Posts Tagged ‘Negro National League’

The Black Barons

February 8, 2016
Birmingham Black Barons logo

Birmingham Black Barons logo

Throughout most of the history of the Negro Leagues, those leagues were strongest outside the American South. Of course, with all the legal restrictions of Jim Crow that made sense. It was simply harder to create a successful team without running afoul of some rule, written or otherwise. There were exceptions. Memphis and Baltimore had successful teams, as did some other towns. But easily the most successful was the team from Birmingham, Alabama-the Black Barons.

The Birmingham Barons were a successful minor league franchise and in 1920, a new black team was formed from players in the local black industrial league using a play on the white team’s name. It rolled off the tongue with great alliteration and it was an instant success. They were part of the Negro Southern League through 1923. It was a black league formed by Rube Foster as something of a minor league that would draw the best black Southern players who could then be filtered into Foster’s Negro National League. The team played in Rickwood Park, a stadium that was rented to both black teams and to white teams (obviously not at the same time). By 1924 they were considered good enough to join the Negro National League itself. They lasted two years then slid back to the Southern League because the team was unable to keep its finances in order (a common theme among early Negro League teams, especially in the South).

They got back to the Negro National League in 1927. They brought with them a right-handed pitcher named LeRoy Paige who bore the nickname “Satchel.” In 1927 the NNL ran their season as two halves with the two winners facing each other in a post season series, the winner of  which went on to the Negro World Series against the winner of the Eastern Colored League. Behind Paige and slugger Roy Parnell the Barons won the second half, but lost the playoff to the American Giants. It was the highpoint of the 1920s for Birmingham. They stacked up losing seasons for the rest of the 1920s.

The NNL folded after the 1930 season and Birmingham moved back to the Southern League where they stayed through 1936. They moved back to the newly formed NNL in 1937, stayed through 1938, then, with both financial and management problems they ended up back in the Southern League. In 1940 they joined the new Negro American League.

It led to their greatest period of success. Under manager Wingfield Welch they won NAL pennants in 1943 and 1944. Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, Lester Lockett, and Jake Spearman led the team into the ’43 Negro World Series, which they lost to the Homestead Grays. The addition of Dan Bankhead and “Double Duty” Radcliffe,  helped them to another pennant in 1944. Again they lost to Homestead in the Negro World Series. They had one last great year in 1948 when, with Davis now managing, they took a final NAL pennant. This time they had Joe Bankhead, Lyman Bostock, and a rookie outfielder named Willie Mays (yes, THAT Willie Mays). Again they couldn’t get past Homestead..

By 1948 the Negro Leagues were faltering. It was the last Negro World Series between the NNL and the NAL. The NNL folded, but the Black Barons hung on in the NAL. They’d lost much of their talent to the white minor (or major) leagues but hung on in Birmingham through the 1950s. In 1953 they picked up a pitcher named Charley Pride (later a significant country music singer). Lacking much money, the team gave the Louisville Clippers a team bus for Pride. In 1959, now named the Giants, they won the championship of what remained of the Negro League (five teams). The next year, 1960 was the end for the NAL. The team hung on two more years by barnstorming, but finally folded in 1963.

Usually, when I hear about or read about Negro League teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, the Monarchs, even the Eagles or Elite Giants names are mentioned. The Black Barons are seldom mentioned. That’s unfortunate. The Birmingham Black Barons were a very good team, putting five former players (Satchel Paige, Mule Suttles, Willie Mays, Bill Foster, and Willie Wells) into the Hall of Fame. They won three pennants in the NAL and a second half championship in the first version of the NNL. Their attendance was generally good and the caliber of play was equally good. They deserve a mention now and then.

 

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The Schedule Man

August 20, 2015
Nat Strong

Nat Strong

From its beginnings, Negro League baseball was always dependent on at least toleration from the majority white society around it. The teams needed white permission to use the best parks, they needed an OK from the local political leadership to obtain the requisite paperwork to hold a game. Additionally in New York they needed Nat Strong.

