May 25, 2019

The 1928 Negro Leagues – The Two Leagues Part II

December 20, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Part I: http://www.seamheads.com/2010/12/12/the-1928-negro-leagues-%e2%80%93-the-two-leagues/

The following is from the unpublished manuscript LOST LEAGUES: The 1928 Negro National and Eastern Colored Leagues.

First, a quick recap of Part I, which covered The Product and The Market:

The Product – The Negro Leagues generally had lower batting and slugging averages than the major leagues did in the 1920’s, including in 1928.    However, the Negro Leagues did score slightly more runs per game than MLB did in 1928, at least in part due to more fielding errors.

The Market – The Eastern Colored League (ECL), or Eastern League, had seven very stable franchises during the 1920’s.   The Homestead Grays were also a major eastern franchise, but they operated outside the league, playing mostly against white semi-pro teams with some games against major Negro League teams.  The major eastern teams were all located very close together, helping to keep travel expenses down.

The Negro National League (NNL), or Western League, had four stable franchises, with several teams that played only one year in the league.   Western teams had to travel long distances to play against other league members.    Teams also generally had fewer top-flight semi-pro teams in their immediate areas to play on league ‘off’ days, resulting in less revenue than for eastern teams.   The combination of less revenue and more expense eventually led to the eastern teams being able to lure more top flight talent out of the more established NNL by offering higher salaries.

The Facilities

Where people saw the game:

Rickwood Field

Rickwood Field – Still used today

The 1920’s could be considered the Golden Age of MLB ballparks.   The old wooden structures of the 19th century and early deadball eras were being replaced by new, large steel and concrete arenas.   Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field,  Fenway Park, Tiger Stadium, Ebbets Field,  Forbes Field, Sportsman’s Park, Comiskey Park, Shibe Park, Crosley Field, and Griffith Stadium are some of the most iconic ballparks of all time.

For the two Negro Leagues, it was a different story:

Eastern Colored League

Hilldale (Hilldale Park)
Harrisburg Giants (West End Grounds)
Bacharach Giants (Bacharach Park)
Baltimore Black Sox (Maryland Park)
New York Lincoln Giants (Catholic Protectory Oval)
Cuban Stars (None/Jersey City)
Brooklyn Royal Giants (None/Dexter Park)
Washington Potomacs (Standpipe Park)
Homestead Grays (Gray’s Park)

Negro National League

Chicago American Giants (Schorling Park)
Kansas City Monarchs (Municipal Stadium)
St. Louis Stars (Stars Park)
Detroit Stars (Mack Park)
Indianapolis ABCs (Washington Park)
Birmingham Black Barons (Rickwood Field)
Memphis Red Sox (Lewis Park)
Cuban Stars (None)
Cleveland (Tate Field)

Schorling Park had been used by the Chicago White Sox from 1900-1908.  Municipal Stadium was the home park of the Kansas City Blues, and would later be used by the Athletics.  Rickwood Park was home to the Birmingham Barons.  Washington Park, used by the Indianapolis Indians, was a large facility.  Dexter Park was perhaps the country’s finest semi-pro facility.   However, beyond those five, the park quality dropped off considerably.   The remaining parks, with their wooden construction, might not be considered decent high school stadiums by today’s standards.   MLB parks averaged thirty-two thousand in capacity.   The largest Negro league park, Municipal stadium, could hold thirty-two thousand, but the remaining parks had capacities in the three to fifteen thousand range.

Major League parks averaged 350/443/322 feet in their leftfield line/center field/right field line dimensions.

We don’t have complete data to calculate averages for the Negro League parks, but here are some of the dimensions (some are estimated by ballpark expert Ron Selter based on Sanborn and HistoricMapWorks maps):

Catholic Protectory Oval – 180/290 (358 deepest point)/180
Mack Park – 358/405/265
Bacharach Park – 378/418/280
Stars Park – 250/350 (470 deepest point)/375

Bacharach Park

Bacharach Park map from HistoricMapWorks.com

The investment cost to build new, larger facilities, for teams with small to no profit margins, was prohibitively high.  By the 1940’s, Negro League teams would be renting parks from MLB teams when the attendance finally outstripped these older, smaller parks.

The Schedule

When they played the game:

In 1928, MLB schedules called for teams to play each other 22 times per season (11 home games, 11 away games) for a total of 154 games (7 other teams times 22 games).

