Posts Tagged ‘Satchel Paige’

Negro League Lessons, Seven Years On

February 25, 2016
The 1929 St. Louis Stars

The 1929 St. Louis Stars

Seven years ago (is it really that long?) I started taking part of February to look at Negro League history. A year or so later I made it a month-long project. I had a couple of goals in doing this. One was to learn what I could about the black players, teams, owners, and all those other things that make a baseball team work. The second was to chronicle that information so that others could learn something also. Of course I’ve had to correct some of the things I initially put down because new information became available, or I found a source I’d overlooked, or I was just plain wrong (which happened occasionally). Seven years down the road it seems like a good time to take stock of the project.

The first thing I learned was just exactly how much mythology surrounds the Negro Leagues. Of course that sort of thing occurs with Major League Baseball, the origins of the sport, and various other aspects  of the game. It seems baseball nurses mythology more than any other sport and revels in those myths. Negro League Baseball is no different. The early players take on heroic proportions. Babe Ruth is a giant among men who can slay all sorts of ogres with one swing of his mighty sword (or bat). It seems Josh Gibson is the same way. Lou Gehrig is the doomed youth who heroically faces his end. So does Dobie Moore. There’s trickster Dizzy Dean and there is trickster Satchel Paige. If you listen to the myths, Homer himself would be proud of some of them.

The reality is even more fascinating, because you end up with a particularly interesting set of men, men much like the white players that were gracing the Majors. Some were scoundrels, some were men of great compassion and of high character. Some you wouldn’t want your family or your friends to be around while others were “the salt of the earth.” All that’s equally true of white players. As a whole they are complicated men who are generally defined by their ability to play ball (something I usually stick to here) but most are much deeper, although there aren’t many profound thinkers in the lot (which is true of people in mass).

It was tough being a Major Leaguer in the era of the Negro Leagues. It was tougher being a Negro Leaguer. The pay was wretched. In the 1924 World Series, the winning Senators received a $5959.64. The Monarchs, winners of the Negro World Series of the same year, received a winner share of $307.96. The transportation was sometimes very basic, including old buses and occasionally individual automobiles. The hotels were of poor quality, assuming they could find a hotel that would take them. By compensation there were individual families in the frequented towns who would take them in. Most of them enjoyed the same off-season drudgeries and joys as their white counterparts. The fields were sometimes in terrible shape, sometimes they were Major League fields rented for an individual game or for a season.

As with the white players the Negro Leaguers could be the toast of the town, although it was the segregated “colored towns” of the era. They provided one of the few community wide black venues for entertainment in many towns and in some cities. It seems, and this is strictly an anecdotal observation, that they were even more important to the black communities than the Major League teams were to the white communities.

The owners were much like the white owners. Players were chattel or they were employees. Some were treated well by their teams, some not so much. The owners frequently came from what the “better element” of the white community would call “the shady side of life.” There were gamblers, pool hall owners, barmen, numbers touts, even a woman (Effa Manley). They also stole players under contract to other teams at an alarming rate. They are as a group, in some ways, more interesting than their white counterparts, most of which were moguls who found baseball much more of a side interest. Some of my favorite articles to research are the ones on team owners and executives because they are such interesting individuals.

One thing that is certainly evident is that they could play ball really, really well. They were certainly the equal of the white players of the era. They were not, despite the growing mythology of the Negro Leagues, better. Short rosters made some of them more versatile than their white counterparts, but not better. The best were on a par with the Gehrigs and Deans and Applings of the day and the worst were no worse than the hangers on who had, at best, a cup of coffee in the big leagues. In an evident attempt to establish their greatness a certain bit of nostalgic mythology has made them better than the white players. In the stark reality of short seasons and second-hand fields and poor equipment they did well. It is a testament to their playing ability that they can be considered on par with the Major Leagues. There is no necessity to compensate for the bad hand they were dealt merely because of the color of their skin by trying to assert they were better than they were.

They weren’t all Americans. I knew that, of course, but I did not know the extent of the Latin players involved or of American black player involvement in the Latin countries. And it’s here that race is at its worst. A Latin player who didn’t look “black” (and God alone knows how many ways different scouts, managers, and owner defined that word) could make the Major Leagues. A Latin player who did look “black” couldn’t. So Dolf Luque could play in a World Series and Martin DeHigo couldn’t. For Americans of mixed race it didn’t matter how “white” a player looked, he was “black” and that was that and that mentality sent players like Roy Campanella to the Baltimore Elite Giants rather than the New York Giants (and ultimately the Dodgers).

