Tuesday, September 7, 2010

48. The Weasel vs. The Ghost

I 'm doing something a little different for this post. Instead of focusing on one player I decided to feature 2 players and the story that binds the two of them together.

When I was first researching negro league baseball back in the early 1980's, the first great solid piece of work I stumbled upon was Robert Peterson's "Only The Ball Was White". Published in the early 1970's it was the groundbreaking work that laid the foundation for all the subsequent books and research on black baseball. Although riddled with inaccuracies (through no fault of his own, he was the first for God's sake!) Peterson's book shines a light on the dark and hidden world of early black ball. The stories in it ware fascinating to me, almost like ancient legends from another time and place. These were men who were playing the most popular sport in the country in front of millions of fans, yet no one ever heard of them. They were existing in a parallel universe and Peterson's book still gives me that feeling of mystery and danger when I think back on reading it so long ago. It was through his book that many of us were first introduced to two of the greatest infielders of the 20th century, Frank "The Weasel" Warfield and Oliver "The Ghost" Marcelle and the story that links them together forever in baseball lore.

By 1929 Frank Warfield and Oliver Marcelle were both stars and veteran infielders for the champion Baltimore Black Sox. So talented were they that along with teammates Jud Wilson at first base and Dick Lundy at shortstop they were called the "Million Dollar Infield". Warfield and Marcelle had been teammates before, playing together on the Detroit Stars. The Black Sox, always a strong team but never able to pull it together and win the championship, did just that in 1929, winning the Negro American League Pennant under Warfield's management. Warfield hit a mediocre .221 but it was his managerial experience and superb fielding that made the difference for Baltimore. His style of leadership has been described as rough and abrasive and he was often engaged in arguing and baiting umpires and berating his own players right on the field in front of everyone watching. He was quiet and brooding, flashed big wads of cash and was quick with a knife. Unpopular and sarcastic, his fellow teammates dubbed him "The Weasel".

Oliver Marcelle was the best third baseman of the 1920's. His ability to play deep and seemingly to appear at the right spot out of nowhere earned him the nickname "The Ghost". Marcelle was a good looking Creole from Louisiana and the vainest man in the league. He also had one of the nastiest dispositions in the negro leagues and the chronicle of black baseball is littered with stories of his battles. He was a stone-cold street fighter and would use anything to gain the upper hand in a fight. Already nasty, he was only worse when under the influence of alcohol. Once while fighting Oscar Charleston (himself a legendary brawler who had once ripped the hood from a Klansman who was threatening him) he hit the much larger Charleston over the head with a bat. He fought with opposing players, umpires and his own teammates.

After the successful 1929 season, Marcelle and Warfield headed south to Cuba for winter baseball. Back before the Second World War, Cuba's winter league attracted the best players of all colors who were eager to supplement their regular salary with some post-season employment. Only the best players were asked to play and being part of the "Million Dollar Infield" guaranteed an invitation for Warfield and Marcelle. The Weasel went with the Santa Clara Club and The Ghost to Almendares. It was playing in Cuba during that winter of 1929-30 that the incident occurred that bound those two volatile players together forever in baseball history.

It started with a dice game. Warfield and Marcelle were in a group shooting craps at a hotel in Santa Clara and Warfield was riding a winning streak. For every winning throw of the dice The Weasel threw, The Ghost crapped out finally coming up broke. Marcelle asked Warfield for five bucks to continue to play. The Ghost said it was owed to him by the Black Sox from the previous season in Baltimore. The Weasel refused. Things started getting nasty. Both men were not adverse to violence. It got out of hand quickly. Marcelle challenged Warfield to fight and slugged him in the mouth. It was on. The fight was so brutal that it was only ended after Warfield had managed to bite off a piece of Marcelle's nose. That's right, he bit off the part that covered the nostril on one side of Marcelle's nose.

Marcelle was taken to the hospital were he pressed charges against his former manager. Warfield cooled his heals in a Cuban jail for a few days while a minor international incident swirled around the fight. Eventually charges were dismissed and he was quietly released because both men were American citizens and Cuban officials probably just wanted to rid themselves of two nasty and violent men.

Now remember, Marcelle was one the vainest men to step on a ballfield. Losing a big ol' chunk of his proboscis in the days before plastic surgery must have been a crushing blow. He took to wearing a black eye patch over his nose to cover the hole. The once sarcastic and cruel player was now on the receiving end of what must have been an endless cycle of jokes from his opponents on the ballfield and the fans in the bleachers. It got to be so bad that Marcelle left organized ball and drifted out west where he was not known, playing semi-pro ball in dusty frontier towns along the way. He settled in Denver as a house painter and was instrumental in getting the Kansas City Monarchs an invitation to play in the Denver Post Tournament in 1934. The Monarchs promptly won the tourney and the white sports world was introduced to their pitching star, Satchel Paige. But The Ghost continued to drink, his addiction getting so out of hand that his family left him and he died alone and broke at age 51. No one in his neighborhood knew he was once a great ballplayer. they just remembered the guy with the nose patch.

Warfield, the victor in the fight, went back to Baltimore and resumed managing the Black Sox. His playing days were drawing to a close but he was coming into his own as a successful manager. In 1932 he took up the reigns of the Washington Pilots and while in Pittsburgh that July he died under shady circumstances. Warfield, always the ladies man, was with a woman that July night when he was rushed to the hospital bleeding. Internal hemorrhaging led to a heart attack and death. He was 37.

1 comment:

  1. Classic story, great cards. I still cherish Peterson's book as well. What's amazing to me is how much he got right, really. Without digitized papers and next to nothing previously published on the subject, it's sort of astonishing how much he captured.