SABR

R C Stevens

This article was written by Alan Cohen.

R C Stevens, said one of his minor-league managers, was “capable of breaking up a game anytime he took his bat in hand.” He hit 191 home runs in 12 minor-league seasons, but didn’t meet the test in the major leagues, and played only briefly in four seasons, three of them (including 1960) with the Pirates.

Stevens did have one distinction – he was among the very few players who threw left-handed and batted right-handed. Originally he batted from the left side with a cross-handed grip, but on the advice of one of his high school teammates, rather than change his grip he switched to the right side of the plate.1

The only son of I.H. Crapps, Jr. and Minnie Stephens, R C Stevens (he had no first name, just the initials; “Seaboat” was his boyhood nickname, a reference to his size) was born in Moultrie, Georgia, on July 22, 1934.2 Shortly after he was born, his parents married other people. His mother married Solomon Griffin, and they reared R C. I. H. Crapps married Rachel Wiley and had eight more children. He was a farmer who later went on to work for Swift foods. The Crapps and Griffin families both lived in Moultrie and R C had frequent contact with his eight half-sisters and half-brothers

R C played baseball, basketball, and football at the Moultrie High School for Negro Youth. After graduating in 1951, he worked in construction. Branch Rickey, who had left the Brooklyn Dodgers to take over as general manager of the Pirates, was on the lookout for talented young black ballplayers. Rickey wrote to baseball coaches at black high schools throughout the South. Stevens’ high-school coach, A.F. “Papa” Shaw, encouraged the 6-foot-5-inch first baseman to try out for the Pirates. He went to the Pirates’ minor-league facility in Deland, Florida, and, after a tryout, was signed by Pirates scout George Pratt.3

Stevens made his way from Class D to Triple-A over the next six seasons before making his big-league debut with the Pirates in 1958. He broke in with the Batavia (New York) Clippers of the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League, under shortstop-manager George Genovese, who had spotted Stevens at Deland and took a keen interest in the big 17-year-old. He hit well from the start. A home run on June 3 earned him a bonus. Genovese had promised to reimburse him $19.50 for the cost of his new glove if he hit four home runs in two weeks, and the June 3 homer was number four. Four home runs in the next two weeks would get R C a new set of spikes.4 He wouldn’t need the home runs. When word got out about R C needing spikes, a fan took up a collection and $20.04 later, Stevens had his spikes.5 It was a good thing, because he didn’t hit the four home runs. Stevens got into 102 games and batted .246 (six home runs in all), earning himself a promotion in 1953 to the St. Jean (Quebec) Canadians of the Class C Provincial League, again managed by Genovese. He hit .313 with St. Jean, and increased his home run output to 12. After the season Stevens married his high-school sweetheart, Carrie Bell Moss.

After St. Jean, the next stop on the Pirates’ minor-league ladder was less hospitable: the Burlington-Graham Pirates in the Class B Carolina League. Stevens was the only black on the team. In his first game, an opposing fan brought a black cat to the game and taunted Stevens with racial epithets. He was denied accommodations with his white teammates and stayed in either black hotels or with families in the area. Despite this, he had a good season, batting .293 with 31 doubles, 25 home runs, and 115 RBIs.6 July 28 was a highlight, with a grand slam and a two-run homer against Reidsville. The team finished the regular season in second place. The Pirates won the semifinal round of the playoffs but lost to Fayetteville in the next round. Stevens had three home runs in the ten playoff games.

The 20-year-old Stevens was initially scheduled to play in Double-A New Orleans in 1955, but instead was sent to Hollywood, the Pirates affiliate in the “open” classification Pacific Coast League. At his first batting practice, Stevens discovered that the catcher, Bill Hall, was from Moultrie. (Hall and Stevens were later teammates on the 1958 Pirates.) On June 5 Stevens had two home runs and three RBIs in a 5-1 win at Portland. Stevens injured his knee on July 3 and was used sparingly for the balance of the season. He got into only 18 games during July and August, mostly as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement. His batting average dropped to .241 for the season. After the season Stevens played for the Jalapa Chileros in the Mexican winter league. In a game in November, Stevens hit a grand slam in a win over the Mexico City Aztecas (Mexico was one of six countries in which he hit home runs). He batted.306 at Jalapa with 47 RBIs.

