November 29, 2014

The 1928 Negro National League Championship: St. Louis’ Forgotten World Champions

July 15, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

The following is from the unpublished manuscript LOST LEAGUES: The 1928 Negro National and Eastern Colored Leagues. An article based on this manuscript appeared in the SABR publication “Mound City Memories.”

On Sunday afternoon, October 7, 1928, at Sportsman’s Park, the St. Louis Cardinals were about to play the New York Yankees in the third game of the 1928 World Series, finding themselves already down two games to none. This was the “Murderers Row” Yankees, with Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Combs, Hoyt, Pennock, etc. They played in pitcher-friendly Yankee Stadium. The Yankees had won three American League pennants in a row, and were the reigning World Champions.

The Cardinals had won just their second pennant in three years and would win three more in the next six. The 1928 Red Bird squad included Hall of Fame players Frankie Frisch, Pete Alexander, Jim Bottomley, Jesse Haines, Chick Hafey, and Rabbit Maranville. They played in hitter-friendly Sportsman’s Park. The St. Louis Browns had actually been the more popular team in town through 1925, and being in the smallest two team major league market, the Cardinals averaged only 10,000 fans per date in this pennant-winning season, with the largest single gate topping 38,000. But they would go on to be swept by the Yankees, making them a somewhat “forgotten” team compared to the world championship clubs of 1926, 1931, and 1934. This team is not, however, the “forgotten champions” of this book. And no, it’s not the Browns, either. St. Louis’s forgotten champions of 1928 are the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League.

On the same Friday as World Series Game 2 in Yankee Stadium, at Stars Park, 1.7 miles south of Sportsman’s Park, the Stars defeated the Chicago American Giants in Game 9 of the Negro National League (NNL) championship, taking the series five games to four. Like the Yankees, the American Giants had won back-to-back pennants. In addition, they had beaten the Eastern Colored League champion Bacharach Giants in the Negro League World Series each time. In 1928 they had won the second half of the NNL’s split season. Similar to the Yanks, they were considered a team for the ages, featuring stars like Willie Foster, Willie Powell, Pythias Russ, Floyd “Jelly” Gardner, Walter “Steel Arm” Davis, and Dave Malarcher. They played in pitcher-friendly Schloring Park, also known as South Side Park when it was home to the Chicago White Sox from 1901 through 1910.

The Stars, by winning the first half of the 1928 NNL split season, had won their very first title of any kind. They would finish second in 1929, and then regain the NNL Pennant in 1930. And in 1931 they won the first half and were leading in the second half when the league folded in August. The 1928 team was led by James “Cool Papa” Bell, Willie Wells, George “Mule” Suttles, Wilson “Frog” Redus, and Ted “Stringbean” Trent. They played in hitter-friendly Stars Park. On weekends when they played league games, the Stars would draw several thousand fans, with high attendances around 7,000.

The Wild World Series in Chicago

With the Eastern Colored League disbanding in early 1928, there would be no Negro League World Series, so the winner of the NNL playoff would be the de facto World Champion of Negro League baseball. The first 4 games would be in Chicago, with the remaining games, up to 5, to be played in St. Louis.

In Game 1 on Saturday, September 22, St. Louis pitched John Williams against Willie Foster of Chicago. Both men were considered team ‘aces’ even though Trent of St. Louis and Powell of Chicago actually were more effective over the season. Chicago scored two runs in the bottom of the first, largely thanks to two St. Louis errors. A key play occurred in the top of the fourth when Mule Suttles led off with a triple off the center field fence but was out trying to stretch it into an inside-the-park home run. The Mule came across the plate standing up instead of sliding. Chicago added single runs in the fourth, fifth and seventh to lead, 5 –0. The Stars rallied in the 8th when Spoony Palm and Jim Taylor had back to back pinch hit singles and, after Cool Papa Bell fouled out, Branch Russell tripled off the scoreboard. After Wells made the second out, Suttles delivered a double to left, cutting the lead to 5-3. However, after St. Louis relief pitcher Roosevelt Davis gave up two runs in the bottom of the eighth, Foster closed out the Stars in the ninth, and Game 1 belonged to Chicago 7-3.

