August 12, 2020

St. Louis’ Forgotten Champions

February 23, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

On Sunday afternoon, October 7, 1928, at Sportsman’s Park, the St. Louis Cardinals were about to play the New York Yankees in the 3rd game of the 1928 World Series, finding themselves already down 2 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 3 American League pennants in a row, and were the reigning World Champions.

The Cardinals had won just their second National League Pennant in the 20th century. However, they were in a run of pennants that would include 1926, 1928, 1930, 1931 & 1934. The 1928 team included stars such as 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 9,900 fans per game in this pennant-winning season, with high attendances around 40,000.

The Cardinals would go on to be swept by the Yankees, and while the 1928 team does tend to be somewhat “forgotten” in between the 1926 World Champions, the 1931 101-win World Champions, and the colorful ‘Gas House Gang” of 1934, this team is not the “forgotten champions” of this article. And no, it’s not a St. Louis Browns team either. St. Louis’ forgotten champions are the 1928 St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League.

On the previous Friday, October 5, 1928, at Star’s Park, 1.7 miles south of Sportsman’s Park, the Stars had defeated the Chicago American Giants in Game #9 of the Negro National League (NNL) championship, taking the series 5 games to 4. Chicago featured star players Willie Foster, Willie Powell, Pythias Russ, 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 Chicago team had won back to back Negro World Series in 1926 and 1927, and had won the 2nd half of the 1928 NNL “split season”. Similar to the Yankees, the American Giants were considered to be head and shoulders above their peers.

The Stars, by winning the first half of the 1928 NNL split season, had won their very first NNL title of any kind. The team would finish 2nd in 1929, then regain the NNL Pennant in 1930 and 1931, at which point the original NNL disbanded. The Stars were led by “Cool Papa” Bell, Willie Wells, “Mule” Suttles, “Frog” Redus, and Ted Trent. They played in hitter-friendly Stars Park, with its “Car Barn” approximately 250 ft out in left field. On weekends when they played league games, the Stars would draw several thousand fans, with attendance highs of around 7,000.

The Stars’ 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 22nd, 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 year. Chicago scored 2 runs in the bottom of the first thanks largely to 2 St. Louis errors. A key play occurred in the top of the 4th when Mule Suttles led off the inning with a triple off the center field fence, but tried to stretch it into an inside-the-park home run, came into the plate standing up instead of sliding, and was called out. Chicago scored single runs in the 4th and 5th and 7th innings. 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. Wells made the 2nd out, but Suttles then doubled to left, cutting the lead to 5-3. However, Roosevelt Davis came on to pitch in relief for the Stars and gave up 2 runs, Foster set the Stars down in the 9th, and Game #1 belonged to Chicago 7-3.

Game #2 was played on Sunday, September 23rd. The two “real” aces, Trent and Powell, were pitching, and both pitched complete games. The game was played in extreme cold, and few fans were in attendance. Powell held St. Louis to 3 hits (only 1 in the first 7 innings) fanning 8, as Chicago won 3-0. Once again, a key play involved the Stars making outs on the bases. In the top of the 2nd, down 1-0, Suttles reached first on an error by 2B Charles Williams. After Redus flied out to CF, Dewey Creasy singled, sending Suttles to 3rd with 1 out. With Henry Williams up, the Stars had the hit and run on when Williams grounded to Malarcher at 3rd, who threw home to get Suttles. Creasy tried to go from first to third, and was retired 2-5 for the 3rd out.