Stevens returned to Hollywood for 1956. He was leading the Stars with five home runs and 14 RBIs when he was hit by a Jerry Casale fastball in a game against San Francisco on May 2, and broke his hand. He missed a month of play.7 After he returned he went on a tear as the Stars won 15 of 16 games and climbed to third place. In July he hit seven home runs in his first 12 games. For the month, he had nine homers and 25 RBIs. But Stevens and the Stars slumped in late August and early September. He wound up with a .262 batting average, was third in the league with 27 home runs, and had a team-leading 72 RBIs, while cutting down his strikeouts. After the season he played winter ball for Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican League.

Stevens trained with the Pirates in Fort Myers in 1957, but began the season with Hollywood. After an early-season slump, his bat came alive, and he had several key hits as the Stars gained first place. Over a 24-game span from April 23 through May 17, he had six home runs and 20 RBIs, and the team went 18-6. But despite his productivity, his batting average was mired in the low .200s. Manager Clyde King suggested he choke up on the bat and Stevens went 11-for-28 as the Stars took five of seven games at Vancouver in mid-June.8 But it was all downhill from there. Stevens went into a prolonged slump, going 1-for-27 against Portland, and sprained his back at the end of June. His average had slipped to .221, and he was reassigned to the Columbus Jets of the International League on July 9. In his first weeks with the Jets, both he and the team did poorly. But between August 5 and 31, Stevens batted .327 with six home runs and 22 RBIs, capping the month on the 29th when he doubled and homered off Satchel Paige, then pitching for the Miami Marlins. Stevens batted .341 in his last 19 games and finished with a .294 batting average at Columbus, with eight home runs and 36 RBIs.

Stevens reached the major leagues in 1958. Before spring training in Fort Myers, he wrote to general manager Joe L. Brown: “I see you have a lot of first basemen. There are Ted Kluszewski, Frank Thomas, Dick Stuart, and me. I just want to let you know I’m going to make trouble for all of them.”9 In Fort Myers Kluszewski had back problems due to a slipped disc and Stuart came down with the flu. Stevens hit well, with a triple and two home runs in a short span while keeping his strikeouts down, and went north with the Bucs.10 He made his debut on Opening Day, April 15, replacing Kluszewski at first base in the bottom of the ninth with the Pirates leading Milwaukee by a run. The Braves tied the game. Stevens singled off Gene Conley in the 12th inning, then drove in the winning runs in the 14th with another hit off Conley. Four days later he hit a pinch-hit two-run homer off Harvey Haddix of the Cincinnati Reds in a 9-6 loss. The next day he hit a ninth-inning walk-off homer against Willard Schmidt of the Reds. After three game appearances he was 4-for-4 with two home runs, and had driven in the decisive run in each of the Bucs’ first two wins.11 He commented, “Man, I’m still up in those clouds. …” 12

Stevens continued to come in as a defensive replacement, then had a few starts in May. On the 5th at San Francisco, batting cleanup, he hit a three-run home run. It was Stevens’ fourth home run of the year, and he gained the distinction of having hit home runs in the same ballpark (Seals Stadium) as both a major leaguer and a minor leaguer.

But Stevens did not start many games, only 19, as he sat while Kluszewski started against right-handed pitchers. He continued to have a knack for getting game-winning hits. On May 11, after striking out in his first three at-bats against Philadelphia’s Curt Simmons, he broke up a scoreless game, singling in the bottom of the 11th inning to give the Bucs a 1-0 win. Still, he went back to the minors in July, when the Pirates brought up Dick Stuart from Salt Lake City. Despite his clutch hits, Stevens had been striking out far too much – 25 K’s in 85 at-bats. His average had dropped to .259, as he went only 7-for-36, striking out 11 times, after June 1. Meanwhile, in 79 games at Salt Lake City, Stuart had hit 31 homers and his average stood at .314.

