Last month I took some time go offer a tour through Sports Illustrated’s “The Football Book.” Based on the positive feedback for that piece, I have decided to devote one column each month to a similar article. This month I think I found another book that I hope you will find as informative and interesting as I did. It is “Negro League Baseball: The Photographs of Ernest C. Withers: Forward By Willie Mays and Essay by Daniel Wolff.”
While I have thumbed through a number of books on the Negro Leagues over the years, this is the first such exclusive title I have added to my library. The thing that caught my eye was the photo of a Jacksonville Braves player wearing a 1951 Boston Braves jersey that appears on the jacket. Recently MEARS had been asked to look at a number of 1950’s Braves jerseys and the Indian Head patch was of interest to me. I am so glad that it did. At first, I spent my time at Border’s flipping the pages looking for other examples of major league jerseys that moved down to the minors as Negro League stars where moving up to the majors. While there are other examples of such uniforms, limiting my thoughts and searches for these would have been very shortsighted.
The thing that comes across very quickly is that the Negro Leagues where professional baseball, even only if evaluated by the quality of the equipment and uniforms. We seem to want to see this “alternate baseball universe” as some sort of sideshow or stopgap in American society, but in fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. This league was filled with countless, and unfortunately at times nameless, players playing the game at the highest level. Given this fact, it now seems only natural to assume that the equipment they may have used would have been as “Top of Line” as the talent employing these tools of the trade.
I am sure what I will begin to discuss next is likely to cause some concern or even mild panic with bat collectors, but never the less it is a topic that is worthy of mention and some additional research that I hope to address in the next year or. That issue being what sort of bats did they use? Wither’s photographs cover the period of the mid to late 1940s through the 1950s. If you give some thought to who was making professional quality bats at this time, the names Louisville Slugger, Adirondack, Spalding, and Hanna Batrite obviously come to mind. It is not surprising in the least that these very same manufacturer’s products can be found in the hands of true professionals looking for professional caliber equipment. O.K., I know what you might be thinking, once again MEARS Auth, LLC has demonstrated he has a keen a grasp of the obvious. However, what might not be so obvious or apparent is the impact on what these men swung then with the hobby today.
Today the hobby is able to evaluate and value Major League Player bats based on things like shipping records and other documentary evidence. The simple fact is that you can begin to associate a player with a bat based on the advertising principle that player’s names are affixed to the barrels of bats. Given you would have had hundreds of Negro League players using top quality bats with little hope of getting an endorsement contract, it only stands to reason that they would have used Major League Player Bats. Here is where this one volume provides some interesting insights and examples:
Page 38: A grouping of players with Louisville Slugger, Spalding, and Hanna Batrite bats; player’s names indiscernible.
Page 74: A player with a Johnny Mize signature model Louisville Slugger.
Page 78-79: A player with an Adirondack “Keller Type” bat.
Page 80: A Player with an Adirondack “Musial Type” bat.
Page 121: A player with a Louisville Slugger Duke Snider signature model bat.
Page 136: Grouping of Louisville Slugger, Adirondack, and Hanna Batrite bats.
Page 177: Players with Louisville Slugger Pee Wee Reese signature model bats.
The next entry deserves a bit more attention and it can be found on page 72. The photo shows a player from the Indianapolis Clowns with an Adirondack Bob Thomson signature model bat. If you look at the area between the label and player name, you will see the script “Clowns” present. This supports a conversation that Dave Bushing had some years ago with Negro League great Buck O’Neil with respect to bats. Mr. O’Neil informed Dave that players did use the model bats of some of the more popular players of the time and that some of the bigger clubs even had their own names on the bats.
What I think would be interesting would be a study of what was ordered by these teams and then doing a comparison with the player orders of the Major League players who’s names appear on the bats in terms of weights and lengths. Before people begin to panic thinking that I offering that the vintage bat market is flooded with Negro League bats, I would also like to offer a couple of thoughts as a counter balance. These deal with the issues of the likeilyhood for retention as well as player characteristics.
While the images in this book are exclusively black and white, the visual appeal and professional nature of the uniforms of the Negro Leagues should not be overlooked. You will notice that the players of the day wore the same professional patches as their major league counterparts with respect to the War Time HEALTH America and Stars and Stripes patches. The other thing that I found interesting was the number of clubs who opted to place uniform numbers on the pants as well. Individual team patches can be found for the Birmingham Black Barons and the Indianapolis Clowns as well. You can also see that teams like the Kansas City Monarch’s varied the style of their uniforms throughout this period as well. Team outfit’s also included some wonderfully designed and top quality jackets as well.
With respect to gloves and catchers equipment, the examples in this book are far from old relics held together by shoestrings and prayer. They appear to be “Top of the Line” offerings from the major manufacturers of the day such as Rawlings, Wilson, and Spalding. This, as with the bats and uniforms should also come as no surprise when you consider many of the other advancements often over looked that where part of Negro League baseball. While my hometown Cincinnati Reds are often credited with introducing night baseball in 1938, it should not be over looked that the Kansas City Monarchs had been doing this for almost a decade by this point in time. Beginning in 1929, the Monarchs began traveling with portable lights mounted on trucks that where powered by generators. You will find a wonderful image of these on page 220 of “Baseball: An Illustrated History by Ken Burns.”
By and large, I would recommend adding this book to your reference library for the reasons above. In addition, while brief in nature, the accompanying essay by Wolff offers interesting insights into the game, players, and the changing nature of both against the transforming American landscape of the post World War II era. The final thought I would offer is that we should all be willing to spend the time looking through references that may at first appear to be on the periphery of our main interests. You’ll never know what you’ll find unless you look.
MEARS Auth, LLC
LTC MEARS Auth, LLC can be reached for comments or questions about this article by contacting him at DaveGrob1@aol.com or by writing him at:
LTC MEARS Auth, LLC
14218 Roland Court
Woodbridge, VA 22193