Thursday, March 20, 2014
In what seems like a thousand years ago, during the summer of 1989 I was working in a garment factory in Passaic, N.J. On a lunch break I was reading Sports Illustrated and happened on an article about a company in upstate New York called Cooperstown Ballcap Company who was recreating classic baseball caps, just like the ones made from the 1860's through World War II. I was smitten with the beautiful wool caps with felt logos, with the soft crown and leather sweatbands. I WANTED one of those caps, but they were about twice the amount one of those adjustable mesh caps cost, and being in art school, I couldn't justify spending that much bread on a cap. But I WANTED one of those caps!
In a rare moment of business acumen, I wrote a letter to the owner, Will Arlt up in Cooperstown and offered to do illustrations for his catalogue in exchange for ballcaps. Much to my surprise Will accepted and I've been proud to call him a friend ever since. I'll never forget opening the box that held my first Cooperstown Ballcap - it was a 1944 St. Louis Browns cap and I loved it. The crown molded to the shape of my head and after a few months the brim became soft and pliable. It looked just like the caps depicted in my baseball history books. It was perfect. Today I have dozens of Will's ballcaps and I never wore a modern cap again. Over the years Cooperstown Ballcap developed a following of ballcap purists and aficionados - one guy even came up with a website devoted to fans showing off their favorite Cooperstown Ballcap!
Will closed Cooperstown Ballcap Company about 7 years ago and knew the world had lost the greatest cap manufacturer of all-time. I was distraught at the horror of resigning myself to having to wear those cheap and boxy modern jobs or substandard "retro" caps that jersey companies put out. Then one night over drinks at the Formosa Cafe in Hollywood, Will disclosed he was starting a new company: IDEAL CAP COMPANY. Not only would he produce those beautiful ballcaps again, but other interesting styles as well. I immediately signed on to design the logo and illustrate the caps on the website, and after a few years of preparation and inventory building, Will launched Ideal.
As you know, I'm a stickler for accuracy in my illustrations, and over the years Will has been a font of information when it came to researching obscure caps - he simply knows more about vintage baseball caps and their insignia than anyone else in the world. Sometimes when I'm trying to decide what uniform to depict a player in, I'll go to Will's website or one of his old catalogues and see which headgear is the most interesting, and that's exactly what I did when I was working on a full page illustration of Leon Day for my book. Day played almost exclusively with the Newark Eagles and I wanted to illustrate him on that team. Since the Eagles had a few different caps over Day's 10 years with the club, I went to one of Will's old catalogues to pick a good looking cap - I chose the 1937 Newark Eagles cap. It's a striking design that typifies the great style Blackball teams possessed back in the day. After seeing that cap, I couldn't picture ol' Leon in anything else.
When I shared the illustration of Leon with Will, he like it so much he decided to include the '37 Newark Eagles cap in his inventory of hats he offers. It's the "Cap of the Month" for March and you can see it (and own one!) HERE.
Now, over the past 4 years I've gotten quite a few lucrative offers to advertise on my site, all of which I turned down; I wanted the Infinite Baseball Card Set to be pure and good, clean fun. So I want to make it clear that this isn't some shill ad disguised as a blog post - I get nothing from Ideal Cap and simply wanted to share what I believe is the most unique and beautiful baseball caps in the world. I highly recommend picking one out (and that's a hard thing to do!) and wearing it proudly - you'll never wear one of those modern hard-hats again!
Click the logo to see Will's caps (and tell him what a great logo design it is - I designed it!)
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
The most recent illustration I've completed for my upcoming book is of Hall of Famer John Henry Lloyd. Lloyd was Blackball's premier shortstop and hitter from the first years of the 20th century into the 1920's. Lloyd played against and was watched by Big Leaguers like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner, all of whom declared him major league star quality. In fact, the story goes that when Honus Wagner was told by a sportswriter that Lloyd was called "The Black Honus Wagner" he responded that he was honored that he was compared to so fine a ballplayer. As the best and most famous ballplayer outside the major leagues, Lloyd once said "wherever the money was, that's where I was". As such, the great shortstop played on an impressive array of ball clubs throughout his 30 year career. When I sat down to draw a card of Lloyd, I knew I wanted to depict him in a classic batting stance as would have been seen had he been on an actual early 1900's tobacco card like Cobb or Wagner.
However, since he changed teams so often in pursuit of the biggest pay check, what club to portray him as playing for turned out to be the hardest part. I narrowed it down to the two teams he received the most of his notoriety with: the New York Lincoln Giants and the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants. Lloyd played for the Bacharachs off and on from 1919 to 1932 and their home town of Atlantic City is where he remained after his playing days ended. There is a Pop Henry Lloyd baseball field there today and he is one of AC's honored citizens to this day. Plus, their uniforms were pretty snazzy as can be seen in card A. The other team he is most associated with is the New York Lincoln Giants. Lloyd played for the Lincolns during the earlier part of his career and I illustrated him in 2 styles of Lincoln uniform. The first one is B and is the 1911. It's a neat dark blue with red lettering. The second Lincoln ensemble is C and represents the 1915-1920 team.
So, unable to decide which one to go with, I thought I'd let visitors to this site choose... just put your preference in the comments section below this post and whichever garners the most votes will be the one I put into the book!
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
I'm proud to say that last week Sports Collectors Digest (or "SCD" as we used to call it), the premier baseball card and memorabilia publication, wrote a nice story on my artwork. I'm really humbled and proud to be featured in the pages of that magazine as I have fond memories of reading it as a kid, drooling over the pictures of baseball artifacts that I could only dream of possessing. Within the pages of SCD I discovered the beautiful art that graced turn of the century tobacco cards and 1930's bubble gum cards, a love of which I've never lost and whose influence looms large over The Infinite Baseball Card Set today. You can read the article online HERE, though I think it is much more impressive when you can physically flip through its pages, just like I did 35 years ago...
Where do you begin when writing about the greatest pitcher from the days before integration? Perhaps the first place to start would be to qualify my first statement. Was Cyclone Joe Williams better than Satchel Paige? In a word, yes.
While Satchel Paige is usually referenced as the finest pitcher Blackball produced, fans and sportswriters alike who witnessed both Paige and the man known as Cyclone Joe Williams pick the latter as the best. The two have much in common, both possessed blinding speed coupled with pinpoint control and excelled when pitching against white big leaguers. Both men had careers spanning in excess of over 30 years around which Paul Bunyan-esque legends have been spun. Looking at Cyclone Williams the astonishing part is that much of it is true.
