Posts Tagged ‘Kansas City Monarchs’

El Diamante Negro

February 23, 2017
Jose Mendez

Jose Mendez

Recently there’s been a real rash of Caribbean players making their mark in the Major Leagues. With the political troubles the US and Cuba have been through in the last 50 years, few Cubans have made their mark. Back 75 years ago if you were a “white” Cuban you could make your mark in the Majors. If you were a “black” Cuban you couldn’t. Dolf Luque, a pretty fair pitcher managed to pitch in a World Series. For El Diamante Negro (the Black Diamond) there was no chance. So Jose Mendez made his mark in the Negro Leagues.

Mendez was born in Cardenas, Cuba (about 100 miles from Havana) in 1887. By 1907 he was a pitcher for the Almendares team. Seamheads shows him 8-0 in 13 games as his team won the Cuban League pennant. He remained in Cuba through 1916 pitching winter ball there while moving to the US to pitch during the summers. Between 1909 and 1911 he pitched for the Cuban Stars going 15-2 in documented games with an ERA under 1.50.

By 1913 he’d found the team with which he was destined to make his greatest mark. The All Nations was a barnstorming team that traveled around the upper Midwest playing pretty much all comers. It had initially been one of the few integrated teams in the country, but as the long arm of Jim Crow tightened on the US it became more and more a black team. By 1913 it was completely segregated. Well, not completely. The owner, Hall of Famer J.L. Wilkinson, was white. He’d founded the All Nations to show that integrated baseball was possible. He also had contacts in the Major League community, particularly a minor outfielder named Casey Stengel. Guys like Stengel led white barnstorming teams across the US and frequently played black teams. Wilkinson’s contacts with teams like Stengel’s gave him an insight into the best black teams and best black players available. One of those was Mendez, and the All Nations picked him up.

He had a decent year with Wilkinson’s club but developed arm trouble in 1914. He moved to shortstop and continued playing. By 1919 his arm was well and he returned to the mound. The formation of the Negro National League in 1920 gave him a new place to play and he signed with Wilkinson’s team, now renamed the Kansas City Monarchs.

Along with the American Giants, the Monarchs were one of the dominant teams of the NNL. With Mendez and “Bullet Joe” Rogan pitching, Newt Allen and Dobie Moore on the infield Oscar (“Heavy”) Johnson patrolling the outfield they won pennants in 1923, 1924, and 1925. In the latter two years, the team played in the first two Colored World Series (both against Hilldale). With Mendez picking up two wins, including the clincher, they won the first of the two in 1924, dropping the ’25 struggle. Mid-1923 saw Mendez take over the managerial reins for the team. He held the job through the final pennant year of 1925.

Mendez retired after the 1926 season and died in Cuba in 1928 of bronchopneumonia. He still holds the Cuban League record for winning percentage among pitchers. In 2006 he was elected to the Hall of Fame. The Cuban Hall of Fame called him in 1939.

As with other Negro League players of the era, his statistics are all over the place. Baseball Reference.com shows him with 27 wins and 13 loses, all with the Monarchs. Seamheads gives him a 135-58 record over a career from 1907 through 1925. The BR.com ERA is 3.52, while Seamheads has it at 2.16. Either set of numbers shows Mendez as a superior pitcher who was a star in both Cuba and the US Negro Leagues.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Monarchs vs the Daisies

February 21, 2017
ticket to the 1925 Colored World Series

ticket to the 1925 Colored World Series

Back in the 1920s there were two significant Negro Leagues: the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League. As a rule the NNL represented Midwestern teams and the ECL covered the East Coast. They were, like the National League and the American League, enemies early in their existence. Eventually intelligence emerged and in 1924 the got together to play the first ever Colored World Series (official title although sometimes called the Negro World Series). The NNL Kansas City Monarchs won it by knocking off the Hilldale Daisies (Daisies was an unofficial nickname). In 1925 it was decided to hold a second postseason series. The same two teams won their league titles so a rematch was in order.

The defending champion Monarchs fielded a team consisting of Lemuel Hawkins, Newt Allen, Dobie Moore, and Newt Joseph in the infield with Dink Mothell, Wade Johnston, Hurley McNair in the outfield, and Frank Duncan as the catcher. The pitching staff consisted of Hall of Famer Jose Mendez, who also managed the team, fellow Hall of Famer “Bullet Joe” Rogan, William Bell, Nelson Dean, and Bill Drake. Rogan was unavailable for the Series. His son had accidentally stabbed him with a needle in his knee and he had to sit out the Series (and you thought freak accidents were new, did you?).

