David Whatley, a native of Griffin, Georgia, first emerged as an outfielder with the Birmingham Black Barons in the mid-1930s. His big bat earned him the nickname “Hammer Man.” In 1937 he was the Black Barons’ best player, belting out a .384/.398/.709 slash line in the 21 league games we have for him. On August 16 of that year he went 6-for-6 with two doubles and a triple against the St. Louis Stars.
The following year he moved to the Memphis Red Sox, the eventual NAL champs, and then in 1939 he joined the Cleveland Bears.
(Cleveland Call and Post, May 4, 1939, p. 10)
Shortly after the season opened, however, Whatley was snapped up by the Homestead Grays, where he also became known as “Speed,” as he was one of the quickest players on the club. From 1938 to 1942, he played for five straight pennant winners.
His career was interrupted by a stint in the Army in 1943. He returned to baseball the following year, but wasn’t able to regain his job in the Grays’ outfield. During the 1942 season the Baltimore Afro-American ran this headline…
(Afro-American, August 29, 1942, p. 23)
…but in 1944, at the age of 29, with the league depleted due to the war, Whatley couldn’t get a game. James Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia attributes his problems to “his propensity for alcoholic consumption” (p. 832). Whatever the cause, it’s pretty clear that something had gone pretty badly wrong for Whatley. Even a move to the sad-sack Black Yankees didn’t garner him regular baseball; his last season in (sort of) big-time pro baseball was with the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the United States League in 1946.
According to Riley and other sources, Whatley, having evidently returned to his native state of Georgia, died in Cedarton, Polk County, in May 1992, at the age of 77 (Riley, p. 951). They’ve got his full name as Claude David Whatley, and, following the clipping above from the Cleveland Call and Post, they have him born in Griffin, Georgia, on November 10, 1914.
Here’s where it gets a little strange. First off, it’s worth noting that he was never to my knowledge referred to as Claude Whatley. It’s true that it’s virtually impossible to prove a negative, especially in Negro league history, so I can’t say for sure there’s not a single instance anywhere at all. But he is overwhelmingly called David or Dave Whatley.
Secondly, I’ve only been able to locate one person who possesses these birth and death dates: a woman named Claudie Mae Whatley, who was born November 10, 1914, in Cedarton, Georgia, and who died on May 3, 1992, also in Cedarton, Georgia. Here’s her entry in the Social Security Death Index (as presented on Ancestry.com)…
…and the Georgia Death Index (also from Ancestry.com)…
….and finally the more detailed U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index (Ancestry.com):
Note that the Social Security Death Index doesn’t give a birth place, and only gives the month of death, without a specific date. This is exactly how Riley gives Whatley’s death information (p. 951):
Whatley, Claude David (Dave, Speed)
Born: Nov. 10, 1914, Griffin, Ga.
Died: May, 1992, Cedarton, Ga.
Take the 1939 clipping from the Call and Post, which says that Whatley was born on November 10, 1914, in Griffin, Georgia, and combine it with Claudie Mae Whatley’s Social Security Death Index entry, which simply gives her name as Claudie Whatley (no sex listed), born November 10, 1914, SSN issued in Georgia, died May 1992, last residence Cedarton, Georgia. An unfortunate coincidence in birth date and birth state apparently led to the creation of “Claude David Whatley.”
What, then, about the ballplayer David Whatley? We know when and were he was born, but nothing about his life after baseball, when and where he died, or his actual full name.
We can start with his military service. An April 1943 article about the Homestead Grays in spring training notes that the team was concerned about the imminent loss of players to the draft:
(Pittsburgh Courier, April 3, 1943, p. 18)
Dave Whatley was “scheduled for induction this week.” The Courier was of course a weekly newspaper, and typically covered news from the previous week or two (at least). This particular item is undated, but it could have been written and filed anywhere from March 20 (or before) through April 2.
And…here’s a draft card for David Samuel Whatley, residing in Philadelphia (but working in Alabama), and born on November 10, 1914, in Griffin, Georgia:
Looking a little further in military records, we find this application for veteran’s compensation (made when he lived in Oakland, California, in December 1950), which lists the start of his service as March 27:
It turns out that his time in the Army was very short, considering that it was in the middle of a world war—slightly less than six months, from March 27 through September 21.
The following spring, the sportswriter W. Rollo Wilson mentioned in passing that Whatley and a Homestead Grays teammate, the catcher Bob Gaston, were both “discharged from the Army for physical reasons.”
(“Thru the Eyes of W. Rollo Wilson,” Philadelphia Tribune, February 12, 1944, p. 12)
Discharge for “physical reasons” seems to suggest that Whatley might have suffered an injury during his military service, or maybe a chronic problem was aggravated. You’ve got to wonder whether that had something to do with the sudden nosedive his baseball fortunes took after he left the Army, in addition to (or instead of) alcoholism.
Whatley’s association with baseball didn’t end in 1946, though I’m not sure about the precise shape of his career after that year. In February 1949 he arrived back in San Francisco from the Philippines with a number of other Negro league figures (Luther Branham, Louis Louden, Pepper Bassett). They may have been returning from a Philippine tour or winter league, though I haven’t been able to confirm that.
And in December 1950 (shortly before he submitted his application for veteran’s compensation) Whatley crossed the border from Canada into Idaho; his entry card gave his residence as Oakland, California, and listed his occupation as “Ball Player.”
At this point he was still single, but sometime in the next decade he would marry. In 1961, at the young age of 46, he passed away in Oakland. He was buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery.
Incidentally, I wanted to note that the main reason I wrote this post was because Mr. Whatley’s granddaughter contacted the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database. She was confused by the conflicting names and death dates she had found for her grandfather, so I explained where our information came from, and decided it might be a good idea to put a fuller accounting of my research on record here. I’m also glad to have been able to add a little additional perspective on why David Whatley’s career turned out the way it did.