Sunday, January 30, 2011

66. Roy Campanella: The Goat Of The '42 Pennant Race?

Back when I lived in Northern Kentucky, I would spend one Sunday a month camped out in the University of Kentucky library microfilm room poring over the back issues of the Baltimore Afro-American. This was before computers made baseball research infinitely easier and discovering new facts and statistics pertaining to negro league history made me feel like a lower-case indiana jones. Each Sunday I would concentrate on gathering all the relevant articles and box scores I could on a specific year that the negro league Baltimore Elite Giants played in Charm City. Fortunately for my purposes the Afro-American was based in Baltimore and devoted extensive coverage to their hometown Elites after they moved to the city in 1938 after previous stops in Nashville, Columbus and Washington - the Elite Giants were the negro league version of the Atlanta Braves. Through the magic of microfilm I was able to read along as the seasons played themselves out before my eyes.

The Elite Giants were not as "sexy" a team as the Homestead Grays or Kansas City Monarchs and not much had been written about them other than it was the team that gave Roy Campanella his start. Diving into the 1938 box scores I found the very first mention of Campanella as a 16 year-old ballplayer, although his name was misspelled as "Campanello" - it actually took the beat writers from the Afro-American a year or two to finally get the kid catcher's name write in the box scores and post-game summaries.

The Elite Giants were blessed in that they had veteran catcher Biz Mackey on the squad during Campanella's first few years. Mackey was at one time the best catcher in black baseball and although he had slowed considerably by 1938 when Campanella joined the team, his natural leadership and mentor abilities made all the difference to the young catcher. Indeed, years later during a ceremony to honor Roy Campanella at Dodger Stadium, Roy called out his former mentor Biz Mackey, who was in the stands, and gave him the credit for making his career what it was.

By 1940 Roy had grown into the role of Elites starting catcher and Mackey was traded to the Newark Eagles. Baltimore had Bill Perkins and later Eggie Clark as adequate defensive back-ups to Campanella and the team embarked on a 3 year stretch where they battled the Homestead Grays for the Negro National League Championship every summer. Their rivalry became something like that between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants and the games played between the two were usually hard-fought, heavily attended affairs. The Negro National League played a split season with the winners of the first half of the season playing the winners of the second half in a play-off for the pennant.

Baltimore led for most of the first half of the 1940 season but stumbled at the end, winding up a half game behind the Grays. In the last weekend of the second half the Elites split a crucial double-header to the Newark Eagles, allowing the Grays, who won their games against the Philly Stars, to overtake Baltimore and snatch the pennant at the last moment. The following year the Elites lost 4 of their better players who jumped the team and went to Mexico along with other negro league stars who had been lured south of the border by offers of big money. Despite the loss of talent the team went on a tear but the Grays were always a game or two ahead and they won the first half of the season. In the second half the New York Cubans beat out the Elites and went on to play the Grays in the play-offs.

These close-but-no-cigar finishes were heartbreaking to the Baltimore fans who by this time really embraced the team. Baltimore had a vibrant black community at this time, mostly due to the strict segregation that was enforced in this southern city. In Baltimore, this exclusion bred a whole black society which operated parallel to the white one - blacks had their own doctors, lawyers, grocery stores, factories, gas stations, theaters and high society - everything the whites had, just owned and operated exclusively by blacks.

1942 was shaping up to be a big year for the Elite Giants. Their biggest slugger, Wild Bill Wright, returned to the team from Mexico along with second baseman Sammy Hughes and starting pitchers Lefty Glover and Pullman Porter. It was hoped that the now mature Campanella along with the extra fire-power provided by Wright would be the key to finally beating the Homestead Grays and bringing the pennant to Baltimore. The additional players indeed made all the difference and the Elites cruised to a comfortable first half victory in July. Campanella proved that he had arrived by not only handling the pitchers like a veteran but he was batting for average and came through in the clutch when most needed. The rest of the league took notice and he was elected for the second time to represent Baltimore in the East-West All-Star Game. But before he made it to the game, something happened.

Since the beginning of America's entry in World War II, various factions, both black and white, had been clamouring for the majors to integrate. While most owners were vehemently against it, a few made hesitant overtures that they might be interested. The miserable Pittsburgh Pirates were one team that led some of the black sports writers on, seeming to agree to give a few black players a tryout. Campanella was one of those players chosen and although the Pirates backed out at the last minute, Campy began to understand his worth not only to a black baseball team, but to a white one as well. On the eve of the East-West Game the Cleveland Buckeyes were scheduled to play against a team made up of white all-stars who were serving in the Army and Navy. This was a great opportunity to show the country what kind of talent existed in the negro leagues and prove once and for all that blacks could play ball just as good as white professionals. The Cleveland management invited two Baltimore players, Roy Campanella and Sammy Hughes to join their team for the special game. Unfortunately the Elites owner and also National League president Tom Wilson refused to grant them permission to go. Baltimore was locked in a drive to claim the first half pennant and losing the services of two of their key players could tip the balance to the Grays.

