Tuesday, April 26, 2016

217. Bill Sisler: Where's Bill?

Ever been to Moline, Muskogee or Martinsburg? How about Clarksburg, Charleroi or Cumberland? Pitcher Bill Sisler not only hung his hat in all of those places but also over 40 more towns across America and Canada in a career that spanned from 1923 through 1953! 

This is the second of what should be close to forty posts I will periodically do covering the minor league odyssey of Bill Sisler. This series will be fun for a few different reasons, the foremost being that I love researching and illustrating old uniforms, and Sisler's appearing for over 40 different teams lets me really show a wide variety. To make this whole series a bit easier is that Sisler kept himself in top physical condition throughout his playing days in order to be ready to play at a moment's notice. This means he didn't gain weight or otherwise change his body shape with age. For all my Sisler illustrations I am going to use the same pose, but each uniform graphic will change to represent a new team. Likewise the backgrounds will vary to reflect each town he played in. In addition, as the years tick by, the glove, cap and uniform style will change to reflect the modernization of the equipment. For instance, today's post shows Bill on his second pro team, the Rutland Sheiks. Since this is 1924, Sisler is using a Spalding split-finger style glove as was common at the time. The webbing between the thumb and index is a solid piece of leather, not leather lacing as was common later in the decade. His jersey has the "sun collar" which was the standard for baseball uniforms up until the mid-1930's, and the cap has a shorter brim as was common in mid-1920's.

So, who was Bill Sisler

He was born in Rochester, New York in the first year of the 20th century, 1900. By all newspaper stories I've read about him, Sisler is described as a sturdy and stocky fellow who stood a compact 5'-6" - just below average for a ball player at the time and considerably shorter than what was the accepted height for a pitcher. None-the-less, Sisler must have had something on his fastball, and his being a lefty probably didn't hurt either. 

1924 was Bill Sisler's sophomore season in professional baseball. His unremarkable record with Elmira the previous season apparently didn't earn him a call-back to the New York Penn League so, as he would every year for the rest of his career, Bill Sisler packed up his glove and found another league. 
In 1918 almost every minor league in the U.S. and Canada had disbanded due to the man power shortage of World War I. By 1924 the minor leagues were beginning to find the financial footing they enjoyed before the war, and besides the restarting of the old leagues, several new ones sprang up. The Quebec-Ontario-Vermont League was one of them, and it was here that Bill Sisler found a spot.

This Class B international league consisted of six teams including the awesomely named Monpelier Goldfish, Quebec Bulldogs and the Rutland Sheiks. Sisler joined the latter club, who presumably took their monicker from the wildly popular Rudolph Valentino film "The Sheik". Bill's time with the Sheiks was short, but it wasn't due to his performance on the mound - on July 15, 1924 both Rutland and Montpelier folded, leaving only the four Canadian teams. 

Cut loose, Bill Sisler looked around for another team...

One more thing  - I'm not too big to know when I need help with something. While I'm a pretty good researcher with a vast archive of uniform reference, some of Bill Sisler's teams remain elusive for me. If anyone can help with photographs of some of his teams, I'd be most grateful. You can see a list of his stops HERE.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

216. Johnny Wright: More than just "the other guy"

Since we just passed the 70th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson took the field for the Montreal Royals in Jersey City, I think it's important to celebrate an often overlooked event that occurred a few days later on April 24, 1946. That was the day Johnny Wright emerged from the bullpen in Syracuse's MacArthur Park and became organized baseball's first black pitcher in the 20th century. 

Now, I'm not going to go over the "forgotten man" ground that often is the gist of any piece on Johnny Wright. Instead I'll try to retell his story as comprehensively as possible. That's not an easy task - many modern articles about Wright have confusing and sometimes just plain wrong details. Even the black press at the time seemed to drop Wright like a hot potato after he was demoted from Montreal. In writing this piece I dug up as many contemporary newspaper sources as I could, not only about his brief stint in organized baseball, but for his Negro League career as well. 

Today, Wright's time in Montreal is seen as a brief footnote to Jackie Robinson's story. But the way I want to tell this story is a little different - I'm going to attempt to flip it the other way around - that those six weeks with Montreal was just a brief footnote in Johnny Wright's story...

Johnny Wright was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1916. His pop Richard was a railroad man who rented a house in the Holly Grove neighborhood for his wife Hazel, daughter Isabel and his youngest, Johnny. In high school Wright developed a scorcher of a fastball delivered with total control. He was just shy of 6 foot, angular and thin, attributes that earned him the nickname "Needle Nose". As he matured he augmented his fastball with an arsenal of sharp breaking curves that left a wake of frustrated batters. In most bios of Wright, including a profile written by the Pittsburgh Courier in 1946, it's stated that he began his career with the New Orleans Zulus, a local barnstorming outfit, but in researching this story I could find nothing linking Wright and this team. Still, the Zulus were named as his first paying job in baseball and in the 1930's it was common for black ball players to get their start on these vaudeville-comedy teams. Like the better-known Indianapolis Clowns, the Zulus mixed slapstick comedy routines with baseball, usually while dressed up in "exotic" costumes. Today we recoil in horror at the thought of what passed as entertainment back then, but at the time it was a decent paying job and a way to travel the country. Since these teams often played exhibition games against professional Negro League teams, it was also a good way to have one's talent scouted by the real pros. 

A few stories about Wright report that he was discovered by the Newark Eagles while playing with the Zulus in Louisville, Kentucky. Whether that's true or not, somehow the New Orleans speed baller got the attention of the Eagles who invited him to their spring training camp at Louisburg, North Carolina in 1937. Although he was good enough to make the team, the Newark Eagles had a solid rotation consisting of future Hall of Famer Leon Day plus Terris "The Great" McDuffie and Robert Evans. Wright drew favorable mentions for his hard throwing but he remained strictly a second-line pitcher with the Eagles. During the 1938 season he was loaned out to the Atlanta Black Crackers for a spell before returning to Newark. When Max Manning joined the squad in 1939 Wright moved over to the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Craws had been a powerhouse Negro League team from 1933 through 1936, but had quickly declined after most of the team defected to the Dominican Republic in 1937. The team struggled to find a home and Wright pitched for the club through their moves from Pittsburgh to Toledo to Indianapolis. 

