Baseball has always lent itself to mythmaking. The sport’s very origin once was shrouded in the legend that Abner Doubleday had invented the game in Cooperstown, New York. Although this myth was debunked long ago, it still led to the Hall of Fame being built in that august little town in upstate New York. Fictional works also have added to baseball’s mythos. One such work is Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel The Natural, which actor Robert Redford introduced to the masses via his 1984 film adaptation. The story involves a player, Roy Hobbs, who is shot by a crazed female fan but eventually makes a comeback that culminates in a championship. Hobbs’s shooting likely was inspired by one or more real-life incidents, proving that sometimes fact can be as strange as fiction.1
In the case of pitcher Dave Brown, however, the true story is far odder than any fictional tale possibly could be. The southpaw became one of the early pitching stars in the Negro National League with Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants. Allegations that Brown had scrapes with the law in his native Texas before he joined Foster’s squad are part of his story, but Foster may have fabricated the charges in 1923. What is fact is that Brown shot a man to death in New York City in 1925 and then went on the lam. In a time when communication was still limited, Brown was able to elude police and the FBI, of which famed director J. Edgar Hoover had taken control one year earlier. While on the run, Brown used the alias William “Lefty” Wilson as he pitched for numerous semipro aggregations throughout the Midwest. After Brown’s baseball-playing days ended, he settled in North Carolina, where his past caught up to him by most unusual circumstances before he disappeared for all time.
Dave K. Brown was born on June 9, 1897, in Marquez, Texas, a small town in Leon County approximately 68 miles southeast of Waco.2 His parents, Silas and Anna (Walton) Brown, were farm laborers, and Dave was their ninth and last child.3 Mystery surrounds the story of Brown’s life from birth. For reasons unknown – though it may have been as simple as the fact that his place of residence changed – Brown filled out two World War I draft registration cards that contained slightly different information. In June 1917 he gave his birthdate as June 9, 1895, and indicated that he was a “Ball Player” in the employ of Enos Whittaker, owner of the Texas Colored League’s Dallas Black Giants team. However, in August 1918, he provided June 9, 1897, as his birthdate and stated that he was a warehouse worker in Dallas; this may have been a second (or offseason) job, since he was still pitching for the Black Giants that year. Documents, including official military service records, show that Dave’s brother Felix was born on January 18, 1895, and the 1900 census listed June 1897 for Dave’s birth; thus, the year 1897 appears to be the correct birth year for Dave.
Nothing is known about Brown’s childhood or how he developed his baseball skills, but his pitching acumen garnered him a position on the Dallas team in 1917. On June 6, just three days before his 20th birthday, Brown pitched for the Black Giants in a 5-3 loss to the Hot Springs Bear Cats; his catcher that day was Jim Brown.4 The two Texans gained renown as “the Brown Battery” and soon moved into the next stage of their careers together. Oliver Marcell, who went on to hit .306 over 13 seasons in the Negro major leagues, was also in the Dallas lineup in 1917.
One week after the game against Hot Springs, on June 14, Brown earned what may have been his first professional victory as he pitched all 12 innings in a 4-3 triumph over the same opponent. Hot Springs’ starting pitcher was listed only by the nickname “Nacogdoches” – presumably, a nod to the hurler’s hometown – and the press noted that “[t]he game was witnessed by a good crowd, about half the spectators being white persons.”5
Brown returned to the Black Giants for the 1918 season. On May 24, he struck out 11 batters in a 7-0 whitewashing of an Army team from Camp Travis, Texas, in the first game of a doubleheader.6 Brown had become a local star as was evidenced by the fact that news articles used his name to draw fans to coming games. For an August game against the Fort Worth Wonders, one newspaper noted, “Dave Brown has been nominated to pitch for the Giants” and “[m]usic will be furnished by a brass band.”7
In the spring of 1919, fellow Texan Rube Foster signed the Brown Battery for his Chicago squad, which was in its final season as an independent team. Once again, though, mystery and rumors surround the circumstances by which Brown moved into the next phase of his career. In an April preview article about the American Giants, the Chicago Defender reported, “No one in the world knows better how to pick a player than ‘Rube.’ … Brown and Brown of the Dallas, Tex., Giants are here. They were a whirlwind in Texas.”8 No mention was made of any special circumstances by which Dave Brown was obtained, either at that time or during any other point in Brown’s tenure with the team.
