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History of the Negro Leagues, Part Two

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The depression years

Cool Papa Bell - Homestead Grays

This is part two of our series on the Negro Leagues. You can find part one of the History of the Negro Leagues here.

As the roaring ‘20s drew to a close, Negro League Baseball was establishing itself as a viable alternative to Major League Baseball, especially for fans of color who were severely marginalized by powers-that-be of America’s pastime.

As the baseball season kicked off in 1930, there were two major Negro Leagues:

The Negro National League

St. Louis Stars

Detroit Stars

Kansas City Monarchs

Birmingham Black Barons

Chicago American Giants

Memphis Red Sox

Cuban Stars (West)

Nashville Elite Giants

Louisville White Sox

The American Negro League

New York Lincoln Giants

Baltimore Black Sox

Pittsburgh Homestead Grays

Philadelphia Hilldale Giants

Atlantic City Bacharach Giants

Cuban Stars (East)

1930

The American Negro League had picked up the pieces when the Eastern Negro League folded in 1927. There was a serious lack of organization and cooperation between the two leagues. For example, in 1930 the Chicago American Giants played 94 games. The Louisville White Sox only played 42. There was no coordination of schedules like we see in baseball today and teams often barnstormed if there was a paycheck to be had. In addition to the two major Negro leagues, there were also six independent teams - the Brooklyn Royal Giants, Columbus Keystones, Gilkerson’s Union Giants, The Pennsylvania Red Caps of NY, Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Wilmington Quaker Giants. Many Negro teams were known as the Giants. This was a code word that signified a black team. If you saw a flyer around town that said the Gilerson Union Giants were coming to town to play the local town team, you knew it was a black team.

In 1930, the Kansas City Monarchs, managed by Bullet Rogan and Dink Mothell, finished in third place with a record of 42-38. The St. Louis Stars won the league with an outstanding record of 73-28. St. Louis was loaded with stars such as Willie Wells, Cool Papa Bell, Mule Suttles and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe. Radcliffe was a notorious trash talker who played for more than 30 teams in his illustrious career. Writer Damon Runyan tagged him with the nickname “Double Duty” after watching Radcliffe catch one game and pitch the next game in the 1932 Negro World Series. Radcliffe loved the nickname so much that he adopted it as his primary name, sending Ted to the dustbin of history.

Radcliffe went 10-2 for the 1930 champs and slashed .284/.319/.408 in 73 games as a catcher. Once in an exhibition game against major leaguer players, Radcliffe threw out Ty Cobb on an attempted steal of second, which infuriated the volatile Cobb. As Cobb glared at Double Duty he could see written on his chest protector the words “thou shall not steal.”

“Double Duty” Radcliffe, at 100 years old, is the oldest living player ffrom the Negro Leagues. He c
Double Duty tagging Josh Gibson
Photo by Vince Compagnone/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Unfortunately, the good times could not last. The stock market had crashed in 1929 and by 1930 President Herbert Hoover stated that the worst was over. It wasn’t. Several cities had food riots in 1931 as conditions worsened. By 1933, most countries, including the United States, had started to recover, though it would take a full decade for the US economy to return to its 1929 GDP. The Great Depression however, dealt a death blow to the Negro Leagues. The American Negro League only lasted that 1930 season. The Negro National League folded after the 1931 season.

1932

A few of the strongest teams joined the Negro Southern League. As the sole surviving Negro League, the Negro Southern League of 1932 was considered “major league”. The Chicago American Giants, Indianapolis ABC’s and the Louisville Black Caps jumped from the Negro National League to the Negro Southern League for the 1932 season. Other teams in the league were the Monroe Monarchs, Birmingham Black Barons, Nashville Elite Giants, Montgomery Grey Sox, Memphis Red Sox, Columbus Turf Club, Little Rock Grays and the Atlanta Black Crackers. Chicago won the league title, which was disputed by Monroe. In the Championship Series, Chicago defeated the Nashville squad four games to three.

