Check out the 1944 Negro leagues, newly added to the DB this week.
Another wartime season, 1944 saw a large number of the most promising young players, as well as many players in the primes of their careers, off to the war. In the NAL, the Kansas City Monarchs struggled without sluggers Willard Brown and Ted Strong and sank to fourth place. The NNL’s Newark Eagles, missing their core of Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, Leon Day, and Max Manning, finished fifth. In an effort to protect themselves from the draft, the Black Yankees announced an effort to sign players who had been declared 4-F. This plan enabled them to improve from a 4-24 league finish in 1943 to…8-35 in 1944.
The war did open up opportunities for promising young players like Don Newcombe, Sam Hairston, George Jefferson, Clyde Nelson, and Bill Ricks. Teams also brought in Latin American players who had never appeared in the U.S. before: Cubans such as Claro Duany, Héctor Rodríguez, Leovigildo Xiqués (known in the U.S. as Leo Lugo), as well as a contingent of players from Panama: Patricio Scantlebury, Vic Barnett, Archie Brathwaite.
Two of the year’s most noteworthy rookies were shortstops with remarkably parallel careers— the Black Barons’ Artie Wilson and the Philly Stars’ Frank Austin (another Panamanian). Both were Negro league batting champions who didn’t get much of a chance in the majors after integration (Wilson got 22 at bats with the Giants, Austin never went up at all), but went on to play for many years in the Pacific Coast League.
Of course, a number of the Negro leagues’ best-known and most bankable stars were in their 30s and 40s and never went into the service during World War II: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown. Benefiting from their presence, and from the absence of most of the white major league stars, the Negro leagues were more successful and profitable than ever. And the team with the most of these guys, the Homestead Grays, won the NNL pennant for the seventh time in eight years, and then defeated the young Black Barons in the World Series for the second straight year.
The 1944 numbers we’re presenting come originally from Larry Lester and Wayne Stivers. Like all the seasons we post that originate with Wayne and Larry, this is part of an updated version of the NLRAG/Hall of Fame Negro league study, edited and with some new box scores added by us.
It’s worth noting that by the mid-1940s box scores are relatively scarce compared to earlier eras, as daily newspapers published fewer and fewer of them. Consequently a number of the 1944 teams are not very well-represented in the DB. None suffers more than the NAL champion Black Barons, who were 33-18 in league games we found, and 40-31 against black major league teams overall—but went only 8-17 in games with box scores (9-21 if you count the World Series). We’ll continue working to improve this situation, though, so keep checking back.
Coming soon: Negro leagues 1945 through 1948, 1937 Negro American League, 1919/20 and 1921/22 Cuban League, East-West All Star Games, and more.
Here is Scott Simkus to introduce his work on the 1943 Negro leagues:
With war raging overseas, Negro league rosters were once again ravaged by the draft in 1943, with star players Monte Irvin, Ted Strong, and Max Manning headlining a list of more than a couple dozen active African-American ballplayers entering the armed services. Additionally, a loosening of travel restrictions allowed Roy Campanella, Bill Wright, Ray Dandridge, and several other key contributors to play their summer ball in Mexico in ‘43, instead of here in the States. Despite this, several newspapers (both black and white) opined the Negro league rosters hadn’t suffered as harshly as the white Major Leagues. As evidence, the Negro leagues still featured the services of many future Hall of Famers, including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Willard Brown, Jud Wilson, Leon Day, and Larry Doby. The departures opened the door to some younger faces, with future big leaguers Sam Jethroe, Henry Thompson, and Joe Black all having an impact, or making their blackball debuts.
On the diamond, 1943 was a season of redemption for the Homestead Grays and their star catcher, Josh Gibson, who recovered from substance abuse issues during the off-season to have one of his finest years, slashing .442/.541/.806, with 20 home runs and 112 RBI in just 77 games. The Grays, who’d won several consecutive NNL pennants, but had lost the previous year’s World Series to the Kansas City Monarchs, bounced back under the direction of new manager Jim Taylor to compile a 105-31-2 overall record, including 78-23-1 versus Negro league clubs, culminating in a seven game World Series victory over the upstart Birmingham Barons. John Wright made headlines on the pitching mound. Jackie Robinson’s future roommate rolled to a 22-4 record, with a 2.33 era as the leader of the Grays staff. Besides Gibson and Wright, other players such as Willard Brown, Buck O’Neil, Bill Byrd, Dave Barnhill, and Jim West also had excellent seasons and were considered the shining stars of black professional baseball.
The Birmingham Black Barons, featuring the services of Piper Davis, Clyde Spearman, and Tommy Sampson, were becoming a powerhouse in the west with a core group that would return to the World Series the following year and again in 1948. The Black Barons’ left-handed pitcher Alvin Gipson made baseball history by striking out 20 Philadelphia Stars batters on August 21st. Memphis’s Porter Moss and Newark’s Jimmy Hill both tossed no-hitters in 1943 (both against the woeful New York Black Yankees), and additional pitching history was made on August 7, when five Cincinnati Clowns and Birmingham Black Barons hurlers combined to walk 21 men during a 9-inning game played in Appleton, Wisconsin. Rookie lefty-hander Eugene Jones fanned 16 Newark Eagles during a game played in Springfield, Ohio; and as has famously been reported many times before, Josh Gibson belted 10 home runs in Washington D.C.’s Griffith Stadium, in just over 100 at bats, while the entire white American League managed to hit only 9 there during the season, in more than 4,000 at bats.