It’s interesting that most of the Negro League teams were housed in the North rather than the South, which had more Black Americans. As a former college instructor (Geez, that was a long time ago) I knew that intuitively, but it still jarred a bit. Jim Crow wasn’t restricted to the South, but the rules were looser enough to make it at least a little easier for a black team to function in the North. And of course the cities were larger, which made the crowds larger and the possibility of profit greater.

All that’s some of what I’ve learned over seven years of wandering through the world of Negro League baseball. It’s a strange and fascinating place to wander. I intend to keep it up as long as I can find something new to say.

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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.

 

Negro World Series: 2.0

February 14, 2014
1942 Kansas City Monarchs

1942 Kansas City Monarchs

Back in the 1920s, the two primary Negro Leagues, the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League champions had met in a set of games called the Negro World Series. The ECL collapsed during the 1928 season, thus bring the postseason games to a close. They remained the only postseason games held between the two most prominent Negro Leagues for years. In 1933 a new Negro National League was formed, with a Negro American League following in 1937. They feuded for a few years, but by 1942 saw the sense of reestablishing a Negro World Series. The first of the new Series’ pitted Negro National League winner the Homestead Grays against the Negro American League winner the Kansas City Monarchs.

The Grays featured an infield of Hall of Fame first baseman Buck Leonard, second basemen were Matt Carlisle or Howard Easterling, shortstop Sam Bankhead, and Hall of Fame third sacker Jud Wilson. The outfield was, left around to right, manager Vic Harris, Jerry Benjamin, and either Easterling or Roy Partlow. Josh Gibson, another Hall of Fame member did the catching of a staff consisting of Partlow, Roy Welmaker, Ray Brown, and Johnny Wright. They’d won their fourth consecutive pennant by three games.

The Monarchs had been around longer than the Grays and were winners of the very first Negro World Series in 1924. Manager Frank Duncan’s 1942 version consisted of an infield of Buck O’Neil at first, Bonnie Serrell at second, shortstop Jesse Williams, and Newt Allen (a holdover from the 1924 Negro World Series). The outfield featured left fielder Bill Simms, Hall of Fame member Willard Brown in center, and Ted Strong in right. The staff of Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith, along with Jack Matchett was caught by Joe Greene.

The teams agreed to spread the wealth around by holding games in various cities. Game one was held in the Gray’s home park in Washington, DC with Paige starting against Welmaker. The two matched zeroes through five innings with Paige giving up only two hits. In the sixth, Allen singled, went to second on another single, then Allen scored when Bankhead and Gibson both committed errors on the same play. Matchett relieved Paige to start the bottom of the sixth and allowed no hits for the remainder of the game. Scoring in each of the last three innings, the Monarchs cruised to an 8-0 victory with Matchett getting the win and Welmaker taking the loss.

Game two was two days later in Pittsburgh, the secondary home of the Grays. The Monarchs jumped on starter Partlow in the first for one run, tacked on another in the fourth, and knocked Parlow off the mound when Serrell tripled with the bases loaded to put them up 5-0. The Grays made it close by putting up four runs in the bottom of the eighth, highlighted by Wilson’s two-run triple. Kansas City returned the favor by adding three more in the ninth to win 8-4. Smith got the win with Paige picking up the save. In the game’s most famous moment Paige gave up three hits to load the bases in the seventh, then with two outs and the bases loaded struck out Gibson on three pitches. Later legend has Paige walking the bases full on purpose so he could strike out Gibson. The record shows that Paige didn’t walk anyone in the inning, but it makes a great story.

The third game was three days later in Yankee Stadium. With Paige starting for Kansas City, Easterling hit a home run in the first inning and picked up another run on a Leonard single. For the first time in the Series the Grays led. It lasted into the third when both Strong and Brown hit home runs to give the Monarchs a 4-2 lead off starter Ray Brown. Matchett replaced Paige in the third and gave up only one unearned run, while Kansas City tacked on two in the fourth and three in the fifth to win 9-3.