Just when it seemed that Negro League baseball might disappear, a man named Cumberland Posey with help from others, started a new league called The East-West League. Posey was quite a story himself. His father, Cumberland Sr. had accumulated a fortune as a riverboat builder and industrialist in the Pittsburgh area. Cumberland Jr. grew to be a star athlete in football, basketball and baseball. He earned a pharmacy degree from University of Pittsburgh and later played basketball at Duquesne University. He is now enshrined in the Duquesne Sports Hall of Fame, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Posey started playing for the Homestead Grays in 1911, was their manager by 1916 and the club owner by 1921. Under his leadership, the Grays became one of the powerhouse teams of the Negro Leagues, winning numerous pennants, including nine straight from 1937 to 1945.

The East-West League was hurriedly put together in the spring of 1932, it included teams in eight cities: the Detroit Wolves, Homestead Grays, Baltimore Black Sox, Pollock’s Cuban Stars, the Hilldale Club, Washington (D.C.) Pilots, Cleveland Stars and the Newark Browns. The new league floundered however, and after playing about 30 games, folded in June of 1932. There were also seven independent clubs in 1932, teams that didn’t find a home in either league. Those teams were the Kansas City Monarchs, Cuban Stars East, Pittsburgh Crawfords, New York Black Yankees, Philadelphia Bacharach Giants, Donaldson’s All-Stars and the Foster Memorial Giants, who were also played games as the Cleveland Cubs.

At nearly the same time, Gus Greenlee, a reputed gangster, had purchased the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Greenlee originally purchased the team to launder money from his numbers racket. Instead, Greenlee became obsessed with the sport of baseball and the Crawfords. He spent $100,000 of his own money to build a new ballpark, Greenlee Field, and signed Satchel Paige, arguably the biggest star of Negro League baseball. Paige and Josh Gibson formed one of the most formidable batteries in Negro League history. Greenlee Field was the only field owned by an owner of a Negro League team. The concrete and steel ballpark had a capacity of 7,500 fans.

Frank Duncan Aguilitas
Frank Duncan
Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

The Kansas City Monarchs would only play 18 games in 1932, ending with a record of 13 wins against 5 losses. They featured many holdovers from their 1924 championship teams - Kansas City native Newt Allen, Frank Duncan, Newt Joseph, and Dink Mothell. They were joined by some new stars, players like Cool Papa Bell, Chet Brewer and Charlie Beverly. At the end of the baseball season, the Pittsburgh Crawfords played a seven-game exhibition series against a team of National League All-Stars managed by Casey Stengel. Hack Wilson and Larry French were the big names for the National League stars. The Crawfords, managed by Oscar Charleston, acquitted themselves well, winning five of the seven games. In addition to Charleston, who played first base and managed the team, the Crawfords featured Judy Johnson, Ted Page, Josh Gibson, Double Duty Radcliffe and Satchel Paige.

1933

In February of 1933, Greenlee, and delegates from six other teams organized the second iteration of the Negro National League, known as the NNL II. Members of the new league were: The Pittsburgh Crawfords, Columbus Blue Birds, Indianapolis ABC’s, Baltimore Black Sox, Nashville Elite Giants, Homestead Grays, and the Cole American Giants (formerly known as the Chicago American Giants). The Akron Grays and the Cleveland Giants played a handful of games before folding. Greenlee also hatched the idea to duplicate the Major League Baseball All-Star game, known as the East-West All-Star game. This midsummer classic would be held at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. The Crawfords and the American Giants were the class of the league, with each team posting a 41-22 record. In the first ever East-West All-Star game, the West, led by Mule Suttles, Willie Wells and Turkey Stearnes defeated the East by a score of 11-7/

There was also the usual assortment of independent teams in 1933: the Brooklyn Royal Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Philadelphia Stars, New York Black Yankees, Cuban Stars East, Pollock’s Cuban Stars and the Philadelphia Bacharach Giants. Games were scarce for the 1933 Monarchs. They went 4 and 2 against other independent clubs and won a single game against a team of AAA players.