Wright's entry into professional ball coincided with his starting a family. He married Mildred Creecy in 1937 and they had their first child, daughter Joyce, in 1939, followed a year later by a son named Sylvester. Mildred and the kids lived in the Lafitte Housing Project in New Orleans while Johnny was on the road during the baseball season. That Wright had a family will have an important bearing on his baseball career further down the road.

In 1941 Wright signed with the Homestead Grays, the pride of the Negro National League. The Grays were in the middle of an impressive run in which they won the pennant nine consecutive seasons. It took Wright two full seasons before he became a Grays starter, but when he did, he sure made his mark. 

Johnny Wright's 1943 season was truly one for the ages. Now 26 years old, Wright had six seasons of blackball under his belt and the best bats in the game behind him. His fastball drew comparisons to Satchel Paige, some even saying it was Wright who was the faster of the two. As good as his fastball was, it was his overhand curve that was his money pitch. While many pure speed pitchers have a problem throwing an effective curve because the ball arrived at the plate too quickly to break, Wright's had broke just in time to throw a batter's timing off. He also picked up a slider and knuckle ball, giving himself a wide variety of pitches to choose from. You'd expect a guy with Satchel Paige speed to be a strikeout pitcher, but Wright's success lay in working a batter, allowing him to put the ball in play and letting his fielders make the play. On a team of veterans like the Grays, it was a recipe for success. Throughout the summer Wright won game after game, including a streak of eight in a row. This was the season that Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith would wistfully look out his office window in Griffith Stadium as the Grays pulled in more customers than his own big league team could in their own stadium. 

In a rare blackball game allowed in Wrigley Field in September, the Grays met up with their bitter rivals, the Kansas City Monarchs. The Monarchs had humiliated the Grays in the 1942 Negro World Series and although this was an exhibition that didn't count in the standings, the game was an eagerly awaited rematch. The Grays jumped all over Satchel Paige and he was run out of the box after giving up seven runs. Except for a bad fourth inning when three runs scored, Wright pitched magnificently, striking out seven Monarchs and walking just one.

Grays owner Cum Posey was so impressed with Wright's performance that midway through the summer he did the unthinkable and raised his ace's paycheck $150 a month above what his signed contract called for. In statistics recently compiled by baseball archeologist Scott Simkus, Wright is credited as winning just under 30 games during the season. This tally includes both league and exhibition games. Against Negro National and American League clubs Wright's record was 22-3 with 4 shutouts. In official Negro National League games he won 14 and lost just one. He led the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA, the Triple Crown of pitching. In a league that played just over 30 official games that year, Wright's fourteen wins really was impressive and it's why Cum Posey credited him with pitching the Grays to the 1943 pennant. 

That fall the Grays met the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro World Series. In an attempt to attract the largest crowds, the Negro World Series was played in several different cities. In the best of seven series Wright lost the first game but came back to pitch a shutout victory in game four. Four days later he repeated his performance, blanking the Barons in game six. In the final game eight (game two had ended in a tie) Wright left after six innings down by two runs but the Grays came back for the win and the World Championship. 

Then just weeks after returning home to his wife and kids in New Orleans, Johnny Wright got his induction notice for service in the United States Navy. 

Luckily for Wright, his fame preceded him into the Navy. After basic training, the pitching ace of the Negro World Champs was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Center just outside Chicago. Great Lakes had a formidable all-white baseball team lead by Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane and manned by an endless supply of ex-Major Leaguers who flowed through the base. The Navy was still segregated and the base had their own all-black ball club called the Great Lakes Sailors. Besides Johnny Wright the team boasted Larry Doby and Earl Richardson of the Newark Eagles, Zack Clayton of the Chicago American Giants, Herb Bracken of the St. Louis Stars and Sonny Randall of the Grays. University of Toledo star athlete Chuck Harman also played on the squad. Harmon would later go on to play in the NBA as well as become the first black player on the Cincinnati Reds. 

As the team's ace, Wright ran up a 16-4 record including a no-hitter and led his team to the Midwestern Serviceman's Baseball Championship. In 1945 Wright was stationed in New York where he pitched for the Floyd Bennett Field Naval Air Base. Unlike Great Lakes, Wright played along side whites at Bennett and he got the opportunity to pitch against three different Major League teams. The Red Sox beat him 9-6 and the Dodgers defeated him 6-4, but he won his last game against the White Sox, 9-6. When asked about how he got along with white teammates, Wright told the Pittsburgh Courier "the white boys treated me swell; we had nothing but agreeableness and harmony." During the 1944 and 1945 seasons Wright also managed to play a few games for the Grays. Since he played these games while on shore leave from the Navy, Wright used the alias "Leroy Leafwich". He won his two appearances in 1944 and followed that up with another three incognito wins in '45. Grays owner Cum Posey later said he kept Wright on the Grays payroll throughout his Navy hitch, paying him $250 a month to add to his $65 monthly salary as a sailor. 

Ever since Johnny Wright became the second man picked to integrate organized baseball, the question of why, out of all the great pitchers in the Negro Leagues, did Branch Rickey picked him. Besides his spectacular 1943 season and his subsequent service record, a good reason might be a game he pitched right before his discharge. Brooklyn Dodgers coach Charlie Dressen organized a five game series pitting his team of big league stars against a team of Negro League players. Held in Ebbets Field, Dressen's pick up team had All-Stars Eddie Stanky, Whitey Kurowski, Tommy Holmes, Ralph Branca, Frank McCormick and Virgil "Fire" Trucks. The Negro League All-Stars had future Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Willie Wells and Monte Irvin plus many Newark Eagles regulars. The white stars won the first four games but in the final game played on Sunday October 14th they were opposed by Leroy Leftwich, aka Johnny Wright. The Grays ace had the big leaguers shut out on three hits when the game was called after six inning due to darkness. This was the series of games that led to Branch Rickey summoning Roy Campanella to discuss playing for the Brooklyn organization. It's inevitable that Branch Rickey would have also noticed Wright's pitching performance right there in his own ballpark and filed it away for later use.