None-the-less, Campanella and Hughes jumped the team and went to Cleeveland. Wilson fined both players $200 and suspended them for a month. Campanella was forced to sit out the East-West Game as well. The suspension looks like it was never enforced because both players continued to appear in the lineup through August as the Elites battled neck and neck with the Grays. But Campanella was disgruntled by the way Wilson handled the affair and finally deserting the team around the 23rd of August. Jorge Pasquel, the shipping magnate and playboy who ran the Mexican Baseball League offered Roy a huge contract to finish out the season with the Monterrey Sultanes. When Campanella left he was batting .297 and was one of the team's premier players as well as a steadying influence on the pitching staff. Eggie Clark, the teams back-up catcher was a veteran who, while solid defensively, was no Campanella at the plate. In the standings Baltimore was 2 games behind the Grays going into the last 2 weeks of the season. On Friday August 28th they beat the last place New York Black Yankees 16-3 and then took the Sunday double-header by scores of 6-3 and 3-1. Now Baltimore was a half game behind the dreaded Grays.

It all came down to the final Labor day series. The Elites faced the 4th place Philadelphia Stars and needed to take 4 out of 5 games from them. The Grays faced the considerably stronger Newark Eagles and needed to take at least 2 to stay on top.

Saturday was a night game played at Parkside Park in Philadelphia. Baltimore won 8-3 and Campanella's replacement Eggie Clark went 1 for 4. The series moved south to Baltimore and a Sunday double-header at Bugle Field. In the first game it took 12 innings but Baltimore prevailed, Clark going 1 for 4 again. In the nightcap Clark went hitless in 3 at bats as Baltimore was defeated in a come-from-behind victory by the Stars. As long as Newark beat the Grays in their Monday game and Baltimore won both ends of the season finale double-header on Sunday, the pennant was theirs.

Both teams were back at Parkside Park for the holiday double-header. Baltimore's Bill Harvey tossed a terrific 1 hit shut-out and beat the Stars 6-0. Clark went hitless in 4 turns at bat. Up in Newark, N.J. the Grays and Eagles were slugging it out at Ruppert Stadium, the high scoring game still undecided as Baltimore and Philly squared off again for the last game of the season.

Baltimore lost 4-3, Eggie Clark going hitless again in 3 tries. Meanwhile the Grays out-scored Newark 14-12 and clinched the second-half pennant. What happened next is something that was unfortunately fairly common in the negro leagues. The play-off that was supposed to happen between the Elite Giants, winners of the first half and the Homestead Grays, winners of the second-half, never took place.

I've never found out any reason why, the Afro-American didn't report on it. Their focus quickly switched from the lost pennant to a series of 6 games against the all-white Baltimore Orioles of the International League. Playing against the white pros was more important it seems than playing the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro World Series. Which brings me back to Roy Campanella.

While reading about the 1942 season in the Afro-American I was gripped by the tightness of the race and the disappointment when I read of Campanella and Hughes deserting the team for an exhibition game. I was even more upset when I discovered how Roy abandoned the team for Mexico during the last stretch. Seeing his replacement Eggie Clark go 2 for 18 and the Elites lose 2 crucial games by 1 run made me wonder how the team would have done with Campanella playing in those contests. Would they have won the pennant? The fortunes of the Elite Giants dwindled after that season. Failure to beat the Grays 3 years in a row may have hurt their fan base and the disappearance of Roy Campanella, a favorite with the fans, didn't help either. He played the entire 1943 season in Mexico while Baltimore sank into the second division.

Does Campanella deserve to be labeled as selfish and the goat of the 1942 season? Initially I thought so. Learning of Campanella's actions at the end of the '42 season went against everything I had ever read about the affable catcher. What kind of player deserts his team during a pennant drive? Then again, I go back to the Afro-American's reporting at the end of the season. Nowhere was there outrage over the lack of a play-off to decide the Negro National League Championship, nor was Campanella's desertion criticised. The Afro's writers were more focused on the Elite Giants showcasing their talent against the all-white Orioles. That made me think: by 1942 did most players and reporters think of the negro leagues as basically just a stepping stone to the eventual integration of baseball. Was a series of exhibition games played between a black team and a second-rate white minor league team really more important than the Negro World Series? For many generations we were told that the negro leagues were an entity all their own and made to exist parallel to the white leagues. Watching the 1942 season unfold made me think that by this time most players and fans were probably aware that integration was not that far off and that matters of a player jumping a team in order to better himself was not look upon as a bad quality, but simply what it was, a black man showing the world that his talents were as equal or better than others who happened to be white.

