Tag Archives: Homestead Grays

“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.”

“But, no Freakish Balls”

20 Jun

After Smokey Joe Williams struck out 27 Kansas City Monarchs in a 12-inning one-hit shutout in Kansas City in August of 1930, Paul A.R. Kurtz of The Pittsburgh Press wrote about meeting Williams in the Grays dugout when the two teams played at Forbes Field two weeks earlier:

smokeyjoe

Smokey Joe Williams

“Personal experience recently revealed to me the superstition existing in baseball.

“I know big league players want bats scattered when they’re not hitting; others touch bases or gloves on the way to the bench during innings and do numerous other unusual things.  But my own failing for peanuts brought me an interesting interview.”

Kurtz said he bought peanuts from a vendor when he arrived at Forbes Field:

“While a few Grays were practicing, I wandered to the Homestead bench to be greeted by Smokey Joe Williams, the veteran Gray twirler, who noticed the hard-shelled peanuts.”

Williams asked:

“’Do you know peanuts are barred from our bench?’ Joe asked.  I inquired, ‘how come?’

“’I don’t like them around and have made my mates understand that.  They try to tease me by eating some once in awhile.  I always feel I’m losing when I hear the cracking of shells.”

Williams said:

“That’s my only superstitious feeling in baseball.”

Kurtz said he was concerned he contributed to Williams losing for the first time that season:

“Joe didn’t like peanuts. I had them in my hands.  Joe was starting pitcher.  He had won 23 games without a defeat until the Monarchs beat him with a rally that particular night.”

Williams, with the help of Grays shortstop Jake Stephens–who made three errors in the game, two of them in the ninth–blew a 4 to 3 lead in the ninth when the Monarchs scored five runs to beat the Grays 8 to 4 in the second night game ever played in Forbes Field:

“Was I the cause of Joe’s downfall? Those peanuts may have preyed on his mind and by mental telepathy Stephens foozled a few swats to help the monarchs halt Williams’ winning streak.”

Generally listed at 6’ 3” or 6’ 4” and 190 pounds, Williams told the the reporter he was 6’2” and weighed 224 pounds, but said he loses “nearly 30 pounds during a summer.”

Williams said:

“’I have no trouble keeping in shape. I take good care of myself, sleep long and eat carefully.  I tried to throw a spitball once, but it jerked my arm and so I cut it.  Control and plenty of motion are my bets.  I have practiced hard to master control to place the ball just where I want it on a batter.  Low knee fast pitches, inside and outside, are my favorites.  But, no freakish balls.  I am better with control than those who try an assortment of twisters.”

Williams told Kurtz about the biggest regrets of his career:

“Although Joe has marvelous control of his fast pitches, he talked regretfully of three boys who he hurt badly.  One lad in Texas became demented after being hit and another had all his teeth knocked out. In Coal City (Pennsylvania) Joe dented a player’s skull, leaving the imprint of the ball on his forehead.”

Williams told Kurtz that he had, for years, kept “a big scrapbook…It contained all accounts of his baseball life.”  The book, “which Williams prized highly,” was stolen:

“Since it disappeared Joe has not been as interested in recording his accomplishments. ‘How I’d like to get that book back,’ he said.”

He then went out and took his first loss of the 1930 season.

“Baseball After Dark Made its Initial Gesture in Pittsburgh”

18 Jun

With light standards set up just behind the first and third base coaching boxes, the Homestead Grays and the Kansas City Monarchs took the field for the first night game at Forbes Field on July 18, 1930.

duncanab

Frank Duncan at the plate, “Buck Ewing catching July 18, 1930

The night before, the Grays played under lights for the time.  A similar lighting system was deployed at the Akron, Ohio Central League ballpark, and Smokey Joe Williams shut out the Akron Guard, a local amateur club, 10 to 0, and held the Guard to two hits.

Ralph Davis, the sports editor of The Pittsburgh Press said:

“Baseball after dark made its initial gesture in Pittsburgh last night…More than 6,000 fans turned out through curiosity or other motives to see the spectacle, and the vast majority of them gave the night baseball plan their unqualified approval.”

Davis declared the field “as bright as day,” and said:

“With 33 huge floodlights as illuminants, the play-field of the Pirates was turned from inky blackness into something approaching mid-afternoon brightness.

