Often referred to as the Pittsburgh Crawfords’ “normal fall back man” to Satchel Paige,1 Bertrum Hunter was among the many supporting stars who helped make the 1935 Crawfords the greatest Negro League baseball team of all time. For five years, from 1932 to 1936, the Crawfords were considered the “Yankees of the Negro Leagues” as owner Gus Greenlee aggressively acquired talent and assembled the best team money could buy.2 Hunter and other stars such as pitcher Leroy Matlock and outfielders Jimmie Crutchfield and Ted Page played, in relative obscurity, in the tall shadows of their five future Hall of Fame teammates (Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, and Judy Johnson).
A two-time George Stovey Award winner,3 the right-handed-hitting and -throwing Hunter was a stocky 5-feet-9 and 175 pounds. An argument could be made that in the 1932 and 1933 seasons he may have been the best pitcher in the Negro Leagues. He featured a good fastball and an outstanding curve, but was also prone to losing his concentration.4
Bertrum Hunter was born on October 20, 1910,5 in Phoenix, Arizona.6 He was the oldest child of at least five children born to Ellis and Gussie (Clemons) Hunter. Ellis was a laborer and Gussie worked as a domestic servant. The family spent much of Bertrum’s childhood in a multicultural neighborhood in the Phoenix area. Beyond that, relatively little is known about his childhood or family. However, given the fact that he grew up in a Latino-populated area and spent much of his adult life in Latin America and the Caribbean, Hunter was probably bilingual, speaking both English and Spanish.
One mystery surrounding Hunter involves the spelling of his first name. While most secondary sources examining his baseball career refer to Hunter as Bertrum or Bertram, there is no primary source that spells his name as either. He appears in primary sources with varying spellings of his name, including Berthon, Berthum, Birthum, and Birthuna (presumably a Spanish adaptation).7
Hunter, who was interchangeably referred to as Betrum, Bertram, Bert, Nate, Nat, Willie, or “Buffalo” in newspaper articles and accounts of games in the 1930s, came to the Negro Leagues highly recommended. He started his professional career with the Phoenix Giants and in the summer of 1928 was with the Milwaukee Giants, for whom he was credited with winning 24 games.8 He also played with Los Angeles’ Philadelphia Royal Giants in the winter of 1930-319 before he broke into the Negro National League with the St. Louis Stars in 1931.10 He had an impressive rookie year, going 5-2 with a 3.70 ERA. While no official standings were kept, the Stars finished 37-10-1 and were declared NNL champions.11
In 1932 Hunter played for both the Detroit Wolves and Homestead Grays of the East-West League (EWL). The two teams were both owned by Negro League legend and league founder Cum Posey. Hunter was among the players who were shuttled back and forth between the two teams.12 When the EWL began to financially falter, the Grays were unable to pay their players their full salaries. Quincy Trouppe, one of Hunter’s teammates on Grays, recalled a conversation he had with the pitcher that illustrated the uncertainty of life in the Negro Leagues. Trouppe told the story as follows:
“One day an older player who had been with the Kansas City Monarchs asked Hunter and [me] if we would like to join that team.”
“‘Should we do it?’ I asked Hunter.
“‘No, I think we might as well stay here. Half the season is gone now and if we stay we have a better chance of getting our money,’ judged Hunter.
“We stayed with the Grays for another two weeks and then I decide to go with the Monarchs. I was so short on cash I had to borrow from Hunter to wire Chicago when we both left to join the Monarchs.”13
Hunter went 5-2 with one save and a 3.06 ERA with the Wolves, leading the team in virtually every pitching category, including games pitched, wins, complete games, innings pitched, and strikeouts. He went 4-0 with a 2.84 ERA with the Grays and was 1-0 with the Monarchs. Combined, he went 10-2 with a 2.90 ERA14 and earned his first George Stovey Award.15 And for the second straight year he played for a first-place team as the Wolves went 25-5 before the EWL collapsed in June. The Grays, his other EWL team, finished second with a record of 24-15-1.
Greenlee, who launched a new Negro National League for 1933, was in the process of building the Pittsburgh Crawfords into a championship-caliber team and acquired many of the stars off Posey’s Detroit Wolves and Homestead Grays rosters. Hunter was among the treasure trove of talent secured by Greenlee that included Cool Papa Bell, William Bell, and Matlock. These newly acquired stars joined an already star-studded Crawfords lineup for the 1933 season. Despite all of the talent, the Crawfords were unable to run away with the NNL pennant.
Hunter and his Crawfords teammates were locked in a tight battle for the first-half NNL championship. With the American Giants leading by one game, the first-half championship came down to a two-game series.
