The case for the Hall: Frank Warfield

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Last week I looked at the Hall of Fame case for Negro Leagues catcher Bruce Petway. This week the focus is on Frank Warfield, an Indianapolis native who gained fame — and notoriety — as a second baseman and manager from the mid-1910s to the early-1930s.

The argument for Warfield’s inclusion in the Hall is a bit more tenuous than that of Petway because, unlike the latter, Warfield had a reputation for volatility and ill-temperedness that occasionally bordered on violence. His penchant for ugly confrontations contributed to the hanging on him of the nickname “Weasel,” which seems less than flattering.

In addition, his achievements and status don’t seem to be as highly respected by his peers and historians. In other words, he just wasn’t as good as Petway. But we’ll try to lay things out and see where he falls.

One of the strongest arguments for Warfield is his record of overachievement — he was a little guy (about 5-foot-7) who exceeded expectations because of his grit and determination. An April 25, 1931, Baltimore Afro-American article under the headline, “They Laughed at Sox Manager When He First Sought Job,” explains his somewhat remarkable development as a player:

“Because he was  so small of stature, most baseball managers laughed at Frank Warfield, manager of the Black Sox, when he tried to get a chance to do his stuff on the big teams …

“Warfield, who is one of the best second sackers in the game, started his baseball career on the old sand lots of Indianapolis …

“After playing on these lots for a considerable time, he tried to get a job playing with the big boys, but because of his smallness, no manager would listen to his plea.”

The article goes on to list some of the many attainments:

• A key cog in Hilldale’s three-year run (1923-25) of Eastern Colored League pennants (in the article Warfield asserts the Darby team was the best for which he played);

• Guiding the Baltimore Black Sox to a crown in 1929 and to several victories over assorted white all-star teams;

• Competed for strong Santa Clara squads in the Cuban Leagues.

• Much of his Negro Leagues exploits came while he was player/manager of various franchises, reflecting his splendid baseball acumen and ability to oversee other players and get them to perform at the top of their games.

Also remarkable was the fact that he broke in with the vaunted ABCs at the tender age of 15, which evinces his gutsiness and ambition.

Finally, while with Baltimore, he combined with Oliver Marcell, Dick Lundy and Jud Wilson to form the first “Million Dollar Infield,” predating the similarly-monikered Newark Eagles foursome nearly 20 years later.

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However, Warfield’s numbers seriously weaken his case for the HOF. According to Seamheads, his career batting average in the Negro Leagues was a rather pedestrian .265, while his cumulative on-base percentage and slugging figures were .a bit more substantial .336 and .342, respectively.

He was also a speed demon, amassing 147 stolen bases, 118 doubles and 44 triples 843 Negro Leagues games, numbers that boost his case for the Hall.

Defensively, Warfield posted a fielding percentage of .949 and totaled 1,467 putouts, neither of which are too shabby.

In that way, it seems, Warfield was much like Petway — an excellent fielder, baserunner and manager who was hampered by light hitting stats. However, Warfield’s achievements as a team leader appear to have been highly esteemed at the time, especially his accomplishments with Hilldale. Here’s what the Feb. 9, 1924, Philadelphia Tribune stated:

“Hustling from the rank and file of the baseball world to the leadership of possibly two of the greatest aggregations of colored ball players ever gathered together, depicts in brief the meteoric rise of one, Frank Warfield, demure and unassuming, evasive of notoriety that accompanies par excellence achievements in any given line, yet possessing all of the essential qualities that go to make up a truly great ball player and being imbued with that indomitable spirit characteristic of all leaders, the diminutive second sacker has taken his place in the calcium glare. …

“Forsaking the shores of Lake Michigan last spring for those of the broad breezy Delaware, with the express intent of doing all the second basing that would be required by the Philadelphia Hilldale Club, Frank got by with the job with so much alacrity that the owners and the majority of the fans voted him a howling success, which is about as much as any ball player could desire, providing, of course, that the monthly stipend is hitting on all six.

“Coming down the stretch of a successful season, but with the crucial test to be reached, last October, the Hilldale craft, when apparently without a ripple on the surface, suddenly listed, careened and when it righted itself the berth of captaincy yawned with the vacancy of a cavern. Ed Bolden, who guides the destiny of the Hilldale outfit, summed up the possibilities for a field leader and hunted the mantle on quiet Frank. How the club finished out in front in the league race, how they turned back the Athletics and wound up the season in a blaze of glory is now history and ere Frankie hied himself from the Quaker City, he was named as the [?] captain of the Hilldale Club. …

“Truly with each club [Hilldale and Santa Clara], ‘Weasel,’ as some of his team mates have dubbed him, he has been staked to two of the best outfits that ever sported cleated hoofs and speculation is rife, regarding which team would emerge the victor, if a possible meeting between Hilldale and Santa Clara could be effected.

“But as it requires a big man for a big opening, despite Frank’s deficiency in statue [sic], the undersized Indiana youth has attracted the fans of Cuba and the States and now ranks with the select leaders in Negro baseball.”

Aside from incredibly convoluted and unnecessarily flowery languages — “cleated hoofs”? “calcium glare”? “yawned with the vacancy of a cavern”? — that passage, while superbly encompassing Frank Warfield’s proficiency as a manager, kinda glosses over (or, truthfully, outright contradicts) Warfield’s penchant for angry outbursts and involvement in physical conflagrations.

