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
•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.
Just ran across this item, from Hake’s spring auction. It’s a passport document, or proof of Cuban citizenship, for the great Cuban outfielder AlejandroOms when he travelled to the Dominican Republic in 1929. It includes a fantastic photo of Oms I’ve never seen before:
In the comments to this postRob Fitts mentioned that “Jimmy Bonna” (right) was the first African American to play professionally for a Japanese baseball team, at the very dawn of the Japanese league, in 1936. At that point, according to Rob, the expert on pre-WWII gaijin (foreign players in Japan), Ralph Pearce, didn’t know anything about “Bonna” other than his brief record in Japan. Ever since then I’ve been curious about this Bonna, not least because he didn’t seem to correspond to any known Negro leaguer. Who was he? Where did he come from, and how did he get to Japan? Why was he signed by a Japanese club, and not one of the several Negro leaguers who had toured Japan dating back to 1927?
Thanks to Rod Nelson, the other day I read this piece by Dexter Thomas, Jr., part of his “Negroes in Tokyo” series. As it turns out, Jimmy Bonna was really James E. Bonner, a 5’10”, right-handed submarine pitcher who was signed by the Dai Tokyo club of the new Japanese professional league with a great deal of fanfare. He was said in the Japanese press to have gone pro immediately after graduating from middle school, and to have played for the Oakland Oaks of the PCL (though this couldn’t be correct—the Oaks certainly weren’t hiring black players in the 1930s). He had supposedly once struck out 46 batters in three games played over two days, whiffing 22 in one game.
Unfortunately, Bonner didn’t live up to the hype. He was wild, walking 13 batters in four games, while striking out only two. His final record was 0-1, with a 10.24 ERA—although he did bat .458, 11 for 24 (as a left-handed hitter). Dai Tokyo finished in the cellar, 5-21. He last time up in Japan he tripled but got thrown out at home. He was released on November 18, and left for the United States on the same day. Bonner would never appear in Japan again. The next black American players to join the Japanese league were JohnnyBritton and JimmieNewberryin 1952.
Dexter’s post sparked a little impromptu research hangout on Rod’s Facebook page, wherein John Thorn turned up the basic biographical information on Bonner, via passenger lists and census records: James Everett Bonner, born September 18, 1906, in Mansfield, Louisiana. (In 1936, when he signed for Dai Tokyo, he evidently used a baseball age; he appears as 24 years old in Japanese baseball records and as 25 on the passenger list returning from Japan. Given his real age at the time of 29, he was actually the oldest player on the Dai Tokyo roster.) He can be found in the 1920 and 1930 census still living in Louisiana, and in the 1940 census living in Oakland, California. He was still living in Oakland in 1943, when he enlisted in the United States Army. Bonner passed away in Alameda County on May 10, 1963.
(By the way: I’m assuming that “Bonner” became “Bonna” as a result of being written in Japanese, ボンナ, and then rendered back into English—but I don’t speak Japanese, so don’t take my word for it!)
When Rod was asking me about Negro league researchers specializing in the Bay Area, I thought of Ryan Whirty, who had just published an article in the SF Weekly on the Berkeley International League, a racially integrated semipro circuit that operated in the 1930s. (Ryan has also written about the league on his blog.) The promoter/journalist/radio host Byron “Speed” Reilly had founded the Berkeley Colored League in the 1920s; at some point it mutated into the Berkeley International League, which featured teams of various ethnic origins (Latino, white, African American, Chinese American).
I checked in Oakland and Berkeley newspapers for 1936, and sure enough, here was “Satchel Jim Bonner” pitching for one of the black teams in the BIL, the Berkeley Grays. On May 18, 1936, he beat Negro League veteran Harold “Yellowhorse” Morris and the Athens Elks 9 to 0.
