John Holway / Negro Leagues
Great Moments in Blackball History -
GIBSON'S YANKEE STADIUM BLOW
By John B. Holway
The year 1930 was one of the most historic in U.S. history as the great Depression threw thousands of persons out of work. President Herbert Hoover was booed at the white World Series between the Cubs and Athletics.
It was a historic year in Negro League history too. Although the Depression had destroyed the league, the teams struggled on, passing the hat to buy gas for their cars and dividing what few dollars were left among the players.
In April the Kansas City Monarchs pioneered night baseball and took their portable lights to St Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh and other cities. In Forbes Field, home of the Pirates, an 18 year-old sandlot slugger came to see the first night game there. When the Grays' pitcher missed the sign under the dim lights and broke the catcher's finger, the boy was called out of the stands to catch. He stayed with them the rest of the season, batting .272 with two home runs, and would develop into possibly the greatest home run hitter ever. His name was Josh Gibson.
In July Yankee Stadium opened its doors to black teams for the first time as the Lincolns' chunky ace, Bill Holland, took the mound to defeat the Baltimore Black Sox.
And in September fans saw two of the most exciting post-season series in North American baseball history, one in the West and one in the East.
The Homestead Grays were led by Oscar Charleston, "the black Ty Cobb," whom many call the greatest black player of his deay - John McGraw said the greatest, period. They challenged the New York Lincoln Giants with Pop Lloyd, sometimes called "the black Wagner," and the legendary Smoky Joe Williams, who could still pitch winning ball, though he was then at least 45 years old. The clubs would clash in a nine-game playoff. Before it was over young Gibson came within two feet of blasting the only fair ball ever hit out of the House that Ruth Built.
The series opened Saturday September 20 with a double header in Forbes Field. Chrleston homered as the Grays won the first game.
In game two young Gibson blasted a pitch over the 447-foot centerfield wall, a target that neither Babe Ruth nor anyone else had ever conquered. In later years Charleston, Mantle, and Dick Stuart would reach that distant fence, and in 1946 a dying Gibson would do it again with a blow that some reports said sailed 100 feet beyond it.
Josh's smash helped the Grays win a 17-16 slugfest in ten innings.
The next day, Sunday, the teams played another double-header. In game one Holland (12-1 for the year) whipped Williams (7-2). In the ten-inning nightcap the Grays beat New York's Red Farrell, who had thrown a World Series no-hitter in 1927. The Grays led three games to one, which meant the Lincs would have to win five of the last six games.
Thursday Williams came back and beat Holland 11-3.
That made it three games to two as the teams moved to Yankee Stadium Saturday the 27th for two more consecutive double-headers that would wrap the series up.
In the locker room before the first game, New York catcher Larry Brown recalled, third baseman Orville Riggins beseeched the starter, Farrell, "Don't give Josh anything to pull." "Don't let him hit it on the ground!" begged shortstop Bill Yancey.
"What are you afraid of?" Farrell asked. "You're 90 feet away, I'm only 60 feet away!"
When Gibson came up, Brown laughed, Yancey was playing leftfield.
The Grays knocked Farrell out, and in from the bullpen trudged right-hander Broadway Connie Rector (he didn't get his name from wearing blue jeans). Rector had a 3-1 record, but a year earlier had won 20 games and lost only two. He had three basic pitches, all changeups - a slow one, another that "walked" up to the plate, and a third that "crawled" up.
Josh's "sledge-hammer" arms caught one and drove it on a line toward the leftfield bullpen between the grandstand and the bleacher. Fifty years later I talked to the only three eye-witnesses left alive, and they disagreed on just where the ball landed. Grays third baseman Judy Johnson claimed that it went over the roof; however, both Holland and Brown, the latter with the best view in the house, said it flew off on a low line and banged against the back of the bullpen two feet from the top. A modern park diagram provided by the Yankees puts the distance at 505 feet from home. Another two feet and it would have cleared the Stadium altogether, a feat that neither Babe Ruth nor Mickey Mantle could ever accomplish.
In the 72 years since then, no man has ever hit a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium. In 1970 Frank Howard reportedly cleared the leftfield roof, but the ump called it foul by four inches. Mantle once hit the facing of the rightfield roof, about 380 feet away. And Dave Winfield and Bobby Grich both hit balls deep into the old bullpen, although neither reached the back wall.
Josh's shot gave the Grays an 8-5 lead, and Smoky Joe came in to protect it. He walked the bases loaded in the ninth, and Cuban catcher Julio Rojo tripled to tie the score, then Rector knocked in Rojo with the winner.
Rector returned to the mound to start the second game and was blasted 7-3.
The Lincolns would have to sweep the final double-header Sunday and called on Holland to try the iron-man feat of winning both games. In the first game Holland faced Williams in their third match-up. New York would be playing without its great rightfielder, Chino Smith (.492 for the season) and its power-hitting utility man, John Beckwith (.393).
When Gibson stepped up to the plate, Holland taunted him, "Well, you done hit Connie in the bullpen. See if you can hit me in there." He held Josh to a single in four at bats. Lloyd meanwhile cracked three hits as Bill won 6-2.
After a quick sandwich between games, he went back out to start his fourth game in eight days. He was leading 1-0 in after seven when he blew up "like an umbrella" and the Grays scored four runs to claim the black championship of the East.
Meanwhile, in the West playoff the Detroit stars of Turkey Stearnes and Double Duty Radcliffe faced the St Louis Stars of Cool Papa Bell, Willie "Devil" Wells, and big Mule Suttles. The series was as full of fireworks as the Eastern series had been.
In October the Chicago American Giants, augmented by Charleston and Satchel Paige, met an American League All Star squad including Charlie Gehringer, Harry Heilmann, and Earl Whitehill. And in Havana a National League squad with Bill Terry, Chuck Klein, and Carl Hubbell, met Cuban ace Ramon Bragana.
For results and details on all these games, plus statistics on both the playoffs and the regular season, see my book, "The Complete Book of the Negro Leagues." Autographed copies are available for $29, postage paid, by sending a check to me at 5511 Callander Dr, Springfield VA 22151.