Because, well, there’s his temper, and what a temper it was.

His most notorious … let’s call it an incident … occurred in February 1930 while he was in Cuba as player/manager for Santa Clara. While Warfield and teammate (for both Santa Clara and the Black Sox) and fellow hothead Oliver Marcell were shooting dice — some reports say they were playing cards instead — a fierce fight erupted over the proceedings while several other players looked on. Let’s let the Feb. 8, 1930, Afro-American take it from there:

“Marcelle [sic] is said to have been losing heavily and asked Warfield for some money he claimed the Black Sox manager owed him from last summer. Upon the latter’s denial of the debt, Marcelle is said to have made a lunge at Warfield, and in the ensuing scuffle, Marcelle’s nose was badly bitten.

“The injured player is said to have obtained a warrant for Warfield’s arrest. It is understood that a hostile feeling had existed between the players for some time, started during last season. On several occasions Warfield is said to have removed Marcelle from the game because he was not in condition or not up to form.

“This engendered a resentment that smouldered [sic] until its outburst here. Both players are popular here and in the United States as well and the altercation came as a distinct surprise to the fans who turned out to see them in action. The case is scheduled to come up for an early hearing but the prevailing opinion is that because both of the players are Americans, the charges will be quashed.”

Keep in mind that these two guys were teammates at the time! In addition, Marcell’s nose wasn’t just “badly bitten” — according to historical accounts, his snoot was pretty much ripped off entirely. The injury is believed to have effectively ended his career, one that could have earned Marcell himself a spot in the Hall of Fame if it wasn’t for the physical trauma and his often uncontrollable temper. (Here’s an article I wrote a couple of years ago about “Ghost” Marcell.)

But Warfield was involved in a bunch of other highly publicized meleés as well. In July 1931, for example, a game matching the Black Sox and the Homestead Grays at Baltimore’s home grounds erupted into an ugly scuffle after Grays manager Cum Posey vehemently argued an umpire’s call in the eighth inning.

Posey — who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006 — leapt from the Homesteaders’ dugout and rushed the field, promoting Sox player-manager Warfield to do the same. Warfield took offense to Posey’s presence on the diamond and demanded the the Grays pilot be removed.

According to the July 18, 1931, Afro-American, Posey allegedly responded with a cuss word or two, spurring Warfield to get up in Posey’s face. Cumberland, now completely incensed, punched the Weasel in the jaw, prompting several police officers to spring into action as multiple players attempted to restrain Posey.

According to the newspaper, if the cops hadn’t have intervened “there would have been some casualties.”

The paper added that it was, at the time, unclear whether Warfield had egged Posey on with his own volley of name-calling or physical jabs. Warfield denied anything “untoward” and alleged that Posey had called him names before. So nana nana boo boo, stick your head in doodoo.

The final example of Warfield’s rough temperament came in July 1925, while Warfield was on the Hilldale roster and the Darby clan squared off against Harrisburg. Allegedly, Harrisburg’s Dick Jackson got into a rumpus with Warfield, and Hilldale’s Clint Thomas reportedly tried to separate the combatants, only to be foiled by Hall of Famer and Harrisburg mainstay Oscar Charleston, who allegedly urged folks to let the two fight.

What apparently ensued was a fracas of the highest order, and it spurred spurred legendarily prickly Hilldale owner and Eastern Colored League president Ed Bolden to fire off a lengthy lament to the Pittsburgh Courier, which had earlier reported on the scrape:

“Under the caption of Oscar Charleston and William Nunn, sporting editor of The Pittsburgh Courier, I notice some charges and uncalled for lies in an attempt to spread propaganda against the Eastern Colored League and Hilldale.

“Some charges are so absurd that they are not worth answering I am TOLD [caps in original] that on Sunday, July 18, the Harrisburg players slammed one of the umpires and fought all over the Baltimore Park. For 15 years, we have had peace and harmony at Hilldale Park.

“Jackson, of Harrisburg, called Warfield a vile name. Thomas pushed them aside. Charleston rushed up pushed Thomas aside and said let them fight. Jackson hit at Warfield, Warfield ducked, knocked Jackson down and pounced on him. I do not encourage fighting on my team.

“Charleston’s poison tongue and foul tactics will never win the pennant. Baltimore, Bacharachs and Harrisburg have been materially strengthened through the UNDERHAND [caps original] methods of [Washington Potomacs owner] George W. Robinson. If Hilldale cannot win the pennant through wholesome sportsmanship and clean baseball, I do not want it.”

(The Courier returned fire by directing an open letter to Bolden, accusing him of fraud as ECL president via schedule more games for his on team and fudging league standings. The paper claimed it was simply asking questions — the source of Glenn Beck’s catchphrase? — with its previous report and that Bolden failed to adequately respond to them. The paper charged Bolden with, essentially, sensationalizing the Warfield-Jackson fight, as well as speaking out of both sides of his mouth when it came to his policy on fighting by his players.)

The Francis Xavier Warfield story came to a conclusion (at least corporeally) quite suddenly, on July 24, 1932, in Pittsburgh. According to his death certificate, the cause was pulmonary tuberculosis that was contracted in Baltimore, where he lived while suiting up for the Black Sox and which served as his adopted hometown. The document lists his occupation as “Manager” of a “Base-Ball Team.”