“The scene was a revelation to many doubting Thomases who went to scoff and left the field declaring that perhaps, after all, the national pastime, if it ever has to be saved, will find night performances its savior.

“Hardly a shadow was discernible as the rival teams fielded apparently as surely and as speedily as they would have done in broad daylight.  Balls hit high in the air were easy to follow in their flight, and long hits to the outfield could be traced without ‘losing’ the ball.”

Davis said the one exception in the field were ground balls “which skimmed along the ground.” Pitchers he said, appeared “to use just as much speed,” as during the day, and the lights seemed to not affect the catchers, and:

“Pitched balls, waist-high or higher, were easy picking for the eager batsmen, but it looked as if balls around the knees were harder to judge.”

The first pitch was not thrown until 9:15, because “the darker it was, the better the lighting system worked.”

As for the crowd, which Davis said “The color line was not drawn,” and the number of black and white fans were roughly equal:

“It was a typical baseball scene, with enthusiasm just as evident as any major league game.  Rooters went into a frenzy when the Grays tied the score after the Monarchs had gotten away in the lead, and almost tore down the stands when they finally won out.”

crowdforbes.jpg

“The color line was not drawn” in the crowd

The game went 12 innings, and ended, The Press said, “Precisely at midnight,” when George Scales scored the winning run on a hit by catcher William “Buck” Ewing.

Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss was “an interested spectator” who “Watched the play closely,” Davis asked him his opinion:

“It is interesting, and provides entertainment for many people who cannot get away from work for afternoon contests.  It is not as fast as daylight ball, and I imagine the infielders have some difficulty in judging hard-hit grounders but it is remarkable how well the men handle themselves.”

Dreyfuss summed up his feelings:

“I don’t think night baseball will ever replace the daylight brand in popularity.”

Smoky Joe Williams, who had pitched in the Grays’ first night game in Akron two days earlier, agreed with Dreyfuss when Davis asked his opinion of playing under the lights:

 “’Night baseball causes an eye strain,’ said he.  “’It is all right as long as you don’t look into one of those big lights.  If you do, you lose sight of the ball entirely.  I’ll take the daylight stuff for mine.”

The next night, Williams pitched in the second night game to played in Pittsburgh, he took a 4 to 3 lead into the ninth inning when Kansas City scored five runs and beat him 8 to 8.  Two weeks later, Williams struck out 27 Monarchs batters under the lights in Kansas City.

“The Opposing Pitchers were Cheating”

11 Jun

Writing in The Pittsburgh Courier in 1936, Cum Posey owner of the Homestead Grays said the “greatest pitching battle of the Gray’s history and a fielding feature that stands out as the best ever witnessed by the writer,” happened in the same 1930 game.

Posey Cum 1345.72 crop PD

Cum Posey

The night game was played August 2, 1930 in Kansas City, between the Monarchs and the Grays, after the teams had spent several weeks playing a series of games in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

It was the most famous game of Smokey Joe Williams’ career—some sources incorrectly date the game as August 7 because of the dateline on The Courier’s contemporaneous story about the game.

smokeyjoe

“Smokey” Joe Williams

Williams faced Chet Brewer of the Monarchs.  Posey said:

“Before the game, the writer and Mr.(James Leslie) Wilkinson of Kansas City had an agreement that neither pitcher would use the ‘emery’ ball. The Grays got two men on base in the first inning, when Brewer brought out his ‘work,’ and there was no score.

“Joe Williams was then given a sheet of sand paper and the battle was on.”

Six years earlier, The Courier confirmed Posey’s recollection about doctored balls:

“The opposing pitchers were cheating without the question of a doubt.  An emery ball in daylight is very deceptive but at night it is about as easy to see as an insect in the sky.”

Posey picked up the story:

“For eight innings not another Gray and no Monarch reached first base.  Kansas City hadn’t made a hit off of Joe, with one down in the ninth (actually the eighth).  Newt Joseph in attempting to bunt, lifted a ‘pop’ over (first baseman Oscar) Charleston’s head.  Charleston had come in fast for the bunt and the ball went for two bases.”

The Courier did not describe the hit as a bunt in the original game story.

Posey continued:

“Joseph stole third.  “The Grays infield of Judy Johnson, (Jake) Stephens, (George) Scales, and Charleston came in on the grass…Moore (Posey misidentifies the batter—it was actually James ‘Lefty’ Turner) a young first baseman, was at bat, and hit a half liner, half Texas leaguer over Stephens’ head.  Jake turned at the crack of the bat and started running with his hands in the air.  While still out of reaching distance of the ball, Stephens stumbled and, taking a headlong dive, caught the ball six inches from the ground.”