So in my book, Campanella gets a pass but, as a former Baltimore resident, I am rather chagrined to think about how the fortunes of the Elite Giants would have turned out if they had beat the Grays that year and faced the Monarchs and Satchel Paige in the 1942 World Series...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

65. Shoeless Joe Jackson: What's In A Name?

Nicknames can be great if you have one like "T-Bone" or "Lefty." They're not so good if you get saddled with one like "Ears" or "Blimpy." Take this kid Brian Mauser (name ever-so-slightly changed) from my neighborhood growing up. In kindergarten he was just like the rest of us, no more or less awkward or memorable. Then came that fateful day early in 1st grade when he was caught picking his nose and eating it. Now I'm sure Brian wasn't the first kid who slipped a crispy one in his mouth to see what it tasted like, but he had the misfortune of getting caught. Kids being cruel, Brian was forever after ostracized and his nickname, "Booger Boy" was born. That name hung around his neck not only the rest of the year, but throughout grammar, middle AND high school. Forget about getting a date or being invited to any parties, his life was forever changed by that ill-advised snack in 1st grade. Slugger Joe Jackson was likewise saddled with a derogatory nickname which was, while not as devastating as "Booger Boy," none-the-less caused him great embarrassment over the course of his playing career and the remainder of his life.

One of 8 kids, Joe Jackson was born into extreme poverty. At the age of six Joe took his place alongside the rest of his family in one of the sprawling textile mills that dotted the rural South Carolina landscape at the turn of the century. Because of the need to contribute money to the family he never had time for proper schooling and much to his shame remained unable to read and write for the rest of his life. The one bright spot in Jackson's grim life of industrial-age toil was baseball. Showing great skill at an early age, by 13 Jackson was playing outfield for the Brandon Mills men's ballclub. South Carolina's textile leagues had an impressive amount of talent playing on the various mill teams and for Jackson to make a mark amidst all this talent was quite impressive.

He quickly became a local legend and during games his brothers would roam the stands passing a hat taking donations after Jackson made another impressive play of timely hit. Word soon spread of his talents and in 1907 the Brandon Mills team was playing an exhibition game against the Greenville Spinners of the Carolina Association. Their manager Tom Stouch was shocked and dismayed when a young player on the team seemed to get on base every damn time he got up to the plate. In the field he dazzled as well. By the end of the game Stouch knew the kid had what it took to play professionally and the next year Jackson inked his "X" to a contract for the staggering sum of $75.00 a month to play for the Spinners.

Although he was brimming with ability he was still raw around the edges. On a few occasions he was caught trying to steal bases already held by his own teammates, but he was the local boy and the fans of Greenville readily embraced him. He had done what most of them were unable to do - escape the drudgery of the textile mills. The 1908 team featured two other players destined to play in the big leagues, Ezra Midkiff and Scotty Barr and along with Jackson the Spinners quickly made it to the top of the 6-team league. Jackson played the outfield but was also brought in to pitch on occasion. He had a tremendous arm but retired as a pitcher after he broke the arm of an opposing batter and the rest of the league refused to hit against him. It didn't matter, he made his mark elseware. His speed and skill in the outfield led fans to dub his mitt "a place where triples go to die." He belted the ball at a .400 clip for most of the summer. Locals noted that the sound his bat connecting with the ball made had such a unique sound that they could tell it was Joe Jackson even if they were blindfolded.

It was during a Sunday double-header against the Anderson Electricians that Joe Jackson earned his nickname.

Finally earning a decent salary, Jackson treated himself to a well-deserved new pair of spikes. While playing in the first game of the double-header the unbroken-in shoes gave him blisters. By the end of the game he was in terrible pain and begged Stouch to let him sit out the second game. A Sunday double-header back then was the place to be for a small rural community and Jackson was the great attraction. Stouch couldn't let him sit out the game, everyone would not only be disappointed but there was always the potential for violence. People took their baseball seriously back then.

So with great pain, Joe Jackson made the fateful decision to remove his brand-new spikes and took the field in just his stocking feet. All went well for most of the game until the top of the seventh when he smacked a triple and slid stocking feet-first into third. An angry Anderson fan, seeing Jackson called safe at third base and noticing his stocking feet cried out "you shoeless son-of-a-gun, you!" A sportswriter overheard it and a timeless nickname was born.

Jackson hated it. Already sensitive about his inability to read or even sign his own name, he felt the nickname made him look even worse, bringing to life the image of a back-woods bare-foot illiterate. He spent the rest of his life trying to explain the circumstances around his moniker, telling the story over and over again that he never played ball bare-foot and it was but one game in his whole career that he took the field in his socks.

Shoes or no shoes, it was obvious to all that Jackson didn't belong in the minors for long. Manager Tom Stouch wrote to Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics letting him know about the potential of two of his outfielders, Joe Jackson and Scotty Barr. Mack must have been impressed by the description Stouch wrote because in mid-August he dispatched one of his players on the disabled list to Greenville to take a look. "Socks" Seybold sat in the stands as the Spinners played the Charlotte Hornets and watched as Jackson belted a double, triple and home run. He noted that the kid also had a rifle for an arm. He quickly telegraphed Mack who in turn sent his assistant Sam Kennedy to verify Seybold's claims. Further assured by Kennedy, Mack signed Jackson who was batting .346 at the time and Barr, who was batting .299 as well as posting a 12-6 pitching record.