Then came one of those things that only happened in Negro League ball. The teams scheduled a seven inning exhibition immediately following game three (KC won it), then Homestead played four exhibition games against the Stars (in Philadelphia), the Elite Giants (in Baltimore), and two against the Eagles (in Hartford). Not to be outdone, the Monarchs scheduled an exhibition game against the Clowns in Louisville. (For what it’s worth KC won their game and the Grays went 0-3-1).

Finally after a week off, the Series resumed in Kansas City in what became the most controversial game. Homestead won 4-1 with Leon Day defeating Paige. But wait, you say, Leon Day? The Grays were having roster problems. Partlow and Bankhead were both out  (a boil for Partlow and a broken arm for Bankhead) and Carlisle was drafted, so the Grays signed Day and three other players for the remainder of the Series. Kansas City objected and protested. The protest was upheld and the game was not counted.

The official game four was held nine days later in Philadelphia, much of the delay being caused by the protest. Recovered from the boil, Partlow started for the Grays. Simms led off the game with a triple and scored on Allen’s single. Paige, who was supposed to start game five was not at the park, so Matchett started for the Monarchs. Homestead put up three in the bottom of the first, but Kansas City got one back in the third on an error and three singles. In the bottom of the third, Chet Williams hit a two-run single to put the Grays up 5-2. By this point Paige had arrived in the Monarchs dugout (and honestly I’ve been unable to find out where he was) and relieved Matchett. He pitched shutout ball the rest of the way, allowing no hits, a walk, and one runner reached on an error.. Meanwhile, Kansas City started chipping away at the Homestead lead. Greene hit a two-run homer in the fourth to narrow the score to 5-4. It stayed that way until the seventh when Brown doubled, O’Neil singled him home, then O’Neil came home on consecutive singles. The Monarchs tacked on three more in the eighth and coasted to a 9-5 win and a sweep of the 1942 Series.

For the Series Serrell led all hitters with a .566 average, O’Neil had six RBIs and two triples, while Strong, Brown, and Green all had home runs. Matchett had two wins, Smith one, and Piage had both a win and a save and a team high 14 strikeouts. Of the Grays, only Easterling (among players showing up in all four games) hit .300. He also had the only team home run. Partlow, Welmaker, Ray Brown, and Wright all took losses with Welmaker’s eight strikeouts leading the team.

It wasn’t a particularly well-played series. Kansas City had six errors and Homestead topped that with 13 (an average of three a game). Interestingly enough Kansas City’s were more critical. The Grays scored only 12 runs, half were unearned. The Monarchs, on the other hand, scored 34 with only four being unearned. For the whole Series, the Monarchs proved that they were much the superior team.

For the Monarchs it marked their final championship. Although they made one more Negro World Series (1946), they lost it. For the Grays it was the first of five tries. They would win back-to-back series’ in 1943 and 1944, before losing in 1945. They would also return to the NWS in 1948, when they would win the last ever series.

It’s certainly a fun and unique series to read about and research. The accounts of the games make it apparent that both teams played hard. The long interlude between game three and game four could only occur in the Negro Leagues (unless there was one heck of a rain delay–or an earthquake). Throwing in exhibition games in the midst of the Series was certainly unique. All in all I find it a fitting way to reestablish the Negro World Series after a 15 year hiatus.

The First Negro League All-Star Game

February 18, 2013
Steel Arm Davis

Steel Arm Davis

In an earlier previous post I remarked on the formation and history of the East-West All-Star Game. As with most all-star games some of them are very good and others stink up the place. For my money one of the very best East-West games was the first one in 1933.

Held on 10 September in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, the game consisted of two fan chosen teams that cut across league lines to create two geographically chosen teams. The East starting team had an infield (from first to third) of: Oscar Charleston (Crawfords), John Henry Russell (Crawfords), Dick Lundy (Stars), and Jud Wilson (Stars). The outfield was from left to right: Vic Harris (Crawfords), Cool Papa Bell (Crawfords), and Rap Dixon (Stars). The battery had Biz Mackey (Stars) catching, and Sam Streeter (Crawfords) pitching. The bench consisted of eight players (a few of them not from either the Crawfords or the Stars) including future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Andy Cooper, Judy Johnson and catcher Josh Gibson.

