One for Five has documented the story of Jim Hugh Moss, the former Negro leaguer who was executed in Georgia in 1928. Larry Granillo of Baseball Prospectus adds a few details about Eula Thompson’s later life, and highlights how the governor of Georgia used phrenology to determine that he would let Moss’s execution go forward.
I wrote briefly about Moss a few years ago, but you should check out One for Five, Larry, and Brian McKenna for the details of this 1928 media sensation. Meanwhile, let’s look at the evidence on Jim Hugh Moss and his baseball career.
He was born on June 23, 1897, into a large family headed by a farmer named Robert Moss and his wife Jennie. The family first appears in the 1900 census living in Polk County, Tennessee, with the young James listed as “Hubert” Moss; it’s possible that “Jim Hugh” was a Southern-style nickname for “James Hubert.” By the 1910 census the family had moved to Etowah in adjacent McMinn County.
By 1918 Jim Moss was married, and by 1920 he and his wife Bertie had 2 children (Frank and Edith), and, while I can’t confirm this, in the comments on Brian’s piece about Moss a researcher refers to the couple’s five children.
Moss registered for the draft in Etowah in August 1918, and was living there when the 1920 census was taken. Around this time he worked for the Louisville and Nashville (L & N) Railroad.
None of these particulars (about Moss’s life, his marriage, his children) made it into any newspaper coverage I’ve seen of the Osborne murder, the trials, or the executions. There’s little about Moss’s character or any personal details about him, other than Eula Thompson’s intriguing description of him as a “negro who talks like a white man,” and the Atlanta Constitution’s account of his demeanor before his execution (see below).
So how do we know that the Jim Hugh Moss who was put to death in Milledgeville, Georgia, on August 3, 1928, was a former Negro league ballplayer?
1) There’s a passage from the Atlanta Constitution from its lengthy article (by a reporter named Whitner Cary) about Moss and Clifford Thompson’s executions, describing Jim Moss in the moments leading up to his death:
Moss chats joyously with newspapermen, flashing his golden smile. Says he is ready and…reminisces about his batting average. For this Jim Moss was a great negro ball player a few years back, playing on some of the leading negro teams of the country. Strange to hear a man who is to face death in less than 20 minutes talking about his batting average. He breaks into the baseball discussion long enough to inquire if his family have made arrangements to have his body sent to Tennessee. Satisfied on this subject, he lights a cigarette. The hand that guides the match is as steady as a doctor’s hand about to perform the most delicate of operations. The man’s nerve is really remarkable. (Atlanta Constitution, August 4, 1928, p. 1)
The Associated Press story on Moss’s execution, reprinted in various forms in many newspapers, says that Moss “played for several seasons with the Chicago Giants, a negro baseball league team.” The Baltimore Afro-American put the affiliation in its headline:
Aside from the second baseman Bingo DeMoss, who in the early 1910s was occasionally called “Moss” in box scores by mistake, there’s a single example of a player named “Moss” appearing for one of Chicago’s major black professional teams during this era. This occurred on Sunday, May 19, 1918.
Rube Foster found himself in a curious bind that day. A complicated set of circumstances found him obliged to play games in both Peoria and Chicago on the same day, so he was forced to split his squad. In Chicago, to face the white semipro West Ends, he only had four regular players and one pitcher available. He had to switch catcher Bruce Petway to center field and outfielder Pete Hill to third base, plug himself in at first (though he rarely played anymore), and bring in the old pitcher Charles Dougherty (who had retired several years before) to play right field. He also recruited a completely unknown battery consisting of pitcher Moss and catcher Arbuckle (no first names given).
How did Moss do? The Chicago Defender published a complete, batter-by-batter account of the game, so that part’s easy. In four innings he gave up only 3 hits, but he walked five, hit two, balked, and threw the ball into center field. After his fourth and final inning, the Giants trailed 5 to 3, although they rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the inning as Frank Wickware pinch-hit for Moss. Wickware then gave up three more runs, so Moss wasn’t on the hook for the eventual 8 to 6 loss, but he had failed the test. His four innings versus the West Ends is the totality of his career in the Negro league big time. (A full account of the game, the box score, and an article about Foster’s scheduling issues can be found in the Defender, May 25, 1918, p. 9.)