Hilldale responded with an infield of George “Tank”  Carr, Frank Warfield (who also managed the team), Jake Stephens, and Hall of Famer Judy Johnson. The outfield was Clint Thomas, Otto Briggs, and George Johnson. Hall of Fame catcher Biz Mackey did most of the back stopping, but fellow Hall of Fame catcher Louis Santop (in his final season) was available off the bench. The staff centered around Nip Winters, Reuben Currie, and Phil Cockrill, all of which were healthy enough to pitch (apparently none of them let their kids near needles).

The Series was a best of nine. Unlike many Negro League World Series’ all the games would be played in the home parks of the teams. Frequently these series turned into something like a barnstorming session with the games being played in a number of cities (but that was also more common in the 1940s series than in the 1920s). Game one was 1 October 1925 in Kansas City.

It was a pitching duel between Drake and Currie. Both teams scored one run in regulation and another in the 11th inning. In the 13th, George Johnson was hit by a Drake pitch, then Warfield singled. A Judy Johnson triple put the Daisies ahead with Johnson later scoring to make the final 5-2.

Game two saw a reversal of the score as the Monarchs won 5-3 with a three run rally in the bottom of the eighth inning, Dean getting the win and Cockrill taking the loss. But game three then proceeded to go extra innings for the second time in three games. With the score tied 1-1 in the top of the 10th, Mendez relieved Bell. Judy Johnson got to him with a single followed by a Washington double to give Hilldale the win and a 2 games to 1 lead.

Game four was the final game in Kansas City. The final score made it look like a blowout, but the game was close, Hilldale leading 3-2, until the ninth. The Daisies put up four runs to take a commanding lead. KC got one back, but Daisies ace Winters got out of it to win the game 7-3 and send the Series to Philadelphia with Hilldale up three games to one.

With games in Baker Bowl, the Colored World Series resumed on 8 October (the ticket pictured above is for this game). In the fourth inning Tank Carr hit a home run, the first of the Series, off Bell to put Hilldale ahead 1-0. In the same inning Mackey doubled and came home on a misplay (type unspecified in the source). Now up 2-0, Hilldale coasted to a win 2-1 with Currie pitching a complete game and giving the Daisies a 4-1 lead in game.

Game six was 10 October, also in Philly. Mackey went three of five with a homer and Hilldale wrapped up the Series five games to one with Cockrill getting his first win. It was a reversal of the 1924 results and gave Hilldale its first ever championship. It turned out to be their only one.

1925 Hilldale Club

1925 Hilldale Club

Before getting on with a Series wrap up, a note about the picture above. You’ll note the picture refers to the team as the Hilldale “Giants” and I’ve used “Daisies” throughout this post. As noted above “Daisies” was an unofficial team nickname. By the time the team folded during the Great Depression, it had become the most common nickname associated with the team. Because that’s true, I’ve used it throughout.

Although specific inning by inning information on the 1925 Series is scant, the guys at Seamheads have, again, provided us with some solid research to indicate how the individual players did during the Series. If you’re interested in the Negro Leagues, it’s a great place to find information and I recommend it highly.

For the Monarchs Dobie Moore led the team with a .364 average, almost 100 points above Hurley McNair’s .279, which was second on the team. Moore’s four RBIs doubled anyone else on the team, while the two Newts, Allen and Joseph, led Kansas City with three runs scored each. For the staff, Dean picked up the only win and his 1.54 ERA was second to Bell’s 1.15. Drake took two losses.

Mackey, Carr, and outfielder Otto Briggs were the hitting stars for Hilldale. Both Mackey and Carr hit a single home run and Briggs hit .404 for the Series. Briggs’ 12 hits led both teams. Mackey was, over the course of the six games, the only player to hit for the cycle (Carr had no triple). Carr and manager Frank Warfield led the team in RBIs with Carr getting six to Warfield’s five. Curry picked up two wins from the mound with Cockrill, Winters, and Red Ryan getting the other three. Cockrill had the only loss. Both he and Curry racked up 10 strikeouts while Winters and Lee had eight each. Curry’s 1.29 ERA led the team.

I was unable to find the winning and losing shares for the Series.

 

 

The Sad Story of Dobie Moore

February 23, 2016
Dobie Moore with Kansas City

Dobie Moore with Kansas City

Baseball is full of those kinds of stories that soar with victory and with perseverance in the face of adversity. Unfortunately there are also stories of foolishness and of just plain bad luck. Then there are tragic stories. The tale of Dobie Moore falls somewhere in the latter set.

