This week we have a special guest author, John Klima. John wrote the very well reviewed Willie's Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, The Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend. If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend it. As the title suggests, Willie's Boys is the story of the 1948 Black Barons. Today, the Black Barons are overshadowed by the more well-known teams like the Monarchs and Grays, yet Birmingham can boast some really great alumni, such as Satchel Paige, Mule Suttles, Artie Wilson, Sam Bankhead, Charley Pride, Sam Streeter, Lyman Bostock, and of course, Willie Mays. Throughout the 1940's Birmingham was the strongest club in the Negro American League, winning pennants in 1943, 1944 and 1948. The '48 squad was piloted by by their 4-time All-Star second baseman, Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, and it is Piper who John Klima has so graciously written about, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of his birth. So, without further ado, here's author John Klima...
Happy 100th, Piper Davis
Piper Davis was born to play in the big leagues. Time and circumstances got in the way of his destiny but never changed the way he viewed his life. He played until his bones ached and his body became bridle, swinging the bat long enough to afford to put his children into college, and with enough years behind him to influence decades of baseball players who gravitated to his knowing pull. They followed the scent of his swirling pipe smoke and listened to him speak. His voice was booming and robust, soulful and soothing. He saw things in the game others could not readily see and he freely shared his knowledge.
There was not a touch of greed within him, and when he died there was no regret or lament. Time had taken a toll on his memories but not his spirit, and from the time he was born on July 3, 1917 to the time he died on May 21, 1997, Birmingham's favorite son was sure of one thing -- though he had never appeared in a major league game, Piper Davis knew he was a big leaguer. Never had a doubt about it. He didn't need you to tell him that. He knew it all along.
I got to know Piper, posthumously, when I wrote my book Willie's Boys, which was published in 2009. The book was about how Willie Mays, Piper's young charge on the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, navigated the world of segregated baseball and was eventually signed by the New York Giants in 1950. I still maintain that this is the greatest single story in the history of free agent scouting, for all the moving parts and behind-the-scenes connections and contacts that made the career of Mays possible. Piper's part in all this was unreported and enormous, and the fingerprints of his character were all over Mays's career. Simply put, Piper put the youngster first.
When a talented young amateur player comes around, you will find if you stay in baseball long enough, that greedy adults will do everything in their power to manipulate the player to their advantage. They will do so for personal benefit and at the expense of the young player's development. This dynamic exists today, and it always gets dicey in June and July.
Piper was a rarity -- a man of immense character, a man of God and a man of Family, who refused to deviate from the time he knew Mays needed to become a pro. He taught him and pushed him. He preached and he punished. He left in the bus without him. He also hit him cleanup and played him in center field when he decided Mays was ready. When white scouts came to ask about Mays, it was Piper they sought. Though Piper himself wanted out of the Negro Leagues before it was too late, never once did he tie his future to Mays. He refused to compromise Mays for his own personal gain.
Willie's Boys was about Mays but the story belonged to Piper, because the reason baseball had Willie Mays is Piper Davis. When I called Willie, he very genially reflected and said, "You know this stuff better than I do." And when I asked about his fondness for Piper, he simply reflected and said, "He was a very special person to me."
Piper had that affect on players he met and people who never met him. So on the occasion of what would have been his 95th birthday, July 3, 2012, I decided to do something that hadn't been done before. I decided to try to get Piper Davis into a major league game.
Luck was on my side. The Cincinnati Reds were in Los Angeles, at Dodger Stadium. The manager of the Reds at the time, Dusty Baker, has an affinity for history and a deep awareness of those who came before him. These characteristics were handed down to him as a young man when he was placed under the wing of Henry Aaron and when Satchel Paige made the young Johnnie B. Baker tote his fishing poles. As a Dodger, Dusty admired the heritage of Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. Though the decades, Dusty has shown he has a lot of Piper Davis in him, too -- a guy whose instincts and feel for the game, for talking to young ballplayers and older players alike is unique. In the modern era where baseball is a game of massive information drops on a daily basis, there still comes a need for a communicator with the feel of a baseball man. And so Dusty was just the right man for this job.