Born in 1874, Nathaniel “Nat” Strong, in the first decade of the 20th Century, became the primary booking agent for black teams wanting to play games in New York City. He attended City College in New York, moved into the Sporting Goods business (he worked for Spaulding), and gained control of the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the premier black professional team in Brooklyn. He moved in 1906, along with other entrepreneurs, to form the National Association of Colored Baseball Clubs. As secretary of the Association, he was in charge of scheduling games for the Association and for determining which teams would be allowed to play games against Association members. That gave him a lot of clout in black baseball and he used it to set himself up as the man in charge of scheduling games for black teams wanting to play in the New York market. He was apparently pretty good at it because he quickly became the “go to” guy for scheduling in the Greater New York area. To some, Strong became known as “The Schedule Man.” He made a lot of money off the scheduling (he charged 10% of the team gate cut on top of a normal scheduling fee) and was able to purchase interest in the New York Black Yankees. That, with ownership of the Brooklyn club plus ownership of some of the best white semi-pro teams like the Bushwicks, gave him almost total control over scheduling Negro League games in New York. Not only could he control the scheduling of games between two black teams, he could now control scheduling of games that pitted a black team against a white team in the New York area. His power was such that when the Lincoln Giants tried to schedule games without going through him, he was able to have them thrown out of the Association.

Needless to say, he didn’t have a lot of friends in the Negro Leagues leadership. Rube Foster hated having to go through Strong to schedule games in New York. Part of Foster’s reasoning for forming the Negro National League was to get around Strong’s stranglehold on New York games (but I should emphasize it wasn’t the major factor in Foster’s decision to form the NNL). Foster’s determination to have his NNL schedule its own games, gave rise to a sort of compromise between the two men. Foster’s NNL was based mostly in the Upper Midwest, while Strong’s base of power was in the East. Although no formal agreement was made (at least not one I can find), the two men each controlled their scheduling in their part of the country without significant interference from the other. It cut into Strong’s power, but certainly didn’t curtail it.

Strong maintained a major position in the Negro League world until his death in 1935. His position was so strong that the balls used by teams he scheduled were stamped “Made Especially for Nat C. Strong.” That’s clout, people.

It’s tough to evaluate Strong. He’s one of the most important people in early black baseball, but he wasn’t well liked by the black baseball community. He made money, lots of it. That seems to have been his major motivation, not the improvement of the lot of black baseball players or owners. In short, he was a mercenary in many ways. He did make black baseball available to people who might not have otherwise seen the teams play, but he got awfully rich doing it. The old political columnist Drew Pearson used to say “In this country all the right things get done for all the wrong reasons.” Nat Strong is a good example of that.

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 Bacharachs

February 19, 2015
Bacharach Giants Logo

Bacharach Giants Logo

If you ask most people to name a Negro League team, odds are you’ll get the Monarchs or the Grays or the Crawfords. A few might know the American Giants or the Eagles. One of the better teams that’s mostly unknown today was the Bacharach Giants.

Originally the Duval Giants of Jacksonville, Florida, the Giants’ owners Henry Tucker and Tom Jackson moved the team to Atlantic City in 1916. Atlantic City mayor Harry Bacharach (who is a character on television’s “Boardwalk Empire”)  was looking for ways to improve the city economy and Tucker and Jackson agreed to move the team. In honor of the mayor, the team was renamed the Bacharach Giants, a name it kept until its demise. As far as I can tell, Bacharach never owned any part of the team but was supportive of them. They made money initially, but by 1918 were in trouble as World War I took away fans and money.