The Cyclone blew out of Texas in the early years of the 20th century, first by word of mouth spread by traveling Blackball teams that encountered him. In 1910 he moved north to Chicago where he received real news coverage pitching on quality ball clubs. From the start he was a combination of mystery and awe. He was a giant of a man, about 6’-4” just under 200lbs, lean like you’d picture a Texas cowboy, his half Black-half Comanche Indian heritage giving him a strikingly exotic appearance. He was quiet, didn’t talk much, but exuded a confidence that his fastball backed up.
Williams threw the ball with a phenomenal speed that many guess to have been in the 100mph range. The sheer velocity at which he unleashed a baseball was aided by the way it rolled off his inhumanly-long fingers, giving the sphere an added break as it approached the plate. In the days before radar guns, the only way to gauge a pitchers velocity was by comparison to other hurlers - in this case when veterans tried evaluating The Cyclone, he is often put in the same category as contemporaries Walter Johnson and Joe Wood, white baseball’s hardest and fastest. Like Walter Johnson and Satchel Paige, opponents invariably commented on his pinpoint accuracy. When a man batted against The Cyclone he didn’t have to be worried about getting plugged by a pitch - he just couldn’t hit it.
Williams was known for his strikeouts - The Cyclone Joe legend passed down in oral histories have him repeatedly pitching games of 20 or more punch-outs. Granted, many of the feats performed by Williams, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson that have become part of the Blackball canon were against semi-pro or amateur clubs. In The Cyclone’s case however, he went head-to-head against actual Major League teams in 11 documented games and won an astonishing 6 times (plus one 1-1 tie). We’re talking pitching match-ups that featured Williams against the mighty New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies when they were pennant winners, and the four games he did lose were by 2 runs or less. Against all-star teams made up of a mixture of white major and minor leaguers, The Cyclone won 15 out of 19 games. The big Texan hung losses on Walter Johnson, Chief Bender, Waite Hoyt and Rube Marquard, all Hall of Famers. One of the most tantalizing stories that make up the Cyclone Williams legend is a 1917 game in which he no-hit the pennant winning New York Giants for 10 innings before losing 1-0 on an error. Though many players have claimed to have taken part and fans recalled the game, no box score or newspaper account has ever surfaced. Something tangible from that lost afternoon would be an important find to say the least, but we do have those other games. You can’t measure Williams’ talent any better way than that; except if his career was spent in the majors, which of course he was denied.
After he walked off the mound for the last time in 1932, The Cyclone strapped on an apron and became a popular New York City bartender. Before his death in 1951, a whole new generation of Negro Leaguers had benefited from The Cyclone’s career-changing advice dispensed over a few beers. The following year the Pittsburgh Courier asked ballplayers and sportswriters who was the best Negro Leagues pitcher: The Cyclone beat Satchel, 20-19.
One of the things I like most about writing/illustrating this blog is the emails, letters and phone calls I get from the people who visit my site. Besides the kind words of encouragement which are appreciated more than you could ever imagine, I enjoy the pitches made for future players that should be included to the endless roster that makes up The Infinite Baseball Card Set. One of the players that gets requested frequently is Cyclone Joe Williams. I couldn't agree more - Williams was the best pitcher to have come out of Blackball and could quite possibly be among the very best of any color to have stood on a mound. Besides the sheer greatness of his career which always stalled me when beginning a story on The Cyclone, there was one other thing that kept me from featuring him so far: for all his fame, there are very, very few photographs of the man.
ARTIST'S NOTES: Now if you've been following my site for a while, you've probably read that one of the things I wanted to do when I began some 4 years ago was to never simply re-draw an existing photograph of a player. Any sports artist can and does do that, and you can get that elsewhere. That's why if you search the internet for Joe Williams, the same darn photograph shows up over and over again - a full body pose taken from the side of the great man in a Lincoln Giants uniform, arms dangling, one holding a ball, the other gloved. I gave up counting how many artistic interpretations came up in a search because I got bored. And that's why I had such a hard time when it came to beginning an illustration of the great man. I wanted mine to be different - not that darn pose again. After sketching the pitcher countless times, I finally settled on a front view of him that could show off his much talked about long fingers - said to be the source of the unique movement he put on the ball. I also wanted to depict him in his prime, when he was in the late 20's pitching for the New York Lincoln Giants. That's the team was was pitching for when that famous picture was snapped. Since I'm a stickler for uniform details and strive to offer something new and unique, I wanted to show him in a different jersey than the one he is always shown wearing. For that I made a call to the bullpen and asked baseball archaeologist and early Blackball expert Gary Ashwill for his help. Digging deep into his archives, Ashwill sent me a photo of the Lincoln Giants that I'd never seen before, the team outfitted in natty pinstripes with "WORLDS COLORED CHAMPIONS" across the front. Bingo! What could possibly be a better jersey to show the best pitcher in Negro Leagues history than that?
- Holway, John B. Blackball Stars (Carroll & Graf, 1988)
- Gary Ashwill's great baseball research lab "Agate Type" has been instrumental in this article.
- Various Contemporary newspaper sources including Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier and Baltimore Afro-American.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
It's odd today to think that of the hundreds of native Puerto Rican ballplayers who have played in the majors to date, the first one debuted only as recently as 1942. That he only played 4 seasons of big league ball and the average baseball fan probably never heard of him doesn't mean he doesn't have a hell of a story...
On December 27, 1951 Almante, Mexico police officer Ambrosio Castillo Cano was escorting a suspected car thief to jail. Officer Cano had apprehended the man as he tried to sell his '47 Buick for a few hundred dollars, suspiciously way below what it was actually worth. When officer Cano asked to see the ownership and registration papers the suspect couldn't produce them which caused his arrest. As the pair rode to the police station, the suspect suddenly attacked the officer, causing him to fatally shoot the suspect. As he lie bleeding in the street outside the town bus station, the suspect used his dying words to utter "I am a member of a communist cell on an important mission". It was an odd story but one that possibly would have ran under the radar had this suspected car thief and Commie agent not been Hi Bithorn, former Major League baseball player and nothing short of a hero in his native Puerto Rico.