When he was mustered out of the Navy on Christmas Eve 1945, Johnny Wright looked poised for a triumphant return to the Negro Leagues. However, just as he was getting used to civilian life came the blockbuster news that the Brooklyn Dodgers had signed Jack Roosevelt Robinson to a minor league contract.

The news of Robinson's signing sent the Negro League owners into a tailspin. Unmentioned by the white press was the fact that Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson even though he was technically property of the Kansas City Monarchs. Rickey famously instructed Robinson to not sign a Monarchs contract for 1946 - however, just like white "organized baseball", players were bound to a team by the reserve clause, only relinquished through a trade or and outright release. The Negro League owners knew that Rickey's snatching of Robinson set a terrible precedent and they were powerless to stop its repercussions. 

Back in Pittsburgh, Cum Posey frantically rounded up all his men returning from the service. Among the players he made sure to reach out to was his 1943 ace, Johnny Wright. That $250 he had sent to Wright during the war wasn't purely out of the goodness of his heart but basically an unspoken retainer that Posey hoped would keep Wright loyal to the Grays. Now with Robinson's signing that insurance money he shelled out seemed all the more pertinent. The two men spoke in early January and Posey recalled that the pitcher reassured him he wasn't going to leave because the team had "been too good to him". That's why the Grays owner reacted with shock and rare uncharacteristic anger when he found out a week later that John Richard Wright of New Orleans had signed a minor league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Unlike the Robinson signing a few months earlier, Wright's went more or less under the radar. Robinson had been fairly well known to both blacks and whites due to his college football career at UCLA while Wright was known only among those who followed the Negro Leagues. From the moment he signed the Brooklyn contract, Johnny Wright would be forever known as "the other man", completely eclipsed by Robinson's talent, personality and determination.

Wright became acquainted with his Montreal manager on the train headed to spring training. By chance the two men were on the same train and were introduced by a mutual friend, former big leaguer Dutch Meyer. What Clay Hopper discussed with Wright is unrecorded. It would have been an interesting conversation. Hopper was from Mississippi and was not all that happy to be Montreal's rookie manager the same year Rickey was trying to break the race barrier. Hopper was being put in a tough spot and he knew it, but he was a baseball man and determined to do his job. If Robinson and Wright could play ball he would play them. If nothing else, Clay Hopper was going to give Robinson and Wright a fair and equal chance to make the team.

The story of Jackie Robinson's first spring training has been retold many times, both in print and on film. But the one thing that is often left out is Johnny Wright. The awkwardness upon meeting his all-white teammates? Johnny was there. When Robinson had to be whisked out of town in the middle of the night because of death threats? Johnny was whisked away too. Those times Robinson was prohibited from joining his team on the field due to Jim Crow ordinances? So too was Johnny Wright. All the indignities both subtle and overt, Johnny Wright bore them all, right along side Robinson. History is sometimes complicated and short cuts are taken to simplify understanding. For many people, bringing Johnny Wright into the equation simply gets too complex. Racism is better understood when it is distilled to its most basic elements and Johnny Wright's memory and story was the sacrifice.

Throughout spring training Johnny Wright flashed of promise followed by collapse. His trademark control seemed to have disappeared and he was knocked around pretty good in intersquad games. Besides the racial aspects overshadowing Wright, there was also the normal pressure of a player trying to make the team. Montreal was loaded with right handed pitching. There were two 20 game winners on the staff and a half-dozen other prize prospects. Wright went through the grueling fielding practice and running drills without complaint and despite some iffy outing was still considered by some the dark horse of spring training. 

Negro League veterans also lent their support behind the former Homestead Gray. Alex Pompez, owner of the New York Cuban Stars and a future Hall of Famer, predicted that Wright would win 15 games for the Royals. Manager Ben Taylor, a veteran of more than 30 years of blackball, said that Wright "can't help but make good in the International (League). That league won't touch him, mark my word for it". The only man who regarded Wright as a possible dud was his former owner Cum Posey. Shortly after Brooklyn announced Wright's signing, Posey exploded during a phone conversation with sportswriter Sam Lacy. Posey angrily listed Wright's weaknesses that included his inability to keep runners on base and his ineptness at fielding his position, especially bunts. Rickey's stealing of his prized ace was the final nail in the ailing Posey's coffin. Shortly before Wright made his Montreal debut the Grays owner spoke to sportswriter Harry Keck from his hospital deathbed. "Don't let them (Brooklyn) take my best pitcher,” he pleaded. A week later Cum Posey was dead.

When the Brooklyn Dodgers came around to play the Royals Jackie Robinson took the opportunity to shine against the big leaguers.  When Wright was given the ball he was tagged for 8 runs on 10 hits in five innings. Then in his last game before the Royals broke camp, Wright walked four and hit a batter in his only inning of work. Still, Hopper and the Brooklyn management thought enough of Wright that he made the club. 

The Royals opened the 1946 International League season on the road. Their first game was in Jersey City to face the Giants' top farm club, also called the Giants. 25,000 people jammed into Roosevelt Field to see the game. Normally every opening day in Jersey City was a sell out - for years the city's corrupt mayor Frank Hague had made it mandatory for city employees to purchase tickets to ensure his city routinely broke International League attendance records. But with Montreal boasting the first two black ball players in the modern era, history was being made on the field and that ensured a full house.

Wright didn't appear in any of the Jersey City games. Hopper held him back until the April 24 game in Syracuse against the Chiefs. Starter Jack Banta got roughed up for 4 runs in the fourth and was sent to the showers after giving up a two out bases-clearing triple. Clay Hopper waved Johnny Wright in from the bullpen. It was the first appearance of a black pitcher in the modern era. With the pressure on, Wright got the first batter to pop up to end the inning. However, what started out promising quickly fell apart. He walked the first batter to lead off the fifth. Then, as if to make Cum Posey look clairvoyant, the runner easily stole second. He scored when the next batter singled. That was followed by another single that scored a run when Wright threw away the ball trying to pick off the base runner. In the sixth Wright walked the first two batters. This was followed by an RBI double and a sacrifice scored another run. Wright got through the seventh unscathed but was lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth.