Game 2 was played on Sunday, September 23, with the two “real” aces, Trent and Powell both pitching complete games. The weather was extremely cold with few fans in attendance. Powell held the Stars to three hits (only one in the first seven innings) fanning eight, as Chicago won, 3-0. Once again a key play involved Stars making outs on the bases. Down 1-0 in the top of the second, Suttles reached on an error by second baseman Charles Williams. After Redus flied out to center, Dewey Creasy singled Suttles to third with one out. With the hit-and-run on, Henry Williams grounded to third baseman Dave Malarcher, who threw home to get Suttles. Creasy kept going from first toward third but was thrown out to complete a 5-2-5 double play.

Game 3 on Monday, September 24th had Slap Hensley pitching against Harold Treadwell. St. Louis scored in the top of the first on a lead-off bunt single by Bell, a balk, and two-out single by Suttles. St. Louis added two in the second, but Chicago cut the lead to 3-2 with a pair in their third. One in the fourth and two in the sixth made it a 6-2, St. Louis, and knocked Treadwell out. Two in the bottom of the sixth cut the deficit to 6-4 before Chicago batted in the seventh. With one out Walter Davis and Pythias Russ singled, putting runners on first and third. Russ took off for second on a steal attempt, but the Stars threw to third instead and caught Davis off. In the bottom of the ninth, the top of the Chicago top order started a rally as Stanford Jackson reached on an error by second baseman John Henry Russell, and after Hines popped up to shortstop, Davis singled Jackson to second. Russ flied to center with Jackson tagging up and going to third. Davis then stole second to put the tying runs in scoring position. However, Hensley got Sandy Thompson to fly to center, and the Stars had their first playoff win ever.

The final game in Chicago came on Tuesday, September 25th, with Luther McDonald going for the Stars, while Chicago brought Foster back on two days rest. This would prove to be the key game of the series. St. Louis broke on top again in the first when Bell reached on a two-base error by Charlie Williams, went to third on an infield out and, after a walk to Wells, scored on a single to right by Suttles. In the second J. Russell doubled to drive home Palm and give the visitors a 2-0 lead. In the bottom of the inning, Bell diffused a Chicago rally by throwing out Hawkins trying to advance from first to third on a Williams’ single. But in the third, Davis hit a three-run homer to give the home team a 3-2 lead. It would be the ONLY home run hit in the four games in Schloring Park. St. Louis came right back in the fourth when Palm was hit by a pitch leading off and J. Russell’s drive to right was misplayed by Davis into a double. Foster fanned McDonald and Bell, but Branch Russell grounded a single to left to drive in two runs. Russell took second on the throw home, and Wells singled him in to make it 5-3, St. Louis.

With this lead, St. Louis Manager Jim Taylor pulled McDonald in favor of his best pitcher, Trent, who had pitched a complete game two days before. He did not get off to a good start, Williams doubling with one out and Malarcher reaching on a bobble and late throw by J. Russell. Disgusted by the safe call, Suttles spiked the ball, which rolled away while Williams scored on the second error. Foster sacrificed Malarcher to second and Jackson followed with a single to center. Malarcher headed for home, but then reversed field and scrambled back to third while Jackson took second on the throw home. Hines then lined to right, where Branch Russell made a shoe-top, somersaulting catch to save two runs and preserve the Stars’ lead. After the fourth, Foster and Trent matched zeroes to the end, Foster allowing only one more hit, and Trent allowing just two more. The Stars’ 5-4 victory evened the series at two games each heading to St. Louis for the final three, four, or five games.

One key player would not be making the trip. Chicago’s young pitching star Willie Powell had come home with his wife Monday night and proceeded to get into some sort of argument with her. Powell’s father-in-law also lived in the house, and he shot Willie, sending him to the hospital and leaving the American Giants with only four pitchers: Foster, Treadwell, George Harney and Eddie Miller.

The Willie Wells World Series in St. Louis

When the series shifted to St. Louis, the difference in parks was easy to see. Stars Park was very hitter-friendly. The left-field line was barely 250 feet to the fence and cut straight across. Beyond the street lay a street-car garage and many home runs landed on the roof of this “car barn.” In the four games in Chicago the two teams had combined for 32 runs and just one home run. In five St. Louis games they would amass 76 runs with 14 homers!

After a travel day on Wednesday and rainouts on both Thursday and Friday, Game 5 took place on Saturday, September 29, with Hensley facing Foster, who was already making his third start. Chicago batted around in the first, scoring three runs, and Wells countered with the Stars’ first homer of the series in the bottom of the inning. St. Louis tied the game with single runs in the fourth and fifth, but Pythias Russ homered in the eighth, and Chicago added an insurance run in the ninth. Foster went the distance, allowing eight hits, for a 5-3 victory and a 3-2 Chicago lead in the series.