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His exact age at death remains a little unclear, with different records listing different dates of birth. The death certificate states his birthdate as “unknown” and pegs his age as “about 33.” His World War I draft card gives his DOB as April 26, 1898, while certain Social Security records say Sept. 14, 1894. Birth records list the DOB as Aug. 15, 1898, but Find A Grave asserts April 26, 1897. Finally, the 1900 Census says September 1889!

(What’s also unclear is the Weasel’s place of birth; while it’s clear that he did, for the most part, grow up in Indy, possible birth locations include Indy; Warrick County, Indiana; and Christian County, Kentucky, where his ancestral roots appear to have been.)

The Afro-American reported the circumstances, citing “an internal hemorrhage” as the cause. The paper added:

“Death was almost instantaneous. Warfield had been in good spirits and in apparently good health, and only Saturday night talked over long distance telephone with friends here. Early in the season, he contracted a cold, and while it did not respond to treatment as rapidly as expected, it was not thought to be of any serious consequence.

“For several weeks, Manager Warfield graced the bench during games, although he occasionally took part in practice. His place at second base was taken by [Sammy] Hughes … and the youngster handled the position so well that Warfield did not feel it advisable to take him out of the game, so he directed the team from the bench.

“Just 34 years old, Warfield was at the peak of his managerial career when death came. …”

James Riley, however, in “The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues,” relates a slightly different tale of Warfield’s demise:

“He was still officially serving in the capacity of playing manager when he died of a heart attack under vague circumstances. A known ladies’ man who liked to flash big money rolls, he was in the company of a woman when he was rushed to the hospital, bleeding. His death was almost instantaneous after suffering an internal hemorrhage.”

But back to the Afro article, which went on to eulogize Warfield with his achievements and personality traits, the description — such as “[a]lways quiet and modest” — of which by the paper seem to contradict the numerous accounts of his short fuse and proclivity for scrums.

However, the newspaper also assessed Warfield’s hardball faculties pretty accurately:

“In addition to having baseball brains, Warfield was a fast base runner and a good hitter, throwing and batting right handed. It has been often said of him that he could get more passes to first base than any other man in baseball. He had a knack of worrying pitchers as he ‘waited out’ their pitches and some of the best hurlers in the game used to dread to pitch to him, not because he was such a heavy hitter, but because he worried them.

“Years ago, some team mates named him ‘The Weasel,’and true to that namesake, Warfield proved to be a clever strategist. He was a master of the sacrifice bunt and he beat out many an infield hit. He studied the game and while pitchers were often credited with winning games, it was the strategy of Warfield that was really responsible.”

And this is what the Pittsburgh Courier wrote:

“Death, coming after a brief illness, robbed Negro baseball of one of its finest and most able performers and one of its most respected players by fans and officials alike.

“… His work as an infielder was brilliant but steady, and many clubs made bids for his services. His fine record as a player and a gentleman and his contribution to baseball ranks him with such immortals as Rube Foster and C.I. Taylor. …

“Possessed of a cool, even temperament, and with plenty of business as well as baseball brains, Warfield made an ideal manager. In addition to handling the team on the field, he was efficient as a business executive of the club and took charge of most of the financial affairs.

“The remains were shipped to Baltimore for burial, his present home where hundreds of messages of condolences from both high and low in the baseball world attested to the esteem in which he was held.”

And from the Philly Tribune:

“Warfield was long considered one of the most astute performers in the game. …

“It was under the banner of the Darby Daisies … that Warfield reached the heights as a player. He was termed the ‘miracle man’ and was generlaly [sic] rated as the peer of all Negro second basemen.”

So, the question could be … How do you elect to the Hall of Fame a man who bit off a teammate’s nose, who drew a Hall of Fame manager into a fight, and who helped trigger an ugly brawl on at least one additional occasion? (And that’s not to mention his relatively lightweight numbers at the plate.)

Because of the arguments that can be made in favor of him, that’s why — his incredible managerial aptitude (that were so good that he garnered comparisons to Rube Foster), his fleet-footedness, his shining defense, his record of success despite originally being dismissed as a little squirt.

Again — as with many HOF candidates, regardless of era or ethnicity — it’s quite cloudy and hazy. Greatness is never completely three-dimensional: Ty Cobb and Cap Anson were angry, racist jerks; Ted Williams and Josh Gibson were at best so-so on defense; Ozzie Smith and Bill Mazeroski were pedestrian at the plate; Nolan Ryan and Phil Niekro piled up almost as many L’s as W’s. And that’s not to mention the many greats who might always be on the outside looking in — Pete, Joe, Barry, Mark …

For me, Frank Warfield is a toss-up when it comes to Hall of Fame induction, with his stormy personality being the best argument against him, and his underrated managerial acumen the top “pro” factor.

How about you?

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The case for the Hall: Bruce Petway

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Kind of building on my post from a week or two ago about Frank Duncan (as well as earlier ones about Rap Dixon, Bud Fowler and others), here’s another post about a Negro Leaguer who could — or should — be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. That is, of course, if the Hall does what’s right and once again opens its doors to segregation-era African-American baseball figures.