After batting .276 with 12 home runs at Salt Lake City (the Bees had replaced the Hollywood Stars after the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles) Stevens was called up to the Pirates at the beginning of September, but saw little late-season action. For the season with the Pirates he batted .267 with seven home runs and 18 RBIs in 90 at-bats. His .556 slugging percentage was tops on the team, but the Bucs, who finished second in the standings with an 84-70 record, made the decision that Stuart was to be their first baseman. As a left-handed thrower, Stevens’ opportunities in the field were limited. The Pirates were set in the outfield with Bob Skinner, Bill Virdon, and Roberto Clemente, and Stuart was placed at first base despite his fielding inadequacies. Stevens would never again see meaningful playing time in Pittsburgh, where his teammates had given him the nickname Real Cool, a reference to his initials, and his demeanor.After the 1958 season, with the military draft still in effect, the 24-year-old Stevens enlisted in the US Army Reserve. He was on active duty until May 1959, after which he rejoined the Pirates. He pinch-hit once, then was sent to the minors. After a brief stint at Columbus, he was sent to Salt Lake City on June 4. After a strong start, his average plummeted to .243. Things turned around when he homered in each game of a doubleheader sweep of Portland on August 2. On the 21st the Bees reached first place, then kept winning, with Stevens delivering some clutch hits. By the end of the season, his average stood at .287 with a team-leading 19 home runs and 75 RBIs. The Bees won the PCL championship. Exclaimed manager Larry Shepard asked, “Where would we have finished without big R C Stevens, who was capable of breaking up a game anytime he took his bat in hand?”13 Before Pittsburgh’s season ended, Stevens was called up and went 2-for-6 in two games.

Stevens spent most of 1960 with Salt Lake City. He hit a league-leading 37 home runs and finished second in the league to teammate Harry Bright with 109 RBIs. Both were personal bests. The Pirates called him up on September 12. He got into only nine games, mostly as a defensive replacement. He had only three at-bats and went hitless. He was not on the roster for the World Series.

After the 1960 season Stevens was dealt to the expansion Washington Senators along with infielder Bright and pitcher Bennie Daniels for pitcher Bobby Shantz. For a time at the beginning of the season, Stevens was platooned with Dale Long at first base, but Long was one of the few recognizable names in the Washington lineup and the platoon was short-lived. Long started most of the games at first base. Stevens only had eight hits in 62 at-bats with Washington, and in June he was sold to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. In his last major-league game, on June 10, he struck out as a pinch-hitter. Stevens’s major-league statistics were disappointing, but he had been part of “The Show” and took away memories to last a lifetime. He appeared in 104 games and batted .210 with eight home runs and 19 RBIs. He was strong on defense, with only two errors in 426 chances at first base.

After Washington, Stevens played three seasons in the minors before hanging up his spikes. In a holiday doubleheader at Buffalo on July 4, 1961, he had the best day in his career. In the first game he went 3-for-3, all solo home runs, in the seven-inning opener, won by Toronto 6-0. In the nightcap, he went 2-for-3 with a double and two runs scored as Toronto completed the sweep. Three weeks later, he hit homes runs in three consecutive games. He broke his thumb on August 1 and missed 35 games. Despite his power outburst, for the season, he batted .243 with 12 homers.

Just after the end of the season, during the height of the Berlin Crisis, Stevens was activated by the Army and spent most of the 1962 season stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington. While there, he played on the Fort Lewis Rangers team along with Tony Kubek, Deron Johnson and other major leaguers. He didn’t join the Maple Leafs until August 3, and saw limited action in his team’s remaining 43 games, batting only .224. Released by Toronto early in the 1963 season, he signed with the Quad Cities Angels of the Class A Midwest League, who played in his adopted hometown of Davenport, Iowa. He batted.245 in 57 games, and ended his 12-season run in Organized Baseball.

During his time with the Pirates, Stevens had become friends with infielder Gene Baker, and their friendship extended beyond their playing days. Baker persuaded R C and his wife, Carrie, to move from Moultrie to Baker’s hometown of Davenport after the 1960 season, and they were next-door neighbors for almost 40 years. R C and Carrie did not have children. Carrie Stevens died in 1995, and Baker died in 1999.

Another lasting friendship from Stevens’s years in baseball was with pitcher Dean Stone. They played a season of winter ball in Venezuela in 1959-60 for the Elders of Vargas in the Valencia Industrial League. Stone lived in Silvis, Illinois, not far from Davenport, and after their baseball careers ended, they were frequent companions on the golf course.

Ensconced in Davenport, R C first worked for Ametek in nearby East Moline before going to work for International Harvester, where he rose to the rank of department manager. He was laid off in 1985 when the company sold off its agricultural division, and he became a Davenport city bus driver for 12 years.

Stevens was among the first inductees into the Colquitt County (Georgia) Sports Hall of Fame in 2000. Among the others in that first class of honorees were one of his opponents from his minor-league days, John Glenn, and their high-school coach, A.F. Shaw. Former Pirates teammate Bill Hall was inducted in 2003. On April 25, 2003, Stevens joined with Buck O’Neill, Monte Irvin, and Art Pennington as Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, near Davenport, paid tribute to Negro League baseball.14

Stevens died on November 30, 2010, at the age of 76, in Davenport.