In 1919 they relocated to New York becoming the New York Bacharach Giants. By then they were so well-known as “Bacharach Giants” that they retained the team nickname despite have left both New Jersey and Harry Bacharach. They did poorly in New York and by 1922 were back in Atlantic City (and the name stayed around despite Bacharach no longer being mayor). They became associated members of the Negro National League, meaning that they could play sanctioned games against the NNL teams, but were not eligible for the pennant. This worked well by allowing the Bacharach Giants to both play the premier teams of the era but to also barnstorm around the East Coast making money.

In 1923 the Eastern Colored League was formed with the Bacharach Giants as a charter member. They finished fourth in both 1923 and 1924. Finishing fourth again in 1925 led to major overhaul of the team. Manager John Henry Lloyd was traded and shortstop Dick Lundy took over the team. A line up featuring Oliver Marcell at third, Red Ferrell in the outfield, and pitchers Arthur “Rats” Henderson, and Red Grier led the Bacharachs to the ECL title in 1926.

After two successful Colored World Series (renamed Negro World Series in 1942) matchups, the NNL and ECL hosted a best of nine series in 1926. The Bacharachs faced the Chicago American Giants (Rube Foster’s old team). The Series last 11 games (two ties) and Grier, in game three, tossed the first no-hitter in postseason play, but the American Giants won game 11 by a run. It was Grier’s second no-hitter of the season (the other against the Elite Giants).

The Bacharach Giants repeated as ECL champs again in 1927 and again faced the American Giants in the postseason series. This time they lost in eight games, but again a Bacharach pitcher, this time Ferrell (who now pitched more than he played the outfield), tossed a no-hitter. In 1928 they were in second when the ECL folded due to financial difficulties.

In 1929 a number of Eastern clubs formed the American Negro League. It lasted one season and the Bacharachs again became a barnstorming independent team. By 1930 they were in deep trouble and there is debate about what happened next. One source says they folded, another that they were sold. Either way the team resurfaced in Philadelphia in 1931. Still called the Bacharach Giants they remained independent until 1934 when they joined the newly revived Negro National League. They stayed two seasons then returned to independent play. They hung on into 1942 when they finally disbanded.

Over the life of the team some truly great players wandered through the Bacharachs. Hall of Famer John Henry Lloyd played short and managed the team. Dick Lundy and Oliver Marcell spent most of the 1920s in Atlantic City (and both have solid cases to join the Hall of Fame).  “Cannonball” Dick Redding pitched for them before they joined the Eastern Colored League.

For a very short time the Bacharach’s were a top-notch Negro League team. They produced great players, but were never able to stand at the top of the Negro Leagues. They are, in short, a fairly typical Negro League team.

 

The First Negro League World Series

February 13, 2012

The concept of a championship game, or series of games, isn’t new. It goes back in baseball into the 1880s when the National League and American Association squared off in a series of games that were as much exhibition as serious. The modern World Series comes out of this same desire to see the best two teams face off one last time (or for a first time as the case may be). Black baseball had its own segregated versions of the same thing dating back to around 1910. But with the establishment of, first, the Negro National League, and then the Eastern Colored League in the early 1920s, something like a black version of the World Series could be contested. The first of those was 1924. Some baseball scholars maintain it was also the best of the lot.

Winners of the Negro National League, the Kansas City Monarchs featured decent hitting to go along with great pitching. Future Hall of Fame inductees Joe Rogan and Jose Mendez were on the mound. The infield included Nate Allen, who would still be around for the 1942 Negro League World Series, and Dobie Moore. Heavy Johnson, all 250 pounds of him, was in left field. Mendez did double duty as the manager and the team was owned by J.L. Wilkinson.

The Hilldale Daisies were winners of the new Eastern Colored League (formed in 1923). The owner was Ed Bolden with second baseman Frank Warfield managing. The team included Hall of Fame catchers Louis Santop and Biz Mackey, infielders Judy Johnson (also a Hall of Fame player) and Tank Carr, with Clint Thomas in left field. Nip Winters was their star pitcher. It was to be a best of nine series.