1934

Things didn’t change much in 1934, 1935 or 1936. The depression hit the Negro Leagues hard. During those three years, records indicate that the Kansas City Monarchs compiled a record of 25 and 15.

Those were hard years for nearly all Negro League teams. In 1934 a few teams played between 50 and 60 games, while most made do with 25-30 games. They did hold the second annual East-West All-Star game, with the East winning this one by the score of 8-0. Josh Gibson and Chester Williams lead the East hitters while Satchel Paige, Slim Jones and Harry Kincannon held the West to seven hits.

1934 was the season that Stuart “Slim” Jones burst on the scene. Jones was a 6’6 fireballing lefty. People said his fastball was every bit as good as Satchel’s. Unfortunately, Slim also loved the bottle, and after compiling a 107-55 record in seven seasons, he drank his way out of the league. In November of 1938, he traded his overcoat for one last bottle of whiskey. He caught pneumonia and soon perished at the age of 25. Take a look at the fabulous paintings of Kadir Nelson to capture the essence of Slim Jones and other Negro League stars.

1935

The Negro National League finally returned to a more normal schedule in 1935 with most of the eight-team league playing between 50 and 70 games. The Pittsburgh Crawfords were the class of the league, posting a 51-26 record before besting the New York Cubans four games to three for the championship. The Crawfords were loaded with talent: Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson and Cool Papa Bell, all members of the Baseball Hall of Fame played on that team.

1936

1936 was nearly an identical year, with Pittsburgh again taking top spot with a 48-33 record. The East once again won the All-Star game by a score of 10-2. Cool Papa Bell went 3-for-3 to lead the East.

1937

Finally, in 1937, with the depression finally easing, The Negro American League was established. The league was comprised of teams that had previously played in the Negro Southern League or had been independents. In 1937 the league was composed of eight teams - the Birmingham Black Barons, Chicago American Giants, Cincinnati Tigers, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis Athletics, Memphis Red Sox, St. Louis Stars and the Kansas City Monarchs.

The ’37 Monarchs reloaded with talent. The team had four future Hall of Famers on the roster - Hilton Smith, Andy Cooper, 43-year-old Bullet Rogan and 22-year-old Willard “Sonny” Brown. Hilton Smith was an outstanding pitcher. Buck O’Neil said Smith had one of the best curveballs he had ever seen. Buck said Smith had three or four different curveballs. Smith passed away in 1983 at the age of 76. He badly wanted to get selected to the Hall of Fame while he was alive. Baseball moved slowly in those days. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001, O’Neil went to his grave site and told him, “Hilton, you’re in the Hall of Fame.”

Hilton Smith Portrait
Hilton Smith

Willard “Sonny” Brown was himself quite a story. He joined the Monroe Monarchs after leaving high school and played for them in the 1934 season. In 1935, Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson spotted Brown and Buck O’Neil and signed both players. Brown received a $250 signing bonus, a salary of $125 per month and $1 per diem meal money. “I thought that was big money” Brown said in a 1983 interview.

Brown made the East-West All-Star game in 1936, the first of his eight appearances in the All-Star classic. Brown’s nickname “Sonny” was given to him because he was a player who loved to play on Sunday’s. Former teammate Sammie Haynes said, “Willard liked to play on Sunday’s when we had a full house. If the stands were full, you couldn’t get him out. He could play baseball as good as he wanted to. If the stands were half empty, he might loaf through the game”.

In fact, Brown rarely played on cloudy or rainy days. Over time, he became one of the most feared hitters in the Negro Leagues. He was also one of the greatest hitters ever in the Puerto Rican winter leagues, twice winning the leagues Triple Crown and earning the nickname “Ese Hombre”. That man. As in “Here comes that man again.” Brown’s lackadaisical attitude about when to play hard eventually caused him problems when he went to the Majors in 1947, but more on that in the next installment.