The Courier was less specific in the 1930 coverage but said Stephens “went back” for Turner’s “sure Texas leaguer,” and “made a spectacular catch to rob the Monarchs of a possible victory.”

Williams retired Brewer to end the inning.

Brewer and Williams continued their duel until the top of the 12th when Brewer walked Charleston (the game’s only base on balls) and scored on Chaney White’s single for the game’s only score.

chetbrewer

Chet Brewer

Williams struck out the side in the 12th, completing the one-hitter with 27 strikeouts.

Brewer gave up just four hits and struck out 19, including 10 straight—he struck out the side in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

Williams is widely known to have recommended Buck Leonard to Posey resulting in Leonard’s signing with the Grays in 1934.  Lesser known is the story Leonard told Red Smith of The New York Times in 1972:

“’Williams—he was tending bar on Lenox Avenue—asked me if I’d like to play for a good team.  He called up Cum Posey, who had the Homestead Grays.  Posey sent travel expenses but not to me; he sent the money to Williams, who gave me a bus ticket and $5.’

“’Do you think,’ Leonard was asked, ‘that Smokey Joe took a commission?’

“Laughter bubbled out of him.  ‘All I know, when I got my first pay check they held out $50.  That bus ticket didn’t cost $45.”’

Things I Learned on the Way to Looking Up Other Things #17

10 Feb

Honus Wagner on Integration, 1939

As part of a series of articles on the long overdue need to integrate major league baseball, Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier interviewed many of baseball’s biggest names.  One of the most vocal proponents was Honus Wagner.

Wagner

Wagner

The then 65-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates coach told Smith:

“Most of the great Negro players I played against have passed on, but I remember many of them well.

Rube Foster was one of the greatest pitchers of all time.  He was the smartest pitcher I have ever seen in all my years of baseball.

“Another great player was John Henry Lloyd.  They called him ‘The Black Wagner’ and I was always anxious to see him play.

“Well, one day I had an opportunity to go see him play.  After I saw him I felt honored that they should name such a great ballplayer after me, honored.”

Rube Foster

Rube Foster

Wagner said the “Homestead Grays had some of the best ballplayers I have ever seen.”

John Henry lloyd

John Henry lloyd

Although he misidentified one of them as “lefty,” Wagner also said of William Oscar Owens, a pitcher and outfielder for the Grays and several other clubs:

“He was a great pitcher and one of the best hitters I have ever seen.”

More recently, Wagner said Oscar CharlestonJasper “Jap” Washington, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson “could have made the grade easily had they been accepted.”

Wagner concluded:

“Yes, down through the years, I have seen any number of Negro players who should have been in big league baseball.”

 

Uniform Criticism, 1923

The Decatur (IL) Herald found the state of baseball uniforms worthy of an editorial in March of 1923:

“Pictures of baseball players in training reveal that the season of 1923 has brought no marked change in the style of uniform.  It is quite as baggy and unbecoming as ever.

“Baseball players refer to their costumes as ‘monkey suits,’ a term that is supposed to establish some sort of connection with the cut of the affairs worn by the little animals that pick up the organ grinder’s pennies.  However, that may be, no sensible man imagines that his uniform accentuates his good looks.  It is purely a utility costume and smartness has no place in it.”

ruthandgehrig

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in their “baggy and unbecoming” 1923 uniforms

 

The paper was most concerned about the uniform’s tendency to make players look foolish and appear to be out of shape:

“A collarless blouse with an awkward length sleeve bags at the belt in a way to emphasize abdominal prominence instead of athletic trimness about the loins.  Loose knickerbockers gathered at the knee resemble the khaki uniforms of the Spanish-American War period in their voluminousness and wrinkles…A cap fitting close about the head and bringing ears into striking relief is the climatic feature of this make-up.

“Underneath this covering of dirty gray or brown there are doubtless lithe limbs and well developed muscles, but the spectator doesn’t see them.  The baseball costume doubtless serves its purpose, it fails lamentably to make the wearer look like an athlete.”

