In 1925 the Hilldale Club got its revenge on the Kansas City Monarchs, with the help of a toddler wielding a sewing needle.
The year before, the Monarchs had ridden their luck to a thrilling 5 games to 4 victory in the first Colored World Series. In 1925 Hilldale won the ECL after a close race with Oscar Charleston’s Harrisburg Giants, and first-half winners Monarchs won the NNL’s first championship series over second-half champions St. Louis to set up a World Series rematch. But the Monarchs entered the Series short-handed and demoralized. Their star pitcher/outfielder, Bullet Rogan, had put in possibly his greatest overall season, going 15-2 with a 1.74 ERA on the mound, while batting .360/.424/.592. In the playoffs he was even more dominant, batting .450 and winning all three of his starts in the best-of-seven series.
But, just before traveling to the east coast to start the showdown with Hilldale, he was playing on the floor with his young son, Wilbur, Jr., who was just shy of a year old, when the child got hold of a needle and jabbed it into his father’s knee. When Bullet tried to pull it out, it broke off. He had to have surgery to remove it. He would miss the whole World Series.
Without him, the Monarchs crumpled, hitting just .216 as a team and dropping 5 out of 6 games. Hilldale were champions, led by former Monarchs Reuben Curry (2-0, 1.29) and George Carr (series-leading 6 RBI). Rogan’s opposite number, Hilldale’s southpaw ace James “Nip” Winters, was only needed to pitch one game (which he handily won). Nobody knew it at the time, but this would be the Eastern Colored League’s only World Series victory.
The newest addition to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database gives us the full 1925 season, including both the ECL and the NNL. The research that produced these numbers is the work of Larry Lester, Wayne Stivers, and our late friend Dick Clark of the Negro League Researchers and Authors Group, the project that compiled statistics for the Hall of Fame nearly a decade ago. Since then they have been correcting and adding to the original research; the 1924 and 1925 seasons we have included in the DB are the public’s first look at this second stage.
The Monarchs were largely unchanged from 1924. They added a rookie pitcher from Oklahoma named Nelson Dean (11-3, 2.74), and, in a deal probably driven by defensive and maybe wage concerns, traded Heavy Johnson, their best hitter over the previous three years, to the Baltimore Black Sox for center fielder Wade Johnston. While Heavy’s stats with the Black Sox (.333/.389/.548 ) would not quite match what he’d done for the Monarchs, he still outhit Johnston (.287/.357/.423) by quite a bit. In general the Monarchs’ hitting fell way off in 1925, as their batting average dropped 26 points, but their pitching and defense improved greatly.
The St. Louis Stars, the surprise winners of the second half who stretched the league championship series to a full seven games, were starting to piece together the great team that would dominate the league in its last few years (1928 to 1931). Cool Papa Bell was establishing himself as black baseball’s top speedster (30 known stolen bases in 87 games). First baseman Willie Bobo (.359/.452/.616, 14 home runs, 84 RBI) and 19-year-old outfielder Frog Redus (.372/.453/.624) led the offense. Roosevelt Davis (16-6, 4.45) and Slap Hensley (12-3, 4.35) headed up a pitching staff given the unenviable task of tamping down opposition offenses in Stars Park, with its 250-foot left field line.
Great performances around the rest of the Negro National League included that of the Detroit Stars’ Turkey Stearnes (.371/.439/.668), who drove in an astounding 126 runs in 94 games; his teammate Andy Cooper (12-2, 2.88); and Mule Suttles, who hit .331 with 10 home runs in spacious Rickwood Field for the Birmingham Black Barons.
Back east, Hilldale won their third straight pennant, as Winters (17-8., 3.02) continued his dominance, and offense came from all over the lineup, including Carr (.355/.409/.623), Judy Johnson in one of his finest seasons (.389/.431/.576), and Biz Mackey (.348/.427/.562). Their main challengers were the Harrisburg Giants. Oscar Charleston did everything he could to lift the Giants, a .500 team the year before, into contention, continuing his reign as the best everyday player in the Negro leagues by batting .427 with 20 home runs and driving in 97 runs. He got plenty of help from Walter Cannady (a .389-hitting shortstop with 13 homers and 86 RBI) and the young Rap Dixon (.352/.421/.512). However, Harrisburg’s pitching was not quite up to the task.
The previous year’s runners-up, the Baltimore Black Sox, started the season with high hopes. The addition of Heavy Johnson gave them a murderers’ trio of hitters, including Jud Wilson (.377/.428/.592) and John Beckwith (.408/.478/.732). Unfortunately for the Sox, the rest of their lineup was nowhere near this standard. Beckwith was made player-manager; his predecessor, the venerable Pete Hill, became business manager and occasional pinch-hitter. In late July the Black Sox were in third place, falling behind but still within striking distance, when Beckwith got involved in an altercation with an umpire during a tense series in Harrisburg, and left town before the last game was played when he was charged with assault and battery. The league suspended Beckwith for a month. Shortly thereafter he was removed as manager. Hill stepped in as caretaker, but the team, deprived of its best player, drifted out of contention and wound up just over .500 for the season.
Elsewhere in the ECL, the Bacharach Giants were stagnating a little despite the efforts of Rats Henderson (15-11, 3.82, with a Negro league-leading 125 strikeouts); their 41-year-old player-manager, John Henry Lloyd, was probably the team’s best player. The Washington Potomacs moved to Wilmington, Delaware, fired Ben Taylor as manager, and replaced him with Danny McClellan; none of these moves helped much, as the team won fewer than a third of its games and folded before the end of the season. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Giants, one of the east coast’s traditional powerhouses, hit rock bottom. In May, their ace pitcher, Dave Brown, apparently shot and killed a man. He fled justice and became a fugitive; he is known to have pitched under a false name in the west, but his ultimate fate remains unknown. Hampered by his absence, the Lincoln Giants could not put together a pitching staff capable of dealing with the Catholic Protectory Oval’s tiny dimensions. When manager Judy Gans was sacked, the Giants’ best player, George Scales, also left, and the Lincolns wound up with only seven wins for the whole ECL season.
Thanks go, again, to Dick, Larry, and Wayne, and also to Patrick Rock and Jim Overmyer (see his great book on the Bacharach Giants), who provided a huge amount of research on (respectively) Kansas City and Atlantic City.
Note on statistics: both 1924 and 1925 lack a few categories that we typically include, most notably full fielding numbers (though we do have games by position) and home runs allowed by pitchers. In the course of time we will gradually add these in (as we already have for the 1924 and 1925 world series).
Next up: the 1939 and 1940 seasons, both leagues. On deck: the 1918/19, 1919/20, and 1921/22 Cuban winter league seasons.