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September 20, 2011 / Nat Anacostia

Washington’s last, forgotten pennant

63 years ago today, September 20, 1948, Washington won its last pennant. They claimed the pennant by beating Baltimore three games to one in a best-of-five league championship series that was tainted by controversy. Washington’s veteran Hall-of-Fame first baseman led the league in batting average and tied for the league lead in home runs with his teammate in left field—who was one of the great power hitters of the era and also led the league in RBIs.

Readers who know a little baseball history are objecting now, noting that my lead paragraph appears to be inconsistent with one or more of the following facts:  The Cleveland Indians won the 1948 American League pennant. The old Washington Senators’ last pennant came in 1933. The St. Louis Browns didn’t relocate to Baltimore until 1954. And the MLB league championship series didn’t begin until 1969.

On the other hand, readers who know a little more baseball history realize that in 1948 most African American players still played in separate, segregated leagues with their own pennants and World Series. In 1948, Washigton’s Negro league team*, the Homestead Grays, won the final pennant race of the Negro National League and went on to play in the last Negro League World Series.  Buck Leonard was their Hall-of-Fame first baseman and Luke Easter was their power-hitting left fielder.

* There is some confusion out there about whether the Homestead Grays really were a Washington team. The Grays began in 1910 as a “sandlot” or recreational team for black steelworkers in Homestead, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh). By the 1920s the Grays were fully professional, at first as an independent team (not affiliated with the formal Negro leagues) playing in the Pittsburgh area, and later, beginning in 1929, as a member of one of the major Negro leagues.  During the 1930s they played their home games at Greenlee Field or Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.  Beginning in 1940, the Grays began playing about half of their home games in Washington at Griffith Stadium. When playing in Washington, they wore a “W” on the sleeve of the home uniforms, and when playing in Pittsburgh they wore an “H.” The Grays were soon drawing more fans per game than the Senators, and by 1943 the Grays were playing two-thirds of their home games in Washington. While they continued to claim both Washington and Pittsburgh as homes, during the mid-to-late 1940s Washington was recognized as their primary home.  For example, contemporary articles about the 1948 league championship in the Baltimore Afro American refer to Griffith Stadium as the Grays’ home field and refer to their players as “the Washingtonians.”  For more information on the Homestead Grays in Washington, see Beyond the Shadow of the Senators by Brad Snyder.

By 1948, the Negro leagues were dying. While integration of the major leagues was moving forward at a glacial pace, black baseball fans had abruptly shifted their attention from the old Negro leagues to the newly integrated majors. At the end of the 1948 season, nearly three years after Branch Rickey announced the signing of Jackie Robinson, there were still only four black players in the majors—Robinson and Roy Campanella with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Larry Doby and Satchel Paige with the Cleveland Indians. It would take more than another decade for baseball to become fully integrated. But the sports sections of black newspapers had already shifted their coverage to tracking in detail the performance of these new stars of integrated baseball. Negro league games, even including playoffs and World Series, were now relegated to short articles at the bottom of the page. As was the case with other Negro league teams, attendance at Grays’ games dropped off dramatically. Instead, the black fans crowded into a sold-out Griffith Stadium whenever the Indians, with Doby and Paige, came to town.

The 1948 Grays were not the same team that had dominated the Negro National League from 1937 to 1945. Josh Gibson was dead; Cool Papa Bell and Jud Wilson were retired; Ray Brown had been banned from the league for jumping to the Mexican League. Of their old stars, only Leonard and long-time shortstop Sam Bankhead remained. In addition to Leonard, Easter, and Bankhead, other notable 1948 Grays players included Puerto Rican center fielder Luis Márquez, pitcher / third baseman Wilmer Fields, and right fielder Bob Thurman.

Their opponents in the league championship playoff, the Baltimore Elite Giants, featured a team built more around speed than power. Their leadoff hitter and second baseman, 19-year old Junior Gilliam, would go on to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1953 and have a 14-year career with the Dodgers. (I’m old enough that I remember watching Gilliam play with the 1960s-era Dodgers.) Pitcher Joe Black would also play for the Dodgers and win the Rookie of the Year Award in 1952.  Veteran pitcher Bill Byrd had pitched five times in Negro League (“East-West”) All-Star Games.

Because Griffith Stadium was unavailable, the entire best-of-five series was to be played at Bugle Field in Baltimore. The first game was played on Tuesday, September 14.  The Grays’ Tom Parker pitched a shutout and won 6–0, with Easter driving in four runs on a home run and a triple and Leonard driving in the other two on a bases-loaded single.  In game two on Thursday, the Grays took a 5–3 victory behind the pitching of Garnett Blair, who must have had a sore arm, since he was described by the Baltimore Afro American  as a “lame armed pitcher.”

Friday’s game three would end in controversy. The city of Baltimore had a curfew that prevented night games from continuing past 11:15. (Apparently the night games began at 8:30, which seems surprisingly late.) At 10:52, the teams were tied 4–4 after 8 innings, and the managers met with the umpires to discuss the possibiity of calling the game as a tie. The rules of that era apparently did not include a provision for completing a game the next day—they were following the same rules that would apply if a game were called early for rain. The umpire thought there should be enough time to finish another inning and ordered the teams to play on. Baltimore brought in relief pitcher Jonas Gaines for the top of the ninth, and he quickly gave up four singles and two walks. After falling a couple runs behind, Baltimore decided that their best chance would be to delay the game so that the inning wouldn’t be completed before the curfew, forcing the score to revert to a tie. So they stalled and “were making no effort to get the side out.” When the umpire finally called the game, the score was 8–4 and the Grays had the bases loaded with two outs. The Elites’ strategy appeared to have worked, as the score reverted to 4–4 and the game was called as a tie.

After protesting in vain to the umpire, Sonnyman Jackson, the Grays’ president, called the league president, John L. Johnson, in New York. Johnson overturned the umpire’s decision and ordered the remainder of Friday’s game to be played from the point where it ended. The Elite Giants’ president, Vernon Green, was notified of the decision shortly before game four was scheduled to start on Sunday afternoon. He objected strenuously, and went ahead with the scheduled game without making any announcement to the crowd.  Baltimore won the game, 11–3. After the game, as the fans were leaving the stadium still unaware of the league president’s decision about game three, the Grays’ baserunners returned to the bases they had left Friday night and waited for the umpires to order the completion of the unfinished game. But the Elite Giants returned to their clubhouse, and the umpires also ignored them, so eventually the Grays left the field.

Johnson agreed to come to Baltimore on Monday, September 20, and hold a hearing on the issue. He then reiterated his decision that the game should resume from the point where it ended. Green decided to forfeit the game instead, saying he would not open Bugle Field and ask local fans to come out to see a half inning of a title game followed by an exhibition game. So it turned out that the Grays’ final pennant was awarded in a hotel room by men wearing suits.

While I’m somewhat sympathetic to Johnson’s decision given the unsportsmanlike strategy that the Elite Giants were employing to stall the game, I don’t think his decision can actually be justified by the baseball rules that were in effect at the time. Sportswriter Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro American wrote a column ranting about the illegality of the league president’s decision.

In a subsequent article we’ll tell the story of the Grays’ final World Series.

References

For general background on the Homestead Grays during their Washington years, see Brad Snyder, Beyond the Shadow of the Senators: The Untold Story of the Homestead Grays and the Integration of Baseball, Contemporary Books, 2003.

For background on the process of integration and its effects on black baseball, see Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, Oxford University Press, 1983.

I pulled accounts of the NNL championship series from contemporary newspaper articles appearing in the Baltimore Afro American, which is available for free from Google News; for example, see the September 18 issue.

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