Not an auspicious beginning but not as disastrous as it is sometimes made out. Wright sat on the bench for the rest of the Syracuse series. Next Montreal came to Baltimore. Wright had played in Charm City many times when the Grays played the Elite Giants. But this time Wright was playing in front of a hostile white crowd. To go along with its vibrant black community, Baltimore had a vehemently racist white element that was typical of Mason-Dixon border cities. Rachel Robinson noted that in Florida the racists called her husband names behind their hands but in Baltimore they openly screamed them out. The crowd gave Robinson the worst reception of all the International League cities and the same awaited Wright if and when he got the ball.

That time came on the night of Saturday April 27. The Orioles were pounding the Royals 12-5 and had already chased four Montreal pitchers off the mound. With the bases loaded and two out, Clay Hopper sent Johnny Wright in. 

In baseball, there isn't a more stressful situation for a pitcher than to take the mound with the bases full. That the Orioles already had substantial lead didn't matter much, this was Wright's chance to shine in the face of steep odds and he did just that, getting his man to pop up to end the inning. When he took the mound in the bottom of the eighth his fastball was sizzling. His pitches hit right where he wanted them to and his curve was as sharp as it had been in the summer of '43. Three Orioles stepped to the plate and Wright struck them all out. He came on in the ninth and again held the O's hitless. Unfortunately the Royals couldn't close the gap and lost 12-7, Wright's valiant outing going to waste.

A week later the Dodgers announced the signing of left-handed pitcher Roy Partlow to a Montreal contract. Like Wright, Partlow was a seasoned veteran of the Negro Leagues. Along with Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella who were several rungs down the Dodger farm system at Nashua, Brooklyn had five black ball players in their pipeline, three just below the major leagues. 

The Royals came home to Montreal for the first time after opening on the road. Hometown fans immediately got to see Jackie Robinson in action but Wright sat on the bench. And then he was gone.  At the end of the month the Dodgers announced that Johnny Wright was sent to the Class C Trois Rivieres team of the Canadian-American League. With four black players still positioned in the top tiers of the minor league system, Wright's demotion didn't possess the sting it might have if he and Robinson were the only ones. The black press consciously chose to focus on Robinson and on a lesser extent Newcombe and Campanella who were dominating the New England League. 

At first Wright didn't relish his new assignment. On the baseball map Trois Rivieres smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. He split his first few decisions but then two things happened that turned the season around for him. The first was that Roy Partlow also found himself shipped out to Trois Rivieras after an unimpressive stint with Montreal. Having a friendly face who also had been demoted was probably comforting to Wright. The other thing was he now had the chance to pitch regularly. His old control seemed to return and his 12 wins, combined with Roy Partlow's 11-1 record, helped lead Rivieres to the pennant. To cap it off he pitched the game that gave Trois Rivieres the league championship. After the season ended Wright told sportswriters that he expected to hear from the Dodgers after Christmas.

Meanwhile Jackie Robinson finished off a spectacular debut season by leading the Royals to the International League pennant. Montreal then faced the Louisville Colonels in the Junior World Series. Robinson was outstanding and the Royals won in six games. It was undeniable that next season he would be in a Dodger uniform.

In the custom of the day, Jackie Robinson cashed in on his newly earned fame by organizing a barnstorming tour. Assembled by a Pittsburgh promoter, "Jackie Robinson's All-Stars" was the first of several post-season tours in which Robinson led a squad of black ball players through the south and western United States. Including its namesake, Robinson's 1946 team boasted three other future Hall of Famers: Larry Doby, Roy Campanella and Monte Irvin. Other standouts included Don Newcombe, Artie Wilson and Johnny Wright. The tour enabled black fans in rural towns the chance to see in person the players who were in or would soon be in organized baseball. However, despite his presence on the Jackie Robinson tour and his redeeming record at Trois Rivieres, Johnny Wright never received the expected call back from the Dodgers.

Some histories attribute Wright's Montreal flame out on his inability to deal with the racial animosity heaped upon he and Robinson. While no one who never lived through the race hatred of the time can ever say what the effect could be on a person, reflecting on the two ball players one could almost say that of the two, it was Wright that had the edge in dealing with the hate. Unlike Robinson who had been brought up in Southern California and attended UCLA, Wright was from and still lived in New Orleans. Wright had spent his whole life living within the sick parameters that the South's Jim Crow laws and customs held blacks to. Many descriptions of Wright from this 1946 period call him timid and quiet, trying to blend into the background. These character traits are often used to explain why Wright didn't make it with Montreal. Another way to look at his personality is that it was the way Jim Crow taught southern blacks like Johnny Wright to exist in the white world, not making any waves, blending in. Today that's a hard to understand, let alone accept, but for decades that was the best way to exist in a world that did its best to marginalize an entire race on account of their skin color.  

It's interesting to wonder what would have happened had some big league team tried to integrate in the early 1930's. This was before World War II, an event that forced Americans, both black and white, to at least tolerate each other's existence in the service and in factories. Prior to the war it was rare that the two races would mix let alone work together. In this much different atmosphere, a black ball player with the personality of Johnny Wright might have been the right one to have successfully integrated the game in the 1930's. But this was 1946, and times were changing. For this reason, it was Jackie Robinson's silent but forceful and bold approach that was needed to integrate baseball, not Wright's. Whether this had any effect on the pitcher during his six weeks with Montreal is not known. 

There's also another detail that might have had an impact on Wright's 1946 season. Jackie Robinson had married just after signing with the Dodgers and his wife Rachel accompanied him to spring training and then Montreal. Robinson often told how Rachel's presence helped him deal with the pressure heaped upon him. The two acted as a team and this contributed to Robinson's success on and off the field. Johnny Wright had two kids in grade school and they stayed in New Orleans with Mildred. So while Robinson had his wife at his side during this very stressful and trying period, Wright was on his own.  

Most pieces on Johnny Wright simply end at this point - a quick mention of a two-year return to the Homestead Grays and then retirement. This abrupt end to a promising career makes it seem like the pitcher gave up on the game when the call from the Dodgers never materialized. It makes a dramatic and easy to digest story, but it isn't true at all. Wright actually played professional ball for more than eight years before retiring for good.

