Tag Archives: Dizzy Dismukes

Things I Learned on the Way to Looking up Other Things #26

5 Nov

Val Haltren’s Off-Season

Despite having hit .331, .340, and .351 in the three seasons since the New York Giants bought him, The New York Telegraph said one of his teammates did not approve of George Van Haltern returning home to California to play winter ball:

“One of the members of the New York team said the other day if Van Haltren would stay one winter where the weather was cold enough to brace him up , it would do him more good than a spring trip to get him is condition.”

National League President Nick Young told the paper, no player should play winter ball:

“Ball players should have the benefit of six months’ rest in the year. The strain of the long championship games is a severe tax, though few players realize it. They ought to save enough money to last through the winter, and take things easy.”

Van Haltren hit .301 or better for the next five years, even though he spent each winter in California—until he broke his ankle sliding during a game in 1902 all but ended his career.

vanhaltren

George Van Haltren

The Color Line, 1932

When the New York Yankees swept the Cubs four games to none in the 1932 World Series, Dizzy Dismukes, writing in The Pittsburgh Courier, said the series reignited talk of baseball integration:

“With the World Series over in four straight wins, fans who think little of the playing abilities of race ballplayers are now prophesying as how the Grays, the Crawfords, Black Yankees, Black Sox and any number of race clubs would have made a better showing against the Yankees.”

Nope

When the New York Yankees lost their first game of the 1938 season, in the midst of Joe DiMaggio’s holdout—he did not return until the 13th game—a reporter from The Associated Press tracked him down at his restaurant, Joe DiMaggio’s Grotto, on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco:

“Joe ‘was sorry’ to hear that the Yankees lost…but covered the holdout situation in eight flowing words…

“Have you contacted (Yankees owner Jacob) Rupert? He was asked.

“’Nope,’ was the reply.

“Will you accept $25,000?

“’Nope.’

“Will you appeal to Judge Landis?

“’Nope.’

“Will you play for anybody?

“’Nope.’

“Has Rupert contacted you recently?

“’Nope.’

“Is any settlement looming?

“’Nope.’

“Are you doing anything about the situation?

“’Nope.’

With that, DiMaggio returned to “selling fish dinners.”

DiMaggio appeared in his first game for the 6-6 Yankees on April 30. They went 93-57 the rest of the way, he hit .324 with 32 home runs and 140 RBI.

dimaggiosigns

With Ed Barrow looking on, Joe DiMaggio ends his holdout and shakes hands with Jacob Rupert

Cobb’s Stolen Bats

A small item in The Detroit Times in December of 1915 said the home of Frank J. Brady, the “property man” of the Detroit Tigers had been robbed.

Among the haul:

“(T)wo of Ty Cobb’s favorite bats, Catcher (Oscar) Stanage and shortstop (Donie) Bush also lost equipment which they valued highly.”

Also stolen was “the glove worn by George Mullin” when he pitched his no hitter. There was no record of the items being recovered. The paper valued the loss at “several hundred dollars.”

“I’ve Selected them in the Order as Their Greatness Appeals to me”

31 Oct

Dizzy Dismukes probably wrote more about the players he saw during and after his career than any other Negro League player.  The Pittsburgh Courier regularly published his observations in 1930.  Like this one:

“Strolled into a barber shop (in St. Louis) a few days ago and arguments were rife as to the best pitcher of all times.”

diz

Dismukes

Dismukes said that each participant in the discussion “based his argument on one particular game” they had witnessed.  He told the group he would share his top nine “I had seen during my 21 years” in the pages of the paper:

“I’ve seen some might fine work done by some pitchers whose names won’t be included in the list because of the short duration of their performances.  For instance, there was  Bill Lindsay, who died early in his career (at age 23 in 1914), Pat Dougherty, who had as much zip on a fast ball as any pitcher who ever through a pellet, he imbibed too much of intoxicants, and numerous others.”

Dismukes said “consistency of performance for a reasonable number of seasons” was his criteria.  Unfortunately, Dismukes chose not to go into the detail he did when selecting outfielders, or The Courier did not give him the space, so the pitcher list lacks a lot of the insights of the previous one, but listed them in order:

“Here goes:

  1. Rube Foster

  2. Cyclone Joe Williams

  3. John Donaldson

  4. Steel Arm John Taylor

  5. Bullet Rogan

  6. Dick Redding

  7. Frank Wickware

  8. String Bean Williams

  9. Walter Bell”

RubeFoster

Rube Foster

Of the list, he said:

“I’ve selected them in the order as their greatness appeals to me.  There will be very little opposition to the placing of the first names two, although some may prefer juggling numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6.

