A holiday debut for Bill ‘Devil’ Holland

Richmond Palladium-Item, Sept. 1, 1918

Editor’s note: This week we have an excellent submission from Alex Painter, kind of a follow-up to my recent interview with him about the recent release of his book on blackball in Richmond, Ind. I offer many thanks to Alex for submitted this article, and I encourage anyone else reading this who might want to submit a post for the blog! Just email me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com!

By Alex Painter

Labor Day 1918 was met with a different kind of optimism and exuberance that the holiday, not even four decades old, had ever experienced. By September of 1918, the ‘war to end all wars’, the First World War, was drawing to a close, but the United States’ rapid mobilization for warfare the year before had truly put the importance of the American industrial worker to the forefront of the American conscience — nearly as much as the doughboys dodging bullets, bombs and poisonous gases in the trenches overseas. The newfound possibilities of the American industrial machine would continue to spur invention and innovation for the coming decades. 

Baseball, too, would mobilize for the global conflict. Christy Matthewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Harry Heilman number just three of the 27 eventual members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who served the Allied war effort. All told, a full 38 percent of the major league baseball players would serve the war effort in some capacity.

Though Major League Baseball would continue play through wartime, some minor leagues suffered immensely from the player shortage. One such circuit was the Class B Central League, based primarily in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. The league, in existence since 1903, shuttered before the 1918 season, also citing attendance issues. 

One such member of the league, the Richmond Quakers, based in Richmond, Ind., who were set to compete in 1918 with legendary Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown as manager, suddenly went defunct. This rapid change of events was problematic for the east central Indiana city, who had just finished construction on Exhibition Park — a brand-new, $12,000 ballpark to house the minor-league Quakers the season before. 

Bill “Devil” Holland (standing at far left) with the 1920 Detroit Stars

Short of sandlot-caliber and prep clubs, there was no team around to use the new facility, much less have a hope of filling the seats with a viable number of spectators.  

Though the baseball outlook in the city looked bleak, Richmond sporting goods magnate George Brehm seized an opportunity out of Indianapolis, and successfully booked Warner Jewell’s ABC baseball team, an all-black club who were themselves without a home field, to use Exhibition Park for the remainder of the summer in early June. Jewell’s ABCs, though certainly a somewhat-known commodity, were a second-tier offshoot of the celebrated Indianapolis ABCs, an outfit owned and managed by the famed and future Negro Leagues executive C.I. Taylor.

An issue that Brehm would have been otherwise unaware of was that, due to inactivity, most of Jewell’s club had gone home; only three of the team members remained from their final game the previous month. 

In less than a week, a delightfully eclectic roster for the new all-black team was composed, including then-21-one-year-old future Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, with Jewell’s club formally taking on the moniker of the “Richmond Giants.”

Palladium-Item, Aug. 28, 1918

From June through the end of August, the Giants were the toast of the town on the baseball scene in Richmond, registering a 9-3-1 record, while defeating teams from larger cities such as Indianapolis and Dayton, Ohio. Blackball veterans such as George Board, Will McMurray and James Lynch, along with young upstarts such as Connie Day, William “Specks” Webster and Charleston, all suited up for the Giants that summer.

However, heading into Labor Day weekend, the team had not one but two doubleheaders on the slate, and the Giants were nearly tapped out. Injuries had taken their toll, as had players being called to military service (as such the case with Charleston). Only a couple of the Giants actually resided in Richmond, which certainly made travel logistics another issue facing the team. On Sunday, the Giants were to face the Muncie, Ind., Valentines twice, and the Richmond Athletics, the city’s all-star team, twice on Monday. 

Pitching, in particular, was running incredibly thin for the Giants.

In search of quick reinforcements, probably through an endorsement made by a team member, a teenager was plucked from the sandlots of eastside of Indianapolis named Elvis “Bill” Holland, a short, stocky, right-handed pitcher. It’s possible Holland was summoned due to an earlier recommendation from Charleston himself, who also grew up and lived on the city’s east side. 

Regardless of how he was originally solicited, the 17-year-old Holland suited up, and was handed the ball to start the first game of the holiday weekend against the Valentines on Sunday, Sept. 1, 1918. It would be his professional debut. 

The Valentines, a fast, tough unit, had just defeated the same team from Randolph County, Ind., that had dealt the Giants all three of their losses on the season. It is safe to say the lineup was seasoned, with a local newspaper even claiming there to be multiple former and future minor-league prospects on the roster. The teen was sure to have his hands full.