However, in 1923, after Brown had jumped his contract with Foster and joined the New York Lincoln Giants of the Eastern Colored League, Rube related a different tale. Foster may have invented this new narrative out of anger, as no contemporary documentation has yet come to light to corroborate it. He asserted about Brown:
“He did not leave because he was not treated right nor because his salary was not remunerative enough for his services. He simply wished to compensate me for staking the reputation of the American Giants baseball club and my own when convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary for highway robbery by going into court and having him paroled to me; this being done by me giving bond for $20,000 for him.
“This was before Dave Brown showed any real pitching ability. It was when he had only pitched two games for me during the season. I promised his mother to take care of him if he came to Chicago and it was this promise that I was carrying out.
“Should I now get down off of that parole, he would have to serve his sentence.”9
Foster asserted that he had dirt on numerous players, in addition to Brown, that “would shock the public beyond measure.”10 There is no question that some ballplayers – no matter the era, their race, or their league – have committed shocking acts, but this screed sounded more like the grievances of a spurned suitor.
Foster’s claim about Brown seems dubious for numerous reasons. First and foremost is the question of whether Foster could finagle such a parole and whether he would have paid the large sum required for the bond.11 Secondly, the lack of any press coverage during or after the alleged crime is unusual, especially since Brown had become well known for his pitching in the Dallas area. Whether or not Foster ever met Brown’s mother so that he could promise her to take care of Dave is also questionable, but it is the one element of the story that might have a grain of truth considering what happened to one of Dave’s older brothers, Webster.
According to one news account, Webster Brown, who was six years older than Dave, was “a bad man generally” and was “well-known in police circles in the southwest.”12 On January 31, 1919, Webster led Dallas police on a chase that ended with him being shot and killed. It was reported that the chase “resulted from a theft of clothing that occurred yesterday [January 30] afternoon.”13 Captain J.C. Gunning, chief of detectives, said that Webster “had been in jail several times and was an escaped convict from the county farm.”14
If Foster did meet Anna Brown in 1919, after Webster’s violent death, it is possible that she asked him to look after Dave in the hope that her youngest son would stay out of trouble. Perhaps in his fit of pique in 1923, Foster shifted one of Webster’s crimes to Dave. Of course, there remains the possibility that Dave was already beginning to follow in Webster’s footsteps, since he did become involved in future criminal activity himself. As is the case with many chapters in Dave Brown’s life, the lack of sufficient evidence leads to speculation and makes him one of baseball history’s great enigmas.
Although the exact manner by which Dave Brown joined Foster’s squad remains uncertain, it is definite that he was used sparingly in 1919. Officially, he is credited with a 1-2 record and a 4.40 ERA in games pitched against other top-caliber Western Independent Clubs.15 He also pitched against semipro aggregations and notched one of his earliest victories for Chicago against the Nash Motors team of Kenosha, Wisconsin, on May 11. Brown, who was identified in the press as “the new southpaw of the Giants,” pitched Chicago’s third consecutive shutout in a 5-0 complete-game effort; he scattered four hits while walking three batters and striking out three.16 The Chicago American Giants finished the 1919 season with a 27-16 record that was second-best in the West to the 27-14 mark posted by the Detroit Stars, but there was no league and, therefore, no pennant to be won. However, that was no longer to be the case after Foster and his fellow team owners founded the first Negro National League at the Paseo branch of the YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri, on February 13, 1920.17
Chicago dominated the early years of the NNL, claiming the first three league championships from 1920 through 1922 with Brown contributing a composite 43-8 record in league play during those seasons. Brown’s first appearance in an official NNL game took place on May 9, 1920, against the similarly named Chicago Giants at Schorling Park, the American Giants’ home field. According to the press account of the game, “while Dave Brown was on the rubber, [the Giants] simply could not see his offerings” as he hurled six shutout innings to earn the win.18 He ceded the mound to Tom Williams with an 8-0 lead in what ended as an 8-3 triumph, but it was an auspicious debut that heralded 1920 as Brown’s breakout season.
