Posts Tagged ‘Negro Southern League’

The Pride of Chicago

February 7, 2019

Chicago American Giants logo

Although baseball as we know it begins on the East Coast, Chicago has traditional standing as one of the earliest hotbeds of the sport. William Hulbert, founder of the National League lived in Chicago. His team, the White Stockings (now the Cubs) won the first ever National League pennant. But the Windy City was also the home of a number of Black Americans who liked the game as much as their white counterparts. If the Cubs were White Chicago’s team, the American Giants were Black Chicago’s team.

In 1887 the Chicago Unions were formed by Abe Jones, a local catcher and William S. Peters, a local black business owner and first baseman. Peters managed the team. The team was successful, being one of only two black teams to survive the economic downturn in 1893 (the “Panic of ’93” to historians). In 1899, the Unions were joined by the Chicago Columbia Giants. The Columbia Giants were the lineal descendants of the Page Fence Giants (a story for a later time) and included such stars as William Patterson and Sol White (who is now a Hall of Famer). They defeated the Unions in a championship match.

Frank Leland

By 1898, Frank Leland gained control of the Unions, and in 1901 worked a merger of the two clubs which he renamed the Union Giants. They were immediately successful. In 1907, Leland renamed them after himself, the Leland Giants. They were easily the finest black team in the upper Midwest. With the name change, came a bevy of stars from Black Baseball that made the Leland’s even more formidable. Pete Hill took over in center field, “Big” Bill Gatewood was on the mound, but the greatest find was pitcher Andrew “Rube” Foster. To Leland’s dismay, Foster had big plans and wanted to found his own team.

Rube Foster (with the team logo on the uniform behind him)

By 1910, Foster made his move. He claimed control of the team (and the team name) and renamed the team the Chicago American Giants. Leland hung on to a handful of the players and continued games as the Chicago Giants. But Foster had the big names, John Henry Lloyd, Pete Hill, Bruce Petway, and Frank Wickware.

The team was as successful as ever, but Foster dreamed of creating a black league to rival the Major Leagues. In 1920, he created the Negro National League with the American Giants as a founding member. They were, for most of the period of the NNL’s existence, the best team, winning pennants in 1920, 1921, and ’22. In 1926, with Foster’s failing health, and questions of his favoritism as league president toward the American Giants, Dave Malarcher took over the team and led it to pennants in 1926 and 1927. By that point, the NNL had a rival, the Eastern Colored League. The two leagues staged the Negro World Series which the American Giants won in both 1926 and 1927. In 1928, the ECL folded.

Economic crisis once again afflicted Black Baseball in the 1930s as the Great Depression caused the folding of the NNL. The American Giants remained viable and transferred to the Negro Southern League in 1932, winning the pennant before the NSL also collapsed. That began a period of transition for both the American Giants and Black Baseball in general.

A new Negro National League was formed in 1933, which the American Giants joined. They were good, but the Pittsburgh Crawfords were an all-time team and the Giants were unable to capture a pennant. In 1936, they played as an independent team, barnstorming games as they could find them. By 1938, they’d joined the newly formed Negro American League, but were never able to compete with the Kansas City Monarchs as the NAL’s top team.

With the admission of Jackie Robinson and other players to the Major Leagues, the Negro Leagues went into decline. The American Giants hung on through 1956, when they finally folded. By that point they were hiring white players and had lost much of their Negro League identity. But early on, the American Giants were one of Black Baseball’s premier teams.

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The Negro Southern League: A Review

February 18, 2016
cover of The Negro Southern League

cover of The Negro Southern League

There are a lot of books on the Negro Leagues. As with any topic, a number of them are good and a number are garbage. Most deal with either teams or players while few look at a league. One of the better to look at an individual league is The Negro Southern League written by William J. Plott, a SABR member.

Published in 2015, Plott’s work traces the history of the Negro Southern League from its beginning in 1920 through its demise in 1951. His format is to look at the league on a yearly basis, occasionally lumping a few years together into one chapter (especially those years when the Black Barons barely operated). The chapters give information on teams, players, and work in some play-by-play information. From the beginning, Plott admits that game information is spotty and statistical information is hit and miss. Beyond the yearly information, the author provides information on champions, playoffs, and no hitters in an appendix and finishes with a set of team rosters of each team. Some of the rosters are quite complete, others sketchy.

All in all this is a book worth having if you’re interested in Negro League baseball, especially at the minor league level (yes, there were Negro Minor Leagues). The book was published by McFarland and Co. and is available from Amazon, is 276 pages long, and retails for $39.95 in paperback.

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.