As soon as the Spinners season ended, Scotty Barr hopped on the first train to join the Athletics but Jackson hesitated. He'd never left the Carolina's and Philadelphia was as far away from Greenville as the moon. He was embarrassed by his illiteracy and because of it did not even know who the heck Connie Mack or the Philadelphia Athletics were. Manager Tom Stouch had spent a lifetime trying to get to the major leagues and even though he played in but 4 games he assumed it was every ballplayer's dream to get the call. With this in mind he decided to personally deliver Jackson to Connie Mack and at the end of August, 1908 Tom Stouch and "Shoeless Joe" Jackson boarded the overnight sleeper to Philadelphia.

Many of the photographs I used for reference were found on the valuable website called "The Shoeless Joe Jackson Virtual Hall Of Fame" at Not only is it a great resource on the life of Joe Jackson, but the staff are extremely helpful, a fellow named T.W. over there was extremely patient fielding my questions a few months ago when I was working on a Jackson angle for this site. I will be doing a series of cards and stories on the early years of Joe Jackson, so if you're a Shoeless Joe fan, keep checking back!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

64. Larry Doby: Playing For Uncle Sam

If you haven't noticed yet, sometimes I like to combine my love of baseball history with my other passion, military history. Although I'm not a big WWII aficionado, I do enjoy studying the role baseball played during that great conflict. It's hard to fathom these days, but back in the 1940's baseball was the only sport there was. Football and basketball were distant runners up for the title of "National Pastime." I know from my own family's experience as immigrants in the 1910's that learning the ins and outs of baseball was as important as learning English. In these times of hyphenated-Americans we forget that a mere 75 years ago that it was all an immigrant could do to try to blend into the fabric of their new country and become, above all, an American. Learning the game helped put an immigrant on the same level as a native, giving them at least one common thing to bridge the cultural gap between them. The rise of football, basketball and the dreaded soccer and golf has changed that whole dynamic, leaving nothing in its wake to fill the important role once filled by the game of baseball. Anyway, with that background, it is easier to see how and why the game played such a big part during the war. Not only did it help give servicemen and war industry workers much needed recreation and morale boost, but it gave the country a sense of stability - that the countries own sport, baseball, will carry on despite all the suffering and deprivations that grips the nation. The game helped people relax and be able to concentrate on the work needed to be done. One place that baseball played a major role was in the military. As early as 1941 the Army and Navy made an effort to field teams made up of the major and minor league players that found themselves in uniform. Every base had at least a single ball team and most ships and training bases had whole leagues, sometimes with first and second ranked divisions. The sport helped build an feeling of pride within the units and kept the men out of finding trouble during their off-duty time. While much has been written, especially recently, about major league players in the war, not much has been documented about the 119 negro league players who served during the war. Some of them eventually played on one of the many baseball teams fielded by their respective units. Although they did not get the same publicity as the special service teams that featured stars like Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller, these teams helped build morale for the black soldiers and sailors during the war. This week I want to feature Larry Doby and his service in the U.S. Navy during the war. As a kid my Grandfather told me about seeing the great Newark Eagles play in Ruppert Stadium, specifically mentioning their star infielder, Larry Doby. Growing up in Northern New Jersey, I played ball on many of the fields Doby, who grew up in Paterson, did years before. Even many decades after his time as a high school athlete old-timers still talked about this incredible sports star.

Larry Doby was the best athlete Paterson, N.J.'s Eastside High had ever seen. Hell, he might even have been the best all-around athlete to ever come out of New Jersey for that matter. A good student with a personality that made him liked by everyone he met, Doby earned a staggering eleven varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football and track. To say he was a rising star would be an understatement to say the least. In the summer he played semi-pro ball around North Jersey, testing his skills against the best touring negro league teams like the New York Black Yankees and Cuban Stars. In the winter he played basketball with the Harlem Renaissance, a popular touring team.

Long Island University gave Doby a basketball scholarship - his dream was to become an athletics instructor and return to Eastside High to teach. A free education was nice, but he needed to make a living as well, so taking the name "Larry Walker" he signed with the Newark Eagles in 1942. The Eagles were a strong team featuring future Hall of Famers Leon Day and Monte Irvin. Doby quickly settled into the Eagles lineup and positively clobbered opposing pitching to the tune of .391 his rookie year. He cooled off a bit in 1943, batting a respectable .282, and along with Monte Irvin he brought a fresh, youthful atmosphere to a team of aging veterans.

Unfortunately World War II loomed over him and in 1943 he put his career on hold and enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

Adjusting to life in the segregated service was hard for Doby. Although he spent his early childhood in the south, he'd grown used to the relative freedom of urban New Jersey. It must have been even worse knowing that he could be called upon to give his life for the very same country that wouldn't allow him to drink from the same water fountain as a white man.

