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October 6, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

70 years ago: Washington’s first Negro World Series championship

Seventy years ago yesterday, October 5, 1943, the Washington Homestead Grays won the Negro World Series, the first of three World Series championships that they would win over a six-season span.

The Homestead Grays were the dominant team of the Negro National League (the eastern league), having won six of the last seven league championships. The team featured five future Hall of Famers—left fielder and leadoff hitter Cool Papa Bell, first baseman Buck Leonard hitting third, catcher Josh Gibson hitting cleanup, third baseman Jud Wilson, and pitcher Ray Brown. Rounding out their regular roster were Sam Bankhead at shortstop, Howard Easterling at second base, Jerry Benjamin in center field, Vic Harris in right field, and pitchers Johnny Wright and Roy Partlow. While the Grays were loaded with stars, it should be noted that most of the players on their 1943 roster were old. Wilson was 47 years old, Bell was 40, Harris was 38, Leonard and Brown were both 35, and Bankhead was 32. Only 31-year old Gibson and 26-year old Wright could be considered to have been in their prime. Of course, it was the middle of the World War II and many of the younger players had been drafted.

The Grays, originally from Pittsburgh, had begun playing about half their home games at Griffith Stadium in Washington in 1940. After an especially successful season in 1942, in which they lost the World Series to the Kansas City Monarchs, they adopted Washington as their primary home and played the 1943 season as the Washington Homestead Grays. The Negro National League played a split season format, but because the Grays won both halves of the season, no playoff series was needed.

Their opponents were the Birmingham Black Barons, champions of the western Negro American League. The Black Barons’ roster did not include Hall of Famers, but it was a talented team that would win consecutive pennants. Prominent players for the Black Barons included shortstop Piper Davis, second baseman Tommy Sampson, right fielder Clyde Spearman, and catcher Ted (Double Duty) Radcliffe. Birmingham won the league playoff series against the Chicago American Giants to win the pennant.

The first game was played in Washington at Griffith stadium on the evening of Tuesday, September 21. The Black Barons took the opener 4 to 2, with Al Saylor on the mound for Birmingham facing Wright. A second game was played on Thursday in Baltimore, but it was called after 12 innings with the score tied 5 to 5. The next evening, they played again in Griffith Stadium before 7,000 fans. It again went to extra innings, and the Grays were able to win 4 to 3 to tie the series at one game apiece.

The next three games were played in Chicago, Columbus Ohio, and Indianapolis—the Negro World Series usually included several games held in neutral sites. On Sunday afternoon, September 26, the Grays beat the Black Barons 9 to 0 at Comiskey Park. They scored runs in the second (on an Easterling double) and third (on a Leonard triple) before breaking it open with six runs in the 6th. Wright pitched a 5-hit shutout. On Tuesday night, September 28, the Black Barons defeated the Grays 11 to 10 in Columbus. The Grays pulled ahead 6 to 2, but the Barons tied it in the bottom of the fifth and scored 5 more in the 7th to take an 11-6 lead. Gibson hit a grand slam home run in the 8th to narrow the lead to one run, but the Barons held on to win and tie the series at two games each. The next evening in Indianapolis, the Grays regained the lead with an 8-0 victory in Indianapolis. Wright again pitched a shutout, allowing 8 hits.

The series continued on Sunday October 3 at Rickwood Park in Birmingham. This time it was a pitching duel, with both  Birmingham’s John Markham and Washington’s Partlow pitching 10 scoreless innings before Partlow allowed a two-out triple to Birmingham’s Leonard Lindsay, followed by a single from Ed Steele for a 1 to 0 walk-off win. The series was tied at three games each. The finale was played on Tuesday October 5 at Rickwood Park.  Wright was pitching for Washington, but he was knocked out in the sixth inning when the Black Barons took a 4-2 lead. Brown came on in relief. In the top of the 8th, Leonard walked and Gibson, Easterling, Harris, and Bankhead each singled, scoring four runs and giving the Grays a 6-4 lead. They added two more in the 9th and won the game 8-4, clinching their first World Series title. Additional titles would follow in 1944 and in 1948.

References

I relied on 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.

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