As I’ve stated probably too many times before, I’ve become enraptured by the fascinating but rather arcane tale of NOLA’s Edgar “Iron Claw” Populus, a one-armed pitcher who for an ever-so-brief time in the early 1930s was the king of the hill in New Orleans blackball.
What I’ve found is a family tree of biracial/mixed race — or “mulatto” or “Creole” in the parlance of the day — that stretches back into slavery in the mid-18th century before the early biracial Populuses (Populi?) were freed by their masters circa 1775 and began lives as quite successful free blacks.
In fact, at least two of Iron Claw’s direct ancestors fought for their country in the Army, including one slave-turned-trailblazing War of 1812 major. But those yarns are for ensuing posts.
Today, I’m going to talk about the Claw himself; specifically, his breakthrough pitching season of 1931, when he seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate opposing batters on the semipro diamonds of the Crescent City. But Edgar didn’t just mop the floor on the mound; he was also apparently quite a capable hitter who could crush ’em for extra bases on occasion.
The story — or at least the one the public knew — starts in late May of that season, when Populus took the hill for the Southern Stars. I’ll let the May 30, 1931, Louisiana Weekly take it from there:
“Thousands of fans stood spellbound Sunday afternoon while Edgar ‘Iron Claw’ Populus stood the Corpus Christi Giants up with two scattered hits and shut them out 8 to 0 … on the Corpus Christi grounds.
“The one-armed pitcher gave up three walks and contributing to his team’s battery movements by clouting a triple.”
Iron Claw whiffed seven in his coming-out party as well.
A week later, Iron Claw pretty much duplicated his breakout debut, but this time he did it on behalf of his previous week’s foe, Corpus Christi, which was apparently sufficiently wowed by what they saw to lure him away from the Stars. This time, Populus obliterated the Tiger Lilies 9-0 in the second game of a four-team doubleheader. Sayeth the Weekly:
“In calsomining the Tiger Lilies 9 to 0, Edgar ‘Iron Claw’ Populus hung up his second straight shut-out victory in a week. …
“Populus stood the Lillienes up with four scatetred [sic] hits while his mates accounted for a trio of bobbles.”
By now Iron Claw was being pulled every which way by a bunch of teams clamoring for his suddenly scorching-hot services. A week after leading Corpus Christi, he was back with the Southern Stars in a tilt against St. Raymond Giants.
The Louisiana Weekly, in previewing the feature contest, penned that “… Populus, the one-armed shut-out artist, will attempt to feed goose eggs to the hard hitting Saints. Populus will take the hill in behalf of the Southern Stars who will attempt to halt the win streak of the Giants while the Stars have a little chain of victories of their own they are nursing …”
What resulted in the clash was a draining, bang-up pitchers’ duel between Edgar and the Saints’ “Eagle” Lambert, a tooth-and-nail hurling battle to went into extra frames, ending in the 10th with a 3-2 St. Raymond triumph.
To quoteth the June 20, 1931, Weekly:
“Whew! What a duel ‘The Eagle’ Lambert and ‘Iron Claw’ Populus staged in St. Raymond Park Sunday afternoon.
“Both of them struck out a dozen men in ten innings and neither team secured more than eight hits. …
“Populus, who has turned out to be a real shut-out artist in these parts lately, started out as though he would attach another whitewash victim to his long chain when in the seventh inning he had not as yet allowed the Saints to chalk up a run against him, while his team held a 2 run lead.”
That’s when St. Raymond, who had previously made a habit of tallying runs in the seventh stanza, pushed two runners across the plate. But then both Populus and Lambert clamped down again, and the hurlers’ scuffle was back on, said the Weekly:
“During the remaining two and a half innings the spectators saw as brilliant a duel as could be asked for in anybody’s park. ‘The Eagle’ and the ‘Iron Claw’ settled down to the task of shutting out the opposition until their mates could get on to the other’s delivery.”