Game 6 on Sunday, September 30 attracted a “capacity crowd” (somewhere over 7,000) to see Trent against Treadwell, who had been knocked out in Game 3. This time Trent was batted around as Chicago moved out to a 6-1 lead through the top of the fourth, threatening to take an insurmountable lead in the game and the series. But then the Stars then came alive, knocking out Treadwell and continuing on Miller for six runs on four walks and three singles. John Williams relieved Trent in the fifth and allowed Chicago to tie the game in the sixth. But then in the home half of the sixth Suttles hit a bases-loaded double, and two batters later Creasy unloaded a home run, giving St. Louis a five run lead. Williams threw scoreless relief the rest of the way, and the 12-7 Stars victory evened the series again.

Monday had another rainout, so Game 7 came on Tuesday, October 2. The layoff allowed Trent to come back after his four inning stint on Sunday and Foster to start for the fourth time. Chicago opened with three in the top of the first, and St. Louis countered with two in the bottom, thanks to a Wells home run. The Stars tied the game in the second and then scored four more in fourth, with Wells hitting another homer. The American Giants had a two-run rally in the fifth and scored another in the sixth to trim the Stars’ lead to 7-6 as Trent and Foster were replaced by Hensley and Treadwell. In the ninth Chicago tied the score on a squeeze play, and the game went to extra innings. With John Williams on the mound in the 11th for St. Louis, reserve catcher Mitchell Murray, who had been waived by the Stars in May, hit a two-run home run onto the roof of the car barn to give Chicago a 9-7 victory, and putting them one win away from the championship.

Another rainout pushed Game 8 to Thursday, October 4, and allowed the managers to start Slap Hensley and Harold Treadwell. Both had pitched in relief in Game 7, and Treadwell had started Game 6! It turned out badly for Chicago, as the Stars scored six runs the first inning and two more in the second. Chicago got three in the third, but St. Louis answered with three of their own in the bottom half to make the score 11-3. The final was 19-4, with the Stars raking Treadwell and Harney for 18 hits. Pitcher Hensley, Henry Williams and Wells homered for the victors, Wells for the fourth time in four games.

So the stage was set for the decisive Game 9 on Friday, October 5, Trent vs. Foster. About 1,000 fans showed up to root for the Stars and they got to cheer early and often as the Stars scored a run in the first and were never headed thereafter. Trent, using his sidearm delivery and an occasional submarine ball, pitched in and out of trouble. He scattered nine hits but walked no one, striking out seven, with third-out strikeouts with men on base in each of the first four innings of the game. But the star of the day was Wille Wells. He dazzled in the field, accepting six difficult chances, including an amazing one-handed stab of a liner. And his hitting was even better. He scored the first run in the first inning after reaching on a fielder’s choice, and homered in the two run third. His three-run round-tripper in the four-run sixth put the game out of reach, and he might have had another home run in the eighth if the base coach had not held him up at third. As it was, he settled for a run-scoring triple, and then scored his fourth run of the game moments later. After crossing the plate, he gleefully snatched dollar bills poked through the screen to him by excited admirers. Pythias Russ, who went three for three plus a hit-by-pitch and stolen base in the game, homered for Chicago in the eighth for Chicago’s only scoring, and the final count was St. Louis-9-Chicago-2. The heavily worked Foster pitched all 8 innings, giving up the 7 runs on 10 hits, striking out 7 and walking 5.

At the end of the game the rival players congenially shook hands with one another. Then the Stars’ booster club presented the players with gifts, Wells, Redus, Bell and manager Taylor getting travel bags. Taylor also received another “gift” when NNL president W. C. Hueston told him that at $25 fine imposed in July was “hereby remitted.”

On that same day in New York, the Cardinals were beaten by the Yankees again, and then they were beaten twice back home to lose the World Series in a sweep. But while the Cards could not beat the Yanks and bring a 1928 championship to St. Louis, the Stars dethroned the back-to-back champion American Giants, claiming their first of three championships in the Mound City. Eventually Cool Papa Bell, Willie Wells, and Mule Suttles would be recognized by the Hall of Fame for their individual greatness, but the great 1928 St. Louis Stars team has remained largely forgotten – until now.

Click here to see the 1928 NNL Playoffs Statistics


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