The Negro American League played a championship series that year, with Kansas City defeating the Chicago American Giants five games to one to capture the outright championship.

There were two All-Star games that summer, the East-West and the North-South. The East once again triumphed over the West by a score of 7-2. Buck Leonard went 2-for-4 with a home run to lead the East. 20-year-old Monarch first baseman Ted Strong hit a two-run home run to account for all the West’s scoring. Strong was another interesting story. He was a big man, standing 6’6 and later in his career moved to shortstop, where his nimble feet and wide range amazed opponents. He was also a standout basketball player and played 12 years for the Harlem Globetrotters and two seasons for the Chicago Studebaker Flyers of the National Basketball League.

In the second All-Star classic, the North offense exploded in a 13-5 victory. Strong once again was the star as he went 4-for-6 with a home run and 3 RBI. Bullet Rogan, at the age of 43, collected three hits in four at bats for the North.

When the season was over, the champion Monarchs played a four-game exhibition against a Major League all-star team. The big-league squad featured Johnny “Big Cat” Mize, Vince DiMaggio and an 18-year-old Iowan named Bob Feller. The Monarchs only won one of the four contests.

1938

1938 was another banner year for the Negro Leagues. Both leagues fielded seven teams. The Homestead Grays, led by Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Ray Brown and Edsall Walker posted the best mark in the NNL at 41-13.

Kansas City, led by stars Willard Brown, Turkey Stearnes, Bullet Rogan, and Hilton Smith, captured the NAL title with a 47-27 record. Also, on that Kansas City team was a 25-year-old rookie first baseman named Buck O’Neil. Buck hit .294 that year in limited action.

Since there was no Negro League World series, the Memphis Red Sox and the Atlanta Black Crackers played a best-of-three Championship series, which Memphis took in two games. Atlanta played their games in famed Ponce De Leon park known as Poncey to the locals. De Leon, which had seating for about 20,000 fans, was known for the large magnolia tree that stood well outside the fence in dead center field. During exhibition games, Babe Ruth and Eddie Matthews were the only known players to hit home runs into the tree.

1938 also featured two East-West All-Star games. The first was played at the Comiskey Park. The West stars triumphed in that game by a score of 5-4. Neil Robinson of Memphis hit a three-run, inside the park home run and Hilton Smith and Double Duty Radcliffe combined to pitch eight innings of one run ball.

A second All-Star game played at the Polo Grounds in September was not officially sanctioned by the league. To the best I can ascertain, the East won this game, also by a score of 5-4.

1939

As the decade ended, the two leagues maintain steady at seven teams each. In 1939, the Homestead Grays once again took the top spot in the NNL with a 34-19 record. Kansas City repeated as champion of the NAL with a 42-22 record.

The NNL went to a four-game playoff with Baltimore and Homestead besting Philadelphia and Newark. In the Championship series, the Baltimore Elite Giants upset the heavily favored Homestead Grays three games to one. Those games were played at Oriole Park in Baltimore and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. One of the stars for Baltimore was a 17-year-old rookie catcher named Roy Campanella. Campy hit .353 in 17 at-bats, including one home run and six RBI.

Roy Campanella was one of the most fascinating stories in baseball history. Campy started playing for his hometown Philadelphia Bacharach Giants...as a 14 year old. Within a week, he had jumped to the powerhouse Baltimore team where he came under the tutelage of Biz Mackey, one of the greatest defensive catchers ever. On his 16th birthday, Campy quit high school and began playing for Baltimore full time, often spending his winters in Mexico or the Dominican Republic playing winter ball.

For Campy, one of the most jovial, polite and kind men to ever play the game, the story only gets more interesting. You see, Campy was bi-racial. His mother was black and his father was white, a marriage that was almost unheard of in the 1920s and ‘30s. This caused all kinds of problems for Campy and his siblings growing up. They were often outcasts in the black community and their white friends and classmates often referred to them as “half-breeds.” When Campy was 12, he had this conversation with his mother. “Mom, is daddy a white man? That’s what the neighborhood kids are saying.” Think about that statement. A child is colorblind. He knew he was black. He identified as black, but he could not see the color of his father’s skin. He just knew he loved him and that his father loved him too.