But in the end, it was the opposing thrower, Lambert, that cracked the game-winning, RBI double in the bottom of the 10th.
The loss left Iron Claw burning for a rematch against the Giants, and he got it a week later. And once again, it was nothing less than a spectacular pitching exhibition.
This time, it took 13 innings to decide the outcome of a duel between the Stars’ Populus and the Saints’ Harry Roth that had Louisiana Weekly sports editor Earl M. Wright calling the clash the best he had seen all season.
The game was a see-saw battle, and Iron Claw got into some serious trouble once or twice but managed to work his way out of it relatively unscathed. He also managed to produce an RBI double at the plate.
Unfortunately, the microfilm version of the June 27, 1931, Weekly darkens out Wright’s article on the contest to a large extent, making it difficult to discern exactly how the whole conflagration concluded. But from what I could tell, the Stars, despite the fact that Roth and Iron Claw were still in close-to-peak form, apparently successfully insisted that the game be called after 13 innings with a 2-2 deadlock.
But the result amongst the populace — pun possibly intended 🙂 — was the growing legend of the Iron Claw, who had proved himself capable of both pitching shut outs and lasting steadily through marathon, extra-inning contests.
By mid- to late-July 1931, none other than the mighty New Orleans Black Pelicans were seeking Populus out, and they successfully landed his services for what appeared to be the rest of the summer.
By that time the Black Pels had been reformed from the core of Welsh’s Travelers, a successful barnstorming aggregation that was headed by a familiar face (and spelled incorrectly): Winfield Welch. On a July Sunday evening, the Pels crossed bats with a foe familiar to the Iron Claw — St. Raymond — for an historic occasion: The first night game in NOLA between two “race” teams.
And the Welshies didn’t waste time — they locked up a 4-1 triumph in just one hour, 40 minutes. Iron Claw turned in his usual steady, crafty performance, reported the Weekly:
“‘Iron Claw’ Populus, on the hill for the Pels, gave up a half dozen bingles, but scattered them so well among the Saints that he was endangered but twice, in the sixth and seventh frames.”
Eagle Lambert proved the luckless loser, handcuffing the Pel batters to just three hits, but they were all doubles, and the defense behind him was, well, stinky. The game was also marked by the tossing of St. Raymond manager Herman Roth by the umpire after the skipper heatedly contested a controversial call. Roth got so honked off that he threw the elderly ump to the ground.
In the same week, Welch, the Black Pels’ manager, used Edgar Populus in relief during a game started disastrously by Iron Claw’s older brother, Adam, who gave up four runs in six innings. That doesn’t seem too bad, especially given that at the time Adam was yanked by Welch, the Pels were only down 4-3 to Corpus Christi. But, reported the Weekly:
“… ‘Lucky’ Welsh rushed ‘Iron Claw’ Populus, brother of Adam, to the hill and the one-armed boy stopped the (Big Hits’) rally as dead as a bag of door nails.”
Corpus Christi outhit the Pels, but Iron Claw scattered the hits he gave up well, and in the end the Pelicans’ George Collins walloped a game-winning round-tripper to hand his team, and Iron Claw in relief, the 5-4 victory.
The last time in 1931 that Edgar Populus appears prominently in the Louisiana Weekly was the Aug. 15 issue, which covered the Black Pels’ slugfest victory over the Melpomene White Sox, a local sandlot squad. Populus coughed up seven hits, but fortunately his mates banged out 20 of their own to pile up 22 runs in two innings in a 22-5 win. The Sox, who were basically an amateur team based out of the Melpomene neighborhood, were simply outclassed by “‘Lucky’ Welsh” and his mighty lineup.
From there, Iron Claw’s baseball career gets cloudy, and eventually his life deteriorated into a series of encounters with the law and other difficulties. But for one glorious summer, he was the ruler of NOLA blackball, a virtual Zulu King of the national pastime.
My next post or two will now take another look into the Populus family’s distinct, intriguing Creole past, particularly the war service of two of Iron Claw’s direct ancestors.