Posts Tagged ‘Rube Foster’

“Smokey Joe”

February 27, 2017
Smokey Joe Williams

Smokey Joe Williams

Failure to integrate the Major Leagues prior to 1947 cost a lot of white fans the pleasure of seeking some of the better baseball players before that year. I’ve spent a lot of time this month dealing with the Lincoln Giants, so I thought it might be a good idea to spend a few words on their best pitcher, “Smokey Joe” Williams.

Williams came out of Texas in 1905. As an aside, Texas, in the first decade of the 20th Century produced some great Negro League players. Not only did Williams and Foster come from Texas, but so did Louis Santop who showed up in 1909. All three made the Hall of Fame.

His career was pretty typical for a Negro League player in the Deadball Era. He did a lot of barnstorming with independent teams and eventually hooked on with a team that got him recognition at the highest level of black baseball. Of course he also spent several years playing in the winter league in Cuba. By 1911 he was in New York with the Lincoln Giants and was an immediate sensation as a hurler. His nickname at the time was “Cyclone” but in the 1920s he became known by his more common nickname of “Smokey.”

He hung on through 1932 playing for a variety of teams in the era: the Grays, the American Giants, the Bacharachs, the Detroit Wolves. He did a little managing, usually of the player-manager variety. He died in 1951 and made the Hall of Fame in 1999.

As with other black players, especially those prior to the 1930s, the statistical information on Williams’ career is spotty. BaseballReference.com gives him numbers for about 111 games, but shows him starting 131 (got me about the odd 20 games there). It gives him a total record (including the Cuban League ) of 84-52 (which adds up to 136). He has a 1.152 WHIP, 726 strikeouts, and 303 walks. BR.com does show him as a decent hitter (he played some first base when not pitching). They give him a .311 average with nine home runs and 70 RBIs over 539 at bats. Seamheads gives us the following numbers: 123 wins to 76 losses over 243 games. There are 450 walks, 1135 strikeouts, and a 1.17 WHIP.

If you’ve been paying close attention to the February posts, you’ll note a couple of themes. One of the more important is the knowledge that what information we have on the Negro Leagues, particularly the earlier ones, is skimpy. Complete statistics are as rare as an honest politician. Notice that the two sites I referenced above (Seamheads and Baseball Reference) give very difference numbers. Without knowing for certain, it appears they have found different sources and different sets of games to document. There is probably much overlap, but nothing like completeness. And before I go on, I want you to understand that the above is in no away a disparaging of either site. Both have done excellent jobs in finding and documenting what they can. It is, rather, the nature of the information available that makes it difficult to determine specifics. As I pointed out in my first post for the 2017 February Black History Month ramble, what we are left with is a mere glimpse of what we missed by segregating the Negro League players from the Major Leagues. Hopefully, these short glimpses have helped you understand the nature of the problem and the kind and quality of what was going on in the black leagues.

And to finish off, here’s a picture of Smokey Joe Williams’ grave from the Find A Grave website. To show you just how incomplete the information is, I have no idea why there are three names of people seemingly unrelated on the same headstone. If anyone knows, let me know.

Smokey Joe Williams grave from Find A Grave

Smokey Joe Williams grave from Find A Grave

 

 

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The Lincolns

February 16, 2017
Lincoln Giants jersey from 1910

Lincoln Giants jersey from 1910

When we think of Negro League teams, most think of the later Negro League teams such as the Crawfords, the Grays, or the Eagles. But way back before the founding of the first of the famous Negro Leagues, the Negro National League of the 1920s, there were other leagues and other teams. One of the more dominant of the early 20th Century teams was the Lincoln Giants of New York.

There is a bit of question about their origins. Their Wikipedia page indicates that an ancestry can be traced back to Nebraska in the 1890s, but doesn’t indicate how they got to New York. More conventional sources indicate that Jess McMahon (of the current WWE wrestling McMahon’s) was a prominent sports promoter in New York with extensive interests in Harlem. In 1911 he joined with Sol White to form the Lincoln Giants. It was a formidable team that immediately began to dominate black baseball in New York. With Hall of Famers John Henry Lloyd, Louis Santop, Smokey Joe Williams, and the likes of Spottswood Poles, Bill Pettus, and Cannonball Dick Redding (God, I love old-time nicknames) they dominated Eastern black baseball into 1914. In 1913 they played an unofficial black championship against the pride of the Midwestern black leagues, the Chicago American Giants, led by Rube Foster. The exact number of games and wins in the series is in some question, but there is agreement that the Lincolns won the series.

the 1911 Lincoln Giants

the 1911 Lincoln Giants

By 1914, McMahon was in financial trouble. He sold the Lincoln Giants, but retained the contracts of several of the big stars. He formed a new team, the Lincoln Stars, and competed directly with his old team. The Stars lasted to 1917, folded, and most of the remaining former Giants went back to their old club.