As the American Giants rolled to a 43-17-2 record (a .717 winning percentage) in NNL games to claim the pennant by eight games over the Detroit Stars, low-hit, low-run outings became the norm for Brown. In addition to capturing the ERA title with a 1.82 mark – albeit edging out teammate Tom Williams by only 0.01 – Brown paced his team in victories with a 13-3 record that also put him in a tie for fourth in the league – two wins behind Detroit’s Bill Gatewood. Brown also tied for fourth in the league in strikeouts with 101, five behind the league-leading total of Kansas City’s Sam Crawford. Perhaps the most remarkable statistic of all was Brown’s 0.908 WHIP as he allowed only 84 hits and 51 walks in 148⅔ innings pitched.
At the conclusion of the 1920 NNL season, Foster took his squad on a swing through the South in late September and early October. The American Giants emerged victorious against all opponents and repeatedly clubbed the Negro Southern League’s champion, the Knoxville Giants, into submission. Chicago defeated Knoxville at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field on September 21, 22, 23, and 30. The two teams met again in Knoxville on October 2 as Brown opposed Steel Arm Dickey in a classic pitchers’ duel. The game remained scoreless until the bottom of the eighth inning when Knoxville, which managed only three hits, broke through with the contest’s first tally. Chicago came back with two runs in the top of the ninth, and Brown shut down Knoxville’s lineup in the bottom of the frame to give the American Giants their 14th consecutive victory, a triumph that, according to Negro League historian James A. Riley, “sealed their status as the best black ball club in the country.”19
It certainly seemed that Foster was bent on his team laying claim to being the best in the nation as next they traveled northeast to take on the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants in a series of games played at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. This series was to serve as “a dress rehearsal for what Rube envisioned as the black World Series.”20 The Bacharach team proved to be a stiffer challenge than Knoxville had, but Chicago emerged with a 4-3-1 record in the series against the East’s top independent club, and the American Giants reigned supreme in 1920.21
In 1921 Brown and the American Giants picked up where they had left off the previous season. Foster’s team claimed its second straight NNL pennant as its 44-22-2 record resulted in the league’s best winning percentage (.667); the Kansas City Monarchs won more games, posting a 54-41 (.568) league ledger, but finished 4½ games behind Chicago. Brown once again paced the American Giants’ pitching staff and was among the NNL leaders in every major category. He tied for first in wins with 17, though his 17-2 mark was far superior to St. Louis hurler Bill Drake’s 17-11 record; his 2.50 ERA was second only to Bullet Rogan’s 1.72 mark for Kansas City; and his 126 strikeouts were tied for third, 14 behind league leader Bill Holland, a late-season addition to the American Giants who had spent the bulk of the season with Detroit. Brown’s five shutouts put him in a tie for first place with Jim Jeffries of Indianapolis, and 1-0 games proved to be his forte.
On August 14, Brown faced Drake and the St. Louis Giants at Schorling Park in what the Chicago Defender raved was “one of the best games – if not THE best – played at this park this summer and a humdinger of a pitchers’ battle.”22 Neither hurler surrendered a hit until the bottom of the seventh inning, when Bingo DeMoss singled off Drake, and the game remained scoreless until the bottom of the eighth. At that point Cristobal Torriente led off Chicago’s half of the inning with a single, advanced to second on catcher George Dixon’s sacrifice, and then stole third base. Floyd “Jelly” Gardner then beat out a bunt on a squeeze play, and Torriente crossed home plate with the game’s only run. According to the Defender, “Hats were broken and every stunt possible was pulled off by the rabid fans,” who now wanted to see Brown finish his no-hitter.23 However, such history was not in the making that day as St. Louis catcher Sam Bennett led off the ninth with his team’s first safety; Sidney Brooks ran for Bennett and was promptly erased when Drake grounded into a double play. Doc Dudley garnered the second hit against Brown, a single to right field, but the game ended when Dixon threw Dudley out at second base on a steal attempt.
