“The Newark club will probably place a novelty in the field next season in the shape of of a ‘colored’ battery. Stovey, the pitcher, and Walker, the catcher, are both colored men. Stovey played with the Jersey City club last season and showed he was a great pitcher. Several of the League managers contemplated signing him last season, but the prejudice against his colored prevented. Had he not been of African descent he would have pitched for the New York club last fall.”
— Dec. 18, 1886, issue of The Sporting News
“There is another Stovey in the field. The new man is named George, and he is a colored left-handed pitcher, just brought from Canada by the Trentons, late Cuban Giants.”
— June 23, 1886, issue of Sporting Life
Such was the introduction of ace African-American pitcher George Stovey to much of the base ball loving public in America. Stovey, a native of Williamsport, Pa., was one of the early “colored” stars in what had already become the national pastime.
As a hurler in the still evolving sport, Stovey was good enough to play for several squads in Organized Baseball before the final, firm drawing of the color line. He was also associated as a manager and organizer with some of the greatest 19th-century black teams, including the seminal Cuban Giants and the Page Fence Giants, making him a trailblazer in many ways.
So, the question is this: Does George Stovey belong in the National Baseball Hall of Fame?
This is another entry in my ongoing series of posts highlighting some of the legendary segregation-era, African-American players, managers and executives who have, for whatever reason, so far been shut out of the the halls of Cooperstown.
One of the key reasons for this historical cold shoulder is the HOF’s continuing, almost decade-old policy that the hallowed institution is no longer admitting any pre-1947 African-American candidates, despite the continued existence of a committee that occasionally votes in white players from the same era.
In recent weeks I’ve argued the cases of Bruce Petway and Frank Warfield, and now it’s Stovey’s turn. I’m focusing on George today especially because it’s the 80th anniversary of his death — March 22, 1936, in Williamsport — and because the 150th anniversary of his birth is rapidly approaching next month.
So, what’s the case for Stovey? I’ll let SABR’s Brian McKenna chip in with an excerpt from his bio of George:
“George Stovey came of age just as overhand pitching became legal. A left-hander, he hit the top minors in 1886 at the age of 20 and dominated, winning 50 games over two seasons. He struck out more than 300 batters and posted stellar 1.13 and 2.46 earned-run averages, respectively. Surely, a major-league club could use a young lefty with an array of curves. It was not to be, though, not because he blew out his arm or drank himself out of the game; Stovey couldn’t crack ‘The Show’ because the men who ran the game and those who played with and against him rejected him because of his skin color. Stovey was a mulatto and as such was soon forced out of Organized Baseball and the white minor leagues altogether.
“Considered “the first great Negro pitcher” by historian Robert Peterson, Stovey finished his career with the Cuban Giants, the New York Gorhams and other barnstorming black clubs. His career was spent exclusively with East Coast clubs. As often happens in baseball, the best African-American pitcher of the 19th century manned the box for some of the best black teams of the era.”
And just a couple weeks ago, Clinton Riddle wrote in The Baseball Magazine:
“He was six foot tall and most certainly taller than many other players of the time, as reaching that height one hundred years ago would be somewhat akin to 6’5” in the present day (average height at that time would be closer to 5’5”-6”). Highly athletic and quick, he in all likelihood would have performed well as an outfielder, but it was “in the box” that he found his calling. Generally known as a curveballing artist, Stovey was as likely to strike out an opposing batsman as he was to induce a ground ball and simply glide to cover first for the out. In short, he was an accomplished hurler and seemed to be a shoe-in for the pro ranks.”
What particular fascinates me about Stovey’s career and life is his lifelong connection and devotion to his hometown of Williamsport, which is today widely renowned as the setting of the Little League World Series, a sign that the Pennsylvania burg has always savored its hardball tradition.
Because of that appreciation for the national game, Williamsport seems to have held native son Stovey in high regard, at least for a “colored” man of the time. The local media did a decent job of relating his baseball activities about town after his retirement as a player. For example, the Sun-Gazette newspaper of May 8, 1901, stated: “George Stovey’s Williamsport base ball team was organized Tuesday evening and now challenges any team in Central Pennsylvania.”
Apparently, one reason the town showed a soft spot for George is that, in his golden years, he tutored numerous other aspiring players. In August 1910, the Sun-Gazette detailed how Stovey had taken local lad Lleweylln Wyckoff under his wing, a key factor in the up-and-coming right-hander’s jump from the area Trolley circuit into the prestigious Tri-State League.
But, IMHO, the thing that places Stovey a cut above other contemporaries was his late-life maturation into a highly sought-after umpire; once he donned the officiating gear circa 1900, he was selected by various local white teams as their official ump.
Other aggregations held an affinity to the Williamsport guy; in July 1903, the Sun-Gazette noted that one manager, after rejecting the assigned umpire, specifically requested Stovey, saying, “He is a good umpire and will do what is right. I will be satisfied with him.”
That same summer, the S-G stated: “Umpire Stovey is one of the best umpires officiating at independent games when he wants to be …”
Apparently, Stovey presented an authoritative, stentorian voice. “Stovey’s fog horn voice sounded natural as he called the balls and strikes,” the paper reported after a 1902 contest.
He was also wise to any tomfoolery. “Campbell made a great bluff on Willig’s hit to center, but Stovey was too foxey and it didn’t work,” the Sun-Gazette printed after a July 1903 clash.
Stovey was officiating into the 1910s; in 1911, the S-G stated: “The teams that have Stovey to umpire are always certain of good work from from the ‘ump.’”
Besides the quality of his umpiring work, his presence behind the plate made him the second known African-American ump to officiate games with white minor-league teams, a feat of no small stature.
George died 25 years later after a, shall we say, colorful personal life in Williamsport, one that included occasional violent scrapes and run-ins with the law, employment at a sawmill, liquor bootlegging, organizing youth teams, and an instance of almost drowning while fishing.
While the arguments for Stovey’s Hall of Fame candidacy center around his multitalented skills as a pitcher, manager, organizer and ump, there are also several weighty factors working against him — a lack of verifiable statistics and shoddy record-keeping, often paltry media coverage on a national scale; hopping around from team to team and region to region; sometimes shaky performances against white competition; and, most importantly, never playing in the Majors.
True, those evidences against his possible induction are indeed significant; however, several, if not all, of them, were the direct result of the bigoted color line that kept him in the shadows of the national pastime for much of his career. And that’s certainly not his fault.
In the end, I certainly like George Stovey and admire the way he fought and clawed his way to a measured amount of baseball prominence, the way he persevered in the face of prejudice and racial exclusion, and his blossoming into a highly respected umpire.
But because of the dearth of concrete stats and records, his inconsistent efforts against white competition, and the fact that there are so many other qualified 19th-century black candidates — such as Bud Fowler and Grant “Home Run” Johnson — I’d have to say, No, Stovey doesn’t merit induction into Cooperstown.
What do you think?