MLB teams typically played three or four game series.  Mondays and Thursdays were sometimes travel or off days (except for Philadelphia teams where Sunday blue laws were still in effect).   Sunday or Holiday days often had double-headers scheduled, plus rained out games were made up if at all possible.  The season lasted 26 weeks, meaning teams played around six league games per week (154/26). Teams sometimes played ‘in season’ exhibition games, but not very often.  The schedule was considered fair to all teams, and fans considered the pennant race to be an extremely important part of their baseball enjoyment.

The NNL schedule called for teams to play each other at least 10 times (5 home, 5 away) plus around 15 additional games, for a total of 85 league games.  These additional games would give some teams, such as Chicago, which drew higher attendance, additional home games.   The schedule was drawn up during league winter meetings, primarily by league Commissioner Rube Foster in the early NNL years.

Teams typically had a five game league series scheduled each week.  The long series saved on travel cost, as they allowed the western teams to in some cases make just one visit to the parks of other league teams.   The league games were scheduled Thursday – Sunday, with Sunday being a double-header.  Although  Monday through Wednesday were league ‘off’ days, true off days were rare.  NNL teams traveled on those days, and would typically try to have games against white semi-pro teams scheduled along the travel route – sometimes two games in one day.    The western Cuban Stars team, being a traveling team, was an exception to the scheduling rule, as they would typically be scheduled for around 55 games.    Rainouts were difficult to make up since teams might only visit each other one series per year, but teams would make a good attempt to play them within a given series.    NNL teams came rather close to fulfilling the original schedule, although with the additions of Memphis and Birmingham some of the northern teams skipped the long southern road trip in 1927, due to its costliness and due to Jim Crow laws in the south prohibiting the off day games with white teams.  Because the schedule retained its integrity as it was somewhat balanced regarding competition and home/away ratio, fans felt the standings meant something, and took interest in the race for first place.

ECL Schedule

ECL schedule courtesy of The Eastern Colored League by David Lawrence and Dom Denaro. NOTE: This is a sample only, and shows more order and logic than the real ECL schedule typically had.

The 1928 ECL scheduled had the seven primary teams playing each other around eight times, for a total of 48 league games, plus teams playing additional games against the eastern Cuban Stars team.   ECL series were often four games Friday – Sunday, with double headers on Sunday.   However, with teams closer to each other in proximity, fitting in a two or three game series was not a problem.

The first three months of the schedule were usually created in the winter, with the second half schedule not created until after the season started.  Scheduled games were arranged as agreements/contracts between teams more than as a central league schedule, meaning that the eight games against all other teams was more a guideline, and home/away balance between teams was often overlooked in favor of the teams that could draw the larger crowds.  Teams would sometimes change their schedule during the year if a more profitable game could be scheduled with a semi-pro white team or in a barnstorming tour or with the Homestead Grays.  Sometimes an ECL team might have a southern swing through Virginia or Tennessee or over to play NNL teams in the middle of the ECL league season.  Brooklyn and the Cuban team especially were known to cancel on a scheduled league game if the opportunity to play a more profitable semi-pro game or a barnstorming tour presented itself.  Because the schedule lacked integrity, with teams playing differing numbers of games against different opponents,  un-played games, uneven numbers of home games, etc. fans didn’t feel that the ‘race’ for the pennant meant a whole lot.  Individual team matchups and star players were what the league teams emphasized.    After a season ended, there was often controversy about which team was the ‘best of the east’ due to the uneven scheduling.

The Resources

Who played the game:

1928 St. Louis Stars

MLB by 1928 had settled on 25 man playing rosters.   In addition to their starting eight, teams would typically carry a couple of catchers, three reserve infielders, three reserve outfielders, and nine pitchers. The ‘farm system’ was a new concept, but all teams ‘optioned’ players not on the 25 man roster to minor league teams so that in case of injury or ineffectiveness they had some ready reserve players to put on the roster.

The reserve clause, binding players to their contractual teams, along with all contracts between teams and players, were strictly adhered to.  The AL and NL worked together and with Organized Baseball minor leagues in enforcing the contract rules. Players or teams that did not abide by them became ‘outlaws’, with players suspended from working for any Organized Baseball team and such teams relegated to playing in lower level, outlaw leagues.

