Posts Tagged ‘Vic Harris’

Homestead Wins It All

February 10, 2015
1943 Homestead Grays

1943 Homestead Grays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Buck

February 12, 2014
Buck Leonard

Buck Leonard

Baseball history is full of truly fine one-two punches. There’s Ruth and Gehrig. There’s Aaron and Matthews. There’s Mays and McCovey. There is also Leonard and Gibson. This is the story of Buck Leonard, generally considered the greatest of all Negro League first basemen.

Walter Leonard was born in North Carolina in 1907. By 1924 he was playing and managing (yes, managing at age 17) a local black semi-pro team. He also worked for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad in their repair shop. He lost his job in 1932 during the Great Depression. His only means of employment being baseball, he signed with Portsmouth Black Revels for $15 a month. In 1933 he and his brother Charlie (a pitcher) signed with the Baltimore Stars, a barnstorming team that promptly went bankrupt (but not from signing the Leonard brothers). Buck Leonard had already caught the eye of other Negro League teams and was scooped up by Brooklyn Royal Giants. In 1934 Cum Posey signed him for $125 a month (and 60 cents meal money daily) to play with the Homestead Grays. There he teamed with Gibson, Jud Wilson, Vic Harris, and Howard Easterling to win consecutive Negro National League pennants from 1937 through 1945 inclusive. After a two-year hiatus, they won again in 1948 when Leonard was 40 (and Gibson was dead). His salary had changed. He was now earning about $10,000 a year.

With the collapse of the Negro National League and the Grays, Leonard continued to play baseball in the Latin Winter Leagues and the Mexican League as late as 1955. Too old to play in the Majors after the color line was broken in 1946, Leonard did play 10 games in the Piedmont League in 1953. He hit .333.

In retirement Leonard worked a number of jobs, truant officer, physical education teacher, ran a realty company, and in 1962 served as vice president of the Carolina League team in Rocky Mount. In 1972 Leonard was elected to the Hall of Fame. He died in 1986.

There are limited statistics available to help us determine just how good Leonard was as a player. Baseball Reference.com shows him playing 412 games for the Grays between 1934 and 1948, an average of 27.5 a year. In those games he hit .320 and slugged 527. There is no on base percentage listed, but if you add his hits (471) and walks (257) you get a preliminary OBP of .495. Obviously that leaves out catcher’s interference and hit by pitch stats, but, frankly, how many of them could there be over 412 games? Anyway, that gives a preliminary OPS of 1022. He had 1427 hits, 275 RBIs, scored 351 runs, and had 60 home runs. Baseball Reference.com gives a 162 game average for the available stats, which works out to 138 runs, 185 hits, 108 RBIs, 101 walks, and 24 home runs per 162 games. There are no strikeout numbers listed and manages only 25 stolen bases for his career. His highest single season average is .533 but is for only 11 games in 1947. His highest home run total is eight in both 1940 and 1941 (44 and 36 games). His highest RBI number is 44 in 1940 (again the 44 games). His highest hit total is 60, also in 1940. In 55 games in 1943 he scores 55 runs, his highest run total.

Obviously, Leonard was very good. He is, unquestionably, a Hall of Famer. He is generally compared to Lou Gehrig.  I don’t think he was that good, but he was very close.

Leonard's burial site in North Carolina

Leonard’s burial site in North Carolina

The Top Negro League Team

February 7, 2014
The 1931 Homestead Grays

The 1931 Homestead Grays

Back in 2007 Major League Baseball put together a panel of experts. This was the year after the Hall of Fame let in, what has so far been the last group of Negro League players. The task of the panel was to determine the best ever single season Negro League team. I emphasize  they were looking for a single season team, not looking for a single team that dominated for a long period of time. There were a lot of obvious contenders, the various Crawfords teams of the 1930s, the Monarchs of both the early 1920s and the 1940s, the 1920s Daisies, and of course various Homestead Grays teams. Ultimately, the panel concluded that the top Negro League team of all time was the 1931 Homestead Grays.

It was a very good team, but it’s also a fairly typical Negro League team. The roster is small, the players man multiple positions, statistics are sketchy, newspaper accounts are infrequent, and there are various numbers used for their win-loss record. In what’s below, I am going to use what statistics I can find (most notably on Baseball Reference.com) and what other records are easily available. In other words, this isn’t going to be a thorough enough look to serve as someone’s term paper, let alone a dissertation. But then someone else already did that (see the final paragraph below).

Over the course of the season the Grays played a lot of barnstorming ball, some against quality teams, some against thrown together teams, some against all-star teams, some against white teams, some against black teams. Their exact record is unknown. One source indicates they were 10-2 against minor league teams while winning 143 games. Baseball Reference.com can verify at least 10 losses by the various pitchers on the team. Their exact totals are unknown.

So who made up this team? As usual with Negro League teams, players took up a lot of positions during the season. In many ways the Negro League team rosters remind me of an 1800s Major League team with small rosters that put a premium on multi-position players.  The main infield consisted of Ted Page, George Scales, Jake Stephens, and Hall of Fame third baseman Jud Wilson. Both Bill Evans and George Britt (not Brett) also played in the infield. Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, Vic Harris (who later managed the Grays), Ambrose Reid, Ted Radcliffe did most of the outfield work. The 19-year-old catcher was Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, with Benny Jones as his backup. The pitching staff consisted of  Britt, Hall of Fame hurlers Bill Foster and Joe Williams, Roy Williams, Charles Williams, and Radcliffe. Both Foster and Charles Williams were lefties. Radcliffe was nicknamed “Double Duty” for his ability to pitch one game of a double-header then either catch or play the outfield in the other game. Cumberland (Cum) Posey served as manager and was responsible for scheduling most games.

