Willie Pope

This article was written by Skip Nipper

Willie Pope (SEAMHEADS.COM)On September 19, 1988, the Pittsburgh Pirates paid tribute to the Homestead Grays by hoisting a black-and-white commemorative flag over Three Rivers Stadium. The occasion commemorated an event from 40 years earlier, when the Negro National League’s Grays defeated the Birmingham Black Barons, champions of the Negro American League, four games to one in the last Negro League World Series.

The Pirates invited six surviving members of the team to Three Rivers Stadium, and pitcher Willie Pope was one of them. The others were Clarence Bruce, Garnett Blair, Bob Thurman, Wilmer Fields, and Hall of Famer Buck Leonard, who had been inducted into Cooperstown’s shrine in 1972.

Pope, who resided in the Library area of Pittsburgh, had retired from the city controller’s office the year before, and in 25 years had not told his employer about his baseball career.1 Once the celebration was held, everyone knew.

The modest, reluctant hero from baseball’s past, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, remembered that life in the Negro Leagues was sometimes rough. “It’s not real vivid right now, but it was pretty exciting. Traveling was the hardest thing we did,” said Pope. “I remember standing on the bus, sleeping while I held on to the overhead rod on a trip all the way from Canada to Louisville. We changed our clothes on the bus.”

Of the September 19 ceremony, Pope said, “It’s a chance to meet some old friends.”2

William Lee “Willie” Pope was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 24, 1918, the eldest of 11 children of Jackson and Mary Pope. Their father and mother worked as laborers on a farm in Alabama until they moved their young family to Snowden Township, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, in the mid-1920s. Later, they relocated to Library so his father, who went by Jack, could become a miner. Another of the Pope family’s sons, Dave, who was two years younger than Willie, made it to the major leagues and had a four-year career as an outfielder and pinch-hitter for the Cleveland Indians and Baltimore Orioles.

Willie played in the local sandlots and also tried his hand at boxing, fighting as a Golden Gloves heavyweight in Pittsburgh. The day after a tournament bout in December 1937 that lasted 1:56 minutes of the first round, sportswriter Phil Gundelfinger wrote a rave review of his bout: “Nominated for one of the best offenses demonstrated to date must go to William Pope, 197-pound colored boy from the Center Ave. Y.M.C.A., who showed a well-rounded attack in technically knocking out Steve Kovar, 188 pounds. … Pope’s rasping left hand is probably the best displayed in the tourney to date.”3

Three nights later, Pope’s fight was stopped at 2:35 of the third round by referee Ernie Sesto, as opponent Mike Cerota had one hand on the ropes and pounded Willie on the head, unable to defend himself. Sesto awarded Pope the victory on a technical knockout for Cerota’s illegal blows. The victory gave Pope the heavyweight championship.4 On March 4, 1938, he lost a decision to Arthur Brown of the Superior Y.M.C.A.

After serving as a technical sergeant in the US Army from 1942 to 1944,5 Pope joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a team that was revived as a member of the United States League in 1945. The original Crawfords franchise had been founded by Pittsburgh black entrepreneur Gus Greenlee in 1931 and had been named after his Crawford Grill; the team had called Forbes Field its home ballpark.

Pope, who stood 6-feet-4 and weighed 247 pounds, was a large presence on the mound. In a game in July 1945 before a crowd of 7,000 at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, the big right-hander and his Pittsburgh teammates demonstrated why they were leading the league as they won both ends of a three-team doubleheader. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“In the opener, the Crawfords turned back the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, 9-4, and then tallied once in the final inning of a seven-inning struggle to break a three-all tie and gain a 4-3 victory over the Chicago Brown Bombers. In the opener, the Crawfords with Willie Pope pitching effectively, had an easy time downing the Brooklyn team. Although he allowed nine hits, Pope was good in the pinches, setting nine batters down on strikes. He issued five walks.”6

By the end of July, Pope had struck out 146 batters (averaging 17 per game) and had tossed two no-hit, no-run games. Of his nine victories, four were shutouts.7 His victims included the Chicago Brown Bombers, Philadelphia Hilldales, Detroit Giants, Toledo Cubs, and Knoxville.8

In September, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, naming him “Wee Willie,” reported that along with his 17 wins, Pope had struck out 211 batters. The newspaper’s headline bestowed praise on Pope, reading “Pope, Ace Pitcher, Likened to (Satchel) Paige.” The article itself asserted, “Pope is said to be faster than Paige in his prime (Satchel was 39 at the time) and his curves are said to be even sharper.”9

