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Negro Leagues DB Update: 1937 Negro National League

Today we’re used to complaining that too much of the sports news takes place off the field of play—strikes, business deals, scandals, crimes. We may not realize it, but this is nothing new. The story of the 1937 Negro National League, the newest addition to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, is a prime example.  The course of that season was largely determined by the political ambitions of a New York City special prosecutor, the underworld dealings of two owners, and the reelection campaign of a Caribbean strongman.

1) Gus Greenlee of the Pittsburgh Crawfords had been running short of cash the past couple of years as authorities in Pittsburgh put pressure on his numbers business (illegal lotteries, also known as the policy rocket). In 1938 he was finally forced to trade the best position player in black baseball, Josh Gibson, along with Judy Johnson to the Homestead Grays for Henry Spearman, Pepper Bassett, and $2500. Reportedly hurt by the Crawfords’ determination to get rid of him, Judy Johnson retired rather than report to the Grays. For their part, Cumberland Posey and the Grays found themselves able to afford Gibson because they had obtained funding from Rufus “Sonnyman” Jackson, another policy banker. Thus the transfer of baseball power from the Pittsburgh Crawfords to the Homestead Grays depended largely on the vagaries of underworld business deals.

2) Alexander Pompez, owner of the New York Cubans, like Greenlee and Jackson a numbers king, had been forced to flee the country as a result of an investigation by New York City Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey (later of “Dewey Defeats Truman” fame), who was running for District Attorney in Manhattan. Pompez was eventually tracked down in Mexico City, where he spent the summer fighting extradition back to the U.S. In his absence, the Cubans were forced to dissolve. The Black Yankees took the Cubans’ place as the home team at Harlem’s Dyckman Oval—the first time they landed a permanent home field within the bounds of New York City.

3) Rafael Trujillo, who had ruled the Dominican Republic since a coup in 1930, had determined to use baseball as a public relations tool. Elections were at this point a sham, and no open political opposition was tolerated; nevertheless, his campaign for reelection took over sponsorship of the Dominican professional league, and gave it the unwieldy name of “El Campeonato Nacional de Base Ball, Pro-Reeleccion Presidente Trujillo”—the National Baseball Championship for the Reelection of President Trujillo. Cash was pumped into the league’s coffers, and all three teams sought out black Cuban and Negro league stars. First to go were the players of the dissolved New York Cubans, notably Martín Dihigo (to Santiago) and Lázaro Salazar (to Ciudad Trujillo).

Then Satchel Paige pocketed a cool $2500 (by coincidence, the same amount the Grays paid for Josh Gibson along with two players), and convinced much of the remaining Crawfords roster to join him in the DR, including Cool Papa Bell, Pat Patterson, Sammy Bankhead, Leroy Matlock, and Bill Perkins. In all, 18 Negro leaguers joined Dominican teams that summer. The NNL tried to convince the U.S. State Department to stop the players from travelling to the Caribbean, to no avail.

Among the players absconding to the Dominican league was the Grays’ newly acquired star, Josh Gibson—but apparently he had actually reached an agreement with Posey allowing for his temporary absence. The Grays coped easily. They had Buck Leonard’s bat (.388/.475/.796) and a deep pitching staff, especially for the Negro leagues, with Ray Brown (6-3. 3.87), Edsall Walker (7-1, 4.26), Tom “Big Train” Parker (4-1, 5.23), Roy Welmaker (3-0, 1.50), and Louis Dula (3-3, 2.70). And when Gibson did suit up for the team, he was unstoppable, hitting .436/.509/.979, with a league-leading 10 homers in only 24 recorded games. (In the Dominican he would hit .453 with 2 homers in 13 games.)

It was a six-team league in 1937, but only a two-team race, with the main challenge to the Grays’ rise to dominance coming from the Newark Eagles. Third baseman Ray Dandridge hit .398, shortstop Willie Wells hit .363/.440/.650, Terris McDuffie went 5-3 with a 3.12 ERA, and manager Dick Lundy hit .355 in limited action.