No Women Allowed, 1912

Coming out of the 1912 winter meetings in Chicago, The New York Globe said:

“Nothing doing for suffragettes in the American League!  Not even if they march to the meeting.  They may be making great progress in their cause, but there will not be any Mrs. Brittons in the Ban Johnson organization.”

“Mrs. Britton” was Helene Hathaway Britton, who became owner of the St. Louis Cardinals after the death of her uncle Stanley Robison.

Helene Hathaway Britton with children Marie and Frank

Helene Hathaway Britton with children Marie and Frank

 “A decision was reached that no woman can own a club or even attend an American League meeting.  According to the owners it was a good decision, as they did not want to get into the same mess of trouble which the National League has encountered since one of its clubs fell into the hands of a woman.  Which shows the American League is constantly being benefitted by the experience of the National.”

The “trouble” referred to tension between Britton and Manager Roger Bresnahan, who she had given a five-year contract before the 1912 season.  The two feuded after the team struggled and Britton rejected numerous overtures from Bresnahan to buy the team.  She eventually fired the manager and a very public battle ensued.  Sinister “Dick” Kinsella, who along with Bill Armour comprised the Cardinals’ scouting staff, resigned claiming Bresnahan was “Not treated right.” Armour remained with the club and a settlement was finally reached when Bresnahan was named manager of the Chicago Cubs.

bresnahanandtoy

Bresnahan moved on to the Cubs

One American League owner told The Globe:

“I think it will benefit our league to keep the women out of baseball.  It is almost impossible to do so, but we must keep them out of baseball.  A woman owning a ballclub is about the limit, and the American League made a great move when they decided to bar female magnates.  Votes for the women may be alright, and we do not blame them for battling for them, but it would be a terrible thing to have them in baseball as owners.  It would mean the ruining of the game.”

Grace Comiskey, who became owner of the Chicago White Sox after the death of her husband John Louis Comiskey in 1939–she was forced to go to court to get control of the club from The First National Bank of Chicago; as trustees of the estate, the bank wanted to sell the team because there was no specific instruction in the will that his widow should take control.

She became the American League’s first woman owner.

The game appears not to have been “ruined” during her tenure.

Cum Posey’s “All-Americans”

18 Nov

In 1937, Homestead Grays owner Cumberland Willis “Cum” Posey Jr. set out to name the all-time Negro League all-stars–his “All-Americans”– in The Pittsburgh Courier; six years later he expanded his “All-American” team and conceded that picking an all-time Negro League team was a nearly impossible task:

“Due to the changes in umpiring, parks, baseballs, ownership, in the last three decades, it is merely a guess when any of us attempt to pick an all-time All-American club.  Under any system we would hesitate to put ourselves on record as picking the club without placing some of the boys from the islands on the team.  We know some star players from Cuba, who played Negro baseball in the US and they cannot be ignored.”

Cum Posey

Cum Posey

Posey said no team would be complete without considering pitchers Jose Mendez, Eustaquio “Bombin” Pedroso, and Juan Padron, shortstop Pelayo Chacon, outfielders Cristobal Torriente and Esteban Montalvo and “(Martin) Dihigo, probably the greatest all-around player of any decade.”

Cristóbal Torriente

Cristóbal Torriente

“If one could be a spectator at an argument between those closely associated with baseball—fans, players, owners—he would be surprise at the differences of opinions.

Ted Page, who is now manager of Hillvue Bowling Alley (in Pittsburgh), and was formerly one of the star players of Negro baseball was mentioning one of the players of former years.  Ted contends (Chester) Brooks, one of the few West Indian (Brooks was said to hae been born in Nassau, Bahamas, but several sources, including his WWII Draft Registration and death certificate list his place of birth as Key West, Florida) players ever on the roster of an American baseball club was one of the real stars of all time.  Brooks, formerly of the Brooklyn Royal Giants, was probably the most consistent right hand hitter in the history of Negro baseball.  When the Homestead Grays were at odds with everyone connected with Negro Organized Baseball we tried to get Brooks on the Grays club.”

Chester Brooks

Chester Brooks

In his 1937 picks, Posey placed Brooks on his all-time all-star team as “utility” outfielder.