Today: the case for Bruce Petway.

A native of Nashville, Tenn., Petway has often been dubbed — by both contemporaries and ensuing historians — the best African-American catcher of the first quarter of the 20th century.

That’s especially true for his defensive skills; with a whip of an arm and the trailblazing ability to throw runners out while still crouched, Petway definitely deserves some love from the HOF and baseball history enthusiasts.

In early 1930, for example, legendary pitcher/manager/executive/baseball Renaissance man Dizzy Dismukes placed Petway at the top of his list of the greatest backstops of all-time in black baseball. Citing, among other achievements, Petway’s famed ability to catch a certain petulant Tiger stealing, Dizzy laid out a convincing argument. He wrote:

“Topping the list is none other than Bruce Petway, whom I claim to have been the greatest throwing catcher I ever saw. His best days were spent during the base-running craze. There were not as many fast men afoot playing baseball then as now, but there were more base runners. One could possibly count all the thefts against Petway during a season on one hand and then have a few fingers left.

“Some said Petway was not a good receiver but Petway would intentionally drop balls to encourage base runners to start, as very few had the nerve on days when he was in charge of the mask and protector. Petway himself was a great base runner and had an uncanny judgment of foul fly balls. During Ty Cobb’s palmiest days as baseball’s greatest base runner Petway, with [Hall of Famer John Henry] Lloyd receiving his throws, stopped him cold while in Cuba.”

Also chipping in with his opinion was the great Sol White, another jack-of-all-trades legend who also became a seminal author, columnist and historian of African-American baseball. In April 1927, White penned a lengthy letter to esteemed Pittsburgh Courier scribe W. Rollo Wilson, in which Solomon, like Dismukes, ranked his choices for greatest catchers. Wrote White in that dispatch:

“Bruce Petway had one of the best throwing arms I ever saw. He was a student of the game, worked hard and was always willing to try anything for the good of the team. I choose Petway for this reason — while other catchers have the snap throw they do not have it perfected like he did. Notice that some catchers use their shoulders with the ‘snap’ and that makes a ball heavy and hard to handle. Such throws are not conducive to effective baseball from the standpoint of continuous play. What infielders want and like is a ball coming to hand that they can grab, handle, touch the runner and get it away for a possible killing at another base. I want to call the attention of the fans who saw Petway in his day and ask if they can note the difference in his style to that of the leading receivers of his era, [Frank] Duncan, of Kansas City, and [Biz] Mackey, of Hilldale.

Fleet Walker, Clarence Williams and Bruce Petway are, in my opinion, the best catchers of all time. …”

But Petway started garnering widespread acclaim by the end of 1909 — just a few years after his professional debut with the Cuban X-Giants — when the Indianapolis Freeman’s Harry Daniels gushed when naming Buddy the greatest “race” catcher of his day:

“Petway [is] … the greatest since Arthur Thomas’s time. Petway at present time is the best throwing and base-running catcher colored base ball has seen.”

Buddy also early on gained a reputation as a gutty and gritty backstop who was willing to lay everything on the field. Said the Freeman in July 1910:

“Petway, the champion colored catcher, plays with broken bones and other injuries just the same as if nothing had happened. He is a ball player of the first water.”

And what about modern-day experts? They echo the sentiments of Dismukes and White. Here’s what prolific SABR scribe Brian McKenna blogged in 2011:

“Petway’s main contribution though was behind the plate. He was the finest defensive catcher of the first quarter of the century. His skills, particularly with his arm, were admired wherever he traveled – and he traveled extensively year-round in the East, West, South, North and to the island of Cuba.

“In short, he had a strong, accurate arm and was tough on base runners. Moreover, he was particularly heralded for his fielding of bunts. Petway was naturally compared to major leaguer Johnny Kling who was renowned for the same skills. They both pegged the ball to the bases, even second, from a squat.”

Or how about what SABR Negro Leagues Committee Co-Chairman Larry Lester penned in his 2013 essay, “Bruce ‘Buddy’ Petway: A Bad Brother”:

“Buddy was the baddest brother to ever wear the tools of ignorance. Ebonically speaking, Buddy was ‘bad.’ Translation: Good is bad, and bad is about as good as it gets. His slender build allowed him to have jack-in-the-box popupability to deter potential base stealers. Down from his shin guards, up with a nanosecond snap release, his throws to second were on time, on line, low and accurate for tagging ease. ‘No way with Petway’ was the cry of many base bandits.

“Unlike most catchers with ketchup in their blood, Petway was a big threat  on the basepaths. His happy feet saddened the faces of opposing catchers. In fact, he led the Cuban League in 1912 with 20 steals as a Habana Red. The fleet switch-hitter with awesome bunting abilities and base running skills often batted leadoff, a rarity for any catcher.”

Larry concluded his essay succinctly and quite appropriately that “Bruce Petway is perhaps the greatest catcher not in the Hall of Fame.”

Why did I want to spotlight Mr. Petway? Well, there’s several reasons, I guess … One is the fact that this July — Independence Day, in fact — will be the 75th anniversary oh his death in Chicago, an important milestone in the continued blossoming of his legacy and historical importance.