Taking his basic training at the massive Great Lakes Naval Training Center outside Chicago, Doby joined the base's Negro Varsity baseball team called the Great Lakes Sailors. Since 1942 when former catcher Mickey Cochrane took over the baseball program, the Great Lakes base continuously fielded virtual all-star teams stocked with former and future major league players. Bob Feller, Virgil Trucks, Johnny Mize, Walker Cooper, Gene Woodling, Billy Herman, Schoolboy Rowe and Ken Keltner are some of the bigger stars that played for the Great Lakes Bluejackets ballclub during the war. The team toured the Midwest playing against other teams from military bases and defense plants. The Great Lakes team was good publicity for the Navy and seeing famous ballplayers doing their part for the country's war effort just like everyone else did wonders for the nation's morale. The Great Lakes Bluejackets were a powerhouse and easily defeated all competition. But, like the Navy itself, the Bluejackets baseball team was segregated.

The Great Lakes Naval Training Center facilitated the basic training of black sailors as well, but they had their own training companies, their own barracks and starting in 1944, their own baseball team. Officially called the Negro Varsity Team, they also featured a heavy contingent of professional ballplayers. The pitching staff included Herb Bracken of the Cleveland Buckeyes, Luis Pillot of the Cincinnati Clowns and Johnny Wright, the veteran Homestead Grays star. Catching them was former Chicago American Giant Leroy Clayton. The outfield boasted Leroy Coates and Bill Randall of the Homestead Grays and the infield had Al Paschal and Stephen Summerow of the Cleveland Buckeyes and Earl Richardson and Larry Doby of the Newark Eagles.

The Negro Varsity team competed in the Midwest Servicemen's Baseball League which in 1944 consisted of 6 teams from both the Army and Navy. Besides official league games the Sailors played against a long list of other non-affiliated military, semi-pro and defense plant teams.

With Larry Doby playing shortstop, the Great Lakes Sailors went on an 18-game winning streak through June and July. In addition to a great season, seven players from the team were selected to play on the Midwest League All-Star team in a game that pitted them against the all-white team from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Lead by former A's catcher Mickey Cochrane the white Bluejackets were practically a major league all-star team and at that point had an undefeated record of 14-0. Herb Bracken pitched a masterful one-hitter against Cochrane's team but still lost 3-0 due to that single hit, walks and fielding errors. Despite this heartbreaking loss, the Negro Varsity team had a final record of 32-10 for 1944. Unlike the white Bluejackets team which kept meticulous statistics, no comprehensive batting or pitching records exist for the Sailors although it is known that Johnny Wright's record stood at 18-3 and Herb Bracken was 13-1 at the conclusion of the season. These two men's performance in front of an integrated audience helped them get the publicity that led their eventual signing to play in the minor leagues when it was integrated in 1946. Infact Johnny Wright was signed by Brooklyn at the same time Jackie Robinson was.

At the conclusion of the season, Doby was shipped overseas and stationed on a remote island in the South Pacific called the Ilithi Atoll. The island had a good harbor and was used as a staging base for the invasion of the Philippines. Doby and hundreds of other negro sailors were posted there to act as manual laborers loading and unloading the continuous stream of war material that flooded the tiny island. By sheer coincidence two former major league players also found themselves on this miserable piece of real estate, Mickey Vernon of the Senators and Billy Goodman of the Red Sox. Vernon became the athletic director on the island and all three men found themselves playing on the base's integrated softball team. The three men quickly formed a bond and the three sailors would take turns throwing baseball batting practice for each other keeping their skills sharpened as best they could. The two white players knew the way the wind was blowing regarding integration and did their best to encourage Doby. They knew he had the skills to make the major leagues one day. It was on Ulithi Atoll that Doby heard that the Brooklyn Dodgers had signed a black ballplayer named Jackie Robinson.

In June of 1945 the U.S. Navy officially abolished segregation of its sailors and blacks were finally given the same treatment as whites. Unfortunately it did not seem to apply to the Great Lakes Bluejackets baseball team. Unlike the Center's football team which was integrated by coach Paul Brown, the baseball team now led by Cleveland Indians superstar Bob Feller remained an all-white affair during its final season.

Larry was discharged from the service and his old friend Monte Irvin encouraged him to join him in the Puerto Rico Winter League. The island at this time had a highly competitive winter circuit that attracted the best players of all colors. Both Irvin and Doby joined the San Juan Senators. When he arrived in San Juan Doby was at a crossroads as to whether or not to pursue a career in baseball or complete his college education and return to his beloved Eastside High as a teacher. The answer came to him after he tore apart league pitching: in 153 at bats Doby averaged .349, knocked in 42 runs and belted 12 home runs. His little winter sojourn in Puerto Rico encouraged him to stick with baseball.

The integration of The American League was right around the corner...