I went to the visiting manager's office at Dodger Stadium and sat down inside one of the old locker stalls and asked Dusty to get Piper into a big league game. My idea was to have him write Piper's initials on his wristbands. Dusty had a better idea.
"What position would he play?" Dusty asked.
"Second base," I said. "Right-handed hitter."
So Dusty took his black pen (black for right-handers, red for left-handers) and where his second baseman for the day, Brandon Phillips was written, Dusty instead wrote in PIPER DAVIS, batting fourth, playing second base.
Cleanup hitter on a first place club. That would be just fine.
Dusty handed the new card to his bench coach, Chris Speier and asked him to print it off. A few minutes later, here comes Chris with the lineup. He hands it to Dusty, who signs it, making it (unofficially) official. Dusty handed me the lineup card. I told him it was going to Birmingham.
The Reds lost that game, 3-1, but the only run the Reds scored was an RBI double to center field in the fourth inning off the bat of the cleanup hitter, second baseman Brandon Phillips. Fitting -- it was a short, compact powerful swing from a second baseman, to straightaway center. It was as if Piper was swinging the bat himself. You can dream on that if you like.
After the game, I made a color copy to keep for myself. I sent the original to Faye Davis, Piper's daughter, who over the years has done an admirable job keeping her father's memory alive. I told her, on Piper's birthday, he finally "appeared" in a major league game. Even got himself a double, so to speak.
She was moved by the gesture. She also showed the lineup card to her mother, Piper's widow Laura, who after all those years waiting, finally saw her husband's name in a big league game. A few years later, she passed away, but not before Dusty Baker signed Piper Davis into the big leagues. As Piper always said, without reservation, he knew he was a big leaguer all along.
The path Piper Davis took to professional baseball was as long as winding as the dirt roads leading to the coal mines in his hometown of Piper, Alabama. From the coal mining company teams of his boyhood, Piper realized that baseball was his path to prosperity. He joined the Birmingham Black Barons in 1942 and spent the next two seasons playing baseball in the summer and basketball in the winter for the Harlem Globetrotters. He was an All-Star in the Negro Leagues and was frequently mentioned as an integration candidate for "White Folks Ball," as the black players referred to organized baseball. The St. Louis Browns took an option on him in 1947, which proved to be a fruitless endeavor, and in 1948 he became player-manager of his hometown Black Barons.
From the moment he perched his front foot onto the top step of the dugout at Rickwood Field, Piper's personality had a pull on his players. He understood how to be their teammate and their manager. He drew lines. He was a married man and so he did not partake in the nightlife. He did not drink or use profanity. The years after 1947 were a trying time for Negro League players, who could see their once proud league dying a slow death, and who recognized that the white majors were not in a hurry to sign them all despite the successful arrival of Jackie Robinson.
Piper's 1948 Black Barons were special for the arrival of the young Willie Mays, then a high school sophomore. Mays played with the Black Barons until the time of his high school graduation in 1950. In 1948, the Black Barons beat their rival, the Kansas City Monarchs, to win the Negro American League. They played in the last Negro League World Series, losing to the Homestead Grays.
When the Boston Red Sox purchased Piper and made him the first black player the organization purchased, he was released shortly before Mays graduated when it became clear the Red Sox were not going to acquire Mays. Shortly thereafter, Mays was signed by the Giants. The great ballplayers of the '48 Black Barons scattered, including Piper.
He settled into the Pacific Coast League in the 1950s, playing his best years for the Oakland Oaks and winding down with the Los Angeles Angels. While with the Angels, he often schooled a young infielder named Gene Mauch, who loved Piper for his personality and his wisdom. Piper finished his career with Fort Worth in the Texas League, playing until 1950.
You can find his career path online but to feel his contributions, you had to talk to the people who knew him. When I wrote Willie's Boys, Piper was a constant. I would listen to those who knew him and read what he had to say. When you write books, sometimes you feel as though you "get to know" people who have died long ago. Piper's lessons, as it pertains to developing ballplayers, guide me to this day. Piper once said, in all humility, that "if he had played today, he'd have been a million dollar ballplayer," but never once complained. So here on his 100th birthday, we think it is fitting that we share Piper Davis' story, and how he posthumously made it to the big leagues -- a centennial for a man born to be a big leaguer.