The first game was played at McKeesport, Pennsylvania, on July 7, and in a bit of daring, Crawfords player-manager Oscar Charleston elected to start Hunter against the seemingly unbeatable Willie Foster, hoping to set up a winner-take-all matchup with Paige on the mound.16 The first half of the plan worked out as Charleston had hoped. Hunter scattered 10 hits and held the American Giants to two runs as the Crawfords won 3-2 to pull even in the standings.17 But Paige gave up three runs in the first inning of the second game and the Crawfords were defeated, 5-3, losing the first-half championship.
Later that summer, Hunter, along with six other teammates and an AWOL Paige, was elected to the play for the East squad in the inaugural East-West Classic held at Comiskey Park in Chicago on September 11.18 Fan votes were tallied by two of the major African-American weekly newspapers of the day, the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Gazette.???? Should this be the Courier? Hunter received 22,965 votes, fifth among pitchers, just behind Paige, who received 23,089.19
With 19,568 fans in attendance, the East All-Stars were leading 5-4 after five innings. The West took the lead in the top of the sixth when Willie Wells singled and scored on a double by Alex Radcliffe. With the game now tied and a steady rain falling, Hunter was brought in to relieve Sam Streeter. Mule Suttles drove Hunter’s first offering for a double to right to drive in Radcliffe, giving the West a lead it never relinquished.20 Cleveland Giants second baseman Leroy Morney followed with a single to score Suttles, increasing increase the West’s lead to 7-5. The inning ended when one out later Larry Brown singled to right but Morney was called out on an appeal play for failing to touch second base.21
Hunter gave up a leadoff single to Willie Foster in the bottom of the seventh and was quickly lifted in favor of George Britt of the Homestead Grays. After Turkey Stearnes doubled to right, Foster scored on a fly out by Wells, closing the book on Hunter. In two-thirds of an inning pitched, Hunter gave up three hits and was charged with two earned runs. The West went on to defeat the East by a score of 11-7. Hunter never appeared in the East-West Classic again. While some published box scores listed him as the losing pitcher, it was actually the spitball specialist Streeter who was tagged for the loss.
The second half of the 1933 NNL season ended in a deadlock between the Crawfords and the Nashville Elite Giants, setting up a best-of-three playoff series played at Cleveland’s League Park.22 The series opened with a doubleheader on October 1. The Crawfords captured Game One 5-4 on the strength of Cool Papa Bell’s 12th-inning inside-the-park home run. Hunter earned the victory in Game Two when a dusky fog rolled in off Lake Erie, forcing the game to be called after seven innings with the Crawfords leading 3-1. The Crawfords won the series two games to none.
This should have set up a championship series between the Crawfords and the first-half champion American Giants,23 “but Gus Greenlee – having seen fan interest wane after the East-West Game and not eager to risk all against the potent Giants– unilaterally ended the season right there.”24 Two months later, Greenlee announced in the Pittsburgh Courier that the Crawfords were 1933 NNL Champions.
Hunter finished the season with a record of 8-2 and a 4.72 ERA for the Crawfords (40-21-2). Despite not having the opportunity to prove it on the field, for the third consecutive year Hunter had played for a “pennant-winning” team. He also went 3-1 with a 2.01 ERA with the Akron Grays.25 For the second consecutive year, Hunter won the George Stovey Award.26
With Paige, who had rebounded from a mediocre 1933 season, and William Bell leading the Crawfords’ pitching staff with 13 and 11 victories, respectively, Hunter was relegated to the back end of the rotation in 1934. He finished the year with a record of 4-5 and 3.42 ERA as the Crawfords compiled the second-best record in the NNL (47-27-3). Despite having only the second-best winning percentage, the Crawfords actually finished one game ahead of the first-half champion Philadelphia Stars and six games ahead of the second-half champion Chicago American Giants on the strength of the number of games they played. The Stars won the NNL championship.27
Late in the 1934 season the Crawfords found themselves without Paige. The star pitcher informed Greenlee that the cost of keeping his new wife in style had created a “powerful lightness in his pocket.” 28 It wasn’t long before an opportunity presented itself: an auto salesman from Bismarck, North Dakota, offered Paige $400 a month and a new car to jump to his integrated semipro team for the rest of the season.29 With Paige otherwise occupied in Bismarck, the Crawfords’ pitching staff was led by Matlock, Roosevelt Davis, Streeter, and Hunter.
Hunter was 7-4 with an inflated 4.97 ERA, while Matlock, Davis, and Streeter were 8-0, 5-1, and 6-1 respectively.30 The Crawfords finished with a record of 50-23-3 and were crowned the first-half champions of the NNL. The New York Cubans, who finished with the league’s third best record (30-25-5) captured the second-half championship. This set up an epic seven-game playoff series that went down as one of the best in Negro League history.