The West team was equally stellar. The infield (again first to third) was Mule Suttles (American Giants), LeRoy Morney (Buckeyes), Willie Wells (American Giants), and Alex Radcliffe (American Giants). From left to right the outfield was Steel Arm Davis (American Giants), Turkey Stearnes (American Giants), and Sam Bankhead (Elite Giants). The battery consisted of  catcher Willie Brown and pitcher Willie Foster (both of the American Giants). The bench comprised seven players (most from either the Nashville Elite Giants or the Kansas City Monarchs) with Newt Allen being the most noted. The West team did not substitute during the game (the only time that occured in the East-West Game), so the subs got the day off.

Steel Arm Davis recorded the first out on a fly from Cool Papa Bell and the East went in order in the first. In the top of the second, Jud Wilson singled to record the first hit, but did not score. The game remained scoreless into the bottom of the third when Sam Bankhead singled, went to second on an out and scored on Turkey Stearnes’ single. The fourth inning saw six runs scored, three by each team. The botom of the third included a two-run home run by Mule Suttles, the first homer in East-West history. The East got two more in the fifth on a single, a hit bastsman, another single, and Wilson’s two run single. That put the East up 5-4. It was their last lead.

The West took the lead for good in the bottom of the sixth on two singles sandwiched around consecutive doubles. They picked up three more in the seventh and a final run in the eighth. By the top of the ninth, the East led 11-5 and were coasting. A single, an error, and two sacrifice flies brought the game to 11-7 with Josh Gibson coming up. He hit a long fly to end the game.

The big heroes were Foster, who pitched the only complete game in East-West history, and Suttles who was two for four with three RBIs, two runs scored, a double, and a home run. More than that, the game was a huge success among fans. It made it certain that the game would be continued.

Comparing Across Eras

May 30, 2011

Nap LaJoie

I have to admit I’m guilty of something. It’s a small thing, not exactly a sin, but I still do it. I’m guilty of trying to compare players across eras. We all do it. We compare Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron. We compare Lou Gehrig to Mark McGwire. We compare Honus Wagner to Derek Jeter. Baseball statisticians have come up with stat after stat that attempts to compare players. Some of them take the time to try to figure out how the eras differ and then try to factor that into the equation. Some of those do a fairly good job of it, and others stink up the joint when they try. So here’s a look at some of the factors that I think have to be considered when trying to compare players across eras.

1. Segregation. This one should be obvious and I have no idea how you factor it in. How much does Lefty Grove not having to face Josh Gibson change Grove’s overall numbers? Got me, coach. And of course it works the other way too. How much does Satchel Paige’s inability to face Babe Ruth in meaningful competition change Paige’s numbers? Again, got me, coach. I think it is important to recognize this is a problem. I simply have no idea how you fix it.

2. Roster sizes. I don’t want to hit this one too hard. If you have Babe Ruth on your team, you’re going to play him a lot. But roster sizes do matter, at least some. The smaller the roster, the less a manager can rest a player and that can create end of season slumps that might not occur on teams with larger rosters.

3. Rules changes. I tend to harp on the pitching change to 60’6″ as a watershed in baseball, but there are a lot of major rules changes that make it difficult to compare players. How would Cy Young do pitching at 50 feet? Well, we actually know he did quite well for a few years, but we don’t know what that means for someone like Walter Johnson. Pud Galvin never pitched a big  league game at 60’6″. Could he have been successful there? Don’t know and don’t know how to figure it out. There are other problems like ball and strike count, stolen base rules, etc. My guess is that some of them can be accounted for by looking at before and after stats and seeing how much change occurs (sort of like figuring out how much expansion changes things), but I don’t know you can account for every situation, particularly the mound. I also know this is a much greater problem in trying to factor in 19th Century players.

4. Equipment. How good was Honus Wagner in the field? A look at his basic fielding  stats shows he was OK, but nothing special. Some of the newer stats begin to show us just how good he was, but many of the older ones don’t take the difference in equipment into account. When you’re playing shortstop with a glove that looks a lot like my winter gloves, you’re not going to put up fielding statistics that equal those of players with modern gloves.  Take a look at modern catching equipment versus the gear of players as recent as Ray Schalk (of 1919 fame). Fielding statistics have gotten better over the years, but much of that is  artificial, brought on by equipment changes. Same for batting. Moderns bats are a far cry from the table legs used by guys at the turn of the 20th Century. There’s a wonderful picture of Nap LaJoie that I stuck in above. Take a look at the bat. Now think about a modern bat. Tell me that one factor doesn’t affect stats.