The Philadelphia Stars, now managed by the irascible veteran star Jud Wilson, were treading water.  The 41-year-old Wilson continued to hit (.333/.366/.462), and utility man Curtis “Popeye” Harris (.321/.383/.459) contributed, but their pitching (again) let them down; only Sam Thompson (5-2, 2.37) and rookie Jim Missouri (3-2, 3.04) were really exceptional. Slim Jones, virtually finished as a pitcher, tried to make a comeback as a first baseman, and he hit enough in a few appearances there (.333/.400/.611) to make it seem like it could work.

The year’s biggest disappointment had to be the Washington Elite Giants. Full of young talent, and with the canny veteran Biz Mackey taking over the helm from Candy Jim Taylor, the Elites seemed like the best bet to take over league leadership from the Crawfords—or at least they should have given the Eagles and Grays a run for their money.

Instead, they plummeted to the bottom of the league, in part due to bad luck (they finished five games below their Pythagorean projection) and in part to below-par pitching, compiling a 5.08 team ERA in spacious Griffith Stadium. In the process they wasted fine perfomances by Wild Bill Wright (.398/.423/.771) and Shifty Jim West (.375/.431/.500). The team did give debuts to a California pitcher named Jimmy Direaux, who earned a mention in Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” for striking out 108 batters in 54 innings in high school, and to a Philadelphia teenager named Roy Campanella. Only 15 years old, Campanella had already been playing semipro ball for a year, and had attracted interest from the Phillies—until they discovered he was black. In 1937 and 1938, he played a few games on weekends with the Elite Giants and received tutoring from the most respected catcher in black baseball, Biz Mackey. Campanella wouldn’t become a regular until 1939, at the ripe old age of 17.

In the wake of Gus Greenlee’s fire sale and the Dominican raids, the Crawfords kept only two of their eight position players from 1936, and only two of their top six pitchers. It was no surprise that the team dropped under .500, despite the efforts of Barney Morris, who led the league in strikeouts, and the two players they received in return for Josh Gibson, catcher Pepper Bassett (.377/.411/.566), and third baseman Henry “Big Splo” Spearman (.337/.394/.500).

In another crucial 1937 event, the biggest Midwestern and southern clubs finally got together to start a league. Since the name of Rube Foster’s old circuit (the Negro National League) had been co-opted by the eastern clubs, the new league was called the Negro American League. The two core teams, the Chicago American Giants and Kansas City Monarchs, had between them accounted for 9 of the 12 pennants awarded by the old NNL. Luckily for black organized baseball, there were no player raids, and relations between the leagues started off on a fairly amicable basis.

The NNL and NAL did not get together to arrange a world series, but combined teams from the top two finishers in each league—the Kansas City Monarchs and Chicago American Giants of the NAL, and the Homestead Grays and Newark Eagles of the NNL—played an unsanctioned series at the end of the season. The NNL representatives, the Grays/Eagles, won easily, 8 games to 1.

In the meantime, the Dominican season ended in July with Ciudad Trujillo, starring Paige and Gibson, winning the title. The North Americans who had jumped were (with the exception of Gibson) were banned by the Negro leaguers, so when they returned to the United States they barnstormed as the Santo Domingo Stars (also known as the Trujillo Stars, Satchel Paige’s All-Stars, or the Negro All-Stars). They entered, and won, the Denver Post semi-pro tournament, and in the fall they travelled back to the East Coast and played a series against an NNL all-star team. In the first game, Johnny Taylor of the NNL stars threw a no-hitter to beat Satchel Paige and the Santo Domingo team.

Note: Future updates will include the 1937 NAL and Dominican League; the stats here do not include interregional games between NNL & NAL teams, or the unofficial Grays/Eagles vs. Monarchs/American Giants world series.

Cumberland Posey, Gus Greenlee, Rafael Trujillo, Alejandro Pompez

Cumberland Posey, Gus Greenlee, Rafael Trujillo, Alejandro Pompez

Negro Leagues DB Update: 1932 East-West League

The 1932 East-West League, plus four independent east coast teams from that year, forms the latest addition to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database.