The next year, 1946, when the team claimed the United States League championship, Pope’s brother Dave joined the club, and together they became the battery in several games. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette heralded the younger Pope as a welcome addition to the team, stating, “The addition of a brother battery, Willie Pope, pitcher, and Dave behind the bat, has greatly strengthened the Crawford nine.”10

At the end of the season, Willie joined Jackie Robinson’s All Stars, a team formed to barnstorm in the Midwest and East. The team also played a handful of games in California before disbanding.11 One of the highlights of Pope’s career was when the team beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in an exhibition game at Forbes Field. It was a sweet victory for Willie, as he had asked the Pirates to look at him before Robinson was signed by Brooklyn’s general manager, Branch Rickey. Pope remarked, “I was really throwing the ball hard then. I asked them just to give me a look. I had a feeling the barrier would be broken. I could’ve been the first.”12

When the Crawfords folded after the 1946 season, Willie was drafted by the Philadelphia Stars,13 but he signed instead to play for the Homestead Grays. The Grays had been founded in 1912 as an independent team, but had been Negro National League champion from 1939 to 1945.

Josh Gibson died in January 1947, and by April several players were attempting to make the club. Luke Easter was the possible replacement for Gibson, but also joining the 32 others on the preseason roster were Pope, Gabriel Patterson, “Jeep” Johnson, Clarence Bruce, and Maurice Peatros, former Crawfords teammates.14 Willie amassed only a 6-7 record in 1947; however, in a game against the New York Cubans (who had 22-year-old Minnie Miñoso on the roster) in Washington, he threw a no-hitter.15

In 1948 the Grays relied on the services of their previous pitching stars, including R.T. Walker, Pope, Johnny Wright, Frank Thompson, Wilmer Fields, and Cecil Kaiser. The club strengthened the roster by adding two new pitchers, Garnett Bankhead and Willie Smith, before the season.16 The team won the 1948 Negro National League pennant, and earned the right to face the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro League World Series. Details of some games of the World Series are incomplete, but Pope hit a two-run triple in Game One, played in Kansas City, that was key to the Grays’ 3-2 victory.17 Homestead went on to defeat Birmingham in five games and win what turned out to be the last Negro League World Series.

In spite of Pope’s losing record, the Pittsburgh Courier commented positively on his potential, at one point writing, “Wee Willie recently hurled a one-hitter against the champion Newark Eagles. If young Pope will listen to Manager Vic Harris, and work hard on his control, the kid should have a bright future.”18

The Negro Leagues, however, had begun to decline. After Jackie Robinson played in the 1947 major-league World Series for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Negro League teams began to have difficulty drawing crowds. By 1948, the Grays were drawing an average of only 2,000 per game. The club lost nearly $45,000 in the two years Pope was with them, and the team was dissolved after the 1948 World Series victory over Birmingham.19

In 1949 Pope played for the Farnham Pirates in Canada’s independent Provincial League, where he and his brother Dave were reunited as teammates. (Dave Pope had played in 98 games for Farnham in 1948, hitting .365.) The Provincial League consisted of teams in and around Quebec, and was considered an outlaw league.20 Former Homestead teammates Clarence Bruce, Eudie Napier, and Tom Parker were also on the team. Season records are unclear, as rosters contained some players with assumed names, especially those who had been suspended by Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler for jumping to the Mexican League. Former major-league players Max Lanier, a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, and Danny Gardella, outfielder for the New York Giants, were two players who joined the Provincial League when they failed to have their suspensions lifted.21

Late in the season, Willie Pope was suspended by manager Joe Krakowski for “insubordination” and was placed up for trade or sale.22 He remained with Farnham, however, and beat Granby, 3-1, while fanning 15 batters in the first round of the playoffs.23 Then he came back to win the seventh game in the semifinals against St. Jean.24 Future major-league star Sal Maglie, who also had been suspended for playing in Mexico, led Drummondville over Farnham to win the playoff championship.

The Provincial League joined Organized Baseball in 1950,25 and Pope’s Farnham team finished in third place under manager Packy Rogers. Pope was 3-5 with a 2.38 ERA.

Pope played winter ball during the 1950-1951 season in Guadalajara, Mexico.26 In 16 games with Jalisco, he won five, lost eight, and had a 3.94 ERA.27

Farnham signed former Negro League legend Sam Bankhead, another of Pope’s former Grays teammates, as its player-manager for the 1951 season, but Willie moved to the St. Hyacinthe Saints. His 3.82 ERA was substantially higher than it had been with Farnham the previous season, but he had a winning record at 12-11. The club finished in fifth place, 17½ games behind league champion Sherbrooke Athletiques.