5. Fields. Modern baseball parks are a far cry from early parks. I’m not talking about the distance to fences, that’s easy to factor in. What I’m talking about is the general condition of the playing surface. Wagner talked about picking up a  ball and watching a cloud of  dust, a handful of pebbles, and the ball all going toward first at the same time. Don’t know how many times that actually happened, but it’s not going to happen at all today. Those uneven fields created more errors and also made normal chances more difficult. I think you can determine the best fielders of the era, but to compare them to modern fielders is difficult enough without worrying about the condition of the playing surface in 1910.

6. Going off to war. Really cuts down on your playing time and is specific to time and place.

Most of what I’ve talked about so far is generally known, and I think statisticians have made good-faith efforts to factor in those things. How much success they’ve had is another question. I don’t know that Win Shares or WAR or anything else adequately accounts for these things, but it’s evident that they are trying. It’s the following two items that I think have been vastly underappreciated by people who try to compare players.

7. Medical advances. You do know that if Tommy John never has the surgery named for him that he never enters a Hall of Fame discussion, don’t you? If that surgery were available in 1935, maybe Dizzy Dean wins another 100 games (or maybe something else goes wrong and he doesn’t). Modern arthritis treatments might give Sandy Koufax another twenty win season. My point is that medical advances change the ability of players to compete just as changes in bats and gloves and fields do the same. I don’t know that anyone has considered this. I also don’t know how you would factor it in, but I think it should be noted at some point.

8. Salaries. Back when I was collecting baseball cards the info on the back sometimes told you what the guy did in the offseason. Most players had to have a “real” job to make ends meet. Most of those jobs weren’t going to enhance your baseball skills. A guy like Richie Hebner dug graves. That might keep him in shape, but didn’t particularly help his batting eye. An old Cardinals pitcher named Ray Washburn sold insurance. Checking  actuary tables probably didn’t hurt his eyesight too much, but I’ll bet it didn’t help his throwing motion. With modern salaries making it less necessary for players to have a “real” job in the offseason they have more time to hone their baseball skills, thus making them better players. This doesn’t mean they all do it in the offseason, only that the opportunity is there for modern players, an option that wasn’t as readily available in 1960. Again, I’m not sure how that’s factored in, but it probably should  be noted.

So the next time you decide to see if you can figure out which was better, Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron, don’t forget to factor in a bunch of things that don’t always show up in the stats. There are others that I didn’t mention above (like advances in training methods), but these will do for starters. Have fun.

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.

Josh

February 25, 2011

Josh Gibson

Here’s a list of a dozen things you should know about Josh Gibson:

1. He was born in 1911 in the South, but moved to Pittsburgh when still young.

2. He played in the Negro Leagues for the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

3. He also played in the Dominican, Mexican and Puerto Rican Leagues. Some sources claim he was even better there than in the Negro Leagues.

4. With him behind the plate, the Grays won the Negro League World Series in both 1943 and 1944. How much World War II changed Negro League rosters, I don’t know.

5. He married in 1929 and his wife died in childbirth the next year. She had twins, both of which survived.

6. Although sources vary, the most common numbers I could find list him as 6′ 1″ and 210 pounds.

7. Negro League statistics, when they exist, are all over the place. Gibson’s are no exception. When MLB decided to add a bunch of Negro League players to the Hall of Fame in 2007, they had researchers compile stats on as many Negro League players as they could find. This included Gibson. While admittedly incomplete, the numbers they found indicate he hit .359, slugged .648 (but no on base percentage is available, so no OPS or OPS+ is known), played 510 games in 16 seasons peaking at 53 in 1934 (an average of 39 per season), had 666 hits, 109 doubles, 41 triples, and 115 home runs for 1202 total bases. He knocked in 432 RBIs and scored 467 runs with 22 stolen bases.  Let me point out that with barnstorming, games against white teams, and against Major League players, Negro League seasons were considerably shorter than Major League seasons.

8. In 1943 Gibson developed a cancerous brain tumor. His 1944 season is still good, but the last two years are evidently effected by the illness.

9. He was angry that Jackie Robinson was chosen over him to integrate Major League baseball. In Robinson’s defense Jackie was considerably younger.

10. Gibson died in 1947 of a stroke. He was 35.

11. The 1996 movie Soul of the Game, which dealt with the signing of Robinson, featured Gibson as one of the two major figures Branch Rickey was looking at (Satchel Paige was the other) when he opted for Robinson. The movie is highly fictionalized.

