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?

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6 thoughts on “The case for the Hall: Bruce Petway

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