Being biracial, you’d think Campy, who was as popular as any player in the history of the game, would have been allowed to play in the Majors. But no. As long as Kenesaw Mountain Landis was commissioner, the color line would not be broken, even by a biracial star like Campy. In today’s day and age, it’s both astounding and absurd, almost inconceivable to think that men were not allowed to play baseball because of the color of their skin. Eventually Campy did make the Majors and he became a huge star. I believe had he not been paralyzed in a tragic car accident, that he would have become the first man of color to manage a Major League team, another milestone that was shamefully late in coming.

Over in the Negro American League, the Monarchs captured another title by defeating the St. Louis Stars four games to one, in what was the first Show-Me series. The Monarchs were led by Buck O’Neil, who in his words was “right on time.” Buck collected eight hits in 16 at bats for a slick .500 average. Turkey Stearnes only hit .231 in the series, but he did slam the Monarchs only home run and drove home 5 of their 25 runs.

43-year-old Andy Cooper and Hilton Smith each won two games to lead the pitching corp. Cooper, who also doubled as the manager, was one of the best pitchers of all time, according to Buck O’Neil. Cooper had started playing in 1920 and 1939 would be his final season. He was credited with a 127-78 record in Negro League play, with most of his years split between the Detroit Stars and the Monarchs. Cooper managed the Monarchs from 1936 through the end of the 1940 season. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

Kansas City Monarchs
Buck O’Neil
Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

The Kansas City games were played at Ruppert Stadium (formerly known as Muehlebach) while the St. Louis games were played at the South End Grounds.

There were two East-West All-Star games in the summer of 1939. The first took place August 6 with the West grabbing a 4-2 win. The game was played at Comiskey Park in Chicago in front of an estimated 40,000 fans. Double Duty Radcliffe picked up the win while Neal Robinson and Ted Strong hit home runs for the winners.

Said Buck O’Neal about the All-Star game:

“The game was something very special. It was the greatest idea Gus Greenlee ever had, because it made black people feel involved in baseball like they’d never been before. While the Big leagues left the choice of the players up to the sport writers, Gus left it up to the fans. That was pretty important thing for black people to do in those days, to be able to vote, even if it was just for ballplayers, and they sent in thousands of ballots. Right away it was clear that out games meant a lot more than the big-league game. Theirs was, and is, more or less an exhibition. But for black folks, the East-West game was a matter of racial pride. Black people came from all over Chicago every year, that’s why we outdrew the big-league game some years, because we almost always had 50,000 people, and almost all of them were black people. The weekend was always a party. All the hotels on the south side were filled. All the big nightclubs were hopping.”

A second game was played on August 27 at Yankee Stadium. This game was a disappointment at the box office, with a crowd of about 20,000 in attendance. The East got their revenge with a 10-2 whipping of their Western opponents. Ed Stone collected four hits and Josh Gibson drove in four runs to lead the East stars.

As the decade of the ‘30’s ended, the Monarchs finished with a Negro League record of 182-112, a .620-win percentage. Bullet Rogan, Dink Mothell, Sam Crawford and Andy Cooper all took their turns managing the squad. The team won League championships in 1937 and 1939.

It was during the mid to late 1930’s that Hilton Smith developed into one of the games finest pitchers. Besides having an exceptional curve ball, Smith also had a unique ability to pick runners off first base. On May 15, 1937 Smith pitched a no-hitter against the powerful Chicago American Giants. When not pitching, he often played first base or in the outfield. In the 1937 exhibition against major league competition, Smith pitched 18 scoreless innings. After the series, Bob Feller said that Smith was a better pitcher than Satchel Paige. He really hit his peak in 1939, with a 25-2 record against all competition.

Next: The 1940’s