This was the year when Pittsburgh numbers operator Gus Greenlee really got serious about baseball. He hired the architect Louis A. S. Bellinger to construct a lavish new ballpark in the Hill District, and opened up his wallet to sign some of the best players in black baseball. From the crosstown rival Homestead Grays he grabbed player-manager Oscar Charleston, young slugging star Josh Gibson, and catcher/pitcher Doubly Duty Radcliffe. Greenlee also retained Satchel Paige, whom he had briefly employed at the end of the 1931 season, and snapped up outfielder Rap Dixon.

How did Cumberland Posey react to the loss of these stars? He went looking for new ones. And the black baseball world of 1932 had plenty to offer, since Rube Foster’s Negro National League had finally dissolved. After this, and two straight seasons with no black professional league on the east coast, it fell to the fiercely independent operator of the Homestead Grays (a team that had spent a grand total of one season in a Negro league, back in 1929), to try to reorganize black baseball.

His ambitious plan, in the midst of a worldwide depression, was to establish one league spanning the whole northeastern quadrant of the country, the same territory covered by the white big leagues. Big-time black baseball had been traditionally split into two regions, the northeast and the Midwest. To signify his determination to bring them together, Posey called his new organization the East-West Colored League. He also intended to play league baseball every day. Even the Negro National League in its 1920s heyday couldn’t quite manage that.

Plenty of critics predicted doom. Unfortunately they were right.

The difficulties might have started with Posey’s decision to include only three established clubs, the Baltimore Black Sox, the Hilldale Club, and his own Homestead Grays. Of the major NNL teams, the Detroit Stars and Kansas City Monarchs had disbanded (the latter temporarily), and the Chicago American Giants elected to join the Negro Southern League. The St. Louis Stars, the dominant team of the NNL for the past few seasons, had folded along with the league. Posey transferred the core of the Stars—Willie Wells, Mule Suttles, Ted Trent, Cool Papa Bell, Dewey Creacy, Quincy Trouppe—to a new club, the Detroit Wolves, which became the westernmost team of the new circuit.

Syd Pollock’s Cuban House of David, a gimmick team not actually connected to the religious sect or any of its baseball teams, were required to shave their beards before entering the league as the new Cuban Stars. Posey rounded out the East-West League with three new teams, the Newark Browns, the Cleveland Stars (another in a long line of ill-fated Negro league entries from the shores of Lake Erie), and the Washington Pilots.

Although it’s difficult to trace the behind-the-scenes realities of Negro league baseball from a distance of more than 80 years, the rumor at the time was that Posey was financially involved in the new Cleveland and Detroit franchises. In fact, it was claimed that he was really running the Detroit Wolves, leaving the Grays to his brother See Posey. It certainly makes sense, given the quality of the players he had placed in Detroit. And the Wolves, in the first few weeks, dominated the league just as the St. Louis Stars had dominated the NNL. In games so far recovered, they were 23-4 against EWL opponents (published standings at the time indicated a 20-6 record).

The Wolves, however, did not draw enough fans to justify their high payroll, and by the first week in June Posey took the drastic step of merging the league’s first-place team with its third-place club, the Homestead Grays. The combined team continued to play weekend games at Hamtramck Stadium for a while, where the local press persisted in calling them the “Wolves” for a few weeks. (In this compilation we consider the Detroit Wolves to have ceased to exist at the point of the merger, with the combined team afterward being folded into the history of the Homestead Grays.)

Several of the Wolves moved to the Grays, three of them—Wells, Bell, and Tom Young—along with first baseman George Giles, cooked up a mutiny against Posey, absconding between games of a doubleheader to join the newly revived Kansas City Monarchs. Overall, this was one of the strangest and most unstable seasons in the Grays’ long history. Even though the team only carried a maximum of 16 players at a time, at least 35 players suited up for the Grays in 1932—and that’s only counting the 41 games we have against top black opposition. Of these, perhaps the most valuable was Joe Strong, who hit .426 while compiling a 2.06 ERA in 43 innings on the mound. Still, excluding the Wolves, the Grays compiled the best record among league teams against EWL opponents over the whole season.

