Friday, February 24, 2012
Have to have that card you see on my site? Well, now you can - I'm offereing hand-made art cards printed on card stock and hand-cut for $5 each or 20 or more for $4 each, or all 90 cards for $180 plus $4 shipping. Below is the list of cards I made so far, and some (like Victory Faust and Cannonball Dick Redding) haven't been featured on the site yet. You can email me (email@example.com) with your list of card you'd like.
Ray White - Norfolk Tars
Basilio Cueria - Havana Reds
Jack Kerouac - Pittsburgh Plymouths
Fujio Nagasawa - Tokyo Giants
Leon Day - OISE All-Stars
Eddie Grant - Jersey City Giants
Johnny Vander Meer - Cincinnati Reds
Bill Byrd - Baltimore Elite Giants
Mickey Mantle - Independence Yankees
Mose Solomon - Hutchinson Wheat Shockers
Bullet Benson - Washington Senators
Sammy T. Hughes - Baltimore Elite Giants
Jose Mendez - Almendares Blues
Frankie Zak - Tarboro Orioles
Jake Atz - New Orleans Pelicans
Babe Yajima - Tokyo Giants
Mickey Rutner - Toronto Maple Leafs
George Halas - Decatur Staleys
Jimmie Reese - Oakland Oaks
Victor Starffin - Tokyo Giants
Bert Simmons - Baltimore Elite Giants
Warren Spahn - Milwaukee Braves
Moe Berg - U.S. All-Stars
Jimmy Horio - Tokyo Giants
Sam Nahem - Brooklyn Bushwicks
Nick Cullop - Atlanta Crackers
Guy Zinn - Baltimore Terrapins
Hank Greenberg - Brooklyn Bay Parkways
Dutch Faust - House of David
Melo Almada - Kansas City Blues
Minnie Minoso - New York Cubans
Chief Gedsudski - New York Giants
Abel Kiviat - American Olympic Team
Moe Franklin - Tampico Longshoremen
Bill Brech - 8th Air Force
Wally Yonamine - Tokyo Giants
Blackie Schwamb - St. Louis Browns
Alabama Pitts - Sing Sing
Mayday Sam Malone - Boston Red Sox
Harry Frank - Baltimore Orioles
Lipman Pike - Philadelphia Athletics
Babe Ruth - U.S. All-Stars
Russ Van Atta - New York Yankees
Slim Jones - Philadelphia Stars
Buck Lai - Brooklyn Bushwicks
Happy Felsch - Scobey Giants
Willie Mays - Trenton Giants
Joe Nuxhall - Cincinnati Reds
Vince DiMaggio - San Francisco Seals
Joe DiMaggio - San Francisco Seals
Dom DiMaggio - San Francisco Seals
Roy Hobbs - New York Knights
Chief Tokohama Baltimore Orioles
Jim Thorpe - Rocky Mount Railroaders
Billy O’Hara - Toronto Maple Leafs
Pete Gray - Memphis Chicks
Bill Rumler - Hollywood Sheiks
Eddie Bennett - New York Yankees
Roy Campanella - Baltimore Elite Giants
Billy Martin - Oakland Oaks
Bump Baily - New York Knights
Teang Wong Foo - Kiangton
Laymon Yokely - Baltimore Black Sox
Satchel Paige - Paige All-Stars
Larry Doby - U.S. Navy
Johnny Mohardt - Detroit Tigers
Dwight Eisenhower - Junction City Soldiers
Karl Spooner - Brooklyn Dodgers
Frederick Benteen - 7th Cavalry
George Bush - Yale Bulldogs
Tommy Lasorda - Los Angeles Angels
Babe Ruth - Baltimore Orioles
Sandy Koufax - Coney Island Parkviews
Cristobal Torriente - Almendares Blues
Farmer Dean - Seattle Indians
Jackie Mitchell - Chattanooga Lookouts
Al Schacht - Jersey City Giants
Hisanori Karita - Tokyo Giants
Hoss Radbourn - Providence Grays
Coon Rosen - Chicago Stars
Shoeless Joe Jackson - Greenville Spinners
Shoeless Joe Jackson - Savannah Indians
Shoeless Joe Jackson - New Orleans Pelicans
Eddie Boland - New York Dept. of Sanitation
Leon Day - Newark Eagle
Jackie Robinson - Montreal Royals
Cannonball Redding - Atlantic City Bacharachs
Paul Gillespie - Chicago Cubs
Ted Williams - San Diego Padres
Victory Faust - New York Giants
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Yeah, I know, I already posted this story a while back, but wait - there's a reason... after much prodding and more than a basketful of emails, I finally got around to finishing my trilogy of Joe Jackson's minor league odyssey. So, if you think you can remember all you need to about my story on Jackson's first year in pro ball with the Greenville Spinners, just go one down to the next entry. An don't just stop there - this week is a double heaping of Southern Hospitality, Joe Jackson style as I posted the story of his 1910 New Orleans season as well. Enjoy!