12. In 1972 he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

The Last Great Negro League World Series

February 18, 2011

Although the signing of black players to Major League teams began the end for the Negro Leagues, they managed to hold a World Series as late as 1948. But by 1948 the Negro Leagues were on life support. They still had good players. Willie Mays played in the last Negro League World Series (his team lost). But as a whole the leagues were dying. At the end of 1948 the Negro National League folded. But prior to losing most of their best players to the white leagues, the Negro Leagues had one last great Series in 1946.

As with the Major League World Series (won in 1946 by the Cardinals), the Negro League World Series was a best of seven. The 1946 version featured the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. The Monarchs were a well established team that had been victories in previous Negro League World Series’ going all the way back to the 1920s. Manager and back-up catcher Frank Duncan’s team featured NAL batting champion Buck O’Neill at first, Hank Thompson at second, Herb Souell at third, and Series hitting star Chico Renfroe at short (Renfroe had backed up Jackie Robinson earlier). The outfield consisted of Willard Brown in center flanked by Ted Strong in right and a whole group of left fielders including pitchers Robert Griffith and Ford  Smith. The catcher was Joe Greene, who caught a staff that included Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Ford Smith, Chet Brewer, and James LaMarque.

1946 KC Monarchs

The Negro National League winning Newark Eagles weren’t nearly as famous. In fact, their owner, Effa Manley, may have been more famous than the team. They’d never won before, but put up a 47-16 record to take the pennant. Manager Biz Mackey’s (like Duncan the back-up catcher)  infield consisted of  Lennie Pearson at first, Larry Doby at second, Clarence Israel at third, and  Monte Irvin at short.  Cherokee Davis and Bob Harvey patrolled the outfield with pitcher Leon Day taking the other position on days he didn’t pitch. Regular catcher Leon Ruffin backstopped a staff that included Day, Max Manning, Lennie Hooker, and Rufus Lewis.

1946 Newark Eagles

The first two games were in Newark, with the teams splitting the games. Kansas City won the first game 2-1 with a fine relief performance by Paige, who also scored the winning run. Newark evened the Series the next day winning 7-4. The key to the game was a six run rally in the 7th inning. Paige relieved again, and this time the Eagles got to him with Doby providing a key home run.

The Series moved to Kansas City for games 3-5. The first two games in KC were blowouts. In game 3, the Monarchs racked up 15 runs and 21 hits in crushing Newark who put up five runs on seven hits. The Eagles got revenge in game 4, winning 8-1. Doby doubled and tripled for the key runs. Paige again relieved and was again ineffective. Game 5 saw Newark collect ten hits, but score only one run, while the Monarchs made five runs on nine hits. In a key development, right fielder Ted Strong left the Monarchs to play ball in the Puerto Rico winter league making it necessary for pitcher Ford Smith to take his post in right.

With Newark down 3-2, the Series went back to the East Coast. Game 6 developed into an offensive slugfest. Irvin and Lennie Pearson both slugged two homers, Buck O’Neill and Willard Brown each  had one. The Eagles evened the Series with a 9-7 win. That set up game seven, only the second time the Negro League World Series had gone the full seven games (1943). The key development occurred prior to the game when Paige didn’t show up for the game. No one seems to know exactly why. Stories about bribes, drinking, loose women, and all sorts of other things pop up, but there seems to be no definitive answer to Paige being MIA. The way he’d pitched in the Series, it might have made no difference. Newark scored first, but KC tied it in the sixth and went ahead 2-1 in the seventh. In the bottom of the eighth, both Doby and Irvin walked. Cherokee Davis followed with a two run double to put the Eagles ahead 3-2. KC failed to score in the ninth and Newark won its only Negro League World Series.

The Series had a usual assortment of heroes and goats. For the Eagles Irvin, Pearson, and Davis had great games with Irvin hitting .462 with eight RBI’s and three home runs. For the staff Lewis was 2-1 and Manning 1-1. Hooker was also 1-1, but with an ERA of 6.00. Ace Leon Day ended up 0-0, also with a 6.00 ERA. For the Monarchs, Renfroe hit .414, O’Neill had two homers, and Brown had three, despite hitting only .241. The loss of Strong was a blow, but as he was hitting only .111 when he left the team, it may have effected the pitching more than the hitting. Hilton Smith was 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA and hit well when he played the outfield. But the rest of the staff didn’t do as well. Paige was also 1-1, but with a 5.40 ERA, a blown save, and of course missed game 7 entirely.   LaMarque won his only decision, but had an ERA over 7.

