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Negro Leagues DB Update: 1925 ECL & NNL

In 1925 the Hilldale Club got its revenge on the Kansas City Monarchs, with the help of a toddler wielding a sewing needle.

The year before, the Monarchs had ridden their luck to a thrilling 5 games to 4 victory in the first Colored World Series. In 1925 Hilldale won the ECL after a close race with Oscar Charleston’s Harrisburg Giants, and first-half winners Monarchs won the NNL’s first championship series over second-half champions St. Louis to set up a World Series rematch. But the Monarchs entered the Series short-handed and demoralized. Their star pitcher/outfielder, Bullet Rogan, had put in possibly his greatest overall season, going 15-2 with a 1.74 ERA on the mound, while batting .360/.424/.592. In the playoffs he was even more dominant, batting .450 and winning all three of his starts in the best-of-seven series.

But, just before traveling to the east coast to start the showdown with Hilldale, he was playing on the floor with his young son, Wilbur, Jr., who was just shy of a year old, when the child got hold of a needle and jabbed it into his father’s knee. When Bullet tried to pull it out, it broke off. He had to have surgery to remove it. He would miss the whole World Series.

Without him, the Monarchs crumpled, hitting just .216 as a team and dropping 5 out of 6 games. Hilldale were champions, led by former Monarchs Reuben Curry (2-0, 1.29) and George Carr (series-leading 6 RBI). Rogan’s opposite number, Hilldale’s southpaw ace James “Nip” Winters, was only needed to pitch one game (which he handily won). Nobody knew it at the time, but this would be the Eastern Colored League’s only World Series victory.

***

The newest addition to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database gives us the full 1925 season, including both the ECL and the NNL. The research that produced these numbers is the work of Larry Lester, Wayne Stivers, and our late friend Dick Clark of the Negro League Researchers and Authors Group, the project that compiled statistics for the Hall of Fame nearly a decade ago. Since then they have been correcting and adding to the original research; the 1924 and 1925 seasons we have included in the DB are the public’s first look at this second stage.

The Monarchs were largely unchanged from 1924. They added a rookie pitcher from Oklahoma named Nelson Dean (11-3, 2.74), and, in a deal probably driven by defensive and maybe wage concerns, traded Heavy Johnson, their best hitter over the previous three years, to the Baltimore Black Sox for center fielder Wade Johnston. While Heavy’s stats with the Black Sox (.333/.389/.548 ) would not quite match what he’d done for the Monarchs, he still outhit Johnston (.287/.357/.423) by quite a bit. In general the Monarchs’ hitting fell way off in 1925, as their batting average dropped 26 points, but their pitching and defense improved greatly.

The St. Louis Stars, the surprise winners of the second half who stretched the league championship series to a full seven games, were starting to piece together the great team that would dominate the league in its last few years (1928 to 1931). Cool Papa Bell was establishing himself as black baseball’s top speedster (30 known stolen bases in 87 games). First baseman Willie Bobo (.359/.452/.616, 14 home runs, 84 RBI) and 19-year-old outfielder Frog Redus (.372/.453/.624) led the offense. Roosevelt Davis (16-6, 4.45) and Slap Hensley (12-3, 4.35) headed up a pitching staff given the unenviable task of tamping down opposition offenses in Stars Park, with its 250-foot left field line.

Great performances around the rest of the Negro National League included that of the Detroit Stars’ Turkey Stearnes (.371/.439/.668), who drove in an astounding 126 runs in 94 games; his teammate Andy Cooper (12-2, 2.88); and Mule Suttles, who hit .331 with 10 home runs in spacious Rickwood Field for the Birmingham Black Barons.

Back east, Hilldale won their third straight pennant, as Winters (17-8., 3.02) continued his dominance, and offense came from all over the lineup, including Carr (.355/.409/.623), Judy Johnson in one of his finest seasons (.389/.431/.576), and Biz Mackey (.348/.427/.562). Their main challengers were the Harrisburg Giants. Oscar Charleston did everything he could to lift the Giants, a .500 team the year before, into contention, continuing his reign as the best everyday player in the Negro leagues by batting .427 with 20 home runs and driving in 97 runs. He got plenty of help from Walter Cannady (a .389-hitting shortstop with 13 homers and 86 RBI) and the young Rap Dixon (.352/.421/.512). However, Harrisburg’s pitching was not quite up to the task.