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 www.blackbetsy.com 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.
One of the most popular posts I've written was THIS ONE on Shoeless Joe Jackson and his first season of professional baseball with the Greenville Spinners. It was during that 1908 season that Jackson was saddled with the "Shoeless Joe" nickname he hated so much. This week I'd like to continue the saga of Shoeless Joe Jackson's early days...
We last left Joe Jackson in late August, 1908 as he and his Greenville manager Tom Stouch boarded the overnight sleeper to Philadelphia in order to join Connie Mack’s Athletics. Though Stouch’s prized protegee took some convincing to make the trip to Philly, the Greenville manager woke up the following morning sure Connie Mack would love this rookie. But there was only one problem: that prized rookie wasn’t on the train! Stouch searched high and low for Jackson but by the time the train stopped in Philadelphia a confused and empty-handed Stouch showed up at Shibe Park. Connie Mack handed the confused manager a telegram sent from Charlotte the previous night:
AM UNABLE TO COME TO PHILADELPHIA AT THIS TIME. JOE JACKSON.
It seems Jackson slipped off the train in the middle of the night as it stopped at Charlotte, North Carolina. Undaunted, Mack sent “Sock” Seybold back down to Greenville to fetch the kid and on August 25th he was in an A’s uniform in Shibe Park.
The local press made much of the unknown busher, comparing him to the great Ty Cobb and lavishing a generous heaping of praise on him before he even had his A’s cap on. In his first game he had an RBI single and made a few outstanding catches and throws in the outfield that sufficiently sated the press corps and the evening papers were full of enthusiasm for the young find.
The Tigers came to town next for a four game series and Philly fans couldn’t wait to see how their new boy measured up against Cobb. His new teammates also talked amongst themselves about this superstar in the making and when bad weather delayed the Detroit series by two full days, the downtime enabled the newspapers to whip-up the story of the wonderboy from Greenville into a media tsunami.
But when the skies cleared, Joe Jackson was nowhere to be found. He’d slipped away again, headed due south.
Jackson always maintained he was homesick, but his disgruntled teammates, left short-handed for 2 double-headers in 2 days against the powerhouse Tigers, let the press know they thought the kid a coward, unable to face his show down with the great Cobb. Jackson returned to the team again in early September but just as before, fled south once more before the season ended.
In retrospect, cowardice probably had little to do with Jackson’s desertion of the Athletics - embarrassment and bullying did. Since he couldn’t read nor write, Jackson was at the mercy of the other players who could and rather than let his illiteracy become known he tried to cover it up, the result of which only made it worse. There is one story that Connie Mack caught the busher sitting alone at breakfast with almost a dozen fried eggs on his plate. A shocked Mack asked the boy how he expected to play ball after such a feast and Jackson sheepishly explained to his manager what happened. He actually wanted two eggs for breakfast, but since he could not write a “2” he made 2 slash marks on his breakfast order card which the kitchen interpreted as an 11. It was incidents such as this, compounded on the resentment of his abandoning the team that led to teasing by the other A’s. It didn’t help any that the “Shoeless Joe” moniker followed him up to Philadelphia.