Their main rivals were the Baltimore Black Sox. Led by player-manager Dick Lundy (.389), third baseman Tom Finley (.338/.397/.574), and young converted outfielder Terris McDuffie (4-1, 1.93), the Black Sox actually occupied first place with a 20-9 record in the final published EWL standings in June.

Those Wolves stars who didn’t go to the Grays—Suttles, Trent, Creacy—were transferred to the Washington Pilots. The Pilots, along with the Wolves, were evidently intended as one of the league’s flagship franchises. They rented out the Senators’ Griffith Stadium, hired one of the best player-managers of the past decade in Frank Warfield, and even arranged for the Vice President of the United States, Charles Curtis, to throw out the first pitch on opening day. Despite the efforts of Suttles (.337/.447/.640), catcher Eppie Hamilton (.364), and young second baseman Sammy Hughes (.345), the Pilots languished in the second division.

Oddly, the league survived the loss of its best team, the Detroit Wolves. It was the collapse of John Beckwith’s Newark Browns in late June that precipitated the unraveling of the entire East-West League. The wreck of the 1932 season that ensued claimed a few more victims.

The Washington Pilots managed to survive both the extinction of the league and the death of Frank Warfield, who passed away suddenly in Pittsburgh in late July; but they did not last past the close of the 1932 season.

The venerable Hilldale Club, having spent some money in 1931 under new owner Johnny Drew, cut back on expenditures this year, and suffered for it. Longtime stalwart Biz Mackey elected to stay on the west coast, and the team failed to re-sign Martín Dihigo, Rap Dixon, and Walter Cannady. When player-manager Judy Johnson, Hilldale lynchpin for more than a decade, abruptly jumped the team for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the writing was on the wall. On July 18 it was made official: after 15 years at the top of black professional baseball, the Hilldale Club was no more.

Notes on statistics: This version of the 1932 season only includes games involving the EWL and eastern independent clubs; games involving western or Negro Southern League teams are not yet counted. In the case of some EWL teams, there is still much research left to do; in particular, we’ve got the Newark Browns’ record as only 0-3, but the latest published league standings showed them at 3-14. As we’ve done in other years, even when a league has formally ceased to exist early in the season, we present won-loss records for all games against league opponents through the whole year. Also, we’ve revamped the 1924 World Series statistics, which now include fielding numbers, and added the 1925 World Series. The full 1925 season, both the NNL and ECL, slated to arrive in a future update.

From the St. Louis Stars to the Detroit Wolves: Cool Papa Bell, Mule Suttles, Willie Wells

From the St. Louis Stars to the Detroit Wolves: Cool Papa Bell, Mule Suttles, Willie Wells

Negro Leagues DB Update: 1931 Eastern Negro Leagues

New to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database: the 1931 eastern black teams. Once again, there was no league on the east coast. As in the case of 1930, we are at this time including only games between these independent eastern clubs, so the Homestead Grays and the Cuban House of David, who played western NNL teams extensively, aren’t fully represented yet. The NNL’s Cleveland Cubs also toured the east coast, so most of the teams here have at least a few games against top black teams that aren’t yet counted.

The ’31 Grays are commonly cited as one of the great teams in Negro league history. To a core that included Oscar Charleston (.319/.379/.513), Joe Williams (3-1. 1.80), George Scales (.308/.368/.548), and the 19-year-old Josh Gibson (.287/.353/.548), owner/manager Cum Posey added Jud Wilson from the Baltimore Black Sox and lights-out leftander Willie Foster from the Chicago American Giants, along with catcher/pitcher Double Duty Radcliffe from the Detroit Stars. Wilson tore up eastern pitching to the tune of a .422 average in 23 games, while Foster went 4-2 with a 2.89 ERA.