Hiram Gabriel Bithorn-Sosa was the husky offspring of a Dutch mother and Puerto Rican father. 6-1 and 200lbs, Bithorn made a name for himself on the island as a star basketball player, playing for the national team in the 1935 Central American and Caribbean Games. Unfortunately there was no future for even the greatest basketball players back then - the sport was still an amateur and collegiate novelty. Besides, Hi loved baseball and there was indeed a future in that.
Puerto Rico had produced a number of good home grown talent, but unfortunately their avenue of advancement was severely hampered by their skin tone. It was tough enough already for a lily-white Latino to make it in organized baseball in America, but the darker the skin pigment, the fewer opportunities there were. Unfortunately guys like Pancho Coimbre, Millito Navarro and Perucho Cepeda (Orlando Cepeda's pop) would be known only to fans of outsider baseball, simply because they were judged too dark.
But not so with Hi Bithorn. By 1936 the sturdy pitcher had made enough waves with his semi-pro Leones de Ponce team that people began to take notice. When the visiting Brooklyn Eagles Negro League team came to Puerto Rico in the spring of 1936, they were a little light in pitching. The team, featuring Hall of Famers Buck Leonard, Ray Dandridge and Leon Day, tapped the 20 year-old Puerto Rican to start their game against the Cincinnati Reds. For seven innings the young Bithorn held the big leaguers to a single run before yeilding 3 to tie the game up. Brooklyn eventually won the game and the young pitcher became a national hero. Along with his local fame, his credible performance brought Major League interest. Besides a good fastball, Bithorn's pigment was working in his favor as well: as a light skinned Puerto Rican with one European parent, Bithorn was deemed racially safe enough to be signed by the best ballclub in the world - the New York Yankees.
In the States, Bithorn consistently posted winning records: 16-9 with Norfolk in 1936 followed by 17-9 for Norfolk and Binghamton the next year. However, no matter how many games he won or how high he climbed in the Yankees chain, he was stuck behind one of the best pitching staffs in the majors - Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Spud Chandler, Bump Hadley, Monte Pearson, Atley Donald, Johnny Murphy - the Yanks pitching staff was a never ending rotation of All-Star arms. No matter how good he was, the Yankees simply had no room for him. Luckily, after a half dozen years stuck on the Yankees farm, Bithorn was picked up by the New York Giants and then acquired by the Chicago Cubs in 1941.
After winning the pennant in 1938, the Cubs never recovered from their 4 game sweep by the Yankees in the World Series. Their pitching staff was a mess and looking for a miracle, so in the spring of 1942 all eyes were on their new Puerto Rican import. Carrying the honor and responsibility of being the very first from his island to make it to the majors, Bithorn put up a 9-14 record for the year. As is so often the story, numbers don't tell the whole story of course - the Cubbies were miserable in '42 and when you take Bithorn's 3.68 ERA in account his year looks a little more promising. 1943 was his breakout year, easily establishing himself as the Cubs ace by going 18-12 with a nice 2.60 ERA. His seven shutouts topped the National League and the future seemed bright for Chicago's newest star.
Unfortunately World War Two was raging and Bithorn enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The Cubs ace was quoted in newspapers as quiping "after being with a losing team many years, I am now joining an outfit that can't lose."
Stationed at the San Juan Naval Air Station, the Navy put Bithorn's star status in Puerto Rico to good use as manager of a service team that entertained troops and raised money for the Red Cross and other causes. It was during his time in the service that Bithorn may have suffered the first of a succession of arm injuries, which was compounded by packing on over 25 pounds (some reports state as much as 45lbs) from solid Navy food.
Discharged in September of 1945, Bithorn missed out on the Cubs pennant and World Series but was expected to be an integral part of their post-war plans. As he did before the war he joined the San Juan Senators for the Puerto Rican Winter League season and helped lead the team to the Championship against Mayaguez. It was during that series that Bithorn suffered an injury to his arm during a play at the plate. The injury was still unhealed when he joined the Cubs in the spring of 1946 and seemed to worsen as the summer wore on. By the end of the season he was relegated to the bullpen and managed a weak 6-5 record. It was clear he no longer had his stuff and the Cubs sold their former ace to the Pirates who quickly sold him to the White Sox.
Bithorn returned to Chicago in 1947 but pitched just 2 innings in as many games before he was released to the Hollywood Stars who cut him loose after 4 games. Realizing he needed help, Bithorn underwent surgery on his arm and sat out the 1948 season in the hopes his arm would recover. His comeback fizzled out after he gave up 65 hits in 46 innings during a season split between Oklahoma City and Nashville. Still wanting to stay in the game, Bithorn changed uniforms and learned to be an umpire. He completed his training and was hired by the Pioneer League for the 1951 season, the first Puerto Rican umpire in organized baseball. After the season Bithorn went south to Mexico to attempt a comeback in the Mexican Winter League. When the season ended, Bithorn loaded up his '47 Buick and began the long lonely drive back to the United States.
He made it as far as the dusty little town of Almante.
That's right, the deceased secret agent car thief was Hi Bithorn. When the press got wind of Puerto Rico's first big leaguer's death and questions started to be asked, Officer Cano's story started coming apart. For starters, why the hell would Hi Bithorn be selling his Buick, his only means of transportation, in the middle of nowhere? Plus, the former Cub had over a thousand U.S. dollars on his person, negating the theory he needed some quick cash. And that whole Commie confession? Bithorn's brother swore up and down his brother was no Red. In the paranoid Cold War atmosphere of 1951, Officer Cano probably figured he'd be looked on as a hero for gunning down a real Red spy. Probably thought he'd get a medal. No, it became pretty obvious Officer Cano was an inept shakedown artist with a badge and he had murdered an unarmed Hi Bithorn. The Mexican justice system agreed and Cano was sentanced, albeit to a paltry 8 years for the ballplayer's execution.
It was a sad and pointless end to a promising life. While in America his role as the very first of a long line of fine Puerto Rican ballplayers is a footnote at best, back in Puerto Rico, Hi Bithorn is far from forgotten. When it came time to name the island's biggest and most modern baseball stadium in 1962, it was a given that it would bear the name "Estadio Hiram Bithorn" in his honor.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
May 18, 1926.