According to the Seamheads website, the Lincoln Giants were still doing well in the 1914-17 period, but fell off some due to the loss of many of their stars. By this point Smokey Joe Williams was doubling as ace pitcher and manager. It was the height of his Hall of Fame career. But the team ran up against a formidable foe off the diamond. Nat Strong (see my post “The Schedule Man” of 20 August 2015) controlled scheduling for black baseball in New York at the time and the Lincolns wanted to play more games than Strong was willing to schedule. They attempted to schedule some games without going through Strong, and were thrown out of the existing league structure in New York. Barnstorming followed.

With the founding Foster’s Negro National League, the eastern teams found it to their advantage to form their own league, the Eastern Colored League, in 1923. The Lincolns were a significant member of the league. They never won a league championship, finishing as high as third in 1924. By 1928 the ECL was on life support. A changing economy, weak teams, chaos at the top of the league (again another story for another time), and the dominance of Foster’s NNL, caused it to collapse.

The remnants of the ECL formed a new league, the American Negro League in 1929. It lasted one year. The Lincoln Giants held on one more year in a declining economy and finally folded after the 1930 season.

During their existence, the New York Lincoln Giants were dominant in the East. They won unofficial championships most of the decade of the 19-teens and led Strong’s New York league most years (which is why they thought they could challenge him). They provided Eastern black baseball with some of the greatest players of the era in Lloyd, Wood, Santop, Redding, and later Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes. Not a bad legacy.

the 1911 version of the Lincoln Giants cap

the 1911 version of the Lincoln Giants cap

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

 

My Own Little Hall of Fame: Class of 1930

August 2, 2016

Well, it’s the first of the month, so that means it’s time to delve again into my mythical pre-1936 Hall of Fame. This time two new members brought in for contributions both on the field and in the dugout, with one of them going on to make a major impact off the field.

Rube Foster

Rube Foster

Pitcher, manager, owner, and league founder, Andrew “Rube” Foster was a significant pioneer in Negro baseball. He was a fine pitcher for the Chicago American Giants in the early part of the century, becoming manager, and later owner of the same team. In 1920 he led the formation of the Negro National League, serving as its President through 1926.

Miller Huggins

Miller Huggins

Miller Huggins began his career in Major League Baseball as a second baseman. In 1913 he became manager of the St. Louis National League team. He moved, in 1918, to New York to manage the Yankees. Under his leadership the Yankees won six pennants in eight years, capping their season with three World Championships.

And of course the commentary:

1. I am entirely comfortable putting Huggins into a 1930s Hall of Fame. He had just died (1929) and was almost as famous as his best player, Babe Ruth. In fact, some of the support for Huggins would be based on his ability to get the most out of Ruth when the Babe was still doing his “wild child” impression. In 12 years with New York he finished out of the first division only once (1925), and finished first exactly half his seasons with the Yanks.

2. Rube Foster is, in 1930, absolutely the most important person in black baseball history. His Negro National League was a success, although the Great Depression would destroy it in 1931 (and in 1930 the Hall voters wouldn’t know that yet). He was a superior pitcher, probably as good a manager. For my money he’s not a particularly good executive, noted for showing favorites among both players and teams. But the totality of his work would, if you are going to accept a black man getting into a 1930 Hall of Fame, make it a cinch he’d be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in the year he died, if not previously.

3. I thought it possible that the onset of the Great Depression might lead to a trip down nostalgia lane in baseball. Sort of the old “Geez, things were so much better back 25 or so years ago when the country was prospering and so was I” attitude. So far I haven’t seen it, at least not much. That does not bode well for 19th Century players.

4. Here’s the eligible everyday players for 1931: George Burns (the catcher, not the comic), Cupid Childs, Jake Daubert, Jack Doyle, Johnny Evers, Art Fletcher, Larry Gardner, Harry Hooper, Tommy Leach, Herman Long, Bobby Lowe, Tommy McCarthy, Clyde Milan, Del Pratt, Hardy Richardson, Wildfire Schulte, Cy Seymour, Casey Stengel (as a player only), Roy Thomas, Mike Tiernan, Joe Tinker, George Van Haltren, Bobby Veach, Tillie Walker. A total of 24 (with 20 being the maximum).