The previous year’s runners-up, the Baltimore Black Sox, started the season with high hopes. The addition of Heavy Johnson gave them a murderers’ trio of hitters, including Jud Wilson (.377/.428/.592) and John Beckwith (.408/.478/.732). Unfortunately for the Sox, the rest of their lineup was nowhere near this standard. Beckwith was made player-manager; his predecessor, the venerable Pete Hill, became business manager and occasional pinch-hitter. In late July the Black Sox were in third place, falling behind but still within striking distance, when Beckwith got involved in an altercation with an umpire during a tense series in Harrisburg, and left town before the last game was played when he was charged with assault and battery. The league suspended Beckwith for a month. Shortly thereafter he was removed as manager. Hill stepped in as caretaker, but the team, deprived of its best player, drifted out of contention and wound up just over .500 for the season.

Elsewhere in the ECL, the Bacharach Giants were stagnating a little despite the efforts of Rats Henderson (15-11, 3.82, with a Negro league-leading 125 strikeouts); their 41-year-old player-manager, John Henry Lloyd, was probably the team’s best player. The Washington Potomacs moved to Wilmington, Delaware, fired Ben Taylor as manager, and replaced him with Danny McClellan; none of these moves helped much, as the team won fewer than a third of its games and folded before the end of the season. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Giants, one of the east coast’s traditional powerhouses, hit rock bottom. In May, their ace pitcher, Dave Brown, apparently shot and killed a man. He fled justice and became a fugitive; he is known to have pitched under a false name in the west, but his ultimate fate remains unknown. Hampered by his absence, the Lincoln Giants could not put together a pitching staff capable of dealing with the Catholic Protectory Oval’s tiny dimensions. When manager Judy Gans was sacked, the Giants’ best player, George Scales, also left, and the Lincolns wound up with only seven wins for the whole ECL season.

Thanks go, again, to Dick, Larry, and Wayne, and also to Patrick Rock and Jim Overmyer (see his great book on the Bacharach Giants), who provided a huge amount of research on (respectively) Kansas City and Atlantic City.

Note on statistics: both 1924 and 1925 lack a few categories that we typically include, most notably full fielding numbers (though we do have games by position) and home runs allowed by pitchers. In the course of time we will gradually add these in (as we already have for the 1924 and 1925 world series).

Next up: the 1939 and 1940 seasons, both leagues. On deck: the 1918/19, 1919/20, and 1921/22 Cuban winter league seasons.

Turkey Stearnes, Bullet Rogan, Nip Winters

Turkey Stearnes, Bullet Rogan, Nip Winters

Negro Leagues DB Update: 1938 Negro National League

In 1938 the Homestead Grays solidified their dominance of the Negro National League. Winning both halves at a trot, Cumberland Posey’s powerhouse team had essentially killed off interest in the league by September. At the end of the season a playoff scheme involving the top four teams was introduced, but the Grays pulled their team off the field partway through the first game and refused to participate any further, calling the whole enterprise into doubt. The Elite Giants were the eventual winners, but by then almost nobody was paying attention, and the Grays have always been considered the 1938 champions.

The Grays were led by Buck Leonard, who in the games we’ve recorded for the DB performed at a nearly superhuman level, hitting .460/.526/.800. Ray Brown went 10-0 with a 2.13 ERA, while Edsall Walker also went undefeated (7-0, 2.93). Newspapers failed to print box scores for many games, so a huge chunk of 1938’s Negro league history remains outside the DB, at least for now. In Zanesville, Ohio, on July 28, Josh Gibson smashed four home runs in a game against the Memphis Red Sox—but there was no box score. In the 32 NNL games that were recorded for him, Gibson got 7 homers, and hit .366/.462/.688.

Their nearest rivals, the Elite Giants, had spent the decade wandering from Nashville to Detroit to Columbus to Washington; in 1938 they finally found a permanent home, in Baltimore’s Bugle Field. The core of the team still consisted of Bill Byrd (7-2, 3.72), Wild Bill Wright (.305), Shifty Jim West (.336/.408/.570), and Sammy T. Hughes (.333), with Biz Mackey (.288) providing veteran savvy, and the teenaged Roy Campanella gaining crucial experience as his backup.