What records are available on Baseball Reference.com show Foster with an 8-1 record as the ace. He struck out 64 while walking only 24 with a 0.987 WHIP. Smokey Joe Williams shows 34 strikeouts, nine walks, a1.116 WHIP, but a 4-3 record. Charleston’s .346 leads the team in average, while Wilson’s .586 leads in slugging percentage. Wilson also has three home runs, tops on the team. Gibson has the RBI lead with 10. another set of stats available at the same site has Gibson with six home runs (see what I mean about stat lines).

Whether the 1931 Grays are truly the finest single season Negro League team or not is certainly debatable. As mentioned in the first paragraph the Crawfords teams of 1935 or 1936 certainly can be considered (and are my personal choice). Having said that, you can’t go too far wrong if you pick the Grays.

And for anyone interested in the team, there’s a decent book about them. Phil Dixon (who’s a greater expert on Black Baseball than me) wrote American Baseball Chronicles: The Great Teams, the 1931 Grays. It’s available at Amazon.com for $17.99 in paperback and his numbers differ (at least somewhat) from Baseball Reference.com.

The Grays

February 5, 2014
front of the Homestead Grays uniform

front of the Homestead Grays uniform

Negro League Baseball had a lot of teams. Many were very good, others not so good. Some were famous, others played in obscurity. Three teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, and the Monarchs (alphabetically) were the most well-known. I’ve done a post on the Crawfords and the Monarchs. It’s time to look at the Grays.

Homestead, Pennsylvania is a part of the greater Pittsburgh area. In the period just after the turn of the 20th Century, it was still outside the direct orbit of Pittsburgh. It had a thriving black community and a steel mill that was its major source of jobs. As with most steel mills, this one had a semi-pro baseball team called the Blue Ribbons. Formed in 1909, initially it  played against other industrial teams.

By 1912 the team known as the Homestead Grays (after the color of their uniforms). They’d picked up a new star in Cumberland (Cum) Posey, who quickly became manager and team secretary. He made the team into a fully professional team and moved it away from the local industrial leagues. In 1920 Posey and local businessman Charlie Walker bought the Grays. That same year they made an agreement with the Pirates that allowed the Grays to use Forbes Field, the Pirates’ home field, for games when the Pirates were out-of-town. Having a Major League facility available for games helped make the Grays profitable. Between 1919 and 1928 the Grays were enormously successful as an independent barnstorming team. They stayed away from the newly formed Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League because they found it more profitable to play independent ball. By the late 1920s they were making money and playing 200 or so games a season. In 1926 they were credited with a record of 140-13 with 43 consecutive wins. Many of those games were against quality opponents, but many were also against local semi-pro teams.

Then the Great Depression hit and profits began drying up. Posey, now running the team alone, decided the Grays needed a league to insure financial stability. He helped form the American Negro League (not to be confused with the Negro American League of the 1940s). It lasted one year and folded. The Grays managed to hang on and by 1931 were fielding what was chosen by a panel of experts the finest of all Negro League teams. The roster included such Hall of Fame names as Oscar Charleston, Bill Foster, and Josh Gibson. In 1932, the Grays joined the new East-West League, but it folded midway through the season.

Homestead began losing money and was unable to meet the lavish salary offers of the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords. Many of the Grays jumped ship, most to the Crawfords, and by 1934, in order to keep the team afloat, Posey was forced to bring in a new partner. One of the wealthiest men in Homestead was Rufus Jackson, the leader of the local numbers racket. Posey made Jackson team President, while he (Posey) continued to run the team. In many circles in Pittsburgh, Jackson was seen as nothing short of a gangster, which hurt the reputation of the team. Ruined reputation or not, the team now had money and again became competitive in black baseball. And of course it still had Forbes Field.

In 1934, the Grays joined the newly established Negro National League (not to be confused with Rube Foster’s Negro National League of the 1920s). In 1935 Vic Harris replaced Posey as manager, although Posey remained team secretary (more or less equivalent to the modern general manager job). The team was an instant success, being competitive for the entire period of the NNL’s existence. In 1939 they won the NNL pennant. They were to repeat as league champions every year through 1945, then won another pennant in 1948.

The 1940s saw several major changes involving the Grays. In 1940 they made an agreement with the Washington Senators to use Griffith Stadium when the Senators were out-of-town, thus moving the team’s home field to DC (although they continued to play a few games in Pittsburgh off and on during the decade). Despite the move, they retained the Homestead name. In 1942, the participated in the revived Negro World Series (there had been games in the 1920s but none in the 1930s). They lost the first one to the Kansas City Monarchs, but won both the 1943 and 1944 Series before dropping the 1945 Series to the Cleveland Buckeyes. In 1948 they won the final Negro World Series defeating Willie Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons.

In 1946, Posey died. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. Posey’s wife and Jackson now jointly owned the team. They tried to keep it going, winning, as mentioned above, the last NNL pennant in 1948. With the NNL gone after 1948, the Grays hung on into 1950, when devoid of stars, lacking money, and short of an audience they folded.

We can argue back and forth for a long time about which team was the greatest or the most famous or the most important Negro League team. You can pick your own candidate for each category. But the odds are pretty good that in each case, you’ll have the Homestead Grays on your short list.

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.