Slightly less than one month later, on September 11 at Schorling Park, Brown engaged in another duel against Steel Arm Dickey and the Negro Southern League’s Montgomery Grey Sox. Although Dickey now plied his trade for a different team, the game was almost an exact replica of the previous year’s matchup between the two aces. There was more traffic on the basepaths on this day, but neither team managed to score for the first eight innings. Prior to the bottom of the ninth, the most exciting event had occurred off-field in the bottom of the seventh inning. The Defender’s Frank Young described the incident in a clipped style:
“Someone over on Wentworth avenue [sic] shoots a gun out of a house window. A hundred fans on top of the house watching the game begin to scatter. Finally[,] a bluecoat goes over and all of a sudden we see the housetop empty. We also see the bluecoat take out a white handkerchief and wave to us. Means all is at peace.”24
Everyone on the field and in the stands managed to calm themselves and the on-field action resumed.
With the game still scoreless, Brown led off the bottom of the ninth with a single but was forced at second on Jimmie Lyons’ fielder’s choice grounder. Lyons bolted to second on a wild pitch by Dickey. DeMoss attempted a sacrifice bunt and ended up safe at first on a throwing error, with Lyons advancing to third. DeMoss then attempted to steal second, and Lyons scored when the Grey Sox catcher’s wild throw to second rolled into the outfield. Once more, the American Giants had clinched a 1-0 victory in the ninth with Dave Brown emerging as the winning pitcher.
At the conclusion of the NNL season, Foster again took his team east to play two series against the region’s most powerful independent clubs, the Bacharach Giants and the Hilldale Club of Darby, Pennsylvania. As had been the case in 1920, Foster intended these clashes to be “a dry run for the planned future ‘East-West World Series,’” and they were sometimes already billed as championship series in the press.25 However, this time around, Chicago struggled to stay even against both squads, so much so that Foster entered into damage control mode and “reminded everyone that the American Giants had won the NNL pennant.”26
Things went downhill from there for Foster as 1921 neared its end. He was arrested (and quickly bailed out) for alleged fraud in Atlanta, canceled the American Giants’ planned trip to Cuba due to political turmoil on the island nation, and, most tragically, suffered the unexpected death of his five-year-old daughter, Sarah, on the train ride home to Chicago after an exhibition series in New Orleans. Despite his grief, Foster tended to the business of the NNL and wrote a series of blunt articles for the Defender in which he outlined the challenges for the league; the most controversial piece voiced Foster’s opposition to hiring Black umpires as arbiters for NNL games.
Between Foster’s misfortunes, his controversial columns, and the fact that Dave Brown was the American Giants’ only pitcher to return from the 1921 championship team’s staff, the outlook for the Chicago nine was not as positive as in previous years. The American Giants opened the regular season at Schorling Park in early May with a tough series against the powerful Monarchs, who soon would supplant Chicago as the dominant force in the NNL. The Monarchs captured the first game, 5-1, and Brown made his first start in the second tilt on May 7. The game did not bode well for Chicago’s season.