If you are interesting learning more about the role of baseball in WWII and about the major and minor league players who served during it, you absolutely have to check out Gary Bedingfield's website at A Brit, Gary is THE man to talk to when it comes to baseball during the war and his site features in-depth articles about hundreds of players who found themselves in the service during the war. Gary is also an author of two indispensable books on the subject, "Baseball's Dead of World War II: A Roster Of Professional Players Who Died" and one of my personal favorites, "Baseball In World War II Europe (part of the Images of Sports series)."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

62. Blackie Schwamb: Major League Murderer!

So after spending a much needed vacation with my mother and brother back in Jersey City, I figure it's time to get back to featuring some more great ballplayers and their stories. While home, I found a book I had given my father a few years ago called "The Wrong Side Of The Wall" by Eric Stone. I found out about the book through the SABR (Society Of Baseball Researchers) newsletter a few years ago. Stone brilliantly tells the story of Blackie Schwamb, pitcher for the 1948 St. Louis Browns who also happened to be a murderer. Stone's book has it all, 1940's L.A., mobsters, life in the low minor leagues, crime solving and attempts to redeem a life that once held so much promise. My story today can only hold a candle to Eric Stone's wonderful book and I recommend everyone to pick up a copy - you wont be disappointed!

As a kid in depression-era Los Angeles, Ralph Schwamb earned his nickname "Blackie" because he dressed in all black to emulate the bad guys he rooted for in western movies. Taller and stronger than kids his own age, Blackie took up with the older neighborhood kids. Dividing his time between sandlot baseball and petty crime, Schwamb started drinking heavily as a teen, the vice that would eventually lead to his downfall in life. Coupled with his drinking problem Blackie had a volatile temper that he backed up with his fists. World War II came along and Schwamb landed in the U.S. Navy. Unfortunately the only action he saw was in various Naval brigs across the country because of his constant need to go AWOL, something he accomplished over 4 times. The need for manpower during the war usually lead the Navy to go lightly on a sailor who overstayed his leave here and there, but Schwamb took it to the extreme and eventually went on a bender and missed the departure of his aircraft carrier that was being deployed for overseas action. This borderline desertion in the face of the enemy was the last straw and Schwamb spent a few years in prison.

When the war ended Blackie drifted back to Los Angeles and quickly took up with the delinquents he'd known growing up. These guys had by now graduated to become full-time hoods and hustlers. L.A. at this time was booming with post-war prosperity and organized crime was right there to take full advantage of those untapped opportunities. One of the biggest syndicates was run by the colorful Mafia-backed Mickey Cohen. A few of Blackie's buddies were connected to Mickey and the six and a half foot Schwamb began a career as an enforcer for his gang.

Working for Cohen was an easy job, intimidating and occasionally beating the hell out of deadbeats who were slow to pay off their gambling debts. Schwamb spent his spare time hanging around a ball field with his buddies drinking and watching the semi-pro teams that played there. Schwamb was always a natural athlete and after hanging around the field for some time, he worked up the courage to ask for a chance to play. From the start Blackie was a natural. His height and strength made him an overpowering pitcher. He had good control and liked to win and soon scouts from the big leagues took notice. St. Louis Browns scout Jack Fournier liked what he saw and his report read in part "he's a screwball, but he can pitch." $600.00 bought Schwamb's signature on a Browns contract. Shortly afterwards Blackie found out that the Cleveland Indians were about to offer $37,500.00 for him.

Blackie breezed through the Browns minor league spring training and was Schwamb was farmed out to South Dakota to the Aberdeen Pheasants of the Class C Northern League. Before reporting he was picked up on a burglary rap, but released. Through half the season he posted a record of 5 wins and no losses and an E.R.A. under 2.00. In one game he even fanned 14 batters. But his erratic behavior and drinking finally caused the manager Don Heffner to ask the Browns to reassign the ace of his pitching staff to another team. That he was messing around with a local 16 year-old girl didn't help much either. Schwamb now found himself at the other side of the country in the Arizona-Texas League.

The Globe-Miami Browns were a team of has-been misfits, a dead-end. But the wild west atmosphere of the towns that fielded teams in the league were more to Blackie's temperament than the conservative South Dakota. Still, even in this rebellious environment Schwamb stood apart. Reporting to the ballpark for the first game of the league playoffs, Schwamb was so intoxicated he was not allowed into the locker room. Now pissed off as well as drunk, Schwamb climbed up the center field flagpole and started hurling expletives at players and fans alike. It took the local cops to get him down and Blackie was tossed in jail. The Browns suspended him and it was the right thing to do. However the team was trying to win the league championship and Schwamb was reinstated after he apologized to the team. He promptly won 2 games and saved a third to win the championship. Schwamb might be a screwball, but he was good. After spending half the off-season playing ball in Mexico and the other half breaking legs for the mob, 1948 found Schwamb with the Browns top farm club, the Toledo Mud Hens. The Mud Hens might have been the best club in the Browns farm system, but that wasn't saying much. they stunk. Schwamb drifted through the season with a horrible 1-9 record, but it was mostly due to no run support and fielding errors than his own pitching. Dispirited, Blackie's drinking accelerated and he stayed out all night long and sometimes disappeared for days between starts. Despite his record on paper, reports of his pitching were stellar and the parent club called him up at the end of July.

