more interesting than their white counterparts, most of which were moguls who found baseball much more of a side interest. Some of my favorite articles to research are the ones on team owners and executives because they are such interesting individuals.

One thing that is certainly evident is that they could play ball really, really well. They were certainly the equal of the white players of the era. They were not, despite the growing mythology of the Negro Leagues, better. Short rosters made some of them more versatile than their white counterparts, but not better. The best were on a par with the Gehrigs and Deans and Applings of the day and the worst were no worse than the hangers on who had, at best, a cup of coffee in the big leagues. In an evident attempt to establish their greatness a certain bit of nostalgic mythology has made them better than the white players. In the stark reality of short seasons and second-hand fields and poor equipment they did well. It is a testament to their playing ability that they can be considered on par with the Major Leagues. There is no necessity to compensate for the bad hand they were dealt merely because of the color of their skin by trying to assert they were better than they were.

They weren’t all Americans. I knew that, of course, but I did not know the extent of the Latin players involved or of American black player involvement in the Latin countries. And it’s here that race is at its worst. A Latin player who didn’t look “black” (and God alone knows how many ways different scouts, managers, and owner defined that word) could make the Major Leagues. A Latin player who did look “black” couldn’t. So Dolf Luque could play in a World Series and Martin DeHigo couldn’t. For Americans of mixed race it didn’t matter how “white” a player looked, he was “black” and that was that and that mentality sent players like Roy Campanella to the Baltimore Elite Giants rather than the New York Giants (and ultimately the Dodgers).

It’s interesting that most of the Negro League teams were housed in the North rather than the South, which had more Black Americans. As a former college instructor (Geez, that was a long time ago) I knew that intuitively, but it still jarred a bit. Jim Crow wasn’t restricted to the South, but the rules were looser enough to make it at least a little easier for a black team to function in the North. And of course the cities were larger, which made the crowds larger and the possibility of profit greater.

All that’s some of what I’ve learned over seven years of wandering through the world of Negro League baseball. It’s a strange and fascinating place to wander. I intend to keep it up as long as I can find something new to say.

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 Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues: a Review

February 20, 2014
Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues

Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues

There are a lot of good works on the Negro Leagues. Most tell the stories of a particular player, or of a team, or of a season. James A. Riley has compiled a wonderful book that presents biographies of each Negro League player. It’s well worth having if you’re interested in Negro League players.

Published in 2002, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues by James A. Riley is a big book, both physically and in length. It’s heart is a series of baseball biographies of black ball players from 1872 until 1950. Players as early as Bud Fowler and as late as Ernie Banks show up. Some of the biographies are very short, as little is known of the player, some are much longer. As some players are so obscure their first name is unknown, a few of the bios list only the last name of a forgotten player and a few simple facts such as who he played his handful of games for. Other than a few of the more well-known players all the biographies are strictly baseball oriented, meaning there is little information about their parents, children, wives, and non-baseball related jobs. There are also a small selection of photographs and embedded in the biographies are occasional statistics.

If the heart of the book is a series of player biographies, the “gravy” is another series of short articles on various Negro League teams covering some of the early barnstorming teams as well as the more well-known and well established teams of the “classic” Negro League era of the 1920s through the 1940s. Finally there are also biographies of various executives, umpires, and contributors who were instrumental in making the Negro Leagues what they were to the players and their fans.

Want to know info on Josh Gibson? It’s there. How about Effa Manley? It’s also there. Steel Arm Davis? He’s there too, as is Charles Thomas, the Ohio Wesleyan player whose embarrassment led Branch Rickey to later integrate the Major Leagues (Thomas played a few games in the negro Leagues before becoming  a dentist).

The book is well-worth the admittedly high $78.30 price at Amazon.com. You can probably find it for less in used condition.

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.

Buck

February 12, 2014
Buck Leonard

Buck Leonard

Baseball history is full of truly fine one-two punches. There’s Ruth and Gehrig. There’s Aaron and Matthews. There’s Mays and McCovey. There is also Leonard and Gibson. This is the story of Buck Leonard, generally considered the greatest of all Negro League first basemen.