The Cubans won three of the first four games to take what appeared to be a commanding lead in the series. The Crawfords started to claw their way back with a 3-2 victory in Game Five in which Cool Papa Bell’s aggressive baserunning led to an errant throw that allowed him to score the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.
Hunter made his only appearance in the series on September 22 when he was given the start in Game Six, a night game in Philadelphia. The Cubans touched him for a run in the first, one in the fourth, and one in the sixth before finally chasing him in the top of the seventh. Hunter went 6⅓ innings, giving up five runs on seven hits and three walks, before being relieved by left-hander Bill Harvey. The Crawfords found themselves down 6-3 headed into the bottom of the ninth when Cubans manager Martin Dihigo removed rookie pitcher Schoolboy Johnny Taylor and took the mound himself.31 The move backfired and the Crawfords rallied for four runs in the bottom of the ninth to send the series to a seventh game. The next day, the Crawfords won the NNL title with a third consecutive one-run victory, 8-7.
By 1936, Hunter, who did not enjoy a cordial relationship with Oscar Charleston, had worn out his welcome in Pittsburgh. In fact, Philadelphia Stars manager Webster McDonald was able to sign Hunter without compensating the Crawfords.32 For the first time in his career, Hunter found himself with a team at the bottom of the standings. He went 5-4 with a 4.26 ERA for the last-place Philadelphia Stars (32-42-1).33 He also went 0-1 with a 15.43 ERA in a single appearance with the New York Cubans, who finished next to last with a 22-16-1 record.
For Negro League players in Depression era America, a winter season in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, or in a special situation, like the Dominican Republic, meant economic survival.34 Hunter was one of the first Negro League players to discover that Latin America provided a reliable source of income. Ship passenger logs and port-of-entry information suggest that Hunter played baseball the Caribbean and south of the border at least as early as the winter of 1934.
In 1937 he was lured to the Dominican Republic to pitch for the Águilas of Santiago. Averell Smith detailed the significance of Hunter’s influence on other Negro League stars coming to the island in his book The Pitcher and the Dictator: Satchel Paige’s Unlikely Season in the Dominican Republic.
Capital-city fans returned the next day at 3:00 p.m. to cheer on their Dragones in the first game against the newly formed Águilas of Santiago. That day they would be facing American Bert Hunter – at this point the only Negro Leaguer on any of the three teams.
Hunter – the locals called him “King Kong” – dished up his nasty curveball to shut down the Dragones. He started by striking out the side in the first. The Águilas scored five runs in the second to put the game out of reach, piling up fourteen hits to win 10 to 3.
It was now clear to the little dentist [Dr. José Enrique Aybar]. For the Dragones to win the Campeonato por Reelección de Presidente Trujillo, he must improve his team’s talent. Losing no time[,] Aybar called a meeting of the club’s executive committee. It was decided that he should fly off to the United States to hire baseball players from the Negro Leagues – talent like “King Kong” Hunter.35
Within days, Aybar packed his bags and caught a plane to Miami. From there he drove more than 800 miles to New Orleans to entice Negro League superstars like Gibson, Paige, Bell, and others to come to the come to the Dominican Republic. In this respect, Hunter was a trailblazer who opened doors for his contemporaries.
For Hunter, his foray into Dominican baseball was life-changing. While playing for the Águilas during the Campeonato he fell in love with and married a Dominican woman. When the Campeonato ended, Hunter “stayed on the island, using it as a base to play in the Mexican leagues during the early 1940s.”36 He never again pitched in the United States and it is unknown if he and his wife had any children.
Hunter played in the Puerto Rican Winter League in the 1938-39 season. He began the year with the Ponce Pirates and was allowed to be signed by Guayama Venerables for the playoffs. Hunter was signed to replace another Negro League import on the Guayama roster prior to the finals against the San Juan Senators.37 He was the winning pitcher in three of team’s four victories.
Hunter’s Mexican League career was a vagabond type of existence that spanned from 1940 to 1944. In 1940 he pitched for the last-place Chihuahua Dorados of the Mexican League. He went 3-2 with a 5.40 ERA for a team that finished with a record of 14-67, 42 games behind the champion Azules de Veracruz. In 1941 he was 9-11 with a 5.18 ERA for the Veracruz Aguila. He joined the Puebla Angeles in 1942 and finished with a record of 8-13 and a 4.22 ERA. Hunter played for three teams in 1943, the Tampico Alijadores, Veracruz Azules, and Puebla. He had a combined record of 3-4 with a 4.63 ERA for the three clubs. He finished his Mexican League career with a single appearance, in which he was the losing pitcher, for the Mexico City Reds in 1944. In five seasons in the Mexican League, Hunter had a record of 22-32.38
Hunter married again while living in Mexico and after his playing career opened a restaurant near Delta Park, home of the Azules.39 Hunter died on April 25, 1948, in Villahermosa, the capital of the Mexican state of Tabasco. The cause of death and disposition of his remains are unknown.