The 1937 team:

Manager:  C. I. Taylor

Coaches:  Rube Foster, Sam Crawford, and Chappie Johnson

Catchers:  Josh Gibson and Biz Mackey

Pitchers: Smokey Joe Williams, Dick Redding, Pedroso, Bullet Rogan, Satchel Paige, Dave Brown and Willie Foster

First Base:  Ben Taylor and Buck Leonard

Second Base: Sammy Hughes

Third Base: Jud Wilson

judwilson

Shortstop: John Henry Lloyd

Left Field:  Torriente

Center Field: Oscar Charleston

Right Field: Pete Hill

Utility:  Infield: Dick Lundy; Outfield: Brooks

Posey added several players for consideration in 1943, many who were largely forgotten by then:

Pitchers: Mendez, Padron

Catcher:  Bruce Petway, Wabishaw “Doc” Wiley

First Base: Leroy Grant, George Carr, Eddie Douglas

Second Base:  Frank Warfield, Bingo DeMoss, George Scales, John Henry Russell, Frank Grant

Bingo DeMoss

Bingo DeMoss

Third Base: Connie Day, Judy Johnson, Ray Dandridge, Dave Malarcher, Henry Blackmon, Walter Cannady, Billy Francis, Bill Monroe

Shortstop:  Willie Wells

Posey concluded:

“Too many outfielders to mention.  You have Dihigo, (Pee Wee) Butts, (Sam) Bankhead, Cannady (and) Monte Irvin to play in any position and nine hundred ninety-nine others.  Our personal preference for manager is C.I. Taylor, but what about Rube Foster?”

Another “Rube”

4 Mar

Hall of Famer “Lefty” Grove and Jack Ogden were the best known pitchers of the great Baltimore Orioles teams that won seven straight International League Pennants from 1919-1925, but in 1923 both were out-pitched by James Arthur “Rube” Parnham.

Parnham began his professional career in 1914 with the Huntington Blue Sox in the Ohio State League.  In 1915 he joined the Raleigh Capitals in the North Carolina State League, managed by Connie Mack’s son Earle.  The 21-year-old was an unspectacular 9-15 for Raleigh, but caught the eye of the elder Mack and spent the spring of 1916 with Jacksonville with the Philadelphia Athletics.

Rube Parnham, 1917

Rube Parnham, 1917

Parnham returned to the North Carolina State League for the 1916 season, splitting time between Raleigh and the Durham Bulls, posting a 17-19; his contract was purchased by the Athletics in late August.  Nearly a month later Parnham made his Major League debut; he appeared in four games for Mack’s last place (36-117) ballclub, he was 2-1 with a 4.01 ERA.

Parnham was with the Athletics in Jacksonville again in 1917, but was sent to Baltimore before the beginning of the season.  He won 16 games for the Orioles and earned one more shot with Mack in Philadelphia; Parnham was 0-1 with a 4.09 ERA in two September appearances.

As Parnham started winning games for Baltimore he developed a reputation as a work horse; in 1917 he won both ends of a double-header against the Rochester Hustlers, pitching a total of 24 innings in two 3-2 victories; in 1919 he won both games of a twin bill twice.   At the same time he began to earn a reputation as “eccentric’ and “erratic,” the inevitable comparisons to Rube Waddell and his small time roots earned Parnham the nickname “Rube,” he was also known as “Uncle.”

Baltimore sold Parnham to the Louisville Colonels in the American Association in March of 1918, but within two months was sold back to Baltimore, where he rejoined manager Jack Dunn, with who he had, and would continue to have, a contentious relationship.  He won 22 games in 1918 and followed with 28 in 1919, leading the Orioles to their first championship since 1908.

As the Orioles jumped out to a quick lead in 1920 (Parnham was 5-0, and was joined on the pitching staff by Ogden and Grove) the erratic Rube Parnham surfaced again. He was prone to disappearing for days at a time and also appears to have been hurt.  By mid-season he was gone.

More recent accounts have said Parnham jumped the Orioles to play semi-pro ball in Pennsylvania; just as likely, Parnham, who was suspended in June by Dunn for being out of shape, and who was clearly overshadowed by Grove (12-2) and Ogden (27-9); as well as Jack Bentley (16-3) and Harry Frank (25-12), was let go.

Lending credence to Parnham not having jumped is a January 1922 Associated Press item that said the pitcher “whose arm went on him” would rejoin “the Baltimores for the 1922 season.  Parnham wrote Dunn that he believed he could come back next season and pitch successfully.”  He won 16 games for the Orioles in 1922.