The Athletics held their 1909 training camp in Savannah, Georgia and Joe Jackson tore up the ball all spring. Although Mack was sure Jackson’s skills were up to the major league level, he wisely acknowledged that mentally the ballplayer was just not ready. So when the Athletics broke camp to head north, Jackson stayed behind, the newest member of the Class C Savannah Indians of the South Atlantic League, affectionately called the “Sally League”.
More comfortable playing in the south, Joe smashed the ball at a .450 clip in the beginning of the season and started to be called the “Ty Cobb of the Sally League.” Here in Savannah, the sportswriters were less ruthless than back in Philly and the crowds didn’t heckle him - here back down south Jackson was amongst his own people. The Indians had a mediocre team in 1909 and would finish the season with a losing record. Jackson for his part played splendidly, leading the league with a .358 average, 19 doubles, 12 triples and couple of home runs. He swiped 32 bases and his arm and fielding skills impressed even the most jaded observer. The sportswriters spent columns and columns of space praising the young star and he was named the center fielder of the Sally League All-Star team. One paper wrote of him: “Jackson is a sensation in all departments of the great American game, and that’s saying a whole lot.” It was obvious a player of Jackson’s talent had no business playing around in the Sally League - this boy was a big leaguer.
But the sure-bet big leaguer also seemed to have a problem with authority and a propensity towards strange, immature acts. Sometimes he didn’t show for batting practice or miss games completely. His manager in the first half of the season was Bobby Gilks who seemed to know how to handle the budding star. Under Gilks, Jackson was given a long leash and as long as he produced on the field he was left alone. But with the Indians stuck in the lower half of the standings, Gilks was fired and the new manager, Earnest Howard, didn’t understand how to harness the young Jackson. Hurt by the loss of Gilks, Jackson moped around the clubhouse and sulked openly.In one bizarre instance, he and a teammate left the game in the middle of an inning and took seats in the stands, sharing a bag of peanuts. The Savannah management fined the hell out of him for that stunt, but it didn’t seem to put a stop to his immaturity.
At the end of the season Mack brought Jackson north again to ease him into the Athletics clubhouse. The A’s were in a pennant race with the Tigers and Mack used the uneasy busher very sparingly. He didn’t play well at all and managed an anemic .176 in a handful of games. The teasing was relentless as well.
It was supposedly during this period that one of the most famous Jackson stories took place - while standing on third base a fan called out “hey Joe - can you spell cat?” to which Jackson spat back: ”Hey mister - can you spell shit?”
The kindly Connie Mack was sympathetic to Jackson’s plight and offered to pay for a tutor to teach him how to read and write, but the ballplayer refused. But even the saintly Mack had his limits and Jackson was approaching the breaking point. His behavior became more and more erratic, sometimes showing up late to the park, then skipping practice and sometimes whole games. Then Mack found out his new outfielder went to a burlesque show instead of a game and that was the end of Jackson’s stay in Philly.
This is the third and last post on the minor league career of Shoeless Joe Jackson. If you missed the previous entries, HERE is the first on his season with Greenville and HERE is the story of his 1909 season in Savannah.
After a second attempt to bring Joe Jackson up to the Philadelphia Athletics, Connie Mack resigned himself to the fact that the sure-hit superstar in the making was just not mentally able to cope with life in the big leagues. At the same time, he couldn’t simply trade the kid to another big league team because of the chance that it could come back to haunt the A’s one day. The only logical option was to lend him to another minor league club down south and hope that another year marinating in the minors would be the right prescription to make Jackson ready for the big time.
Jackson reported to the training camp of the New Orleans Pelicans in March, 1910. Arriving there he found his old Greenville teammate Scotty Barr, who had been called up at the same time to the A’s and had just been released by Mack.
The Pelicans played in the Class A Southern association and had a working agreement with Cleveland (at this time called the “Naps”). Joe’s manager from Savannah, Bobby Gilks, was now a scout for Cleveland and the two were reunited again down in New Orleans.
