Joe Posnanski has a great series (currently on hiatus) listing his version of the 100 greatest players in baseball history, a list that (as you might expect) includes several Negro leaguers. I’ve enjoyed these pieces quite a bit. But I wanted to respond to a few statements Pos makes (in passing) in a couple of the Negro league entries—not to be a jerk (or at least I hope it doesn’t come off like that), but to emphasize a few things about the Negro leagues that I think aren’t too well-known, even to initiates.
In his entry on Bullet Rogan, Posnanski writes that Rogan “played the bulk of his professional career in the 1920s, before there was even moderate coverage of the Negro Leagues…”
You hear this, or something like it, a lot. I guess the assumption is that everything improves through time, that the farther back in history you go the worse the records are, that the Negro leagues got better and better known through the years, and that the era of Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard and Monte Irvin in the 1940s must be the best-documented part of black baseball history.
In fact, though, the 1920s were, by far, the most intensively covered era in Negro league history. True, nearly all the substantive writing about them was published in the black press. But there was quite a bit of it, at least compared to other eras, with several nationally-distributed newspapers (the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, Baltimore Afro-American) along with a number of more regional or local papers (New York Age, Kansas City Call, Philadelphia Tribune, etc.) devoting multiple pages per weekly issue to sports, which during the summer basically meant professional baseball. There were a number of columnists who dealt solely or mostly with black baseball. The Defender and Courier both tried to act as news clearing houses, so to speak, for the Negro leagues, printing coverage and box scores for both the major black leagues and the major independent clubs.
And beyond the black press, the mainstream (white) daily papers in most league cities regularly published box scores for Negro league games—which leads me to this passage, a little later in the Rogan essay: after quoting some of Rogan’s season statistics from Shades of Glory, Posnanski remarks, “But the numbers are foggy. Everything from the Negro Leagues in that time, sadly, is foggy.”
On the contrary: the 1920s is also the best-documented decade of pre-integration black baseball history in terms of box scores and statistics derived from them, by a long shot. For example: we have box scores for 78 out of 79 Monarchs games against NNL opponents in 1920; 100 out of 101 in 1921; 84 out of 85 in 1922; 98 out of 98 in 1923; 85 out of 89 in 1924 (including the World Series); and 76 out of 80 in 1928. That’s a total of 521 out of 532 games in those six seasons, or 98 percent. The numbers we’ve got for Rogan in those years are pretty good, quality-wise. And there is every reason to believe that the remaining seasons from the 1920s—1925-27, 1929—are quite similar, as far as coverage goes.
Moreover, the box scores from the 1920s are, generally speaking, more carefully compiled and complete than the box scores of any other decade.
So, at least in terms of NNL games, the numbers from the 1920s are anything but “foggy.” Compared to the major leagues, yes, they are a little fuzzy, but only a little. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the amount of coverage in the black press started to slip, and that both daily and black weekly papers started cutting down on the number of Negro league box scores they printed.
In the entry on Joe Williams, Posnanski writes that “Smokey Joe Williams or Cyclone Joe Williams — he was called both — was born at some point between 1874 and 1885, the exactly year remains hopelessly lost.”
In fact, Williams was born on April 6 in either 1885, 1886, or 1887, in or near Seguin, Texas. Both his World War I and World War II draft cards (signed by Williams) have April 6, 1886. Williams’s entry in the 1900 U.S. census says April 1886. According to John Holway, Williams’s marriage license says April 6, 1885, though later on the same page he says it reads April 6, 1886. He also reports that Williams’s death certificate puts his birth date as April 6, 1887. We don’t have a certain birth record (and it wouldn’t be surprising if one was not made), but all evidence points to a birth date between 1885 and 1887.
Posnanski continues, writing of Williams’s career, that “[t]here is no earned run average to judge — nobody was keeping track of errors — so run average is used.”
Actually, everybody was keeping track of errors during the career of Joe Williams. Nearly every baseball box score printed in those days included errors. They did not keep track of earned runs, at least not for Negro league games—though these can be figured using game accounts, or estimated using errors and passed balls recorded in box scores.
And finally, from the nitpicking files: Posnanski writes that “…stories of the way [Williams] would unwind that body and unleash his fastball still spark the imagination. People would say it was like facing a Cyclone — which is how Williams got his second nickname, Cyclone Joe Williams.”
Okay, okay, this is just a hobby horse of mine. But I can’t resist. “Cyclone” was Wiliams’s first and primary nickname. “Smokey Joe” didn’t appear until the late 1910s, and didn’t become prevalent until the mid-1920s, when Williams moved to the Homestead Grays, and the Pittsburgh Courier undertook a concerted PR campaign to associate him with Pittsburgh, the “Smoky City.”
Anyway, none of this is to detract from Posnanski’s writing. I just wanted to make the point that even some of the most sympathetic and best-informed accounts of the Negro leagues sometimes traffic in exaggerated notions of the fogginess and unknowability of black baseball history, despite the availability of meticulous and well-documented research. We can do better than that.
NOTE: For those who don’t recognize it, the title of this post is a reference to this article by Bill James.