The following season would be Parnham’s best; the 29-year-old pitcher led the Orioles with a 33-7 record, Grove was 27-10, Ogden 17-12.   In addition to out-pitching his two teammates, Parnham set an international League record by winning 20 consecutive games.

Parnham’s old ways returned before the 1924 season when he failed to report to Florida for spring training.  The Associated Press said:

“Rube never reported at the Oriole training camp in the south and never even deigned to notify Jack Dunn whether he was going to play ball this year.”

Parnham eventually reported, but had another stormy, abbreviated season.  With a 6-5 record and a 4.84 ERA, Dunn suspended the pitcher in June, and he appears to have not pitched for the Orioles again that season.

The only reference to Parnham in 1925 was a May game he pitched for a semi-pro team in Duquesne, Pennsylvania and was beaten 8-0 by the Homestead Grays.

His career appeared to be over, but Dunn, it seems was willing to give his pitcher one more chance.

The Baltimore Sun said shortly before the 1926 season:

“Uncle Rube Parnham, the most colorful figure in the International League, will be back on the mound for the Orioles next season.”

Parnham was 13-9 with a 5.05 ERA, and spent the entire season feuding with Dunn; It was the end of the Orioles dynasty, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the championship in 1926 and Baltimore would not finish first again until 1944.

The Orioles were finally through with Parnham, The Baltimore Sun said:

“There was so much trouble between Parnham and Dunn last year that it was apparent Rube had spent his last season with the Orioles.” “

The 32-year-old was still considered valuable enough that the Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association purchased the pitcher from Baltimore.

The Brewers expected big things from their new pitcher, The Milwaukee Journal said:

“At times his playfulness leads him away from the straight and narrow, and he nearly drove Jack Dunn nutty last season…But Parnham is a great pitcher, despite his eccentricities, and if (Brewers owner) Otto Borchert can hire a good keeper for him is certain to be a winner with the Brewers.”

By March Parnham had worn out his welcome with another manager when he didn’t bother to report to Hot Springs, Arkansas for spring training.  The Journal said:

“Disgusted with the dilatory tactics of Rube Parnham, Jack Lelivelt, boss of the Brewers, hinted Saturday night that unless the eccentric righthander reports at once that he would probably be turned back to Baltimore.  Former International Leaguers …have told the Milwaukee leader about some of Reuben’s idiosyncrasies  and Lelivelt is beginning to feel that he will become a stepsister to Kid trouble if he had the former Oriole on his club.”

Parnham never played for the Brewers, and was returned to Baltimore, but Dunn was finished with him as well and he was shipped off to the Reading Keystones.  After a 2-8 season split between Reading and the Newark Bears, Parnham’s career was over.

rube

Rube Parnham, 1923

Parnham retired to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where the troubles that followed him throughout his career seem to have continued.  James Bready, an editor for The Baltimore Sun went to Pennsylvania to interview the former Oriole hero in 1961:

“The story was that he had gone downhill. Falling asleep in the snow, recently, he had lost several toes. On the phone, the director of a home for indigents said he would notify Parnham of the interview project. He gave me the street address — and a caution: ‘Try to get here before noon.’

“Paper, pen — I knocked and Rube beckoned me inside what today would be called a shelter. He was wearing an overcoat (I understand that better, now) and had not shaved recently. We sat down, facing, on two of half a dozen cot beds.  I tried a question. ”Gbbmhdahlr,” he replied. I stared at him; slowly, the meaning penetrated. I reached in my pocket and handed him a dollar.”

Parnham died two years later in McKeesport.

Adventures in Barnstorming II—Crawfords vs. Dean’s

4 Sep

This story has been told in a few books, but those books generally get the facts wrong.  The authors relied on the 50 and 60-year-old memories of participants, the same participants from whom I first heard the story from, but never checked the stories against contemporaneous accounts.

On October 23, 1934 the Pittsburgh Crawfords (the team was made up of many members of the Crawfords lineup, but also included Negro League stars from other teams) played the Dizzy Dean All-Stars (made up of the Dean brothers, a few current and former Major Leaguers and  minor leaguers from the Pittsburgh area) at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.  It was the final game of the Dean Brothers’ 1934 barnstorming tour.  As with most of the games, Dizzy Dean, and Satchel Paige pitched the first two innings.  After Dean was relieved by minor league pitcher Joe Semler, he went to left field.

