Posts Tagged ‘Pete Hill’

Barber, Berber, Barbour?

February 15, 2018

Jesse Barber, middle of the back row.

One of the better, but more unknown players in Negro League history was Jesse Barber. He was a fine outfielder who spent time playing, as was usual for a lot of Negro Leaguers, a lot of positions. Considering how much time I’m taking looking at various aspects of the Detroit Stars, it shouldn’t surprise you that he wandered through Detroit.

Jesse Bernard Barber was born in 1888 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Before starting this post I looked at The Baseball Bloggess blog. She has a Virginia-born project there that is worth reading over. It tracks players, both white and black, who were born in Virginia. Had she done Barber, there would have been no need for this post, but she hadn’t. It’s still worth it to go check her out.

By 1909 he was playing ball in Philadelphia. He started as a shortstop with foot speed and a decent glove for the era. He got the attention of the Chicago American Giants, who lured him away from Philly. He played a little at short, a little all over the infield, and finally settled in the outfield. As the Giants lead off hitter he set the table for such Negro League stalwarts as John Henry Lloyd (who replaced him at short) and Pete Hill. He remained with the American Giants through 1919, then moved on the Bacharach Giants (Atlantic City), Hilldale (Philadelphia), and the Stars before finally finishing up in 1925 back with the Philadelphia Giants.

The career was basically successful, but beginning in the late 19-teens he developed a “fondness for the bottle.” As one writer put it “he lost his batting eye” to drink. It plagued him throughout the latter part of his career and is partially responsible for his frequent movement in his later career. As with the post on Frank Wickware, I’ll point out that drinking was a significant problem for both Negro League and Major League players in the period.

Again, you have to ask “how good was he?” And again the answer is incomplete. Seamheads lists his triple slash line as .296/.349/.387/.735 over 549 documented games. He has 683 hits, 143 for extra bases (11 home runs), and 239 RBIs with 57 stolen bases. All that gets him 6.8 WAR (and again remember that WAR is calculated over only 549 games).

“So,” you ask, “what’s with the title to this little rambling?” Well, it has to do with the frequent disagreement with how he spelled his last name. Newspapers of the era tend to drift between “Barber” and “Barbour” seemingly at will. One census form gives it as “Berber.” Considering we have no idea how Barber/Barbour pronounced it, have no idea how literate the census taker was, how much he was paying attention, it’s not a bad garble of the name. But it still doesn’t solve the problem. But we do have his World War I draft card.

Barber’s World War I draft card from Ancestry

There it is written “Barber.” Solves the problem, right? Well, not exactly. He later signed up for the draft in World War II:

Barbour’s draft card for World War II (same source)

And whattaya know, he spells it “Barbour” here. Maybe he didn’t know which was right and started with Barber, then changed to Barbour when he kept seeing it in the papers. I don’t know, but it makes for an interesting sidelight into his life. It’s, in fact, this sort of thing that helps make the study of the Negro Leagues fascinating.

Whether it was “Barber” or “Barbour,” Jesse died in Connecticut in 1959. And for what it’s worth I couldn’t find a picture of his headstone to see how it was spelled.

As a quick aside, one of the early governors of Virginia was James Barbour of Orange County (which isn’t far from Charlottesville) and in 1974 Charles Barbour became the first black mayor of Charlottesville. Roosevelt Barbour was city assessor for Charlottesville, and there is a Barbour Street in the town. All that leads me to believe that “Barbour” was probably the original spelling. But don’t bet the farm on that.

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The Stars

February 6, 2018

Stars logo

It’s February and that makes it Black History Month in the US so it’s time for my monthly look at the Negro Leagues. This time I want to begin by looking at one of the better, but more obscure teams, the Detroit Stars.

With the major migration of American black citizens to the North just before and during World War I, the American Midwest black population boomed, mostly in the major towns of the area. Detroit was one of them. There had been baseball, and black baseball in the area for years, but the city was never a noted hotbed of “colored” baseball. Chicago and Indianapolis were leaders  with the American Giants and Leland Giants (both of Chicago) and the ABCs in Indianapolis.

By 1919, Rube Foster was beginning to form the Negro National League. He had the teams in Chicago and Indianapolis willing to join. Kansas City was available. But there was no team in Detroit that was capable of playing at NNL level. Noted Detroit numbers man John Tenny Blount (known almost universally as “Tenny”) had the money, the clout in the black community, and the willingness to join Foster in creating a team that could compete in a major black league. Blount founded the Stars in 1919 and Foster was more than happy to help him.

With the American Giants stocked with talent, Foster agreed to “loan” Blount a number of good players including future Hall of Famers Pete Hill and Jose Mendez to form a talented team. The addition of players like Frank Wickware and Edgar Wesley made the Stars a formidable team.

Twice the team came in second, and once dropped below .500, but were never quite good enough to win. During the 1920s they added Hall of Famers Turkey Stearnes, Andy Cooper, and John Donaldson to their roster (Stearnes essentially replaced Hill, although it wasn’t exactly a one-for-one replacement).  Much of their problem was the inability to put all these greats on the field at the same time.