5. The list of eligible pitchers: Chief Bender, Bob Carruthers, Jack Chesbro, Brickyard Kennedy, Sam Leever, Rube Marquard, Tony Mullane, Jeff Pfeffer, Deacon Phillippe, Jesse Tannehill, Doc White, Joe Wood. A total of 12 (with 10 being the maximum).

6. And the contributors: umpires-Bob Emslie, Tim Hurst; manager-George Stallings; owners-Charles Ebbets, August Herrmann, Ben Shibe; Negro Leagues-Dobie Moore, Spottswood Poles, Candy Jim Taylor; pioneer-William R. Wheaton. A total of 10 (with 10 being the maximum).

7. In the next couple of years there are a handful of players who are going to show up that represent part of the problem of a Hall of Fame. These are players that either are enshrined in Cooperstown who have multiple questions arise concerning their true value or are players that haven’t gotten into the Hall of Fame but have had, over the years, serious discussion about their case for enshrinement. Guys like Ross Youngs and Chief Bender are the types of players I mean. I thought I ought to mention this issue now, because it will be important in the coming months.

8. By this point the statistical information is beginning to firm up. Essentially the same stats are available and they tend to be the same. There’s not a lot of issues like “Gehrig gets 125 RBIs” in one place and “Gehrig gets 133 RBIs” in another or one publication listing a stat and another ignoring it entirely. That makes life a lot simpler for me (although it doesn’t help much with the Negro Leagues).

 

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.

 

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.

1915: A New Dynasty Forms in the American League

April 6, 2015
Duffy Lewis

Duffy Lewis

The end of the 1914 season saw the end of the first Philadelphia Athletics dynasty. They won the World Series in 1910, 1911, and 1913, then lost it in 1914. The team broke up after the 1914 World Series, leaving a vacuum at the top of the American League. In 1912, the one year Philly hadn’t won, the Boston Red Sox grabbed the AL pennant and won the World Series. Beginning in 1915, Boston established a new dynasty that was to rule the AL through 1918.

The 1915 BoSox were a mixture of holdovers from 1912 and a series of new, or at least new to Boston, players. The manager had changed. Jake Stahl, manager of the 1912 team was gone, replaced with Bill Carrigan. Carrigan was the starting catcher for the 1912 team who took over the Red Sox with 70 games left in the 1914 season. He was considered a decent enough catcher and a so-so hitter (in other words he was a solid, but unspectacular player whose career hovered around mediocre). He was 32 in 1915 and still did some catching on occasion. He would remain with Boston as both a player and manager one more year, winning the pennant again in 1916.

The other catchers were Pinch Thomas and Hick Cady. Thomas hit in the .230s while Cady hit in the .270s. Although Thomas hit from the left side while Cady stepped into the right-handers batters box, they had almost exactly the same amount of at bats (205 for Cady and 203 for Thomas), indicating it wasn’t exactly a modern platoon system behind the plate.

The infield consisted of (from first to third) Dick Hoblitzell, Jack Barry, Everett Scott, and Larry Gardner. The latter was the only one remaining from 1912’s starting infield. He’d lost 50 points off his batting average from 1912, but was still a good third baseman for the era. Hoblitzell was third on the team with 61 RBIs and tied for second with 12 triples. Scott was 22 and playing only his second season. He hit all of .201, but was a good enough shortstop to push Barry to second base. Barry was one of the reasons the Athletics were no longer a power. He’d been the shortstop of the “$100,000 Infield” and a stalwart of the A’s pennant runs. In 1915 he was only 28 and still a capable fielder. He hit .262 and, in a base running crazy era, never even attempted a stolen base in 1915.

If the infield was largely new, the outfield was the same. The 1912-1915 Boston outfield is considered by many the best Deadball Era outfield and in some circles still holds a position in the top five or ten greatest outfields ever. Duffy Lewis played left field. He hit .291, tied for the team lead in home runs (among starters) with two, led the team in RBIs, and was second in hits.His OPS+ was 121. The other two outfielders were Hall of Fame center fielders. As two men couldn’t play center at the same time, Harry Hooper moved to right field. He was a stellar fielder who had a down year in 1915. He hit only .235, but led the team in triples (13), and was fifth in RBIs. Even with a bad average, he managed an OPS+ of 103. The actual center fielder was Tris Speaker. “Spoke” hit .322, led the team in hits, stolen bases, and was second in RBIs. He was a great center fielder whose OPS+ was 151 and who had a WAR (BBREF version) of 7.1, higher than the next two men (Lewis and Hooper) combined (3.2 and 3.1).