The Philadelphia Stars improved under the leadership of another veteran player, Jud Wilson, their lineup graced by the second baseman Andrew “Pat” Patterson (.322/.398/.566), and their pitching staff led by Cream McHenry (6-1) and Ernie “Spoon” Carter (7-3). Slim Jones, who had once challenged Satchel Paige for the crown of best pitcher in black baseball, was now mostly a pinch-hitter and reserve first baseman, though he did come in as a reliever in a few games (0-2, 1.42). That winter Jones, who was battling alcoholism, would freeze to death on the streets of Baltimore.

The team that had nearly topped the Grays in 1937, the Newark Eagles, tumbled under .500 due to a raft of injuries, most damagingly to star pitcher Leon Day. Ray Dandridge (.373), Willie Wells (.353/.443/.559) and Mule Suttles (.323/.397/.600) still hit well, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the team’s pitching problems. The future Hall of Famer (and former Orange, N.J., high school star) Monte Irvin made his first appearance as a substitute shortstop for the Eagles, playing under the name “Jimmy Nelson” to protect his college eligibility.

Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords recovered partly from their plunge in 1937, buoyed by infielder Harry Williams’s great season (.409/.460/.646) and the pitching of Barney Morris (4-2, 3.07) and Schoolboy Johnny Taylor (7-2, 3.96). But the season’s end would see Greenlee Field torn down and replaced by a housing project, and in 1939 the Crawfords would leave for Toledo.

The league had already lost one of its main venues before the season started, when Dyckman Oval was demolished. With an aging lineup and no regular home field, the Black Yankees collapsed in 1938. Among the few bright spots were rookie second baseman Dave Campbell, who batted .325, and the 40-year-old Fats Jenkins, who hit .400 in the 16 NNL games we have been able to document.

The league had originally intended to expand to eight teams for 1938, adding the Buffalo Black Aces and the Washington Black Senators. The Black Aces were quickly converted into associate members, their games not counting in the standings. The Black Senators, despite the leadership of manager Ben Taylor and a seemingly competent though not spectacular lineup, could not overcome a horrible pitching staff with an ERA of 7.98. Altogether they won only two games, and folded mid-season, leaving the NNL to close out the season with just six teams once more.

Next up: the 1925 NNL and ECL seasons, which will arrive very soon. On deck: the 1939 and 1940 Negro league seasons (both leagues), as well as new Cuban League seasons.

Buck Leonard at bat.

Buck Leonard at bat.

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

 
All-Time
Top Players By Position
Pos Player Years
WS
C
1920 - 1938
145.3
1903 - 1917
104.5
1B
1909 - 1928
162.8
1922 - 1938
126.2
2B
1914 - 1932
99.1
1910 - 1928
90.2
3B
1903 - 1916
100.1
1918 - 1936
89.6
SS
1906 - 1932
231.8
1916 - 1937
119.5
LF
1910 - 1934
121.7
1911 - 1924
88.5
CF
1915 - 1938
300.1
1913 - 1928
279.3
RF
1903 - 1917
88.0
1920 - 1932
84.3
SP
1908 - 1925
214.8
1920 - 1936
198.7
1907 - 1926
193.1
1907 - 1932
164.9
1911 - 1931
163.4

Runs Batted In
Career Leaders
# Player
Pos
Years
RBI
1
CF
1915-1938
1,036
2
SS
1906-1932
790
3
CF
1913-1928
770
4
1B
1909-1928
658
5
C
1920-1938
590
6
CF
1904-1925
550
7
CF
1920-1938
530
8
CF
1923-1936
519
9
1B
1922-1938
518
10
SS
1916-1937
476

ERA+
Career Leaders
# Player Pos Years
ERA+
1
SP
1928-1937
197
2
SP
1913-1921
164
3
SP
1919-1925
157
4
SP
1920-1936
153
5
SP
1923-1936
151
6
SP
1907-1932
149
7
SP
1909-1914
148
8
SP
1908-1925
143
9
SP
1923-1928
141
10
SP
1932-1938
139
 
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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