The Kansas City Monarchs won again that afternoon, and befitting their name, the team went out to celebrate in regal style. The Monarchs were the class-act of blackball, the most professional and talented of ball clubs and its players were welcomed everywhere they went in black Kansas City. Ragtime was transitioning into jazz and the though prohibition was law of the land, liquor flowed freely in KayCee if you knew where to look. The town was theirs.
At the head of the party looking to celebrate was their star shortstop, Walter "Dobie" Moore, known to fans as "The Black Cat". Loud and boisterous, Moore was not shy about shooting his mouth off to criticize his teammates, his big size - 200 lbs and just shy of 6 foot - enabling him to back up most anything that passed his lips. But that night there was no reason to criticize anything - the Monarchs had beat the Chicago American Giants, Moore was batting .415, in the prime of his career, and the night was young.
Though he was married, the best shortstop in the game wasn't adverse to stepping out and conveniently his current girlfriend, Elsie Brown, was owner of a popular brothel. So naturally "The Black Cat" led his boys over to Elsie's to cap off the evening. In retrospect it's not too hard to see how a cocky, hot-headed ball player, souped up on illegal liquor, could get into an argument with his brothel-owning girlfriend, and according to Elsie, that's exactly what went down that night.
Engaged in a heated arguement in her bedroom, Elsie Brown told police that the big shortstop slugged her in the face three times before she managed to get a hold of her pistol and shot Moore in the leg. The Black Cat, leaking blood and fearing a second, more fatal shot from his girlfriend, staggered onto the balcony and leaped into the dark alley below.
Unfortunately not all cats land on their feet.
Upon hitting the pavement, the impact from the 2-story jump shattered Moore's already injured leg. His Monarchs teammates carried him to the team's physician, Dr. Bruce, where he discovered the ballplayer had no less than 6 compound fractures of both the tibula and fibula and that the bullet could not be successfully extracted. In other words, Dobie Moore's career was through.
But what a career it was...
Walter Moore was born in Atlanta Georgia in 1896. He was functionally illiterate and never shared any details about his life before he joined the U.S. Army in 1916. Assigned to the 25th Infantry, one of the peacetime Army's few black regiments and something of an elite outfit, Moore was stationed in Hawaii. The 25th boasted one of the best semi-pro baseball teams of the time and Moore learned his trade playing shortstop with a number of future Negro League stars: Catcher Oscar Johnson, nicknamed "Heavy" for obvious reasons, was a pure slugger, Lemuel Hawkins was a solid first baseman and the team's captain, best pitcher, clutch hitter and perhaps the best all-around ballplayer of all-time, was Bullet Joe Rogan. Along with Moore, the four would form the nucleus of the Kansas City Monarchs when discharged in 1920.
As the Monarchs quickly established themselves as the most professional and dominant team in black baseball, Moore usurped the mantle of the best shortstop from the former king, John Henry Lloyd. Though not the most graceful of fielders, somehow Moore's threw his big 200lbs frame around the infield with the nimbleness of a ballerina, pouncing on any ball hit in his direction. Newspapers began calling him "The Black Cat". Moore also wasn't adverse to bending rules a bit in his favor, like grabbing hold of base runners belts as they made their way to third, causing them to loose a stride or two. Through hours of practice, his arm became about as powerful and accurate as the '03 Springfield rifle he used in the service and his skill with the bat made him one of the team's most feared hitters. In his seven years in blackball, spent entirely with the Monarchs, Moore hit in the area of .350 against professional Negro League competition.
Like many black ballplayers, Moore played ball year-round and his numbers in both the integrated California Winter League against white major and minor leaguers and the tough Cuban Winter League is consistent with his Negro League averages, .385 and .356 respectively.
1924 was his best season as a pro, but the story of that milestone year actually starts in the winter of '23-24 in Cuba. Moore sailed to the island nation to join the Santa Clara Leopardos, one of the four Cuban major league teams. Santa Clara was stocked with the best black and Hispanic players of the time: pitchers Jose Mendez and Dave Brown, a Hall of Fame quality right-left punch, Oscar Charleston and Alejandro Oms in the outfield and an infield made up of Heavy Johnson, Weasel Warfield, Oliver Marcelle and the best shortstop in the game, Dobie Moore. The Leopardos easily took the pennant and the team has gone down in island history as the greatest Cuban League team of all-time, the 1927 Yankees of their day. And among this all-star conglomeration, Moore hit .386 and led the league in hits and triples. After the winter season ended, Moore rejoined the Monarchs where he hit .453 to lead the Negro National League in hitting and Kansas City defeated Hilldale to take the first Colored World Series title. Moore had 12 hits in 49 at bats and then took a train to southern California for the Winter League season. Playing with the Los Angeles White Sox, Moore hit .487 against the white major league and Pacific Coast League players and led the circuit in hits, doubles, triples, home runs average and slugging percentage.
The 1925 edition of the Kansas City Monarchs was weakened with their heart and soul, Bullet Joe Rogan, out with an injury but still the club managed to take the pennant before bowing to Hilldale in the World Series. Moore hit .333 that season, a bit less than his epic '24 numbers but was still the best shortstop outside the major leagues. In the series loss he still put up a .364 against Hilldale's formidable pitching staff.
And that brings us back to those first weeks of the 1926 season. In the fifteen games against league teams, Moore rapped out 22 hits and was hitting at a .415 clip, seemingly on-track for another spectacular season, that is until he found himself in a crumpled and bleeding heap in the alley below Elsie Brown's bedroom.
Aided by a sanitized version of the shooting in which Ms. Brown mistook Moore for a robber, the Monarchs fans rallied around The Black Cat and the local colored newspaper, The Call, started a fund to help with his medical bills. Unfortunately the leg was too badly damaged and never healed properly. Despite his claim that a comeback was in the cards, Moore's career was through. By the end of 1926 he left KayCee and ended up in Detroit where the ex-Monarch played a bit of semi-pro ball, hobbling around first base as best he could. After a mid-1940's newspaper article showing the former shortstop on crutches reminiscing about the old days he disappears. A 1947 death certificate from Detroit may be Moore's, but a 1948 newspaper articles mentions the old ballplayer as a pallbearer at a former teammates funeral. Since the earlier article shows Moore on crutches, it may be assumed the article was wrong and the pallbearer was not in fact the former star. Regardless, it was an inglorious end to what may have been the best shortstop of the 1920's.
