adventures in baseball archeology: the negro leagues, latin american baseball, j-ball, the minors, the 19th century, and other hidden, overlooked, or unknown corners of baseball history...with occasional forays into other sports
You might be expecting a Bill James or Rob Neyer-style debunking in which I demonstrate that no such thing ever happened, or that the circumstances were totally different, or whatever. Actually, Okrent’s rendering of the incident seems completely accurate. Here’s the Brooklyn Daily Eagle account of it:
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 8, 1915, p. 33)
So I’m not debunking this story, but I can point to a precursor. On August 22, 1907, under very similar circumstances, Rube Foster pulled the same thing on Indianapolis ABCs’ pitcher Leonard Griffin:
(Indianapolis Star, August 23, 1907, p. 9)
(Indianapolis Freeman, August 31, 1907, p. 7)
A week later, the Freeman printed a cartoon commemorating the incident:
(Indianapolis Freeman, September 6, 1907, p. 7)
Huggins’s 1915 deployment of the “let me see that ball” trick made its way into mainstream baseball lore, possibly due to its inclusion in the 1929 book Babe Ruth’s Own Story. Meanwhile, Foster’s 1907 conning of Griffin was remembered in black baseball history (though the details were sometimes left out), to be occasionally revived by later historians (such as Paul Debono in his 1997 book on the Indianapolis ABCs).
But there are many other examples of this trick stretching back into the nineteenth century. This example, pulled off in 1896 by former major league catcher SamLaroque while playing for Dubuque in the Western Association, is noteworthy because Laroque’s phrasing is almost identical to that of Foster:
(Rockford, Illinois, Daily Register-Gazette, July 22, 1896, p. 3)
A couple of years earlier, while complaining about John “Egyptian” Healy falling prey to MikeLehane’s request to see the ball in an Eastern League game, a Sporting Life correspondent called it an “old ‘gag’ which the writer has seen worked when he wore Knickerbockers”:
(Sporting Life, June 30, 1894, p. 6)
I haven’t attempted any kind of full archeology of this particular trick, but it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Doc Adams had pulled it on somebody in the 1840s.
•October 5, 1913, Island Park, Schenectady—Johnson, pitching for the “All Americans” (a team of mostly minor leaguers), lost a five-inning game to Frank Wickware and Schenectady Mohawk Giants, 1 to 0.
•October 11, 1914, Lenox Oval, Harlem—Johnson, pitching for the NYC Fire Department “Smoke Eaters,” lost to Gunboat Thompson and the Lincoln Stars 2 to 0.
There was at least one more occasion on which Walter Johnson faced black opposition. This time it was on the west coast. On October 18, 1908, Johnson, pitching for the Olives, or Olive Giants, champions of Orange County, faced the little-heralded Los Angeles Giants at Joy Park. The Big Train was overpowering, striking out 20 Giants in 10 1/3 innings—but the Giants capitalized on six errors by Johnson’s teammates to send the game into extra innings, then pushed across a run in the bottom of the 11th to win, 6 to 5.
William McNeil reproduces a partial box score for this game in his book The California Winter League (on pp. 28-29). Today Todd Peterson sent me the original box score from the Los Angeles Herald, so I thought I’d post it:
(Los Angeles Herald, October 19, 1908, p. 7)
Here are the Los Angeles Giants:
(Los Angeles Herald, October 25, 1908, p. 24)
The Los Angeles Giants remain a truly obscure team. Their best-known player was probably a pitcher named Bud Clark, who also played for the Salt Lake City Occidentals around this time. In the Olives/L.A. Giants game Clark nearly matched Johnson, allowing only 2 hits in 8 innings and striking out 10 batters himself. Thus he became the first of (at least) three black pitchers to defeat Walter Johnson.
Once again, the league remained fairly stable, with one exception. Only the Wilmington Potomacs were dropped from the 1925 lineup. They were replaced by the Newark Stars, a team that only lasted 11 league games themselves (winning one) before giving up. The Stars' main distinction was that they provided Sol White, Hall of Fame manager, player, and writer, with his final job in organized baseball, as a special assistant to manager Andy Harris.