A second reason is that Petway played alongside countless other blackball legends during a career that spanned 1906 to 1925. That included Hall of Famers Pop Lloyd, Pete Hill and, of course, the great Rube Foster himself, the architect of the storied Leland Giants squads of the 19-oughts and the powerful Chicago American Giants clubs a decade later. While with the Giants, Petway caught Foster and helped galvanize Rube’s distinct, influential brand of “small ball” as a crafty, slashing leadoff hitter and bunter and a wily demon on the basepaths.

But Petway also shared rosters with other blackball legends — like Frank Wickware, Spot Poles, Grant “Home Run” Johnson and the afore-mentioned Frank Duncan — who, despite stellar resumés, continue to get short shrift from Cooperstown.

Third, and connected to Reason No. 2, is that Petway, like many blackball leading lights of his day, shined in the Cuban Leagues. There is, naturally, the previously noted zapping of the Georgia Peach, but, as highlighted by Lester, Petway also starred for Cuban winter aggregations like Habana Red and graced an earlier baseball trading card.

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When venturing to Cuba, Petway was in outstanding company; various ship manifests from the island show him traveling with Pete Hill, Waxey Williams, Harry Buckner, Bill Gatewood, Pop Lloyd, Tullie McAdoo and Judy Gans.

Then Reason No. 4 (I know, it’s a hefty list, but Bruce was a hefty talent and left a hefty legacy): he became a top-notch skipper and player-manager as his physical prowess waned, especially with the Detroit Stars during their circa-1920 heyday. By many accounts, Petway was a smart, crafty strategist who employed a steady hand that engendered calm and confidence amongst his charges.

Here, for example, is the caption under a huge picture of Bruce in the May 19, 1923, issue of the Chicago Defender. (The header over the photo states, “HE DID THAT THING —”):

“Manager of the Detroit Stars, who parked his team in the American Giants’ yard Sunday afternoon, kicked ‘their dog around’ in the first inning, and when things looked dangerous he sent Daniels in to do the receiving for him in the fifth and sat on the bench, where he ran the team. Things looked awful hazy in the ninth two out and three on, but ‘Buddy’ steadied his men. All Chicago wasn’t big enough Sunday night for him and Tenny Blount — ‘twas the first Sunday game the Michiganders had copped against Foster in his own grounds since 1921.”

That story illustrates both Petway’s willingness to make needed adjustments — even if that meant sidelining himself — to win and his ability to outmaneuver the greatest manager in Negro Leagues history.

Remember, too, that Rube also happened to be Bruce’s employer for many years prior, a fact that reflects Petway’s steely nerve and readiness to go toe-to-toe with a legend, even his mentor. Adding to that unflinching character was what transpired in early 1925, as Foster was coordinate the upcoming NNL season. Petway, still with Detroit, led a group of steadfast players in demanding that Foster guarantee their salaries before they signed contracts for ’25. That early step toward player rights certainly took a decent dollop of chutzpah.

The final reason to put the spotlight on Petway is that I’m utterly intrigued by Petway’s roots and youth in Nashville. The family likely traces back to a slaveowner in Nashville named William E. Petway, but that didn’t stop the freed black Petways from excelling.

Bruce Petway himself was studying to be a doctor at Nashville’s Meharry Medical College, and his father, David Petway (1852-1910) was an engineer at a saw mill after most likely being born into slavery. I’ve found evidence that one or more of Petway’s relatives attended the celebrated HBCU Fisk University, with one Petway starring in football at the school and a later-generation man named F.A. Petway was an esteemed church choir director and later a professor at Fisk.

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However, several Petways in Nashville seem to have gotten into legal trouble — One named Abe Petway was hanged (!) for murder in 1910, a George Petway died in a duel in 1899, one named George W. Petway was awaiting trial for murder in 1880, and a William Petway was sentenced to 42 (!) years in prison for larceny and home breaking (although that last one’s sentence was likely so high because he was a black man in the South 100-plus years ago).

I haven’t firmly established any concrete family ties with many of those names, but it seems possible that at least some were related to Buddy Petway.

And Buddy definitely loved his hometown, if the waning days of his baseball career are any indication. In the early 1930s, after his stint as player/manager in Detroit, Petway returned to the Music City to suit up for the Nashville Elite Giants, who were at that time flitting between the Negro National League and the Negro Southern League.

While he was in the Elites’ dugout, Petway was visited by numerous newspaper reporters as Nashville barnstormed across the map. In one contest between the Elites and Cole’s American Giants in Chicago in May 1934, the Chicago Defender’s Al Monroe dropped in to chat with Buddy, who was by then one of the Negro Leagues’ most esteemed elder statesman. The scribe an the catcher chatted as they eyed the players on the field, and Monroe reported on the confab, dubbing Petway “an old-timer an easily the greatest catcher the game has ever known” as the manager called plays from the dugout. Monroe added:

“Your author was particularly interested in watching Petway as he moved about the ball park. Long, lean, and as healthy as an elephant, we just couldn’t understand why baseball no longer appeals to him, that is, as a player. Well, it does. ‘But my legs just refuse to stand up for more than a single inning,’ said the great catcher as he dodged his way through the 999 other fans, many of whom didn’t recognize the man John McGraw, Rube Foster and Connie Mack once called the world’s greatest catcher. Yes, Father Time is mighty cruel his great athletes.”

