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
Here’s a photograph from Brian Campf, who recently obtained it from friends in Puerto Rico. It shows JoshGibson shaking hands with Pedrín Zorrilla, a Shell Oil executive and owner of the Santurce Cangrejeros of the Puerto Rican Winter League. Zorilla was a major figure in the history of baseball in Puerto Rico. The date of the photograph is unknown, though one suspects it might have been taken when Gibson first signed for Santurce in 1939.
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:
(Washington Post, April 7, 1939, p. 7)
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:
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 13, 1935, p. D2)
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:
“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.
(New York Age, October 19, 1911, p. 6)
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.
Here’s a detail from a photo of Yankee Stadium in 1930, showing left field as it presumably looked (well, minus the marching bands, the goal posts, and the big “Baltimore Sun” watermark—and, obviously, from a rather different angle) to Josh Gibson in September 1930 when he hit his famous home run. In 1928 the grandstands had been extended into left field and now overlooked the bullpen.
When looking up the 1930 game in which Chino Smith was knocked unconscious, I realized that Josh Gibson, then only 18, had hit one of his most famous home runs just the day before (Saturday, September 27). His blast impressed many witnesses, including a number of players who later recalled it and reporters who wrote about it at the time. Most of the players, Homestead Grays manager Cumberland Posey, and Gibson himself all believed it was hit deep into the left field bullpen, perhaps hitting the back wall; Judy Johnson maintained that the ball “went over the stands, went over everything,” clear out of the park, but he was apparently alone in that belief.
The Grays and Lincoln Giants played a doubleheader on each day, Saturday and Sunday, as the conclusion of their series to determine the eastern championship. The famous home run happened in game two, Saturday; Gibson had already homered in the third inning of game one, a two-run opposite-field shot into the right field stands off Lincolns lefty Luther Farrell. Going into the ninth inning, the Grays led 8 to 5, but the Lincolns rallied for four to stun the Grays, 9 to 8.
In game two, though, the Grays jumped on Broadway Connie Rector for four runs in the first inning, and cruised to a 7 to 3 win. The four-run outburst in the first was keyed by two home runs, one by Vic Harris to right field, the other by rookie Josh Gibson, his second of the day.
Here are a few accounts of Gibson’s home run in the second game. The first is W. Rollo Wilson’s brief account of the game in the Pittsburgh Courier (October 4, 1930):
Here is the Baltimore Afro-American’s paragraph on the home run (October 4, 1930):
The Chicago Defender actually ran almost exactly the same story as the Afro-American—I am not sure which paper was reprinting from which, or whether they were both running the same wire story. In any case, the Defender’s version has one interesting difference:
To recap, Wilson in the Courier says it was hit “into the left field bleachers,” “the longest home run wallop of the year in Yankee Stadium,” over 430 feet.
The Afro-American agrees that it was hit into the left field bleachers and that it was the longest home run of the season in Yankee Stadium, but ups the distance to 460 feet.
The Defender says it was hit into the left field bleachers for 460 feet, but declares it “the longest home run that has ever been hit at the Yankee stadium by any player.”
I’ve got one more (very brief) account that I’ve never seen mentioned by anybody. It’s from the New York Amsterdam News (October 1, 1930), which published detailed batter-by-batter descriptions of both Saturday games. Here is the Grays’ first inning:
So, contradicting the Courier and Afro-American/Defender accounts, as well as Lincoln players Bill Holland and Larry Brown, Josh Gibson himself, and Cumberland Posey, the Amsterdam News has the ball hit on a bounce into the center field bleachers—what today would be a ground rule double. Such hits were, through 1930, counted as home runs. (I’ve seen several described in accounts of Negro league games in the 1920s.)
As it happens, such “ground rule home runs” were eliminated from the major league rules the following off-season, as described in the Chicago Tribune (December 13, 1930):
And in the New York Times, same date:
I don’t know whether or not the Negro leagues followed suit with this rule change. In any case, it is a little astonishing to think that the same hit could be described by one observer as bouncing into the center field stands, and others as going into the left field bleachers or bullpen, and by yet another as leaving the park entirely. Honestly, absent someone digging up some old footage somewhere, we will probably never know exactly where it landed.
View of Yankee Stadium down the left field line during the 1927 World Series.
UPDATE 5/6/2011 The grandstand was extended around into left field in 1928, so the photo above is not what Josh Gibson would have seen when he went to bat against Connie Rector in September 1930.
