“Buck Ewing was simply terrific.” — George Lippe1
William “Buck” Ewing had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time at least twice during his otherwise itinerant Negro League career. He found himself on the Chicago American Giants in 1920 at the outset of his career as Rube Foster’s franchise won the inaugural Negro National League title by an eight-game margin over the Detroit Stars. Later, in 1929 and 1930, Ewing played for the Homestead Grays when it was on the cusp of becoming a heavyweight Negro League franchise. However, the rest of Ewing’s career, which involved separate stints in upstate New York – where he married and put down roots – also presents compelling tales. Ewing’s career is emblematic of what Black baseball was for most of its players, a peripatetic journey whose stops were often obscure and which entailed little of the limelight of big-time Negro League play.
William Monroe Ewing was born in Massillon, Ohio, on January 31, 1903. 2 Although he never rose to the heights of fellow Ohioans and Negro League Hall of Famers Sol White (from Bellaire) and Ray Brown (from Ashland Grove), he earned his paycheck for over two decades in the game, launched by his start with Rube Foster.
Much of what is known about Ewing’s early life exists courtesy of an interview he gave to Allen Long when Ewing was in his 70s. According to Long, Ewing’s father “labored as a coremaker in a [Massillon] foundry. His mother passed away during his infancy. His sister, Mary, went nearly the entire way through the public school system. … He also had a pair of older brothers. A first cousin, Wade Johnston, wound up as a starting flychaser for the magnificent Kansas City Monarchs.” 3 According to the Massillon City Directory, his father, Reuben, worked for Massillon Iron and Steel Company. 4
Ewing reminisced that he did not start playing baseball until he was 10, but by the age of 15, he thought he was pretty good. When he stopped growing, Ewing topped out at 6-feet-2 and around 200 pounds. He threw right-handed and batted left-handed and found his niche as a more than serviceable catcher.
When Ewing was 16 or so, a local Baptist minister arranged a tryout for him with the Chicago American Giants. Rube Foster liked Ewing well enough to sign him, but the team was already well stocked with veteran catchers Jim Brown and George Dixon. Instead of a roster spot, Foster “instructed Ewing to spend the summer touring with an inter-racial squad from Winnipeg, Manitoba.” 5 The Winnipeg squad Long referred to was in fact the Winnipeg Colored Giants, which served as a farm team for all Negro National League teams in 1920. A newspaper in Valley City, North Dakota, described the makeup of the Colored Giants when they came to play the Valley City Squad. “The Colored Giants are made up of young players that are not quite old enough and well-seasoned to make [the Negro National League franchises] so are “farmed out” to this traveling organization where they will finish their baseball education.” 6
Ewing appeared on the American Giants roster in 1920, but records show he played sparingly. Foster was known to favor veteran players. However, Foster was an accumulator of talent and wisely signed and allocated players to feeder teams so he could assess their ability and generate revenue from the exhibition games these teams played. It was while playing for the Winnipeg team that Ewing began developing his catching skills. Allen Long notes that in a game against tiny Valley City, quite possibly the aforementioned game, “Ewing actually picked off an enemy runner off third base while nonchalantly glancing in a different direction.” 7 A look at the game summary for that June 1, 1920, contest shows Ewing as catcher retiring a runner on third in the bottom of the ninth for the first out, helping to ensure an eventual 6-5 victory. 8
It was while playing that year that Ewing gained his nickname from the fans for another Ohio native who made it to the major leagues: William B. “Buck” Ewing, the Hall of Fame catcher-manager who played for and managed the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds. 9
Ewing’s time on the American Giants gave him exposure in the newly formed Negro National League and although Foster had no room for him (Dixon and Brown remained entrenched behind the plate and were joined by Poindexter Williams in 1921), Ewing was seen as a promising catcher and was signed by the Columbus Buckeyes in 1921. The Dayton Marcos had been sold to Columbus businessmen Harry St. Clair and Dr. Howard Smith who immediately moved the club to Columbus and renamed them the Buckeyes. Future Hall of Fame shortstop John Henry Lloyd was hired as player-manager and Sol White became a coach and adviser. The Buckeyes failed to excel on the field or at the box office and finished sixth out of eight teams with a 25-38 record. At season’s end the team was dissolved, and Lloyd moved east to manage the Bacharach Giants.