The Sunday contest featured a matchup between two of Black baseball’s premier pitchers in Dave Brown and Bullet Rogan. So many fans wanted to witness the proceedings that problems began before the game ever started. The Defender described the chaos:
“Early in the afternoon, about two o’clock, the bleacher seat box office was closed. The fans in that section attempted to violate law and decency by jumping over the fence into the higher priced seats. Over 200 followed this course. The crowd surged into fair territory time and again during the game. The play was stopped and Rube Foster with two or three players pleaded with the populace to give the outfielders a chance to play.”27
Initially, the game itself went as expected. While it was noted that “Brown was not in his usual cool form. He walked men and was in many tight holes,” he and Rogan dueled to a 1-1 tie through seven innings.28 The Defender observed, “The sixteen thousand that crowded the park got just what they came out to see,” but the newspaper also had to add, “only they did not see the ending.”29 Kansas City scored to take a 2-1 lead in the top of the eighth inning. When Chicago came back to tie the game in the bottom half of the frame, the crowd went berserk. According to the game account, “The overflow broke loose. On the field they went. … That was all. They just couldn’t play. Folks wouldn’t let them.”30
The crowd became so unruly that play was called off and the game was declared a tie. In response, fans began to throw cushions and pop bottles at one another, and the outmanned police force at the field had trouble bringing the melee under control. The Defender declared that “[t]he most disgraceful scenes were enacted” and that “[i]n all Chicago’s baseball history it cannot be recalled that such actions have ever taken place at any park.”31
The American Giants won the last two games of the opening series, a sign that they would barely hold off the Monarchs and retain the NNL title for one more season. At the end of the 1922 NNL campaign, Chicago won the pennant by virtue of having an almost infinitesimally greater winning percentage than Kansas City: The American Giants’ 37-24-1 record gave them a .607 winning percentage compared with the Monarchs’ 47-31-2, .603 mark.
Brown certainly did not slump in 1922, posting a 13-3 record with 103 strikeouts and a 2.90 ERA in 155 innings pitched in NNL play. As usual, his numbers put him in the top five of most major pitching categories: He finished tied for third in wins (though considerably behind Jim Jeffries’ 21 victories for Indianapolis), fourth in ERA, and fifth in strikeouts. As had also become typical for Brown, he was involved in a stellar 1-0 victory, this time against the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants.
Chicago did not sojourn east in 1922. Instead, the Bacharachs and the Hilldale Club visited Schorling Park for the first time. On August 16, “[a] bit of history was made … when the American Giants were involved in one of the longest games ever in Negro League history” against the Bacharachs.32 Ed “Huck” Rile started the game for Chicago, but Foster pulled him after four scoreless innings and sent Brown to the mound. Brown went 16 innings, an amazing feat but one that paled in comparison to that of his mound opponent, Harold Treadwell, who pitched all 20 frames for Pop Lloyd’s Bacharach squad. Eventually, one of the two hurlers had to tire, and it turned out to be Treadwell in the bottom of the 20th inning. Torriente draw a leadoff walk from the exhausted Treadwell and advanced to second on Bobby Williams’s sacrifice bunt. Dave Malarcher then banged out a single to drive in Torriente with the game’s only run, giving Brown yet another 1-0 victory and allowing Treadwell to ice his rubber arm.33
At the conclusion of the 1922 season, Brown was one of several Negro League players who traveled to Cuba to play winter baseball. His first foray to the island was unremarkable as he played for Santa Clara, which finished in last place with a 14-40 record and withdrew from the league on January 14, 1923.34 Brown distinguished himself via his 4-3 record, which tied teammate Eustaquio Pedroso (also 4-3) for the team lead in victories.35
“Baseball fans in Chicago were much surprised last week when Dave Brown, first string pitcher for the American Giants, caught a rattler for New York. … It is strongly rumored that Brown will work for the Lincoln Giants this summer, making his exit from organized ball and jumping to the outlaws.”37
Teammate Ed Rile was also heading east, and the Defender alleged, “According to well founded rumors, Rile has been acting as an agent for the Eastern association in their raid on players belonging to the Negro National league.”38 Foster responded one month later with his story – be it fact or fiction – that he was disappointed in Brown’s disloyalty since he had bought him out of prison in Texas.39
Brown, who was leaving behind one former Dallas teammate, Jim Brown, was reunited with another old friend from his playing days in Texas, Oliver Marcell. He also appeared simply to shrug off Foster’s allegations, but his first season in New York was not a rousing success. The Lincoln Giants finished in fifth place with a 17-23 league record (18-23 overall). Brown pitched to a 5-6 record with 47 strikeouts and a 3.28 ERA in 74 innings. His totals still placed him in the top 10 – but no longer the top five – of most statistical categories in the ECL, but he was not even the best pitcher on his team. Bill Holland had 48 strikeouts and a 3.13 ERA in 72 innings pitched but was a victim of hard luck as he finished the season at 0-7.
