Over the past 25 years, Phil Dixon has established himself as one of the leading voices in Negro League research. Dixon has written several books on the subject and has been published in a wide variety of publications. He won the prestigious Casey Award for Best Baseball Book of 1992 and a SABR MacMillan Award for his excellence in baseball research. In addition to his busy schedule as a public speaker, Phil somehow found the time to publish three new books this past year:
Purchase new books for 2009 from author Phil S. Dixon…
- John “Buck” O’Neil, The Rookie, The Man, The Legacy, 1938 http://www.authorhouse.com/bookstore/ItemDetail.aspx?bookid=59102
- Phil Dixon’s American Baseball Chronicles, Great Teams, The 1931 Homestead Grays, Volume I http://www2.xlibris.com/Bookstore/bookdisplay.aspx?bookid=60329
- Wilber “Bullet” Rogan and the Kansas City Monarchs (released in spring 2010) http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4425-0
I’ve just finished reading Phil’s book on the 1931 Homestead Grays, one of the most famous teams in Negro League history. Phil’s been kind enough to step inside the batting cage for six “Batting Practice Fastballs,” so let’s get started:
Scott: You’re one of the first well-known baseball historians to take the Neg Lg versus semi-professional competition seriously. What have you learned by collecting those box scores and game stories over the years?
Phil: I have learned that all games, each person and every city is important to the story of American baseball history. The statistics are also important but numbers aren’t the only story. Looking back, the powers that were in baseball assumed it would be impossible to compare the legendary African-American players to the big league stars because the question of competition would always arise with the numbers achieved. Well I figured that a home run hit by Grant “Home Run” Johnson felt just as good to him as a home run hit by Babe Ruth, so who am I to say it did not amount to much. Furthermore, I wanted to show the big picture, the far reaching contribution of African-Americans in baseball history. It is impossible to show our contribution without talking about games against all competition. The numbers are also effected when you show only the games played against African-American competition.
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s in my job as Assistant Director of Public Relations for the Kansas City Royals, I did actual game entries for the Royals that went to the major league office and were later released to the media. In doing this work I realized that a player who is batting .400 after 20 or 30 games may not be a .400 hitter. I actually saw players who had .250 averages after an entire season, get hot for 10 to 20 games, but this was not the real story of that player’s ability. I also learned the importance of detail. Well, I was working on The Negro Baseball Leagues, a Photograph History, at the time and did not want to make the same errors that I saw others making when writing on the history of Negro baseball. That was the early origin of my wanting to show the full spectrum of a player’s ability-not just games played against other teams of African-Americans. In fact, if you look at any of my work you will see no lifetime statistics, this I have always believed was bad scholarship. Also, I was one of the first to show that every player was important. Inclusion of players, not just those in the Hall of Fame, or the ones with the larger than life names, was one of my early contributions to Negro baseball history. I was among the first to use photographs of little known players to illustrate my efforts. Since that time, other historians and baseball fans have gotten on board and this is just fantastic. Now we are learning more than ever about the men who played in the league. The public’s mood was vastly different some 30 years ago when I was first started to talk about the Negro Leagues. I was happy to have scouted some unknown territory for others to follow. Games against semi-professional teams is part of that legacy.
Scott: According to folklore, Josh Gibson was said to have hit 75 home runs during the 1931 campaign. Your research shows he actually hit somewhere between 40 and 45 during the 175 season. Have you been able to unbundled the origin of the 75 home run myth?
Phil: When we do poor research it seems to have a life all of its own. Negro League baseball history is full of such poorly researched efforts. Much of the history can be summarized in one statement that was given to me by Negro Leaguer George Giles “Its the same cup of coffee warmed over.” This was Giles’ way of saying that everyone was copying each other and that very little new research was being conducted. That statement that “Gibson hit over 71 home runs” has been printed and copied so many times but never researched, that is until now. I do have the origin of that 71 home run story written down in my records and to the best of my knowledge it started with modern day historians. I have never found a primary source for this statement. If someone has located a reference, I would love to see it.
Starting back in 1994, I would take on a summer project each year. I would look for great feats to see if they actually occurred, and if they could be verified. This is why I began to search on Gibson’s reported 71 home runs and the 1931 Homestead Grays. Before long I discovered that this talk of 71 home runs was in fact folklore and not verified with any real research. When put under solid observation, ie. games with box scores, the entire schedule reconfigured and other sound historical research efforts, we see that Gibson’s great effort never occurred. However, Gibson did other outstanding things besides hit home runs. He collected over 200 hits, scored over 150 runs, and pounded over 50 doubles. I think that the research contained in Phil Dixon’s American Baseball Chronicles, Volume 1, is more solid than anything previously published, and thus we don’t have to rely further on myths and folklore to show that players were great. My projects with the Philadelphia Giants and Homestead Grays, which came from teams that played 26 years apart, show that the data is available if researchers are willing to do real research. By the way, you can’t set on the world-wide web and call yourself a serious researcher. Researchers might want to spend more time in the library.
Scott: Your research indicates the Grays record was 143-29-2 (.831) during the long season. How do you think they would have fared in either one of the white majors?
Phil: This was without question a big league squad and a competitive one at that. I do consider this Grays team as one of baseball’s greatest team-White or Black if not the greatest. The numbers they produced in 1931 demonstrates that they hit well against all competition. Great hitting, deep pitching, fast aggressive base runners, great defense, what else do you need? This publication fights in behalf of this great team. So yes, they would have done well in any league-big league included. I would also give the 1931 Hilldale team as another team that would have won many big league games if given a chance. They were also outstanding. P.S. Think of all of the outstanding players who had to quit because of financial reasons? As you know, a career in the Negro Leagues did not pay well. I make this statement to simply show America what they missed with racism.
