Washington’s last, forgotten World Series championship
On October 5, 1948—63 years ago—Washington won its last World Series. The championship was not won by the Senators, who lost 97 games and finished seventh in the American League. It was Washington’s other baseball team, the Homestead Grays, who won their third Negro League World Series championship in six years in what turned out to be the last such Series ever played. The Grays won four games to one, clinching the victory with with a dramatic extra-inning win that remains shrouded in mystery.
Both the Grays and their opponents, the Birmingham Black Barons, featured future Hall of Famers, but they couldn’t have been more different. The Grays’ star was their 41-year old veteran first baseman, Buck Leonard, then in his 15th season with the Grays and one of the most respected hitters in Negro league history. In contrast, the Black Barons’ future Hall of Famer was a teenager who dazzled observers with his hitting, fielding, running and throwing and who would ultimately be recognized as one of the greatest players of all time, Willie Mays.
In an earlier article I described how the Grays won the Negro National League pennant, beating Baltimore in the championship series with the deciding game tainted by controversy. The Negro leagues were in deep distress, as both the black fans and press had shifted their attention to the newly integrated major leagues. Attendance at Grays home games at Griffith Stadium, which had averaged nearly 11,000 per game before integration, dropped to 2,000 per game by the late summer of 1948.
The first game of the World Series was played in Kansas City on Sunday, September 26, where the Black Barons had just won the Negro American League championship over the Kansas City Monarchs.* The Grays took a 3–1 lead in the bottom of the second when Willie Pope tripled to score two runs and was then driven home on a double by Luis Márquez. The Black Barons narrowed the score to 3–2 in the top of the eighth when Piper Davis doubled with two on. The first runner scored, but when Pepper Bassett tried to score from first, Grays right fielder Bob Thurman’s throw nailed him at the plate. The Grays didn’t allow any additional runs and took a 1–0 lead.
* It wasn’t unusual for Negro League World Series games to be played in other cities; most teams did not control their own ballparks and leased their parks, when they were available, from white major or minor league teams.
Game 2 took place Wednesday in Birmingham. The Black Barons took a 2–0 lead into the sixth, when the Grays loaded the bases with one out. Wilmer Fields hit a ground ball forcing the runner at second, but Birmingham shortstop Artie Wilson wasn’t able to turn the double play, allowing Márquez to score from third. Then Eudie Napier singled, scoring Luke Easter and tying the game. Pope was the next batter and he hit a three-run homer, giving the Grays a 5–2 lead. The Black Barons were able to score only one more run in the ninth and fell behind two games to none.
Game 3 was played the next day, and those in attendance got a glimpse of the future of Willie Mays. In the fourth inning Thurman launched a long fly to center, which Mays was able to chase down at the wall. In the sixth, Mays threw out Leonard attempting to go from first to third on a single. Then, in the ninth with the score tied 3–3 and a runner on second, Mays smoked a ball up the middle for a walk-off single and narrowed the Grays’ lead to one game.
Game 4 was played on Sunday, October 3, in New Orleans. The Grays rolled over the Black Barons 14–1 behind the pitching of Fields and a grand slam hit by Easter.
The teams returned to Birmingham for Game 5 on October 5. From a line score, it looks like it must have been an exciting game. Homestead scored two in the first; Birmingham tied it in the fourth and took a 4–2 lead in the fifth; Homestead came back with three runs in the sixth; Birmingham scored two in the eighth to retake the lead 6–5; and Homestead tied it 6–6 in the top of the ninth. The Grays finally put the game away with four runs in the tenth inning, ending the final Negro League World Series game ever played.
Unfortunately, I really can’t say very much about what happened other than the scoring because it appears all of the reporters were in Boston preparing to cover the major league World Series between the Boston Braves and the Cleveland Indians. The Indians featured Larry Doby and Satchel Paige, two of only four black players then playing in the majors (along with Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers), so the appearance of Doby and Paige in the World Series caught the full attention of the black press.
The article in the Baltimore Afro American is only seven sentences and appears to have been written by someone who hadn’t actually seen the game. John Klima wrote a book, Willie’s Boys, on Mays and the Black Barons, and it appears he wasn’t successful in finding a newspaper account either. He writes, “Detailed were scant in papers around the country, as black newspapers dedicated their space to the major league World Series…”
While the Washington Homestead Grays were the last Negro League World Series champions, the victory was bittersweet. After the season ended, the Negro National League folded. Several of the teams also folded, though three teams were absorbed into the Negro American League, which soldiered on as an unofficial “minor” league for another decade. The Grays decided to become independent and go back to barnstorming, lasting two more seasons before folding in late 1950.
Three of the Grays players eventually made it to the majors: Luke Easter, Bob Thurman, and Luis Márquez. Wilmer Fields received offers from major league teams but preferred to play in Latin America. Buck Leonard was too old to draw interest from major league teams, but he could still hit and continued to play for the Grays through 1950, and then in the Mexican League from 1951 to 1953 (ages 43 to 45), where he averaged .326 and slugged .515.
I relied heavily on the account of the World Series provided by John Klima, Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend, John Wiley & Sons, 2009, supplemented by contemporary newspaper articles from the Baltimore Afro American, which are available from Google News Archives.
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.