 

This biography is included in the book "Sweet '60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates" (SABR, 2013), edited by Clifton Blue Parker and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.



Sources

Books

Richard E. Beverage, The Hollywood Stars: Baseball in Movieland – 1926-1957 (Placentia, California: Deacon Press, 1984).

Wayne Grandy, Heroes of the Games: The Colquitt County Sports Hall of Fame 2000-2004 (Moultrie, Georgia: Moultrie Observer, 2004).

Newspapers and magazines

Bob Addie, “Just Call him R C or Steve: Nats Stevens southpaw oddity, Bats right, has no first name”, The Washington Post, March 12, 1961, C1

Ned Cronin, “Cronin’s Corner,” Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1956, A3.

Don Doxsie, “Ex-major leaguer, Q-C resident Stevens dies,” Quad City Times, Davenport, Iowa, December 3, 2010.

Les Goates, “Bees in Basement on June 7, Cop Flag in Honey of Finish,” The Sporting News, September 3, 1959, 39.

Wayne Grandy, Moultrie (Georgia) Observer, December 3, 2010.

Wayne Grandy, Moultrie (Georgia) Observer, October, 2000.

Jerry Johnson. “Derks – A Field You Don’t Forget,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), April 21, 1993, C-2.

Earl Lawson, “R. C. Stevens Toast of Pittsburgh; Rookie’s Hits Net Bucs Two Wins,” Cincinnati Times, April 21, 1958.

John Naughton, “Des Moines Sunday Register’s Sports Hall of Fame: Gene Baker,” Des Moines Register, July 18, 2009.

Eric Page, “Davenport’s Stevens made big splash in majors 50 years ago this week,” Quad Cities Times (Davenport, Iowa), April 12, 2008.

Edward “Abie” Robinson, “Abie’s Corner,” California Eagle, Los Angeles, April 10, 1958.

Chester L. Smith, “Buc Rookie Saves All His Hustling for Playing Field,” Pittsburgh Press, March 27, 1958.

“For Place on Cloud 100: Rookie Wins Second Game for Pirates,” Simpson’s Leader-Times, Kittanning, Pennsylvania, April 21, 1958.

“Young R.C. Stevens Shows Some Strong Power at Plate,” Tonawanda (New York) News, April 4, 1958, 7.

Batavia (New York) Daily News, June 4, 1952, June 10, 1952.

Website

Baseball-Reference.com 

Interviews

Joe Christopher, January 3, February 7, February 8, 2012.

Wayne Grandy, February 13, 2012.

Bob Oldis, October 12, 2011.

Everlene Register, November 4, 2011, February 12, 2012, February 23, 2012,

Dean Stone, October 10, 2011.

Research assistance was provided by John Sollito, author of Building the Pirates for the Future: Race, Mr. Rickey, and R.C. Stevens, 1952-55.

 

Notes

1 Bob Addie, Washington Post, March 12, 1961

2 Although his mother spelled her surname as Stephens, R C’s was always rendered as Stevens.

3 Wayne Grandy, Moultrie Observer, December 3, 2010.

4 Batavia Daily News, June 4, 1952.

5 Batavia Daily News, June 10, 1952.

6 Eric Page, “Davenport’s Stevens made big splash in majors 50 years ago this week,” Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa), April 12, 2008.

7 Edward “Abie” Robinson, “Abie’s Corner,” California Eagle, Los Angeles, April 10, 1958.

8 The Sporting News, June 26, 1957

9 Chester L. Smith, “Buc Rookie Saves All His Hustling for Playing Field,” Pittsburgh Press, March 27, 1958.

10 “Young R.C. Stevens Shows Some Strong Power at Plate,” Tonawanda (New York) News, April 4, 1958, 7.

11 Earl Lawson, “R. C. Stevens Toast of Pittsburgh; Rookie’s Hits Net Bucs Two Wins,” Cincinnati Times, April 21, 1958.

12 “For Place on Cloud 100: Rookie Wins Second Game for Pirates,” Simpson’s Leader-Times, Kittanning, Pennsylvania, April 21, 1958

13 Les Goates, “Bees in Basement on June 7, Cop Flag in Honey of Finish,” The Sporting News, September 3, 1959, 39.

14 Quad Cities Times, April 26, 2003.

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