The Brooklyn Royal Giants, playing very few games in their ostensible home park (Dexter Field), once again provided cannon fodder for the rest of the league. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, the Royal Giants failed to schedule very many league games, preferring to spend much of the summer barnstorming in upstate New York. Outfielder Charlie "Chino"Smith (.375/.444/.521) and lefthander Willis "Pud" Flournoy (5-2, 2.45) nevertheless provided a few bright spots for the Royals.
Pete Hill, who had led the Baltimore Black Sox to a second place finish in 1925, left at the end of that season. Although the Black Sox replaced his leadership with the steady hand of first baseman Ben Taylor, the team collapsed in 1926. They did start the season with a murderer's row of Jud Wilson (.363/.476/.541), Heavy Johnson (.350/.418/.540), and John Beckwith (.333/.394/.611 for the Black Sox), but Beckwith clashed with management and got himself traded to the Harrisburg Giants. Meanwhile, everybody else on the team forgot to hit---no fewer than three regulars hit less than .200.
Up in the Bronx, Robert Hudspeth (.372) and 42-year-old player-manager John Henry Lloyd (.326) took full advantage of the narrow confines of the Catholic Protectory Oval, helping the team improve from a disastrous 1925 (when they finished dead last at 7-39). One of the twelve pitchers the Lincolns tried was named SilasSimmons. He had pitched for the Homestead Grays as far back as 1913, and he would pass away in 2006 at the age of 111, probably the last living player to have appeared in the Eastern Colored League, and the longest-lived professional ballplayer of all time, as far as anyone knows.
Alex Pompez's Cuban Stars, mostly a road team, had one of their better seasons, led by their longtime player-manager Pelayo Chacón (.344) and budding superstar Martín Dihigo, who led the league in average (.375) and home runs (14) while playing eight positions (including pitcher). Over at Island Park, Oscar Charleston's Harrisburg Giants challenged for the title behind the bats of Charleston himself (.308, 10 homers), Rap Dixon (.323), and mid-season acquisition John Beckwith (.330/.392/.578 for the Giants).
The Bacharachs' strongest rivals, the Hilldale Club of Darby, Pennsylvania, still relied on the strong left arm of Nip Winters (17-4, 2.92), though his strikeout rate had been cut in half since its peak in 1922 and 1923. Biz Mackey contributed 10 homers, 25 doubles, and a .327 average, while catching 79 of the team's 88 league games.
Incidentally an important source for this compilation was the Hilldale scorebook for 1926 (kindly provided to me by Dick Clark and Larry Lester some years ago), one of the most important documents of Negro league history, in my view.
NOTE: This compilation covers 94% of all known games between ECL teams. Eleven of the missing thirteen games involve the Bacharachs, and nine of those missing games were Bacharach wins---so the champions are a little ill-served by the statistics we're presenting.
Pages from the Hilldale Scorebook showing the Bacharach Giants crushing Hilldale 11 to 2 on September 18, 1926.
In June 1919, the San Antonio Black Aces of the Texas Negro League raided the Waco Black Navigators for six players, the core of their team: “the famous ‘Highpockets’, who goes by the name of Hudspeth,” along with “Catcher Mackey, Second Baseman Washington and Blackman, third baseman,” as well as a “hard-hitting outfielder from Waco” named Johnny Jones, and “W. Davis, southpaw pitcher” (San Antonio Express, June 8, 1919, p. 30).
The 6’4” Hudspeth was probably the most celebrated of the new San Antonio Black Aces, and no doubt Mackey and Blackmon were good, too; but WalterDavis, who quickly established himself as the team’s best pitcher, may have had the most impact on the Texas Negro League pennant race. His tireless mound work earned him the nickname “Steel Arm.” The San Antonio Evening News pronounced him “a real whiz when it comes to slipping in the deceivers. He has a curve that looks like it was moulded in a roundhouse and he makes opposing batters swing like a Dutch mill in their effort to connect with his delivery” (September 12, 1919).