With that, Monroe ended the column on a bittersweet note — a mix of lingering joy and creeping sadness that seems to always hang like a cloud over men and women who spend the “prime” of their lives dedicated to pushing their bodies to the absolute limit for a pursuit they love.

It lasted just seven more years for Buddy.

Bruce Franklin Petway died on July 4, 1941, 75 years ago, at the age of 55, but his legacy as a pioneering catcher — especially defensively — a clutch and crafty batter and baserunner, and a shrewd and canny manager only grew from there, at least for those in the know of Negro League circles.

The Amsterdam NewsDan Burley beautifully eulogized Bruce in a July 12, 1941, column:

“The death last week in Chicago of Bruce ‘Buddy’ Petway, the man who was battery mate of the fabled Rube Foster, reviews a host of memories … Memories gained from conversation with Old Timers who new what went on way back when … Petway was the guy who started the big league catchers throwing to the keystone sack without rising from their sitting position behind the platter … “

So, what say you? Does Bruce Petway, 75 years after his death, deserve a plaque in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown? We’re talking about one of the greatest defensive catchers in baseball history, black or white, an innovator who also had unusual speed and savvy as a base runner, bunter and overall “small ball” master. He’s a guy who also excelled as a selfless, wily and calm and coolheaded player/manager.

Scribes from both “way back when” and from modern days rained praise on Buddy, and he was liked, respected and highly-sought-after by the greats of baseball, including Rube Foster and major league signal callers.

My vote, obviously is, Yes, Bruce Petway belongs in the Hall of Fame. What do you think?

Weldy Walker grave marker effort

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Images courtesy Craig Brown

How did the second African American to play in the major leagues end up in an unmarked grave in Steubenville, Ohio?

While SABR member Craig Brown can’t answer that “why” question, he can state positively that placing a marker on Weldy Walker‘s burial site is within in reach.

But it can only become reality if he, SABR and the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project receive help from us, the fans, historians and researchers who strive to keep the memory of the Negro Leagues alive.

Weldy Walker was the brother of Moses Fleetwood Walker, who became the first black player in what was considered major league baseball in 1884 with the American Association‘s Toledo Blue Stockings.

A few months after Fleet debuted in Toledo, Weldy was briefly added to the roster to become the second African American to play in the majors. (Here is an article I wrote about Weldy for the Oberlin College alumni magazine.)

Fleet died in 1924 and now rests in a marked grave in Steubenville. But Weldy, who passed in 1937, does not have a grave stone.

Last week I conducted an e-mail interview with Craig about the sad situation with Weldy’s grave and the growing effort to rectify it. Below is the text of our cyber conversation …

How did you come across Weldy Walker and his career? What first got you interested in him?

I learned about Weldy Walker as a result of my research into the life of his brother, Moses Fleetwood Walker. For about three years, I have been working with students to have Ohio have a law to designate a day in honor of Moses Fleetwood Walker. The bill is House Bill 87, and it has passed out of the [Ohio House of Representatives State Government] committee.

We are waiting for Speaker Cliff Rosenberger [R-91st District] to decide if it will be voted on by the entire Ohio House of Representatives. We have been assured by a representative of the speaker that he is aware of the bill, and the people have been vocal in their support. We can still use help encouraging him to bring the bill to a vote. It is best to contact him by traditional mail, but an e-mail will help. His contact information can be found at http://www.ohiohouse.gov/cliff-rosenberger.

How did you find out that Weldy’s grave is unmarked? What was your reaction to such a tragic situation for such an influential figure in baseball history?

I realized his grave was unmarked when I visited the site. Moses’ grave was marked by the Oberlin Heisman Club. There are several members of the Walker family buried in Union Cemetery [in Steubenville]. Moses has the only marked grave. I’m not sure if this was due to a cemetery rule from that era or if it was a financial issue.

It seems that the Walkers were very active in the community and were not destitute. It is unfortunate when any grave is unmarked, but Weldy’s situation is unsettling. He made a contribution to baseball, but he also was an early politically active African American and a voice for civil rights.

Remembering his name and knowing his story can help us connect with our past and better understand our present.

Nathan Marshall of Wellsburg, W.Va., approached me about doing more things to honor the Walker brothers a few months ago. Up until that point, I was focused on HB 87. His interest convinced me that buying Weldy a gravestone could have momentum, and this was possibly something we could do in a relatively short amount of time.

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How did you find out about the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project? How did you pitch a project on Weldy to Jeremy Krock?

I knew the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project existed via searching the Internet. Dr. Leslie Heaphy of Kent State [University] suggested I speak with Jeremy Krock. We connected via e-mail, and he was 100-percent supportive. Although we planned on raising the money for the grave before approaching SABR, we knew it would help our efforts if a donation system was already in place with a professional structure and legitimate record.

Why do you think Walker is buried in an unmarked grave? How did that come about?

I honestly don’t know. It is quite possible discriminatory practices were an issue, or perhaps the family just didn’t have the money. Weldy and Moses were close their entire lives. Their stones will match, and I believe that is fitting.

Are you optimistic about the prospects for success? Why or why not? What can the average person do to contribute to the effort?

We only need to raise $1,300. That isn’t bad. All donations are accepted and will go to memorializing this forgotten man. It is important that when making a contribution via the SABR site, the donor writes “Weldy Walker” in the comments.