UPDATE 5/7/2011Here is a photo showing what left field in Yankee Stadium looked like in 1930.
UPDATE 5/14/2011 And here’s an aerial view of Yankee Stadium in the late 1920s, after the 1928 renovation. This probably gives you the best idea of the park’s configuration in the area of the left field bullpen.
As I mentioned the other day, it turns out that the current Josh Gibson Field (formerly Ammon Field) is actually a block west of the old Ammon Field where Gibson played his earliest professional baseball for the Crawfords in 1929 and 1930.
Here is the 1929 City of Pittsburgh Geodetic and Topographic Survey, courtesy of Historic Pittsburgh, showing Ammon Playground at the intersection of Somers St. and Bedford Ave., just a couple of blocks west of the future location of Greenlee Field. While the two baseball parks coexisted, they were separated only by a small residential block and by Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.
And here is the 1959 survey, showing the Ammon Playgrounds moved west to the current location of Josh Gibson Field, now at the intersection of Kirkpatrick St. and Bedford Ave.
Ammon Field, part of a larger city recreational park that included tennis courts and two baseball diamonds, served as the home field for the Pittsburgh Crawfords as well as a number of other professional or semiprofessional teams from 1928 to 1932, when Greenlee Field was built. After that it seemed to fall out of use even for semipro teams and other athletic activities; hardly a mention of Ammon Field appears in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1936 and 1937.
Then one night in June 1938 the bodies of a couple were found behind Ammon Field, evidently robbed and killed by a spurned suitor who had been stalking the young woman. Witnesses described the assailant and his accomplices fleeing down “Wesley row” and turning onto “Fonville street” (Panola St. in the 1929 map above, but Fonville in a 1923 map) west toward Kirkpatrick. That is, they ran through what is now Josh Gibson Field, but what was then still a grid of short streets.
The Courier helpfully printed a map of Ammon Field, with Wesley St. mislabeled “Ridgeway,” which was actually the dirt road that ran behind the recreational park. You can see the curve of Bigelow Boulevard at the top of the map and Chauncey Street in the lower right (though Somers Street is not shown).
The following month it was announced that the Pittsburgh Housing Authority would be acquiring Greenlee Field as well as “other parcels of real estate contiguous” to the ballpark (Courier, July 23, 1938), which eventually included the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, in order to construct a new low-cost housing project. At some point that same year it was decided to annex the Ammon Playgrounds to what would become Bedford Dwellings. Apparently the city promised to build a new park and recreational center on the land directly to the west of the old Ammon Field.
But two and a half years later in January 1941, as the new Ammon Recreational Center at the corner of Bedford and Kirkpatrick was nearing completion, nothing had been done about the park and baseball field that was supposed to adjoin it.
(Pittsburgh Courier, January 18, 1941)
There’s quite a bit in the Courier through 1941 about continuing efforts to get the city to do something about a new park. While the details are still unclear to me, by 1945 the new Ammon Playgrounds had been built, and the baseball field was serving as home to the semipro Pittsburgh Monarchs.
So, to sum up: the current Josh Gibson Field is not literally where Josh Gibson played his earliest professional games, and the Bedford Dwellings housing project now sits on ground formerly occupied by not one but two historic baseball parks (as well as an historic cemetery).
The other day I ran across this item from the Zanesville [Ohio] Signal (July 29, 1938), which gives a rather blasé account of the greatest batting day in Negro League history (with no box score attached). I don’t have anything particular to say about it, other than to point out just how stunning it is that such an event passed almost without notice, even by the local paper. It was about the only local sporting event of any note that day; the big headline on the sports page was about an injury to Lefty Grove, then playing for the (Boston) Red Sox. (And yes, I noticed the crazy claim that Gibson averaged 10 home runs a week...)
I’m not a card collector (or
any kind of collector), but the idea of Negro League baseball cards is very
intriguing, and I thought this
was cool (from Old Cardboard eNews):
The earliest (and the only
known) individual player card from the playing days of Negro League Hall of
Famer Joshua Gibson was recently unveiled by Robert Edward Auctions. The real
photo postcard is slated for sale in the company's Spring 2005 auction. The
card's historic significance is almost certain to make it not only the highest
valued baseball postcard, but the highest valued postcard ever sold at public
Gibson's rare autograph on both the front
and back of the card will also make it extremely attractive to autograph
collectors as well. In addition to the authenticated autographs, a salutation
found on the reverse is personalized to fellow Negro League catcher Joe Lewis.