Opening game, 1924 Negro League World Series

Above is a photo of the opening ceremonies of the 1924 Negro League World Series. It’s a wonderful photo of some truly great players. The Monarchs are the team to the right of the photo. The fifth person from the left (fourth in Monarchs uniform) is Heavy Johnson, Rogan is beside him, Newt Allen next, and Mendez beside Allen. Of the men in the middle in the suits, Wilkinson is the man on the left, Bolden on the right. Rube Foster is to Bolden’s right and Alex Pompez is to Foster’s right. Next to Bolden is Louis Santop, the first of the Daisies. Winters is in uniform beside Santop. Carr is three to the left of Winters, and Judy Johnson second from Carr’s left. Biz Mackey is second from Johnson’s left Manager Warfield is the next to last man in uniform on the left side of the photo. You can click on the photo to get a bit better picture.

Games one through three were to be held in Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. However, game three was held on a Sunday. Because of Pennsylvania blue laws the game was played in Baltimore. Games four through six were to be in Kansas City, with the final three games played in Chicago, a neutral site and Rube Foster’s current home town (he was born in Texas but lived in Chicago).

 Game one was a 6-1 affair won by Kansas City. In the sixth inning, Warfield booted a ball allowing two runs to score. Three more errors by pitcher Phil Cockrell brought the damage to five runs. The Monarchs tacked on another run in the top of the ninth. Then with two out, Rogan gave up a pair of runs to reach the final score. Game two saw Hilldale even the series with an 11-0 explosion. Winters gave up four singles, none bunched, and the Daisies scored five runs in the first, and two each in the second and third innings  to blow the game open. Game three was a 6-6 tie. With the score tied going into the ninth, both teams put up one run, then both scored one in the twelfth. The Monarchs committed five errors, two leading to runs, Mackey was intentionally walked three times (wonder how often that happens?), and the game was called because of darkness after 13 innings. The next day the game was replayed with Hilldale winning 4-3. With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth, Kansas City pitcher Cliff Bell walked consecutive batters, then back-to-back errors brought in the winning run. 

Game four shifted to Kansas City. Hilldale went ahead in the series at 3-1 with a 5-2 win. The Monarchs got two runs in the first. Joe Rogan went into the top of the ninth ahead 2-1. With two on Judy Johnson slammed a three-run inside-the-park home run to put the Daisies ahead. Winters shut down 25 of the last 26 hitters he faced to dominate after the first inning. Game five saw Kansas City score four runs in the first, lose the lead in the third, retake the lead in the fourth, then see Hilldale tie it up again in the sixth. In the bottom of the eighth with one on, outfielder George Sweatt tripled in the winning run.  The final game in Kansas City went 12 innings. Rogan, playing second rather than pitching, had three singles, the last of which drove in the winning run. Winters pitched the entire 12 innings for Hilldale. 

Game seven (the eighth played because of the tie) moved to Chicago with the teams tied 3-3. It became one of the most famous of all Negro League games. For five innings the game was a scoreless pitchers duel with Rogan pitching against Rube Currie. Hilldale broke through for a single run in both the sixth and seventh innings.  The bottom of the ninth became famous. With one out and a run in, Rogan beat out a slow roller to short that Mackey, playing third because of an injury, failed to break on (Mackey had played a lot of short when Santop was behind the plate so it wasn’t like he’d never been out there before.). Moore singled off Judy Johnson’s glove (Johnson was at short), putting runners at the corner. Frank Duncan raised a foul pop which Santop proceeded to drop. Given new life, Duncan hit a single through Mackey’s legs that scored both Rogan and Moore giving the Monarchs a 3-2 win. After the game Manager Warfield publicly called out Santop blaming him for the loss (like Santop had put Rogan and Moore on base). Game eight was the next day, with Winters winning his third game for Hilldale as the Daisies evened the Series at 4 games apiece. Winters gave up two early runs, then Hilldale tied it in the fifth, went ahead in the top of the eighth, then saw the Monarchs tie it again in the bottom of the eighth. In the top of the ninth, the Daisies picked up two more runs, including a big hit by previous day’s goat, Santop. Winters shut down Kansas City in the bottom of the ninth to set up a decisive game nine (10 counting the tie). The final game was played Monday, October 20th. For seven and a half innings the pitchers, Jose Mendez and Scrip Lee, were close to unhittable. In the bottom of the eighth, Hilldale pitcher Lee tired and Kansas City pushed across five runs, Mendez scoring a key one, to take a 5-0 lead. Mendez shut out the Daisies in the ninth and Kansas City claimed the first Negro League World Series title. 

