Tag Archives: Josh Gibson

Lost Pictures: The Pittsburgh Crawfords’ Bus

2 Nov

 

crawfordsbus2

The bus purchased by Gus Greenlee in 1932 for the Pittsburgh Crawfords,  The Pittsburgh Courier said:

“It is a 17-passenger Mack, with a six-cylinder, 79-horsepower motor.  It is capable of 60 miles an hour, and is equipped with vacuum booster foot breaks.”

It is not the same vehicle which appears in the iconic photo of the 1935 Crawfords posed in front of the team bus–although the bus in the 1935 picture has been referred to as a 1932 Mack.

crawfords.jpg

The Crawfords used the bus for the first time on their trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas in the spring of 1932.  With Greenlee behind the wheel , they left Pittsburgh on March 11, and according to The Courier, “arrived at the spa without any mishaps” on March 15.

The photo below, with Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston (second and third from right) shows the 1932 bus–the photo below that is the bus that appears in the 1935 photo.

32bus

35

“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.”

“Fans Come out Here to see a Ballplayer Hustle at all Times”

23 May

William G. Nunn was city editor, and later, managing editor of The Pittsburgh Courier.  He wrote a regular baseball column “Diamond Dope” for the paper throughout the 1920s, and later he would on occasion also write a sports column for paper called “WGN Broadcasts.”

.In 1934, he told a story about how “Gentleman” Dave Malarcher managed his Chicago American Giants:

malarcher

Malarcher

“Chicago was sporting a small lead going into late innings.  A Crawford player, with a man on first knocked a slow roller to (Jack) Marshall, keystone-sacker of the Windy City team.  Marshall failed to field the ball in a hurry and loafed the throw to first base, with the result that all hands were safe.

“From the bench came running Dave Malacher, present manager of the team and one of the most astute diamond students Negro baseball has ever produced.  We noticed a whispered conference.

After the game we asked Dave what it was all about.  ‘I fined him five dollars,’ said Dave.  ‘Fans come out here to see a ballplayer hustle at all times, ‘he continued, ‘and when he fails to do that, he’s hurting Negro baseball.

“Give us some more of that type of management.  We don’t have any too much use for these all-star teams anyway.  They look like a million dollars on paper, and like buns when they face real competition.”

Eight years later Nunn was a key figure in The Courier’s push—along with The Daily Worker— to integrate professional baseball.  Nunn and his sports editor, Hall of Famer Wendell Smith attempted to broker a deal for four Negro League players to try out with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Chicago Defender said in August of 1942:

nunn

William G. Nunn Sr.

“The four Negro baseball players to receive a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates the latter part of this month or first of September will be named next week.

“Three weeks ago William Benswanger, owner of the Pirates, stated that he was willing to give Negro players a tryout…Wendell Smith and William G. Nunn will confer with officials of the Negro American and National Leagues here (at the East-West Game)…and select the four players.”

Smith and Nunn, in collaboration with Negro League magnates, chose Josh Gibson, Leon Day, Sam Bankhead, and Willie Wells to receive tryouts.

Smith called Benswanger “The greatest liberal in baseball history,” at the end of August. The accolades were premature.  The tryouts were never scheduled.

“There is no hop on Your Fastball”

21 May

Schoolboy Johnny Taylor, like many Negro Leaguers, spent several seasons playing in Mexico. The Hartford, Connecticut native told his hometown paper, The Courant, about the game south of the border, in a 1941 interview with the paper’s sports editor W.J. “Bill” Lee:

“Taylor was telling us about baseball in Mexico, a subject on which he speaks with authority.”

johnnytaylor

Schoolboy Johnny Taylor

Taylor, who pitched in Vera Cruz in 1940, was asked how baseball competed with Mexico’s “big sport:”

‘”Well,’ Johnny laughed, “bull fighting is still the major sport down there but baseball is rapidly catching up. We play our games in the mornings and the bull fights are held before noon also. When there is a bull fight on the day a ball game is scheduled we feel it at the gate.