Brown, Marcell, and Holland were three of the numerous Negro League players who joined the Santa Clara squad for the 1923-24 Cuban winter season. The now talent-laden team managed a 180-degree turnaround from the previous season, finishing in first place with a 36-11 record. In fact, this Santa Clara squad came to be “[c]onsidered as the most dominant team ever in the history of Cuban baseball by amassing an 11½ game bulge over their nearest rival.”40 Bill Holland led the team and league in wins with a 10-2 record, Rube Currie contributed an 8-2 mark, and Brown finished with a 7-3 ledger.
The 1923-24 Cuban season was such a popular success that fans clamored for more baseball, and a special season, named Gran Premio, was quickly arranged. Santa Clara finished with a 13-12 record that enabled them to edge out Almendares by a slim half-game margin. Brown (4-2) and Holland (4-3) tied for the team lead in wins in this second season.41
When Brown returned stateside in 1924, he was riding high from his Cuban experience and rejoined the New York Lincoln Giants with an eye toward a better outcome in the ECL’s second season. After Brown won the second game of a doubleheader against the Washington Potomacs, one of the ECL’s two new squads, on May 18, the “rejuvenated Lincoln Giants” had run out to a 7-2 record.42 One week later, the Lincoln Giants ran their win streak to eight by sweeping a doubleheader from the Bacharachs, and they led Hilldale by a half-game in the standings.43
The Lincoln Giants greatly improved their performance in 1924, but they could not sustain their quick start. The team and Brown faded down the stretch, a fact that was clearly in evidence by a late-September sweep suffered at the hands of the Cuban Stars. Brown lost the second game, 7-0, and the press noted that he “put his team at a disadvantage in the very first inning by walking two men and then allowing two hits, causing four runs to be made.”44
Hilldale won the ECL title with a 47-26 record while the Lincoln Giants finished third, seven games back, with a 35-28-1 record. Foster had to be chagrined that two of his Chicago team’s rivals, Bolden’s Hilldale club and the NNL’s Kansas City Monarchs, faced off in the first-ever Negro League World Series. The Monarchs captured the title in 10 games, with one game resulting in a tie.
As for Brown, he returned to the old form he had exhibited with Chicago. He led all ECL pitchers with a 2.00 ERA, and his 13-8 record and 107 strikeouts were second only to Hilldale’s Nip Winters, who finished the year at 20-5 and struck out 114 batters. Brown would have been the darling of the modern sabermetric crowd, however, which would point out that he finished with an ERA+ of 241 compared with Winters’ 142, thus denoting him as the far superior pitcher.
In the winter, Brown returned to Cuba, where he again toiled for Santa Clara. The team’s fortunes went up and down like a yo-yo, and the 1924-25 campaign was a down time. The squad finished in third place with a 20-28 record and “attendance at the games in Santa Clara’s Boulanger Park was so disappointing … that in early January owner Abel Linares moved the franchise to Matanzas.”45 Brown’s performance typified the moribund team’s fortunes: His final foray to the island resulted in a 2-4 record.46 At least he could look forward to competing for the ECL title with the Lincoln Giants in 1925.
Or so Brown and everyone else thought after an Opening Day doubleheader against the Bacharachs on Sunday, April 26, that kicked off the regular season for both teams. Brown, who started the first game, “was the master of the Atlantic City boys throughout the fray, allowing them seven scattered hits and only [being] scored upon once.”47 After winning the first game, 6-1, the New Yorkers also captured the nightcap, which turned into a 10-inning affair, by a 4-3 score. The sweep was a sweet start to the season.