There was a long bench, especially for the era. Hal Janvrin, Heinie Wagner, and Del Gainer all got into more than 80 games and Olaf Henriksen got into 73. Of the lot Gainer had the highest average and the only home run. In fact, if you discount pitchers, he had the only home run by a bench player.

But if you don’t discount pitchers there are six more home runs, four of them by a second year lefty named Babe Ruth. Ruth hit .318, had an OPS+ of 188 and led the team with the four home runs. Smokey Joe Wood and Rube Foster (obviously not the Negro National League founder) had the other two. Ernie Shore had one of those great Deadball stats that you don’t see much anymore. He hit all of .101, but in eight hits he had four doubles, a triple, and 10 RBIs. All that gave him an OPS+ of 1.

But Shore, like Ruth, wasn’t there to hit. The staff was very good. Five men started double figure games. Foster and Shore both had 19 wins, Ruth getting 18. Wood and Dutch Leonard each had 15. All had more innings pitched than hits allowed, and only Ruth had more walks (86) than strikeouts (82). Ruth’s 2.44 was the highest ERA while Wood’s 1.49 led the starters. Carl Mays, at age 23, was the main man in the bullpen, registering 31 relief appearances, seven saves, and six starts. His record was 6-5. Twenty-one year old Herb Pennock was also over from Philadelphia, but only pitched 14 innings over five games. His Hall of Fame career would bloom later.

Over the season the BoSox won 101 games and beat Detroit for the pennant by 2.5 games. They were third in the AL in runs, second in RBIs, next-to-last in home runs, and dead last in stolen bases. Their team ERA was second in the AL behind only last place Washington (and Walter Johnson). They were also second (again to Washington) in runs and hits allowed, and were third in strikeouts (again Washington led, this time with Chicago in second). Individually, Speaker was fourth in hits and runs scored, sixth in total bases, seventh in doubles, and sixth in walks.  Lewis finished ninth in hits, eighth in total bases, second in doubles, and ninth in RBIs. Hooper was eighth in runs scored, ninth in triples, and fifth in walks. Speaker’s 7.1 WAR was third in the league behind Ty Cobb and Eddie Collins (another A’s refugee, now at Chicago). Ruth’s four home runs tied for ninth in the AL. Among pitchers Shore was third in ERA and tied for sixth in wins. Foster tied Shore for sixth in wins, with Ruth showing up as ninth. Carl Mays’ seven saves were easily the best among AL pitchers.

The 1915 season was the first of a four-year run for Boston. They would win the 1915 and 1916 World Series’, then repeat again in the shortened 1918 season (finishing second in 1917). This dynasty would be the end for the Red Sox. After 1918 they wouldn’t win another pennant until 1946 and not win the World Series until the 21st Century.

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 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.

My Best Negro League Roster

February 28, 2011

A friend of mine who reads this blog called me up the other day. He suggested I post what was, in my opinion, the best Negro League team. I went into a long discourse about why that wasn’t possible because of lack of stats and collaborating info and anything else I could come up with to get out of it. He finally cut me off with a simple, “Wing it.” So for the edification of anyone who happens to run across this, and to cap a long group of Negro League posts, here’s my list of the best Negro League players, with appropriate caveats (You knew those were coming, didn’t you?).

First, I took only guys who played the majority of their careers in the Negro Leagues. In other words guys like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were out, as were Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks. Second, I did a 25 man roster with a manager and an owner, and a couple of special add ons. I included 2 players at each infield position, 6 outfielders, 3 catchers, and 8 pitchers (at least two of which had to be left-handed). I know that almost no Negro League team ever actually had 25 men on its roster and that if they did they weren’t aligned as I’ve aligned my team. But this is the way I wanted to do it. I have an aversion to comparing players in the pre-mound era with those whose career is mostly after the advent of the mound and the 60’6″ pitching distance.  I simply think the game is so different you can’t compare players (feel free to disagree). That led to a real problem for me, Frank Grant. I think he is probably one of the half-dozen or so greatest black players ever, but that’s unquantifiable to me. So I had to leave him out, and wish I didn’t.

So here we go. All players are listed alphabetically by position. That means there is no indication that I think the guy listed first is better, although he may be a lot better. Don’t expect a lot of surprises, and keep the snickers to yourselves.

Catcher: Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop. This was actually pretty easy. There seems to be a consensus between statheads, historians, and old Negro League players that these three were head and shoulders above the other catchers in Negro League play. Fleet Walker was also a catcher, but I don’t think he was the quality of these three and he also fails to meet the post-mound criteria. Sorry, Fleet.