“Some might argue as to the effect the lively ball would have had on their performances.   In the list above are two notable examples:  In the list above are two notable examples: ‘Cyclone’ Williams and Rogan.  How many times during a season were they shelled off the hill?”

Next, he rated catchers.  Josh Gibson, then 18, had not yet begun his first season with the Homestead Grays, and was not on Dismukes’ radar:

“The crop of young catchers breaking into the game in the past ten years have been so poor that I can only find three, namely: Frank Duncan, of the Kansas City Monarchs, Raleigh (Biz) Mackey of Hilldale, and Larry Brown of the Memphis Red Sox showing enough skill to qualify.”

His first choice:

“Topping the list is none other than Bruce Petway, whom I claim to be the greatest catcher I ever saw.  His best days were spent during the base-running craze.  There were not as many fast me afoot playing baseball then as now but there were more base runners.  One could possibly count all the thefts against Petway during a season on one hand and then have a few fingers left.”

 

petway

Dismukes said some people thought Petway was a poor catcher because he dropped a lot of balls, but he claimed:

“Petway would intentionally drop balls to encourage base runners to start, as very few had the nerve.”

Dismukes said Petway was a great base runner and “an uncanny judge” of foul pop ups.

Second was George “Chappie” Johnson:

“With Chappie behind the plat, a pitcher did not have to have much on the ball…(and he) was the greatest conversationalist in baseball…Chappie had the opposing batters dumbfounded with a never-ceasing flow of ‘lingo’ crossing the batter up by telling him exactly what the pitcher was about to deliver then standing far to one side of the plate telling the pitcher to ‘get this one over.’ The pitcher then shot one across the plate and he gracefully reached in with one hand to receive a strike.  He excelled in receiving with one hand.  Many young catchers have ruined a career trying to emulate Chappie.”

The third pick was Pearl “Specs” Webster:

“He could do everything expected of a great catcher.  In competition he proved the fastest runner in colored baseball and in bunting and getting to first base as well as circling the bases he was a wonder.  He truly was one of baseball’s greatest catchers.  Specs died overseas in the service of the USA.”

specks

Next was “a scrawny kid from Kansas City,” Frank Duncan:

“He gets the call for No. 4 position.  A great receiver, thrower, fast on bases, and a dangerous hitter.”

Dismukes’ next choices:

“Pete Booker, another of the old school, gets post No. 5, while Russell Powell, reporting to the Indianapolis ABC’s as an infielder and converted into a catcher, is choice No. 6.  He was one of the few catchers who seldom made false moves back of the plate.  When he threw at a base runner there was always a chance of getting him.  He excelled in trapping runners off third base with snap throws.”

His seventh choice:

“Wm. McMurray, who could look at batter’s feet and come near telling what batter could or could not hit, gets the lucky No. 7 position…whenever you put Mac in a game you always had a well-caught game.”

His final two choices were Biz Mackey and Larry Brown:

“(Mackey) a super hitter, and one who comes near as any recent catcher in having a throwing arm resembling that owned by the one and only Petway, in No. 8 in line, while ninth, last but not least is Larry Brown, who shows unusual skill in handling of pitchers.  (Dolf) Luque, formerly of the Cincinnati Reds and now with Brooklyn of the National League, praises Brown as being the best receiver he ever pitched to.”

“About the Best Outfielder he had Ever Lamped”

29 Oct

In 1930, Dizzy Dismukes provided his list of the greatest outfielders he had seen during his 20 years as a Negro League pitcher, to The Pittsburgh Courier, as part of a series of ‘releases’ he wrote for the paper:

“From 1909 to 1915 I had seen a great array of outfield talent, including such stars as Pete Hill, Frank Duncan, Jap Payne, Spotwood Poles, Jimmy Lyons, (Robert ‘Judy’) Gans, C. B. Earl [sic Earle]…and a host of others.”

dismukes.jpg

Dismukes

Dismukes said none of them measured up to the man who “I have little doubt that the choice of ranking him as no. 1 will be unanimous,” among The Courier’s readers:

“Ranking as the best outfielder of all time is Oscar Charleston, who reported to C. I. Taylor for a tryout in the spring of 1915 as a pitcher”

Dismukes said Charleston played some games in the outfield for Taylor and:

“His uncanny judgement of fly balls, his prowess with the bat, and daring on the bases in games he played soon convinced C. I. that he had about the best outfielder he had ever lamped.”

oscar.jpg

Charleston

Dismukes said:

“In the days of the bunt—that is the swing bunt—he excelled, and then, as the home run craze began to creep into the game, he kept pace with the leaders by amassing as many as any other.”