Moving to St. Hyacinthe in 1951, Pope had a 3.82 ERA, substantially higher than it had been with Farnham the previous season, but he had a winning record at 12-11. The club finished in fifth place, 17½ games behind league champion Sherbrooke Athletiques.

At the end of the season, Pope was sold to the Chicago White Sox, along with former Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Connie Johnson.28 He was assigned to Colorado Springs (Class-A Western League) during spring training in 1952, but the Sky Sox returned him to St. Hyacinthe.29 It is uncertain whether Pope played in any games while with the Saints, but by May he was back on the Colorado Springs roster.

On May 7 Pope was called on in the eighth inning to quell a rally by the Lincoln A’s, and the Sky Sox held on to win 10-6.30 On May 10 against the Des Moines Bruins, he made his first start and gained his first win of the season, 5-3. For the year, he led the pitching staff with a 3.00 ERA in 23 games, winning 12 games while losing 5.

Returning to Colorado Springs for 1953, Willie started a team-high 30 games and was 16-12 with a 3.38 ERA. He was named to the West roster for the league All-Star game against the East and pitched the final inning in the 6-1 win. On August 1 he won a 1-hour 26-minute complete game over the Lincoln Chiefs, 4-2, for his 11th win.31 The Sky Sox won the regular-season crown with a 95-59 record but lost to fourth-place Des Moines in the first round of the playoffs.

Pope had a tryout with the White Sox in the spring of 1954,32 but wound up with the Charleston Senators of the Triple-A American Association. On April 23 he notified the Senators that he had agreed to play for a team in the Dominican Republic that offered him salary plus living expenses for himself and his wife. The Chicago White Sox promised a salary boost of their own, along with a trial with the major-league club, so Pope decided not to leave the Charleston club after all.33

For the 1954 season, Pope managed only a 4-11 record with a 5.27 ERA. In Charleston’s home preseason opener on April 10, he held Indianapolis to four hits and one run in five innings of a 4-2 loss.34 On July 1 he ended a two-month victory famine when he gained his fourth win (against 5 losses) by beating Columbus 4-1, allowing only 4 hits.35

Pope returned to Colorado Springs in 1955 and fared much better, posting a 13-8 record with a 3.48 ERA. As a left-handed batter, he showed his power at the plate by slamming a grand slam against Wichita on July 9, but he lost the game, 11-7, after losing his pitching control in the sixth inning.36 On September 1 he endured a bases-loaded, none-out jam in the ninth, securing a 2-1 win at Pueblo.37

After the 1955 season, Chicago assigned Pope to the Triple-A International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs. For a few weeks in December he played for Estrellas Orientales in the Dominican League.38 When the White Sox told him they would bring him up during the 1956 season if he would agree first to play for Toronto, he decided to retire.39

In 1997 Pope explained why he left the White Sox organization, saying, “They kept telling me they were going to bring me up, kept promising me.”40 Obviously, such promises were never kept.

Once his baseball career was over, Pope owned a restaurant in Pittsburgh and worked as a surveyor for the city. He also ran for ward chairman of the city and managed a baseball team in the Hill District.

“I don’t hold any grudges now,” Pope told sportswriter Jimmy Dunn in 1997. “We were the best and we knew we were the best. The games were fun, and the guys I played with were great. The travel, along with the bigotry and segregation we faced, was hard to deal with, though.”41

Pope died in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in O’Hara Township, a suburb of Pittsburgh, at the age of 91 on June 10, 2010. He was survived by his wife of 59 years, Ethelia, and nine siblings. A memorial service was held at Kingdom Hall East End Congregation in Penn Hills, and he was buried at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania.



The author wishes to thank Bryan Steverson for sharing his personal notes on Willie Pope.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted ancestry.com, baseball-reference.com, coe.k-state.edu, newspapers.com, findagrave.com, and the following:

Klima, John. Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009).

Plott, William J. The Negro Southern League: A Baseball History, 1920-1951 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2015).



1 Kelly Carter, “Standing Out: Willie Pope Nearly Made It to the Majors,” Pittsburgh Press, February 27, 1989: 2.

2 Phil Axelrod,”After 40 Years, Grays’ Flag Flies High,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 7, 1988: 34.