Ewing backed up Mack Eggleston at catcher while with the Buckeyes and played in 17 games, batting .306. Ewing was part of the headlines in the Buckeyes’ league debut against the Chicago Giants on April 30, 1921. He pinch-hit in the top of the ninth with the Buckeyes down 5-1 and two outs:
Eggleston [the starting catcher] was due to bat, but Lloyd sent up 18-year-old William Monroe “Buck” Ewing to pinch-hit. Pregame coverage in the Chicago Whip highlighted Ewing, predicting that the Massillon, Ohio, native would be “a revelation to the baseball devotees all over the circuit.”
On this occasion the hype was justified. Ewing connected for a long opposite-field home run over the right-field wall. The crowd at Neil Park “went dippy for a few minutes,” the Chicago Defender observed. “Ewing emulated another Ewing,” the Columbus Dispatch noted, evoking the name of nineteenth-century star – and Ohio native – Buck Ewing. Only two other right-handed hitters had ever homered over Neil Park’s right-field wall. Chicago’s advantage was down to 5-3.” 10
Ewing also played in at least seven games that year for the Cleveland Tate Stars, batting .333. The Tate Stars were an affiliate member of the Negro National League, managed by Candy Jim Taylor and owned by businessman George Tate. Player loans were not uncommon and Ewing’s movement to the Tate Stars that year ensured him playing time that he would not have had with the Buckeyes. With the disbanding of the Buckeyes at the end of the 1921 season, the Tate Stars took Columbus’s place in the Negro National League in 1922. However, saddled with debt due to poor management, the Tates withdrew from the league and became an independent team in 1923.
By 1922, at the age of 19, Ewing had had a taste of the higher echelons of Negro League ball, playing for Foster and serving under renowned managers Lloyd and Taylor. Long notes that Ewing’s next team was the Bachararch Giants and a renewed connection with Lloyd, who moved from Columbus after its demise to manage the Bacharachs, a team he had previously played for. However, Seamheads has no game records with Ewing on the Bacharachs roster. What is known is that Ewing’s 1922/1923 offseason was spent in Tonawanda, New York, where he worked at a steel mill. Looking for a team in 1923, he sought advice through the informal player network. Although they did not know each other that well, fellow catcher Louis Santop, Hilldale’s star player, facilitated Ewing’s next step: a catching gig with Chappie Johnson’s Philadelphia Royal All Stars. 11
George “Chappie” Johnson was born in Bellaire, Ohio, Sol White’s hometown, and was one of the early stars of Black baseball. Johnson was a catcher and had played for the Page Fence Giants in the 1890s and then the Chicago Union Giants, Leland Giants, and Philadelphia Giants. He is given credit for being the first catcher – Black or White – to wear shin guards and other protective equipment. 12
During his playing career, the well-respected Johnson caught Rube Foster, Dizzy Dismukes, and Frank Wickware, among others. Johnson became best known for the semipro teams he later assembled, first out of Philadelphia, and then upstate New York. W. Rollo Wilson captured the nomadic aspect of Black baseball in an August 4, 1923, column in the Pittsburgh Courier, noting that “Chappie Johnson’s Royal Stars have returned from a successful road trip of several weeks. Out of 92 games played, says Chappie, but 18 were lost.” 13 Johnson also fielded teams under the monikers Colored Stars, Wonderers, and Colored Quaker Giants. In 1923 his Philadelphia Royal All Stars applied for membership in the Philadelphia Baseball Association’s colored division alongside Hilldale, the Philadelphia Giants, and Philadelphia Stars. They were that good.