“But don’t let anyone tell you the Mexicans aren’t red hot baseball fans. They are as rabid as they are anywhere in the United States.”

Taylor said there was little difference between fans there and the states:

“They get riled up, those Mexican fans, and when they do they start to throw things, same as they do anywhere in America. Down there though, they mostly throw fruit, probably because it’s cheap. The only difference is their way of razzing a ball player. Instead of hoots, catcalls or the Bronx cheer, they whistle at you.”

Taylor was asked how the climate in Mexico affected American players:

“’It’s not so bad,’ Johnny said, ‘except in Mexico City, where the altitude is very high. When you first play ball in that city it gets to you…if you have to circle the bases in a hurry you have to sit down for awhile to get your breath back.

“Funny thing about pitching in Mexico City. The atmospheric conditions are such that there is no hop on your fast ball. No matter how fast you buzz one through, it goes straight. I’ve found that the batters there murder the number 1 pitch more than any other ball. You can’t get a sharp hook on your curve ball either. Everywhere in the league except Mexico City the hop comes on your fast ball and the break on your curve is normal.”

Taylor and Lee talked about “the best player in the league,” Josh Gibson:

“He’s a catcher and if it weren’t for the barrier that organized baseball has set up against members of his race and Johnny Taylor’s, Gibson would be in the big league. Taylor didn’t make any complaints or do any boasting, but this corner knows that if Johnny belonged to the white race he would have a great chance to become a major league pitcher.”

Taylor said of Gibson:

“’The left field fence in Chihuahua,’ Johnny relates, ‘is 435 feet at the foul line. This fellow Josh Gibson plastered three balls over the left field fence in one game, and the distance is plenty more than 435 feet at the points where the balls Josh clouted cleared the fence. Up to the time Gibson hit those three homers no one in Chihuahua had ever seen anybody belt one over that left field fence.”

gibsonveracruz

Josh Gibson

Taylor, who attended Hartford’s Bulkeley High School, cut the interview short to go see “Gone with the Wind,” at a local theater. Lee said:

“If I didn’t have a lot of work to get done and too little time to do it, I might have tried to talk Taylor out of leaving to see the GWTW picture.

“A fine gentleman, Johnny Taylor. He talks better than most big leaguers, better, in fact, than many college men I’ve met. He has learned a great deal about pitching since his Bulkeley High days, but he has not let baseball fill his mind entirely. John has profited by his travels through most of the states of the Union and in Mexico and Cuba.”

Taylor spent the 1941 season in Vera Cruz, and in September returned to Hartford with an all-star team that included Gibson, Ray Dandridge, Sam Bankhead, Willie Wells, and Dick Seay. They played a double-header against the Savitt Gems—an integrated semi-pro team sponsored by local jeweler Bill Savitt. Taylor, who had once played for the Gems, faced his former team and former major league pitcher Pete Naktenis, a Hartford native.

Taylor pitched a ten-inning complete game, striking out 15, and the all-stars won 7 to 5. Barney Morris pitched a two-hitter in the nightcap, defeating the Gems 3 to 0 in a five inning game called on account of darkness.

The Courant said a fire broke out under the grand stand during the first game:

“(F)iremen arriving on the scene to quench the blaze were almost totally ignored by the spectators.”

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?”

“Stars for A’s, Pep for Phils—In Negro Ranks”

13 Jul

The push to integrate baseball in the late 1930s and early 1940s came most frequently from the black press and American Socialists, but occasionally a white voice would call for the color line to be broken.

In May of 1940, with both Philadelphia teams struggling and headed towards last place finishes (Phillies 50-103, and Athletics 54-100), The Philadelphia Record made the case under the headline:

Stars for A’s, Pep for Phils—In Negro Ranks

“Experienced players are available who could strengthen the A’s shaky pitching staff and give the Phils the batting punch they need.  These players could make potential champions out of any of the other also-rans in either major league.”

[…]

“But they are Negroes, and organized baseball says they can’t come in.”