After the Jackie Robinson All-Stars tour ended in California, Wright returned home to be with his family for the holidays, and then he headed to Puerto Rico. Since the mid-1930's the Puerto Rico Winter League had attracted white, black and Hispanic players and boasted a league that rivaled Cuba's famous winter loop. Wright joined the Ponce Leones where he won 8 of the team's 60 games, making him one of the best hurlers on the island. The '46-'47 Ponce team won the league championship and has gone down as one of the best ever fielded on the island. But while Wright helped pitch Ponce to the pennant, he was not with the team for the final series due to a salary dispute with the owners. Wright balked at not being paid for post-season games and the ownership claimed his salary was for the whole season, post season included. Neither side budged and Wright sat out the final series while Ponce won without him.

With the death of Cum Posey, the Homestead Grays limped on. Several of their young players had signed on with minor league teams, but the Grays had always been a veteran team and most of their starters were too old to be considered viable prospects by organized baseball. Posey's death also meant that Wright was able to rejoin the club. The Grays failed to win the pennant for the second straight year though Wright contributed a good 8-4 record for them. He was also named to his second East-West All-Star team. Pitcher Wilmer Fields who was Wright's teammate at this time said "John never talked much about his experience with the Dodgers. He was a happy-go-lucky person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” A winning record, All-Star appearance and being called "happy-go-lucky" doesn't seem like a guy ready to pack it in. It sounds like a pro ballplayer who wanted to put a single bad season behind him and get on with his career.

Since his salary dispute made a return to the Puerto Rico Winter League impossible, Wright set a course for Venezuela. Like Puerto Rico and Cuba, Venezuela had a thriving baseball league that attracted players of all races. Wright joined the Lácteos de Pastora (Pastora Milkers) which had a perrenial rivalry with the Gavilanes de Maracaibo (Maracaibo Sparrowhawks), the two teams usually finishing first and second every year. Among the other foreigners who played that year were future big leaguers Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Luke Easter and Joe Black. 

At the conclusion of the season Wright re-joined the Homestead Grays. Reports from spring training state that the Grays were pinning their pitching hopes on Wright but this never came to fruition. He appears to have stayed with the team through June but then he and fellow pitcher Groundhog Thompson jumped to the Mexican League. Since the late 1930's the Negro League owners had had problems with players skipping out on their contracts. Their answer was always a blanket banishment from the league, and on July 31, Wright and Thompson were officially blacklisted. Even without Wright's services, the team had enough in them for their final gasp of glory, winning the last Negro National League pennant. The Grays went on the beat the Birmingham Black Barons, a team that featured a 17 year-old outfielder named Willie Mays, in the Negro World Series.

By now the Negro Leagues were collapsing - the Homestead Grays and New York Black Yankees called it quits after the 1948 season and the Negro National and American Leagues merged into a single two division loop. That meant positions were drying up as the teams that were still around changed their focus from winning pennants with dependable veterans to signing young players who could be sold to organized baseball and turn a profit. In the wake of the Grays and Black Yankees demise, the Negro American League redistributed the players among the remaining teams. His name picked out of a hat at an owner's meeting, Wright was made property of the Louisville Buckeyes. In 1949 Johnny Wright was 32 years old, a dinosaur in baseball years, and his options were running out. While he may have had some stuff left in his arm, he already had his shot at the majors and no one was going to take a chance on him again, especially with a new, younger crop of talent to choose from.

In the winter of 1948-49 Wright returned to Venezuela where he switched to Pastora's bitter rival, Gavilanes de Maracaibo. With the Negro Leagues all but finished, Wright ignored his transfer to Louisville and instead headed south to Mexico. Back in 1946 when he and Robinson were integrating organized baseball, the Mexican Baseball League had lured several white big league players south of the border where they joined many Negro League and Latin stars for one spectacular season of integrated play. High salaries and threats of banishment from the Major and Negro Leagues quickly put the brakes on any hopes that the Mexican League would grow and the loop lost most of their stars. Though the quality dropped dramatically, the league still offered a last chance for many older players like Johnny Wright who still wanted to earn a paycheck playing ball. In 1950 Wright split the year playing for San Luis Potosi Tuneros and the Veracruz Azules and compiled a 13-14 record with a 2.80 ERA in 36 games. The following year he appeared for both the Nuevo Laredo Tecolotes and the Torreon Algodoneros and broke even with 14-14 and a 1.37 ERA in 37 games.

After Mexico Wright moved over to the Dominican Republic where he played for Escogido in 1952 and 1953 and in 1954 for Águilas Cibaeñas. His record there was an unimpressive 4 wins against 16 losses, but in May of 1954 he took a no-hitter into the 9th inning before giving up a game winning single.

Now we come to the real end of Johnny Wright's baseball career. As if to come full circle, Wright returned to the States and signed on with the Indianapolis Clowns. Like the very first professional team he played with back 1n 1936, the New Orleans Zulus, the Clowns were a vaudeville-baseball comedy troupe. The Clowns were in what remained of the old Negro American League, playing teams like the once-proud Kansas City Monarchs who were now no better than semi-pro level. Wright pitched a few good games for the Clowns before hanging up his spikes for good. Work in outsider baseball was quickly drying up and he was now almost 40. It was time head home to Mildred and the kids in New Orleans. 

The retired pitcher took a job in a gypsum plant. A 1998 article in his hometown New Orleans Times-Picayune states that Wright never discussed his baseball career and a friend of his later said that Wright's co-workers probably never even knew he was a ballplayer. Johnny Wright passed away in 1990 without leaving any interviews or insights into his life in baseball. It's my hope that this story reveals a little more about Johnny Wright, that he wasn't just a footnote but a real ballplayer who at one time was the best pitcher in the Negro National League, a man whose talent earned him the once in a lifetime shot at integrating the game he excelled at. 

Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker out of jealousy or boredom. I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

215. Al Fowler: The New York Knights Ace

After spending all that time researching and then illustrating real life Chicago Cubs Hall of Famers, I thought it would be a nice change of pace to pick a fictitious character from literature or movies. Because this is The Infinite Baseball Card Set and there are no set rules, guys like Mayday Sam Malone of "Cheers", Henry Wiggen from "Bang The Drum Slowly" and J.D. Salinger's Chief Gedsudski all take their place beside Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle.

Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural” has always been my favorite baseball novel, and over the years I've created cards and back stories for two of the main characters, Roy Hobbs and Bump Baily. I thought today I’d create a card and biography for the New York Knights’ ace, Al Fowler.

Detroit Tigers scouts signed the 17 year-old Al Fowler right off the Rochester sandlots where he was regularly striking-out 15 batters per game. Rated one of the best pitchers in the minors, the New York Knights traded a handful of proven veterans to get the services of the young left-hander.Fowler debuted in the majors just before his twentieth birthday and he finished with a 3-1 record and what looked to be a promising future.

Fowler’s detractors say he tried to strike out every single batter he faced, there-by tiring himself out before the ninth inning. While this criticism may be true, it was something Fowler felt necessary due to the poor offence and defence provided by his Knights teammates. Contemporary sportswriters liked to quip that besides being among the leaders in strike-outs, Fowler also led the league in suspensions for breaking training rules. His late night cavorting with teammate Bump Baily was often cited as the only thing that stood in his way of becoming the best southpaw in the National League. Syndicated columnist Max Mercy famously described Fowler as “the 23 year-old who looks 30”.

Fowler’s luck turned around completely in 1939 when the 35 year-old rookie Roy Hobbs joined the Knights. With a potent offence finally behind him, the right-hander won a career high 15 games. He also picked up the win in the one-game playoff against Pittsburgh, though he pitched poorly. Rumors persist to this day about Fowler’s role in a plot by gamblers to “fix” the pennant, though he was never formally accused or prosecuted. Fowler tried to dispel any suspicions by pitching magnificently in the World Series, and his 3-hit shutout in Game 2 was the only Knights victory in the 5 game loss the Yankees.

Fowler suffered an arm injury warming up before the 1940 All-Star Game and never pitched effectively again. He was traded to the Cubs in 1942 and retired a year later. He worked as a salesman for the Ballentine Brewery and later owned a successful chain of liquor stores in the Rochester area.

Friday, April 1, 2016

THIS is what I've been up to lately...

If you've stopped by recently you could see I haven't been very active on here. It has nothing to do with running out of stories or a lack of desire to draw any more cards - on the contrary, that's all I've been doing for two months now. The reason I haven't had time to post here is that I've been consumed with a commission that I wanted to keep under wraps until it was close to completion. Now it's a mere two weeks from Opening Day and I'm ready to crack open the door to my studio and let you sneak a look at what I've been doing. 

Just before Christmas I was asked by Ronnie Younts, owner of Younts Design in Maryland, if I would be interested in creating 15 five foot tall illustrations of the Chicago Cubs greats. Younts is the firm that is creating all the graphic elements of the new renovated parts of Wrigley Field. As you probably know, the Cubs are in year two of a multi year restoration of Wrigley Field, and 2016 will be the opening of the famed bleachers part of the project. 

I'm very proud to say that my illustrations will installed in that new bleacher section of this beautiful old park. 

I'll be writing more about the project and reveal some of the details of my work in the next week or so, but until then, I wanted to show you a section of my illustration of Cubs ace Ferguson Jenkins. 

One of the best parts about this commission is that all the players (with the exception of four early Cubs) are depicted in Wrigley Field. Built in 1914, Wrigley is a monument to baseball history and in my opinion one of the most beautiful backdrops for a baseball illustration. As you can see in the Jenkins piece, the scoreboard is a star in its own right. And because the illustrations are so large, I was able to include some really fun details. Take the scores behind Fergie - I combed through scorecards from 1966 to accurately show pitchers that would have been pitching that season. Then I was able to show some of my personal favorites like Reds pitcher number 41 - Joe Nuxhall, and number 56 of the Yankees, Jim Bouton. 

As it gets closer to the Cubs home opener on April 11 I'll show some more of the 15 players - but until then, I need to get back to work!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

214. Bill Sisler: Have Glove, Will Travel (Part 1)

Ever been to Moline, Muskogee or Martinsburg? How about Clarksburg, Charleroi or Cumberland? Pitcher Bill Sisler not only hung his hat in all of those places but also over 40 more towns across America and Canada in a career that spanned from 1923 through 1953! 

This is the first of what should be close to forty posts I will periodically do covering the minor league odyssey of Bill Sisler. This series will be fun for a few different reasons, the foremost being that I love researching and illustrating old uniforms, and Sisler's appearing for over 40 different teams lets me really show a wide variety. To make this whole series a bit easier is that Sisler kept himself in top physical condition throughout his playing days in order to be ready to play at a moment's notice. This means he didn't gain weight or otherwise change his body shape with age. For all my Sisler illustrations I am going to use the same pose, but each uniform graphic will change to represent a new team. Likewise the backgrounds will vary to reflect each town he played in. In addition, as the years tick by, the glove, cap and uniform style will change to reflect the modernization of the equipment. For instance, today's post shows Bill on his first pro team, the Elmira Red Jackets. Since this is 1923, Sisler is using a Spalding split-finger style glove as was common at the time. The webbing between the thumb and index is a solid piece of leather, not leather lacing as was common later in the decade. His jersey has the "sun collar" which was the standard for baseball uniforms up until the mid-1930's, and the cap has a shorter brim as was common in 1923.

So, who was Bill Sisler? 

He was born in Rochester, New York in the first year of the 20th century, 1900. By all newspaper stories I've read about him, Sisler is described as a sturdy and stocky fellow who stood a compact 5'-6" - just below average for a ball player at the time and considerably shorter than what was the accepted height for a pitcher. None-the-less, Sisler must have had something on his fastball, and his being a lefty probably didn't hurt either. 