Walter Leonard was born in North Carolina in 1907. By 1924 he was playing and managing (yes, managing at age 17) a local black semi-pro team. He also worked for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad in their repair shop. He lost his job in 1932 during the Great Depression. His only means of employment being baseball, he signed with Portsmouth Black Revels for $15 a month. In 1933 he and his brother Charlie (a pitcher) signed with the Baltimore Stars, a barnstorming team that promptly went bankrupt (but not from signing the Leonard brothers). Buck Leonard had already caught the eye of other Negro League teams and was scooped up by Brooklyn Royal Giants. In 1934 Cum Posey signed him for $125 a month (and 60 cents meal money daily) to play with the Homestead Grays. There he teamed with Gibson, Jud Wilson, Vic Harris, and Howard Easterling to win consecutive Negro National League pennants from 1937 through 1945 inclusive. After a two-year hiatus, they won again in 1948 when Leonard was 40 (and Gibson was dead). His salary had changed. He was now earning about $10,000 a year.

With the collapse of the Negro National League and the Grays, Leonard continued to play baseball in the Latin Winter Leagues and the Mexican League as late as 1955. Too old to play in the Majors after the color line was broken in 1946, Leonard did play 10 games in the Piedmont League in 1953. He hit .333.

In retirement Leonard worked a number of jobs, truant officer, physical education teacher, ran a realty company, and in 1962 served as vice president of the Carolina League team in Rocky Mount. In 1972 Leonard was elected to the Hall of Fame. He died in 1986.

There are limited statistics available to help us determine just how good Leonard was as a player. Baseball Reference.com shows him playing 412 games for the Grays between 1934 and 1948, an average of 27.5 a year. In those games he hit .320 and slugged 527. There is no on base percentage listed, but if you add his hits (471) and walks (257) you get a preliminary OBP of .495. Obviously that leaves out catcher’s interference and hit by pitch stats, but, frankly, how many of them could there be over 412 games? Anyway, that gives a preliminary OPS of 1022. He had 1427 hits, 275 RBIs, scored 351 runs, and had 60 home runs. Baseball Reference.com gives a 162 game average for the available stats, which works out to 138 runs, 185 hits, 108 RBIs, 101 walks, and 24 home runs per 162 games. There are no strikeout numbers listed and manages only 25 stolen bases for his career. His highest single season average is .533 but is for only 11 games in 1947. His highest home run total is eight in both 1940 and 1941 (44 and 36 games). His highest RBI number is 44 in 1940 (again the 44 games). His highest hit total is 60, also in 1940. In 55 games in 1943 he scores 55 runs, his highest run total.

Obviously, Leonard was very good. He is, unquestionably, a Hall of Famer. He is generally compared to Lou Gehrig.  I don’t think he was that good, but he was very close.

Leonard's burial site in North Carolina

Leonard’s burial site in North Carolina

The Grays

February 5, 2014
front of the Homestead Grays uniform

front of the Homestead Grays uniform

Negro League Baseball had a lot of teams. Many were very good, others not so good. Some were famous, others played in obscurity. Three teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, and the Monarchs (alphabetically) were the most well-known. I’ve done a post on the Crawfords and the Monarchs. It’s time to look at the Grays.

Homestead, Pennsylvania is a part of the greater Pittsburgh area. In the period just after the turn of the 20th Century, it was still outside the direct orbit of Pittsburgh. It had a thriving black community and a steel mill that was its major source of jobs. As with most steel mills, this one had a semi-pro baseball team called the Blue Ribbons. Formed in 1909, initially it  played against other industrial teams.