The rosters for both Negro Leagues were officially 16 active players for the NNL and unofficially the same for the ECL.  In addition to the starting eight, teams would carry two ‘utility’ players who could either between them play catcher, infield and outfield, or could substitute for those in the starting lineup who could move to other positions.  For the pitching staff, teams would typically carry six pitchers, around five of whom would be ‘starters’.   With the shorter staffs, any pitcher either not starting that day, or not having pitched extensively the previous day, or not scheduled to start the next day, was considered ‘in the bullpen’ for that game.   One or two pitchers usually could play the outfield or possibly another position, and if a team were lucky, they’d have a couple of good hitting pitchers that could be called on to pinch hit.  Although a few of the major negro league teams had working agreements with lesser teams to provide players if needed, teams really did not have any non-roster players under team control, and if someone was injured for an extended period of time, the team might be forced to play with only 15 on the roster.

Player contracts were normally one year in duration, and although the leagues tried to have a reserve clause, the ECL and NNL competed with each other for players so teams often ignored contracts and reserve clause rights if they were not with teams in their own league, and players often broke their contracts without serious penalty.      The two leagues talked almost every year about honoring each others’ contracts, and penalizing players and teams for breaking them, but the penalties rarely materialized.

The Leaders

Who led the game:

Kenesaw Mountain Landis MLB was led by Judge Landis. The Black Sox scandal at the beginning of the decade caused MLB to replace the three-man commission (with two League Presidents) with a single Commissioner who was not an owner, but ‘independent’. Although hired by the owners, restoring integrity and confidence in major league baseball was their prime objective, and they were willing to give up some of their power to the Commissioner to make that happen. Landis theoretically made decisions ‘in the best interest of baseball’. He used the opportunity given him to consolidate his power and lessen the power of the league presidents. Under Landis, MLB teams earned $1.3 million by the 1929 season. While he did restore confidence in baseball, he today is blamed for perpetuating segregation in professional baseball as he was never able or willing to solve the ‘integration problem.’

Rube Foster was the leader of the NNL.  He was a former star player, which gave him some respect and credibility among his peers.  He owned the Chicago American Giants, which had the largest, most profitable market in the NNL.  He was large in body and in personality.   Rube FosterLike Landis, he had an autocratic style, but he used his credibility, his charisma, and his team’s market power to get other owners to acquiesce to his wishes for the league to act more like a single entity than like separate businesses.   He also led by example, in that although he had the financial power to sign most of the best players, he would send some players to rival teams to help the league competitive balance.   He never could get a good ownership partner in Cleveland, and his ego sometimes made him think he could have the league succeed in unlikely places such as Dayton.   The biggest problem he couldn’t solve was that, although the Chicago American Giants had the resources to compete with the ECL teams for contracts, he couldn’t single-handedly block the ECL raids on the NNL talent.  Whether it was the pressure of competing with the ECL or some medical reason, he had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1926, was in an insane asylum during 1928, and would die of a heart attack at age 51 in 1930.

Ed BoldenEd Bolden was the leader of the ECL.  Unlike Rube Foster, who reportedly worked 9 a.m. to midnight on the NNL, Bolden was a part-time commissioner who worked as a postal clerk during the day.   He owned the successful Hilldale club, but with white owner Nat Strong owning the Brooklyn franchise along with controlling New York area bookings, he wasn’t necessarily even the most influential owner.   He was small, soft-spoken, and ran league business in a democratic style.   Without a strong league office, the ECL was run more like a cartel than a single business.   The ECL did have seven stable and competitive franchises, and the league was successful in raiding the NNL – by 1928 about 65% of the ‘top’ talent probably belonged to the ECL – but he never could solve the conflicting interest between having a stable league season versus teams being able to play more profitable individual games against white semi-pro teams.   The strain of keeping the league together took its toll, with Bolden having a nervous breakdown following the 1927 season.  The ECL then folded during the 1928 campaign.  Bolden had a happier ending than Rube Foster as he came back less than a year later as an owner, and then was again a Negro Leagues league officer until 1950.

Two Negro leagues, each operating in a different environment from the major white leagues.  Similar to each other in some respects, yet with important differences between them.  This was the setting for the Negro Leagues in 1928.

Kevin Johnson lives in Broken Arrow, OK with his wife and two daughters, but grew up in St. Louis as an avid Cardinal fan.  He works for a travel technology company.  Kevin maintains a database on ballparks, has been a contributor Total Baseball, ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, Baseball-Reference.com, and is helping coordinate the SABR Minor League Committee Minor League Database Project.  His article, “St. Louis’ Forgotten Champions of 1928” was published in SABR’s “Mound City Memories”.

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