Richmond Palladium-Item, Sept. 2, 1918

The Giants offense made it a bit easier for Holland out of the gate, striking for two runs in the first and one in the bottom of the third. 

Using his lively fastball and an array of off-speed pitches (perhaps even an emery ball or two), Holland retired hitter after hitter after hitter. The seasoned Valentines had no answer for the teenage hurler, whose windup and delivery kept hitters off-balance (Satchel Paige later said “didn’t nobody pick up on his ball”), did not yield a hit until a bloop single in the top of the seventh inning.

That would be all the offense the Valentines could muster against Holland, whose Giants backed him with six runs, clinching an improbable 6-1 victory in his debut. The youngster was not only pitching for contact, but he was also flat-out missing bats, fanning 11 opposing hitters in the complete-game, one-hit gem.

“Holland, a youngster, did the hurling for the Giants,” the Richmond Palladium-Item wrote the following day. “His pitching was the best seen on the local diamonds this year in a Sunday game.”

The Giants tied the Valentines the second game that Sunday, and prepared for two more games the following day, Labor Day.

Holland would once again receive the ball to start the first game the following day, Sept. 2, this time against the Richmond Athletics. The Giants-Athletics doubleheader would actually be just one facet of the Labor Day athletic demonstrations; Giants outfielder Jack Hannibal, a professional boxer also known as “The Fighting Poor Boy” and “The Indianapolis Iron Man,” would spar 10 rounds after the doubleheader in a boxing exhibition. 

The Athletics were the de facto “all-star” team of Richmond’s Sunday Afternoon League (SAL). 

The teenage Holland, though squaring off mostly against men a decade his senior, battled once again. Unlike the previous day, his defense let him down a bit, registering four errors, and allowing for an unearned run in the first and three more in the fourth, and the Giants found themselves in a 6-3 hole by the eighth inning.

The Giants themselves would battle back, forcing extra innings, to which Holland would stay in the game all the way through the 11th inning until yielding the winning run to the Athletics in an ultimate 7-6 defeat.

But, when the dust settled, Holland “the colored moundsman, fanned 13 (more) men” than Monday, according to the Palladium-Item.

Quite a debut weekend for the stocky youth. In approximately 24 hours, Holland had thrown 20 innings, only allowed five earned runs (2.25 ERA), and struck out 24 hitters. 

The following season, the still-teenaged Holland would throw a couple games for the Richmond Giants once again. On May 11, 1919, he scored a 1-0 revenge win against the Athletics, again punching out 13 hitters via the strikeout. 

Spurred in part by his exploits with the Giants in Richmond, Holland was able to land a contract with the Detroit Stars of the freshly-minted Negro National League. He would spend three seasons with the club, starting (and winning) the second-most games in team history, behind Baseball Hall of Famer Andy ‘Lefty’ Cooper. His 249 strikeouts again rank only behind Cooper’s 388. 

Holland eventually acquired the nickname “Devil” because of a legendary competitive streak. Negro League second baseman Dick Seay once called Holland the toughest pitcher he ever faced, while also reflecting on his fiery disposition, “(If) you hit him, and the next time you came up there, you had to duck. And you knew it. He’d look at you mad, (and) let you know he’s going to throw at you: ‘Get ready to duck now.’”

Holland would spend the majority of his career pitching in New York City, pitching for the New York Lincoln Giants (1923-1924, 1929-1930), the Brooklyn Royal Giants (1925-1928) and the New York Black Yankees (1931-1941).

On July 6, 1930, Holland, then a member of the Lincoln Giants, became the first black pitcher to appear in a game at Yankee Stadium. His proudest day.

The East-West All-Star line-up, with Bill Holland, first row, third from left

In his 21st season, 1939, the -year-old Holland was named to his first East-West Negro Leagues All-Star team. He would pitch two more seasons before retiring after the 1941 season. 

A documented career that formally began as a teenager on Labor Day at Exhibition Park in Richmond, Ind., ended with Holland leaving an indelible mark on the Negro Leagues. According to formal league statistics on Seamheads.com, Holland ranks:

Strikeouts – 1,094 (fifth).

Complete Games – 173 (fifth).

Games – 291 (eighth).

Wins – 116 (10th).

Holland — whom “Cool Papa” Bell put in his top four Negro Leagues pitchers of all-time, with the likes of Smokey Joe Williams, Bullet Joe Rogan and Satchel Paige — died in New York on Dec. 3, 1973, at the age of 72.

One thought on “A holiday debut for Bill ‘Devil’ Holland

  1. Pingback: Luke Easter: A legend of Halberstamian proportions | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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