Posts Tagged ‘Spottswood Poles’

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

Spot

February 14, 2017
Spottswood Poles

Spottswood Poles

If you ask most people what they know about the Negro Leagues, you’ll probably get, presuming you get anything other than a blank stare, something about the leagues or the teams of the 1930s and 1940s. And if you get that, you’ll probably hear something like “they ran a lot.” That’s true as far as it goes. They also hit for power and pitched and did all the other things baseball players do, but for some reason the speed game has become a centerpiece of Negro League baseball. That’s true back well beyond the 1930s. One of the first great speedsters played in the Deadball Era. He was Spottswood Poles.

Poles was born in Winchester, Virginia (another in Bloggess’ tour of Virginia people) in 1887. It was the height of “Jim Crow” and Poles, who could play baseball well, went North catching on with the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Colored Giants in 1906. Sol White, owner and manager of the Philadelphia Giants saw him and brought him to the more prestigious Philly team in 1909 (age 22). He was an immediate success. He played the outfield (center) and frequently led off games. He was fast, according to legend, he stole 41 bases in 60 games in 1911 (obviously not all of those can be verified).

He stayed with Philadelphia through 1910 then shifted to the Lincoln Giants (of New York) in 1911. As with most Negro League stars of the day, he did a stint in Cuba during the winters. Between 1910 and 1915 he starred for Fe (“faith”) in Cuba. Info available at Baseball Reference.com shows him hitting ,369 with 21 stolen bases in 25 games with Fe in 1910 (the only season statistics are available). There are references to him hitting .364 in 1912, but I could find no collaboration of that figure. His Wikipedia page credits him with an overall average of .319 in Cuba. The Seamheads site lists the average as .314.

With the Lincoln Giants he became a star. With a short side trip to the Lincoln Stars (an offshoot of the Giants–a story for another time), Spot Poles stayed with the Lincoln Giants until 1917. His numbers vary, but it is obvious he was one of the finer players of the era. Batting averages like .440 and .487 pop up, but Baseball Reference.com’s best number is .382 in 1914 (over 38 games). Seamheads shows a .375 over 17 games in 1912. All are great numbers but they indicate how difficult it is to pin down Negro League statistics.

With the US entering World War I in 1917, Poles joined the Army. He was part of the 369th Infantry (sometimes known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”) and served in France. His unit, a segregated regiment was attached to the French Army during 1918 and served conspicuously. Poles himself earned a Purple Heart during his service.

Back in the Negro Leagues in 1919 he played with Hilldale (Philadelphia), the Bacharachs (Atlantic City), and again with the Lincoln Giants, remaining a player into 1923. In retirement he ran a taxi service, then worked at an air base. He died in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1962. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Remember, he was a veteran of World War I.

These are his numbers from the research by Seamheads: in 290 documented games his triple slash line reads .307/.385/.380/.765 with  60 stolen bases, 228 runs scored, 350 hits, 51 doubles, four home runs, and 114 RBIs. Not at all bad numbers. In contrast, Baseball Reference.com gives the following stats: in 165 documented games a triple slash line of .318/.386/.389/.775, 56 stolen bases, 159 runs scored, 245 hits, 35 doubles, two homers, and 61 RBIs. Either set you pick, you have a great ballplayer.

It’s obvious, if you notice the differing stats listed here, that Poles (one of whose nicknames was the equally obvious “Bean”) is a great case of how difficult it is to get a true handle on Negro League players. It’s certain he was good. It’s almost impossible to tell just how good. When I mentioned on an earlier post about my fantasy league team and how it showed me just how much we were only “glimpsing” the Negro League players, Poles (who is on my team) is one of the players I meant.

In 2006 the Hall of Fame formed a committee to look over and choose Negro League players for Hall enshrinement. Poles was one of the players on the list. He made it through the first round and to the final cut, but did not make it into the Hall of Fame. It will be interesting to see if the new Veteran’s Committee tasked with looking at pre-integration players takes another look at either him or other Negro League players.

Poles grave in Arlington

Poles grave in Arlington

 

Who Got Left Out?

February 28, 2014
"Cannonball" Dick Redding

“Cannonball” Dick Redding

Back in 2006 the Hall of Fame created a special “Veteran’s Committee” to look at Negro League baseball and determine if there were players, owners, managers, executives, and/or others that had been ignored by Cooperstown. A great deal of research went into the files handed to the committee. For the layman, the most important bits of the research was published as Shades of Glory. A panel of baseball historians eventually came up with a list of 94 African-Americans involved with baseball prior to 1946 for the committee (now called the Committee on African-American Baseball) to look over and pass judgment on. Of that list, 39 made the initial cut. The committee then selected 17 for enshrinement in Cooperstown. After all the hoopla of induction and fuss and feathers about who got in and who didn’t, a great stillness settled over the Hall. It was as if they were saying, “OK, team, we’ve done our bit. We put in a bunch of people, so now that’s all. There won’t be anymore.” Of course they never really said that, but any push to add further Negro League players or executives has come more from fans than the powers that be.

So it’s a fair question to ask what about the 77 nominees who didn’t make the cut in 2006? Are they now relegated to the dustbin of history or do they have a chance to make the Hall at a later time? Another question that needs to be asked is this, have we truly reached the end of those Negro League players who should be commemorated in Cooperstown?

If you look over the list of 77 non-inductees (and it’s available on Wikipedia under “Baseball Hall of Fame Balloting, 2006”) there are some really fine players being pushed to the sidelines. Where, for instance, are Bud Fowler and George Stovey, arguably two of the three finest black players of the 19th Century (Frank Grant, who made it, being the other)? Spottswood Poles was an excellent fielding, but not great hitting middle infielder in the early part of the 20th Century. Between 1911 and 1919 “Cannonball” Dick Redding was 40-20 in documented games, a .667 winning percentage. In the formal Negro Leagues of the 1920s through 1940s Newt Allen played middle infield, managed, and eventually moved to third base for the Kansas City Monarchs in a career that saw him play in the 1924 Negro World Series and the 1942 Negro World Series. John Donaldson was a crack pitcher for years, then became the first fulltime black scout in MLB when the White Sox signed him in 1949. And then there is Buck O’Neil, manager, first baseman, scout, coach, batting champion, and spokesman for the Negro Leagues.

It seems appropriate to end Black History Month (and my yearly journey through black baseball) by asking what do we make of these men being left out of the Hall of Fame? Perhaps nothing. Their stats are blurred, they are in many cases more legend than fact. But they were real players and they played at the highest level they were allowed. Maybe none of them are Hall of Fame quality players. In O’Neil’s case he is more than worthy as a contributor and ambassador, but maybe some of them are of sufficient quality as players. What I don’t want to see is the Hall of Fame now grow complacent and say “Well, we’ve got enough of these guys. Close the door.” I hope that the Veteran’s Committee that reviews the “Segregation Era” (pre-1947) will continue to look at Negro League players and eventually induct a few more.