In games purely between the eastern teams, however, the Grays finished behind the Hilldale Club, who went 30-11 (although the Grays did beat the Hilldales 4 games to 3 in head-to-head matchups). In 1930 Hilldale, with longtime owner Ed Bolden deposed, had hemorrhaged players and collapsed, managing only 7 wins against black professional teams. This year a new owner, Johnny Drew, lured Judy Johnson back from his job captaining the 1930 Grays to rescue the team. As his first order of business, he retained Biz Mackey and installed him at his best position, catcher. Mackey rewarded him with a .373/.448/.536 performance. Johnson also brought back old favorites Martín Dihigo (.306/.414/.519), Porter Charleston (6-1, 2.86), and Chaney White (.290), and signed Rap Dixon from the Black Sox (.234, 5 triples) and Walter Cannady (.314/.399/.446) and slick-fielding basketball star Bill Yancey (.276) from the defunct Lincoln Giants. Hilldale might have done even better if submarine ace Webster McDonald (4-0, 0.97) hadn’t spent most of the summer playing for a white independent team in Little Falls, Minnesota.

One of the most established institutions in black baseball disappeared in 1931. The New York Lincoln Giants, originally founded by the McMahon brothers back in 1911, did not field a team. Ironically they were the victims of their own success. The year before the Lincolns had played the Baltimore Black Sox in a July doubleheader in Yankee Stadium, the first games between black teams in that august venue. The games were a huge success (and were repeated in September during the championship series with the Homestead Grays), but afterwards the Lincolns fans, according to W. Rollo Wilson of the Pittsburgh Courier, “stayed away from the Protectory Oval in large numbers, refusing to go to that bandbox park after seeing their favorites work on a real diamond.” To top it off, the team’s owner, James Keenan, was bitterly disappointed by the loss of championship honors to the Grays. He publicly criticized his players and fired his manager, the venerable Pop Lloyd, further alienating the fans.

Within a few weeks of the end of the 1930 season, there was already talk of a new team arising in New York, one that was seeking Yankee Stadium as its permanent home. It was financed by the famous dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and his agent, the theatrical promoter Marty Forkins. Their first move, after securing a venue, was to hire John Henry Lloyd as manager. Lloyd convinced a number of his Lincolns players to join him. By April Keenan, facing the prospect of playing to diminished crowds with a drastically weakened team, had thrown in the towel. The Lincoln Giants of Cyclone Joe Williams, Dick Redding, Spot Poles, Bill Pettus, and many other stars, were no more.

In their place Forkins, Robinson, and Lloyd originally intended to present a club called the Black or Colored Yankees. This name was reportedly scotched by New York Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham, who objected because some of their home games were to be played in the Polo Grounds. It was also claimed that the Yankees themselves opposed the name, for whatever reason. The next idea, to call the team the “Brown Buddies,” mercifully died long before any games were played. Lloyd settled on “New York All Stars,” noting that “New York has been fed up on ‘Giants’ for the past quarter of a century, and as we are all going on the diamond to play baseball, a name devoid of any suggestion of clowning will be something that will mean much to the team” (Philadelphia Tribune, April 16, 1931, p. 10). The team’s warmup jackets were emblazoned “N. Y.,” but they still ended up most often referred to as the Harlem Stars.

They also went into business with Nat Strong, whose booking empire controlled independent baseball on the east coast. He had been for many years a very controversial figure among African American baseball men. Now, with Strong in charge of booking the Harlem Stars, other managers became reluctant to schedule games with them, despite their access to the big ballparks. Cum Posey categorically refused to bring his powerhouse Grays to New York City. In the absence of a league and a steady flow of quality opponents, the Stars  drew poorly, and by the end of the season the team was tottering financially.

The slugger John Beckwith had been slated to take over for Lloyd as Lincoln Giants manager, but when Keenan withdrew from the field, Beckwith was snapped up by the Baltimore Black Sox. Beck continued to hit in Baltimore, but he was the only real bright spot for the Dark Hose, who continued their gradual downward slide from the heights of 1929.

