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.
Johnson is pitching for the Santa Ana Yellow Sox, with none other than Chick Gandil at second base, and the Cardinals’ Rube Ellis in left field. Perhaps the most notable player on this edition of the Salt Lake City Occidentals is Bill Pettus, who in my opinion deserves to be mentioned alongside Ben Taylor and maybe Julián Castillo when we talk about the best black first basemen of the deadball era (although here Pettus is in right field).
•October 5, 1913, Island Park, Schenectady—Johnson, pitching for the “All Americans” (a team of mostly minor leaguers), lost a five-inning game to Frank Wickware and Schenectady Mohawk Giants, 1 to 0.
•October 11, 1914, Lenox Oval, Harlem—Johnson, pitching for the NYC Fire Department “Smoke Eaters,” lost to Gunboat Thompson and the Lincoln Stars 2 to 0.
There was at least one more occasion on which Walter Johnson faced black opposition. This time it was on the west coast. On October 18, 1908, Johnson, pitching for the Olives, or Olive Giants, champions of Orange County, faced the little-heralded Los Angeles Giants at Joy Park. The Big Train was overpowering, striking out 20 Giants in 10 1/3 innings—but the Giants capitalized on six errors by Johnson’s teammates to send the game into extra innings, then pushed across a run in the bottom of the 11th to win, 6 to 5.
William McNeil reproduces a partial box score for this game in his book The California Winter League (on pp. 28-29). Today Todd Peterson sent me the original box score from the Los Angeles Herald, so I thought I’d post it:
(Los Angeles Herald, October 19, 1908, p. 7)
Here are the Los Angeles Giants:
(Los Angeles Herald, October 25, 1908, p. 24)
The Los Angeles Giants remain a truly obscure team. Their best-known player was probably a pitcher named Bud Clark, who also played for the Salt Lake City Occidentals around this time. In the Olives/L.A. Giants game Clark nearly matched Johnson, allowing only 2 hits in 8 innings and striking out 10 batters himself. Thus he became the first of (at least) three black pitchers to defeat Walter Johnson.
Bill Staples has done some great work on the Walter Johnson vs. Lincoln Giants game at Olympic Field, Harlem, on October 15, 1911, concentrating on something that I wasn’t really paying any attention to: the fact that the first game of the A’s/Giants World Series was played in New York the day before, on Saturday, October 14. Together with a little more research I did this morning, this gives us a fuller view of the context surrounding that game.
The Philadelphia Athletics had tuned up for the Series with three exhibition games against a team of American League All Stars organized by the Washington Nationals’ manager Jimmy McAleer. The All Stars featured Walter Johnson, Gabby Street, and several other players from McAleer’s Washington squad, along with Ty Cobb and George Mullin from the Tigers, Hal Chase from the New York Highlanders, and a trio of Red Sox—Smokey Joe Wood, Larry Gardner, and Ray Collins.
In Washington on October 10, Jack Coombs, Eddie Plank, and Chief Bender of the Athletics combined to beat Walter Johnson, 3 to 2. The next day, in Richmond, Virginia, the All Stars turned the tables in a 13 to 8 slugfest, and on October 12 back in Philadelphia, the A’s, using three second-string pitchers, edged Smokey Joe Wood and the All Stars 3 to 2.
On the evidence of this exhibition series, McAleer declared the A’s favorites over the Giants in the upcoming World Series:
(“Athletics His Choice,” Washington Post, October 13, 1911, p. 8)
On Friday, October 13, McAleer’s All Stars went to Baltimore to face the Eastern League’s Orioles. Again Walter Johnson pitched, striking out 11 and walking none, to win 7 to 1. The Orioles’ ace Rube Vickers (32-14 in the Eastern League that year) had been loaned to the New York Giants to pitch on the final day of the regular season against the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 12, but Orioles’ owner Jack Dunn recalled him to work in the exhibition game, no doubt counting on the marquee matchup to swell attendance.
The next day, Johnson, Street, and McAleer were all in New York for the start of the World Series, among a long list of luminaries (both baseball-related and not). Then on Sunday, Johnson and Street played for the “All-Leaguers” against the Lincoln Giants. This means, by the way, that after the regular season’s conclusion Walter Johnson pitched three complete games in six days.
Bill sent a couple of additional reports about the All-Leaguers-Lincoln Giants game. The New York Times account calls the “All-Leaguers” the “All Stars”:
(New York Times, October 16, 1911)
And the Washington Times reports that in the third inning Walter Johnson smacked a foul ball that hit his teammate Bliss sitting on the bench, breaking his nose and sending him to Harlem Hospital.
