Check out the newest addition to the Negro Leagues DB: the 1935 Negro National League season.
The defending champion Philadelphia Stars fell off quite a bit in 1935, partly because several of their key performers (Biz Mackey, Chaney White) were aging, but mostly because their ace, 1934′s 20-game winner Slim Jones, couldn’t stay away from the bottle. His strikeout rate was cut in half, and he won only 4 league games. Despite the efforts of the 39-year-old first baseman Jud Wilson (.344 with 14 doubles and 8 homers), the Stars finished just 34-31.
The previous year’s other playoff team, the Chicago American Giants, fared even worse, though problems with 1934′s statistical record make it a little hard to tell exactly what went wrong. The Big Four—Turkey Stearnes (.403/.490/.649), Willie Wells (.362/.451/.584), Mule Suttles (.298 with a league-leading 8 home runs), and Willie Foster (4-2, 2.35)—continued to play brilliantly. Bad years by Ted Trent (2-8, 4.37) and Wilson Redus (.181) might have been part of the problem.
The Nashville Elite Giants tried to move to Detroit, but couldn’t secure a home park. They wound up in Columbus, Ohio. Unfortunately the local papers didn’t carry many box scores, so less than half (24 out of 49) of the Elite Giants’ league games are included in the DB. Even so, it’s clear that stars Sammy T. Hughes (.360) and Roy Parnell (.337) continued to hit well, and that rookie outfielder Zollie Wright (.395) was seriously impressive.
Three marginal teams from 1934 (the Bacharach Giants, Cleveland Red Sox, and Baltimore Black Sox) dropped out of the league. They were replaced by the former powerhouse Homestead Grays and two new New York City clubs: the Brooklyn Eagles, playing in Ebbets Field, and the New York Cubans, who took up residence in Harlem’s refurbished Dyckman Oval.
The Grays had still not recovered from the Crawfords’ player raids of several seasons before, and finished in seventh place despite the contributions of first sacker Buck Leonard (.389/.455/.624), rookie second baseman Matthew Carlisle (.382/.440/.632), and catcher Tommie Dukes (.372/.449/.562), and the pitching of ace Ray Brown (8-5, 3.26).
The Brooklyn Eagles fared a little better, despite starting the season under the shadow of controversy: veteran manager Ben Taylor put in all the work to assemble and train the team, but was fired early in the season, apparently just to get his salary off the payroll. He later sued the team over the way he was treated. His replacement, first baseman George Giles, guided the Eagles to a 31-30 record with the help of infielder Harry Williams (.340), outfielder Ed Stone (.327), and a pitching staff led by the 39-year-old New England legend Will Jackman (7-8, 6.03) and the 18-year-old sensation Leon Day (6-4, 4.56).
But the most successful of the new teams was undoubtedly the New York Cubans, organized by Alex Pompez on his return from a five-year absence from baseball. Player-manager Martín Dihigo pitched (3-1, 2.77) and played six other positions, batting .321 with 7 home runs. The ageless Alejandro Oms (.377) anchored the outfield, the youngster Lázaro Salazar provided additional offense (.341), and lefty Luis Tiant and rookie right hander Schoolboy Johnny Taylor (both 5-3) pitched well enough for the Cubans to edge the second-half title.
That put them on course to meet the first-half champion Pittsburgh Crawfords in the playoffs. The Crawfords had just missed the 1934 postseason, despite fielding one of the most talented teams in Negro league history. In 1935 they lost Satchel Paige, who absconded to North Dakota to play independent ball for the racially integrated Bismarck club (late in the season he made a couple of appearances for the Kansas City Monarchs against the American Giants). But they still had Josh Gibson (.348/.425/.578), Sam Bankhead (.355/.425/.523), Cool Papa Bell (.331), and newcomer Pat Patterson (.389/.417/.597), not to mention lefty Leroy Matlock. In games with box scores Matlock went 7-0 in the regular season (and 1-1 in the playoffs); in games without box scores he won at least 6 more games without a known defeat, making him at least 13-0 for the year in Negro league games (14-1 counting the playoffs).
When the Cubans and Crawfords clashed in September, it resulted in another classic blackball postseason series. The Cubans stunned Pittsburgh with two quick wins behind lefthanders Frank Blake and Neck Stanley. In game 3 Leroy Matlock shut out the Cubans, 3 to 0, with manager Oscar Charleston contributing a home run, but in the next game his opposite number, Martín Dihigo, beat the Crawfords 6 to 1 at Greenlee Field to put his team ahead 3 games to 1.
In game 5 Roosevelt Davis managed to edge Frank Blake, 3 to 2. The last two games were played in Philadelphia. With the Cubans leading 5 to 3 in the seventh inning of game 6, Dihigo put himself in to pitch. The Cubans added one more run, stretching their lead to 6 to 3, but the Crawfords rallied in the bottom of the ninth. Oscar Charleston smashed out a three-run home run to tie the game. Pat Patterson followed with a double, and Judy Johnson rapped out a pinch-hit single to win the game for Pittsburgh.