(Oakland Tribune, May 19, 1936, p. 30)
On April 19 Bonner struck out 17 batters in a game against the (white) Berkeley Cardinals, breaking the old BIL record of 14. Bonner’s Grays, for years the doormat of the BIL, were co-champions (with the Athens Elks) in 1936. Bonner was named to the BIL all-star team, which was entered in the Oakland Tribune’s annual California Semi-Pro Baseball Tournament. The International All-Stars were knocked out in the second round on September 2, after which Bonner pitched the San Pablo Dam team to victory in a local Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) tournament. During this tournament Bonner pitched three complete games in two days.
(Berkeley Daily Gazette, October 1, 1936, p. 12)
Bonner left for Japan on September 18, 1936 (his 29th birthday). (Incidentally, though Bonner never played for the Oaks as it was claimed in Japan, both the BIL and the Tribune tournament played games in the Oaks’ stadium.)
After returning from Japan, Bonner hooked up with the Berkeley Grays again the following spring; but I couldn’t find anything beyond that.
Of course, there have been researchers working on Bonner all along. Bill Staples wrote to help flesh out Bonner’s U. S. career. Including what I found with the Berkeley International League, here’s what his career looks like so far:
1935 Oakland Black Sox (black independent) 1936 Berkeley Grays (black; Berkeley International League) 1936 Dai Tokyo (Japanese Baseball League) 1937 Berkeley Grays (black; Berkeley International League) 1937 California Yellow Jackets (black independent) 1939 California Negro Giants (black independent)
Bill notes that the 1940 census has Bonner completing an 8th grade education, which is not inconsistent with a claim in the Japanese press that he started playing professional baseball immediately upon graduating from middle school. (He’s listed in the 1920 census as a delivery boy for a drug store in Mansfield; in 1930 he’s listed as a tailor.) If he started playing professionally (or semi-professionally) that young, we might be able to pick him up with Louisiana or Texas teams from the 1920s into the early 1930s. Bill has also located a Bonner playing off and on in the Oakland industrial leagues (though not for any all-black teams, as far as I can tell) from 1928 to 1934, mostly pitching and playing right field; it wouldn’t be particularly unusual for him to be listed on the census in Louisiana, living with his mother, while actually living in California.
While we’re still working on reconstructing Bonner’s baseball career in the U.S., it does look like he played at a largely local, semipro level, and never progressed to the black big leagues. How good was the Berkeley International League? Well, as mentioned, it featured Yellowhorse Morris, a journeyman pitcher at the very end of his career. Wilson “Stack”Martin, a journeyman utility player in the Negro leagues in the 1920s and early 1930s, also at the end of his career, was in the league. Another BIL star was a pitcher for the Wa Sung Athletic Club named Al Bowen, a Chinese American who had performed briefly for the Oakland Oaks in 1932 under the name “Lee Gum Hong.” He was signed specifically to pitch against the Japanese American Kenso Nushida of the Sacramento Senators, in a weird sort of publicity stunt pegged to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.
So the Berkeley International League was not at the level of the black big leagues back east or the winter season black teams on the west such as the Philadelphia Royal Giants (actually based in Los Angeles), made up of Negro league stars. Even though Jimmy Bonner was one of the league’s best players in 1936, clearly there were plenty of better black players in the United States. Why didn’t any of them make their way to the Japanese league?
They had, after all, made their way to Japan. The Philadelphia Royal Giantstravelledto Japan in 1927, 1932, and the winter of 1933-34. Those trips were organized by Lonnie Goodwin of the Royal Giants and KenichiZenimura. But none of the stars on those teams—Biz Mackey, Andy Cooper, Bullet Rogan, Chet Brewer, Rap Dixon—were enticed to play in Japan in the late 1930s. And when Dai Tokyo was desperate for reinforcement, they didn’t go to Goodwin or Zenimura, who had contacts with those players. Instead they went to Harry Kono, a promoter of Nisei (Japanese-American) baseball on the west coast. It’s Kono who appears on Bonner’s contract as the agent for Dai Tokyo.
My feeling is that geography and money both played a role in giving Jimmy Bonner, rather than, say, Chet Brewer, the chance to join the Japanese league. The west coast was obviously a closer and more convenient place for a Japanese team to try to recruit baseball talent on relatively short notice in September, 1936; the best black players in the United States were all well east of the Rocky Mountains at that point.
