Friday, November 12, 2010

58. Bill Byrd: Call Him "Daddy"

When I left New Jersey and arrived in Baltimore to attend art school back in 1988, I brought with me a growing passion for the negro leagues. From what books and material I was able to get a hold of in those pre-computer days, I of course knew about the mighty Kansas City Monarchs and the venerable Homestead Grays. But it was while living in Baltimore that I learned to appreciate the other teams that made up the negro leagues. The city of Baltimore had a rich black history and its baseball lineage included two great teams, the Baltimore Black Sox and the Elite Giants. Back then many former players were still alive and I tried my best to meet every one I could. My friendship with television and radio host Dr. Bob Hironemus helped me out immensely as he and his wife Zoe were big contributors to the memory and preservation of negro league history. Because of living in Baltimore, I kind of adapted the Elite Giants as "my" team and plunged myself into finding out everything I could about them. Each week as I draw and write about a different player I have to restrain myself from doing a feature on another Elite Giant player. So far I have been good and done only one other Elite, second baseman Sammy T. Hughes. Today I introduce the second Elite Giant to grace the virtual pages of The Infinite Baseball Card Set, pitcher Bill Byrd...

For every flashy Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in the Negro Leagues, there were guys like Bill Byrd. The big right-hander was the ace of the Baltimore Elite Giants staff. Byrd had a formidable arsenal of specialty pitches; blazing fastball, slider, various speed knuckle balls, change-up and a big ol' roundhouse curve all thrown with pin-point accuracy. But what he was most known and feared for was his spitball. Byrd was the last pitcher in the negro leagues who was allowed to use the slippery pitch. Opposing players swore he used it all the time, but Byrd claimed what he did was use the threat of it more often than not and psyche-out the batter. Byrd would later say that he did not even like throwing the pitch, but that his managers would always ask for it, knowing the value of its formidable reputation. And if he really didn't want to throw it, they told him to fake it.

An opposing player once asked Byrd if he really did throw a spitter to him, to which Byrd replied "if you thought I did, I did."

To throw the pitch, Byrd would chew a tree bark called Slippery Elm which produced a real nice consistency of lubricated saliva. After loading up his thumb, index and middle fingers, Byrd would grip the ball between the seams, wind up and throw the ball not so it rolled off the finger tips, but squeezed the ball out from between the wet fingers. Robbed of its natural spin, the baseball would hurtle towards the plate and suddenly drop away from the batter, kind of like a filthy split-finger fastball. Besides being hard to hit, it was a damned scary thing to try to catch as well.

The fatherly Byrd took it upon himself to look after the younger players, who nicknamed him "Daddy", including a husky young high school kid from Philadelphia named Roy Campanella. The future Hall Of Famer was just a 16 year-old kid when he joined the Elites in 1938. The much older and responsible Byrd took Campanella under his wing and watched over the young catcher, steering him away from the temptations of the road, all the while teaching him the ropes of how to handle big league pitchers. Later while playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Campanella and pitcher Preacher Roe made a formidable battery because Campy knew exactly how to handle Roe's illegal spitball. Campanella later credited his years on the Elite Giants catching Bill Byrd as the key to his success in handling the unpredictable pitch. Another one of Byrd's young charges was future Dodger star Junior Gilliam. So too was a cocky young college kid named Joe Black, who joined the Elites as a shortstop in 1943, but his rifle arm made him more valuable as a pitcher. However Black was more of a "thrower" than "pitcher" and it was Byrd who quietly taught Black how to select pitches, set-up and outsmart a batter. Byrd's advice eventually turned Black into an All-Star pitcher and one of the first players to integrate the majors. Later joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, Joe Black's 1952 rookie season ranks among the most dominant season ever for a relief pitcher. Unfortunately an arm injury the next Spring curtailed Black's promising major league career.

Back in the 1930's and 40's Byrd was known as a "Money Pitcher". What this meant was that when a game meant something, this was the guy you wanted on the mound for you. When Byrd played ball, the negro leagues usually played about 3 official league games a week, the rest of the week being games against semi-pro and town teams or exhibition games that did not count in the standings. Negro league teams usually didn't play their best players in these meaningless exhibitions, saving guys like Byrd for the games that counted. More often than not, Bill Byrd came through. He was a workman-like pitcher, striking a batter out when he had to and letting him hit it to try to get a double play or pop out, what ever it took to win. Along with his suitcase of different pitches, Byrd would also use what ever was handed to him. Though he claimed to never do it himself, Byrd was also masterful at using a "cut ball". Negro league pitchers of his day were notorious for "cutting" the ball, making grooves or peeling back a part of the cover along the seams in order to make the ball do funny things. The money conscience negro leagues would use a baseball until it was either hit out of the park or fell apart so Byrd was often left with an artificially modified baseball to work with. Being the consummate professional, he made do with what he had.

Although statistics are incomplete it is fairly certain Byrd has the fourth best record for strikeouts in official negro league games. He is also credited with a lifetime league record of 114 wins and 72 losses, an approximate .615 winning percentage. The games he did lose were more often by a slim margin. For example, in box scores I collected from the 1942 season in which Byrd had 9 wins and 2 losses in league games, those 2 defeats were by the scores of 2-1 and 3-2 to the Homestead Grays who were the eventual Negro National League champs that year.

Perhaps more than his pitching skills, Byrd really was proud of his hitting prowess. As a boy he taught himself to hit by rigging up a stick on a rock and laying a smaller stick on top of that, then stepping on the first stick which popped the small stick into the air which he would then hit. The speed of which was required to hit the stick came in handy years later when he played professional ball. Byrd's bat speed was tremendous as was his power. He would often play the outfield during his days off with the Elites and he was the go-to guy when a pinch-hitter was needed. In the days when negro league teams carried only about 15-18 men on the roster, a multi-skilled player like Byrd was especially prized. As a "money pitcher" Byrd was often called upon to pitch in the Yankee Stadium four-team Sunday double-headers which attracted huge crowds, both black and white. Beside his pitching skills, it was Byrd's slugging power that really paid off in Yankee Stadium where the short right field porch was made for the switch-hitting slugger who had more power when batting from the left side. Byrd reckoned he hit 6 or 7 balls into the stands there.

The waning years of Bill Byrd's career echoed the demise of the negro leagues itself. After the Elite Giants won the Negro League World Series in 1949 when the now 42 year-old pitcher went 12-3, Byrd finally called it quits the next Spring. Attendance was rapidly declining and the Elites ceased to pay players salaries, instead dividing up a percentage of the gate receipts. The end of the league soon followed and the Elite Giants left Charm City for Nashville in 1951 and then disbanded. Byrd played semi-pro ball around Baltimore for a few years and then moved north to Philadelphia where he worked for General Electric.

Baltimore's Byrd might have retired, but his legacy lived on with three of his students moving on to the Major Leagues and stardom. Without their "Daddy", Dodger fans might never have gotten to see Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam and Joe Black.

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