A few weeks ago Bill Staples flagged a fascinating passage from Edwin B. Henderson’s classic, The Negro in Sport (1939), about Walter Johnson and black baseball. It was actually quoted from a Shirley Povich column in the Washington Post, originally published on April 7, 1939, in which Povich talked to Walter Johnson about the Negro Leagues. The column contains Johnson’s oft-quoted endorsement of Josh Gibson, saying that “any big league club would like to buy” Gibson for $200,000. “He can do everything. He hits that ball a mile. And he catches so easy he might just as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Bill Dickey isn’t as good a catcher. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow.”
But the column goes on to tell this somewhat less well-known story:
The idea of Walter Johnson being hired to pitch for a “colored team” (which, by the way, he doesn’t name) is fascinating. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of a similar situation—a famous white major league pitcher being picked up for a game by an otherwise all-black team, and to pitch against another black team. I really can’t think of one. This would amount to Walter Johnson (and his catcher, Gabby Street) “playing colored baseball,” as he put it to Povich.
Of course, this would have been a pretty big deal, especially as Johnson said the game occurred in Harlem. The story can’t be exactly correct in all particulars, as the Lincoln Giants were not founded until 1911—Johnson couldn’t have pitched against them in 1909.
I have also run across occasional claims of games that sound similar to what Johnson told Povich in 1939, although none of these accounts have Johnson pitching for a black team.
In 1935 Dave Driscoll, a Brooklyn Dodgers executive who had been a semipro player in the 1900s and 1910s, talked to a Brooklyn Eagle columnist about black baseball. He garbles a lot of names and details, so it’s not an especially reliable source, but he does say this:
Unfortunately, a typesetting error deprives us of the number of Lincoln Giants Johnson supposedly struck out. Anyway, this has Johnson and Street as the battery for a “white semi-pro team” playing against, and beating, the Lincoln Giants in Harlem, although in 1914 and not 1909. And it’s worth noting that Grant “Home Run” Johnson did play for the Lincoln Giants in 1914, although in Driscoll’s account there couldn’t have been a home run by one of the black players.
In 1926 Jim Keenan, the Lincoln Giants’ owner, remembered another faceoff between Walter Johnson and Joe Williams, although he said it was “about ten years ago” in the Bronx, and that Williams Johnson won, 1 to 0:
John Holway recounts a similar-sounding game in The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues (p. 122), also a this time a 1 to 0 victory for Williams over Johnson, while adding a crucial detail:
“Ted Williams heard the story from an old man in Connecticut. As Ted re-told it, Johnson struck out one black hitter three times. In the ninth the batter said, ‘Mr. Johnson, you done struck me out three times, but I’m gonna hit the next one out of here.’ And he did.
“Ted asked Johnson if the story was true. ‘He just nodded his head,’ Ted said, ‘he just nodded his head’.”
Here we have Johnson pitching against (presumably) the Lincoln Giants and giving up a home run to an unnamed black hitter, although unlike the game in the account Johnson gave to Povich in 1939, the Lincolns won, and again Johnson was presumably not playing for a black team.
So, are there any contemporary accounts of actual games that give some substance to these stories?
I couldn’t find a game pitched by Walter Johnson against (or for) a black team on the east coast in 1909. But I did find two games he pitched against (but not for) black teams in Harlem within a few years of 1909.
First, in 1914, the year Dave Driscoll claimed Johnson had shut out the Lincoln Giants with Gabby Street as his catcher, Walter Johnson ventured into Lenox Oval, Harlem, to the New York City Fire Department team, nicknamed the “Smoke Eaters,” against the Lincoln Stars (not the Giants). Both teams were founded by the McMahons, so we’re not too far off. Gabby Street was not to be found, however, and Johnson lost to Gunboat Thompson and the Stars 2 to 0. At the same time Joe Williams and the Lincoln Giants were a few blocks away beating the Philadelphia Phillies:
(New York Press, October 12, 1914, p. 9)
But the game that most resembles what Walter Johnson told Shirley Povich in 1939 took place in 1911. On October 15 of that year Johnson and a team of “All Leaguers,” with Gabby Street catching, defeated the Lincoln Giants at Olympic Field, 5 to 3. Johnson fanned 14.
There were no home runs hit off the Big Train that day, and no Home Run Johnson, either (he wouldn’t join the Lincoln Giants until 1913). I haven’t been able to figure out exactly who the other All Leaguers were. None of the names matches any black professional players of the time, as far as I can tell. There was a white semipro team called Joe Wall’s All Leaguers that played in New York City that summer, but they seem to have been a different team (none of the names are the same). Johnson, with Street as his catcher, pitched two exhibition games for a team of American League All Stars (including Ty Cobb and Smokey Joe Wood), in Washington on October 10 (losing) and in Baltimore on October 13 (winning). Aside from Johnson and Street, none of the All Stars showed up on the All Leaguers. (John Holway has said that the Wagner at shortstop was Honus Wagner, but this seems rather unlikely.)
Anyway, Johnson wasn’t playing for a “colored team,” but this is the closest match I can find. If anybody can come up with a better candidate, let me know.
UPDATE 12/7/2012, 9:14 a.m. I forgot to mention another famous occasion on which Walter Johnson faced a black team - his 1-0 loss to Frank Wickware and the Mohawk Giants in 1913.
UPDATE 12/7/2012, 9:30 a.m. I mistakenly said that Keenan had Joe Williams beating Johnson 1 to 0, but he actually said Johnson won (now corrected above).
UPDATE 12/7/2012, 2:14 p.m. See new post on the context for the October 15, 1911, game between the Lincoln Giants and All-Leaguers.