New to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database: the 1931 eastern black teams. Once again, there was no league on the east coast. As in the case of 1930, we are at this time including only games between these independent eastern clubs, so the Homestead Grays and the Cuban House of David, who played western NNL teams extensively, aren’t fully represented yet. The NNL’s Cleveland Cubs also toured the east coast, so most of the teams here have at least a few games against top black teams that aren’t yet counted.
The ’31 Grays are commonly cited as one of the great teams in Negro league history. To a core that included Oscar Charleston (.319/.379/.513), Joe Williams (3-1. 1.80), George Scales (.308/.368/.548), and the 19-year-old Josh Gibson (.287/.353/.548), owner/manager Cum Posey added Jud Wilson from the Baltimore Black Sox and lights-out leftander Willie Foster from the Chicago American Giants, along with catcher/pitcher Double Duty Radcliffe from the Detroit Stars. Wilson tore up eastern pitching to the tune of a .422 average in 23 games, while Foster went 4-2 with a 2.89 ERA.
In games purely between the eastern teams, however, the Grays finished behind the Hilldale Club, who went 30-11 (although the Grays did beat the Hilldales 4 games to 3 in head-to-head matchups). In 1930 Hilldale, with longtime owner Ed Bolden deposed, had hemorrhaged players and collapsed, managing only 7 wins against black professional teams. This year a new owner, Johnny Drew, lured Judy Johnson back from his job captaining the 1930 Grays to rescue the team. As his first order of business, he retained Biz Mackey and installed him at his best position, catcher. Mackey rewarded him with a .373/.448/.536 performance. Johnson also brought back old favorites Martín Dihigo (.306/.414/.519), Porter Charleston (6-1, 2.86), and Chaney White (.290), and signed Rap Dixon from the Black Sox (.234, 5 triples) and Walter Cannady (.314/.399/.446) and slick-fielding basketball star Bill Yancey (.276) from the defunct Lincoln Giants. Hilldale might have done even better if submarine ace Webster McDonald (4-0, 0.97) hadn’t spent most of the summer playing for a white independent team in Little Falls, Minnesota.
One of the most established institutions in black baseball disappeared in 1931. The New York Lincoln Giants, originally founded by the McMahon brothers back in 1911, did not field a team. Ironically they were the victims of their own success. The year before the Lincolns had played the Baltimore Black Sox in a July doubleheader in Yankee Stadium, the first games between black teams in that august venue. The games were a huge success (and were repeated in September during the championship series with the Homestead Grays), but afterwards the Lincolns fans, according to W. Rollo Wilson of the Pittsburgh Courier, “stayed away from the Protectory Oval in large numbers, refusing to go to that bandbox park after seeing their favorites work on a real diamond.” To top it off, the team’s owner, James Keenan, was bitterly disappointed by the loss of championship honors to the Grays. He publicly criticized his players and fired his manager, the venerable Pop Lloyd, further alienating the fans.
Within a few weeks of the end of the 1930 season, there was already talk of a new team arising in New York, one that was seeking Yankee Stadium as its permanent home. It was financed by the famous dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and his agent, the theatrical promoter Marty Forkins. Their first move, after securing a venue, was to hire John Henry Lloyd as manager. Lloyd convinced a number of his Lincolns players to join him. By April Keenan, facing the prospect of playing to diminished crowds with a drastically weakened team, had thrown in the towel. The Lincoln Giants of Cyclone Joe Williams, Dick Redding, Spot Poles, Bill Pettus, and many other stars, were no more.
In their place Forkins, Robinson, and Lloyd originally intended to present a club called the Black or Colored Yankees. This name was reportedly scotched by New York Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham, who objected because some of their home games were to be played in the Polo Grounds. It was also claimed that the Yankees themselves opposed the name, for whatever reason. The next idea, to call the team the “Brown Buddies,” mercifully died long before any games were played. Lloyd settled on “New York All Stars,” noting that “New York has been fed up on ‘Giants’ for the past quarter of a century, and as we are all going on the diamond to play baseball, a name devoid of any suggestion of clowning will be something that will mean much to the team” (Philadelphia Tribune, April 16, 1931, p. 10). The team’s warmup jackets were emblazoned “N. Y.,” but they still ended up most often referred to as the Harlem Stars.