Ewing started showing up in the 1923 box scores with Johnson’s Philadelphia-based team. Presciently, a game Chappie’s team played in Schenectady against the Schenectady Knights of Columbus (the Caseys) became a foreshadowing of sorts for Johnson, who the following year stepped in to fill the void in upstate New York Black baseball. It had been occupied briefly the decade before by the Mohawk Giants, a team for which Johnson himself had played in 1913-1914. However, in mid-1914, the team severed its local connection, as reported by the Berkshire Eagle, “claiming they were not receiving their salaries and could not afford to play ball for the sport.” The article continued: “Rube Foster, who has been identified with colored ball players for years and has managed the Chicago American Giants for several seasons, advanced the players funds with which to leave for Indianapolis and it is understood the team will hereafter represent Louisville, Ky., and French Lick Springs, Ind.” 14 In the years following, several local White athletic clubs filled Schenectady’s semipro baseball void created by the Giants’ demise. The longest lasting of the teams – the Caseys – survived from 1920 until August 1923, when they disbanded.
Area promoter Hank Bozzi played a strong role in rehabilitating the local game and when the opportunity presented itself to ally with Chappie Johnson and provide a Schenectady home for Johnson’s All-Stars in 1924, Bozzi became co-owner with Johnson. Schenectady-based, the All-Stars played most of their games far and wide to take on all comers, often roaming far afield in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. That April, the Glens Falls (New York) Post-Star unveiled Johnson’s inaugural team:
Among Chappie’s stars who have arrived and are ready to start practice session are Bill Ewing, catcher; Babe Hobson, second baseman; Bobby Dean, shortstop; Sam Warmack, left fielder; Lefty Hill, right fielder; Will Raymond, catcher; Don Perry, first baseman; Lewis Mormon, third baseman, and Frank Wickware, Sam Cooper, Nate Pierce, and Ray Haskins, pitchers. 15
In The Mohawk Colored Giants of Schenectady, Frank M. Keetz writes, “[T]he main attraction on the Chappies, other than Chappie himself, was a young catcher from Ohio named William ‘Buck’ Ewing. … Johnson was known as an astute teacher of white as well as black players and Ewing could not have encountered a better manager. Ewing became a fine defensive catcher and emerged in 1924 as a slugging power hitter.” 16
Over the next three years (1924-1926) during Johnson’s time as co-owner, manager, and occasional fill-in player, Ewing anchored the lineup as catcher for Chappie’s All Stars. In fact, a successful debut with them in 1924 attracted national attention to Ewing and, as a result, the New York Lincoln Giants ostensibly signed him for the 1925 season. The January 31, 1925, issue of the New York Age had Ewing penciled in as manager Judy Gans’s catcher. 17 The Pittsburgh Courier subsequently wrote, “Buck Ewing, of the Lincolns, is said by observers to be the brightest prospect coming into the Eastern Loop this year.” 18
However, Ewing opted out of a return to a big-time team, having settled in comfortably in upstate New York. The April 11, 1925, edition of the Pittsburgh Courier revealed how happy Johnson was with his catcher, likely working his magic to retain Ewing’s services, praising him to the hilt, and making him the centerpiece of his All-Stars:
Chappie claims that Buck Ewing is the greatest catcher in baseball and that he will be star of the men in the iron masks for the next decade. He says that he is the catcher who can teach young pitchers how to PITCH and how to THINK. He is the biggest gate attraction on his squad. 19
A year later, Courier columnist William G. Nunn added his own insight, writing, “Ewing, the big catcher, with Chappie Johnson, is one of the best in colored baseball, according to reports from the East.” 20
In 1927 Johnson abruptly severed connections with the team, but Ewing remained and was elevated by Bozzi to manager. The team became Ewing’s All-Stars for both 1927 and 1928. Ewing had found a home.
In the five-year stretch from 1924 to 1928 when Ewing was ensconced in Schenectady, the team played an endless schedule of games in the tri-state area, against semipro teams – Black and White – and the occasional bigger matchup with Negro League heavyweights. Because the Johnson, and then Ewing, All-Stars lived outside of the official Negro Leagues, their statistical records have not been recorded. Further, the box scores of the All-Stars’ games were only intermittently captured in the local papers. Keetz’s history of the Mohawk Colored Giants, assembled from local newspaper stories, offers as good a composite picture as any on Ewing, who was lauded for his power and his presence as a superb catcher.