- Lester, Larry Baseball's First Colored World Series (McFarland & Company 2006)
- Revel, Dr. Layton and Munoz, Luis Walter "Dobie" Moore (Center for Negro League Research, 2009)
- Holway, John B. Dobie Moore (Baseball Research Journal, 1982)
- Gary Ashwill's great baseball research lab "Agate Type" has been instrumental in this article.
- Various Contemporary newspaper sources including Chicago Defender and Baltimore Afro-American.
Saturday, February 1, 2014
One of my favorite stories I have written on this site has been the day-in-the-life of Joe Jackson during his days as a baseball mercenary. When I started envisioning the stories and drawings I wanted to include in my book, this one always can to mind first - indeed it was one of the handful I included in my book proposal. I knew from the start that I wanted to make it a 6-7 page story with 3 different illustrations interspersed with the text. I saw the main, full-page drawing being of Jackson in action on that bush-league Hackensack ball field, a million miles away from Comiskey Park. Knowing that I would be giving it full-page status, the extra space enabled me to expound on what I had wanted to do with the original drawing. One of those things was that I wanted to portray the overflowing crowd that lined the rural ball field, and opposing players and cars in the parking lot - all of which I now poured into this piece. Other little details include Jackson's trademark two-toned "Black Betsy" bat and his plain, grubby, second-hand gray flannel uniform.
And now, here is the story behind the drawing...
Shoeless Joe Jackson's One Day in Baseball Purgatory
The man standing in the shade of the building was deeply suntanned and wrinkles ran round his face, making him seem older than his 32 years. He wore a black suit, finely tailored, though of an older style cut and starting to show it’s age around the edges. In his rough, calloused hand he gripped a leather travel bag, which, upon closer examination, showed that the ornate brass plaque between the handles had been crudely altered: someone had scratched away all traces of the original engraved initials.
The man stood outside the box office entrance to the town ballpark. It was a small, well built ball yard, but in actuality he hardly took notice. After all, he’d played in a different one almost every weekend that summer and now they were all starting to blend together. If he hadn’t stopped at the coffee shop back in the train station he’d probably have had no idea where exactly he was, which, by the way, was Hackensack, New Jersey.
After standing around in the late morning sun for a few minutes a caravan of dirty open cars turned into the dirt lot beside the ballpark. Stopping in a cloud of dust, a dozen men poured out. These were to be his teammates for today’s ballgame. He watched as the men unloaded canvas bags of equipment. The oldest looking one of the group saw him standing near the box office door and walked quickly over to him, extending his hand. He introduced himself as the manager. In his other hand he offered up a manila envelope. The suntanned man opened it and pretended to count the money inside and quickly shoved it in his coat pocket. It was time to get ready.
The locker room was a locker room in name only. The small room was damp and had 2 long wooden benches that ran the length of the room and the walls had a shelf about neck high opposite each bench and a row of hooks beneath that. Each of the ballplayers staked out a space on one of the benches and unpacked their small traveling bags. Most of the players talked loudly with one another, laughing and throwing around swear words. Their accents were harsh to his ears and sometimes not too easy to follow. A few of the players stared unabashedly at the suntanned man and he began to grow more uncomfortable than he usually felt. As the suntanned man undressed he hung his jacket from the hook and folded his black pants and silk pink shirt. Running his hand over the folded silk garment to smooth it out before placing it on the shelf, he quietly touched the gold embroidered “J” monogram over the pocket.
The suntanned man removed a worn baseball uniform from his leather satchel. It was of a rougher quality wool than he was used to but it was a baseball uniform just the same. There was no name on the front, just black pinstripes. The cap he retrieved from the satchel was black as well, with a white button and white “P” on the front - a souvenir of an afternoon up in Poughkeepsie the week before. His name was “Joe Nutter” that day.
The manager appeared with another ballplayer in tow. He introduced him as “Smith” but the suntanned man recognized him as a young pitcher with Toronto. He couldn’t recall his name, but it sure as hell wasn’t Smith. The manager repeated the story he’d already heard - that his Westwood town team, traditionally a local powerhouse, had been unexpectedly clobbered by Hackensack a month before. There was always a heated rivalry between the two towns and the games always attracted spirited betting, the action being covered by heavies from nearby New York City and Newark. Westwood swore Hackensack had a few ringers on their team that day and, needless to say, much money was lost by Westwood’s fans that day. Plenty of people were pissed off and thirsty for revenge. Taking up a collection, Westwood decided to purchase some insurance for today’s game, hence the manila envelope of cash. Today, the suntanned man’s name was “Josephs,” at least that’s what it said on the lineup card.
By this time he could hear the roar of the crowd. Through the row of filthy windows that lined one wall above the shelves he could make out much movement as hundreds of people jostled for seats. He could hear men shouting and children squealing. Someone threw something through one of the open windows and every few minutes some wiseguy would bang on the glass and shout something nasty. One of the suntanned man’s temporary teammates sidled up and said: “They know you’re here.”
Emerging out from the darkness of the locker room he pulled his cap down as low as he could over his eyes to protect them from the sun. The crowd went wild when they recognized him.
“My God, it’s Shoeless Joe Jackson!”
Spectators were spilling out onto the field and bits of paper littered the field. Glancing out to center field he could see it was cleared of fans, which made him feel a little better. The roar was deafening. There must be more than 1000 here today, probably more. Ugly, twisted faces shouted unintelligible words at him. Small children stared and women craned their heads and stood on tip-toes to catch a glimpse of him. He’d seen it all before. He did this every weekend.
The game wasn’t much to remember as far as he was concerned. It was a standard affair - the Hackensack manager came over to the Westwood bench and in between swearwords made it clear his team would be playing the game under protest. Westwood held back the Toronto pitcher until he was unleashed in the 3rd inning after Hackensack scored a few runs. It was smart managing as it gave the gamblers time to settle the odds before the Toronto kid shut them down for the rest of the game.
