For the next couple posts, I’m going to stick with the Dave Malarcher theme, but I’m going to back off the heavy, depressing stuff about slavery and such matters and actually just talk a little baseball, believe it or not.
The first item up is a letter I uncovered at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. It’s part of the Old Timer’s Baseball Club collection — files donated by local NOLA blackball and education fixture Walter Wright, the founder and president of the club and, while he was alive, a leading “keeping of the flame” of the memory of the Negro Leagues in these parts.
The 1968 letter is from Gentleman Dave Malarcher, who was then living in retirement as a real estate agent in his adopted “second hometown” of Chicago, to Wright, describing what Dave believes was one of the greatest displays of pitching he ever witnessed — a effort put on by future Hall of Famer Bill “Willie” Foster while both Foster and Malarcher were with the famed Chicago American Giants. In the letter to Wright, Gentleman called it simply “Willie’s greatest single performance in the box, and my greatest thrill as a manager.”
He describes the year when the two Negro National League split-season champs — the American Giants and the K.C. Monarchs — played a nine-game playoff to determine who would go on to the Negro World Series against the best team in the East. That would have been the 1926 season, when Foster at one point reeled off 23 straight W’s.
The Windy City-ites fell behind four games to one — the Giants’ lone win was a series-opening victory by Foster — and found their backs up against the wall. But Foster won the sixth game, and Chicago triumphed in the seventh clash to bring the the series within four games to three, with a single-day doubleheader left to decide the victors. Thus, wrote Dave to Walter:
“Willie shut them out in the first game. He was so good, I made him keep warming up behind the grandstand to pitch the second game. The great ‘Bullet’ Rogan had pitched that first game for the Monarchs. When I announced that Willie would pitch the second game, Rogan — who managed the Monarchs — announced himself to pitch the second game for Kansas City. He was anxious to beat Willie. Willie shut them out 5 to nothing in that second game, winning the league championship for us. It was a thrill indeed! One which I shall never forget. It was the great speed, curve and drop ball, all with the masterful change of pace — his easy style of pitching, and his great condition which enabled him to pitch so successfully through that long series and so often.”
The American Giants would go on to win the Negro World Series by beating the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants in eight games.
Later in 1968, Malarcher penned another letter to Wright about Bill Foster, one that elaborated on the superstar hurler’s overall greatness. The occasion for the second letter was the announcement by the New Orleans Old Timer’s Club that it would honor Foster at its annual reunion all-star game later that year at Pontchartrain Park (at a facility that has since, of course, been re-dubbed Wesley Barrow Stadium). It gave Malarcher a chance to explain “my high regard for him as a man, a gentleman, and a baseball pitcher in our league and under my management.” He then added:
“Willie’s entire career in our league was under my management and in the years that the Chicago American Giants were — as they had always been — the foremost and greatest team in baseball. And during all of those years, Willie was my ace pitcher. He was the man I always assigned to win the first game of all series of games, in order to get out in front in the series. And this we did, in order to have him come back and pitch the fifth and final game. Thus, his marvelous speed and curve ball and change of pace — along with his superb physical condition — he was always in shape — made him the greatest and foremost asset to this great organization.
“… I am able to say with certainty that Willie Foster was the greatest pitcher of our times. And he would have been a superstar in the Major Leagues at that time.
“The ‘change of pace’ is the true art of pitching, and Willie was the perfect exponent of that art. Let me make this clear and understandable to the layman’s mind and the inexpert observation of the of the baseball fan. Willie threw a fast ball, and then a fast, fast ball, and then a fast, fast, fast ball, and then conversely he threw a slow ball, then a slow, slow ball, and then a slow, slow slow ball. … and in the curve ball, breaking to the side angle and downward [and] the ‘drop ball.’ And all of these changes of speed in the same motion, with the same delivery. It is masterful pitching! he left many a great hitter standing at the plate with his bat on his shoulder expecting it to come fast when it came up to him slow. Or expecting it to come slowly, when it came so fast it was in the catcher’s mitt before he could get his bat down.
“I write you all of these things because I want you and the others there to really have some idea and thought of the real and true greatness of the man you are honoring.
“I have said to many times and to many fans, since we are now in the Major Leagues, that the Major League owners and managers are missing and losing the greatest exponent of the art of pitching by not having Willie Foster as a pitching coach, to teach the many young pitchers I have seen today, and the recent years in the leagues with no acts or knowledge of the art.
“I am very grateful to you for this opportunity to tell the public concerning this truly great pitcher!”
The letter, I feel, is both high praise for one of the greatest hurlers in baseball history, as well as a testament to the writing prowess of Gentleman Dave Malarcher. It also, though, demonstrates how tight-knit the New Orleans Negro Leagues community was, even years after integration and with memories already starting to fade.
The fact that Dave Malarcher, one of the greatest third basemen and, more importantly, best managers in the game, would take so much time from his hectic life as a real estate agent in Chicago to pen a heartfelt letter to Walter Wright, who, although he was certainly an influential legend here in New Orleans, was never a star in the “big time” Negro Leagues, reflects a NOLA brotherhood of blackball players that I’m still learning to grasp and appreciate.
There’s just something about this city and this state when it comes to blackball that’s difficult to explain, beyond stating simply that it’s one of the most fascinating sports phenomenon that I’ve ever been around and witnessed.
In the next post or two I’ll continue with some more baseball-focused posts featuring comments from Gentleman Dave Malarcher before I dive back into his ancestry and socioeconomic background here in LA …