In the field, Dismukes said:

“Opposing players complained that four men played the outfield for the (Indianapolis) ABC’s. Charleston, playing close in behind second base, snared line drives which ordinarily were hits, and then when some batter would drive one to the far corners of the lot for what seemed like a sure hit, Charleston would bob up from somewhere to make a catch just before the ball had a chance to hit the ground.  I for one have never seen his equal.”

Dismukes chose Pete Hill for number 2 all time:

“A close student of the game in every sense, he played the batter when playing outfield; was a great hitter in a pinch, whether it was a single, double, triple, or home run that was needed.”

The third best outfielder, according to Dismukes, was Jimmy Lyons:

“He too, like Charleston, broke in as a pitcher, but the late Dick Wallace, then manager of St. Louis (1911) realized his value as an outfielder.  Lyons was the most daring of all batters I ever saw; was fast and used his speed to every advantage.  He was considered about the freshest kid to break into baseball during those days.  Safe bunting was his specialty.  Talkative, he could upset an infield by telling them what he was going to do and get away with it…In that respect I class him as greater than Charleston or Hill.  Drop the ball and he would run—and how.”

Dismukes said “that seemingly slow moving Frank Duncan” was number four:

“There was a natural hitter.  A great judge of pitched balls and uncanny at getting to first base by being hit by a pitched ball.  Frank’s position was left field.  Hit one right on the foul line and he was there to receive it; hit one over the shortstop’s head, he was there; hit one up against the fence, he was there; why, how, everybody who has seen him play still wonders.”

Dismukes said “that nervous type” Spotwood Poles was fifth:

“(He) was the fastest man I ever saw in getting to first base.  With all his speed however, he was an ordinary base runner, seemingly awkward, but a good fly chaser and one of the game’s greatest lead off men.  And, truly, he was a great hitter.”

Next was Andrew “Jap” Payne:

“Payne in the time of need could do more acrobatic stunts to help a pitcher out of a tight situation, than all the outfielders put together.  Almost any ball Jap could get within three to five feet of before hitting the ground he caught, as he usually took a dive for them.”

payne

Payne

Dismukes’ next choice was Poles’ Lincoln Giants teammate Robert “Judy” Gans, who had become an umpire:

“(Gans’) whom his teammates dubbed ‘telegram’ because he told everything he knew, must be given credit for being one of the game’s greatest fielders.  He started as a pitcher, but found his real greatness would be shown in the outfield.”

In the eighth spot:

“I had heard a lot of a lad out east by the name of (Herbert ‘Rap’) Dixon, and it was my good fortune to see him last fall in about seven games and I quickly concluded he was just about all I had heard of him.  Eastern critics have been ranking him with Charleston.  He is a great fly chaser, a hard and timely hitter, and few outfielders have possessed throwing arms the equal of his.  To exclude his name from my list would be an injustice.”

And, “Last but not least” Dismukes said:

“James Bell, affectionately called by his teammates ‘Cool Papa’…I would like to see a contest with ‘Cool Papa’ as a participant (against the 1916 version of) Jimmy Lyons.”

 

 

 

 

Wendell Smith’s “Talent Hunt”

6 May

With Negro League baseball reeling from the effects of integrated professional baseball and years of disorganization, Wendell Smith and The Pittsburgh Courier set out to inject some life back into it.

Wendell Smith

Wendell Smith

A banner headline in the May 15, 1948, edition announced:

Courier Launches Talent Hunt

Smith did not spare the hyperbole in his explanation of the details:

The Pittsburgh Courier introduces this week the greatest scouting system ever devised in the history of baseball…It stretches from coast-to-coast and every foreign country in which this great newspaper circulates.”

Smith said the paper would pay $100 to any reader who recommended a player “Who is assigned to a professional ballclub and makes the grade.”

He said the “(S)couting system—which is even greater than those conducted by the major league club,” sought players “not to exceed 21,” who “may be of any race or nationality.”  The paper would then “conduct a thorough investigation of the candidate.”

That “thorough investigation” would be conducted by some of the biggest names in Negro League baseball recruited as “Official Scouts” to vet the candidates.  They were Oscar Charleston, Ted Page, Dizzy Dismukes, Frank Duncan, Vic Harris, Winfield Welch, George Scales and Tex Burnett.

Vic Harris with the 1930 Homestead Grays.

Vic Harris 

Smith said of the paper’s “Scouts;”

“They will see these boys pay and send in a report to The Courier sports department.  If the scout’s report indicates the boy is a potential big leaguer, he will be immediately sent to a professional team for a trial.”

Smith promised every reader of the paper:

“(Y)ou automatically become an ‘ivory-hunter,’ a ‘bird dog,’ a real, honest-to-goodness baseball scout.”

