Negro Leagues DB Update: 1928 NNL & ECL
Today we add the 1928 Negro leagues to the DB. This was the year the Eastern Colored League fell apart, putting an end to the first edition of the Black World Series. Meanwhile the Negro National League continued with a split-season format. The St. Louis Stars won the first half going away; in the second half, the American Giants just edged the Stars and the Kansas City Monarchs, setting up an NNL championship series with St. Louis that would take the place of the World Series that year.
The problems that doomed the ECL in 1928 had roots going back several years, involving arguments about schedules, players, parks, umpires, and money. The first real warning signs cropped up in 1927, when the New York Lincoln Giants were kicked out of the ECL for signing the outfielder Estéban Montalvo away from the western Cuban Stars, thus violating the peace deal that had been in effect between the two leagues since 1924. The Lincolns were readmitted in spring 1928, in exchange for giving Montalvo back to the Cuban Stars. But then Harrisburg Giants owner Colonel Strothers decided he could no longer afford to bankroll his club, a perennial contender, and folded the team (though the Giants would return midway through 1928 with a less-distinguished roster). Soon after that Nat Strong‘s Brooklyn Royal Giants resigned from the league, and the next day Ed Bolden pulled his Hilldale Club, perhaps the ECL’s flagship franchise, out of the circuit. Even with the Lincolns back in the fold, the ECL was still reduced to four clubs.
A Philadelphia gangster named Smittie Lucas had put together a team he called the Eastern League Stars, an all-star team originally intended only for spring play. Desperate for more teams, especially one based in Philadelphia, the league admitted Lucas’s club—though he had to return most of his stars to their original teams, and the name of his outfit was eventually changed to the Philadelphia Tigers. Another new club, the Brooklyn Stars, failed to materialize. So the Eastern Colored League started the 1928 season with five teams.
Harmony didn’t last long. When the Harrisburg Giants left the league, their players were divvied up among the other clubs, and outfielders Rap Dixon and Fats Jenkins were awarded to Baltimore. While Dixon signed with the Black Sox, Jenkins refused, and started appearing for the Lincoln Giants under the pseudonym “Williams.” Other disagreements ensued involving the scheduling of games with independent clubs, particularly Hilldale, and by late May the Lincolns and Cuban Stars had left the league. Plans to replace them with Syd Pollock’s Havana Red Sox and other teams came to nothing, and the Eastern Colored League was finally through.
It’s not certain when exactly the league came to end, and no “final” standings were ever published. If games through May 20 are counted, then the Baltimore Black Sox ended with the best record at 9-3, with five of their wins coming against the Philadelphia Tigers. The teams continued to play each other (with the exception of the Black Sox and Lincoln Giants, where lingering bad feeling about the Jenkins incident kept them apart through the whole season). We’ve chosen to present the standings for all games played between the ECL clubs throughout the 1928 season. By this measure the Bacharach Giants, champions in 1926 and 1927, took the virtual 1928 ECL pennant as well, with an 18-12 record.
The Bacharachs were helped to this record by none other than Fats Jenkins (.365/.425/.464), whom they immediately stole from the Lincoln Giants when the league dissolved. Chaney White (.371/.424/.517), player-manager Dick Lundy (.338/.401/.498), and Rats Henderson (8-2, 3.42) also contributed, as did double threat Luther Farrell (.395/.489/.618, 9-7 as a pitcher). The Baltimore Black Sox enjoyed great seasons from Rap Dixon (.398/.478/.701), Jud Wilson (.399/.492/.652), and Laymon Yokely (12-6, 2.77). The 44-year-old John Henry Lloyd hit .383 against top black clubs for his Lincoln Giants, while his double play partner, George Scales, hit .328/.416/.605 (which doesn’t include a 6 for 6, two home run performance against Hilldale, since a box score hasn’t been found yet). Alex Pompez‘s Cuban Stars struggled without renaissance man Martín Dihigo, though former Boston Red Sox infielder Ramón Herrera contributed a .331 average, new captain José María Fernández (replacing Pelayo Chacón after 12 years) hit .333, and infielder Angel Alfonso scorched the ball for a .489 average and .872 slugging percentage in 12 games against top black competition.
The Hilldale Club, the team whose abandonment of the ECL probably doomed it, may have been the best club on the east coast in 1928. Bolden scooped up Oscar Charleston (.346/.449/.605), Walter Cannady (.325/.389/.490), and Darltie Cooper (10-5, 2.39) from the defunct Harrisburg Giants, and used them to revitalize a cast that already included Biz Mackey (.342/.410/.533). The Homestead Grays grabbed John Beckwith (.306) from Harrisburg, and had already signed Martín Dihigo (.313, 4 homers) away from Pompez in 1927. The Grays also pirated a couple of NNL stars, enticing lefty Sam Streeter (4-2) to leave the Birmingham Black Barons and Jelly Gardner to abandon the American Giants. Making the most of a limited opportunity, a 33-year-old West Virginia coal miner named Grover Lewis blasted three home runs for the Grays in a game against Hilldale before disappearing back to Appalachian semipro ball. (If you haven’t already seen it, check out Scott Simkus‘s great piece about Lewis in a back issue of the Seamheads Outsider Baseball Bulletin.)
