April 22, 2021

Negro Leagues DB Update: 1938 Negro National League

January 25, 2016 by · 2 Comments 

In 1938 the Homestead Grays solidified their dominance of the Negro National League. Winning both halves at a trot, Cumberland Posey’s powerhouse team had essentially killed off interest in the league by September. At the end of the season a playoff scheme involving the top four teams was introduced, but the Grays pulled their team off the field partway through the first game and refused to participate any further, calling the whole enterprise into doubt. The Elite Giants were the eventual winners, but by then almost nobody was paying attention, and the Grays have always been considered the 1938 champions.

The Grays were led by Buck Leonard, who in the games we’ve recorded for the DB performed at a nearly superhuman level, hitting .460/.526/.800. Ray Brown went 10-0 with a 2.13 ERA, while Edsall Walker also went undefeated (7-0, 2.93). Newspapers failed to print box scores for many games, so a huge chunk of 1938’s Negro league history remains outside the DB, at least for now. In Zanesville, Ohio, on July 28, Josh Gibson smashed four home runs in a game against the Memphis Red Sox—but there was no box score. In the 32 NNL games that were recorded for him, Gibson got 7 homers, and hit .366/.462/.688.

Their nearest rivals, the Elite Giants, had spent the decade wandering from Nashville to Detroit to Columbus to Washington; in 1938 they finally found a permanent home, in Baltimore’s Bugle Field. The core of the team still consisted of Bill Byrd (7-2, 3.72), Wild Bill Wright (.305), Shifty Jim West (.336/.408/.570), and Sammy T. Hughes (.333), with Biz Mackey (.288) providing veteran savvy, and the teenaged Roy Campanella gaining crucial experience as his backup.

The Philadelphia Stars improved under the leadership of another veteran player, Jud Wilson, their lineup graced by the second baseman Andrew “Pat” Patterson (.322/.398/.566), and their pitching staff led by Cream McHenry (6-1) and Ernie “Spoon” Carter (7-3). Slim Jones, who had once challenged Satchel Paige for the crown of best pitcher in black baseball, was now mostly a pinch-hitter and reserve first baseman, though he did come in as a reliever in a few games (0-2, 1.42). That winter Jones, who was battling alcoholism, would freeze to death on the streets of Baltimore.

The team that had nearly topped the Grays in 1937, the Newark Eagles, tumbled under .500 due to a raft of injuries, most damagingly to star pitcher Leon Day. Ray Dandridge (.373), Willie Wells (.353/.443/.559) and Mule Suttles (.323/.397/.600) still hit well, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the team’s pitching problems. The future Hall of Famer (and former Orange, N.J., high school star) Monte Irvin made his first appearance as a substitute shortstop for the Eagles, playing under the name “Jimmy Nelson” to protect his college eligibility.

Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords recovered partly from their plunge in 1937, buoyed by infielder Harry Williams’s great season (.409/.460/.646) and the pitching of Barney Morris (4-2, 3.07) and Schoolboy Johnny Taylor (7-2, 3.96). But the season’s end would see Greenlee Field torn down and replaced by a housing project, and in 1939 the Crawfords would leave for Toledo.

The league had already lost one of its main venues before the season started, when Dyckman Oval was demolished. With an aging lineup and no regular home field, the Black Yankees collapsed in 1938. Among the few bright spots were rookie second baseman Dave Campbell, who batted .325, and the 40-year-old Fats Jenkins, who hit .400 in the 16 NNL games we have been able to document.

The league had originally intended to expand to eight teams for 1938, adding the Buffalo Black Aces and the Washington Black Senators. The Black Aces were quickly converted into associate members, their games not counting in the standings. The Black Senators, despite the leadership of manager Ben Taylor and a seemingly competent though not spectacular lineup, could not overcome a horrible pitching staff with an ERA of 7.98. Altogether they won only two games, and folded mid-season, leaving the NNL to close out the season with just six teams once more.

Next up: the 1925 NNL and ECL seasons, which will arrive very soon. On deck: the 1939 and 1940 Negro league seasons (both leagues), as well as new Cuban League seasons.

Buck Leonard at bat.

Buck Leonard at bat.


2 Responses to “Negro Leagues DB Update: 1938 Negro National League”
  1. w Dellinger says:

    Josh Gibson smashed his 4 home runs on July 28, 1938.

  2. Gary Ashwill says:

    @w Dellinger – Indeed–corrected now. Thanks!

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