The “Talent Hunt” had the enthusiastic support of Negro League magnates as well—despite having been the frequent targets of Smith’s and The Courier’s ire.

Effa Manley, Newark Eagles owner, said, “It will be a life saver for Negro baseball.”

Effa Manley

Effa Manley

Dr. John Johnson—an Episcopal minister in his second year as president of the Negro National League said, “(W)e are now going to discover more players than ever before.”

Negro American League President Dr. John B. Martin said, “It will help every team in baseball.”

Smith reminded readers:

“(Jackie Robinson) was recommended to Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, by The Pittsburgh Courier…Some pace there is another Robinson and The Courier and its many readers are determined to find him!”

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

The following week, Smith told readers:

“Letters are rolling in from New York City, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles.  But the little towns are sending names of hopefuls too.  Everybody wants to be a scout!”

At the end of May, The Courier announced another addition to the Official Scouts: Elmer C. “Pop” Turner.  Nearly forgotten today, Turner was a football and baseball star at West Virginia State University—also Smith’s alma mater.  He played for several Negro League teams in the late 20s and early 30s, became a Negro National League umpire in the late 30s and early 40s, and coached baseball and football at North Carolina College at Durham—now known as North Carolina Central University.

By June 5, Smith promised:

“Someone is going to be one hundred dollars richer, and some young ballplayer is going to be a thousand times happier by virtue of The Pittsburgh Courier’s new ‘Talent Hunt’ campaign… (It) is in full swing and letters are pouring in from all over the country.”

The following week, the paper said, under the headline:

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star…He’ll bring you $100!

“All you have to do is find a likely prospect (and) send his name and address and other information you wish to Wendell Smith…This ‘Talent Hunt’ program is designed to uncover the ‘Stars of Tomorrow.”

The article said they were scouting “more than 200 young players” recommended by readers.

After that June 12 article, there was never another word written about the “Talent Hunt.”  Not by Wendell Smith, not by The Courier.  The promotion, which could have provided much-needed publicity and enthusiasm for the moribund Negro Leagues, disappeared without a trace; without so much as a mention.

Smith spent the remainder of the 1948 season covering major league baseball; and The Courier’s coverage of the Negro Leagues was greatly reduced from previous seasons, and nonexistent some weeks.

The only passing reference Smith made to the “Talent Hunt” came almost four months after the abrupt disappearance of the promotion.  It was in his column, under the headline:

Hard to Find Negro Baseball Talent

“Branch Rickey proved with Jackie Robinson that there’s gold in Negro players, and Bill Veeck of Cleveland substantiated that proof with Satchel Paige and Larry Doby…So major league scouts are scouring the country sides looking for Negro prospects, while the owners sit back and wait, envisioning record-breaking crowds in the future if their ‘bird dogs’ find a sepia star in the hinterlands.

But, said Smith:

“The scouts are out there snooping around like Scotland Yard detectives looking for talent, but having a difficult job uncovering it.”

Smith then listed several past Negro League players who should have had the opportunity to play in the major leagues, and said:

“Unfortunately, there aren’t such players around today.  That’s why there won’t be a large number of Negro players in the majors for some time to come.  They just can’t be found and were going to have to wait until the kids playing in the sandlots around the country develop.”

Smith’s pessimistic assessment of the state of “Negro baseball talent,” was likely the result of the paper’s failed promotion, as players continued to be scouted and signed without the help of the readers of The Courier.

Fred Downer

30 Mar

In August of 1953, “Jet Magazine” said people were talking about:

 “That affectionate hug baseball immortal Ty Cobb gave Chicago news dealer Fred Downer.”

By then, Frederick Douglas Downer was largely forgotten.

Before playing as a professional, he was, according to The Pittsburgh Courier, the “star” of the Morehouse College baseball team in Atlanta.

Fred Downer

Fred Downer

His first professional experience was with the Atlanta Cubs in 1919—the team was colloquially called the Atlanta Black Crackers for years, and newspapers referred to them by both names until 1922 when the “Cubs” name was permanently dropped.  Years later, Downer told The Chicago Defender he also played with the Knoxville Giants during this period.

In 1921, Downer and Gerard Williams, his teammate at Morehouse and with the Atlanta Cubs, went north to join the Pittsburgh Keystones.   Downer is listed by several sources as the club’s manager, but in the 1970s he told The Defender said he “played under the management of (William) Dizzy Dismukes.”  Dismukes was also the Keystones’ manager the following year when the team entered the Negro National League.

Downer appears to have played independent and semi-pro ball during 1922.

