Buckeyes Open Second Half with Big Night Game — Marred by Fight
Vince Guerrieri | On 09, Dec 2015
Municipal Stadium, built on the lakefront in downtown Cleveland, had more than double the seating capacity of League Park, roughly 60 blocks east.
It also had lights. Those were the two main reasons the Buckeyes would open the second half of the season with a two-game night series – the first home night games of the year for the Buckeyes – against the two-time defending champion Birmingham Black Barons. The Buckeyes had a significant lead on the Barons, in part because the Barons played a larger exhibition schedule on the East Coast.
The games would benefit the Future Outlook League, an organization founded to get jobs for African-Americans a decade earlier. Combating the prejudice of the era with tactics like rent strikes and boycotts (one slogan was “Don’t buy where you can’t work”), the league was able to find work for many African-Americans. American entry into World War II led to increased employment opportunities for everyone, including African-Americans, and the league was starting to refocus as the war was drawing to an end.
The games would be part of a $150,000 fundraising campaign for a recreation center (ultimately, never built as the league’s power continued to dissipate into the 1950s), and a crowd of more than 15,000 was anticipated – including, rumor had it, major league scouts who were evaluating the Negro League talent – of which the Buckeyes and Barons had an abundance.
For the Buckeyes, not only did George Jefferson have a record of 7-1 pitching, but he was batting .433, 31 points ahead of Ed Steele, the Birmingham outfielder in second place. Jefferson’s teammate with the Buckeyes, defending batting champion Sam Jethroe, was hitting .394, and led the league with 31 runs, 56 hits and 84 total bases. Parnell Woods led the league with 30 RBI. Overall, the Buckeyes led the league with a .313 average, 213 runs scored and eight home runs. Defensively, they had a .965 fielding percentage, nine points over Kansas City, in second place. And as good as the Buckeyes were, they were getting better. They added Duro Davis from the Indianapolis Clowns.
The game was expected not just to be an event, but a pitched battle between two of the best teams in the Negro Leagues. And it was a battle – just not the kind that was envisioned.
In the bottom of the third, umpire James Thompson called the Buckeyes’ Avelino Canizares safe in a bang-bang play at first. Words were exchanged, and Thompson found himself in a confrontation with several Barons players. Home plate umpire Harry Walker threw out the Barons’ Lorenzo Davis, nicknamed Piper for his hometown in Alabama. Piper Davis, a foot taller and about 60 pounds heavier than Thompson, sucker-punched the umpire, who “fell over backwards like an obedient ten-pin, without even buckling in the knees,” said the Cleveland Call & Post.
The crowd turned instantly. Fans were enraged, and “had the shameful incident occurred at League Park, where the fans are closer to the playing field, serious consequences might have developed.” (Ironically, Thompson lived on East 61st Street, less than two miles from League Park.) Davis left under a police escort and Thompson swore out a complaint for assault and battery. The Buckeyes won 6-2, almost as an afterthought.