By 1912 the team known as the Homestead Grays (after the color of their uniforms). They’d picked up a new star in Cumberland (Cum) Posey, who quickly became manager and team secretary. He made the team into a fully professional team and moved it away from the local industrial leagues. In 1920 Posey and local businessman Charlie Walker bought the Grays. That same year they made an agreement with the Pirates that allowed the Grays to use Forbes Field, the Pirates’ home field, for games when the Pirates were out-of-town. Having a Major League facility available for games helped make the Grays profitable. Between 1919 and 1928 the Grays were enormously successful as an independent barnstorming team. They stayed away from the newly formed Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League because they found it more profitable to play independent ball. By the late 1920s they were making money and playing 200 or so games a season. In 1926 they were credited with a record of 140-13 with 43 consecutive wins. Many of those games were against quality opponents, but many were also against local semi-pro teams.

Then the Great Depression hit and profits began drying up. Posey, now running the team alone, decided the Grays needed a league to insure financial stability. He helped form the American Negro League (not to be confused with the Negro American League of the 1940s). It lasted one year and folded. The Grays managed to hang on and by 1931 were fielding what was chosen by a panel of experts the finest of all Negro League teams. The roster included such Hall of Fame names as Oscar Charleston, Bill Foster, and Josh Gibson. In 1932, the Grays joined the new East-West League, but it folded midway through the season.

Homestead began losing money and was unable to meet the lavish salary offers of the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords. Many of the Grays jumped ship, most to the Crawfords, and by 1934, in order to keep the team afloat, Posey was forced to bring in a new partner. One of the wealthiest men in Homestead was Rufus Jackson, the leader of the local numbers racket. Posey made Jackson team President, while he (Posey) continued to run the team. In many circles in Pittsburgh, Jackson was seen as nothing short of a gangster, which hurt the reputation of the team. Ruined reputation or not, the team now had money and again became competitive in black baseball. And of course it still had Forbes Field.

In 1934, the Grays joined the newly established Negro National League (not to be confused with Rube Foster’s Negro National League of the 1920s). In 1935 Vic Harris replaced Posey as manager, although Posey remained team secretary (more or less equivalent to the modern general manager job). The team was an instant success, being competitive for the entire period of the NNL’s existence. In 1939 they won the NNL pennant. They were to repeat as league champions every year through 1945, then won another pennant in 1948.

The 1940s saw several major changes involving the Grays. In 1940 they made an agreement with the Washington Senators to use Griffith Stadium when the Senators were out-of-town, thus moving the team’s home field to DC (although they continued to play a few games in Pittsburgh off and on during the decade). Despite the move, they retained the Homestead name. In 1942, the participated in the revived Negro World Series (there had been games in the 1920s but none in the 1930s). They lost the first one to the Kansas City Monarchs, but won both the 1943 and 1944 Series before dropping the 1945 Series to the Cleveland Buckeyes. In 1948 they won the final Negro World Series defeating Willie Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons.

In 1946, Posey died. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. Posey’s wife and Jackson now jointly owned the team. They tried to keep it going, winning, as mentioned above, the last NNL pennant in 1948. With the NNL gone after 1948, the Grays hung on into 1950, when devoid of stars, lacking money, and short of an audience they folded.

We can argue back and forth for a long time about which team was the greatest or the most famous or the most important Negro League team. You can pick your own candidate for each category. But the odds are pretty good that in each case, you’ll have the Homestead Grays on your short list.

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.

Rating Catchers

February 21, 2012

The "Tools of Ignorance"

With the sad and untimely death of Gary Carter, there’s been a lot of chatter about his place in the pantheon of Major League catchers, so i’m taking a short semi-break (you’ll see why “semi” in a few paragraphs) from my look at black baseball to make a few comments. I’m certainly not going to argue with those that place Carter in the top ten of catchers, because I agree with them. But I noticed a problem (actually problems) developing when I started to put together my own list of the ten greatest catchers.