[Editor’s note: After I published this post, SABR friend Ralph Carhart commented that Fleet and Weldy Walker might actually have been the second and third players, respectively, in the majors. He noted the case of William White, who played one game for the National League’s Providence Grays in June 1879. There’s ongoing debate about whether White, not the Walkers, was the actual trailblazer — the debate centers around whether White was black or, well, white.]

Baseball bloodline: the Duncans

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A family photo of Frank Duncan Jr., Julian Duncan’s grandfather (photos courtesy Julian Duncan)

If any family associated with the Negro Leagues — with the exception of the Taylor brothers and the Bankhead bunch — has a strong bloodline in baseball, it’s the successive generations of Duncans.

The first generation was Frank Duncan Sr., who, while not playing professionally, was always around the game in the decades before and after the start of the 20th century.

Frank Sr.’s involvement was perhaps most passionate when it came to encouraging his kids in their careers. And that leads us forward …

The tradition began in full with Frank Jr., who had the most successful hardball career of the bunch, blossoming into one of the most respected catchers and playing managers for about 15 years in the 1920s and ’30s. He spent the majority of his time with his hometown team, the legendary Kansas City Monarchs, helping the franchise to three straight pennants in the 20s’, then guiding them to a league title and a Negro World Series crown in 1942 as a player/manager.

Frank Sr. supported Junior in the latter’s athletic pursuits, even occasionally keeping Junior company in the dugout.

After serving honorably in the Army during WWII — he excelled as a marksman — Frank Jr. returned to the Monarchs, with whom he won another league crown and helped tutor a young Jackie Robinson. Duncan Jr. turned the managerial reins over to the great Buck O’Neil, then worked as an umpire in the NAL for a while before passing away in his hometown at age 72.

Then came Frank Duncan III, who competed in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s and ’50s, where he and his father performed one of the most unique feats in baseball history — with Frank III as pitcher and his dad behind the plate for the Monarchs, they formed what is believed to be the first father-son battery in professional baseball history in 1941.

Frank III continued his career in the American pastime after, like his father, serving in the Army during WWII, playing largely with the Baltimore Elite Giants. He retired around 1945 or so.

Three generations, three blackball players, three different positions, all for the famed KC Monarchs. It’s a legacy that ensuing generations of Duncans embrace and preserve.

That includes Frank Duncan III’s son, Julian Duncan, who is eminently proud of what his forbears accomplished in the national pastime during the tragic era of segregation.

“I’m extremely proud,” Julian says. “I have an 18-year-old son, and I just try to stress to him how important [baseball] was for the family.”

Although Julian wasn’t born in Kansas City — he grew up in the Motor City — he and his family frequently returned to Kansas City to spend time with several Monarchs legends. As a result, Julian was raised steeped in the ongoing tradition of African-American baseball.

“I called Buck O’Neil Uncle Buck,” Julian says. “That’s how close our families were, and we were close for our whole lives.

“I remember the first time I went to Kansas City, in 1964,” he adds. “We’d go every couple years, and I’d see Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil, Newt Allen. We were treated as family, and I couldn’t figure out why.”

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Frank Duncan Jr. and Bob Feller

He laughs a bit as he says that, because he eventually understood why — because the Monarchs, and the Negro Leagues as a whole, were a tight fraternity, bonded by trial and tribulation, but also pride and success.

Julian says he played a little baseball himself as a kid, but he didn’t acclimate to it like his ancestors and family. But Julian still knows … He knows how important the legacy is.

For example, when he and his son attended the Major League All Star Game in Detroit’s Comerica Park in 2005, they found the special section of the concourse set aside for an impressive Negro League display. There, front and center, was a photo of Frank Duncan Jr.

The sight touched Julian Duncan deeply, especially because his grandfather had participated in multiple East-West All Star games, which back in the day were the jewels of the Negro Leagues season.

In fact, Julian believes his grandfather compiled a hardball resume — especially as a manager — that could be Hall of Fame-worthy.

However, as of now, Frank Jr. won’t be inducted into the Hall of Fame anytime soon, because the Cooperstown institution retains its closed-door policy on Negro Leaguers and pre-Negro League African-American baseball figures.

Julian acknowledges that he’s a bit biased when it comes to his grandfather, but he firmly believes that Frank Jr. — and especially Buck O’Neil — deserve a shot at the hallowed halls.

But if Frank Jr. was alive today, Julian believes he would modestly and quietly eschew and such praise. Frank Jr., as well as Frank III, were more focused on nurturing their family running smoothly.

“He was quiet. He didn’t talk a whole lot about his career,” Julian says of his grandfather. “He didn’t talk about accolades.”

But, once Julian was schooled in the family’s baseball legacy — and the legacy and importance of the Negro Leagues as a whole — he immediately believed that his grandfather has gotten short shrift by the modern baseball community. It’s a faith that continues to this day.

“There’s not a lot of Negro League players left,” he says. “It’s my job to tell everybody I know, to keep it alive as much as I can.”

Posnanski: Hall of Fame is ‘tone deaf’

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Joe Posnanski agrees — Cannonball Dick Redding should be in the Hall.

Joe Posnanski is one of the most respected and most trusted sportswriters in the country, and his blog is one of the most popular online sources for incisive, informative opinions and points of view regarding the modern sports scene.

