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
Emilio Navarro, “Millito,” the oldest living professional baseball player, passed away on Saturday, April 30.
Just to keep the record straight, Navarro was the last known veteran of the American Negro League of 1929, and never actually played in the Eastern Colored League (which folded early in 1928). (Meanwhile, the American Negro League, a one-season league that operated on the east coast, had nothing to do with the Negro American League, a completely different, midwestern circuit that was founded in 1937.)
Charles Smith, now usually known as “Chino” (his nickname in Cuba), but called simply “Charlie Smith” in the newspapers of the late 1920s, died in New York City in the early hours of the morning on January 15, 1932. Aged only 31 at his death, “Smitty” was eulogized by the Homestead Grays’ Cumberland Posey as “one of the best hitters of all time” (Pittsburgh Courier, January 23, 1932). The New York Amsterdam News called him one of baseball’s “most outstanding characters and an all-time hitter whose ability drew many fans to the games in which he appeared” (January 27, 1932). He was a pugnacious, crowd-baiting hitter of ferocious line drives who terrified pitchers. Satchel Paige deemed him one of the two toughest outs he ever faced (the other being Jud Wilson).
Smith led the ANL with a .464 average, 214 total bases, and a .903 slugging percentage (Rap Dixon was a distant second in the last two categories with 189 and .784). Of course, this was in a league that batted .317 with a .448 slugging percentage, and it was in the Bronx’s Catholic Protectory Oval, a park that was only 180 feet down the lines on both sides. Still, Smith comfortably outhit his Lincoln Giants’ teammate John Beckwith (.443, .776), and nobody else on the Lincolns, a team that challenged for the pennant (and by some accounts actually had the best overall record in the league), was even remotely close to Smith’s numbers. It was not a bad year for Mr. Charles Smith.
According to John Holway in Blackball Stars, Bill Holland thought that Smith might have died of yellow fever. Holway also notes that Smith’s death could have been linked to an on-field collision with Walter Cannady during a Lincolns-Homestead Grays game at Yankee Stadium on September 28, 1930, when Cannady accidentally kneed Smith in the stomach, and Smith had to be carried off, as shown in this photo from the New York Amsterdam News (October 1, 1930). Incidentally, the day before (Saturday, September 27) Josh Gibson reputedly hit the only home run ever to leave Yankee Stadium (though the story has probably been greatly exaggerated).
Even in this poor reproduction, Oscar Charleston of the Grays is recognizable behind Smith. Various accounts have it that Smith was knocked unconscious, which of course sounds more like a blow to the head than to the stomach.
Although he never played for the Lincoln Giants again, Smith had recovered sufficiently by November to appear in the special “Unico” championship in Cuba. The following spring he joined the Brooklyn Royal Giants and spent the whole season with them, though he did miss quite a few games.
His death came on January 15, 1932. Here’s his death certificate (which I originally published in the Outsider Baseball Bulletin, July 21, 2010):
Chino Smith died, not of yellow fever, but of stomach and pancreatic cancer, made worse by exhaustion. John Holway’s report about Cannady kneeing Smith in the stomach might be the product of vague memories about Smith having stomach trouble in the months before his death, conflated with the dramatic incident at Yankee Stadium in 1930 that marked the end of his Lincoln Giants career.
Charlie Smith’s body was shipped to Darlington, South Carolina, where his family had lived at least since the 1910 census was taken.
Which raises the question of his birth place and date. The death certificate (January, 1932) has him aged 31; in the 1930 census “Charles Smith,” “Ball Player,” born in South Carolina and living in Harlem with his wife Bessie, is listed as aged 29. In the 1910 census young Charles E. Smith, living with his parents Thomas and Leila and several siblings in Society Hill, Darlington County, South Carolina, is listed as aged 9. (Incidentally, Smith’s mother, according to his death certificate, was “Lelia Anthrum”; the Smith family in Society Hill in 1910 lived next door to a family named Antrum.)
In the winter of 1925/26 a number of Negro league players from New York City traveled to Puerto Rico, presumably to play ball. I have not yet found any kind of public record of a Negro league tour of the island or of North American players being hired by teams that winter, but various players can be found on passenger lists returning from San Juan to New York from January through April, 1926. These included Chino Smith’s Brooklyn Royal Giants’ teammates Dick Redding, Connie Rector, Charles Spearman, and Bob Scott, along with George Scales, Merven Ryan, Tom Finley, Richard Gee, Judy Gans, and Bardell (or Budell) Young of the Lincoln Giants.
When George Scales returned to the U.S. from Puerto Rico aboard the S.S. Caracas on March 8, 1926, he was accompanied by one Charles Smith, on a passenger list that otherwise consisted entirely of Hispanic names:
This Charles Smith had a Harlem address (4 W. 129th St.), and was listed as born in “Hamet,” North Carolina, on September 24, 1901. There is no “Hamet” in either of the Carolinas, but there is a Hamlet, North Carolina, which is located in Richmond County, right on the border with South Carolina—about 30 miles away from Society Hill, South Carolina.
Coincidentally, Hamlet was also the hometown of John Coltrane, who was born there on September 23, 1926. Coltrane’s playing, like Smith’s, has been described as aggressive, even angry; did they also share a hometown and (nearly) a birthday?
