Tag Archives: Pittsburgh Crawfords

The First Jackie Robinson All-Stars

31 Aug

jackierobinsonas

The above advertisement is from the first, and least successful, of Jackie Robinson’s post season barnstorming tours.

In August of 1946, The Pittsburgh Courier said, “Jackie Robinson’s All-Stars” would play in several Eastern and Midwest cities after the Montreal Royals’ season ended.

The tour got off to bad start because the promoters—said to be from Pittsburgh, but never named in newspaper accounts—scheduled games to begin at the close of the International League season, failing to take into account that Robinson and Montreal would be playing in the Little World Series against the Louisville Colonels, the American Association champions.  East Coast games, including one at the Polo Grounds and one in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania were cancelled as a result.

After Robinson’s season ended, his “All-Stars” made up the game in Harrisburg and then played a handful of games in the Midwest before heading to California.

The All-Stars included Artie Wilson of the Birmingham Black Barons, John Scott of the Kansas City Monarchs. Ernie Smith, a one-time member of the Chicago American Giants, who played in 1946 with the Boston Blues in Branch Rickey’s U.S. Baseball League, and Bill “Wee Willie” Pope of the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

williepope

              Wee Willie Pope

Robinson’s All-Stars did not win a game in California.  They lost three games to Bob Feller‘s All-Stars—a team which included Bob Lemon, Stan Musial, Charlie Keller, Ken Keltner and Phil Rizzuto.  Feller’s club won 6 to 0 in San Francisco, 4 to 2 in San Diego, and 4 to 3 in Los Angeles.  Feller pitched five innings each in the San Diego and Los Angeles games—striking out 11 in the first game, and 10 in the second (he left that game having not allowed a hit through five innings).

One of those games was the impetus of the long-term animosity between Robinson and Feller that came to a head before the 1969 All-Star game.  At a press luncheon, Robinson noted the lack of black managers and front office personnel in major league baseball.  Feller criticized Robinson saying “The trouble with Jackie is that he thinks baseball owes him something.”  Feller told The Associated Press (AP) the bad feelings between the two started during the San Diego game on the 1946 tour:

“Jackie was getting a lot of publicity at the time since it was known he was being groomed to be the first Negro in big league baseball (and) threatened not to go on the field unless he got more money.”

Robinson told The AP Feller’s charge was “A damned lie.”

In 1975, Feller told The AP they “buried the hatchet,” before Robinson died in 1972:

“We discovered that out arguments were petty.  Both of us admitted our errors.  When Jackie died, we were good friends.”

Others claimed Feller never let the feud go.

The advertisement above is for the final game Robinson’s All-Stars played.  They faced the Oakland Larks, the champions of Abe Saperstein’s short-lived West Coast Negro Baseball Association (Negro Pacific Coast League) who posted a 14-3 record—the team barnstormed after the league folded and claimed a 56-12 record for all games played that season.

The teams played at San Bernardino’s Perris Hill Park; Robinson played center field.  The San Bernardino County Sun said he made “two stellar catches,” and was 3 for 4 with a double.  Despite Robinson’s efforts, the Larks won 8 to 5.

After Robinson’s final game with the All-Stars, he wasn’t quite finished for the year.  He joined the Los Angeles Red Devils, an integrated professional basketball team –three other well-known baseball players were members of the Red Devils: George Crowe, Irv Noren, and Everett “Ziggy” Marcel (the son of Oliver Marcelle).

Robinson’s brief professional basketball career ended in January of 1947.

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A Thousand Words

6 Dec

Satchel Paige demonstrates four of his favorite pitches to The Baltimore Afro-American, 1948:

The sidearm curve (outshoot):  “A wrist-twist causes counter-clockwise spin which makes the ball bend away from a right-handed batter.”

Sidearm Curve--outshoot

Sidearm Curve–outshoot

The overhand curve (drop): “Is gripped and thrown with a twist as to let the ball leave the hand with a snap between thumb and forefinger.  Overspin thus makes ball take a sudden dip.”

Overhand curve--drop

Overhand curve–drop

The Screwball (inshoot):  “Ball slides off fingers with a rapid clockwise spin, making it twist away from a left-handed hitter.”

Screwball--inshoot

Screwball–inshoot

The knuckleball:  “takes odd twists and turns even the pitcher can’t predict.”

Knuckle ball

Knuckle ball

“May every page you turn be a Satchel Paige.” Greg Proops, The Smartest Man in the World Podcast.

satchelbraves

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.