Posts Tagged ‘Piper Davis’

Willie’s First World Series

February 16, 2016
Willie Mays, Birmingham's finest

Willie Mays, Birmingham’s finest

In 1948 the Negro World Series featured the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League facing the winners of the Negro American League, the Birmingham Black Barons. It would become an important Negro World Series for two reasons. First, it would be the final confrontation between the NNL and the NAL. Second, it would be the first time Willie Mays tasted postseason action.

The Black Barons were led by an infield of Alonzo Perry at first (he also pitched and put up a 10-2 record), manager Piper Davis at second, NAL batting champion Art Wilson at short and John Britton at third. Pepper Bassett did the catching, back stopping a staff that included Perry, Jim Newberry, Bill Powell, and Bill Greason. Ed Steele and Steve Zapp were the other outfielders (besides Mays). Joe Scott played first when Perry pitched.

With Josh Gibson dead, Homestead seemed less fearsome than earlier, but it was still a formidable team. Future Hall of Famer Buck Leonard was still at first, manager Sam Bankhead was a short, and Luis Marquez, Luke Easter, and Bob Thurman could hit. Wilmer Fields (who both pitched and played in the field), joined Thurman (who did the same), Ted Alexander, Bill Pope, and R. T. Walker on the staff. Eudie Napier did much of the catching.

As usual with Negro World Series’ there were some points we’d consider odd today. Game one was in Kansas City, hometown of the Monarchs. Game four was in New Orleans. Game one was played 26 September. It took until 5 October to get to game five. And of course, being the Negro Leagues, rosters were a bit fluid. The series was a best of seven format.

It’s difficult to find play-by-play for each game, I’m going to give more of a summary of each game than I usually do. According to the Cleveland Afro American  (essentially all scoring information is from the Cleveland newspaper),  game one was played in Kansas City because neither team could use their home stadium (both teams shared a stadium with a white team). In the top of the second inning, Birmingham outfielder Steele walked, went to third on a Zapp single, and scored the first run of the Series on Scott’s sacrifice fly. In the bottom of the same inning,  Thurman singled leading off for the Grays, went to third on a Napier double, and a Pope triple scored both runners. Marquez then doubled to score Pope and put Homestead up 3-1. The Black Barons got another run in the eighth on a walk, a single, and a Davis run scoring single. But Alexander got through the ninth without allowing Birmingham to score and Homestead won the game 3-2.

Game two was 29 September in Birmingham. Again, the Black Barons scored first. Davis singled, Steele walked, and Scott brought both men home with a double. Homestead scored five runs in the sixth inning to take the lead. Marquez singled, then, with one out, scored on an Easter double. After walking Leonard, a fielder’s choice got Leonard for the second out, but Marquez scored. Napier then doubled to score two runs and Pope crushed a two run home run to put the Grays up 5-2. Birmingham got one run back in the ninth on a Zapp single, a walk, and a double. But that was all as Homestead took game two by a 5-3 score.

Game three was 30 September, also in Birmingham. The Black Barons won 4-3. With two out in the bottom of the ninth and a 3-3 score and runners on first and second, up came Willie Mays. His single through the box into center drove in the winning run. It would not be the last time Mays would win a ballgame.

Game four was 3 October in New Orleans. It is the most obscure of the entire Series. There seems to be no information on why the game was held in New Orleans (at least that I can find) nor is there anything like a story on the game (again, at least not that I can find). Homestead won the game 14-1 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the Series.

Game five was October 5 back in Birmingham. The best information available (so far as I can determine) shows the Grays scoring two runs in the first, the Black Barons getting one back in the second, another in the fourth, and taking the lead with two in the fifth. Homestead retook the lead with three in the sixth, only to see Birmingham go back on top with two in the eighth. A single Grays run in the ninth tied the score 6-6 and the game went into extra innings. In the top of the tenth, Homestead scored four runs, then shut down Birmingham to claim the game 10-6 and claim the Series 4 games to 1. It sounds like a great game, but I can find nothing to describe any of the scoring in the game (the line score shows runs; hits; errors, of which there were nine total); and the batteries only.

And that was it for the Negro World Series. Before the 1949 season the NNL folded (with the remaining teams either joining the NAL or going independent). Within a couple of years the NAL was on life support and the Negro Leagues were dying. But the last Negro World Series did manage to give Willie Mays his first chance at postseason glory. At least in game three he took it.

1948 Birmingham Black Barons. Mays at left on the front row

1948 Birmingham Black Barons. Mays at left on the front row

 

 

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A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Piper Davis

February 11, 2016
"Piper" Davis

“Piper” Davis

1. Lorenzo “Piper” Davis was born in July 1917 in Piper, Alabama. Piper was a newly formed coal company town several miles south and west of Birmingham. The mines closed in the 1950s and the town no longer exits. Obviously, it gave Davis his nickname.

2. His first professional baseball experience was in 1936 playing with the Omaha, Nebraska Tigers. He was primarily a second baseman, but did some work at first.

3. After several years in professional baseball (minor league variety), he made the Negro Major Leagues in 1942 with the Birmingham Black Barons. During his days in Birmingham he played shortstop, second base, and first base.

4. In 1943 he hit .386. The sources vary on Negro League stats. In this case I gave the highest average I could find. Other sources have him bat as low as .173 (see what I mean about Negro League stats). Whatever he hit, he helped lead Birmingham to its first Negro American League pennant. They lost the Negro World Series to the Homestead Grays.

5. Birmingham repeated in 1944 and again lost the Negro World Series. Davis had a bad year with the bat, but was still considered a superior second baseman.

