Back to Bronzeville: Milwaukee’s 1923 Bears | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Back before the Interstate, Milwaukee had a vibrant black commerce center from State Street to North Avenue, called Bronzeville. Just north of Bronzeville stood Athletic Park, at 3000 North 8th Street. Commonly known as Borchert Field, the ballpark hosted a Negro National League club in 1923. The Bears were formed after National League franchises were dropped from Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

As you may have already heard, Baseball-Reference published Negro League statistics last week, after years upon years of research. The statistics provide a welcome addition to the bulk of oral histories, biographies, and references available about the Negro Leagues. Statistics just are a record of what happened (and perhaps an interpretation of what happened), and somewhat fittingly, the Negro League records are incomplete. However, this record itself reflects the subterranean institution, the outlaw leagues, the reality of hard-working men playing ball in the shadow of Organized Baseball’s cold shoulder to blacks (and players of color, in general). The greatness of Negro League ballplayers escapes statistical record, just as I-43 doesn’t tell the story of Bronzeville; but, now at least we have a good idea of which players played for which clubs, and how they batted and pitched.

The Bears had a difficult time receiving newspaper coverage and other promotional notices, and on top of that, they weren’t a particularly good ballclub. As a result, the city of Milwaukee barely got to see its Bears play at Athletic Park. According to Baseball-Reference Bullpen, the Bears only played nine home games. The Milwaukee nine played their last 40 games on the road. Not surprisingly, the club folded after one season, thanks to financial trouble and lack of support.

Although the club’s roster was comprised of mostly castaways from other clubs, the Bears did feature future Hall of Famer Pete Hill on their roster. Hill split time between the Toledo Tigers and the Bears, ultimately hitting .300 in 99 plate appearances.

One of the difficulties the Negro Leagues faced was an inability to enforce reserve clauses in their contracts with players. As a result, players moved freely between clubs, regardless of the efforts of owners and executives to curb those practices.

Most of the Bears’ regulars split time between two clubs. Anderson Pryor and George Boggs spent time in Detroit and Milwaukee; Pete Duncan and Bill Gatewood played in Toledo and Milwaukee; Bobby Roth and Fulton Strong played in Chicago and Milwaukee; Felton Stratton also suited up for Birmingham; Joe Hewitt and John Finner split their time between Milwaukee and St. Louis; Johnson Hill also played in Brooklyn. Dicta Johnson played in Toledo and Chicago, as well as Milwaukee. According to Baseball-Reference Bullpen, the Bears primarily drew their players from the defunct Pittsburgh club, the New Orleans Crescent Stars, and a tryout in Chicago.

Since the Bears were not particularly good, there are not a lot of strong performances that jump out. These were working men, looking to keep their careers alive (or just finishing them), and many of their contributions have value in that they worked tirelessly for their ballclubs. As we will see below, in this context, there were some strong contributions to the Bears’ club.

What should stand out, statistically, is the manner in which the Negro Leaguers played ball. This is a point that is frequently lost on debates about how black players would have affected the big leagues. After the MLB had its Base Ruth revolution, the American and National Leagues relied more on the home run in the ensuing decades, eventually resulting in an extremely stationary game of baseball. If you think steroids era baseball relied heavily on the home run, you should take a look at the 1940s and 1950s in the MLB; the “true outcomes” approach of introducing strike outs and high walk levels into the game, as a corollary to the home run ball, dominated both leagues (the difference was, steroids era baseball had more stolen bases and was a more active game).