Walter Moore was born in Georgia. That’s about all we know for sure about it. Dates of his birth range from 1893 to 1897 with a consensus building around 1896. The location is also obscure, although Atlanta seems to be the best guess. He was illiterate but a good ball player. In 1916 he joined the 25th Infantry Wreckers in Hawaii, the premier black military service team of the era. They were good, winning the island championship several times. By the end of World War I, the Wreckers were in Arizona and played a series of games against a barnstorming team of big leaguers that was led by Casey Stengel. Impressed with the Wreckers, Stengel got in touch with J.L. Wilkinson, owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, and touted several of the Wreckers, including Moore, for Wilkinson’s team.

In 1920 Moore, by now called Dobie (and I’ve been utterly unable to find the origin of the nickname), left the US Army and became the primary shortstop for the Monarchs, one of the founding teams of the Negro National League. He was good from the beginning. Between 1920 and 1925 he never hit below .308. All of Moore’s statistics are from BBREF’s BR Bullpen which seems to get its stats from the information compiled in Shades of Glory, the book written to accompany the 2006 Hall of Fame election of Negro Leaguers.

In 1924, the first Negro World Series was held. The Monarchs represented the Negro National League against Hilldale of the Eastern Colored League. Moore hit .300 with 12 hits in 40 at bats (these stats from SABR) and Kansas City won the Series. They repeated as NNL winners in 1925 but lost a rematch with Hilldale. Moore hit .364 with eight hits, including a double and a triple.

In 1926 he began the season with Kansas City, hitting over .400 in 15 games. Then tragedy struck. There are conflicting stories about exactly what happened, but Moore was shot in the leg by a woman. There is no consensus as to her relationship with Moore. Some say she was his girlfriend, others a hooker, some state she was both. Some indicate he was shot in the leg, then tried to jump off a balcony (to escape another shot) and did further damage to his wounded leg. Whatever happened exactly, he suffered multiple fractures (one source says six) in his leg. It healed poorly and his Negro League career was over. He played a little semi-pro ball, but could never get back to the highest level.

He seems to have disappeared at that point. Some sources indicate he died as early as 1943 in Detroit, but I found a reference to him being held up in an armed robbery in 1948. After that there is no firm date for his death (although the latest date I saw speculated was in the 1960s).

So how good was Dobie Moore? To begin to answer that we have to recognize he was done by at most age 33 (and probably closer to age 30) so he has a shortened career. BBREF stats are available for 1920-1926. They show him with career numbers of a .348 average, .520 slugging percentage, 363 runs, 657 hits, 35 home runs, 308 RBIs, 56 stolen bases, and 114 walks in 470 documented games. The chart gives stats averaged for a 162 game season that gives him 125 runs, 226 hits, 41 doubles, 18 triples, 12 home runs, 106 RBIs, 19 stolen bases, and 39 walks a season. The stats are, as usual, incomplete so it is impossible to judge the totality of his career.

Moore was one of the players included in the 2006 Hall of Fame special election list. He failed to receive enough votes for enshrinement in Cooperstown. His career, along with other Negro Leaguers, is ultimately tragic because of the prevailing segregation of the era, but for Moore there is the further tragedy of losing his career to a shooting.

 

The Wreckers

May 14, 2015
The 1916 25th Infantry Wreckers

The 1916 25th Infantry Wreckers

There are a lot of reasons people join the Army. Some are drafted, some patriotic. Some enjoy the lifestyle, some understand they need the self-discipline the military provides. Some are just looking for an assured three hots and a cot. If you could play baseball, you could also practice your craft for the unit team. Between 1914 and 1920 one of the best unit teams ever played for the US Army. They were the segregated 25th Infantry Wreckers.

In 1914 the US Army was anticipating expansion in case of American entry into World War I. The 25th Infantry was a segregated unit stationed in Hawaii (Schofield Barracks). It had been around for a while and used the prospects of its baseball team as a recruiting tool. That worked well. By the late 19-teens they’d established a first-rate team that was dominate on the islands and could also dominate barnstorming teams and Minor League outfits.

In 1914 they began play in the Post League, a military league for the various Hawaiian armed forces bases. There were four teams, one Asian, one Portuguese, one Chinese, and the Wreckers. The 25th finished first easily. Between 1914 and 1918 they finished first by more than 10 games every year. They also dominated Pacific Coast League teams who barnstormed through the islands. In 1918 the 25th was transferred to Arizona (Camp Little) where they continued their winning ways, this time dominating Southwest teams.

