Otha Bailey: The imprecise nature of Negro Leagues research

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As I noted in my previous post, I’m working on an article for Alabama Living magazine about lesser-known Negro Leagues players from that state. One of the figures on which I’m focusing is Otha Bailey, a catcher who had a roughly decade-long run in the Negro bigs from the late 1940s to the late 1950s.

From what I can gather, Bailey was often a back up to other, higher-profile backstops in the Negro Leagues, including to Pepper Bassett with the Birmingham Black Barons in early 1952. But he did begin to come into his own as he matured, including later in the ’52 campaign, when Negro Leagues kingpin, NAL president and newspaper columnist J.B. Martin gushed about him in a June 1952 article:

“There is one young man, however. who I think will soon be the best backstop in the league. The folks down in Birmingham, Ala., tell me that he already is the greatest in the loop.

“Whether you’re from Birmingham or some other city, I think you probably should be sure to watch this player in action. His playing is amazing for a young fellow. This backstop who is catching the fancy of the fans is Otha Bailey of the Birmingham Black Barons.

“According to the latest batting averages he rates in a three-way tie for seventh in batting in the NAL with an average of .333. Figures on his stick work, however, do not tell the real story of his value to his team.

“Bailey is outstanding for his fiery spirit and hustle. He has a strong throwing arm which cuts down a base runner trying to steal. …

“A native of Huntsville, Ala., [sic], Bailey is only 21 years old. Last year he caught for the New Orleans Eagles. Bailey is a squat 5 feet 7 inches and weighs 1t5 pounds. He hit .278 with the Eagles in 1951.

“Now, this player should some day be a great star. I like players with fire and hustle. They can inspire their teammates to great things. …

“If he keeps up his early form, I am sure Bailey will be one of the stars you see on the field if you come to Comiskey Park in Chicago, Sunday, Aug. 17, for the East-West game.”

Martin’s prophecy did indeed come true — Bailey suited up as the starting catcher for the East team that August, and he ended up have a mixed day. He cracked a doubled at the bat and drove in a run, but he also allowed two passed balls behind the plate in the East’s 7-3 defeat in front of 18,000-plus fans.

Unfortunately, Bailey passed away on Sept. 17, 2013, in Birmingham. Hundreds of mourners reportedly jammed Rising Star Baptist Church in the city to, as reporter Bryant Somerville of ABC 33/40 wrote four days later, “say a final goodbye to one of the original Negro League baseball players.”

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But here’s the catch — and that’s not an intentional play on words on Bailey’s nickname, “Little Catch,” which he earned from teammate because of his small but scrappy nature. It’s been impossible to pin down Bailey’s precise birthdate; a host of different sources list wildly differing dates.

The obituary his family provided to the Birmingham News/al.com states it as June 30, 1930, a figure backed up by Baseball-Reference.com. But the U.S. Public Records Index pegs it at June 6, 1933, and the Social Security office lists it as June 29, 1928! Then, finally, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s online bio of him gives a date of … June 30, 1920!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t immediately find a direct birth record online as of now, so the mystery will have to remain. But what isn’t a mystery is that Little Catch loved the sport, and it loved him back. Pretty cool.

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