It was a heck of a series and deserves a few comments. 1.) Santop was made the goat of the Series because of his error. Of course the loss put Hilldale down one with two to play. Had they won the game they would have been up one with two to play. Who knows what would have happened in game eight if the Monarchs were down. Besides, it’s not like Santop cost the Daisies any of their other four losses. It could be argued that Warfield was the goat because he didn’t pull Lee when he tired in game nine. 2.) Because there was concern that the umpires in the Series might be biased, the leagues agreed to used four white umpires from the Minor Leagues during the Series. There were no complaints (beyond a standard “What? Are you blind?” kind of gripe) about the umpiring. 3.) The winner’s share worked out to $307.96 per player and the loser’s share was $193.22. I checked and the 1924 white World Series winning players (Washington) received $5,959.64 and the losers (New York) got $3, 820.29. 4.) Statistically, Winters was 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA and 21 strikeouts. Rogan was 2-1 with a 2.57 ERA and hit .325 for the Series. Mendez was 2-0 with an ERA of just 1.42. Among hitters, Judy Johnson managed .365 with a Series leading seven RBIs. There were 38 total errors over the 10 games. 

The NNL and ECL continued to play a season ending World Series through 1927. None of the others lived up to the hype or the play of the first. There was, however, a measure of justice, or at least revenge, in the 1925 Series. The same two teams squared off again. This time Hilldale beat the Monarchs five games to one. It was the only Series the ECL team won (In case you’re curious, the Chicago American Giants won the other two 1920s Series’ over the Bacharach Giants).

Negro Leagues World Series, Round II

February 10, 2010

After a 13 year hiatus, the Negro Leagues restarted a postseason series. The old Eastern Colored League was gone, replaced by the Negro American League. The Negro National League had been revived and by 1942 the two leagues agreed to work together, at least enough to play a World Series. Unlike the 1920’s series’ the new set would be four games out of seven for victory. The series’s ran from 1942 through 1948. The premier American League teams were the Kansas City Monarchs, the Birmingham Black Barons, and the Cleveland Buckeyes. In the National League, the New York Cubans and Newark Eagles each had good seasons, but the league was dominated by the Homestead Grays, who played in 5 of the 7 World Series’. Ironically both the Cubans and Eagles won their series’ while the Grays went 3-2. Below is a short summary of each series:

1942: Kansas City Monarchs defeat the Homestead Grays 4 games to none. Timely hitting by players like Buck O’Neill and Newt Allen, coupled with Hall of Fame pitching by Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith shut down the Grays power in a sweep. Grays players Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Sam Bankhead, Jud Wilson couldn’t get timely hits, while pitcher Ray Brown was vulnerable.

1943; The Grays win a seven game series against the Birmingham Black Barons 4 games to 3. The power hitting Grays, supplemented by an aging but still fast Cool Papa Bell squeak out a victory against a Barons team that featured Double Duty Radcliffe still playing after starring in the 1920s World Series.

1944: The Grays pound the Barons again, this time winning in five games.

1945: The Cleveland Buckeyes win their first pennant and stun the Grays in a four game sweep. Buckeyes stars Quincy Trouppe,  future National League Rookie of the Year Sam Jethroe, and Arch Ware proved you could beat the Grays without great power.