Scott: In a seven-game series, Lefty Grove’s 1931 Philadelphia Athletics versus Smokey Joe’s 1931 Homestead Grays. Who wins?
Phil: I did not do a comparison of the Grays against the 1931 Philadelphia Athletics however, let us take a quick look. The Athletics lacked speed with only 25 bases stolen. The Grays stole nearly as many in one month, and this total was confirmed with much of the stolen base data being difficult to find. I located 89 Grays’ stolen bases and three-fourths of the information is not available. As a team the Philadelphia Athletics hit 118 home runs – Foxx with 30 and Al Simmons with 22 - and scored 858 runs, the remainder of the team hit very few home runs. Bing Miller led the A’s with 43 doubles. These numbers aren’t very impressive when standing along side the totals that Posey’s 1931 Homestead Grays produced. Imagine this, Posey’s Grays amassed over 1,800 hits, over 360 doubles, over 100 triples and in excess of 130 home runs. Also the starting pitching of Joe Williams, Willie Foster, Lefty Williams, Roy Williams, George Britt and Ted Radcliffe was solid. So, I would give a seven game series to the Grays. Perhaps you are wondering how this team might rate with the very best big league squads?
I did make a comparison to the 1927 Yankees, (considered to be baseball’s greatest team) but not a position by position comparison. I matched players head to head. Thus, Lou Gehrig vs. Jud Wilson, Babe Ruth vs. Josh Gibson, Tony Lazzeri vs. George Scales, Bob Meusel vs. Oscar Charleston, Earl Combs and Pat Collins vs. Ted Page or Vic Harris. In most every case you would have to select the Grays’ player over the Yankee. The Grays had more speed than the Yankees and far better pitching. Read the book and then make the judgement for yourself as to which team was better. I understand that this is controversial, but it is what it is. Let the debate begin.
Scott: Back in 2006, you published a book about the 1905 Philadelphia Giants (another legendary African-American baseball team), which featured Rube Foster, Pete Hill, Sol White and a host of other famous dead ball-era ballplayers. The Giants finished their season at about 134-24-3 (.848) playing against African-American, white semi-pro and minor league teams. Who was better, the ’05 Giants or ’31 Grays.
Phil: Without question it was the 1931 Homestead Grays. The Grays put up bigger numbers at-bat and collected more runs and many more hits. Posey’s Grays’ team pitching was much stronger as they had five to six front line starters in Smokey Joe Williams, Willie Foster, Ted Radcliffe, Lefty Williams, George Britt , Roy Williams and others. And yet, these front line starters did not strike out more batters than Rube Foster, Emmett Bowman and Dan McClellan. For a dead ball era team the Philadelphia Giants of 1902 had power. To have hit nearly 60 home runs as a team in the dead ball era is incredible. Home run Johnson-should be in Hall of Fame-along with Pete Hill, Bill Monroe and Charlie Grant were equally as impressive hitters. The Philadelphia Giants were among the first to score 1,000 runs in the last century (big league teams included). Also, the 05 Philadelphia Giants always used a pitcher in one of the outfield positions. Rrarely were the 31 Grays or the 05 Philadelphia Giants out hit by other teams. Still, I would have to stay with my choice of the 31 Grays as baseball’s best. I also rate the 1910 Chicago Leland Giants ahead of the 05 Philadelphia Giants. This is interesting since, Grant “Home Run” Johnson, Andrew “Rube” Foster, Pete Booker and Pete Hill were members of both teams.
In 1910 Foster’s Leland Giants lost just 6 games while winning well over 100. Remember we are talking about the really great teams here and the level of play was outstanding. Other great teams included the 1923 and 1933 Kansas City Monarchs, the 1916 Indianapolis ABC’s, the Lincoln Giants of 1913, the 1942 and 1949 Kansas City Monarchs, the 1930 St. Louis Stars and numerous others. I also like the 1899 Columbia Giants for their productivity. The times when you say this or that team was great because of the number of Hall of Famers on the team is a flawed system. Think of all the great African-American players that are not in the Hall of Fame. The list would include such outstanding players as Bill Monroe, George Scales, “Home Run” Johnson, Vic Harris, Newt Allen, John Donaldson, Chet Brewer, Clarence Williams, John W. “Pat” Patterson and Charlie Grant for starters.
When I do my Great Teams comparisons, I have a list of items for which teams must surpass to qualify. In addition to the hitting and pitching numbers, I look at the schedules the teams played, the amounts of miles traveled, how they performed against other African-American teams, how many different opponents they faced and the level of the semi-pro competition they faced. Then I begin my analysis. Some teams with great records, did not rate as well when put under the microscope such as some of the Crawford teams. However, any team that played over 150 games and lost less than 30 deserved a second look. And thus, there are some barnstorming teams that will appear in my Great Teams series.
There is an updated version of the 1905 Philadelphia Giants, Volume 3, book coming in the spring of 2010 with additional games located since 2006′s version was published. I have other publications coming on the Great Teams series. Volume 2, is on the 1910 Leland Giants of Chicago and it will be released by mid summer. Volume number 4 of the great team series is also scheduled for release in 2010, but the team in this volume I am keeping under wraps for now.
Scott: Thanks for your time, Phil.
Phil: Again, thank you for the opportunity to talk about the 1931 Homestead Grays and other items of interest to baseball researchers and fans. There is so much more work to be done, so let’s get busy and make it interesting for people who are enjoying this topic.