But in the final game of the season against the Dallas Black Marines, with the championship on the line, it was Davis’s bat that would make the difference. Steel had been knocked off the mound in the first inning, and moved to center field while catcher Biz Mackey came in to pitch. With the score tied 5-all in the bottom of the eighth, and two men on base, Davis came to bat. “There were to balls and two strikes on him,” the Evening News recounted. “He wanted to hit so bit he could taste it. Crouching like a pup scratching a pot, and wiping the perspiration from his awning, he took a bead on one of [William] Ross’s groovers. Whowee! And the ball landed in center field.” It was “a snorting two-bagger.” Both runners scored, and the Black Aces led 7 to 5. Mackey took care of the Dallas batters in the top of the ninth, and the Aces were champions.
In spring of 1920, the Black Aces’ key players had returned signed contracts for the upcoming season—with the exception of Steel Arm Davis. Then on June 14, it was revealed that the Dayton Marcos of the Negro National League had signed two new players: a catcher named Jefferson, and a pitcher named “Lefty Davis,” who had been playing for a Charleston, W. Va., club (Dayton Journal, June 14, 1920).
The name of the Charleston, W. Va., team wasn’t given by the Dayton Journal, but I was able to find a note in the Charleston Daily Mail (March 23) about a “colored baseball team” being formed in Charleston (interestingly, the manager’s name was Jefferson).
Anyway, “Lefty Davis” appeared once in an NNL game for the Marcos, against Joe Green’s Chicago Giants in Dayton on June 14. He started but only lasted two innings.
Less than two weeks later, “Davis” appeared as a pinch-hitter for none other than the Chicago Giants in Kansas City. He got into two more games in the same series, both times as a relief pitcher, then seems to have left the team shortly thereafter. But not before making it into a team photograph of the Chicago Giants:
According to Phil Dixon, the second player standing on the right is “James Davis.” Here’s a detail of him, compared to three photos from Phil’s book of Walter “Steel Arm” Davis:
Several years ago I was absolutely sure that James Davis was Steel Arm Davis. But seeing the photos of James (on the left) juxtaposed with the Steel Arm photos (the other three), I’m not so sure anymore.
Other than Lefty Davis of Charleston and Dayton, and James Davis of the Chicago Giants, I don’t have any other clues to Steel Arm Davis’s whereabouts in 1920. But in 1921, Steel Arm Davis pitched and played outfield for the Galveston Black Sandcrabs of the Texas Negro League, usually batting in the middle of the order. On August 25, 1921, the Indianapolis Star reported that C. I. Taylor had “wired transportation yesterday for ‘Steel Arm’ Davis, a big southpaw from Texas…” But Davis never showed up in Indianapolis, remaining with Galveston for the rest of the season.
For the 1922 season Steel Arm moved to the Texas Negro League champion Dallas Black Giants, again splitting his time between the outfield and the mound. They repeated as pennant-winners, but lost the Dixie Series to the Negro Southern League champions, the Memphis Red Sox, led by Turkey Stearnes.
Like Stearnes, Davis finally moved up to the Negro National League in 1923. He was by reputation “the best lefthander in the South,” but with the Detroit Stars that season he was only a mediocre pitcher (5-4, 4.75). He hit very well (.338/.391/.500) as a part-time outfielder in Mack Park, built for lefthanded hitters.
The following year he abandoned organized black baseball, joining Gilkerson’s Union Giants, a barnstorming team that was probably for much of the 1920s comparable to the Homestead Grays in quality of play. It was claimed that he was “the highest salaried colored ball player in the game” (Wisconsin State Journal, May 31, 1924, p. 9). The Chicago American Giants picked him up for a month in July and August, and again he hit well (.329/.398/.506) in 22 games, before returning to the Union Giants to finish out the season.