Wearing number 20, Blackie Schwamb pitched his first major league game at Griffith Stadium on Sunday July 25th against the Senators. He pitched a good game until he tired in the seventh and fielding errors did him in. The Browns eventually won but he was not the pitcher of record that day. Discipline-wise he continued where he left off in Toledo. Schwamb didn't just violate curfew, he disregarded it all together by staying out until breakfast time. Manager Zack Taylor ran a loose ship and the players did pretty much whatever they wanted. For a guy like Schwamb who desperately needed discipline and someone to look after him, this was the wrong team to have been playing for.

On July 31st he registered his first win and the post-game celebration never stopped. Blackie was continuously intoxicated. Beer before and during the game and an upgrade to whiskey afterwards. He got clobbered in his next start and a few days later the lowly Philadelphia Athletics handed Schwamb his first loss. Tired of his drinking, gambling and brawling, manager Zack Taylor relegated him to the bullpen.

Relief pitching in 1948 wasn't the specialist position it is today. Most relief pitchers back then, with a few exceptions, were has-beens or guys that just didn't have the stamina to go the distance. Pitchers in 1948 prided themselves on starting a game and seeing it through to the end. To Blackie Schwamb, being sent to the bullpen was an insult and a major step down. He sat on the bench and fumed. In nine innings he'd polish off a case of beer. During batting practice he'd knock his own teammates down with brush-back pitches. The games he managed to get into he was drunk and got hit hard. Although he had a few drinking buddies on the Browns, most stayed away from him. He was different. Dangerous. You could sense it.

On the Browns last road trip of the season Schwamb showed up at the railroad station totally bombed and after fighting with a teammate had to be physically strapped into his sleeping car bunk with some of the players belts to dry out. Taylor had enough and suspended Blackie for the rest of the season.

Schwamb was invited back to the Browns spring training camp the next year. Consensus among the big-wigs in St. Louis was that Schwamb had limitless talent but that he was rushed up to the majors too fast. He clearly needed more seasoning so he was sent off to Baltimore. Schwamb, who should have been thankful for not being banned from the organization, regarded the assignment as an insult. He told the Browns he was through with them. They did something major league teams hardly ever did then or now: Blackie Schwamb was given his outright release and sent on his way.

Schwamb called in all his favors. As crazy and scary as he was, Schwamb still managed to befriend a fairly large number of players and before long something turned up. The Little Rock Travellers needed pitching and Schwamb signed with the team to much fanfare in the local press. Schwamb was a real major leaguer and much was expected of him. Most said it was just a short time until he got the call up to the big leagues again. Unfortunately Schwamb spiraled out of control. After being shelled in his 3rd game with the Travellers he stood on the mound, drunk and swearing at everyone within earshot. The manager sent him to the showers. Blackie stormed off the field and tore up the locker room and deserted the team. Little Rock gave Schwamb's contract back to St. Louis. They were finished with him.

Blackie drifted back to Los Angeles. He was still a well known as a ballplayer back there and the odds were pretty good he'd be playing ball somewhere again in 1950. All he had to do was bide his time until spring and keep his nose clean. He didn't.

Hooking up with a bunch of hood he'd known growing up, Schwamb took part a series of badly planned heists. Starting out by knocking over a few illegal card games the gang graduated to armed robbery. They held up two hotels and liquor store before they were caught. Out on bail the night of October 12th, 1949, Blackie was sitting in a tavern called The Colony Club drinking himself to Palookaville when his old buddie Ted Gardner and his wife Joyce showed up accompanied by a tipsy doctor from Long Beach named Donald Buge.

Dr. Buge was spending the night out on the town with his wife at the Normandie Casino when he made the acquaintance of the Gardner's. Sensing an easy mark for a quick robbery, Ted convinced the doctor to go for a ride with him and Joyce. They stopped off at the Colony Club. Inside sat former major league pitcher Blackie Schwamb. Dr. Buge bought a round of drinks and then asked for a ride back to the Normandie where his wife was. Schwamb came along for the ride, he knew what was going down. They were going to roll the doctor.

What happened next was never adequately solved. The only consistent part of all three participants story is that they all claimed the doctor started getting frisky with Joyce Gardner during the car ride back to the casino. What is known is that somehow Dr. Buge was brutally beaten to death in a vacant lot. Police reports stated that first Dr. Buge was relentlessly punched in the face, his nose and jaw smashed, teeth were broken and knocked out and his eyes beaten shut. He was then kicked several times and left for dead. The doctor was still alive for an unknown period of time until the blood pouring from his wounds finally filled his lungs and he drowned.