Over in the Negro National League, Candy Jim Taylor had been quietly incubating a powerful Stars lineup over the past few seasons; this was the year his patience would bear fruit, as the Stars dominated from the start. Mule Suttles (.365, 21 home runs), Willie Wells (.357, 21), and Wilson Redus (.352, 22) took full advantage of the 250-foot left field fence at Stars Park, caused by the intrusion of a trolley car barn into the outfield. Given all those runs to play with, right-handed curveballer Ted Trent pitched well enough (2.36 ERA, 121 strikeouts in214 innings) to go 19-3. Slap Hensley, Luther McDonald, and Johnny Williams added solid mound work, while Roosevelt Davis became the closest thing to a relief ace the Negro leagues had so far seen, going 8-0 while relieving in twice as many games as he started (15 to 8).
The American Giants relied on the arms of Willie Foster (13-8, 2.82) and Willie Powell (9-6, 2.00) and the bats of Steel Arm Davis (.319/.364/.442) and shortstop Pythias Russ (.339/.372/.431), a converted catcher whose career was cut short when he died of tuberculosis in 1930 at the age of only 26. The Monarchs lacked the slugging they had become known for in the early 1920s, when they could boast the likes of Dobie Moore and Heavy Johnson in their lineup. They were now a team that relied on speed, pitching, and glovework. Andy Cooper (12-7, 3.38) led the pitchers, while catcher Frank Duncan, shortstop Newt Allen, and center fielder Eddie Dwight (whose speed drew comparisons with Cool Papa Bell) anchored a solid defense. Bullet Rogan, now 34, hit .348/.405/.512, went 10-2 as a pitcher, and even filled in at second base—in addition to managing the team. (He also clouted 3 home runs in a 16-2 route of the Detroit Stars played in Clinton, Missouri, but a box score hasn’t been found yet.) This formula worked well enough to give the Monarchs the second-best overall record, although they agonizingly fell short of winning either half.
Utility man Wilson “Stack” Martin got the Detroit Stars’ season off to a great start when he hit 6 for 6 on opening day. Turkey Stearnes popped a league-leading 24 homers, Big George Mitchell went 13-8, Ed Rile, a 6’7″ converted pitcher, hit .348/.425/.508, and veteran second baseman Claude Johnson drew a league-leading 40 walks—but these Stars couldn’t keep up with the other Stars, finishing in third place overall. Meanwhile, in a breakout sophomore season the Birmingham Black Barons’ Leroy “Satchel” Paige (11-4, 2.32, a league-leading 121 strikeouts in 132 innings) served notice of what was to come. He couldn’t quite lift the Black Barons to a .500 record; while a couple of other pitchers were decent, the hitting was abject, with only Roy Parnell (.316/.365/.503) able to contribute much.
Player-manager Carl Glass (12-10, 2.96) and catcher Larry Brown (.265, sterling defense) were still the mainstays of the otherwise woeful Memphis Red Sox. Of Cleveland’s fifth attempt at an NNL team, the Tigers, the less said the better, though it’s worth noting the nearly heroic performance of Edward “Babe” Milton, who played eight positions while hitting .354 with 13 triples for an otherwise terrible team.
Tinti Molina’s Cuban Stars suffered through one of their worst seasons ever, finishing dead last with a team that managed only two home runs in 47 games. Most mysteriously, Estéban Montalvo, the slugger who was so good the Lincoln Giants had quit the ECL rather than give him up in 1927, and who had once hit three home runs in a single ECL game all by himself, couldn’t hit the side of a barn in 1928, managing only a .136/.219/.189 line. It’s hard not to think that he was perhaps not properly motivated to play for Molina, the manager he’d tried to escape the year before—although in retrospect, he may also have been suffering the early effects of the illness that would finally kill him in 1930.
The league championship was a classic, as recounted by Kevin Johnson. The teams split four games in Chicago; before the series moved to St. Louis, Chicago’s number two starter, Willie Powell, was shot in the face by his father-in-law during a domestic altercation. He would survive and continue his pitching career, but he was out of this series. In St. Louis the Stars shortstop Willie Wells took over, blasting six home runs in the last five games (our stats cover only three of them, as two box scores are missing), and the Stars prevailed 5 games to 4.