John Holway / Negro Leagues
John B Holway
/// The Hall of Fame veterans committee will vote soon. They will not elect Bobo Newsom, who is not even on the ballot. The following is from my forthcoming book, The Last 400 Hitter.///
Louis "Buck" Newsom was usually called "Bobo," because that's what he called everybody else. He was one of the great characters who seem to rise especially among pitchers - Rube Waddell, Satchel Paige, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez, and others.
A good ol' country boy from South Ca'lina, Newsom won 33 games in the Pacific Coast league in 1932. The record books show 30, but as Bobo asked, "Who ya gonna believe, the record book or the guy what did it?"
As a rookie with the sixth-place St Louis Browns, Newsom won 20 games, including a no-hitter, which he lost with two out in the tenth. How many no-hitters did he pitch in all?
"Just the one, son, they don't grow in bunches like bananas, you know."
Bobo was given the honor of opening the 1936 season in Washington in front of President Franklin Roosevelt. The Browns owner promised him a suit of clothes if he won. In the third inning his third baseman whipped a ball across the diamond, but Buck forgot to duck, and the ball caught him on the side of the face. Clutching his head, he staggered in agony while his manager offered to take him out.
"Naw," Newsom said, "Ol' FDR came to see Bobo, and he's gonna see him all the way." He won the game 1-0.
The owner pressed some bills into his hand. "Keep the sugar, Bobo," Newsom said, "Bobo bought the suit before the game. The bill is on your desk."
Later they found his jaw broken in two places; it had to be wired shut.
In another game, after the plate umpire repeatedly called his best pitches balls, Newsom finally got a strike call. Walking to home plate, he swept his cap off and bowed at the waist. "Thank you, my dear fellow," he said. Of course he was thumbed out of the game.
Like Waddell, Paige, and Dean, Newsom was not just a buffoon. He could pitch. He was one of the first men to throw a slider, then called a "nickel curve," now a common pitch in most hurlers' repertoires. Ted Williams said it gave hitters one more pitch to worry about and indicted it as one reason batters don't hit .400 any more.
In 1939, the year he joined the Tigers, Buck got in a fight with writer Robert Ruark. At least Ruark was fighting. Bobo was drinking a soda with one hand and holding Ruark at arm's length with the other.
Williams can't help grinning. "Tell a funny story about Buck Newsom: He told everyone he had found Joe DiMaggio's weakness - curve balls low. That day DiMaggio hit two doubles, hit 'em off low curve balls. They all said, "Well, have you found DiMaggio's weakness?" He said, "Yeah, a weakness for doubles."
I saw my first big-league game in 1940, when our school team got free passes to see the Yankees play Bobo Newsom and the Detroit Tigers. We sat way out in the leftfield mezzanine, from whence the players looked like pin-striped ants. Bob won the game, one of 21 he would win to lead the Tigers to the pennant.
Traded from the lowly Browns to the mighty Tigers in 1940, Bobo proved he was more than a country buffoon. He won 20 games and led the Tigers to their first pennant since 1909.
He won the opening game of the World Series against Cincinnati 7-2. Three days later his father suddenly died, but Newsom insisted on pitching the next day and hurled a three-hit shutout to win it "for my dad." With only one day's rest, he started game seven and lost it 2-1.
The Tigers rewarded him with a $35,000 contract, topping Bob Feller, who, at $30,000 had been the highest paid hurler in the game. Bobo bustled into the Tiger's front office to sign the contract with owner Walter O Briggs, brushing past Briggs' son, vice-president Walter "Spike" Briggs Jr. "Out of the way, Little Bo," he said, "Big Bobo wants to talk to me."
With his new wealth Bobo dined nightly on snails and champagne at his specially reserved table in Detroit's leading hotel and tooled around town in a sports car with neon lights and a horn that played "Tiger Rag."
Bobo fell on bad times in '41, losing 20 games as the Tigers stumbled to fourth place. However, he was the most effective pitcher in the league against Ted Williams, who batted .406. Newsom held him hitless in nine at bats until Ted singled in his last try. Ted would have hit .413 without Bob in the league.
But the Tigers' bald-headed general manager, Jack Zeller, cut Bobo's pay to $12,500. Zeller had just had 90 minor leaguers cut from its farm system in a ruling by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. "Hell, Curly," Bobo said, "you lost 90 players, and I don't see you takin' no pay cut."
That winter Zeller peddled him to the Dodgers, and Bobo wired manager Leo Durocher: "Wish to congratulate you on buying pennant insurance."
Back in the American League, Newsom announced that he would beat his old club, the Senators. The park was packed with Washington fans, who had come to boo him. Bobo pitched a two-hitter and walked off the field, thumbing his nose.
Pitching for a succession of second-division teams, Newsom nevertheless ended his career with 211 wins and 222 defeats. His ERA was high as managers left him in in meaningless losing games, because their bull pens weren't any better.
His Tiger teammate, Hank Greenberg, believed Buck should be in the Hall of Fame. I do too.
Bobo ended his career back in Washington. It was Bobo's fifth term in the capital, and he boasted that he had beaten Franklin Roosevelt's record by one.