There would be two more Negro League World Series matchups before the NNL folded. Both were played with depleted rosters and neither lived up to the 1946 version. It was to be the final Negro League World Series with the top quality players available and in many ways was the true end of an era.

The Dynamic Duo

February 14, 2011

With appropriate apologies to Batman and Robin, the above title can apply to a great number of teammates who have played baseball. In pitching there is Mathewson and McGinnity, Ruffing and Gomez, Koufax and Drysdale, Maddux and Glavine, Johnson and Schilling to name a handful. As befits its status as a quasi-Major League, Negro League baseball also has its dynamic duo: Paige and Smith.

Stachel Paige

Satchel Paige is arguably the most well-known Negro League player. Over the years he’s become the stuff of legend, some of it even true. He’s easily the most quotable of the Negro League players and his “Don’t look back” line has entered American lore. He was also a great pitcher. He spent time in the Negro Leagues, in independent all-black leagues, in Mexico, and the Dominican Republic and he was successful everywhere. There were those who thought he might be the man who broke the “color barrier” and integrated Major League baseball, but he proved too outspoken and controversial. He did eventually get to the big leagues with Cleveland and was among the first black men to play on a  World Series champion when the Indians won the World Series in 1948. He became the first black player to pitch in the Series when he came into game 5 of the ’48 World Series in the seventh inning. He pitched two-thirds of an inning in relief  giving up neither runs nor hits nor walks (and not striking out anyone either). He eventually got enough time in to earn a pension from Major League Baseball and was the first Negro League player elected to Cooperstown in 1971.

Hilton Smith

Hilton Smith isn’t nearly as well-known, which is a great shame. Smith was from Texas, born in 1912. He got to the Negro Leagues in 1932, then spent time with a semi-pro team in North Dakota. In 1937, he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs staying through 1948. Between 1940 and 1947 he teamed with Paige to create a great one-two pitching punch for the Monarchs. The team won the first of the newly restarted Negro League World Series’ in 1942 and played in the 1946 Series. In 1940 and 1941, prior to the advent of the new World Series, the Monarchs won the Negro American League pennant. For the period they pitched together Smith was as good as Paige. Some of his contemporaries considered him better (In Paige’s defense, he was considerably older and on the decline phase of his career.). Unlike Paige, Smith never made the Major Leagues. He retired after 1948 and lived in Kansas City. He died in 1983 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001.

How good were they? Generally, that’s a question you really can’t answer when discussing the Negro Leagues because the statistics aren’t available. But with these two at least a partial answer is available. In 2007 the Hall of Fame inducted a whole group of players, owners, contributors from the Negro Leagues. In order for the special committee doing the voting to have some basis for making an informed, intelligent decision a group of statisticians and baseball researchers were commissioned to find as much statistical information as possible. They also looked for information on then-current Hall members like both Paige and Smith so as to give the committee a set of comparison points. In his book Shades of Glory Lawrence Hogan compiled those stats and made them readily available for readers. Admittedly, the stats are incomplete, but they do offer a glimpse into the quality of the players involved. As the researchers got closer to 1947 (the year Jackie Robinson first appeared in a Brooklyn uniform) the stats became at least a little more complete, but still not definitive. As Paige and Smith both pitched into the 1940s that gives us a somewhat truer view of them than otherwise possible with many earlier pitchers.

So back to “How good were they?”. For his career, using stats available, Paige won 103 games, lost 61 (a .628 percentage), pitched 1506.2 innings over 263 games with an ERA of 2.02. He gave up 1174 hits, 253 walks, and struck out 1231. Smith won 71, lost 31 (a .696 percentage), pitched 812.1 innings over 146 games with an ERA of 1.68. He gave up 674 hits, walked 96, and struck out 430. From 1940 through 1947, their time together on the Monarchs, Paige was 27-24 (.529 percentage) to Smith’s 43-20 (.686 percentage). Paige pitched 104 games, Smith 84. Paige gave up 352 hits, Smith 412. Paige walked 69 to Smith’s 56. Paige struck out 395 to Smith’s 208. Both had lower ERA’s than their career number. You can figure the WHIP yourself if you want. As far as I know, the research on Negro League ballparks is too incomplete to determine ERA+ numbers for either. To show you how incomplete these numbers are, I found a quote from Smith indicating he won 161 games. Apparently only 71 (44%) can be verified.