The team got its big chance in 1919 when later Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel led a team of barnstorming Major Leaguers through the West. They took on the Wreckers and Stengel was impressed (there seems to be no exact records of the games played between the two teams, but apparently the Wreckers won at least some). Stengel approached J.L. Wilkinson the white owner of the All Nations team, a segregated ball team playing in the Midwest, with a recommendation he look at several of the players on the Wreckers. Wilkinson, who was about to make his All Nations into the kernel of the Kansas City Monarchs and join the Negro National League did so. He was impressed enough to sign six Wreckers to contracts with the Monarchs upon their discharge. A number of other Negro League teams followed suit and by 1921 16 Wreckers were now playing in the Negro Leagues. It finished the Wreckers as a force to be reckoned with in military and amateur baseball.

Who, you ask, were these guys? The list is a litany of great players in the early Negro Leagues. Bullet Joe Rogan and Andy Cooper are in the Hall of Fame. A case can be made that Heavy Johnson and Dobie Moore should be. Other notable Negro Leaguers who played for the Wreckers include Bob Fagan, Hurley McNair, Moses Herring, William Johnson, Lemuel Hawkins, and Dayton Marcus. Rogan, McNair, Fagan, Moore, and Hawkins became stalwarts on the Monarchs teams that dominated the earliest years of the Negro National League.

It was a formidable roster and a formidable team. Arguably, it is the greatest amateur team ever assembled. I’ve been searching for info on them for a long time now and finally found it. I normally wait for things like this for Black History month in February, but I wanted to get it to you as soon as I could.

 

Turkey Stearnes

February 23, 2015
Turkey Stearnes

Turkey Stearnes

Although everyone seems to think of Josh Gibson as the ultimate Negro League power hitter, he doesn’t hold the home run title. A few sources cite Mule Suttles as the home run champion. Most, however, give the honor to Turkey Stearnes.

Norman Thomas Stearnes was born in 1901 in Nashville, Tennessee. He was something of a baseball prodigy becoming a local star in the black neighborhoods of Nashville. His running style was considered unorthodox and the nickname “Turkey” was added to him (much like Ron Cey’s running  style got him the nickname “Penguin.”). By 1920 he was playing the outfield for the Nashville Giants, a segregated team that was not considered a top-tier black team.

In 1921 he moved to Montgomery, Alabama to play for the Gray Sox and then in 1922 he was with the Memphis Red Sox. Neither was considered a major player in black baseball (although Memphis would eventually become one). In 1923, Stearnes moved north to play for the Detroit Stars, one of the teams in Rube Foster’s Negro National League. He was an instant star, clubbing 17 documented home runs in 69 games. For the rest of the 1920s he led the Stars in home runs and is credited with leading the NNL in at least 1925, 1926, 1927, and 1929.

By 1930, the Stars were having trouble meeting payroll and Stearnes left them after 30 or so games for the Lincoln Giants, a team which folded following the season. Back with Detroit in 1931, he again encountered a team with payroll problems. He bailed out toward the end of the season, playing a few games with the Kansas City Monarchs. The 1932 season saw him with the Chicago American Giants, where he stayed through 1935. His .441 batting average over 37 games is the documented NNL (new version) high for 1935, giving him his only documented batting title.

In 1936 he moved on to the Philadelphia Stars (they were paying better than the American Giants), didn’t do as well as before (he was 35). He went back to Chicago (now a member of the Negro American League) to begin 1937. The NAL in 1937 used a split season format and had a postseason playoff between the top teams of each half. Stearnes’ American Giants won the second half, but then lost the playoff to Kansas City.

The year 1938 saw him leave the American Giants during the season and hook up with the Monarchs. He remained through 1940, helping Kansas City to NAL pennants in 1939 and 1940. He was 39 in 1940 and fading. He returned to Detroit and worked in the rolling mills of the area until he retired in 1964. He died in Detroit in 1979. In 2000, he was chosen for the Hall of Fame.

How good was he? As usual with Negro League players it’s impossible to answer that question. His statistics are incomplete and the sources disagree. The Negro League Museum credits him with 183 home runs, seven home run titles, and a batting average of .359. The Baseball Reference.com bullpen site gives him 185 home runs and an average of .345. Using the latter numbers (which originate in the research done for the Hall of Fame 2006 election of Negro League players) he has 1209 hits, 712 runs scored, and 387 walks in 914 documented games. He is given credit for 203 doubles, 104 triples, 183 home runs, 718 RBIs, and 129 stolen bases. His batting average is .345 with a slugging percentage of .619. No OBP is given but if you take the number of walks and at bats and the number of hits and walks (How many hit batsman and catcher interference can there be?) you can get an approximate OBP of .419. That provides an approximate OPS of .1.038. With out other info OPS+ isn’t possible to determine. The Baseball Reference.com bullpen also gives a 162 game average for his career. For a 162 game season he would average 214 hits, 126 runs, 36 doubles, 18 triples, 32 home runs, 127 RBIs, 23 stolen bases, and 69 walks (no strikeout numbers are available). Not a bad set of numbers, and as stressed earlier, very incomplete.