Game #3 on Monday, September 24th had Slap Hensley pitching against Harold Treadwell. St. Louis scored in the top of the 1st on a lead-off bunt single by Bell, a balk, and two-out single by Suttles. St. Louis added 2 in the 2nd, and Chicago scored 2 in the 3rd to close to 3-2, but St. Louis then scored 1 in the fourth and 2 in the 6th for a 6-2 lead, knocking out Treadwell. Chicago tallied 2 more in the bottom of 6th and then, in the 7th, down 6-4 and with one out, Walter Davis and Pythias Russ both singled, putting runners at 1st and 3rd. Russ took off for 2nd on a steal attempt, but the Stars threw to 3rd instead, catching Davis looking to come home on the double steal. In the bottom of the 9th, Chicago’s top of the order started a rally as Stanford Jackson reached on an error by 2B John Henry Russell, and after Hines popped out to SS Willie Wells, Walter Davis singled Jackson to 2nd. Pythias Russ flied out to CF, with Jackson tagging up and going to 3rd. Davis then stole 2nd, putting the tying run in scoring position. However, Hensley got Sandy Thompson to fly to CF, and the Stars had their first ever playoff win.

The final game in Chicago was on Tuesday, September 25th, with Luther McDonald going for the Stars while Chicago brought back Willie Foster on 2 days rest. This would prove to be the key game of the series. The Stars broke out ahead again in the 1st as Bell reached on a two base error by Charlie Williams, and after an infield out advanced Bell to third and Wells walked, Suttles singled to right. In the 2nd, John Henry Russell doubled to drive in Palm, giving St. Louis a 2-0 lead. In the bottom of the 2nd, Chicago threatened after one out with Hawkins singling but then being thrown out at 3rd base by Bell on a single by Williams. In the 3rd, Walter Davis hit a 3 run homer, the ONLY HR by either team in the 4 games in Schloring Park. St. Louis came back in the 4th when Palm was hit leading off, then John Henry Russell hit a fly to right that Davis misjudged into a double. Foster then fanned the pitcher McDonald and Bell, but Branch Russell grounded a single to left to drive in 2 runs, taking 2nd on the throw home, and Willie Wells singled in Russell to make the score 5-3 St. Louis.

With the lead, St. Louis pulled McDonald in favor of their best pitcher Trent, who had only 1 day rest after pitching a complete game. The move appeared as if it might backfire right away when, with 1 out in the 4th, Williams doubled, then Malarcher reached on error due to a bobble and then late throw by 2B John Henry Russell, with Williams taking 3rd. When Suttles apparently spiked the ball down in disgust of the safe call, the ball rolled away from him, allowing Williams to score on the play’s second error. Foster then sacrificed Malarcher to 2nd, and Jackson then singled to center. Malarcher apparently was heading home, but then reversed course scrambled back to 3rd while Jackson proceeded on to 2nd on the throw home. Hines then flew out to RF Branch Russell, who made a shoe-top, somersaulting catch to save 2 runs and preserve the 5-4 Stars lead. After the 4th, Trent and Foster did not tire being on short rest, but matched zeroes, with St. Louis managing just one more hit, and Trent allowing only 2 to Chicago. The 5-4 victory evened the series at 2 games each heading to St. Louis for up to 5 more games.

In the meantime, another key play had occurred off the field. Chicago’s young star pitcher Willie Powell came home late one evening with his wife, and proceeded to get into some type of ‘argument’ with her. Unfortunately for Powell, the home included his father-in-law, who shot Willie, sending him to the hospital and sidelining him for the remainder of the series. The loss not only deprived Chicago of the pitcher who had 3 hit St. Louis, and who likely led the league in Runs Allowed Per Game, but it left Chicago with a staff of just 4 pitchers – Willie Foster, Harold Treadwell, George Harney and Eddie Miller.

The Stars’ Willie Wells World Series in St. Louis

The series shifted from Schloring Park in Chicago to Stars Park in St. Louis, and the difference in parks would be easy to see. The two teams in the 4 Chicago games had combined for 32 runs and 1 home run in 4 games. In the 5 St. Louis games they would score 76 runs with 14 home runs!