In between hitting a home run, double and two singles there were a few notable incidents. A news photographer ran onto the field while Westwood was batting and attempted to take a photo of him as he sat on the bench. Two of his teammates started shoving the newsman and threatened to beat the hell out of him if he didn’t get back to the stands. When Westwood’s catcher reared back, ready to throw a punch, the fella ran off so fast he left his hat behind. The catcher stomped on it with his spikes and the rest of the ballplayers laughed. A few times the game was stopped, not by the umpire but because everyone paused to watch a fist fight in the bleachers. He noticed that the couple of policemen stood by and did nothing - wading into a crowd like this was pointless and after a few minutes the fighting stopped on its own anyway. At a few points in the afternoon the play was stopped while the players collected some of the larger items that were thrown onto the grass. Bottles of beer, scorecards, newspapers and even a few straw hats were picked up and thrown in a pile behind home plate. One call by the amateur umpire cause a heck of a row. When he called Westwood’s left fielder out for supposedly not touching first base on his way to an easy double, the bench cleared and for a time it looked like the poor umpire was going to catch a beating. He sat on the bench and watched. The guy missed touching first by a mile anyway. A few innings later a Westwood fan charged out of the stands and accused a Hackensack outfielder of putting a concealed second baseball in play when he couldn’t get to a deeply hit fly ball. He just pulled his cap lower over his eyes and thought about his wife.
He was proud of one play he made that day, not at bat but in the outfield. On a long ball hit out to him in center, he’d made the catch and threw a straight liner back to the surprised catcher who tagged out the equally surprised runner to end the inning. The bases had been loaded and it squelched a rally and when all was wrapped up it probably made the difference in Westwood’s 9 to 7 defeat of Hackensack. Most of the crowd cheered but some threw even more crap on the field. This wasn’t Comiskey Park.
After the game he tried to dress as quickly as possible. Half the team was drunk and in various stages of undress. One of the guys threw his spikes through one of the glass windows. He was too busy packing his leather satchel to find out why. Someone was pounding on the locker room door but no one answered. After a while he slipped his black suit coat over his pink silk shirt, once again obscuring the embroidered “J” above the pocket. He opened the locker room door and ignoring the lingering spectators in the parking lot headed off towards the train station, trying to remember where he was going to be next weekend and what his name would be when he got there.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Today I thought I'd preview one of the full-page illustrations I'm working on for my upcoming book. I'll be doing this every so often because I'm very, very excited about the way these new illustrations are shaping up. Every one I finish I think "that's the best one I've done yet!", so it's hard to keep them under wraps. While many are all new subjects some are re-do's of older illustrations, enhancing them to make them more in-line with my evolved style or to give them a full-page treatment.
A few years back I did this card and story on Fujio Nagasawa, one of the Tokyo Giants players that toured North America in the spring of 1935. One of the curious things the team would do was that before every player batted, he would remove his cap and bow at the catcher and umpire to show respect. It was something the American fans latched on to and the press ate up. My previous drawing portrayed the scene I envisioned, but now that I am doing the book, I knew that this idea had to be given the full-page treatment. The book will be 7 1/2" square (slightly bigger than my previous little book), so each full-page illustration will be a nice-sized piece, perfect for the Nagasawa scene.
Hailing from the island of Hokkaido in the northern-most part of Japan, first baseman Fujio Nagasawa was the star of his college team from Hakodate Commercial School. After graduating he continued to play ball for the Hakodate Oceania Baseball Club. His talent was such that at the “advanced” age of 30 was recruited to represent Japan against the Major League All-Stars in the winter of 1934.
Led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, the All-Stars wiped the floor with the Japanese team but the Americans came away with the impression that the Japanese players they faced were at a AA level. Nagasawa himself hit .226 in 11 games against major league pitching. With practice against good, professional competition, American sportswriters speculated they would improve quickly. Major Leaguer Lefty O'Doul was on that 1934 team and had previously played on tours that stopped in Japan earlier in the decade. Through his friendships with influential businessmen eager to start a Japanese league, O'Doul suggested sending the Dai-Nippon team to the United States in the spring to play against the American professional teams that held spring training on the west coast. O'Doul was newly named manager of the San Francisco Seals and offered to act as intermediary in arranging other ball clubs to play against the Japanese.
Besides acting as middle-man for the Japanese, the publicity-savvy O'Doul made a few suggestions to the Dai-Nippons - the first of which was to change their name: The Dai-Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Club was just too much of a mouthful for the American public to digest. O'Doul suggested the "Tokyo Giants" and the name has held to this day. Other suggestions by O'Doul was for the Japanese to capitalize on national customs that would be unique to their team when they toured America. Despite the fact that Japanese baseball teams all used English words and numbers on their uniforms, for the tour jerseys would sport the player's number in traditional Japanese kanji characters on their backs and the kanji characters for "Tokyo" would appear on their sleeve. O'Doul instructed them to continue the tradition of tipping their caps and bowing as a group to the crowd before and after a game. Each batter was told to also tip their cap and bow to the umpire before each at bat and even after being thrown out on the base paths runners were to do the same. Another unique aspect of a Tokyo Giants game was their football-like huddle before each inning. Newspaper scribes in America were kept busy debating just what was being discussed during these mysterious huddles. Curious little things like that really made a difference to the American public and the team was awarded with decent-sized crowds and much newspaper publicity.
Among the photographs that accompanied the Tokyo Giants press kit was a much-reproduced photo of Fujio Nagasawa tipping his cap to the home plate umpire. American sportswriters commented favorably on his fielding skills and he batted right around .300 on the 6 month tour. The success of the tour back in Japan led to the formation of the nation’s first professional league and Nagasawa was signed to be the Tokyo Giants first baseman. As the Giants lead off hitter, Nagasawa became the very first batter in the Japanese Baseball League when play began in 1936. Now in his early 30's, Fujio Nagasawa's playing days were coming to an end and the arrival of first baseman Tetsuji Kawakami, soon to be known as "The God of Batting" led to his retirement in 1943. Nagasawa then switched gears and became a successful reporter for the Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper, dying at the age of 80 in 1985.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
For those who haven't heard yet, I'm officially working on a full-scale Infinite Baseball Card Set book for Simon & Schuster. It's going to be a much-expanded version of the small privately published book I completed last spring. While some of the drawings and stories are derived from this blog, it'll also be chock-full of new material - which explains why I haven't been doing updates a often as I used to. Getting married in August and then moving and then working on the book proposal had taken it's toll on my time to do this blog. However, now that it's a go on the book, I plan on not only updating more often, but also periodically sharing sneak-peeks of some of the new drawings I've been doing. To say I'm excited is an understatement; this book will be my grand statement as an artist and writer, the fruition of 4 years of producing a labor of love that means more to me than any artistic endeavour I've done in my entire career. To say it will be a culmination would be wrong, it will be more like just the beginning, a whole new route that my career will take. Stay tuned!
