Today we’re used to complaining that too much of the sports news takes place off the field of play—strikes, business deals, scandals, crimes. We may not realize it, but this is nothing new. The story of the 1937 Negro National League, the newest addition to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, is a prime example. The course of that season was largely determined by the political ambitions of a New York City special prosecutor, the underworld dealings of two owners, and the reelection campaign of a Caribbean strongman.
1) Gus Greenlee of the Pittsburgh Crawfords had been running short of cash the past couple of years as authorities in Pittsburgh put pressure on his numbers business (illegal lotteries, also known as the policy rocket). In 1938 he was finally forced to trade the best position player in black baseball, Josh Gibson, along with Judy Johnson to the Homestead Grays for Henry Spearman, Pepper Bassett, and $2500. Reportedly hurt by the Crawfords’ determination to get rid of him, Judy Johnson retired rather than report to the Grays. For their part, Cumberland Posey and the Grays found themselves able to afford Gibson because they had obtained funding from Rufus “Sonnyman” Jackson, another policy banker. Thus the transfer of baseball power from the Pittsburgh Crawfords to the Homestead Grays depended largely on the vagaries of underworld business deals.
2) Alexander Pompez, owner of the New York Cubans, like Greenlee and Jackson a numbers king, had been forced to flee the country as a result of an investigation by New York City Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey (later of “Dewey Defeats Truman” fame), who was running for District Attorney in Manhattan. Pompez was eventually tracked down in Mexico City, where he spent the summer fighting extradition back to the U.S. In his absence, the Cubans were forced to dissolve. The Black Yankees took the Cubans’ place as the home team at Harlem’s Dyckman Oval—the first time they landed a permanent home field within the bounds of New York City.
3) Rafael Trujillo, who had ruled the Dominican Republic since a coup in 1930, had determined to use baseball as a public relations tool. Elections were at this point a sham, and no open political opposition was tolerated; nevertheless, his campaign for reelection took over sponsorship of the Dominican professional league, and gave it the unwieldy name of “El Campeonato Nacional de Base Ball, Pro-Reeleccion Presidente Trujillo”—the National Baseball Championship for the Reelection of President Trujillo. Cash was pumped into the league’s coffers, and all three teams sought out black Cuban and Negro league stars. First to go were the players of the dissolved New York Cubans, notably Martín Dihigo (to Santiago) and Lázaro Salazar (to Ciudad Trujillo).
Then Satchel Paige pocketed a cool $2500 (by coincidence, the same amount the Grays paid for Josh Gibson along with two players), and convinced much of the remaining Crawfords roster to join him in the DR, including Cool Papa Bell, Pat Patterson, Sammy Bankhead, Leroy Matlock, and Bill Perkins. In all, 18 Negro leaguers joined Dominican teams that summer. The NNL tried to convince the U.S. State Department to stop the players from travelling to the Caribbean, to no avail.
Among the players absconding to the Dominican league was the Grays’ newly acquired star, Josh Gibson—but apparently he had actually reached an agreement with Posey allowing for his temporary absence. The Grays coped easily. They had Buck Leonard’s bat (.388/.475/.796) and a deep pitching staff, especially for the Negro leagues, with Ray Brown (6-3. 3.87), Edsall Walker (7-1, 4.26), Tom “Big Train” Parker (4-1, 5.23), Roy Welmaker (3-0, 1.50), and Louis Dula (3-3, 2.70). And when Gibson did suit up for the team, he was unstoppable, hitting .436/.509/.979, with a league-leading 10 homers in only 24 recorded games. (In the Dominican he would hit .453 with 2 homers in 13 games.)
It was a six-team league in 1937, but only a two-team race, with the main challenge to the Grays’ rise to dominance coming from the Newark Eagles. Third baseman Ray Dandridge hit .398, shortstop Willie Wells hit .363/.440/.650, Terris McDuffie went 5-3 with a 3.12 ERA, and manager Dick Lundy hit .355 in limited action.
The Philadelphia Stars, now managed by the irascible veteran star Jud Wilson, were treading water. The 41-year-old Wilson continued to hit (.333/.366/.462), and utility man Curtis “Popeye” Harris (.321/.383/.459) contributed, but their pitching (again) let them down; only Sam Thompson (5-2, 2.37) and rookie Jim Missouri (3-2, 3.04) were really exceptional. Slim Jones, virtually finished as a pitcher, tried to make a comeback as a first baseman, and he hit enough in a few appearances there (.333/.400/.611) to make it seem like it could work.
The year’s biggest disappointment had to be the Washington Elite Giants. Full of young talent, and with the canny veteran Biz Mackey taking over the helm from Candy Jim Taylor, the Elites seemed like the best bet to take over league leadership from the Crawfords—or at least they should have given the Eagles and Grays a run for their money.
Instead, they plummeted to the bottom of the league, in part due to bad luck (they finished five games below their Pythagorean projection) and in part to below-par pitching, compiling a 5.08 team ERA in spacious Griffith Stadium. In the process they wasted fine perfomances by Wild Bill Wright (.398/.423/.771) and Shifty Jim West (.375/.431/.500). The team did give debuts to a California pitcher named Jimmy Direaux, who earned a mention in Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” for striking out 108 batters in 54 innings in high school, and to a Philadelphia teenager named Roy Campanella. Only 15 years old, Campanella had already been playing semipro ball for a year, and had attracted interest from the Phillies—until they discovered he was black. In 1937 and 1938, he played a few games on weekends with the Elite Giants and received tutoring from the most respected catcher in black baseball, Biz Mackey. Campanella wouldn’t become a regular until 1939, at the ripe old age of 17.
In the wake of Gus Greenlee’s fire sale and the Dominican raids, the Crawfords kept only two of their eight position players from 1936, and only two of their top six pitchers. It was no surprise that the team dropped under .500, despite the efforts of Barney Morris, who led the league in strikeouts, and the two players they received in return for Josh Gibson, catcher Pepper Bassett (.377/.411/.566), and third baseman Henry “Big Splo” Spearman (.337/.394/.500).
In another crucial 1937 event, the biggest Midwestern and southern clubs finally got together to start a league. Since the name of Rube Foster’s old circuit (the Negro National League) had been co-opted by the eastern clubs, the new league was called the Negro American League. The two core teams, the Chicago American Giants and Kansas City Monarchs, had between them accounted for 9 of the 12 pennants awarded by the old NNL. Luckily for black organized baseball, there were no player raids, and relations between the leagues started off on a fairly amicable basis.
The NNL and NAL did not get together to arrange a world series, but combined teams from the top two finishers in each league—the Kansas City Monarchs and Chicago American Giants of the NAL, and the Homestead Grays and Newark Eagles of the NNL—played an unsanctioned series at the end of the season. The NNL representatives, the Grays/Eagles, won easily, 8 games to 1.
In the meantime, the Dominican season ended in July with Ciudad Trujillo, starring Paige and Gibson, winning the title. The North Americans who had jumped were (with the exception of Gibson) were banned by the Negro leaguers, so when they returned to the United States they barnstormed as the Santo Domingo Stars (also known as the Trujillo Stars, Satchel Paige’s All-Stars, or the Negro All-Stars). They entered, and won, the Denver Post semi-pro tournament, and in the fall they travelled back to the East Coast and played a series against an NNL all-star team. In the first game, Johnny Taylor of the NNL stars threw a no-hitter to beat Satchel Paige and the Santo Domingo team.
Note: Future updates will include the 1937 NAL and Dominican League; the stats here do not include interregional games between NNL & NAL teams, or the unofficial Grays/Eagles vs. Monarchs/American Giants world series.