The first mention I can find of Sisler is in 1923 when he appeared in 3 games for the Elmira Red Jackets. Elmira played in the old New York-Penn League which was classified by organized baseball as a "Class B" circuit. Baseball classifications through the decades gets a bit confusing so bear with me as I try to explain. Back in 1923, organized baseball - that is, the white ball clubs who were dues paying members recognized and regulated by the National Commission - had 33 clubs in 6 "Classes". The top was of course the National and American Leagues - the "Big Leagues" if you will. Right below them were the 3 AA leagues. These included the Pacific Coast League, the midwestern American Association and the eastern International League. These would be the equivalent of today's Triple A (AAA) classification. Next came four Class A leagues. These included the Texas League, Southern Association, Eastern League and the Western League and would be on the level with today's Double A (AA) leagues. Below this came the 6 Class B leagues. These were loops such as the Virginia League and the New York-Penn League - where Bill Sisler got his start. Today we would call this Advanced A (AdvA). One rung below this were 4 Class C leagues such as the Piedmont League and the Florida State League, and these were today's Single A (A) level. And at the very bottom of the organized baseball food chain were 14 Class D leagues. These are now called the Rookie League level and back in Bill Sisler's time they were the most common level of pro baseball found around the country. 

As you know from my site, I like diving into the weird world of the Semi-Pros because there are so many great stories found there. While today the concept of semi-pro means a level far below even the Rookie League, yet back in Bill Sisler's day there were many semi-pro teams that could have and did whip Major League teams on a good day. Take a team like the Brooklyn Bushwicks - research by baseball archaeologist Scott Simkus (if you don't have his book "Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe", you NEED to get it right now!) shows that the Bushwicks operated on a level hovering between today's AA and AAA leagues. So what I'm trying to get at is that besides vertical scale of organized ball there was a horizontal scale of semi-pro teams that a ball player could catch on with at various time in his career. A journeyman like Bill Sisler did just that to keep a paycheck coming and his spikes in the game in-between minor league assignments.

I'm gonna stop here and leave you with a 22 year-old Bill Sisler, pitcher for the Elmira Red Jackets. It's the spring of 1923 and he's at the very dawn of a journey that will take him to almost every state in the nation with stops in leagues of every classification organized baseball had to offer - all except the highest one.

One more thing  - I'm not too big to know when I need help with something. While I'm a pretty good researcher with a vast archive of uniform reference, some of Bill Sisler's teams remain elusive for me. If anyone can help with photographs of some of his teams, I'd be most grateful. You can see a list of his stops HERE.

Monday, February 8, 2016

213. Jimmy O'Connell: The Other Side of a Scandal

Over the years I've been fortunate enough to hear from several of the players whose portraits and stories I've included on my website, and that continued after my book "The League of Outsider Baseball" came out in May. One of the most memorable letters I received from a relative of Jimmy O'Connell. He's in the chapter entitled "The Bad Guys" due to his being thrown out of organized baseball for offering money to an opposing player to throw a game. Jimmy's great-niece wrote to say how bittersweet it was to find her great-uncle Jim in a chapter with a title of "Bad Guys". After telling me about how much she enjoyed the book she added this poignant passage: "So I'd like to put in a word for Jim O'Connell and let you know what a good guy he was. Devoted to his wife, my Aunt Esther, a loving uncle to my mom and her sister and madly in love with the game of baseball, long after it turned its back on him. ". 

Those words stuck with me ever since. These ballplayers I illustrate and write about had families who loved them. The letter made Jimmy O'Connell not just a name from old newspaper articles and box scores, but a very real person. I want to thank Jimmy's relatives for taking the time to write this great piece. The story of Jimmy O'Connell and the 1924 pennant scandal is often told, but never to my knowledge has it been told from the family's perspective. I'm both honored and humbled to be able to showcase this story here on my website. and without further delay, here the O'Connell family's "guest author" post on the old ballplayer they called "Uncle Jim"...

We all know the curdled feeling you get when your ball team loses. It is always at its most intense when the game hinges on a single error and your team ends up sinking a bit deeper in the loss column. But brighter tomorrows come easily in baseball. With its lengthy season and ambling games that always breed hope, the crummy feelings dissipate and faith is restored with one swing of a bat. But for New York Giants outfielder James "Jimmy" O'Connell, a single error of judgement in the 1924 pennant race meant a lifetime ban from professional baseball. The stamp of his poor decision stayed affixed to him and his name has traveled down nine decades of baseball history with a scandal attached.

But for me, the name Jimmy O'Connell doesn't exist solely in places like Gary's excellent book The League of Outsider Baseball. He was also my mother's "Uncle Jim", her lovable, generous and incontrovertibly optimistic uncle, friend and hero. My mom Mary June, her sister Margaret and cousin Bette always kept stories of dashing Uncle Jim alive for their combined 21 children. Although they never denied the fact that in the pennant race of 1924, Jim offered another player $500 if he didn't "bear down too hard ", they also handed down the story, detailed in their aunt's anguished letters, of heartbreak and misguided faith in the men of baseball who held Jimmy's fate in their hands. They told us, too, about the life Jim lived after the scandal, spent on dusty Outlaw League diamonds, and then back in California where some of the shimmer of his days as a San Francisco Seal stood him in better light with old fans and admirers.

In 1921, my grandmother's sister Esther moved from Montana to San Francisco to look for work. She found a secretarial job at accountants Price-Waterhouse and one day she noticed a photo of a young ball player named Jimmy O'Connell in the newspaper and set her heart on him. The handsome Irish-American was a member of the San Francisco Seals and Esther, chaperoned by her visiting mother, left a note for the first baseman at Recreation Park. "We went down to 14th Street and Valencia and left a note at the Seals office. I asked him to call on me at the Palace Hotel, if he wished. I got a call that afternoon," said Esther in an interview recorded on cassette tape before her death in 1978. Their first date was spent at the Pantages Theater seeing comedian Georgie Jessel. Recalling the evening, Esther said, "In his monologue he said, 'Did you ever see O'Connell hit one?'"

The young couple was married on October 2, 1922 and not long after their honeymoon, O'Connell was in the newspapers on both coasts due to the record-breaking sum paid by the New York Giants for his contract. "Babe Ruth Has Nothing on Seals $75,000 Beauty" and "N. Y. Giants $75,000 'Rookie'" sang the headlines. O'Connell went straight to work at the Giants' training camp, gearing up for a switch to the outfield.

The early 1920s were a glittering time in New York City and Esther was a faithful correspondent, describing to her mother and sisters the glamorous Broadway revels and pure excitement of the Polo Grounds. A family of inveterate newspaper clippers, Esther's sisters saved every mention of Jimmy O'Connell from printed game stats to the items in the society page depicting the young O'Connell and his smartly dressed wife on the town.