The previous season, Phillies Manager James Thompson “Doc” Prothro, a Memphis native, told The Pittsburgh Courier he would welcome players from the Negro Leagues on his club:

“I certainly would, if given the opportunity to sign up a good Negro ball player.  I need good players, and if I ran across a colored boy who could make the grade I wouldn’t hesitate signing him.”

Doc Prothro

Doc Prothro

The Courier’s Wendell Smith said that when the Phillies manager made the statement:

“Prothro draped his right arm across our shoulders and we walked along, as though to assure us he realized the unfairness of the major league color line.  It seemed he wanted to convince us that he was against it as much as we were.”

Wendell Smith

Wendell Smith

Now as Prothro and the Phillies headed towards their second straight 100 loss season, one of Philadelphia’s daily papers agreed that it was time:

“In all baseball law there is not a single line barring colored players from the game.  Several major league managers have said they would jump at the chance to sign the best of them.  Some owners have declared they would vote to admit them.

“But no vote ever is taken on the subject.  No manager or owner dares defy the Jim Crow tradition which in the past has been the most inflexible unwritten law in the game.”

Most importantly, the paper said, the “unwritten law” had left a key group out of the decision:

“No one seems to have consulted the fans…There is an even chance—and a whole lot more—that a few thousand fans who have been staying away from the A’s and the Phils might turn out to see what (Satchel) Paige and (Josh) Gibson and a few more like them, might do in the major leagues.”

The Record never followed up on their call to integrate.  The issue was forgotten in Philadelphia.  As both teams limped to their last place finishes the fans that were never consulted on the issue stayed away in droves. The Athletics drew 432,135—sixth out of eight American League teams.  The Phillies had the worst attendance in the major leagues, just 207,177.

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.

Cecil and Josh

21 Jan

Newspapers across the country saw it as a human interest story about baseball; the Black Press saw it very differently.  With his team in a slump, New York Giants Manager Bill Terry brought in 13-year-old Cecil Terry to “bring the Giants some badly needed luck.”

Cecil Haley

Cecil Haley

The Associated Press said of Haley’s first day on the job:

“Cecil, a Negro mascot, was given a Giant uniform yesterday, allowed to sit in the dugout for the first time and promised a trip West if he’d bring the Giants some badly-needed luck.  The net result of his work?  Pirates 4, Giants 3.”

Very different stories appeared in the Black press.  The Washington Afro-American said:

“(O)rganized big leagues will have colored mascots but steadfastly refuse to accept them as players.  The proud lad sits under the bat rack in the Giants’ dugout, but to date, something must be wrong, because the Giants are hopelessly battling for fifth place.”

The New York Age said:

“Cecil Haley, New York Giants colored mascot, will know better when he grows older and tries to get a job playing for the same team.”

The same day that Haley appeared on the bench with the Giants, New York pitcher Carl Hubbell spoke with The Pittsburgh Courier about Josh Gibson:

“‘(H)e’s one of the greatest backstops in the history of baseball, I think…Boy–how he can throw!’ exclaimed Hubbell.

josh

“There seems to be nothing to it when he throws.  He just whips the ball down to second base like it had a string on it.  He’s great, I’m telling you.  Any team in the big leagues could use him right now.’

“But, with all that,’ said Hubbell, ‘the thing I like best about him is that he’s as fast as greased lightening.  You know, after a few years a catcher usually slows up considerably from bending down so much.  But that guy–why, he’s never slowed down.”

That summer, a new effort was underway to integrate baseball.  A petition drive led by the Young Communist League collected between 25,000 and 100,000 (reports varied) and delivered to National League President Ford Frick,  and Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis at the 1939 winter meeting in Cincinnati.

The Afro-American said Frick “avoided the issue by declaring that a ‘social problem’ was involved for which the big leagues were not responsible.”

There is no public record of the commissioner’s response.

Josh Gibson, with two-time Communist Vice-Presidential Candidate James W. Ford looking on, signs the 1939 petition to end racial discrimination in professional baseball.

I published a shorter version of this post on August 27, 2012.

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.