By contrast, Negro League baseball was a game of contact hitting. Even in the early 1920s, when the home run explosion had yet to truly take hold of baseball strategy, the Negro National League players relief less on home runs than the Organized ballplayers. The beauty of this statistical research is that now we can see the extent of that focus on contact:

Milwaukee Bears Batters (approx. 100 PA):
Anderson Pryor: 291 PA, 1 HR, 30 BB
Pete Wilson: 273 PA, 3 HR, 16 BB
Sandy Thompson: 251 PA, 1 HR, 9 BB
Joe Hewitt: 232 PA, 0 HR, 37 BB
Felton Stratton: 220 PA, 4 HR, 11 BB
Pete Duncan: 202 PA, 1 HR, 11 BB
Bobby Roth: 183 PA, 1 HR, 7 BB
Andrew Wilson: 180 PA, 3 HR, 13 BB
Johnson Hill: 135 PA, 1 HR, 5 BB
Louis Smallwood: 129 PA, 0 HR, 15 BB
George Collins: 108 PA, 1 HR, 5 BB
Phillips: 106 PA, 0 HR, 8 BB
Pete Hill: 99 PA, 0 HR, 9 BB
Aggregate: 2409 PA, 16 HR (.007 HR%), 176 BB (.073 BB%)

Milwaukee Bears Pitchers (approx. 50 IP; batters faced estimates are mine):
Fulton Strong: 849 BF, 67 K/64 BB
Dicta Johnson: 704 BF, 52 K/44 BB
John Finner: 428 BF, 30 K/31 BB
George Boggs: 426 BF, 41 K/42 BB
Bill Gatewood: 282 BF, 18 K/24 BB
Aggregate: 2689 BF (estimated), 208 K (.077 K%)/205 BB (.076 BB%)

Now, we don’t have strike out totals for the Bears’ bats, and we don’t have home run totals for Bears’ pitchers. However, if we string together the full picture from these batters and pitchers, we can see a game that highly revolves around contact. For instance, if the Bears’ batters even struck out in 8% of their plate appearances, their overall rate of batting the ball in play would be approximately 84% of their plate appearances. Although these batted ball in play statistics look similar to the early 1920s Major Leagues, the differences in home runs should not be understated. A few percentage points difference between home run percentages make a greater impact on batted balls in play when you’re talking about 85% batted balls in play, rather than 70% batted balls in play.

Looking at these contact approaches in hindsight, from the perspective of a game of baseball that bats the ball in play approximately 70% of plate appearances, the Milwaukee Bears have extreme contact profiles. Perhaps this is what we romanticize best about Negro Leaguers; these men played active ball.

Among the Bears’ bats, there were some powerful hitters. In his only full Negro League season, Pete Wilson clubbed 3 homers, 7 triples, and 17 doubles in 273 PA, as a part of a team-leading .316/.358/.480 campaign. Pete Duncan and Sandy Thompson relied less on extra base hits, but produced strong seasons for the Bears on the strength of their batting averages. Both men hit better than .300. Felton Stratton began the first part of his Negro League career by leading the Bears with 4 home runs (in 220 PA).

A lot of room for historical and statistical research remains with these Negro League statistical databases. That’s the beauty of these records, in a way. These players were institutional outlaws according to baseball, unacceptable by the bigoted Major Leagues; there’s no way that they could possibly fit into our understanding of baseball players that are accompanied by complete, institutionally-accepted statistical records. Not unlike many Major Leaguers of their time, these men were also simply trying to make a living by attempting to do something that they loved (or provided a brief meal ticket). Like any set of human institutions, they were imperfect, but Negro Leaguers provided entertainment for their communities in the midst of debates about segregation, integration, black nationalism, economics, and identity. We can attempt to further understand their contributions to baseball in that context.

We don’t fully know what happened in these leagues, so statistical records take on an entirely different focus — all we can do is take the call that these statistical foundations provide and do more research to understand these leagues in their context. While it’s easy to romanticize about these statistics, we should follow the lead of the researchers that started these databases, and fill in the details about our cities’ teams. For instance, there are details needed for 1924 and 1946 Milwaukee franchises that apparently had Negro League clubs for some time. These are research endeavors that move beyond statistics, and can foster a better understanding of the fabric of our very cities.

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2012.
“Borchert Field.” Wikipedia (image).
“Discover Milwaukee’s Bronzeville.” Wisconsin Historical Society, 1996-2012.
Henzl, Ann-Elise. “Remembering Milwaukee’s Negro League Team.” WUWM. 12 August 2008.

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