1st Base: Buck Leonard, Mule Suttles. There were two problems here. The first was the necessity of leaving out Buck O’Neill. I don’t suppose there is a more important Negro Leaguer (except for Jackie Robinson), but the information on him makes it evident that he wasn’t really at the top of the line of Negro League first basemen. The second problem is that Mule Suttles spent a lot of time in the outfield. But it was common for Negro League players to do “double duty” in the field, so Suttles at first isn’t actually a bad idea.

2nd Base: Newt Allen, Bingo DeMoss. I think I had more trouble settling on the second basemen than on any other position (OK, maybe pitcher). First, I wanted to put Grant in, but just couldn’t because of the problems mentioned above. I also think it might be the weakest position in Negro League play. The list of truly great players here is awfully short. I think these two are probably the best, but I could be talked into someone else.

3rd Base: Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson. Again an easy pick. There seems to be universal agreement that Dandridge was a fielder unlike any other in the history of the Negro Leagues, and that Johnson could outhit anyone who played the position. Who am I to argue with universal agreement?

Shortstop: John Henry Lloyd, Willie Wells. Lloyd was an easy pick. If Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop who ever shortstopped, says he’s pleased to be compared with Lloyd, I’m gonna take him at his word. Wells was also pretty easy. Again there seems to be a consensus among the sources that he was a terrific shortstop.

Outfield: Cool Papa Bell, Willard Brown, Oscar Charleston, Martin DiHigo, Turkey Stearnes, Christobal Torriente. First, I didn’t worry about getting two each Right, Center, and Left. I ended up with two Right Fielders (Brown, DiHigo), one in Left (Stearnes), and the rest are Center Fielders. One of the things about studying and researching for this list is how quickly you find out Bell is seriously overrated. Now I don’t mean to imply Bell wasn’t a heck of a ballplayer; he was. He may have been the very best Negro League outfielder ever. But there seems to be this idea that he was just head and shoulders above the others (Charleston and Torriente). From what I read, I just don’t see that. Maybe he was better, but if so not by much. Certainly he wasn’t better by the amount a lot of people seem to want to think. It reminds me of what I call the “Derek Jeter Aura”. Is Jeter the best shortstop who started his career in the last 15 or so years? Yes. Is he the  greatest since the position was invented (as some would have us believe)?  Not even close, but try telling that to legions of his fans. And Bell seems to be running through that same situation. Personally, I think Charleston was better (and again that’s a personal opinion, not bolstered by much in the way of facts) and I’m not sure that DiHigo wasn’t the finest Negro League outfielder of the lot (or maybe he wasn’t, it’s tough to tell). I am fairly sure that DiHigo is the most under appreciated of the lot.

Pitcher: Ray Brown, Andy Cooper, Leon Day, Bill Foster, Luis Mendez, Satchel Paige, Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith. This may have been the hardest of the lists to determine. First, there aren’t a lot of really good left-handed pitchers in the Negro Leagues, so finding two (and one-quarter of the list being left-handed didn’t seem unreasonable) became a pain. Next, there were more than six righty’s that had to be considered. I hated to leave any off, but this list is my best guess.

Manager: Rube Foster. OK, he had to be here somewhere. He seems to have been a better pitcher than manager and a better manager than executive, but the founder of the Negro Leagues ought to be here.

Owner:  Cum Posey. I said that both second and pitching caused me the most problem. That’s true of players, but finding the best owner to put on the team was almost a nightmare. Who do you take? J.L. Wilkinson owned the most famous team (the Monarchs), Effa Manley of Newark was probably the most famous owner, Gus Greenlee owned the best team (the Crawfords). I looked at all of them and chose Posey, the man who owned the Grays. I think the Grays were the most consistantly successful team in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. I decided that made Posey the owner.

One of a kind: Double Duty Radcliffe. Radcliffe was known to pitch one game of a double-header, then catch the other game. You have to be kidding me. 

Post Negro League Career: Charley Pride. One of the great things about being married to my wife is that every morning I get to “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.” Now I may be wrong about this, but “Just Between You and Me,” as far as I can tell, Pride had the best non-sports related career of any Negro Leaguer.

A Charley Pride baseball card

The musical information shown here tells me this card is a fake, but I just couldn’t resist putting it up for show and tell.

Here’s hoping you’ve learned something from this sojourn into the Negro Leagues and black baseball in general. Failing that, I hope you enjoyed them. With the end of Black History Month, I’ll think I’ll take up something else.