Turkey Stearnes is considered one of the greatest power hitters of the Negro Leagues. His average is also excellent and his RBI numbers are very good. The numbers are admittedly incomplete, but what we have indicate that he was a very good player and a deserving Hall of Famer.

Stearnes grave. There is no marker. The "20" indicates the 20th grave in the line

Stearnes grave. There is no marker. The “20” indicates the 20th grave in the line

 

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 White Guy

February 7, 2012

It’s with a certain sadness that I write this. Adding another post will consign Mrs. Posada to the second page of this blog and that’s a shame. Well, I’ll manfully carry on anyway. With the return of February, it’s time for my month-long sojourn into black baseball. In honor of Black History Month, I want to look at some of the ins and outs of the Negro Leagues and other aspects of black baseball prior to about 1960. Having said all that, I’m going to start off with a white guy.

James Leslie Wilkinson (J. L. to most people) was born in 1878 in Iowa. He was something of a budding pitcher, hurt his arm, and decided to remain with the game by being a manager and owner. He started with a women’s team in 1909. There were allegations that some of the players were guys in drag (the “five o’clock shadow” was a dead give away), but the team did well. In 1912, he moved on to form the All Nation’s Team. It was one of the first barnstorming multi-racial teams. At various times there were white Europeans, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, and Africans on the team. They were good, usually winning their games with big scores. The stars were Jose Mendez, and John Donaldson. In 1915 Wilkinson moved the team to Kansas City, but still barnstormed around the country. Over time, the “All Nations” aspect was disappearing as the team became increasingly black in composition.

By this point Wilkinson had met Rube Foster. The two men got along and when Foster formed the Negro National League in 1920, he wanted Wilkinson to take over one of the teams, the only white owner in the new league. Wilkinson took the best players from his All-Nations team, added a group of players from other teams, including Joe Rogan from the 25th Infantry Wreckers, an all-black Army team in Hawaii (there’s a post waiting to be written, but the info is sketchy, so maybe next year). Rogan was recommended to Wilkinson by Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel. With the new team in place, Wilkinson named them the Kansas City Monarchs.

1922 NNL leadership

 
Above is a picture of the movers and shakers of the Negro National League in 1922. Wilkinson is seated on the left of the front row. Foster is third from the left on the same row. It’s a rare  and wonderful look at the men who made the Negro National League, the first of the famous Negro Leagues (there were other all-black leagues prior to 1920).
 
The Monarchs were good from the beginning. They won their first pennant in 1923,  repeating in 1924. With the creation of the Eastern Colored League, there were now two major Negro Leagues. In 1924 they got together for the first Negro League World Series. The Monarchs defeated the Hilldale Daisies (of Philadelphia) over a nine game series. The Monarchs repeated in 1925, but lost the rematch with the Hilldale five games to one. The Monarchs never again won the NNL pennant, but were contenders most years. As an owner, Wilkinson pioneered the use of black umpires (the NNL used white umpires at the beginning) in the league and pushed for a unified umpiring system that would increase the professionalism of the umps.
 
With the failure of the NNL in 1931 and the loss of Foster to mental problems, Wilkinson led the Monarchs back to the barnstorming days. That lasted until 1937 when new Negro Leagues began to form. The Monarchs joined the new Negro American League, winning the first pennant. They lost in 1938, then came back to win consecutive pennants in 1939-1942. In 1942, the Negro League World Series was renewed between the NAL and a new version of the Negro National League. The Monarchs won the first Series in four straight games. They fell back in 1943 through 1945, winning again in 1946. This time they dropped the Series to the Newark Eagles in seven games. While the Monarchs weren’t winning, they managed to find a pretty good shortstop in 1945 named Jackie Robinson. It was his only year with the team or in the Negro Leagues.
 
Robinson’s signing by the Brooklyn Dodgers hurt the Negro Leagues badly, eventually leading to their collapse. Wilkinson saw the end coming and in 1948 sold the Monarchs. Already ailing and almost blind, Wilkinson retired. He lingered to 1964, dying in a Kansas City nursing home. When the Hall of Fame made their big push to add Negro League players and executives in 2006, Wilkinson was one of the people elected to the Hall. It was, in my opinion, overdue.

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.