Moreover: if this exchange-rate chart is accurate, then Bonner’s pay, at 400 yen a month, a princely sum for ballplayers in Japan (Dexter Thomas says Eiji Sawamura, the biggest star in Japan, was only getting 170 yen a month at the time), amounted to about $116 a month ($1,959 in 2014 dollars). According to Neil Lanctot, the average salary for Negro National League players from 1936 to 1941 was “roughly $100 to $150 per month” (Negro League Baseball, p. 163), with scrubs and bench players getting as little as $50 or $60 a month, and superstars like Gibson and Paige earning up to $500. Dai Tokyo was in effect offering average or below average Negro league wages. For Bonner this might have been great pay, but for Negro league stars this seems unlikely to have been particularly tempting, considering the geographical and cultural distance.
Japanese baseball would eventually become much more competitive financially; but, given the small matter of World War II, it would be sixteen years before African American players returned to Japanese professional baseball.
So that’s the story of the first African American player to sign for a Japanese professional team. We will eventually get much more on Jimmy Bonner when Ralph Pearce publishes his upcoming book on Harris McGalliard (known in Japan as “Bucky Harris”), an American star in the pre-war Japanese league.
This week we add the 1936 Negro National League to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database. The season started with a major defection: the Chicago American Giants, founding members of the league back in 1933, and the oldest continuously existing professional club in black baseball (dating back to 1911), decided to go independent in 1936. Most of their best players jumped ship and signed with league teams: Turkey Stearnes, Larry Brown, and Jack Marshall went to the Philadelphia Stars, Willie Wells and Mule Suttles to the Newark Eagles, Alex Radcliff to the New York Cubans. To take their place, the American Giants brought in a number of younger players, including a 19-year-old Ted Strong. Along with the Kansas City Monarchs (still stubbornly independent), the Cincinnati Tigers, and a new version of the St. Louis Stars, the American Giants were laying the foundations for a new western league, one that would get started in 1937.
Meanwhile, back east the Negro National League suffered from even more instability, though it may have come out stronger in the end. The cellar-dwelling Newark Dodgers of 1935 folded, and the franchise was bought up by Abe Manley of the Brooklyn Eagles. He merged the two teams and created the Newark Eagles, which would become one of the best-known franchises of the later Negro leagues. The Elite Giants left Columbus for Washington, D. C ., their third home in three years. And in mid-season the Black Yankees, who had successfully resisted the lure of league play for five years, finally joined the Negro National League.
The 1936 season saw the swan song of the great Pittsburgh Crawfords. While the team would continue past 1936, this season would bring its last championship. Satchel Paige (6-1, 2.72, 57 Ks in 53 innings) was back in the fold. At first base manager Oscar Charleston started phasing in a promising youngster, Johnny Washington (.375/.435/.538), but Oscar could still swing the bat a little himself (.344/.459/.639) when he was needed. The bulk of the offense, of course, rested on the broad shoulders of Josh Gibson (.347/.455/.719).
The competition was actually quite tight. The Crawfords opened up an advantage on the rest of the league despite only outscoring their opponents by 22 runs. The previous year's runners up, the New York Cubans, dipped a little in 1936. Their standout player was (no surprise) player-manager Martín Dihigo (.346/.452/.705). The Homestead Grays fielded a very similar team to its 1935 edition, with very similar results (though young pitchers Edsall Walker and Roy Welmaker would pay dividends in the future). The Philadelphia Stars dropped to the bottom of the league, although they weren't that much worse than the 1935 team that had finished over .500. Stearnes (.327/.391/.500), Roy Parnell (.374/.414/.481), and Jud Wilson (.309/.392/.496) hit as well as they usually did, but the pitching was poor, as Slim Jones (2-2, 7.62) continued his slide into oblivion.
Next up for the DB: the 1926 Eastern Colored League, which should arrive pretty shortly.
The 1936 Cincinnati Tigers: gearing up for the Negro American League.