3 Phil Gundelfinger Jr., “Kayoes Mark Novice Bouts,” Pittsburgh Press, December 4, 1937: 8.

4 Gundelfinger, “New Kensington Mittman Features Novice Tourney,” Pittsburgh Press, December 7, 1937: 32.

5 Gary Bedingfield, Baseball in Wartime, baseballinwartime.com/negro.htm, retrieved February 13, 2017.

6 “Crawfords Too Torrid for Ebbets Rivals,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 23, 1945: 12.

7 Paul Kurtz, “Play at Pitcairn – Creekers Battle Smilers Tonight,” Pittsburgh Press, July 28, 1945: 8.

8 “Crawfords Boast Strikeout Star,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 28, 1945: 13.

9 “Pope, Ace Pitcher, Likened to Paige,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 7, 1945: 16.

10 “Crawford, Clippers Play Here Sunday,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 14, 1946: 18.

11 “The First Jackie Robinson All-Stars,” baseballhistorydaily.com/tag/west-coast-negro-baseball-association, retrieved February 5, 2017.

12 Ed Bouchette, “Memories Golden Here on a Golden Anniversary,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 15, 1997: 11.

13 “AL Teams Draft Stars of Clubs Calling It Quits,” Pittsburgh Courier, February 19, 1949: 11.

14 “Grays Speed Drills in Florida Camps,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 5, 1947: 15. Some sources render the name as Peatross.

15 Malik Smith, “William ‘Willie’ Pope – Negro Leagues Pitcher for the Grays, Crawfords,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 16, 2010: 13.

16 “Pittsburgh Opener Set for April 29; Outfield Has Power,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 10, 1948: 15.

17 Rich Emert, “Pittsburgh Was a Special Place in the History of Negro Leagues Baseball,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 8, 2001: 37.

18 “Ches” Washington, “Grays Mainstays Top Nats,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 6, 1947: 14.

19 Daniel Cattau, “Forgotten Champions,” washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/magazine/1990/06/03/forgotten-champions/fa87855d-517c-4cce-bce4-7b3a065b3cfc/?utm_term=.4f39da117447, retrieved February 19, 2017.

20 “Outlaw League Will Join Organized Baseball,” Winnipeg Tribune, October 20, 1949: 19.

21 “Baseball Outlaws of Big League Class Spark Quebec Circuit,” Ottawa Journal, June 3, 1949: 24.

22 Lloyd McGowan, “Tuminelli Tabbed as Most Valuable in Quebec League,” The Sporting News, August 10, 1949: 38.

23 McGowan, “Brilliant Hurling Features Playoffs in Provincial Loop,” The Sporting News, September 21, 1949: 17.

24 McGowan, “Sal Maglie Opens Provincial Finals With Shutout Win,” The Sporting News, October 5, 1949: 52.

25 “Outlaw League Will Join Organized Ball.”

26 Robert Retort, Negro League Legends Pictorial Album (New Castle, Pennsylvania: Self-published), 246.

27 Pedro Treto Cisneros, The Mexican League, Comprehensive Player Statistics, 1937-2001 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2002), 477.

28 “Highlights of Lower Minors (Class C),” The Sporting News, September 12, 1951: 36.

29 “Western League Notes of Interest,” Greeley (Colorado) Daily Tribune, March 26, 1952: 6.

30 “Home Runs Help Sky Sox Trip Lincoln,” Des Moines Register, May 8, 1952: 19.

31 “Sky Sox Win, 4-2, In Quick Time,” Des Moines Register, August 2, 1953: 25.

32 W. Rollo Wilson, “‘Our Boys’ With New Clubs,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 3, 1954: 16.

33 “American Association,” The Sporting News, May 5, 1954: 28.

34 “Tribe Stops Charleston’s Bow,” The Sporting News, April 21, 1954: 29.

35 “American Association,” The Sporting News, July 14, 1954: 48.

36 “Western League,” The Sporting News, July 20, 1955: 41.

37 “Western League,” The Sporting News, September 7, 1955: 33.

38 Alexis Camilo, “Latin Showing Backs Blacks Comeback Bid,” The Sporting News, December 14, 1955: 23.

39 Carter, 2.

40 Bouchette, 11.

41 Jimmy Dunn, “He Realized a Dream by Playing for Grays,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 20, 1997: 104.

Full Name

William Lee Pope


December 24, 1918 at Birmingham, AL (US)


June 10, 2010 at O'Hara Township, PA (US)

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