A typical storyline in Ewing’s early years in Schenectady was epitomized by August 8 and August 10, 1924, games between the All-Stars and semipro teams in Kingston and Glen Falls. Keetz writes:
Chappie’s team downed Kingston 15-5 “before a record crowd” in Amsterdam. … Ewing “hit the longest home run ever seen in Amsterdam.” It went “long and far over the centerfield fence in Jollyland Park. … Two days later, Ewing “hit a ball so far in Glen Falls it was “lost” in the high grass. 21
Ewing’s first years in upstate New York established him as a particularly good ballplayer – a big fish in a small pond. Added to his catching and hitting skills, his assuming the mantle as player-manager for the All-Stars in 1927 helped to complete his game. A contest against the Brooklyn Cuban Giants headlined “Brainiest Baseball of the Season” underscored Ewing’s emergence as a field tactician who kept his team in the game early despite pitcher Rube Wise’s eight walks. Ewing went 2-for-3 with a triple and a stolen base in a 7-3 win. With the game tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the sixth, “Ewing’s club strained ahead with a run in the sixth inning and gradually after that the “home club pulled off into a lead that eventually became safe and secure.” 22
In the summer of 1928, Cumberland Posey enticed Ewing to play for his Homestead Grays in several fall exhibitions in what served as an audition for a full-time place with the Grays in 1929. Given the praise lavished on Ewing by Johnson and the African American newspapers, Posey’s interest was hardly surprising. Posey’s catchers of the mid-1920s were journeymen – George Britt, Charlie Spearman, W.P. Young, and then, in 1928, Benito Calderon and Rags Roberts. Ewing was an upgrade and rather than remain in Schenectady in 1929 for what would have been the third year running of Buck Ewing’s All-Stars, Ewing opted for the limelight on an up-and-coming Grays team.
In 1929 Ewing played in 63 games for the Grays, all but two as the starting catcher (he also played first base and right field). Ewing hit .306 with an on-base percentage of .367 and a slugging percentage of .435 and played alongside Vic Harris, Walter Cannady, and John Beckwith. It was not until the following year that the Grays lineup included Oscar Charleston and Judy Johnson; without them in 1929, the Grays lacked a consistent offense and finished fourth in the American Negro League, with a record that was barely over .500. However, Ewing was the catcher for a decent starting rotation – Smokey Joe Williams (at the age of 43), Lefty Williams, Sam Streeter, and the versatile George Britt.
Ewing’s size featured in one of his more notorious games in 1929, a May 17 contest between the Grays and Hilldale. Posey, manager of the Grays at the time, was known for his umpire-baiting. According to Posey’s biographer James E. Overmyer:
He began riding the home plate umpire as early as the third inning, refusing to leave the field when the ump tossed him out of the game, and was allowed to stay on the bench. With everyone thus set on edge, more fireworks broke out in the ninth inning. The potential tying run for the Grays was called out on a close play by the same ump. Somebody from the Grays pushed the umpire and Homestead Grays catcher Buck Ewing slugged the arbiter. 23
Things got more heated, the benches emptied, and Posey and Ewing were suspended by the league for several games. Posey knew he could count on Ewing and his place on the team seemed secure. The icing on the cake for Ewing that year was his only documented trip to the Caribbean for winter league play in Cuba. Ewing played for Santa Clara alongside Frank Warfield, Mule Suttles, and, in his only foray to Cuba, Satchel Paige. Ewing batted .304 on a team that came in second to Cienfuegos. 24
The American Negro League survived just one year, and in 1930 the Grays played as an independent team. Just as Posey had used the 1928 fall barnstorming swing to audition Ewing, in the autumn of 1929, Posey signed Oscar Charleston, George Scales, Jake Stephens, and Judy Johnson for fall exhibitions and then outspent rival owners to retain them for his 1930 squad.