But in addition to covering current sports like a January blizzard covers the landscape of my hometown of Rah-cha-cha, Joe also frequently addresses issues from our nation’s sportive past and the traditions history has handed down to us.

And one such subject he’s been especially vocal and passionate about is the continued lack of appreciation, respect and knowledge about the Negro Leagues. That includes the Baseball Hall of Fame’s ongoing refusal to re-open its doors to segregation-era African-American players, managers and executives, a subject on which I’ve decided to focus this year in my blog. (I’ve penned a few posts about this already, such as here and here.)

Over the last week, I’ve been extremely fortunate and grateful to conduct an email Q&A with Posnanski about his thoughts concerning the Hall of Fame situation. I was going to synthesize an article about the interview, but since his answers are so incredible, I decided to post the back-and-forth verbatim. I hope you enjoyed it like I did, and I hope it generates some retrospection and discussion. (My questions are in bold, his answers and regular type.)

Do you think the HOF’s current exclusionary policy, as it was outlined to me by a Hall official for my blog, regarding segregation-era African-American baseball figures is fair, especially given that the Hall still maintains a Pre-Integration Committee for white major leaguers from that period?

I think the Hall of Fame is really tone deaf on this topic, based first on the obvious fact that they have a group actually named “Pre-Integration Committee” in charge of trying to pick through the leftovers and elect white Major League players into the Hall of Fame. It’s such a bad look for an institution that celebrates the history of the game. White baseball before 1947 is disproportionately represented in the Hall of Fame already and I have absolutely no idea why they would have a biennial committee especially designed to elect more Major Leaguers from that time.

As far as Negro Leagues players, as everyone knows, 10 years ago the Hall of Fame attempted to put the leagues to rest by hiring a committee of academics and historians and giving them carte blanche power to elect as many Negro Leaguers as they wanted. I do believe it was a well-intentioned attempt to give the Negro Leagues one big Hall of Fame celebration, though it did not turn out that way for various reasons. I suspect the average baseball fan could not name even one of the 17 people elected, though they probably do remember that Buck O’Neil was not elected (and Minnie Minoso was not elected either). So that didn’t work out.

I think the Hall of Fame made a mistake by simply closing the book on the Negro Leagues. That said, if they were going to do that, it would look a lot better if they also would close the book entirely on pre-1947 baseball.

Should the Hall of Fame change that policy to once again allow Negro Leaguers to be considered? Why or why not? And if you feel it should be changed, would it even be feasible at this point?

I think if they are going to have a Pre-Integration Committee they must also include Negro Leaguers. But, as mentioned, I don’t think they should have a Pre-Integration committee at all. I think the Hall should focus much more on the time period after 1947. I would argue that there are at least 10 players from the expansion era who are much better candidates than any player they can find now pre-1947 in black or white baseball. The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are dramatically underrepresented in the Hall of Fame, in my opinion.

Do you think there are still segregation-era African-American baseball figures who are qualified for the Hall? If so, how many would you estimate, and who are some of the people you would recommend?

I do think there are some who are qualified, absolutely, especially if you use the Veteran’s Committee Standard. How many Negro Leaguers were the equivalent of George Kelly or Rube Marquard? Dozens, probably.

But should that be the standard? Probably not. Those were mistakes. I would say the vast majority of truly great Negro League players are in the Hall of Fame. I obviously believe Buck O’Neil should be in the Hall of Fame for his lifelong contribution to the game but the Hall of Fame has done a wonderful job honoring him. He’s the only figure, I believe, to have a statue in the Hall of Fame. There’s a prestigious award named for him. I commend the Hall for the way they’ve kept Buck’s memory alive.

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Newt Allen (from the NLBM)

I think Minnie Minoso should be in the Hall, but not for his Negro Leagues time.
Buck always felt like Newt Allen should been the Hall of Fame — he was a terrific second baseman. Quincy Trouppe was a terrific defensive catcher, Bingo DeMoss was another great second baseman, Oliver Marcell was called ‘The Ghost” and played a terrific third base. There are some others: Dick Lundy, Cannonball Dick Redding and so on. Any of these and perhaps a half dozen more would certainly enhance the Hall of Fame. But, again, to be fair, I do believe that the very best Negro Leagues players are in the Hall of Fame.

What about the arguments in favor of keeping the policy the same, i.e. there aren’t enough concrete stats, the quality of play was less than in the majors, let’s keep this in the past and let bygones be bygones, etc.?

Well, I don’t buy any those arguments. There aren’t concrete stats but we have plenty of ways to discover and rediscover the greatest players in the Negro Leagues. The quality of play argument is ridiculous and easily disproven — look at the flood of all-time great players to go from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues in the first decade of Integration. Was ANYONE in the Major Leagues as good as Willie Mays? Henry Aaron? Jackie Robinson? Don Newcombe won an MVP award. Minnie Minoso immediately became a star and even an aging Monte Irvin was one of the best players in Major League baseball. On and on and on.

I don’t see any viable argument for continuing a whites-only Pre-Integration Committee and pronouncing that the book closed on the Negro Leagues. There’s just no justification for that. But, again, I would be in favor of the Hall of Fame putting a lot more emphasis on post-1947 baseball.