When I first sat down those numbers, my initial reaction was “Big deal.” Those aren’t bad numbers, but a lot of pitchers have much better statistics. But after a couple of minutes I realized who I was dealing with and what it meant. Even with truly great Negro League players like Paige and Smith it’s tough to really get a handle on them. The seasons are so short, the non-league barnstorming games don’t count, the numbers are so fragmentary that some sense of greatness gets lost. From just the numbers I have I’m not sure I wouldn’t consider Smith the superior pitcher, but they are so incomplete I can’t make that an informed statement. And that’s really too bad.

Whatever their actual numbers, Paige and Smith represent one of the truly finest pair of pitching teammates in baseball.  Had they played together on a Major League team they would be, in my opinion, both Hall of Fame pitchers. It’s right that they both made it to Cooperstown even without a chance to dazzle white audiences while in their prime.

The Kings of Kansas City

February 7, 2011

Monarchs uniform

I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that Negro League baseball has three teams that are truly famous. Oh, there are a lot of good teams and teams with great names like the Daisies, but three teams really stand out as famous: The Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Homestead Grays, and the Kansas City Monarchs. I hit the Crawfords last year and this post is about the Monarchs, so I guess that means I’m stuck with doing the Grays next year.

James Leslie Wilkinson (J.L. to his friends and players) was a former pitcher turned Hall of Fame baseball entrepreneur. In 1912 he formed the Des Moines All Nations team. Unlike most teams of the era it was multi-racial. The team was hugely successful, made Wilkinson a lot of money, and when the Negro National League was formed in 1920, Wilkinson became the only white man granted a franchise. He took the best players from the All Nations, and on a heads up from his friend Casey Stengel (yes, THAT Casey Stengel) combined them with the 25th Infantry Wreckers, an all black Army team (there’s a post waiting to happen), into the Kansas City Monarchs.

The monarchs were an immediate success winning titles in 1923, 1924, 1925, and 1929. In 1924 they participated in the first Negro League World Series against the Eastern Colored League champion Hilldale Daisies. With players like Heavy Johnson, Newt Allen, and Hall of Famers Bullet Joe Rogan and Luis Mendez they won it. The 1925 Series was a rematch. This time Hilldale won. In 1931 the Negro National League collapsed, but the Monarchs survived as a barnstorming team until 1936.

1939 Monarchs

In 1937 they joined the newly established Negro American League. Again they were hugely successful winning pennants in 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1946. In 1942, the Negro League World Series was reestablished with the Monarchs winning the first one against Homestead. Playing for them were Buck O’Neill, Newt Allen (still), and Hall of Famers Willard Brown, Andy Cooper, Hilton Smith, and Satchel Paige. With essentially the same team (OK, Allen was finally gone), they lost the 1946 Series to the Newark Eagles. During the period, they also picked up, for the 1945 season only, a shortstop named Jackie Robinson.

Of course Robinson’s leaving for Brooklyn began the long, slow decline of the Negro Leagues. In 1948, seeing the inevitable collapse, Wilkinson sold the team. It remained in the Negro American League until 1961, when the league finally folded. After 1948, the Monarchs won a couple of league championships, but with much inferior talent.  By the 1950s, Negro League baseball was a shadow of its former glory, but the Monarchs hung on as one of the better teams. They did manage to run Ernie Banks and Elston Howard through their much depleted lineup, but overall quality slipped drastically. In 1955 The Athletics moved to Kansas City from Philadelphia, displacing the Monarchs as the premier team in town. The team headquarters moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan but the team retained the Kansas City name. The Monarchs took to barnstorming and remained alive until 1965, when they finally folded.

There are a number of ways to measure the impact of the Monarchs. They won a lot of games and pennants. They had some of the finest talent of any Negro League team. They continued to produce good talent well after the Negro Leagues were deep into collapse. They last longer than almost any other Negro League team. But maybe most significantly, when the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame was established, it went to Kansas City. They could have chosen a lot of places, but they picked Kansas City, home of the Monarchs.