They also went into business with Nat Strong, whose booking empire controlled independent baseball on the east coast. He had been for many years a very controversial figure among African American baseball men. Now, with Strong in charge of booking the Harlem Stars, other managers became reluctant to schedule games with them, despite their access to the big ballparks. Cum Posey categorically refused to bring his powerhouse Grays to New York City. In the absence of a league and a steady flow of quality opponents, the Stars drew poorly, and by the end of the season the team was tottering financially.
The slugger John Beckwith had been slated to take over for Lloyd as Lincoln Giants manager, but when Keenan withdrew from the field, Beckwith was snapped up by the Baltimore Black Sox. Beck continued to hit in Baltimore, but he was the only real bright spot for the Dark Hose, who continued their gradual downward slide from the heights of 1929.
The promoter Syd Pollock, based in Tarrytown (on the Hudson River in Westchester County, just north of New York City), had for some years been operating a traveling team called the Havana Red Sox. Pollock worked the same upstate New York barnstorming circuit as Pop Watkins’s old Havana Red Sox, and probably took the name from them. Watkins’s team, however, featured no actual Cubans, whereas Pollock used both Cuban and U.S. players on his rosters. Some of the Americans played under silly fake “Spanish” names, southpaw Barney Brown turning out as “Brownez,” and Johnnie Bob Dixon as “Dixonez.”
In 1930 Abel Linares, owner of the western Cuban Stars for many years, passed away, and his manager, Tinti Molina, found himself unable to field a team in the U.S. for the 1931 season. Pollock saw an opening, and decided to combine the Cuban marketing hook with another well-known baseball brand, the House of David, the religious sect from Benton Harbor, Michigan, that famously fielded teams of bearded players. The “Cuban House of David” had no connection with the actual House of David, but Pollock apparently did get his players to grow “a great assortment of side-burns, mutton-chops, flowing-beards and what not in hirsute adornment” (Altoona Tribune, May 25, 1931, p. 10). And although John Henry Lloyd might have wished otherwise, the Cuban House of David was dedicated to keeping alive the old tradition of clowning; during the off-season the players were said to be hard at work back in Cuba practicing shadowball and other comedy routines.
In Pittsburgh the Homestead Grays were served notice by an upstart sandlot team calling themselves the Crawford Giants. Their owner, the gambling king Gus Greenlee, had ambitions that extended way beyond the Pittsburgh area. His money brought in some established figures, including southpaw Sam Streeter and Rube Foster’s old shortstop Bobby Williams as manager. The Crawford Giants were still using a city playground, Ammon Field, as their home park, where they had to collect “donations” rather than charge for tickets. In 1932 Greenlee’s team would lose the “Giants” and gain a new, purpose-built park.
Satchel Paige spent much of the season with the NNL’s Cleveland Cubs, but halfway through the year he began exhibiting signs of entering the “hired gun” phase of his career. In August he took the mound for the Crawford Giants, and in September appeared briefly for the Homestead Grays.
Among the refugees from the demise of the Lincoln Giants was Charlie “Chino” Smith, who joined Nat Strong’s Brooklyn Royal Giants, a team that was gradually withdrawing from big-time blackball into the barnstorming life. He spent the whole season with them, and was still batting third and playing right field in September. Before the winter was out he would be dead of stomach cancer.
Along with the Lincolns, black baseball lost its most peculiar setting, the Catholic Protectory Oval, a tiny field wedged between Gothic buildings at an orphanage in the Bronx. This had an effect on statistics. Nearly a third of the games between eastern teams we included in the database for 1930 were played at the Protectory. Negro league teams batted .347/.419/.531 in these games, as opposed to .297/.356/.417 at all other parks combined. The Lincoln Giants hit .381 at home. In 1931, the overall averages are .264/.323/.363. The loss of the Protectory doesn’t account for all of the big drop in offense we see from 1930 to 1931, but it is obviously a huge factor.
One more note on 1931: we haven’t chosen to include games involving the Bacharach Giants, Newark Browns, or Providence Colored Giants. These teams are all right on the knife’s edge between inclusion and exclusion. Other sources do include at least Newark and the Bacharachs, and it’s possible that after further review we will count them in the future.
On deck for the DB: the 1932 East-West League, 1901/02 and 1924/25 Cuban League, and much more.