The 1943 season can also be viewed as a turning point for the two Negro leagues themselves. It was the last of the old ways, where the summer consisted of a short “official” league schedule (with league games played mostly on Sundays), supplemented by dozens of “exhibition” games with these very same league teams, as well as interleague games with squads from the other loop. There was, as one could imagine, often confusion regarding which games counted and which games didn’t. All told, several Negro league teams played more than 100 games against other blackball teams in 1943, but only thirty or so counted in the actual standings, and all of the action (both wins and losses by teams, as well as the performances of the individual players) was haphazardly compiled, and sporadically reported. The next year, in 1944, this would all change, as both leagues hired professional stat services and the scheduling was adjusted so that ALL games between league teams would count in the standings, not just the handful played on special pre-arranged dates. This was fully two years before Jackie Robinson made his Negro league debut, but it was already the common opinion among Negro league owners that integration was about to happen, and they wanted to get their business in order before this occurred.
I need to thank several people for their help on this project. Without the efforts and generosity of Todd Peterson, Gary Cieradkowski, Ryan Whirty, Larry Lester, and Wayne Stivers (plus dozens of librarians and local historians, especially the folks at Howard University), this dataset would only be a fraction of what is posted here at Seamheads. Thank you all!
Along with the new design and features added by our webmaster and Baseball Gauge guru Dan Hirsch, and the new logo designed by Gary Cieradkowski (of Infinite Baseball Cards fame), we’ve also added two whole new seasons this week, 1942 and 1943. The 1943 season is the work of Scott Simkus (you know him from the Strat-O-Matic Negro League set and the essential book Outsider Baseball), and Scott will have a post up about it tomorrow. In the meantime, I’ll briefly introduce 1942, which results from our collaboration with Larry Lester and Wayne Stivers of the Negro League Researchers and Authors Group.
The Negro leagues in 1942 hit something of a sweet spot, as a number of important players (including Josh Gibson, Sammy Hughes, and Bus Clarkson) returned home from Mexico, and the wartime draft hadn’t yet taken a heavy toll. The year’s rookies were led by swift-footed Buckeyes outfielder Sam Jethroe and Newark’s teenaged infielder Larry Doby, preserving his college eligibility by playing under the name Larry Walker.
The results of the pennant races proved to be a repeat of 1941. The Kansas City Monarchs, boasting the best pitching in either league as well as the bats of Ted Strong (.364/.419/.561), Willard Brown (.338/.373/.493), and rookie second baseman Bonnie Serrell (.360/.395/.561), again edged out the young Birmingham Black Barons for the NAL flag. Meanwhile Josh Gibson’s homecoming sparked the Homestead Grays to lap the field in the NNL, leaving the Baltimore Elite Giants distant runners-up for the second year in a row. Gibson (.327/.444/.580) was far and away the Grays’ best hitter, as the normally reliable Buck Leonard, suffering from a broken finger, slumped to an awful .220/.345/.270, and only one other regular (David Whatley) managed to hit .300 in the games we’ve recovered. Still, Homestead’s superior pitching and defense, starring Ray Brown (10-5, 3.30) and Roy Partlow (6-2, 1.69), allowed the team to continue its usual dominance.
The Elites, led by Bill Byrd (10-3, 2.91), Roy Campanella (.295), and Wild Bill Wright (.317), continued their run of finishing no worse than second going back to 1938 (including a controversial pennant victory in the 1939 postseason Ruppert Cup tournament). The league’s other main contenders, the Newark Eagles, couldn’t make their overload of talent count for much in the pennant race. Despite six eventual Hall of Famers appearing in an Eagles uniform in 1942 (seven if you count bench manager Biz Mackey), the team finished 14 ½ games behind the Grays. One of the main reasons for the disappointing performance was that the team’s best player, 22-year-old Monte Irvin, appeared in only two league games before jumping to Mexico, where he hit .397 to win the batting title.
Over in the Negro American League Winfield Welch’s Black Barons had another good year behind outfielder Lloyd Davenport (.337), second baseman Tommy Sampson (.333) , and southpaw Robert “Black Diamond” Pipkins (7-2). A new club, the Buckeyes, split time between Cincinnati and Cleveland. Their first season in the big time was marred by tragedy: in September the team was involved in a terrible car accident that killed two players, catcher Ulysses “Buster” Brown and pitcher Raymond “Smoky” Owens.
For the first time in 15 years, there was a true Negro league World Series. Since the NNL dominated the NAL in inter-league contests in 1942, winning 38 and losing only 14, it might have seemed like the Monarchs had little chance against the mighty Homestead Grays. But the NAL’s poor record was largely due to just two teams: the Buckeyes, who dropped a woeful 19 out of 20 games to NNL teams, and the last-place Chicago American Giants, who were 0-7.
Still, it was a surprise when the Monarchs brutally dismantled the overmatched NNL champs, 4 games to 0, adding for good measure an extra victory in an exhibition game that wasn’t counted as part of the World Series. Kansas City used only three pitchers—Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, and Jack Matchett—but they held Josh Gibson to a paltry .077 average, and the whole Grays’ team to .196. Monarchs catcher Joe Greene and shortstop Jesse Williams, relatively light hitters, both hit .500, while Willard Brown pounded out a .467 average.
The only traction the Grays got was when they brought in ringers from Newark and Philadelphia for game 4—pitcher Leon Day, first baseman Lennie Pearson (.346, a league-leading 11 homers), outfielder Ed Stone (.286/.378/.456), and shortstop Bus Clarkson (.355/.439/.622), possibly the best player in black baseball that year. The Monarchs protested but played the game anyway, and the reinforced Grays won behind Day’s pitching, 4 to 1. The game was eventually thrown out, and the Monarchs went on to take the real game 4 and the series.
Tomorrow Scott Simkus will give us the lowdown on the 1943 season.
Coming to the DB in the near future: Negro league exhibition games against major league teams, 1901-1924; the 1919-20 and 1921-22 Cuban winter seasons; the 1937 Negro American League; and more.