One of the most remarkable settings for Negro league baseball was the Catholic Protectory Oval in the Bronx, home of the New York Lincoln Giants in the 1920s. The Lincolns’ original home, Olympic Field in Harlem, had been built by the club’s founders, Roderick James “Jess” McMahon and his brother Edward*, for their white semipro club, the Olympic A.C., back in 1905. The McMahons lost control of both Olympic Field and the Lincoln Giants in 1915, founding a new black club, the Lincoln Stars, which played at Lenox Oval for a couple of seasons. The Lincoln Giants, under the ownership of James J. Keenan and Charles Harvey, continued at Olympic until 1920.
At the start of the 1920 season Olympic Field was torn down, and its bleachers were transferred to the ball field at the Catholic Protectory, a famous orphanage in the Bronx. Sunday semipro and amateur games had been played there for a couple of decades, but the coming of the famous African-American team would bring much larger crowds.
Here’s a diagram from a Sanborn fire insurance map, showing the Oval in 1929, the year the Lincolns joined the American Negro League, the short-lived successor to the Eastern Colored League:
And here, courtesy of Kevin Johnson (who has written a couple of posts on the 1928 Negro leagues), is a fantastic aerial photo of the Catholic Protectory Oval in 1924, the Lincolns’ second season in the ECL:
The scorekeeper’s table was placed under the trees visible here along the right field line.
Aside from the neo-Gothic architecture surrounding it, the other unusual feature of the Oval was its cramped shape. Kevin asked the ballpark expert Ron Selter, author of Ballparks of the Deadball Era, to estimate the dimensions. This is what he came up with:
LF 180 SLF 238 LC 358 (deepest point in park) CF 292 (the HP-CF axis hit the CF end of the RF-CF bleachers) RC 286 SRF 256 RF 180
Ron remarked (to Kevin) that it reminded him of “a miniature version of the playing field at the Polo Grounds.”
The data I’ve gathered definitely suggests that the Catholic Protectory Oval increased offense by huge amounts. Any hitter with the Lincoln Giants in the 1920s—I’m looking at you, Chino Smith—probably saw his stats greatly inflated by the park, in the midst of what was already a very high-scoring era.
The Lincoln Giants’ successors in the 1930s, most notably the New York Black Yankees, moved to other venues; and in 1938 the Catholic Protectory was razed to make way for the Parkchester Apartments.
UPDATE 3/1/2011 Corrected dates on the map & aerial photo.
Today is the 105th birthday of Emilio Navarro, “Millito,” who played shortstop for Pompez’s Cuban Stars in the late 1920s. This article and other sources say he’s the last known living veteran of the Negro American League. This, of course, is wrong, as Navarro never played in the NAL, which was founded in 1937 in the Midwest and lasted until 1960. There are probably dozens of NAL alums still alive today.
I think what is meant is the “American Negro League,” which operated for one season as the eastern Negro league in 1929. Navarro first played in the continental U.S. the previous season in 1928, and so the question arises as to whether he is the last man left alive who played in the ANL’s better-known predecessor, the Eastern Colored League, which fell apart during the 1928 season. As far as I can tell Navarro didn’t actually appear for the Cuban Stars while they were still members of the ECL. Pompez’s club, along with the Lincoln Giants, announced their withdrawal from the league on Friday, June 1, whereas Navarro’s first appearance with the Cubans was on June 18. Of course, Navarro appeared in a number of games against various former ECL teams later in 1928, but the league itself didn’t exist anymore.
Which leaves open the question of who the last veteran of the ECL was. My best guess now is SiSimmons, who pitched for the Lincoln Giants in the mid-1920s, and died in 2006 at the age of 109 (1900 census) or 111 (draft cards). On the other hand, Simmons was already 30 years old when he appeared in the ECL in 1926; probably more than half the league was younger than he was, including a number of guys in their late teens or early twenties. Considering the number of players who’ve never been fully identified, I think it’s just barely possible that an ECL veteran may still be hanging on somewhere.
(Incidentally, some sources indicate that Simmons appeared in one game as Navarro’s teammate on the 1929 Cubans, making him also one of the last veterans of the ANL.)
Not one of my compilations. These are season statistics printed in the Pittsburgh Courier (September 28, 1929) for the league that, for one year, succeeded the failed Eastern Colored League as the eastern circuit in black baseball. They’re occasionally mentioned by historians, and John Holway actually uses them in his Complete Book rather than his own numbers, so I thought they should be more widely available.
Unfortunately, they only printed batting statistics. The same issue has pitchers’ won/loss records (along with games pitched and complete games) for the second half only. If I can find the first-half figures for pitchers, I’ll post those, too.
The batting numbers are quite limited: no walks or hit by pitch, no games played, and the fielding statistics aren’t broken down by position. Also, the list leaves out players who had been released, or who had not made at least one hit. Still, the league averages we get from this (.317 league batting average, .448 league slugging percentage, .949 league fielding percentage) are interesting.
Curiously, Cyclone Joe Williams, with the Homestead Grays in 1929, isn’t present in either the batting or pitching lists. “L. Williams” does appear for the Grays, but that’s certainly Charles “Lefty” Williams, another longtime Homestead pitcher. Had Williams been released, or was he just left off by accident?