Realizing that he was probably never going to play for Connie Mack again, Jackson set himself to becoming a mature ballplayer. Besides disciplining himself to show up for practice and to work as a member of a team, Jackson also developed a make-shift training routine to strengthen his body. Holding the heaviest bat he could find, Jackson would hold it out at arm’s length and keep it raised for as long as he could keep a hold on it. Then he would do the same with the other arm. To sharpen his eyesight he came up with the strange regimen of closing one eye and staring at a lit candle until the flame became out of focus and then he would repeat with the other eye. How this was not harmful I have no idea, but Jackson swore that it strengthened his eyesight and helped him keep a pitched ball in clear focus.
As in Savannah, the local press was much kinder to Jackson and the fans less caustic in their comments. Coupled with his new-found maturity, Jackson commenced to eating up the Southern Association pitching. Once again he led his league in batting with a .354 average and his skillful base running helped him steal 40 bases. The Pelicans were a much better team than Savannah and they won the pennant that year and once again Jackson was selected for the league all-star team. The New Orleans Picayune called Jackson a “star of the first magnitude” and no one argued differently. After another brilliant year down south, there was no way around it - Joe Jackson was bound for the big leagues.
Since Jackson’s former Savannah manager Bobby Gilks was now a Cleveland scout, it was probably him who put the bug in the ear of the big club to sign this kid right now. Connie Mack, who still owned the rights to Jackson, consented to a trade. After a confusing round of side-trades and money exchanging hands, Jackson became property of Cleveland. Finally mentally and physically up for the challenge, Joe Jackson was big league bound for good.
When I started this site more than 2 years ago, I had no idea of how many cards I would do or what it would evolve into, but one of the things I had in the back of my mind was that I wanted to make the baseball card set I always wanted when I was a kid - an endless set of cards filled with all the interesting and bizarre players and teams I had heard about and better yet, ones I had never imagined. Adding a card or two a week stemming from my own research and a multitude of others suggested by people who read my blog and had the same interest as me and suddenly I had over 100. It's one thing to go back and read over the entries and look at the cards at my computer, but the uniqueness and sheer magnitude of what I did didn't really hit home until I went and printed out over 90 of the drawings and put them into a binder, just as I did when I was kid. Sitting in my chair and leafing through the plastic pages was such a great feeling - I did indeed create, and continue to create, the card set I always wanted!
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Let’s play a game: It’s 1943 and you’re the owner of a cellar-dwelling major league baseball team. What good players you’ve managed to scrounge up for your team have been drafted into the service and won’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Cuban players you imported to fill their place all scurried back home when they realized as residents of the U.S. they too were liable for the draft. As you contemplate your lot in life, you gaze out your office window which happens to look onto the magnificent baseball stadium that is named after you. Two semi-pro teams are warming up to play a game while your big league team is on the road (probably losing, you think to yourself). You notice the crowd. There’s over 10,000 fans in the stands and this isn’t even a major league game - in fact most sports fans have no idea who these players are. Trying hard not to think of your own team and to avoid the temptation to check the scores, you settle down to watch this baseball game below.
Right away, three players catch your attention and you follow their play during the course of the game:
Player A is a 23 year-old right handed pitcher. Over the course of 9 innings he strikes out 3 and gives up a single walk. Besides a spot of trouble in the 3rd inning where he gave up 4 hits, he scatters 5 hits harmlessly across 9 innings of work. Not a strike-out power-pitcher, he lets the batters hit the ball harmlessly to his fielders. This player is not currently in organized ball and is available to be signed immediately.
Player B is a 35 year-old right fielder. Over the course of the game he hits a single and a double in 4 at bats and commits an error when he misplays a fly ball. Asking around you find he once played for Philadelphia 8 years ago and in 38 games he hit just under .250. This player is not currently in organized ball and is available to be signed immediately.
Player C is a 31 year-old catcher. He smashes an RBI triple and a home run in your cavernous ballpark that was so impressive the entire crowd of 10,000 stood as one and cheered wildly. Looking at the crowd you can see he is the most popular player on the field. This player is not currently in organized ball and is available to be signed immediately.