Ewing began 1930 as Homestead’s starting catcher. And then came a July storyline that lives in Negro League lore. Judy Johnson’s recollections set the stage for the event. On July 25, the Kansas City Monarchs arrived in Pittsburgh to play the Grays at Forbes Field – a midsummer marquee event for the Black community. The Monarchs came with their own lighting system so that the game could be played at night and ensure a larger gate after the end of the workday. Johnson recalled:
We were in the clubhouse trying to discuss signals, because we had never played a night game. Buck Ewing was catching. When Buck got down to give the signal, why [Smokey Joe Williams] couldn’t even see his hand. … Williams misunderstood the signal, and Ewing split his hand right down. My sub-catcher was in right field, he wouldn’t come in to catch, he was afraid. Here we are, Forbes Field is packed. Josh Gibson was sitting in the stands, him and a bunch of boys who played sandlot baseball. I asked if he would catch. “Yes sir, Mr. Johnson!” I had to hold up the game, let him go in the clubhouse and put on a suit. 25
The debut of Josh Gibson was a big deal for the Grays and all of Negro League baseball. Ewing was out of the lineup for a while with a broken hand, but he still played in nearly half of the Grays’ independent schedule that led to a 45-15-1 record. Once Ewing was able to catch again, Posey inserted Gibson in the outfield to keep his bat in the lineup. Negro League historian Mark Ribowsky wrote, “[W]hile Posey was not ready to yank Ewing, he was gradually making room for Josh around the field and inching him higher in the order.” 26
The handwriting was on the wall for Ewing, and Posey did not offer him a contract for 1931. In Ewing’s recollections with Allen Long, the St. Louis Stars “swapped five players, including the fabled Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe to the Grays for Ewing in the spring of 1931. [Ewing] declined to recognize the transaction.” 27 Whether it was the Missouri weather (as noted by Long) or “tough traveling and lower pay during the harsh depression era,” according to Keetz, Ewing instead contacted Bozzi about a return to what was now the Mohawk Giants, a name that Bozzi had resuscitated in 1929 after Ewing left Schenectady to join the Grays. In any event, the March 21, 1931, Pittsburgh Courier noted that the trade had taken place and hyped the important acquisition by the Grays of Radcliffe in particular. However, rather than report to St. Louis, “[Ewing] chose to return to Schenectady and Bozzi’s Mohawk Giants. He never left his adopted town where he eventually died as a respected citizen.” 28
Ewing joined the 1931 Mohawks, managed by Ed Kemp, who had played with Johnson and then Ewing’s All Stars in the mid-1920s. Ewing resumed his player-manager role for Bozzi in 1932. Throughout the 1930s, the Giants played in the Schenectady City Twilight League but traveled farther afield as well. (In 1933, the team purportedly had a record of 72-21-11 against all comers.) Ewing was at the center of all things: “Area fans simply said, ‘Buck is manager.’ Saying the word Ewing was not necessary in Schenectady. It was superfluous. Almost everyone knew who Buck was.” 29 Ewing briefly interrupted his time with the Mohawks in 1936 when he went down the road to Albany to manage and play for the Albany Black Sox, ostensibly for the money.
Ewing returned to the Giants during the 1937 season, and then resumed managerial duties in 1938. 30 He remained on the team as a regular and later as a backup catcher through 1941 when, at the age of 38, he stepped away from the game. The Giants were struggling and Bozzi relinquished control of the team in the spring of 1942, unable to assemble a credible squad because of a manpower shortage in World War II. His successor fared no better and the Giants resurfaced for one more year in 1943, with Bozzi back at the helm and Ewing joining his protégé for one more go-round. 31
The Bennington (Vermont) Evening Banner captured the now 40-year-old Ewing and his legacy well when it wrote on August 31, 1943, regarding a forthcoming game between Bennington and the Mohawks:
Old Buck Ewing is still with the Mohawk Giants. … He and Curley Williams [of Bennington] used to have quite a battle every time they met. … Sometimes the Bennington fireman [Williams] breezed it by but not often. Those aging legs of Buck, however, no longer bend easily at the knee, so Buck is a first baseman now, rather than a catcher. … The popular Buck, who is probably better known to baseball fans of New York State and parts of Vermont than many of the minor league stars, must have passed his 40th birthday. … Buck is the oldest player in point of service with the Giants. He has played with all of Hank Bozzi’s great clubs. They still say John McGraw once tried to pass Buck off as a Cuban [in order to circumvent the color barrier and sign him], but this has never been substantiated. 32
After stepping away from baseball, Ewing took a job with Schenectady-based General Electric for a dozen years, followed by work with Campbell Plastics, another local firm. He also served as a part-time scout for the Cleveland Indians and worked in maintenance jobs until retirement.
