September 27, 2022

Negro Leagues DB Update: 1935 Negro National League

July 17, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Check out the newest addition to the Negro Leagues DB: the 1935 Negro National League season.

The defending champion Philadelphia Stars fell off quite a bit in 1935, partly because several of their key performers (Biz Mackey, Chaney White) were aging, but mostly because their ace, 1934’s 20-game winner Slim Jones, couldn’t stay away from the bottle. His strikeout rate was cut in half, and he won only 4 league games. Despite the efforts of the 39-year-old first baseman Jud Wilson (.344 with 14 doubles and 8 homers), the Stars finished just 34-31.

The previous year’s other playoff team, the Chicago American Giants, fared even worse, though problems with 1934’s statistical record make it a little hard to tell exactly what went wrong. The Big Four—Turkey Stearnes (.403/.490/.649), Willie Wells (.362/.451/.584), Mule Suttles (.298 with a league-leading 8 home runs), and Willie Foster (4-2, 2.35)—continued to play brilliantly. Bad years by Ted Trent (2-8, 4.37) and Wilson Redus (.181) might have been part of the problem.

The Nashville Elite Giants tried to move to Detroit, but couldn’t secure a home park. They wound up in Columbus, Ohio. Unfortunately the local papers didn’t carry many box scores, so less than half (24 out of 49) of the Elite Giants’ league games are included in the DB. Even so, it’s clear that stars Sammy T. Hughes (.360) and Roy Parnell (.337) continued to hit well, and that rookie outfielder Zollie Wright (.395) was seriously impressive.

Three marginal teams from 1934 (the Bacharach Giants, Cleveland Red Sox, and Baltimore Black Sox) dropped out of the league. They were replaced by the former powerhouse Homestead Grays and two new New York City clubs: the Brooklyn Eagles, playing in Ebbets Field, and the New York Cubans, who took up residence in Harlem’s refurbished Dyckman Oval.

The Grays had still not recovered from the Crawfords’ player raids of several seasons before, and finished in seventh place despite the contributions of first sacker Buck Leonard (.389/.455/.624), rookie second baseman Matthew Carlisle (.382/.440/.632), and catcher Tommie Dukes (.372/.449/.562), and the pitching of ace Ray Brown (8-5, 3.26).

The Brooklyn Eagles fared a little better, despite starting the season under the shadow of controversy: veteran manager Ben Taylor put in all the work to assemble and train the team, but was fired early in the season, apparently just to get his salary off the payroll. He later sued the team over the way he was treated. His replacement, first baseman George Giles, guided the Eagles to a 31-30 record with the help of infielder Harry Williams (.340), outfielder Ed Stone (.327), and a pitching staff led by the 39-year-old New England legend Will Jackman (7-8, 6.03) and the 18-year-old sensation Leon Day (6-4, 4.56).

But the most successful of the new teams was undoubtedly the New York Cubans, organized by Alex Pompez on his return from a five-year absence from baseball.  Player-manager Martín Dihigo pitched (3-1, 2.77) and played six other positions, batting .321 with 7 home runs. The ageless Alejandro Oms (.377) anchored the outfield, the youngster Lázaro Salazar provided additional offense (.341), and lefty Luis Tiant and rookie right hander Schoolboy Johnny Taylor (both 5-3) pitched well enough for the Cubans to edge the second-half title.

That put them on course to meet the first-half champion Pittsburgh Crawfords in the playoffs. The Crawfords had just missed the 1934 postseason, despite fielding one of the most talented teams in Negro league history. In 1935 they lost Satchel Paige, who absconded to North Dakota to play independent ball for the racially integrated Bismarck club (late in the season he made a couple of appearances for the Kansas City Monarchs against the American Giants). But they still had Josh Gibson (.348/.425/.578), Sam Bankhead (.355/.425/.523), Cool Papa Bell (.331), and newcomer Pat Patterson (.389/.417/.597), not to mention lefty Leroy Matlock. In games with box scores Matlock went 7-0 in the regular season (and 1-1 in the playoffs); in games without box scores he won at least 6 more games without a known defeat, making him at least 13-0 for the year in Negro league games (14-1 counting the playoffs).

When the Cubans and Crawfords clashed in September, it resulted in another classic blackball postseason series. The Cubans stunned Pittsburgh with two quick wins behind lefthanders Frank Blake and Neck Stanley. In game 3 Leroy Matlock shut out the Cubans, 3 to 0, with manager Oscar Charleston contributing a home run, but in the next game his opposite number, Martín Dihigo, beat the Crawfords 6 to 1 at Greenlee Field to put his team ahead 3 games to 1.

In game 5 Roosevelt Davis managed to edge Frank Blake, 3 to 2. The last two games were played in Philadelphia. With the Cubans leading 5 to 3 in the seventh inning of game 6, Dihigo put himself in to pitch. The Cubans added one more run, stretching their lead to 6 to 3, but the Crawfords rallied in the bottom of the ninth. Oscar Charleston smashed out a three-run home run to tie the game. Pat Patterson followed with a double, and Judy Johnson rapped out a pinch-hit single to win the game for Pittsburgh.

The deciding game saw a back-and-forth struggle for seven innings. In the top of the eighth inning Dihigo brought in Taylor to relieve Tiant, and the first two men to face him, Gibson and Charleston, hit back-to-back homers. Two walks and two outs later, Cool Papa Bell, with men on first and third, hit a sharp grounder to Dihigo, who was playing third. Dihigo fumbled the ball, allowing Sam Bankhead to score. The Crawfords were up, 8 to 4.

The Cubans got one run back in the bottom of the eighth, then in the ninth Clyde Spearman hit a two-run homer to bring the score to 8 to 7—but that was as close as they could get. For the first (and only) time the Pittsburgh Crawfords had won the unambiguous, undisputed championship of the Negro National League.

The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords, champions of the Negro National League

The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords, champions of the Negro National League

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