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The Negro Leagues East-West All-Star Game

In part 6, Dickson recounts the “Game of Games,” which pitted the best of the East against the best of the West in the first Negro Leagues All-Star Game. The September 10, 1933, matchup offered stellar on-field performances, but discussion of the color barrier stole the headlines.

By Paul Dickson, March 12, 2017
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Josh Gibson catcher for the Pittsburgh Crawfords.
Original artwork by Johnson & Fancher.

If the Great Depression had cut into the gate receipts of the Major League Baseball teams, it had done at least the same, but probably much worse, to the teams of the Negro Leagues, where organizational structures were constantly changing. Some of the better players in black baseball were on independent teams and sometimes moved from one team to another during the season.

In July 1933, Pittsburgh Crawfords secretary Roy Sparrow and Pittsburgh Courier editor William Nunn Sr. broached the idea of a black All-Star Game in response to the Major League All-Star Game being staged in Chicago. Their initial plan was to hold the contest at Yankee Stadium in conjunction with the New York Milk Fund, a charity that provided milk to poor children. When enthusiasm for that idea waned, they approached Gus Greenlee, the owner of the Crawfords, who proposed that they involve Chicago American Giants owner Robert Cole and lease Comiskey Park as the game’s venue.[i]

Greenlee concluded that the best format was an East-West All-Star Game that matched players geographically. Greenlee quickly secured September 10 for the contest and enlisted the two leading black newspapers, the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, to conduct the balloting. As with the Major League version, fans selected the teams by clipping ballots from the newspapers and mailing them in.

The game was announced on August 14, 1933. The white press heralded the event in purely racial terms: “An outstanding athletic event, in so far as the 300,000 Negroes in Chicago and the 12 million in the United States are concerned was announced yesterday,” was the lead to the story in the Chicago Tribune.[ii]

The fans selected seven Pittsburgh Crawfords, six of whom started for the East, including catcher Josh Gibson. Meanwhile, seven of the nine starters from the West were members of the Chicago American Giants, including imposing left-hander Rube Foster, who garnered the most votes as a pitcher. The top vote getter of all—with 43,793—was Oscar Charleston of the Crawfords at first base, who would play for the East. Satchel Paige placed third in the balloting and was expected to lead the East, but he was not in the final lineup, as he was otherwise occupied playing for a semipro team in Bismarck, North Dakota, which had smashed the color bar with a team that was approximately half white and half black.[iii]

Oscar Charleston garnered the most votes for the All Star game.  Charleston was manager/player of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. He was a power hitter and great center fielder who fared well when playing exhibition games against Major League white teams.
Original artwork
Mark Chiarello.

On September 10, the East-West Classic was inaugurated before a rain-dampened crowd of 19,568, which, as expected, was predominantly black, but some whites did attend, including some scouts from Major League Baseball.

The outcome of the contest was settled early on behind the splendid complete-game pitching of the West’s Willie Foster. The East’s Sam Streeter was unable to tame the bats of Mule Settles, “Double Duty” Radcliff, and Larry Brown, and the West walked away with the victory, 11–7.

Al Monroe of the Defender opened his story of the game: “The Depression didn’t stop ’em—the rain couldn’t—and so a howling, thundering mob of 20,000 souls braved an early downpour and a threatening storm to see the pick of the East’s baseball players battle the pick of the West in a Game of Games at the White Sox ball park in Chicago last Sunday afternoon.”

One of the few white writers who attended the game and reported on it was Henry L. Farrell of the Chicago Daily News. Farrell noted that employing these men could be the answer to Major League Baseball’s prayers. He argued that even though the eastern team lost, it could be moved to Boston or Cincinnati to provide those cities with a winning team. He also pointed out that three players in particular—Charleston, first baseman Mule Suttles of the Chicago American Giants, and shortstop Dick Lundy of the Philadelphia Stars—could be moved immediately into the Majors.

In a separate Defender column, Monroe complained that too little had been made of the fact that 20,000 had paid to see a Negro Leagues All-Star Game played at Comiskey Park the previous Sunday while fewer than 12,000 showed up at Wrigley Field for a doubleheader. That same day, Monroe addressed the question first posed by Fred Lieb that refused to go away. “What’s the matter with baseball? The answer is plain prejudice, that’s all.”[iv]

In the wake of the game, more African-Americans, including the editor of the Defender, boycotted Major League Baseball and spent their money on the Negro Leagues and on others sports that had been racially integrated, including boxing and professional football.

The final word on the game may have come from Monroe: “The contest was pre-billed as the Game of Games, and, gents, a baseball-mad throng—20,000 of ’em—will attest to our story that its promise was fulfilled. This folks, is our story, and we’ll stick to it even when informing future generations that we were among those reporting the first of what by all manner of reasoning should become an annual event.”[v]

Great southpaw Willie Foster’s pitching helped the West overcome the East in the Negro All Star game of 1933. Many people believed that Foster, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996, was an even better pitcher than Satchel Paige.


[i] Larry Lester, Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game, 1933-1953 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001) is the best authority on the East-West All-Star Games. For its origins, see pages 21–22.
[ii] Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1933, 15
[iii] The story of this team is well told in Tom Dunkel’s 2013 book Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line (New York: Grove Press, 2013).
[iv] Chicago Defender, September 16, 1933, 14.
v] Al Monroe, “20,000 See West Beat East in Baseball ‘Game of Games’,” Chicago Defender, September 16, 1933.

 

 

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