Ewing married twice and had a son from his first marriage. He and his second wife were married for more than 30 years. On September 1, 1979, Ewing died at the age of 76. The Schenectady Gazette eulogized him, writing:
Perhaps more important on this sad occasion, however, is that all of us remember Buck Ewing as he had shown himself to be in the half century, he lived in Schenectady … as fine a man as he was a ball player. 33
Fittingly, after his many years in Schenectady, the city renamed the main baseball field in the downtown Central Park the William Buck Ewing Memorial Diamond. Ewing had played many a game at Central Park in the 1930s. Keetz writes, “It was the field where thousands sat in the wooden grandstand and “lined the hillsides beyond the outfield and along the baselines during the throes of the Depression Thirties to watch in particular the Mohawk Giants.” 34
The fact that Ewing had not played continually on the top tier of Negro teams probably obscured how good he really was. George Lippe, an adviser to the Chicago White Sox in the 1950s, observed, “Buck Ewing was simply terrific. Too bad baseball didn’t lift the color line soon enough for that guy. If he had been given a big-league chance, he would have been every bit as good as Roy Campanella. On that, I’d bet my bottom dollar.” 35 More realistically, a Schenectady sportswriter, Hall Buell, opined that Ewing “was a major league talent in a minor league setting.” 36
Unless otherwise noted, all statistical references are from Seamheads.com.
1 Quoted in Allen Long, “Historically Speaking: Buck Ewing,” Black Sports, June 1973: 30.
2 James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of The Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994), 272.
3 Long: 30.
5 Long: 30.
6 “Valley City Fans See Real Baseball,” Valley City (North Dakota) Weekly Times Record, June 3, 1920: 4.
7 Long: 30.
8 “Valley City Fans See Real Baseball.”
9 Long: 30.
10 John Fredland, April 30, 1921: Chicago Giants defeat Columbus Buckeyes in Negro National League debut, SABR Games Project. https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/april-30-1921-columbus-buckeyes-defeat-chicago-giants-in-negro-national-league-debut/.
11 Long: 30.
12 Kyle McNary, “Chappie Johnson,” Pitchblack Baseball, https://www.pitchblackbaseball.com/chappie-johnson.
13 W. Rollo Wilson, “Eastern Snapshots,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 4, 1923: 6.
14 “Baseball Notes,” Berkshire Record (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), July 16, 1914: 16.
15 “Chappie Johnson and His Dorpian Team Gets Going,” Glens Falls (New York) Post-Star, April 10, 1924: 6.
16 Frank M. Keetz, The Mohawk Colored Giants of Schenectady (Schenectady, New York: Frank M. Keetz, 1999), 32.
17 William E. Clark, “Sports Comment,” New York Age, January 31, 1925: 6.
18 W. Rollo Wilson, “Eastern Snapshots,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 14, 1925: 7.
19 W. Rollo Wilson, “Eastern Snapshots,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 11, 1925: 13.
20 William G. Nunn, “Diamond Dope,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 28, 1926: 15.
21 Keetz, 33.
22 “Wise Issues Many Passes but Does Well in Trouble,” Glens Falls Post-Star, June 21, 1927: 8.
23 James E. Overmyer, Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2020), 102-103.
24 Jorge, S. Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2003), 182-184.
25 John B. Holway, Josh and Satch: The Life and Times of Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992), 23.
26 Mark Ribowsky, The Power and the Darkness: The Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 59.
27 Long: 31.
28 Keetz, 64.
29 Keetz, 77.
30 Keetz, 106, 113.
31 Keetz, 142.
32 “All Set for Gala Game on Labor Day,” Bennington (Vermont) Evening Banner, August 31, 1943: 6.
33 Keetz, 150.
34 Keetz, 150.
35 Long: 30.
36 Keetz, 151.