A Negro League walk-off worth remembering

Remember when I was doing my walk-offs project, picking some unusual and notable ones throughout MLB history and sharing their stories?

I want to return to that for a day to give a Negro League walk-off its due. Let’s turn the clock back to 1926 because we’ve got a good one to share.

Some may know MLB’s 1926 World Series for its amazing Game 7 between the Cardinals and Yankees. That’s the one with Grover Cleveland Alexander coming out of the bullpen for the Cardinals to strike out fellow future Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri and all-time immortal Babe Ruth getting caught stealing to end the series.

But what if I told you that the 1926 Negro World Series that season went 11(!) games and the 11th game turned out to be an epic rivaling anything from its MLB counterparts? (I’ve seen references to both Negro World Series and the Colored World Series as to how the series is referred)

Brief moment of context as I build a little suspense:

1926 is prominent in Negro League history for a couple of reasons. It’s the first year that Satchel Paige pitched in pro baseball, doing so for the Chattanooga White Sox of the Negro Southern League. That was the beginning of a career that would be among the most prominent in Negro League history. It’s also the year that another future Hall of Famer, Rube Foster, hugely prominent in the league as a pitcher and team owner, was institutionalized for odd behavior.  He died four years later.

It was Foster’s team, the Chicago American Giants of the Negro National League, who faced the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants of the Eastern Colored League for the championship. The series was scheduled to be best-of-9, with the first team to 5 wins as the champion. But Game 1 ended in a tie after nine innings, the first of two ties in this series.

Chicago won Game 2 holding off Atlantic City after scoring seven runs in the second inning. Amazingly, Atlantic City’s starting pitcher that day, Red Grier, came back the next day and pitched a no-hitter against Chicago! It was a bit of a wild one. He struck out eight and walked six. That tied the series, 1-1-1.

Game 4 was another tie, this one 4-4, meaning to that point the series was 1-1-2. But then Atlantic City won Games 5 and 6 to take a 3-games-to-1 series lead. Chicago won Game 7 in walk-off fashion (barely escaping another tie!).

In Game 8, Bacharach won 3-0 behind pitcher Rats Henderson to move ahead 4-2-2 and got within one game of winning the championship.

Brief digression: If you’re wondering, Arthur Chauncey Henderson got his nickname “Rats” from an incident of a rat being hidden in his lunchbox. Per his bio page at Baseball-Reference, he was a 5-foot-7 sidearmer with a good curveball and was one of the top-paid pitchers in the league.

But Chicago came back to win Game 9 and Game 10, beating Grier and Henderson in succession. The series would come down to one final game.

One note that becomes pertinent shortly: Atlantic City was the home team for each of the first six games. The series was played not just in Atlantic City, but also in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Chicago hosted the last five games.

The last one came on October 14 and it was the kind of nailbiter befitting one of the best winner-take-all games of all-time. If we were to relate it to present day, think Jack Morris vs John Smoltz in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

Bill (Willie) Foster, brother of Rube, was the star of stars on this day. Just to get to the World Series he won 26 consecutive games!

In a playoff series against Kansas City, the Giants needed two wins in one day to win the pennant. Foster started and won both games! There’s a reason his Hall of Fame plaque begins with “Regarded as one of the best left-handed pitchers in Negro League history.”

On this day, Foster lived up to the billing, but it wasn’t easy. He twice escaped bases-loaded jams without a run scoring. Through nine innings, Atlantic City had 10 hits and 3 walks … but no runs.

His pitching counterpart, Hubert Lockhart, was up to the task for Atlantic City. He allowed only 2 hits through 8 innings. But in the 9th, Floyd Gardner led off with a single, was sacrificed to second by Dave Malarcher, and scored on Sandy Thompson’s single, with no chance of a play at the plate because the ball skipped past the center fielder. Fans stormed the field with the game’s stars being picked up and carried off.

The lede of the game story published in the Chicago Defender (a black newspaper) read “The American Giants are world champions and in the parlance of the streets they are nothin’ else but. There you have it. They up and done it when we least expected it and so as to speak they earned it.”

It further noted “The American Giants simply boasted that they had a team that had the guts to fight when behind, the same stuff that it takes to win in any game in life.”

But there’s much more to the story than just the results of the game. Adjacent to the game story in the Chicago Defender (published weekly) was an article headlined “World Series Just A Joke” with a subheadline of “Played for Umpires and Commission. Ball Players Get Small End of Coin.”

Frank Young’s article detailed the financial side of the series providing specific examples from the previous year’s World Series and noting how nothing had changed from then. The players received a small fraction of the gate receipts. The article pointed out that the white umpires made more than the players did.

It also noted that the reason series moved to Baltimore to accommodate Baltimore’s white owner, Charles Spedden, who was looking for a way to make money off the series. Players complained that they would have made more money barnstorming (which Chicago did when the series concluded) than playing the series.

Of another subject, what happened to Sandy Thompson, he of the series-winning walk-off hit, is another great baseball mystery. Thompson became a member of the American Giants that season under questionable circumstances, with accusations that Rube Foster basically stole him away from the Birmingham Black Barons. He returned to the Birmingham team the following season and later became manager for a team in New Orleans. However at some point, his time in baseball ended and what followed is uncertain. His date of death is unknown, as are many things about Negro League players from this time.

Game 11 of this 1926 World Series is an amazing game on its own merits, with a backstory that has great amounts of racism, unfairness, and mystery.

Let me close this article with a larger point: There’s history here that doesn’t get the publicity that it should. It’s worth learning and it’s worth acknowledging.  

Glad I got the chance to summarize the story and share it here.

Thanks to Shakeia Taylor  and Aidan Jackson-Evans for their help in procuring articles from the Chicago Defender that were essential to my learning about this game and series. Shakeia’s appearance on the podcast, Effectively Wild, was what sparked my interest in looking into Negro League walk-offs.

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