For the next two years he stayed with the Union Giants. Unlike their fellow independents the Homestead Grays, the Unions used clowning as part of their appeal, and Davis was apparently an expert practitioner of the art. This passage from a 1927 article about the Union Giants gives a sense of the retrograde, minstrelish atmosphere in which the team barnstormed:
(Davenport, Iowa, Democrat and Leader, May 5, 1927, p. 7)
As it happens, Davenport’s bugs would be disappointed in the spring of 1927, as that season Davis returned to the NNL and Chicago. According to Baseball-Reference.com he hit .417 and slugged .591 that first year back in the NNL (with the unlikely total of one walk), and followed up with three more solid seasons as an outfielder, batting .322, .302, and .329 in a home park that could cut scoring by as much as 50 percent. It’s possible that the best hitters on the American Giants during these years (Davis and PythiasRuss) were as good as the best hitters on the St. Louis Stars (Willie Wells, Mule Suttles), who played in the home run haven of Stars Park. (At least they were a lot closer than their raw stats would suggest.)
In 1931, with the NNL on the verge of collapse, Davis returned to the barnstorming life with Gilkerson’s Union Giants, where he was hyped as “the Colored Babe Ruth” (Ogden Standard-Examiner, July 29, 1931, p. 2). His teammates included the Negro league veterans Cristóbal Torriente, Jimmie Lyons, Hurley McNair, Dink Mothell, and Owen Smaulding, along with up-and-comers Alex Radcliff and Subby Byas. In mid-July Davis was said to be leading the team with a .464 average; by the end of that month he was credited with a total of 46 home runs. In September he was voted “best infielder” in the Southwest Iowa Semipro Tournament (Luis Tiant, Sr., of the tournament-winning Cuban Stars, was named best pitcher).
When the American Giants joined the Negro Southern League in 1932, Davis was back in their outfield, still hitting well (.305/.369/.509), and he stayed with the team when they became charter members of the second Negro National League in 1933. He was traded to the Nashville Elite Giants in 1934, but jumped the team and, along with a number of other Negro leaguers, signed to play independent (and racially integrated) ball in North Dakota.
He hit .250 in 27 NNL games for the American Giants in 1935. After this, his career started to wind down a bit. He spent 1938 back in Texas as player-manager of the San Antonio Black Missions. In 1939 PCL veteran and Pirates rookieFern Bell told Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier called Steel Arm Davis, whom he had played against on the west coast, “a great outfielder and a hell of a sweet thrower.” He counted Davis among the many Negro leaguers he thought could be stars in the major leagues (“Are Negro Ball Players Good Enough to ‘Crash’ the Majors?” Pittsburgh Courier, September 2, 1939, p. 16).
As late as 1941 Davis was still a feared power hitter for the Palmer House All-Stars in Chicago. But on November 30, 1941, he was shot and killed in a tavern in Chicago. He was remembered for a few years, particularly in Wisconsin, where he had played for a semipro team. Dan Burley once named him the “hardest throwing outfielder” he had seen (New York Amsterdam News, May 15, 1948, p. 14). Still, his memory faded rather quickly; he had spent too much of his career outside the black big leagues.
Back when I was originally doing research in World War I draft registration cards, I’d found a Walter Davis living in Waco in June 1918, born June 22, 1896, in Wortham, Texas.
But according to Steel Arm Davis’s state death record, he was born in 1903 in “Richard, Kentucky.” Since there is no Richard, Kentucky, as far as I can tell (possibly a mistake for Richmond, Kentucky), and a 1903 birthdate would have made him 16 years old when he pitched for the Black Aces in 1919, the information seems a little suspect. To top it off, newspaper accounts of his death said he was 50 years old (thus born in 1891).
Recently, however, I ran across Walter Davis on a passenger list for the SS Northland leaving Havana for the U.S. on January 20, 1928—the day after Steel Arm Davis’s last appearance in the 1927/28 Cuban winter league. Though it gives San Antonio as his birthplace, the birthdate matches the draft card for Walter Davis of Waco in 1918.
Moreover, check out this ad from 1918 for Davis’s first known team, the Waco Black Navigators, published on June 2, 1918, just three days before Davis registered for the draft in Waco.