1946: The Newark Eagles dethrone the Grays to win the Negro National League title. With future Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Biz Mackey (yes, he was still around), and Leon Day, the Eagles take on the Kansas City Monarchs of Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Buck O’Neill, Chet Brewer, and Hank Thompson. The Eagles and Monarchs battle for the full seven games before Leon Day wins game seven making the Eagles champs. It was a unique series for two reasons. It was the only Word Series won by a team with a female owner, Effa Manley, and the last series before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

1947: The New York Cubans make the series for the only time in their history. Their Latin based roster includes Luis Tiant (father of the later American League pitcher), Minnie Minoso, Jose Fernandez, and pitcher Dave Barnhill. They face off against the Buckeyes who had won it all two years previously. Trouppe, Ware, and Jethroe were still around and were joined by pitcher Toothpick Sam Jones. The Cubans won 4 games to 1. The season had been rocked by the arrival of Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn and the departure of the first black players to the white leagues.

1948: The Grays returned to the series for the first time since 1945. Gibson was gone, but Leonard and Bankhaead were still around. They were joined by power hitting outfielder Luke Easter. They took on the Black Barons, also returning to the series, for the first time since 1944. Most of their old gang was gone, but they had a new outfielder named Willie Mays who looked promising. Despite Mays, the Barons lost 4 games to 1, thus giving the Grays the last Negro League World Series title.

After 1948 the Negro Leagues floundered. The National League folded, the American League hung on as nothing much more than a minor league. Many teams took to being independent and went back to barnstorming. The era of the great Negro League teams was over. So was their World Series.

The Crawfords

February 9, 2010

A lot of people have spent a lot of time writing books and articles   expounding on which team was the greatest ever. The 1927 Yankees frequently win. Recently there have been pushes for the Yankees of 1939 and of 1998. Might I suggest there is another contender; the 1930s Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro National League. They may not have been the greatest team ever, but they were close.

In 1931, Gus Greenlee purchased the Crawfords, named for a prominent black grill in Pittsburgh. He set out to make it the premier black ballclub in the United States. To do that he needed to do a couple of things. He managed to get a handful of other owners to join in reestablishing the Negro National League. This gave his team a place to play with a certain amount of guaranteed gates and a way to showcase his team in other locations outside western Pennsylvania. Of course, he also needed players. Between 1932 and 1936 he put together a powerhouse that may have been the greatest concentration of players ever.

He picked up Oscar Charleston first. Charleston was toward the end of his career and had moved from the outfield to first base. He could still play and he could still hit but Greenlee wanted him to be his player/manager. It was a good choice. Charleston was well liked and well respected by the team.

The rest of the infield consisted of Dick Seay at second, Chester Williams at short, and Judy Johnson at third. Johnson was the star. He played an excellent third base, hit for good average, had speed, and was supposed to be a good clubhouse man. Williams could hit pretty well, but had no power. He was good in the field and was considered the premier fielding shortstop of his day. Seay hit eighth for a reason. As a second baseman he was terrific, but didn’t do much with the bat. 

The four primary outfielders were Cool Papa Bell in center with Jim Crutchfield, Sam Bankhead, and Rap Dixon flanking him at various times. Bell led off and was noted for his speed and bat control. In the field he was fast enough to cut down shots into the gaps and had a decent arm. Crutchfield, Bankhead, and Dixon were a step down from Bell, but could all contribute with both the bat and the glove.

Josh Gibson was the catcher. He is almost universally conceded to be the finest player in Negro Leagues history. Some baseball historians contend he was the best catcher to ever play, regardless of race. His power was legendary, the stories mythic. He is in many ways the Negro Leagues equivalent of Babe Ruth, not just in playing ability, but also in the level of myth surrounding him. He gets credit for 800 or more home runs, but less than 200 can be documented, so nobody knows how many he hit, but apparently it was a lot.