While not listed on any extant rosters, Downer spent some time with the Cleveland Tate Stars in 1923—in an interview given in 1972 Elander “Vic” Harris, who debuted with the Tate Stars as an 18-year-old that season, said Downer, who he had gotten to know in Pittsburgh was with the club. Harris told The Van Nuys (CA) News he tried out as a first baseman but was installed in the outfield, leading to Downer being let go.

Downer returned to Pittsburgh and assumed management of the Keystones in 1924. After a single season in the Negro National League, the Keystones had dropped out, and the team continued operations as a semi-pro club.

Downer, and another Georgian who also played with the 1923 Cleveland Tate Stars, Mathis Williams, managed and played for the semi-pro version in 1924 and ’25.  The Keystones barely treaded water financially.

Mathis Williams

Mathis Williams

In June of 1925 The Pittsburgh Courier said:

“Of the colored clubs in action, none but the Homestead Grays are making any money…Fred Downer and his Pittsburgh Keystones are practically a thing of the past.”

Within a month the team disbanded and Downer was through as a player.

The following year, he and his wife Marian Foster Downer, a reporter for The Pittsburgh Courier—and later The Chicago Defender— relocated to Chicago.  She continued to write for The Courier’s society page while Fred began covering baseball and boxing for the paper and acted as The Courier’s Midwest circulation manager.

In addition to covering most major Midwest-based events–including the annual Negro League East-West All-Star Game and several championship fights—Downer started the Atlas News and Photo Service which distributed content to Black newspapers.

 

Marian Foster Downer also wrote about sports for The Defender.  Her article on the 1935 East-West All-Star Game—won by the West 11-8 on George “Mule” Suttles’ three-run home run after Webster McDonald walked Josh Gibson to face him—was headlined:

Mule Suttles

Mule Suttles

Our Girl Scribe Sees Mule’s Hit

Marian Foster Downer--The Defender's "Girl Scribe"

Marian Foster Downer–The Defender’s “Girl Scribe”

In 1945, Fred Downer proposed a new path for Negro League baseball, writing in a Chicago-based magazine called “New Vistas:”

“If the white majors won’t hire good colored players, then the Negroes should build their own parks and hire the best players regardless of race.  This will build up competition, and competition will break down many barriers.”

Downer was covering the World Series at Wrigley Field in 1932 and was on-hand for Babe Ruth’s “called shot.”  The Courier’s Sports Editor Wendell Smith said Downer was “One of Babe’s most staunch and loyal supporters,” and was determined to find the ball.

 “His decision to find the ball Ruth hit resulted in a search that has been a detailed and intensive as any by a ‘G-man.’  Fred scoured every baseball haunt in the Chicago area.”

According to Smith, Downer expanded his search throughout the Midwest, with no luck.

Downer later told The Chicago Defender he found the ball and bought it from a former Chicagoan who had moved to Michigan.  He called the ball “one of his prized possessions.”

The actual provenance of the ball and its current whereabouts are unknown.

Twenty-one years after he witnessed Ruth’s “called shot,” Downer—by then he had left  The Courier and owned three newsstands on Chicago’s South Side– was again at Wrigley Field where he had an encounter that raised questions in the Black press about a long-held opinion of another baseball legend.

Ty Cobb stopped in Chicago on his way back to his California home from Cooperstown, to attend a game between the Cubs and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Downer was born in Cobb’s hometown of Royston, Georgia in 1896.  The Defender said of the relationship between the two:

“(Downer) got his start in baseball chasing fly balls for Ty Cobb as a kid.”

The California Eagle said:

“Downer was raised around the Cobb’s household in Royston, Georgia.”

Wendell Smith, then with The Chicago Herald-American, said of Cobb’s day at Wrigley:

“(T)here were two things said about (Cobb) that were, apparently, the gospel truth:

  • He could hit any living pitcher.

  • He would hit any living Negro.”

Smith said the second “truth” was “merely a matter of hearsay.”

And, he said:

“(H)e gives no indication today of intolerance.”

In addition to his embrace of Downer, Cobb was asked which players on the field most impressed him:

“’Why that catcher there, he said, pointing to Roy Campanella.  ‘He’s the best ball player I’ve seen in many a year…That fella’s a great catcher,’ he volunteered.  ‘The very best in the game.  He reminds me a little of Roger Bresnahan.  If he can stick around for five or six more years they’ll have to put him alongside the game’s all-time catchers.’”

Downer continued to operate his newsstands well into his 70s.  At the corner of 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue, The Defender said, he would:

“(S)ell morning newspapers (and) answer hundreds of questions pertaining to his long career.”

Fred Downer

Fred Downer

Frederick Douglas Downer died in Chicago on March 10, 1986.