After a travel day on Wednesday, and rainouts on both Thursday and Friday, Game #5 opened in St. Louis on Saturday, September 29th with Slap Hensley against Willie Foster, making his 3rd start of the series. Chicago batted around in the top of the 1st for 3 runs, and Wells countered with the Stars’ first home run of the series in the bottom of the inning. St. Louis scored a run in the 4th and another in the 5th to tie the game, but Pythias Russ homered in the top of the 8th, Chicago added an insurance run in the 9th, and Foster went the distance for a 5-3 victory and 3-2 Chicago series lead.

Game #6 on Sunday, September 30th had a ‘capacity crowd’ (capacity was somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000) on hand with Trent against Harold Treadwell, who had been batted around and took the loss in Game #3. Chicago came out hitting Trent hard, taking a 6-1 lead into the bottom of the 4th, and threatening to make the game and the series almost insurmountable for St. Louis. The Stars then came to life at the plate, with Treadwell knocked out before retiring a batter, and reliever Eddie Miller combining to allow 4 walks and 3 singles in a 6 run outburst. John Williams relieved Trent to start the 5th, and Chicago scored a single run in the top of the 6th to tie, but then in the bottom of the 6th Suttles hit a bases-loaded double and Creasy followed two batters later with a home run, putting St. Louis ahead 12-7, and Williams threw scoreless relief the rest of the way.

Monday was another rainout, so Game# 7 was on Tuesday, October 2nd. With the extra day off, St. Louis started Trent again after his 4 inning start on Sunday, and Chicago started Foster for the 4th time. Chicago scored 3 in the top of the 1st, and St. Louis countered with 2 runs thanks to a Wells home run. The Stars tied the game in the 2nd, and then scored 4 more in 4th, with Wells hitting another HR, his 3rd since the series shifted to St. Louis. Chicago had a 2 run rally in the 5th and scored another in the 6th, making the score 7-6 St. Louis, with Trent and Foster replaced by Treadwell and Hensley. In the 9th Chicago tied the game 7-7 on a squeeze play. The game went to extra innings and in the 11th, with John Williams now on the mound for St. Louis, reserve catcher Mitchell Murray, who had been waived by the Stars in May, and had entered the game as a substitute, hit a 2 run home run on the top of the ‘car barn’ in left field to give Chicago a 9-7 victory, and put Chicago won win from the championship.

Another rainout on Wednesday pushed Game #8 to Thursday, October 4th, and allowed the managers to this time pitch Slap Hensley and Harold Treadwell, who had both just pitched in relief in Game #7, after Treadwell had started Game #6! It turned out badly for Chicago, as the Stars scored 6 in the 1st, 2 in the 2nd, and, after Chicago scored 3 in the 3rd, another 3, to make the score 11-3 St. Louis. George Harney had relieved Treadwell, but he could not stop the Stars as they scored 6 more in the bottom of the 5th, and the final score ended up 19-4. Pitcher Hensley, Henry Williams and Wells (4th in 4 games) hit home runs.

Friday, October 5th, Game #9, Trent vs. Foster. Wells homered in the first, and then St. Louis scored 2 more in the 3rd. St. Louis then scored 4 more in the 6th, with Wells hitting a 3-run homer, his 6th in the 5 St. Louis games. Pythias Russ, who went 3 for 3 plus a hit-by-pitch and stolen base in the game, homered for Chicago in the 8th to bring the score to 7-2, but then Wells tripled in a run and scored in the 8th, making the final score 9-2. Trent gave up the 2 runs on 9 hits, striking out 7 and walking no one. The heavily worked Foster pitched all 8 innings, giving up the 7 runs on 10 hits, striking out 7 and walking 5.

So while the National League St. Louis team would be unable to defeat their mighty Yankee foes, the Stars dethroned the back-to-back champion American Giants, claiming their first of three NNL championships in 4 years in the ‘mound city’. Eventually Cool Papa Bell, Willie Wells, and Mule Suttles would be recognized by the Hall of Fame for their great individual accomplishments, but this great St. Louis TEAM would be largely forgotten – until now.

(Note: A version of this article appeared in the book “Mound City Memories”.)

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