(Waco News-Tribune, June 2, 1918, p. 8)
His draft card did not give his actual occupation, but it did list his employer as none other than Charles Tusa—the owner of the Waco Black Navigators.
This means that Davis only really got started in the major Negro leagues at the age of 27 (1923), and most of his career took place in his thirties (1927 to 1935). What statistics we have, then, are mostly for his decline phase, and, as I noted above, reflect a very poor hitting environment. This whole post is, I suppose, a roundabout way of saying I think Steel Arm Davis was a really good player who has been almost completely overlooked in the history of black baseball.
James Tate sent me this photo a while back (almost two years ago, actually). I was able to confirm for him that the Almendares player on the right was definitely the father of Omara Portuondo. But the guy on the left (probably an Habana player), trying to crack him up? I had no idea.
Now I see that this Telemundo photo gallery has identified the jokester as Bienvenido Jiménez. Can’t say I’ve ever heard much about “Hooks” Jiménez as a person, so this gives us a welcome glimpse of an early player as something other than a blurry face or a name in a box score.
In the 1920s the Kansas City Monarchs had two right-handed pitchers from Texas named Bell, Cliff and William. They were unrelated, though the press liked to call them the “Bell Brothers.” William, nicknamed “W.” supposedly because he won so often, was easily the better of the two. Cliff did have one advantage over him: according to everybody from James Riley to Jorge Figueredo, Cliff starred in Cuba for several seasons. Riley says that “in four winters in Cuba [Cliff Bell] recorded a 15-17 ledger.” He also says that William Bell “spent the 1928-29 winter with Havana in the Cuban League and tied with Dolph Luque for the lead in wins with nine.”
Jorge Figueredo’s more authoritative Cuban League encyclopedias have only Cliff Bell in Cuba for four seasons—1927-28, 1928-29, 1929-30, and 1930-31—for a total won-loss record of 25-17. In 1928-29, according to Figueredo’s accounting, Bell led the league with 9 wins to Luque’s 8.
I hate to have to do this to poor Cliff, but…as it turns out, the Bell who pitched in the Cuban league in at least the first three of those winter seasons (1927-28, 1928-29, and 1929-30) was in fact William Bell. Here, for example, is a photo of three Habana players from Diario de la Marina, November 25, 1927: William Bell, Miguel AngelGonzález, and SamStreeter.
Passenger lists show William Bell returning to the United States immediately after the Cuban winter season closed in 1928, 1929, and 1930. Here he is, accompanied by Sam Streeter and JudWilson, sailing from Havana to Key West on January 24, 1928 two days after the Cuban League’s last game (on January 22):
Here are William Bell and Jud Wilson, travelling from Havana to Key West on January 8, 1929—again, two days after the Cuban League ended, on January 6, 1929.
And here is William Bell, this time by himself, sailing for Key West on February 10, 1930, a little more than two weeks after the closing of the Cuban season on January 23, 1930.
I haven’t been able to find anybody returning from Cuba following the 1930/31 winter season, so I couldn’t say (right now) which Bell played that year.
A couple of notes:
• In the Negro leagues, William Bell played for six pennant-winning teams (1923-25 and 1929 Monarchs, and the 1933 and 1935 Crawfords). His Habana teams added two Cuban League pennants (1927-28 and 1928-29) to his haul.
• Figueredo gives Cliff Bell the nickname of “Campanita” (which just means “little bell”)—I haven’t confirmed it, but I wonder if this wasn’t really bestowed on William while he played in Cuba.
Here’s a photograph from Brian Campf, who recently obtained it from friends in Puerto Rico. It shows JoshGibson shaking hands with Pedrín Zorrilla, a Shell Oil executive and owner of the Santurce Cangrejeros of the Puerto Rican Winter League. Zorilla was a major figure in the history of baseball in Puerto Rico. The date of the photograph is unknown, though one suspects it might have been taken when Gibson first signed for Santurce in 1939.