The pitching staff could stand up to most teams in any league. Led by Satchel Paige, Gibson’s only rival for the title of most famous Negro Leaguer, the team also consisted of Double Duty Radcliffe, William Bell, and lefty LeRoy Matlock. Paige was a legend in the era. He was supposed to have the best fastball of the age and could make a baseball do whatever he wanted. There are stories of him sending his fielders to the bench so he could strikeout the side without being distracted (the same sort of stories also exist about Dizzy Dean, among others). Radcliffe was known for pitching one end of a double header then turning around and catching the other game. Matlock became famous for stringing together 18 consecutive wins in 1935.

The 1934-1936 Crawfords are the specific teams that get consideration as the finest Negro League team. They won the pennant in 1934 and 1935. In 1936 there was a dispute with the Washington Elite Giants over the pennant winner. A seven game series to determine the champion was suggested, but cancelled after only one game, which the Elite Giants won.

By 1937 the team was getting old. A number of players like Paige, Gibson, and Bell went to Latin America to play for more money. By 1939 the team was in such bad shape both economically and in talent that Greenlee sold the team, which was moved to Toledo.

For a few years the Crawfords dominated Negro League baseball. Their players produced 5 Hall of Famers in Gibson, Paige, Bell, Charleston, and Johnson and a number of other players who were much more than role players. they fell prey to the economics of the era and of Negro League baseball in general, but are still remembered as a premier franchise in black baseball.

Negro Leagues World Series, Round I

February 8, 2010

With the 1920’s black baseball began coalescing into more organized leagues playing something like coherent schedules. There was still a lot of barnstorming and such, but league play became more central to the teams. Rube Foster’s Negro National League held primacy of place as the first and finest of these leagues. The Eastern Colored League rapidly became an equal and by 1924 the two leagues were rival enough to decide on a series of postseason games that came to be called the Negro Leagues World Series.

The World Series lasted four years before the Eastern Colored League got into deep financial trouble. Like troubles hit the National League and the Series stopped after 1927. Each Series was a best of nine format, only the first going the full nine (actually it went 10, there was a tie). The National League dominated the competition, winning three of the four, but only the one win by the Eastern Colored League team was a blowout. Below are brief looks at each Series:
1924:  Kansas City Monachs  (NNL) vs Hilldale Daisies (ECL) won by the Monarchs 5 games to 4. Key Monarchs players included Newt Allen at 2nd, Dewey Creasy at 3rd, Heavy Johnson in the outfield, and pitchers Bullet Rogan and Luis Mendez who also managed the team. The Daisies featured Tank Carr at 1st, Biz Mackey at both short and behind the plate, Judy Johnson at 3rd, Lois Santop behind the plate when Mackey was at short, and southpaw pitcher Nip Winters. With the Daisies ahead in the series 4 games to three, Santop muffed a foul in the last inning of the the game. The Monarchs turned the error into the decisive run and won the series the next game.

1925:  A rematch of the last series. This time the Daisies won the Series 5 games to 1.  Winters pitched well, Mackey moved behind the plate where he became a Hall of  Fame catcher (an aging Santop backing him up and doing most of the pinch hitting).

1926:  The National League’s Chicago American Giants (Foster’s old team) beat the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants 5 games to 3. The American Giants featured player/manager Dave Malarcher at 3rd, Jelly Gardner in the outfield, and Rube Foster’s brother Bill pitching. The Bacharach Giants countered with Dick Lundy at short, Oliver Marcelle at 3rd, and pitchers Luther Ferrell and Claude Grier, both of which tossed no hitters in a losing cause.

1927:  The same two teams met with the same result, a 5-3 victory for the American Giants.

After the season the World Series was discontinued for 13 years, but a number of great players (Santop, Mackey, Rogan, Mendez, Bill Foster) managed to eventually reach the Hall of Fame. So did Rube Foster, founder of the National League. The new Series would feature a revived National League and a brand new league, the Negro American League.