The promoter Syd Pollock, based in Tarrytown (on the Hudson River in Westchester County, just north of New York City), had for some years been operating a traveling team called the Havana Red Sox. Pollock worked the same upstate New York barnstorming circuit as Pop Watkins’s old Havana Red Sox, and probably took the name from them. Watkins’s team, however, featured no actual Cubans, whereas Pollock used both Cuban and U.S. players on his rosters. Some of the Americans played under silly fake “Spanish” names, southpaw Barney Brown turning out as “Brownez,” and Johnnie Bob Dixon as “Dixonez.”

In 1930 Abel Linares, owner of the western Cuban Stars for many years, passed away, and his manager, Tinti Molina, found himself unable to field a team in the U.S. for the 1931 season. Pollock saw an opening, and decided to combine the Cuban marketing hook with another well-known baseball brand, the House of David, the religious sect from Benton Harbor, Michigan, that famously fielded teams of bearded players. The “Cuban House of David” had no connection with the actual House of David, but Pollock apparently did get his players to grow “a great assortment of side-burns, mutton-chops, flowing-beards and what not in hirsute adornment” (Altoona Tribune, May 25, 1931, p. 10). And although John Henry Lloyd might have wished otherwise, the Cuban House of David was dedicated to keeping alive the old tradition of clowning; during the off-season the players were said to be hard at work back in Cuba practicing shadowball and other comedy routines.

In Pittsburgh the Homestead Grays were served notice by an upstart sandlot team calling themselves the Crawford Giants. Their owner, the gambling king Gus Greenlee, had ambitions that extended way beyond the Pittsburgh area. His money brought in some established figures, including southpaw Sam Streeter and Rube Foster’s old shortstop Bobby Williams as manager. The Crawford Giants were still using a city playground, Ammon Field, as their home park, where they had to collect “donations” rather than charge for tickets. In 1932 Greenlee’s team would lose the “Giants” and gain a new, purpose-built park.

Satchel Paige spent much of the season with the NNL’s Cleveland Cubs, but halfway through the year he began exhibiting signs of entering the “hired gun” phase of his career. In August he took the mound for the Crawford Giants, and in September appeared briefly for the Homestead Grays.

Among the refugees from the demise of the Lincoln Giants was Charlie “Chino” Smith, who joined Nat Strong’s Brooklyn Royal Giants, a team that was gradually withdrawing from big-time blackball into the barnstorming life. He spent the whole season with them, and was still batting third and playing right field in September. Before the winter was out he would be dead of stomach cancer.

Along with the Lincolns, black baseball lost its most peculiar setting, the Catholic Protectory Oval, a tiny field wedged between Gothic buildings at an orphanage in the Bronx. This had an effect on statistics. Nearly a third of the games between eastern teams we included in the database for 1930 were played at the Protectory. Negro league teams batted .347/.419/.531 in these games, as opposed to .297/.356/.417 at all other parks combined. The Lincoln Giants hit .381 at home. In 1931, the overall averages are .264/.323/.363.  The loss of the Protectory doesn’t account for all of the big drop in offense we see from 1930 to 1931, but it is obviously a huge factor.

One more note on 1931: we haven’t chosen to include games involving the Bacharach Giants, Newark Browns, or Providence Colored Giants. These teams are all right on the knife’s edge between inclusion and exclusion. Other sources do include at least Newark and the Bacharachs, and it’s possible that after further review we will count them in the future.

On deck for the DB: the 1932 East-West League, 1901/02 and 1924/25 Cuban League, and much more.

From the Pittsburgh Courier, January 10, 1931, p. 14.

From the Pittsburgh Courier, January 10, 1931, p. 14.

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Statistical and biographical data for the The Negro Leagues Database, except 1923 and 1933, were compiled by Gary Ashwill. Copyright 2011-2013 Gary Ashwill. All rights reserved. Playing statistics for 1923 were compiled by Patrick Rock. Copyright 2011-2013 Patrick Rock. All rights reserved. Playing statistics for 1933 were compiled by Scott Simkus. Copyright 2013 Scott Simkus. All rights reserved.

Win Shares are calculated using the formula in the book Win Shares by Bill James