Now all of these players are available to be signed to your team ASAP. In fact, they would love the opportunity to play in the big leagues. As a veteran appraiser of athletic ability, you can spot major league talent like no one else and you decide to offer a contract to one of those three men you watched today. Which one would it be? Washington Senators’ owner Clark Griffith was put in this same position as he watched those 2 teams play in his stadium in 1943 and was faced with the exact choice of ballplayers I offered above.
Griffith chose to sign Player B. But before we find out about Griff's pick, let‘s take a quick look at the 2 players he passed up:
If you picked Player A, you decided on Johnny Wright. He was the young ace of the Homestead Grays, one of the two teams playing that day. He was selected to pitch in the East-West All-Star Game that year as well as finish the season with a 31-5 record against all levels of competition. He would go on to be signed by Branch Rickey along with Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in 1946. Although his major league career wasn’t terribly successful, he only got his chance after serving 2 years in the Navy during the war so he was not at his prime as a player. In 1943, he was.
Player C was the indomitable Josh Gibson. Although he might have been slowing down a touch at age 31, Gibson was still an unbelievable slugger whose home run totals in Griffith Stadium usually surpassed the home run total hit in that stadium by the entire Senators team. His average for the 1943 season was an astonishing .474 and the next year it was .345. Along with Satchel Paige, Gibson was the most popular black baseball player in 1943 and his presence on a major league team would bring in a huge amount of fans just to see him play.
But to Griffith, Player A and Player C have a major flaw: Wright and Gibson are black. While Griffith had to have realized that their talent was better than anyone on his roster, he was not a brave man and being the first to integrate the majors was not something he could bring himself to do. Upholding a sinister unwritten ban on blacks was more important than fielding a winning team his fan base could be proud of. No, Griffith looked over the field that day and decided on Player B: Eddie Boland.
Eddie Boland was a 35 year-old ex-pro ballplayer from New York City who was playing outfield for the Brooklyn Bushwicks that day in 1943 against Wright, Gibson and the Homestead Grays. Boland had spent 8 years toiling in the minor leagues and had a cup of coffee in the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies in 38 games spread over 2 seasons where hit just under .250. Stuck in the high minors with Buffalo, Boland called it quits after the 1938 season and went home to New York where he took a job with the Department of Sanitation.
Back in the 1920’s-40’s the metropolitan area was a hotbed of sizzling semi-pro ball clubs, some equalling the level of a AAA minor league team. The New York City public servants such as the police, fire and sanitation department all fielded highly competitive ball clubs chock-full of major league castoffs.
Boland played for the best of the city servant teams, the Department of Sanitation, and his skills so renown that he also played for 4 other top-draw semi-pro teams. His extra-curricular schedule for 1943-44 was kind of hard to believe:
Thursday: night game for the Stamford (Connecticut) Pioneers
Friday: night game for Cederhurst, Long Island club
Saturday: day game for the inmates at Kings Park prison
Sunday: double-header day games for Mt. Vernon plus a night game with Cederhurst again.
If you weren’t counting, that makes a total of 6 games a week. Boland was definitely in playing shape if nothing else. So while he was no where near as talented as Wright, let alone Gibson, Boland was a decent prospect considering the depleted talent pool to choose from.
When the Senators approached him with a contract, initially Boland balked - his job at the Department of Sanitation was much more steady than restarting a big league career at age 35. Eventually he agreed to play the outfield for Washington, but only during his annual vacation from his job and with one major stipulation - that he be free to participate in the annual game between his Sanitation team and the New York City Police Department in the Polo Grounds in September.
So while other garbage men took their late summer vacations at the Jersey Shore or up in the Poconos, Eddie Boland spent it roaming the outfield for the Washington Senators. In 19 games he batted a respectable .271 with 4 doubles and 14 RBI’s. Not bad for a guy that was, as the the sportswriters of the day liked to say, was "literally picked off the scrap heap."
The next season Boland decided to give in to the temptation of professional ball again and played for Buffalo in the International League but the war ended and he was out of pro ball again after 1947.