6. Between 1946 and 1949 inclusive, Davis made the East-West All Star Game each season. The East-West game was the Negro Leagues version of Major League Baseball’s All Star Game.

7. In 1948 he became player-manager of the Black Barons and led them to the last Negro World Series. Again they played Homestead, and again they lost.

8. Willie Mays joined the Black Barons in 1948, thus making Davis his first professional manager.

9. In 1947 he was optioned to the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles) as one of the first black players acquired by the organization. A dispute over whether he needed minor league experience or was ready to play for the Browns immediately led to the Browns not exercising their option.

10. In 1950 he became the first black ballplayer signed by the Boston Red Sox. He was 33.

11. He bounced around the Boston minor league system and never made the Major Leagues. He retired in 1958.

12. Between 1968 and 1985 he did scout work for the Tigers, the Cardinals, and the Expos.

13. Piper Davis died in 1997.

Davis' final resting place

Davis’ final resting place

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.

 

Homestead Wins It All

February 10, 2015
1943 Homestead Grays

1943 Homestead Grays

The Homestead Grays dominated the Negro National League from its inception. Year after year they easily won the pennant. Without a Negro League World Series they were always seen as a successful team, but there was no way to declare them, unquestionably, the finest Negro League team. That all changed in 1942 when the Negro National League and the Negro American League agreed to play a postseason Negro World Series between their two champions. That hadn’t occurred since the late 1920s. The Grays represented the NNL and were crushed by the NAL Kansas City Monarchs. In 1943, the Grays again won the NNL championship and turned the Negro World Series into a crusade to redeem their 1942 loss.

The 1943 Grays were mostly holdovers from the previous season. Manager “Candy” Jim Taylor had Hall of Fame catcher Josh Gibson who hit .486 with 12 home runs, 62 RBIs, and 64 runs scored in 181 at bats (all stats from Baseball Reference.com’s Negro League section and are admittedly very incomplete). Fellow Hall of Fame players Buck Leonard and Jud Wilson anchored first and second. Neither had Gibson’s numbers, but Wilson hit .279 at age 47. Sam Bankhead played shortstop and Howard Easterling hit .399 and played third (and how he’s been overlooked for the Hall of Fame is utterly unfathomable). The outfield consisted of Sam Benjamin and Vic Harris on the corners with Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell playing center field. The staff included Edsall Walker and triple crown winner Johnny Wright along with Hall of Fame right-hander Ray Brown.

They drew the Birmingham Black Barons in the Series. The Barons had been around for a long time, but weren’t one of the premier teams in the Negro Leagues. Manager Gus “Wingfield” Welch had a team without a single Hall of Famer, but won the NAL in a close contest. Lyman Bostock, Sr. (father of the later Major Leaguer) played first, Tommy Sampson and Piper Davis anchored the middle of the infield, while Jake Spearman was at third. Lester Lockett and Felix McLauren were outfielders who both hit over .380. The staff included John Huber, Johnny Markham, and Gready McInnis.

Part of the fun of a study of the Negro Leagues is the quirky nature of their scheduling. The 1943 Series was to be a best of seven, but at that point it begins to diverge from the Major League norms. The games were scheduled for seven different cities: Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, Columbus, Indianapolis, Birmingham, and Montgomery. So each team got one home game (Washington and Birmingham) and one game at a nearby city (Baltimore and Montgomery), along with three games at neutral sites. This was probably great for fans, but not so great for the players. The Series stretched from 21 September all the way to 5 October and covered a thousand miles.

And then it ended up taking eight games to complete. Game two, the one in Baltimore, resulted in a 12 inning tie (5-5). So the next day the teams trekked back to DC to replay the game in the Grays home park.

Another interesting aspect of Negro World Series play was the use of the “loaner.” With small team sizes, injuries, and in the 1940s, the Second World War, teams frequently went into postseason play with short rosters. It was at least somewhat common for teams that weren’t going to make the Series to “loan” a player to a playoff team. In 1943, just before the end of the season, the Chicago American Giants “loaned” Double Duty Ratcliffe to Birmingham. He played for the Barons in the Series (but not overly well–he was 40) but was then returned to Chicago when the Series finished. This sort of thing happened with some frequency and created problems (In the 1942 Series it caused one of the games to be replayed.), especially if the other teams didn’t know about it before hand.

The play-by-play is difficult to find so I’m not going to try to explain every game. Homestead was a big favorite, but Birmingham won the first game (the first of the two in Washington), then lost game three (the replay of the tie). The teams split games four and five, making the Series a best of three. Homestead won game six before the Series shifted to Birmingham.

Game seven was the classic of the Series. Needing a win to force a deciding game, the Barons sent Markham to the mound. The Grays had a runner thrown out at the plate in the fifth, but other than that no one came close to scoring for 10 innings. In the bottom of the 11th Leonard “Sloppy” Lindsay doubled and scored the game’s only run on a single by Ed Steele.

Game eight was 4-2 in favor of Birmingham with two out in the eighth when the Grays struck for six runs and put the Series away. The final score was 8-4 Homestead and the Grays won their first Negro World Series championship (they’d win again in ’44 and ’48). It wasn’t a well-played Series (Birmingham made 19 errors) and despite the need for a full seven (eight) games, Homestead outscored Birmingham 46-28 (5.75 runs vs. 3.5).

For both teams there would be other championship series. Birmingham would never win one (despite having Willie Mays around one year) and Homestead would win two more. By 1951 the Grays were gone. The Barons hung on through 1960.