(Washington Times, October 16, 1911, p. 10)
Bill suggests that the All-Leaguers were not a local white semipro team, but rather a team of major and minor leaguers, many of them perhaps in town for the World Series. The outfielder Mack, for example, could be Connie Mack’s son Earle, who played briefly for Scranton that year; the unfortunate Bliss could be Cardinals catcher Jack Bliss.
Here are the rest of Bill’s comments:
“Johnson is teammates with white players, not black players, so technically he is not a Negro Leaguer. Most likely the “playing WITH Negro Leaguers story” was misremembered by Johnson, or was a misinterpretation by Povich in 1939. I wonder if Johnson is blending memories of two different games: 1) A game where Gabby Street, “the southerner,” played in the 1911 game vs. Lincoln Giants; and 2) Another game vs. Negro Leaguers where Home Run Johnson hit a HR off of him.
“Also, given that Ty Cobb played for Walter Johnson's All Stars just a few days before, and the fact that some stars are in NY for Game 1 of the WS, I don’t think it is out of the realm of possibility that “Wagner, ss” is in fact “The White Pop Lloyd,” Honus Wagner. If so, this game puts Lloyd and Wagner on the same field of competition. I don't know much about either player, but have read that the two respected each other as players ... and I had never heard of the two of them competing head to head. So if this is Honus, the box score you found is significant.”
Incidentally, it was John Holway (in his Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues—I don’t have a page reference handy) who suggested that the shortstop Wagner in this game was Honus Wagner. I was initially skeptical because 1) nothing I’ve seen (yet) mentions Honus; 2) there were other infielders named Wagner around at the time (most notably Heinie Wagner of the Red Sox, but also a couple of minorleaguers); and 3) Honus had been hobbled by a serious injury in early September (much cited at the time as one of the main reasons the Pirates lost the pennant)—but he had returned to the Pirates’ lineup by mid-September, so this doesn’t rule him out. If anybody knows for sure, drop me a line.
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 lead 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.
“I think the Eshen listed in the boxscore for the All-Americans is Jim Eschen, who would eventually play 10 games for the 1915 Cleveland Indians. He was an up-and-coming player in 1913. The Yankees had signed him and sent him to Jersey City in the International League where he mostly played left field. 1913 was his rookie year in Organized Baseball. According to the December 20, 1913 Sporting Life, he was going to go to camp with the Yankees in Houston for the spring of 1914.”
If you remember anything about Frank Wickware and his 1913 team the Schenectady Mohawk Giants it’s likely to be Wickware’s 1 to 0 defeat of Walter Johnson in an exhibition game on October 5 of that year. This was Walter Johnson at the height of his powers, the year he went 36-7 for the Washington Senators with a 1.14 ERA. Both Wickware and Johnson were born only a few months apart (Johnson on November 6. 1887, Wickware on March 18, 1888) in the southeast corner of Kansas; both were often linked to Coffeyville, though Johnson was born and grew up outside of Humboldt, while it appears that Wickware was from Girard, though he may later have moved to Coffeyville.
Walter Johnson and Frank Wickware. Note that Wickware is called “Smoky Joe” Wickware by the Schenectady Gazette in 1913, several years before the nickname was attached to Cyclone Joe Williams (who, incidentally, started the year with the Mohawks).
The game only went five innings (45 minutes!), perhaps by prior agreement with Johnson, who had just thrown 346 innings in 48 games for the Nationals. (The Schenectady Gazette said it was called due to darkness.) His team had been advertised as consisting of American League players (thus, presumably, the moniker “All-Americans”), but I’ve had a hard time tracking them down. The only ones I know for sure are Fred Jacklitsch, a 38-year-old former Phillies catcher, playing for Rochester of the International League that year, and Paul Dietz, shortstop for Harrisburg of the Tri-State League and later a fixture on the East Coast semipro scene. It seems safe to say that Johnson was backed by a minor league team—and not a high-level minor league team, either.
Yet Johnson hardly needed them. He struck out 11 in five innings. Of his 62 pitches, only nine were called balls, and the All-Americans did not manage a single assist. The Mohawks made only two hits, both ground rule doubles that went over the crowds standing in the outfield, one to left, one to center. (You have to wonder just how close the fans were standing.)
Wickware, by contrast, was pretty good, but not overpowering. He fanned five but walked three, allowed five hits (including two to Johnson), and hit a batter. Still, he succeed in working his way out of trouble, and scraped through with the five-inning win.
Here’s the Schenectady Gazette’s account of the game (October 6, 1913; click to enlarge).