The first problem of course is fairly self-evident. It’s the question of equipment. Take a look at the rudimentary equipment worn by guys like Buck Ewing way back. Basically, it’s an oversized work glove with some extra padding and a lot of prayer. Take a look at the equipment today. Which would you rather have if you were going to try to catch a Roy Halliday fastball? And that makes a world of difference in evaluating catchers. John Sayles when he did the movie “Eight Men Out” took great pains to be authentic. Take a look at the equipment Ray Schalk wears. Now Schalk was considered a tremendous catcher (without reference to his hitting) in the era. So was Johnny Kling a dozen years earlier. Give them a chance to use modern equipment and they might name their first-born after you. Give someone like Gary Carter a chance to use the old equipment and my guess is that after calling you things you didn’t know you could be called, he’d figure out how to make the best use of what he has available and still be a good catcher.

I remember listening to an interview with Roy Campanella way back in the 1950s. He didn’t particularly like the big “pillow” mitt in use then. He complained that it kept his right hand in constant danger of injury (and it was ultimately a hand injury that curtailed his stats in the year or so before his accident). I’m not sure Johnny Bench was really the greatest fielding catcher ever, but the innovation of the hinged mitt to replace the “pillow” certainly gave him advantages that other catchers had never had before. Now the right hand could be tucked behind the body when the bases were empty (and I’m astounded at the number of catchers who still don’t do that). Now it was possible to squeeze a pop foul rather than two-hand it. It helped Bench, along with his natural ability, to revolutionize the game.

And, of course, none of this has anything to do with hitting a baseball. Guys who are good catchers and hit well tend to go to the Hall of Fame. I might argue that the two best catchers I ever saw were Jim Sundberg and Bob Boone. Neither hit much, but were tremendous catchers. I don’t know many people who think either should be considered in the top 10 of a catching list. So we come again to a problem we see a lot. I mentioned it in a much earlier post on shortstops. It’s the question of how much reliance is to be put on fielding in establishing a player’s greatness. If the guy plays left field (Hello, Ted Williams and Manny Ramirez) no one cares if he’s a good, or even overly acceptable, fielder, when establishing his credentials for greatness. With catcher you can’t do that. It puts a burden on catchers (and shortstops also) that a lot of outfielders don’t have to carry. It’s not exactly fair, but it’s the nature of how the game is played. If I could hit, you could get away with me in left field. If I could hit, you could never use me behind the plate.

Finally, there’s the obvious question of segregation (see what I mean about “semi”?). Most lists of Negro League catchers put Josh Gibson, Louis Santop, Biz Mackey, and Campanella at the top of the charts at the position. We have some idea of the quality of Campanella (although he spent a lot of time in the Negro Leagues). The others never got to play in the white Major Leagues (Santop was dead by 1947). As usual for Negro League players, you’re stuck with anecdotes, not full statistical evidence, in trying to determine the quality of a player. So we make judgement calls (“Do I see a ’10’ from the Bulgarian judge?”) and hope we get it right. Considering that I’m certain that Campanella is a top 10 all-time catcher, I am confident in adding Gibson to a list of the best catcher, but I have no idea how you rate either Santop or Mackey. Maybe they’re in, maybe they’re out.

So having  just put all those caveats out there for you to read, here’s my list of the 10 best catchers ever in alphabetical order: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Carlton Fisk, Josh Gibson, Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez. With suitable apologies to Gabby Hartnett and to Joe Mauer, both of which might slip into the list. I think it’s the best list I can put together at this time. Notice that it’s full of modern guys (seven are post 1945). I think that the equipment has a lot to do with that.

Big Bertha

February 9, 2012

Louis Santop around 1920

The first in a long line of Negro League sluggers who redefined the role of power in the Negro Leagues was Louis Santop. He was born Louis Santop Loftin in Tyler, Texas in 1890. He began his professional career in 1909 in Texas, moved up through Oklahoma, and arrived on the East Coast in 1910. He was big, powerful, and a catcher. There is no question of his hitting prowess or of his power. Everyone agrees he hit well and the ball went a long way when he connected.  There does seem to be, however, some question about his abilities as a catcher. Some sources imply he was a hitter who happened to play behind the plate. Other sources indicate he was a great catcher with soft hands, quick feet (which didn’t age well), and a good ability to call a game. Whichever is correct, there is universal agreement that he was, as much because of his size as anything else, excellent at blocking the plate even in an era with minimal catcher’s gear.

