September 23, 2017

Negro Leagues DB Update: 1932 East-West League

August 13, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

The 1932 East-West League, plus four independent east coast teams from that year, forms the latest addition to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database.

This was the year when Pittsburgh numbers operator Gus Greenlee really got serious about baseball. He hired the architect Louis A. S. Bellinger to construct a lavish new ballpark in the Hill District, and opened up his wallet to sign some of the best players in black baseball. From the crosstown rival Homestead Grays he grabbed player-manager Oscar Charleston, young slugging star Josh Gibson, and catcher/pitcher Doubly Duty Radcliffe. Greenlee also retained Satchel Paige, whom he had briefly employed at the end of the 1931 season, and snapped up outfielder Rap Dixon.

How did Cumberland Posey react to the loss of these stars? He went looking for new ones. And the black baseball world of 1932 had plenty to offer, since Rube Foster’s Negro National League had finally dissolved. After this, and two straight seasons with no black professional league on the east coast, it fell to the fiercely independent operator of the Homestead Grays (a team that had spent a grand total of one season in a Negro league, back in 1929), to try to reorganize black baseball.

His ambitious plan, in the midst of a worldwide depression, was to establish one league spanning the whole northeastern quadrant of the country, the same territory covered by the white big leagues. Big-time black baseball had been traditionally split into two regions, the northeast and the Midwest. To signify his determination to bring them together, Posey called his new organization the East-West Colored League. He also intended to play league baseball every day. Even the Negro National League in its 1920s heyday couldn’t quite manage that.

Plenty of critics predicted doom. Unfortunately they were right.

The difficulties might have started with Posey’s decision to include only three established clubs, the Baltimore Black Sox, the Hilldale Club, and his own Homestead Grays. Of the major NNL teams, the Detroit Stars and Kansas City Monarchs had disbanded (the latter temporarily), and the Chicago American Giants elected to join the Negro Southern League. The St. Louis Stars, the dominant team of the NNL for the past few seasons, had folded along with the league. Posey transferred the core of the Stars—Willie Wells, Mule Suttles, Ted Trent, Cool Papa Bell, Dewey Creacy, Quincy Trouppe—to a new club, the Detroit Wolves, which became the westernmost team of the new circuit.

Syd Pollock’s Cuban House of David, a gimmick team not actually connected to the religious sect or any of its baseball teams, were required to shave their beards before entering the league as the new Cuban Stars. Posey rounded out the East-West League with three new teams, the Newark Browns, the Cleveland Stars (another in a long line of ill-fated Negro league entries from the shores of Lake Erie), and the Washington Pilots.

Although it’s difficult to trace the behind-the-scenes realities of Negro league baseball from a distance of more than 80 years, the rumor at the time was that Posey was financially involved in the new Cleveland and Detroit franchises. In fact, it was claimed that he was really running the Detroit Wolves, leaving the Grays to his brother See Posey. It certainly makes sense, given the quality of the players he had placed in Detroit. And the Wolves, in the first few weeks, dominated the league just as the St. Louis Stars had dominated the NNL. In games so far recovered, they were 23-4 against EWL opponents (published standings at the time indicated a 20-6 record).

The Wolves, however, did not draw enough fans to justify their high payroll, and by the first week in June Posey took the drastic step of merging the league’s first-place team with its third-place club, the Homestead Grays. The combined team continued to play weekend games at Hamtramck Stadium for a while, where the local press persisted in calling them the “Wolves” for a few weeks. (In this compilation we consider the Detroit Wolves to have ceased to exist at the point of the merger, with the combined team afterward being folded into the history of the Homestead Grays.)

Several of the Wolves moved to the Grays, three of them—Wells, Bell, and Tom Young—along with first baseman George Giles, cooked up a mutiny against Posey, absconding between games of a doubleheader to join the newly revived Kansas City Monarchs. Overall, this was one of the strangest and most unstable seasons in the Grays’ long history. Even though the team only carried a maximum of 16 players at a time, at least 35 players suited up for the Grays in 1932—and that’s only counting the 41 games we have against top black opposition. Of these, perhaps the most valuable was Joe Strong, who hit .426 while compiling a 2.06 ERA in 43 innings on the mound. Still, excluding the Wolves, the Grays compiled the best record among league teams against EWL opponents over the whole season.

Their main rivals were the Baltimore Black Sox. Led by player-manager Dick Lundy (.389), third baseman Tom Finley (.338/.397/.574), and young converted outfielder Terris McDuffie (4-1, 1.93), the Black Sox actually occupied first place with a 20-9 record in the final published EWL standings in June.

Those Wolves stars who didn’t go to the Grays—Suttles, Trent, Creacy—were transferred to the Washington Pilots. The Pilots, along with the Wolves, were evidently intended as one of the league’s flagship franchises. They rented out the Senators’ Griffith Stadium, hired one of the best player-managers of the past decade in Frank Warfield, and even arranged for the Vice President of the United States, Charles Curtis, to throw out the first pitch on opening day. Despite the efforts of Suttles (.337/.447/.640), catcher Eppie Hamilton (.364), and young second baseman Sammy Hughes (.345), the Pilots languished in the second division.

Oddly, the league survived the loss of its best team, the Detroit Wolves. It was the collapse of John Beckwith’s Newark Browns in late June that precipitated the unraveling of the entire East-West League. The wreck of the 1932 season that ensued claimed a few more victims.

The Washington Pilots managed to survive both the extinction of the league and the death of Frank Warfield, who passed away suddenly in Pittsburgh in late July; but they did not last past the close of the 1932 season.

The venerable Hilldale Club, having spent some money in 1931 under new owner Johnny Drew, cut back on expenditures this year, and suffered for it. Longtime stalwart Biz Mackey elected to stay on the west coast, and the team failed to re-sign Martín Dihigo, Rap Dixon, and Walter Cannady. When player-manager Judy Johnson, Hilldale lynchpin for more than a decade, abruptly jumped the team for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the writing was on the wall. On July 18 it was made official: after 15 years at the top of black professional baseball, the Hilldale Club was no more.

Notes on statistics: This version of the 1932 season only includes games involving the EWL and eastern independent clubs; games involving western or Negro Southern League teams are not yet counted. In the case of some EWL teams, there is still much research left to do; in particular, we’ve got the Newark Browns’ record as only 0-3, but the latest published league standings showed them at 3-14. As we’ve done in other years, even when a league has formally ceased to exist early in the season, we present won-loss records for all games against league opponents through the whole year. Also, we’ve revamped the 1924 World Series statistics, which now include fielding numbers, and added the 1925 World Series. The full 1925 season, both the NNL and ECL, slated to arrive in a future update.

From the St. Louis Stars to the Detroit Wolves: Cool Papa Bell, Mule Suttles, Willie Wells

From the St. Louis Stars to the Detroit Wolves: Cool Papa Bell, Mule Suttles, Willie Wells

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