Sources and Acknowledgments
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-reference.com, Seamheads.com, and Ancestry.com. All statistics quoted in this biography are from Seamheads.com.
The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of Fredrick Bush, whose research contributed to this piece.
1 Mark Ribowsky, Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 93.
2 Pittsburgh Crawfords. Retrieved from negroleaguestore.com/Pitt_Crawfords.htm.
3 The George Stovey Award was named in honor of nineteenth-century left-hander George Stovey. It was the Negro League equivalent of the Cy Young Award. Stovey is considered the first great African-American pitcher.
4 James Bankes, The Pittsburgh Crawfords: The Lives and Times of Black Baseball’s Most Exciting Team (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1991), 158.
5 Larry Lester in Black Baseball’s National Showcase and Baseball-Reference.com identify Hunter’s year of birth as 1906. (No date is given.) Other sources, including John Holway’s The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History and Seamheads.com, cite his date of birth as October 20, 1910. Primary sources corroborate the later date and/or year. Arizona school records, Hunter’s 1943 World War II draft card, and passenger logs list his birthdate as October 20, 1910, and US Census Records from 1930 and 1940 list Hunter’s year of birth as 1910.
6 While all secondary sources are in agreement that Hunter was born in Phoenix, some primary sources identify his place of birth as Nevada or Georgia. One source lists St. George, Nevada, as his place of birth, but there is no St. George, Nevada. There is a St. George, Utah, located near the tri-state junction of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada.
7 Bertrum, the most commonly used form of his name in baseball research, is used throughout this article.
8 “Stars New Moundsman,” St. Louis Argus, April 10, 1931: 7.
9 Phil Dixon, Wilber “Bullet” Rogan and the Kansas City Monarchs (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010), 108.
10 In 1931 the Negro National League was the first iteration of the circuit. It is noted as NNL on Seamheads.com. The second Negro National League commenced in 1933 and is differentiated on Seamheads.com as NN2. For the purpose of this essay and ease of reading, both are referred to as the Negro National League.
11 John Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History (Fern Park, Florida: Hastings House Publishers, 2001), 272.
12 Holway, 290.
13 Dixon, 108.
14 Holway credits Hunter with a record of 18-4 in 1932.
15 Holway, 289.
16 Mark Ribowsky, Josh Gibson: The Power and the Darkness (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 113.
17 Mark Ribowsky, A Complete History of the Negro Leagues 1884-1955 (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1995), 176.
18 Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, John Henry Russell, and fellow pitcher Sam Streeter were all elected to the East All-Star Team. Satchel Paige, who did not return for the game, was also elected.
19 Willie Foster received the most votes among pitchers (40,637). First baseman Oscar Charleston was the top votegetter overall with 43,973.
20 Bankes, 117.
21 Bob LeMoine, “The ‘Game of Games’: The First Negro League All-Star Game,” in Gregory Wolf, ed., The Base Ball Palace of the World: Comiskey Park (Phoenix: Society for American Baseball Research, 2019), 90.
22 Ribowsky, Don’t Look Back, 96.
23 The Chicago American Giants went 40-21-1.
24 Ribowsky, Don’t Look Back, 97.
25 Holway credits Hunter with a record of 17-5 in 1933.
26 Holway, 300.
27 The Stars won the eight-game series over the American Giants, 4-3-1.
28 Mark Whitaker, Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 116.
30 Holway credits Hunter with a 7-6 record in 1935 and Matlock, Davis, and Streeter with records of 17-0, 12-4, and 3-0, respectively.
31 Jeremy Beer, Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019), 253.
32 James Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues (Boston: DaCapo Press, 2002), 403.
33 Holway credits Hunter with a record of 7-3 with the Philadelphia Stars in 1936.
34 Bankes, 158.
35 Averell Smith, The Pitcher and the Dictator: Satchel Paige’s Unlikely Season in the Dominican Republic (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 52.
36 Smith, 112.
37 Thomas Van Hyning, Puerto Rico’s Winter League: A History of Major League Baseball’s Launching Pad (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2004), 76.
38 Pedro Treto Cisneros, The Mexican League: Comprehensive Player Statistics, 1937-2001 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2002), 370.
39 John Virtue, South of the Color Barrier: How Jorge Pasquel and the Mexican League Pushed Baseball Toward Racial Integration (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2008), 92.