While the white press made much out of the signing of Boland, kind of a rags-to-riches, feel-good underdog story, the black press had a conniption over it. It was bad enough that the majors brought up sub-standard talent to keep the leagues going, and sure it was really tough to stand by and watch as teams like the Senators imported foreigners to fill their depleted rosters, but Boland’s signing was just too tough to take. Here was 2 whole leagues (the Negro National and Negro American Leagues) filled with at least 2 dozen can’t-miss major leaguers and the Senators go and sign up a has-been semi-pro garbage man?
It was a slap in the face to black Americans and the outrage it caused helped spur on the movement to get the major leagues to integrate. In the late summer of 1944, that moment was barely 2 years away...
Thursday, February 9, 2012
While trying to decorate my house, I had a 24" x 36" poster printed with 90 of my favorite cards on it. I made a few extra and if you are interested in one (unframed) they are $135 each and I can sign it as well if you want (I always feel funny doing that, but people ask!). Send me an email and I will let you know about availability (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Before I start off this week's story, please let me thank ESPN's Jim Caple for the beautiful article he wrote about my cards. I don't think I could have envisioned a nicer write-up on my work and Jim was a really great guy to talk to, which I discovered while being interviewed for the article. Anyway, here's this week's ballplayer, a guy I've gotten quite a few requests for - José Méndez.
When the Cincinnati Reds disembarked in Havana in early November, 1908, they expected a nice, leisurely vacation and nice, easy exhibition games against the locals. Baseball was an American game and hell, they were The Cincinnati Reds of the National League. Though they finished in 5th place, the Reds were tried and true professionals - Hans Lobert’s .293 average was 6th best in the league and he finished in the top five in hits, triples, games played, total bases, singles and stolen bases. No, they weren’t a great team, but they were National Leaguers, surely more than a match for the island competition they were going to face in the 11 exhibition games over the next 2 weeks.
The first game they played was on November 12th against the Havana Reds. Luis Padrón gave up seven hits to the Reds and lost 3-1. Three days later they were slated to meet the Havana Reds’ rival club, the Almandares Blues.
12,000 fans packed into Almandares Stadium to watch the Americanos play their Azules. No one recorded what the Cincinnati players thought when the Blues’ pitcher took his warm-up pitches before the game, but it must have made them lick their lips. The skinny fella that stood on the mound that day was barely 5’-8” tall, black as coal and his own teammates called him by the unflattering nickname “Congo”. Surely this was going to be an easy win.
The only problem was this skinny kid was José Méndez, perhaps one of the top 5 greatest pitchers of all time.
Raised on the sugar cane plantations in Cardenas, Méndez became a skilled carpenter as well as talented clarinet and guitar player. Some say he had quite a voice as well. He was discovered playing semi-pro ball and the Almandares club signed him in 1906 where he promptly went 9-0 and was the top pitcher in the Cuban Winter League. Méndez had a blinding fast rising fastball, and if that wasn’t good enough, he also threw a wicked curve. Both these pitches were helped out with Méndez’s unique physical traits - he had extra long arms and attached to them were equally long fingers - these gave him an extra spin on the ball as he released it.
Méndez followed up his rookie season with a 15-6 record and this is where he stood as he faced the Cincinnati Reds that day.
To start off the game Méndez retired the side in order. Facing Cincinnati rookie Jean Dubuc, who would go on to a successful 9 year career in the majors, Almandares scored a quick run to make it 1-0. For the next 8 innings Méndez and Dubuc dueled each other, matching zeros on the scoreboard. But unlike Dubuc, Méndez hadn’t allowed a hit - he was pitching a no-hitter.
As the ninth inning commenced, Méndez got two out when Reds second baseman Miller Huggins, the future Yankees manager, hit a weak grounder between first and second. Méndez and first baseman Regino García went for the ball but neither could make the play. It was a cheap single but Huggins made it to first and the no-hitter was busted. Méndez bore down and got the next batter to end the game.
