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September 24, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

70 years ago: Washington repeats Negro World Series championship

Seventy years ago, on Sunday, September 24, 1944 in Griffith Stadium, the Washington Homestead Grays clinched their second consecutive World Series championship with a 4 to 2 victory over the Birmingham Black Barons, winning the series four games to one.

Washington has a rich baseball history. Media outlets like MASN and the Washington Post often have stories about some of the great major league players and teams that used to play in the city’s two American League franchises. We hear less frequently about the city’s Negro league history. Although the Grays called Washington home for less than a decade, they fielded some great teams that won multiple pennants and three Negro World Series championships. Those championship teams are now largely forgotten.

When we watch movies about the Negro leagues, such as last year’s critically acclaimed 42, the stories emphasize the differences with white baseball. From the point of view of the ballplayers, the working conditions of white baseball and black baseball were dramatically different. Major league players lived and traveled in relative comfort, earned reliable paychecks, and played fixed schedules. In contrast, Black players constantly confronted Jim Crow conditions and financially strapped ball clubs, traveled in cheap buses, stayed in flea-bit hotels, and played many more barnstorming games than regularly scheduled league contests.

What we sometimes forget, though, is that from the point of view of fans, Negro league baseball really wasn’t that different from major league baseball. There were leagues and pennant races and World Series championships. By the 1940s, most of the games were being played in major league or minor league ballparks in front of crowds that sometimes matched major league teams in attendance. Most Negro league history tends to focus on stories and people, but we may have forgotten the history of those seasons and pennant races. To learn about them, I had to look up old newspapers, some of which are now available online.

The 1944 Washington Homestead Grays were an old team—undoubtedly a factor in allowing them to avoid losing many top players to military service. They featured five future Hall of Famers—catcher Josh Gibson (age 32), first baseman Buck Leonard (37), left fielder Cool Papa Bell (41), pitcher Ray Brown (36), and ancient pinch hitter Jud Wilson (48). Gibson and Leonard were still among the best hitters in the league. The other regular players on their roster were second baseman Norman Jackson (35), third baseman Jesse Canady (32), shortstop Sam Bankhead (34), center fielder Jerry Benjamin (34), right fielder Dave Hoskins (19), and pitchers Roy Welmaker (30), Edsall Walker (34), and Spoon Carter (41).

Just a week before the series, the Birmingham Black Barons confronted a disaster when five players were injured in a car crash when their car was struck head on while driving back to Birmingham after a Friday night game. Tommy Sampson, their regular second baseman, suffered a broken leg and a fractured hip; their backup catcher Lloyd “Pepper” Basset had two broken ribs; and Leandy Young, a substitute outfielder, also had a broken leg. Two other regulars had less serious injuries and managed to play in the series—shortstop Art Wilson (sprained wrist) and Johnny Britton (cuts on head and knees).

Other players on the Black Barons roster, which did not include any Hall of Famers, were pitchers Johnny Markham, Alfred Saylor, Earl Bumpus, and John Huber, catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, first baseman Leroy Morney, second baseman Piper Davis, third baseman Lester Locket, left fielder  Collis Jones, center fielder Felix McLauren, and right fielder Ed Steele.

Both the Grays’ Negro National League and the Black Barons’ Negro American League played split season schedules, with the winners of the first and second halves scheduled for a playoff series for the league championship. However, both teams won both halves, so no pennant championship series were held and the World Series contestants were known well in advance.

Game 1. The first game was played on Sunday, September 14 at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field in front of a crowd of 14,000. The Grays scored a run in the top of the first when they loaded the bases with one out and the Black Barons were unable to complete a double play. The home team tied in the bottom of the third, but then Gibson hit a home run in the fourth, Leonard hit another in the fifth, and  the Grays broke it open with three more runs in the eighth (including another home run by Hoskins) and two in the ninth. The Black Barons were able to score two in the bottom of the ninth, but still fell 8 to 3. Welmaker was the winning pitcher.

Game 2. The second game was played on Tuesday night before a crowd of 8,000 in New Orleans. (The Negro World Series traditionally played several games in cities other than the homes of the two contestants. Note that the Negro leagues were playing world series games at night nearly 30 years before that change came to the majors.) The Grays scored the first run in the top of the first on a sacrifice fly.  The Black Barons tied it in the fourth with an RBI double by Lockett, but the Grays regained the lead in the seventh on another sacrifice fly. The pitching duel ended in the top of the ninth when the Grays scored four insurance runs and beat the Black Barons 6 to 1. Walker was the winning pitcher.

Game 3. The third game was played on Thursday night back in Birmingham. Ray Brown pitched a one-hit shutout as the Grays beat the Black Barons 9 to 0, moving to a three-game lead in the series. Some costly Black Barons errors allowed the Grays to score 4 runs in the fifth inning, and they continued to add on, as the Black Barons made 3 errors.

Game 4. The fourth game was played on Saturday in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. The Black Barons kept their world series hopes alive behind a 3-hit shutout pitched by John Huber. One article says that Josh Gibson was robbed of a triple when McLaurin raced back and dove to catch a 430-foot drive in deep center, turning somersaults but hanging on. The Black Barons took the lead with an RBI single by Lockett in the second. A sac fly scored another in the fourth, with Gibson missing the tag on a close play at the plate.  In the sixth, they scored 4 more runs, including two scored after Gibson lost the ball on a collision play at the plate. The final score was 6 to 0, leaving the Grays ahead 3 games to 1.

Game 5. Playing on Sunday, September 24 at Griffith Stadium before 10,000 fans, the Grays won 4 to 2 with Roy Welmaker on the mound. The Grays jumped ahead with 3 runs in the bottom of the first. The Black Barons scored one in the fourth and another in fifth, but the Grays scored an insurance run in the bottom of the fourth and held onto their lead, winning the championship.

The Grays pretty much dominated in all of their games but one, so the series didn’t feature a lot of drama. But it capped a long dominant run by the best team in black baseball during the 1940s. They would go on to win their ninth consecutive pennant in 1945, but would lose in the Negro World Series, as age finally caught up with the team.

References

I relied on contemporary newspaper articles from the Baltimore Afro American, which are available from Google News Archives, and from the Chicago Defender.

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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