By 1931 the NNL was in trouble. Foster was gone, finances were drying up, the Great Depression, was killing attendance. The league folded after that season. Several of the teams hung on by barnstorming, but the Stars, despite being good, had never grabbed the attention of the town in such a way as to overcome all the problems. When the NNL failed, so did the Stars.

There were attempts to revive the Stars. In 1933 a new Negro National League was formed. The ABCs from Indianapolis moved to Detroit, adopted the old name, and failed after one season. They tried again when the Negro American League was formed in 1937, but the results were the same as 1933, one year and disbandment.

The Stars today, if they are remembered at all, are known for the great players that moved through their roster during their short existence. Never a top-tier team, they were competitive but that was all. It would take integrating the Tigers in the 1950s to reintroduce black baseball to the Motor City at the highest level.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Pete Hill

February 9, 2017
Pete Hill batting about 1911

Pete Hill batting about 1911

1. John Preston Hill was born in 1882 in Culpeper County, Virginia. There is some evidence that his family was owned during slavery by the family of later Confederate General A. P. Hill. The family lived in Culpeper County. Even that basic statistical information is in dispute. Although the information in the first sentence is the most commonly accepted information, some sources indicate his name was Joseph Preston Hill and he was born in Pittsburgh in 1880. All sources seem to agree his birthday was 12 October.

2, By 1899 he was playing outfield for the Pittsburgh Keystones. The 1900 US Census shows him living in Pittsburgh which is possibly where the confusion about his birthplace occurs.

3. He spent most of the first half of the first decade of the 20th Century playing center field for the Philadelphia Giants (led by Hall of Famer Sol White) and the Cuban X-Giants (which weren’t Cuban but worked out of Trenton). He did spend much of the same period playing winter ball in Cuba, leading the league in hitting in the winter of 1910-11.

4. He joined the Leland Giants in 1908 and teamed with Rube Foster to dominate teams in the Chicago area.

5. When Foster formed the American Giants (also of Chicago) in 1911, Hill became both his primary offensive weapon and the team field captain. He is supposed to have gotten at least one hit in 115 games in 1911. The team played 116 games. The feat is not well documented and may be apocryphal. What little statistical information available shows batting averages of .400 and .357 for 1911 and 1912. Again those numbers are in dispute.

6. In 1919, Hill joined the Detroit Stars as player-manager. In his last year with Detroit, 1921, he hit .388 at age 39.

7. He remained a player and a player-manager through 1925 when he retired.

8. In retirement he ran the Buffalo, NY Red Caps and also worked for Ford Motors.

9. Pete Hill died in Buffalo in 1951.

10. Incomplete numbers at Baseball Reference.com show Hill with a .328 batting average, a .481 slugging percentage, 818 hits in 692 documented games, 513 runs scored, 47 triples, 48 home runs, and 455 RBIs. For 1911 and 1912 the information at Baseball Reference.com gives him batting averages of .365 and .399 as opposed to the numbers listed in point five above. Of the 116 games played in 1911 (of which he’s supposed to have gotten a hit in 115) only 26 are documented (and show 35 hits).

11. In 2006, Pete Hill was elected to the Hall of Fame.

12. For years Hill’s grave was unmarked. The Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project has discovered the site.

Marker from Find a Grave memorial

Marker from Find a Grave memorial

 

A Glimpse at Reality Through Fantasy

February 7, 2017
John Henry Lloyd in Cuba

John Henry Lloyd in Cuba

February is Black History Month in the US and I generally spend the entire month looking at black baseball. This month I wanted to finish the posts on the 1948-50 Boston Red Sox, so I’m starting this year’s look just a little late.

I’m in a Fantasy Baseball league. Kevin, our commissioner, wanted to add in Negro League players (we’re replaying the 1911 season) and because the statistics were really sparse, he had to jury rig a system that would allow the black players to function within the rules of the league but not tip play balance either for against them. As neither he nor I (nor anyone else for that matter) knew if what he’d done would work, I ended up with an experimental all black team. The idea was to find out how well each player functioned without teams (other than mine) having to figure out how to work with experimental statistical information. So far I’m in first place with about a dozen games to play which says a lot more about the quality of the work our commissioner did and the quality of the players than it does about my managerial and general managerial abilities.

I’m telling you this because it reinforces one of the primary problems when dealing with black baseball before 1950. The statistical information is spotty. In the case of my fantasy team John Henry Lloyd only has enough information available to get him into about 50 games of a 154 game season. Pete Hill gets about 75 games. Louis Santop can make about 100 games. All three are Hall of Famers. And some of the statistics are quite simply a best guess (or at least close to it–Kevin did a great job figuring out how to add the player’s information in to the existing system). And this brings up one of the greatest problems with trying to deal with the black leagues of the era.

Exactly how good were these guys? Frankly I don’t know and neither does anyone else. I, and everyone else, can make educated guesses and the working around of stats in something as unimportant in the grand scheme of things like a fantasy league can provide a glimpse of what almost all of our parents and grandparents missed. But ultimately, it is only a glimpse.

And that’s what I can provide here; a mere glimpse. I hope you’ll enjoy this year’s glimpses (many of which are short biographies of players on my fantasy team).