It wasn’t a no-hitter, but heck, a 1-hitting a major league team wasn’t something to sniff at!
Smarting from the embarrassing loss to an unknown black Cuban, the Reds won their next exhibition game 8-0 against the Havana Reds. Cuban sports pages at the time opined that the Havana club didn’t field their best players that day, but a win is a win and the big leaguers needed it. On November 19th Cincinnati faced Almandares again and lost 2-1 as Andrés Ortega held them to just 3 hits.
The following afternoon the Reds took a break from the Cubans and took on some of their countrymen, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, a Negro league team. If they thought they would be any easier than the Cubans, they were sorely mistaken as Brooklyn beat the heck out of them 9 to 1. The Reds were only able to get 6 hits off the Royal Giants and the great Pete Hill hit a home run, a rare feat in the cavernous baseball stadiums they played in down in Cuba.
After a day off, a desperate Cincinnati Reds team jumped all over the Havana team and won 11-4.
The next afternoon, November 23rd, brought the Americans back to Almandares Stadium and they were defeated by the Blues for the third strait time, 4-3.
Then on the 25th Cincinnati got by Havana again 5 to 1. The Americans now had 3 days off to regroup. So far their record stood at 4 and 4 against 2 Cuban League teams and 1 Negro league squad. In the past, visiting major league ball clubs could usually sleepwalk their way through an exhibition series in the islands, but now, something was different.
I’m sure the Reds weren’t all that excited to arrive at Almandares Stadium again on the afternoon of the 29th, but things started off well for them because by the 3rd inning they were up 3-0 over the Blues. Then that damn little Cuban kid came walking out of the bullpen.
José Méndez took the ball and proceeded to throw 6 shut-out innings against Cincinnati. Although the Reds won the game, Méndez had now racked up 16 innings without the big leagues being able to score. The Cuban public went bananas. The local sports writers predicted before the series that the home teams would hold their own against the Americans, but what was unfolding before their eyes was beyond their wildest dreams.
The next day Cincinnati was to face the Havana Reds again but before the game began the Americans protested about the umpiring of the games thus far. The Cuban newspapers took note of this and called it what it was - a cheap excuse. Havana proceeded to best the Reds 6-4.
There was another break in the series and the Americanos had a few days to pick up the broken pieces of what was supposed to be their playing-holiday in the sun. And it was going to get worse. Almandares was next on the schedule.
In what was beginning to seem like deja-vu all over again, Jose Mendez shut out the Reds 3 zip and now had an incredible 25 CONSECUTIVE scoreless innings of work against a major league team!
The next day Cincinnati finally found an opponent they could trounce - the amateur Vedado Tennis Club - and slapped them around 13-3.
Inspired by this easy win the Reds defeated Havana 4-1, but now they had to head over to Almandares Stadium again. There the Reds were wrapping up a win going into the bottom of the ninth ahead 6 to 3 when the Blues tied it up. Mercifully for the Reds, the game was called due to darkness the following inning.
The last game of the series was against the Blues again and of course, José Méndez got the ball for Almandares. In the first he had his scoreless inning streak ended but he held the Reds to 9 harmless hits and won again 6-2.
The Reds slinked home and José Méndez traded in the nickname “Congo” for the much more regal moniker of “El Diamante Negro” or “The Black Diamond”. His Cuban fame preceded him to the U.S. where he pitched splendidly for the Cuban Stars, All Nations, Chicago American Giants and Kansas City Monarchs for over 20 years. New York Giants manager John McGraw famously said he would be worth $30,000 to his team, if only he were white. Among the other marquee big league talent he bested was Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank and Chief Bender. Towards the end of his career he was made manager of Kansas City and led the Monarchs to Negro National League pennants in 1924, 1925 and 1926 as well as the Colored World Championship in 1924.
Much of the Cincinnati Reds series highlights were gleaned from Gary Ashwill's great baseball research blog, Agate Type. Ever the groundbreaking baseball archaeologist, Gary uncovered all the games played by the Reds down in Cuba in 1908 and their results. As far as I know, until his research no one ever published a full account of that trip.