This week's story and illustration is of Cuba's greatest ballplayer, Cristóbal (known to his peers as Carlos) Torriente. Countless baseball artists have done drawings of Torriente, always taken from the same photos. For me, I wanted to do the Hall of Famer for specific reason: through my years of reading about the Negro leagues, there's something than no other artist ever managed to capture when illustrating him - Torriente was famous for wearing gold bracelets on his wrist that he'd jingle before batting to rile up the crowd. I thought this a very important and frankly fun detail that made a standard Hall of Famer jump off the pages of history and into real life. It's details like that that drew me to outsider baseball history over 3 decades ago and epitomises what I wanted to do with my drawings when I began here 4 years ago.
It’s the fall of 1920 and the overflowing crowd at Havana’s Almenares Park was whipped to a frenzy. The great Babe Ruth had arrived with the New York Giants to take on Cuba’s best ball club, the Blues. Their star was a dark-skinned slugger named Torriente and everyone wanted to see him match his skills against The Babe. Ruth put on his usual show, but his trademark long distance shots, which would have been homers in any American park, were reigned in for outs due to the monstrous dimensions of the outfield. Helped by the Giants pitcher, who was normally a first baseman, the Cuban blasted three home runs. With the bases loaded, Ruth limbered up and took the mound to face Torriente. Just two years earlier, The Babe was the best left-hander in baseball and he was sure he could make short-work of his adversary. Torriente hammered a ball past the third baseman for a 2-run double. The Babe frowned and the crowd went hysterical. He was forever after known as “The Babe Ruth of Cuba”. Described as “fun-loving”, Torriente had a string of eccentricities like the gold bracelets he wore on this wrists which he would jingle when he came to bat to excite the crowd. He’s most known for his years on the Chicago American Giants where manager Rube Foster put the versatile Cuban to good use as an everyday utility player. He hit with power and his average was usually in the area of .350. The major leagues were very close to signing him on numerous occasions but reportedly the only thing that stood between him and stardom in the white leagues was Torriente’s kinky black hair. By the mid 1920’s the slugger’s enjoyment of the nightlife and the hard life of outsider baseball began to take its toll on him. He bumped around from team to team and was out of baseball by 1933. The “Babe Ruth of Cuba” died a penniless alcoholic from tuberculosis in New York City in 1938. He was but 44.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
I don't have much family left now-a-days, so one of the added bonuses I received when I married my wife Andrea in August was that I became part of her family. More often than not, the phrase "in-laws" accompanies some horror story or otherwise unpleasant holiday tale. That's just not the case with Andrea's family - they're all great people who have made me feel more welcome than I had ever thought possible.
Now, I'm sure most are wondering what the heck does my in-laws have to do with The Infinite Baseball Card Set? Well, I found out about this week's ballplayer via my wife's sister.
For the past two years Andrea and I have driven out to Oklahoma City to spend Thanksgiving with her sister Cathy and their family. Her husband, Scott (an L.A. Dodgers fan) was one of the groomsmen at my wedding. They have 3 teenagers who are healthy, smart, athletic and so well-grounded that spending time with them has renewed my faith in the future of America. So anyway, last Thanksgiving the whole family plus Andrea and I hopped in the family Suburban and went antique shopping. Oklahoma City has a huge number of very good antique stores and in one Cathy was thoughtful enough to pick up a present for me. It was a large hard-bound volume called "Glory Days of Summer: The History of Baseball in Oklahoma". It's a very well made and researched book and not one I'd seen before. Not only does its authors cover the various major league players that hailed from the state, but its also heavy on the various minor leagues and semi-pro teams that populated the state before the second world war. My wife's sister hit the jackpot because it's the kind of book I absolutely love and within its pages that I came across a guy that has one of the best names in baseball history: Earl Huckleberry.
Throughout the bleak summer of 1935 Ira Thomas prowled the western half of the United States. As the odometer on his beat up Ford V8 clicked off mile after dusty mile, Thomas had a front row seat to the desolation the great depression and dust bowl had wrought on the American landscape. The usually sparsely traveled roads were now choked with refugees fleeing the dust storms and foreclosed farms that littered the great plains. While it seemed like everyone was on the move out of there, Thomas stepped on the gas and headed in. He was looking for arms.
His boss, the venerable and saintly Connie Mack, owner-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, had scattered his scouts to the far corners of the country looking for pitching. Thomas, Mack's former catcher from his first dynasty of the early teens, was the A's chief scout and although he didn't specifically come out and say it, the old man was counting on him to come through with a miracle. The stock market crash had hit the Athletics' owner hard and for the second time in his long career, Mack had to dismantle what may have been the greatest baseball team in major league history. For three glorious years, 1929 to 1931, Mack's A's had dethroned the mighty New York Yankees and won three consecutive pennants and back-to-back World Championships. But by the summer of 1935, slugger Jimmie Foxx and outfielder Doc Cramer were the only stars remaining. The once great pitching staff of Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg and George Earnshaw were long gone, their place in the rotation taken by a long list of punch-drunk veterans and a revolving door of fuzzy-faced college kids. Connie Mack, for all his years in the game, was slow to accept the new concept of farm teams. Both his American League dynasties were assembled through good scouting and decades worth of connections he'd cultivated. In the past when a low-level minor league team had a promising youngster, Mack counted on managers to contact him and offer up the kid's contract. Now with many minor league clubs under working agreements with big league teams, Mack's pipeline had dried up. That's why Thomas was roaming around racking up more miles than a bible salesman.
Late August found Thomas sitting in the bleachers watching a semi-pro tournament in Oklahoma. Two pitchers from the Seminole Redbirds caught his attention - Vallie Eaves and Earl Huckleberry. Both right handers were well known on the dust bowl diamonds of Oklahoma and the two often found themselves teammates on semi-pro teams that had the cash to pay for their services. Eaves was a Native American with a lame leg and Huckleberry was a lanky Okie fireballer. Neither of these guys were another Eddie Plank and Lefty Grove, but the most important thing here was that both men were free agents. With his boss back in Philly desperate and nothing to lose, Ira Thomas quickly got both hurlers signatures on standard American League players' contracts and sent the duo east on the next train.