Then the 1924 season came to a staggering end and with it, the baseball career of Jimmy O'Connell. Books like Judge Landis by J.G. Taylor Spink and John McGraw by Charles C. Alexander have reported the details of what happened on Sept. 27, 1924 and the ensuing meetings held in Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis' office. The main fact was thus: In a game whose win would only be an insurance policy in a National League pennant race they had nearly captured, NY Giants rookie outfielder Jimmy O'Connell approached Philadelphia shortstop Heinie Sand and whispered, "It will be worth $500 to you if you don't bear down too hard against us today."  Aghast, Sands refused and went straight to his manager to report the offer.  Word traveled swiftly to the ears of baseball commissioner Landis and O'Connell and coach Cozy Dolan were immediately summoned to explain their part in Sands' accusation. (And as it turned out, the Giants didn't need any funny business to win their "fourth straight flag". "Why offer Philadelphia $500 to lose?" one wag quipped. "They're happy to lose for free.")

Esther's side of the story was delivered in a long, tear-stained letter she composed to her mother after sitting out all night with Jim in Central Park to avoid the hordes of reporters that had descended upon their residence.  "He didn't want to but when he asked the older men what to do he was told, 'You know how thick McGraw and Dolan are, so it is orders.'" McGraw was brusque Giants owner John McGraw and those "older men" were future hall-of-famers Frank Frisch, Ross Youngs and George Kelly, who all denied saying anything and escaped punishment.

For a time, the couple remained hopeful. Jimmy never denied having made the offer to Sands, saying that he was told by coach Dolan to send out a feeler. And there is nothing that has ever been published (to my knowledge) that states that Jimmy O'Connell was solely responsible for the offer. Several baseball writers have asked, "Who put together the money?" and a couple have wondered aloud whether it was all a prank against a credible greenhorn. But adjudication was solely in the hands of Judge Landis and he handed Jimmy O'Connell and Cozy Dolan lifetime bans from professional baseball.

Stunned, Jim and Esther left New York and returned to Northern California. Esther wrote to her sister, "Jim has youth and health and we have each other and we can start over again in time." Jim's love for baseball (and his terrific athletic ability) drew him down to New Mexico to play outlaw baseball in a small league that hosted several other banned players and was looked upon with scorn by organized baseball. The Fort Bayard team was sponsored by a group of World War One vets, most of whom were bedridden with lingering wounds and tuberculosis in the post hospital. Jimmy was so popular with the fans and the vets that he eventually formed a team for the Southwest New Mexico League called "Jimmy O'Connell's All-Stars". Throughout his six years in New Mexico, Jim thrived in his roles of team captain and raiser-of-spirits to the men of Fort Bayard Hospital.

There was no shortage of calls and petitions for the reinstatement of Jimmy O'Connell made to Judge Landis. None other than the colorful writer Damon Runyon asked Landis to reconsider. "Don't you think this boy has been punished enough, Judge? I believe the public would be with you if you reinstate him." But Landis never budged and eventually Jim and Esther left the Southwest and headed back to California to begin another chapter in their lives. Jim took a job with Richfield Oil and enjoyed a long career with the oil company, starting as a refinery worker and ending his career in public relations, promoting the development of the Alaska Pipeline.

My mother, Mary June, described a visit to Uncle Jim and Auntie Esther in her 1940 diary, composed when she was nineteen years old. She flew from Cheyenne, Wyoming to San Francisco and stayed for a week in the O'Connell's Sausalito home. Each day she recorded a marvelous sightseeing trip with her Uncle Jim, culminating in a visit to the World's Fair. My mother always treasured the souvenir photograph that Uncle Jim gave her that day. And with good reason. There aren't many photos of Jimmy O'Connell in our family collection and very little memorabilia outside of a silver "Open Gate" medallion given to Jim by the NY Giants in 1924.

When Esther O'Connell returned home from Jim's funeral in Bakersfield in 1976, there was a baseball collector waiting in the driveway. Brushing past him and his inquiries, Esther made a bonfire in her backyard and threw Jim's mitts, uniforms and memorabilia on the flames. Jim had allowed himself to move on, but Esther's anger at baseball had never subsided. Mom's cousin Bette managed to save one box of Jim's things from the bonfire, but Esther had already torn the photos in two. A team photo of the SF Seals, a press photo of Jim and Sox player Willie Kamm, and a photo of Jim shaking hands with John McGraw were poignantly pieced back together with transparent tape. It is a small, but cherished, collection that I hope will spur the curiosity and baseball fever of my grandnieces and nephews as it has mine.

I am so very grateful to Gary Cieradkowski for including Jimmy O'Connell in his book and for creating such a wonderful illustration of Uncle Jim. I wasn't sure if I was just dispatching an email into the wild blue yonder when I wrote to Gary about another side of Jimmy O'Connell's story. HIs gracious reply has allowed me to share these personal reminiscences of my family and provide another view of a man who, by all surviving post-scandal accounts, was admired by just about everyone he came across.

I have been encouraged to write about Uncle Jim for many years by my Aunt Margaret. At 92, she is in full possession of her detailed memories of her beloved Uncle Jim.  I dedicate this blog post to her. She is the last person in our family (and perhaps the world!) to have seen Jimmy O'Connell play baseball. She saw him play on the Richfield Oil company team on a visit to California in 1935. She was eleven years old.

I spoke to her on the phone the other day and asked her if Jim ever talked about his regrets or suffered from the anguish that plagued Esther. She said, "He never said a word about it. It was all in the past. When he walked in the room, he'd look me and Mary June in the eyes and say, "Shall we get an ice cream cone, girls?"

A Note About the Illustration: I wanted to show Jimmy back before he joined the Giants, circa 1923 while with the San Francisco Seals, when his future was bright and the sky was the limit for him. I depicted him in the time-honored baseball chore of "boning" his bat with a horse shoe. This was done back before players used 100's of bats each year. Players would spend spare time rubbing a horse shoe, Coke bottle or steak bone on the bat which closed the pores of the wood, making it rock-hard and less likely to break.