Bertha Krupp von Bohlen

He spent the 19-teens floating among the better black teams of New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Chicago. He was big and powerful and even for “Dead Ball” baseball prolific at home runs and especially gap-power doubles. He picked up the nickname “Big Bertha” during World War I. The German .420 cannon was nicknamed for the Krupp heiress Bertha (a fairly large woman) and packed quite a punch in action. That seemed, to fans and fellow players, to describe Santop also. In the period just before World War I, Santop played with the New York Lincoln Giants. He’s credited with batting  averages of .470, 422, .429, and .455 between the years 1911 and 1914. As usual with Negro League statistics, don’t hang your hat on those numbers. Whether they are exaggerated or indicate lousy pitching, or whatever, they do indicate that Santop could hit well.

A .420 Morser (“Big Bertha”)

In 1917 he found something like a permanent home. Excepting a stint in the military during and just after World War I, Santop played the rest of his career with the Hilldale Daisies of Philadelphia. Hilldale was a dairy company that fielded a youth team. By 1916, they turned professional and barnstormed throughout the East with an occasional foray into the Midwest. In 1923 the Eastern Colored League was formed with Hilldale as a charter member. They won pennants in 1923, ’24, and ’25. Santop was the starting catcher in 1923 but was aging. He began splitting playing time with Biz Mackey (a fellow Hall of Fame inductee) and by late in 1924 was in something like a platoon situation with Mackey. In the 1924 Negro League World Series Santop, playing for Mackey, made a significant error that helped lead to the Daisies losing the World Series to Kansas City. Sources all agree that Santop never recovered from the error and the public tongue-lashing his manager gave him after the game. He lingered into 1926 when he retired.

Out of the Negro Leagues, he played semipro ball for five years then did some broadcast work for a Philadelphia radio station (WELK). He left that job to tend bar. He died in Philadelphia in 1942 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006.

As with any Negro League player the statistical evidence for his career is slim. Baseball Reference’s Bullpen gives some stats for the Eastern Colored League years (1923-26) and some for the period 1920-22 when the Daisies were associate members of the Negro National League (that means they played meaningful games against quality competition, but those games didn’t count for championship purposes for Hilldale). Be aware that the numbers are both incomplete and reflect Santop’s numbers in the latter stages of his career (in other words, there is no string of hitting .400 four years in a row).

Over seven years, Santop appeared in 190 documented games hitting .324 with a slugging percentage of .461. No OBP is given so no OPS or OPS+ can be figured with preciseness. I did do a quick hits plus walks divided by at bats and came up with .396 (how many catcher’s interference and hit batsmen could there be?). That would give an OPS of .857 (and no park info for OPS+). He had 189 hits, 29 doubles, 13 home runs, and scored an even 100 runs. He had  87 RBIs, 13 stolen bases, and 42 walks (no strikeout totals available). The stats are also broken down for a 162 game schedule giving 85 runs, 161 hits, 25 doubles, 11 home runs, and 74 RBIs over a 162 game season. Not bad for an old man in the 1920s.

Which brings me to the usual question about Negro League players, “How good was he?” And as usual the answer is, “Got me.” The information is spotty but all indications are that Santop was a first-rate player who would have done well in the white Major Leagues. Would he have been spectacular? I don’t know. In looking for info on Santop I ran across a number of lists of Negro League players trying to rank them by position (Bill James has one in his book if you want to look at a representative example.). There’s something like complete agreement that Santop is second on the catching list behind Josh Gibson (and that Mackey is third). Maybe it’s enough to say that if you’re second behind Gibson, you’re awfully good. Maybe that’s all we can finally say about Santop.