Back in Philadelphia, Connie Mack watched helplessly as his once proud team careened out of control down the American League standings. The pitching staff seemed to disintegrate in the late summer heat: rookie Lee Roy Mahaffey and veteran George Blaeholder blew their arms out and were done for the year, while promising lefty Whitey Wilshere abandoned the sinking ship to return to the University of Indiana. Apparently hitting the books was a more appealing prospect than ending the season with a lousy team like the Athletics.
The A's were in 7th place, a few games atop the lowly St. Louis Browns - that is, they were, until the Browns took 4 straight from Mack's men. Mired in last place and in a tailspin that now stretched to 13 consecutive losses, Mack was desperate and out of tricks - Thomas' telegram announcing the signing of the two Okies couldn't have come at a better time.
The two westerners joined the team in Philadelphia. Thursday, September 12 was a double header against the Chicago White Sox. The only remaining A's pitcher that was any good, Johnny Marcum, won the first game to snap the 13 game losing streak. For the second game, Connie Mack handed the ball to Vallie Eaves who proceeded to go the distance and beat White Sox ace Monty Stratton 4-3. It was a big enough win that the wire services picked up Eaves' story.
The next day, Friday, September 13th was Earl Huckleberry's turn.
Wearing number 24, the lanky Oklahoman took the Shibe Park mound. Veteran A's catcher Charlie Berry would be catching him that afternoon. Huckleberry wound up and threw his fireball. He wasn't the fastest anyone had ever seen, but out west his fastball had nice movement and that big pitch worked fine on the semi-pro lots. Games of more than a dozen strike-outs weren't uncommon for Huckleberry, and for over five summers that ol' fireball had baffled hundreds of his opponents. In the major leagues it took the White Sox less than a handful of pitches to figure him out. By the time the inning ended the Sox had scored a run on a couple hits and Huckleberry's own error.
It wasn't the best of debuts, but fortunately White Sox starter Ray Phelps was even worse. By the time he was finally yanked and sent to the showers without finishing the first inning, Phelps had walked 8 batters and gave up seven runs. Reliever Jack Salveston let in another run before getting the last out.
Now working with a 7 run lead, the Oklahoman bore down and shut out Chicago for the next four innings. He struck out two Sox and his control wasn't bad for a guy coming directly from the sandlots to the majors. Meanwhile, A's batters piled on 4 more runs to make it 12-1 going into the bottom of the 6th. A handful of hits resulted in two Chicago runs but he got out of it. The A's added another 2 runs in the bottom of the inning to make it 14-5.
But then Connie Mack's newest find ran out of gas. Huckleberry managed to retire 2 Sox but let two more runs in before Mack gave him the hook. Dutch Lieber came in and shut Chicago down for the rest of the game. Though he gave up 7 earned runs and 8 hits, Huckleberry was awarded the win.
The papers made much of Mack's two new discoveries, calling them "Mack's Kindergarten Class". Despite promises to play the Okie rookie again, September 13th, 1935 was Huckleberry's first and last appearance in organized baseball and neither Oklahoman made any difference in the A's nose-dive of a season. When the books mercifully closed on the 1935 season two weeks after Huckleberry's win, the Athletics were firmly locked in the cellar of the American League, a staggering 34 games out of first place.
Not many men can say they skipped the minor leagues on their way up and down from the big leagues, but Earl Huckleberry can. While his professional career was started and finished in the span of an afternoon, he continued to be a much-sought out baseball mercenary in Oklahoma. A year after his major league game, Huckleberry and Eaves joined forces again to pitch the Halliburton Cementers to victory in the Denver Post Tournament. He was still pitching up into the 1940's for various semi-pro clubs like the Enid Oilers and Seminole Red Birds, living his entire life in his native Oklahoma. He and his wife Dollie, who he married in 1933, had a daughter, and by the time he passed away in 1999, the Huckleberry's had two grand kids and three great-grand kids. Now I don't know this for sure, but I'd be willing to bet my bottom dollar that Grandpa Huckleberry bent their ears on many a Thanksgiving Day telling his brood about his one day on the mound for Connie Mack's Athletics.
I say this all the time, but it's stories like this that make this game interesting to me. You can take all the Hall of Famers and multi-million dollar contracts. I'll take Earl Huckleberry's one afternoon in the big leagues anytime.
Monday, December 9, 2013
Here's a great little slice of baseball history I learned about from an update I received from Gary Bedinfield, proprietor of Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice. After reading Gary's fine bio on Apau Kau, I called up my old pal Scott Simkus, the man behind the now defunct Outsider Baseball Bulletin, who tapped into his vast OBB archives and supplied me with some hard-to-find newspaper photo's of Kau from which I did my drawing. Various old newspaper articles along with some background of the Hawaiian All-Chinese Travelers team from Joel Frank's book filled out the rest of Kau's story.
The son of Chinese immigrants, Sam Kau grew up playing ball in the fast paced Oahu League. Armed with a devastating spitball to go along with a good fastball and professional curve, Kau joined the All-Chinese Hawaiian Travelers that toured the U.S. mainland every summer from 1912 to 1915. When the All-Americans team came to Hawaii in 1914, Kau pitched against the major league stars, losing 5-2. The big leaguers were impressed with his spitball and noted that 4 of the runs came during one bad inning. On the Travelers’ 1915 American tour, Kau held the minor league San Antonio Bronchos to 6 hits (though he lost 3-2) and then tossed a perfect game against Baylor University, striking out 20. Kau moved permanently to Philadelphia where he continued to be a sought-after semi-pro pitcher.
A former member of the Hawaiian National Guard (as were a good number of his teammates on the Travelers), Kau enlisted in the army in 1918. With his prior experience he made sergeant quickly and was sent to officer candidate school. Anxious to get to the fighting, the former spitballer voluntarily resigned from officer training in order to join his old regiment when it received orders to France.
The 315th Infantry was posted to the Verdun Sector during the last week of the war. On the night of November 4th they moved into the front lines to spearhead an attack on Hill 378 which was outside the town of Borne-du-Cornouiller. Going over the top at the head of his squad, Sergeant Kau was killed by German bullets. It was only six days until the war ended.
Though Kau never played in the majors or even the minor leagues, he was a big enough name that his death in battle was reported by the wire services.