After that the next time we find “Moss” playing in Chicago is the following season, 1919, when he turns up pitching and playing center field for a minor team called the Havana Stars. Founded as the “Fast Havana Stars” in 1911, this was mostly a traveling club that barnstormed through the Midwest and didn’t receive a great deal of publicity. (There was no actual Cuban connection, and no Cuban players.) Sam Crawford captained the team in 1917, the same year they hired a female first baseman named Pearl Barrett.
In 1920 Moss disappears from the Chicago scene, but another Moss appears as a pitcher/outfielder for the Montgomery Grey Sox of the Negro Southern League. In fact, in a late September game against the Chicago American Giants, who were touring the South after wrapping up the first NNL pennant, Moss made a crucial error that let in three runs and handed the game to the Giants (his former team, assuming he’s the same person who played in Chicago in 1918 and 1919).
This Moss moved to the Bessemer (Ala.) Giants in 1921, then returned to Montgomery for the 1922 season, where one of his teammates was the young Turkey Stearnes. After that I lose track of him. I have (so far) found no direct statement that Moss of the Negro Southern League, 1920-1922, was the same as Moss of the American Giants and Havana Stars, 1918-1919, but both were pitcher/outfielders, and there doesn’t seem to be any overlap. I’d rate it as quite likely they were the same person.
On the other hand, Jim Hugh Moss is (relatively) well-attested in what records I have easy access to, and there’s no link to Chicago in them (or Montgomery or Bessemer, Alabama, for that matter). He registered for the draft in McMinn County, Tennessee, in August 1918, in between the American Giants/West Ends game in May 1918 and the appearance of “Captain Moss” with the Havana Stars in spring 1919. In the 1920 census, enumerated in January, he appears in McMinn County, living with his wife and children. In both documents he is listed as a railroad employee, not a baseball player.
None of this, however, is inconsistent with Moss going to Chicago in 1918 to try out for the American Giants, failing and returning home, then trying again in Chicago in 1919, and spending the next few summers in the Negro Southern League. The case is to some degree circumstantial, but at the very, very least we can say this: if Jim Hugh Moss did have a Negro league career, this was it—there aren’t any other possibilities.
One more small issue. The AP story on his execution comments that “Moss, a trained athlete and a giant in stature, played for several seasons with the Chicago Giants, a negro baseball league team” (Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, August 4, 1928, p. 2). His World War I card, however, lists Jim Hugh Moss as “medium” in height and build, and the detailed Atlanta Constitution story about his execution makes no mention of Moss being particularly imposing (and the way it’s written, I’d think it would).
Incidentally, Jim Hugh Moss almost certainly knew Walter Claude “Steel Arm” Dickey, the St. Louis Stars pitcher who was murdered in Etowah, Tennessee, Moss’s hometown, in 1923. Dickey was from northern Georgia, but lived in Etowah, and both were apparently involved in running liquor (Dickey’s murder was murkily associated in bootlegging). And of course Dickey also pitched in the Negro Southern League from 1920 to 1922, including a season with the Montgomery Gray Sox (though not at the same time as Moss). Dickey pitched for the Knoxville Giants in 1920 and 1922, and for Montgomery in 1921.
Larry Granillo, in the comments to his post on Moss, added this: “I would love to know that we can verify at least one fact about his career. It just goes to show how hard Negro Leagues info is to come by and just how great it is to even have the data that we have, incomplete as it is.”
In fact, I think Moss’s case demonstrates the exact opposite of what Larry’s saying here. Keep in mind that as a baseball player he was an extremely marginal figure, essentially the equivalent of someone who pitched part of a spring training game and then spent a few seasons in the minors. The Negro leagues were not some vast impenetrable mystery. It’s often possible, even with limited resources, to dig up quite a bit of information, even about minor players like Moss.