In the bottom of the 5th, with the Crawfords trailing 4-3, Elander “Vic” Harris either bunted or “tapped the ball” in front of the plate and former and future major league catcher George Susce threw wide to first base.  Harris advanced to second on the throw.

Dizzy Dean came in from left field and told home plate umpire James Ahearn that Harris had interfered with the throw.  Ahearn called Harris out.

Harris ran from 2nd base to argue the call with Ahearn, a local Pittsburgh umpire with whom Harris had a contentious history.

Vic Harris with the 1930 Homestead Grays.

Accounts vary at this point.  Some newspapers said Harris picked up Ahearn’s mask and hit him with it.  Other accounts said Harris grabbed the umpire’s mask (this is what Harris also maintained until his death).

Susce then went after Harris and a melee broke out.  Josh Gibson came to Harris’ aid and wrestled Susce away from him.  Soon a group of fans attempted to join the fray, but all accounts agree that police, security and cooler heads on both teams quickly controlled the situation and the game resumed.

Versions of the story that came much later included an account of Josh Gibson taking on Susce and throwing “Dizzy” Dean off of him “some ten feet away,” when Dean and Ted Page attempted to pull Gibson away from Susce.  This version did not come out until the 1970s, and it strains credibility that the greatest star of the Negro Leagues “threw” one of the most popular white players in America ten feet during a fight and that the account failed to appear in any newspaper story.

Gibson did hit a home run in the 8th to lead the Crawfords to a 4-3 victory.

Harris was removed from the field and arrested for assault.  Other erroneous accounts credit Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney with interceding Harris’ behalf and ensuring he wasn’t charged with a crime.  The problem with that story is that Harris was charged, and convicted of assault and battery in March 1935.  Harris was fined and given six months probation.

This incident, other run-ins with umpires and his aggressive style of play earned Harris the nickname “Vicious Vic.”

Harris died in California in 1978.  He was one of the Negro League players considered for enshrinement in Cooperstown but was passed over in 2006.

“King of the Sandlots”

13 Aug

Not every baseball legend had a long professional career.

“King of the Sandlots” and “Pittsburgh’s Satchel Paige” is what they called Ralph “Felix” Mellix when the former Negro League and barnstorming pitcher announced his retirement from the Semi-pro 18th Ward Team in Pittsburgh’s South Hills League.  Mellix retired every year for a decade only to return again the next season until he was 60.

Ralph “Felix” Mellix

 Almost all of the statistics compiled by Mellix are lost to history, “officially” Mellix appeared in two professional games in his late 30s, one for the Newark Dodgers in 1934 and another the following season for the Homestead Grays, posting an undistinguished ERA of 12.54. Mellix was said to have spent short stints with the Chicago American Giants in 1915 and the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the early 30s, where he was said to be Paige’s roommate, but no records exist of his time with either team.  He pitched for the Crawfords a few times in the 40s in exhibition games, including one against the Chicago Brown Bombers in Milwaukee in 1944.

Like many African American players who began their careers during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Mellix barnstormed and played semi-pro ball for most of his career.  Mellix toured with Jesse Owens when the Olympic Heroes’ was barnstorming with his Toledo Crawfords in 1939.

Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1896, Mellix began playing for his father’s Mellix A.C. Stars semi-pro team at 12 years old.  Mellix began his career as a pitcher in 1915 and spent the next 40 years pitching in an estimated 1500 games, winning more than 600 according to James A. Riley in his book The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro League Baseball Leagues.

Mellix starred for the powerful Brown’s Colored Stars team in Youngstown Ohio during the mid-20s, sharing mound duties with George Brannigan and Admiral Walker, who also had short professional careers in Negro League baseball.

Brown’s Colored Stars 1924

At the close of his semi-pro career in Pittsburgh, Mellix continued to barnstorm, billing himself as “Baseball’s Oldest Pitcher,” including an appearance with Paige at Forbes Field in 1965 when Paige was traveling with the New York Stars.

Mellix will never haves a bust in Cooperstown, but the Hall of Fame does include his papers and mementos, including a 1946 contract offer from the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, Joe Hall’s Hillsdale Club transplanted to Brooklyn at the behest of Branch Rickey.  Mellix, employed by the city of Pittsburgh, said he didn’t want to jeopardize his pension to play pro ball at 49 years of age.

Mellix remained a legend in Pittsburgh until his death on March 23, 1985.