The deciding game saw a back-and-forth struggle for seven innings. In the top of the eighth inning Dihigo brought in Taylor to relieve Tiant, and the first two men to face him, Gibson and Charleston, hit back-to-back homers. Two walks and two outs later, Cool Papa Bell, with men on first and third, hit a sharp grounder to Dihigo, who was playing third. Dihigo fumbled the ball, allowing Sam Bankhead to score. The Crawfords were up, 8 to 4.
The Cubans got one run back in the bottom of the eighth, then in the ninth Clyde Spearman hit a two-run homer to bring the score to 8 to 7—but that was as close as they could get. For the first (and only) time the Pittsburgh Crawfords had won the unambiguous, undisputed championship of the Negro National League.
The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords, champions of the Negro National League
Possibly for the first time anywhere (and certainly for the first time in recent history) the Seamheads DB is presenting (nearly) complete statistics for both the 1923/24 Cuban League season as well as the 1924 Gran Premio that followed it. (We’re missing only a single box score.)
The 1923/24 Santa Clara club is the most legendary team in Cuban history, the island’s equivalent of the 1927 Yankees. Tinti Molina had taken the 1922/23 Santa Clara team, which might have been best in the league but had walked out after a mid-season dispute over a disallowed win, and added Dobie Moore, Reuben Curry, and Heavy Johnson of the NNL champion Kansas City Monarchs. The ’23/’24 Leopardos featured its own Murderers’ Row consisting of Moore, Oscar Charleston, Alejandro Oms, and Oliver Marcell, along with guest appearances by Johnson (for the first part of the season) and Esteban Montalvo (the team’s fourth outfielder). Their pitching was solid, led by the Negro league trio of Curry, Dave Brown, and Bill Holland, along with Pedro Dibut (who would appear for the Cincinnati Reds in 1924). By mid-January the Leopardos were 36-11 and 11 ½ games ahead of second-place Habana, and the league called it quits.
The last-place Marianao Elefantes disbanded and the team’s players were redistributed among the other three teams, and started a new competition, the Grand Winter Championship (Gran Premio Invernal), to be played in a split-season format, with the winners of the two halves facing off in a championship series at the end. Santa Clara won the first half. Not until the second half of this second season did the Leopardos falter, with Almendares taking the second-half title of the Gran Premio. By this time, however, it was March, and all three teams were starting to lose players to spring training in the U.S.—so the playoff between Almendares and Santa Clara was cancelled. When the won/lost records for the two halves of the Gran Premio were added up, Santa Clara came out on top again—barely.
Also, with the help of historian Todd Peterson, we’ve added a number of new games and teams for the years 1903 to 1913. In coming weeks we’ll be adding the 1935 and 1936 Negro National League, the East-West All-Star Games, the Mexican League, the 1926 Eastern Colored League, and more Cuban League seasons.
The 1923/24 Santa Clara Leopardos.
Imagine a last-place team with no fewer than three future Hall of Famers on its roster, all in their prime. That’s the story of the Cuba Baseball Club of the 1927/28 Cuban Winter League, which we’ve added to the DB. Despite the efforts of Oscar Charleston (.350/.481/.567, a league-leading 32 walks in 34 games), Willie Foster (6-8, 3.17), and Judy Johnson (.333/.375/.439), the Cuba team finished deep in the cellar with a 12-21-1 record.
Almendares (17-15-1) put up more of a fight. Player-manager Adolfo Luque (6-4, a league-best 2.64 ERA) led an otherwise ordinary staff, but los Azules were able to send some decent hitters to the plate, including Dick Lundy (.346/.365/.496), Oliver Marcell (.339/.398/.424), and Chaney White (.367/.398/.422), all from the two-time Eastern Colored League champion Bacharach Giants.
Still, they couldn’t quite match the champion Habana Leones (20-13), led by MVP Martín Dihigo, who pitched (4-2, 3.10) and played outfield and first base while hitting .389/.453/.588 with a league-leading 14 doubles. Left fielder Jud Wilson (.431/.535/.724) was far and away the league’s best hitter. And Dihigo, along with Oscar Levis (7-2, 3.14) and Cliff Bell (6-2, 3.14), gave los Rojos a solid trio of pitchers.
In the works for the DB: the 1935 & 1936 Negro leagues, the 1926 Eastern Colored League, the 1923/24 Cuban League, the Mexican League, the East-West All-Star Games, and more.
An unlucky trio: Willie Foster, Oscar Charleston, and Judy Johnson, the first two in their Cuba Baseball Club uniforms.