Schwamb went home and slept off his bender. Hungover, he appeared for his arraignment for those outstanding burglary charges. For once Blackie caught a break, two of the charges were dropped. The remaining one had the possibility to get thrown out as well. But the cops were quickly closing in on the killers. Ted and Joyce Gardner were a fairly well-known couple around town and they were picked up on the morning of the 14th. It took Ted a matter of hours to finger his pal Blackie and by nightfall Schwamb was locked up.

Beating a man to death is a whole other crime than simply shooting someone. Sure, you have to be determined and devoid of any shred of caring or compassion to pull the trigger, but in order to beat someone to death you have to get intimately close to the victim. It takes a whole different type of person to do that. With that logic in mind, along with pal Ted Gardner's testimony fingering Schwamb as the killer, Blackie was sentenced to life in prison.

Schwamb was sent off to San Quentin where his arrival was met with enthusiasm by its baseball team. Blackie thrived in this environment and before his parole in 1960 he'd won 131 games and lost 35. This tally includes no less than 3 no-hitters and many of those wins were against top-shelf semi-pro teams stocked with major league players. Blackie's reputation was such that scouts would bring prospects to play San Quentin to see how their boy would do against Schwamb.

Upon his parole in 1960, Schwamb received a few offers from major league teams to try out again. After much haggling, the powers that be that ran organized baseball decided Blackie could play ball, but only after one season of semi-pro ball to make sure his behavior on and off the field was acceptable. He reluctantly complied and by the spring of 1961 Blackie Schwamb was a member of the Hawaiian Islanders, the Los Angeles Angels top farm team. It was the comeback of the century, a story fit for the big screen. But it didn't last. The Islanders were a terrible team owned by another terrible team. Schwamb, despite his best efforts, could do no better than 1 win and 2 losses and he was released after appearing in 6 games. Blackie drifted back to California again, floating up and down the coast from job to job. He was even sent back to jail after being found with a handgun, although he only did one years time - he could have been sent back for the remainder of his original life sentence.

Eventually Blackie found a certain peace in life, living with a woman he met while working a warehouse job and becoming a proud step-father to her daughter. Racked with lung cancer, Blackie Schwamb, former St. Louis Brown and convicted murderer, died four days before Christmas, 1989.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Homestead Grays Poster

Now available on my poster website... fantasy 1945 Homestead Grays poster. Printed one out for a fellow negro league fan yesterday and it looks great! Can be printed in 2 sizes and on paper or canvas.

Monday, January 3, 2011

61. Wally Yonamine: Japan's Jackie Robinson

This week's story was written by award-winning author Rob Fitts. You'd be hard- pressed to find another American who knows as much about Japanese baseball history and cards. I made Rob's acquaintance while doing research on pre-war baseball in Japan and came across his website that offers a great overview on the 1934 tour of Japan by a group of Major League All-Stars. Besides featuring the American team, he also equally focuses on the Japanese team, something that I have never found in English. Rob has a book about that tour coming out this year which I for one can't wait to get my hands on. After finding his website I became fascinated by early Japanese baseball, especially the 1935 barnstorming tour that the Japanese team took all across North America. After returning to Japan that team became the Tokyo Giants and members of the first professional league in Japan. While researching the 1935 team Rob not only shared his research but translated a few things for me and did a great service in identifying player photographs. He also wrote a well-received biography on Japanese-American trail blazer Wally Yonamine...
Often called the Nisei Jackie Robinson, Wally Yonamine was the first ethnic Japanese to play professional football in the United States and the first American to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II. Yonamine was born in 1925 on a Maui sugar plantation to poor Japanese immigrants. His success on the gridiron allowed him to escape the plantation and eventually sign with the San Francisco 49ers in 1947. After an injury ended his football career, Yonamine turned to baseball. In 1951, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants chose him to become the first American to play in Japan during the Allied occupation. Yonamine adopted his football skills to baseball and played hard-stealing bases, sliding hard, and knocking down opponents. Opposing fans hurled insults and rocks at him, but he quickly became one of the most dominant players in the league, winning batting titles in 1954, '56 and '57 as well as the 1957 MVP Award. His success changed the way the Japanese played the game and opened the door for other Americans to come to Japan. Yonamine adapted to Japanese culture and stayed in Japan as a player, coach, and manager for 37 years. He was elected to the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.

Robert K. Fitts is the author of two books and a number of articles on Japanese baseball and baseball cards. A former historical archaeologist, Rob left academics to write about baseball in 2000. His articles have appeared in The National Pastime, Baseball Research Journal, Journal of American Culture, Tuff Stuff and on His first book, Remembering Japanese Baseball won the 2005 Society of American Baseball Research & The Sporting News Award for Best Baseball Research. His second book, Wally Yonamine: The Man who Changed Japanese Baseball tells the story of the "Jackie Robinson of Japan." His forthcoming book, Banzai Babe Ruth!, which focuses on the 1934 tour of Japan will be available in 2012. Learn more about his projects at