Teammates Brown, Marcell, and Frank Wickware (who had played for the American Giants in 1920) apparently spent two days celebrating their early success. In the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday, April 28 – at 3:25 A.M., to be precise – a man named Benjamin Adair confronted the trio at 69 West 135th Street. According to eyewitnesses, Adair had a revolver and shouted at the players, “Now, I’ve got you.”48 As the men argued, Brown drew his own gun and shot Adair, who was taken to Harlem Hospital and declared dead on arrival. The three Lincoln Giants hailed a passing taxi, jumped in, and rode away from the scene.49
The Lincoln Giants canceled practice on April 28 because they were missing three players that day. Marcell and Wickware soon reappeared, were questioned by the police, and then were released. Brown was never seen in New York City again. Eyewitnesses had taken down the number of the taxi in which the trio had escaped, and police arrested the driver, William Holland (not to be confused with pitcher Bill Holland). Holland stated that “he took the men as he would have taken any other passengers. He denied having seen them before.”50 Upon checking out Holland’s story, the police released him as well. After their investigation made no progress for a couple of months, the New York police released something else: the only known wanted poster in history with a photo of the perpetrator wearing a baseball uniform. The poster declared that Dave Brown was wanted for murder.
(Photo: Courtesy of Larry Lester / NoirTech Research, Inc.)
Rollo Wilson of the Pittsburgh Courier took the three players to task in his column, asserting, “Whatever the outcome of this matter these men must leave the game. The integrity of the pastime demands it.” Of the New York team’s fortunes, Wilson wrote, “The serious trouble in which Dave Brown, Wickware, and Marcelle are involved will just about wreck the Lincoln Giants.”51 That much was certainly true as the team finished the season in last place with a dismal 7-41 record. As for the three players, Marcell spent the rest of 1925 with the Bacharachs and played through the 1930 season; the 37-year-old Wickware’s career ended after 1925; and Brown soon reappeared under an alias.
In the summer of 1926, newspapers in the Midwest began to report the exploits of a pitcher named Lefty Wilson, who played for various semipro teams throughout the region. As a member of Gilkerson’s Union Giants, Wilson dominated local competition in Iowa. On June 20 he notched an 11-4 victory over Davenport’s Knights of Columbus team, with the local newspaper noting that he “eased up slightly in the latter innings” to allow the Knights to score.52 Wilson extended no such courtesy against the Spencer team – the state semipro champion – on July 10 in Mason City, Iowa. He struck out 17 batters while allowing only one hit, one walk, and a hit batsman in a 2-0 triumph.53
Shortly thereafter, Wilson pitched for the Pipestone (Minnesota) Black Sox. In a 7-2 victory over a team from LeMars, Iowa, the “well-known negro pitcher twirled for the visitors and held the home club under control at all times.”54 The player wanted for shooting a man with a real gun now became a figurative hired gun for any semipro team that wanted to pay him, though he played mostly for teams from Iowa and Minnesota.
In 1927 Wilson joined the team in Wanda, Minnesota, and helped lead them to the Tri-County League championship by defeating Comfrey in two games – 8-1 and 2-1 – while striking out 10 and 13 batters respectively. Wanda played the Franklin Creamery team from Minneapolis in the state tournament in St. Paul, but Wilson ended up on the losing end of a 6-0 game.55
Still, Wilson was ready to return to Wanda in 1928, but the Tri-County League had issued an edict aimed directly at him. The league decreed, “The rules under which the circuit operated last year were approved with the exception that the color line was drawn and the status of home players was defined.”56 With that ruling, Lefty Wilson’s time in the Tri-County League came to an end. However, he stayed in Minnesota and played for the team in Bertha, becoming the team’s ace after the departure of Negro League legend John Donaldson.57
In a day when communication was limited, it was easy for Brown to assume his new identity as William (Bill) “Lefty” Wilson in a different part of the country from where he had committed his crime. The difficult element of evading the police lay in the fact that he was well known from his days with the Chicago American Giants, and many semipro teams played against Negro League teams or fellow semipro squads that hired former Negro League players. On June 14, 1928, it was announced that John Donaldson and Lefty Wilson would be the mound opponents in a game in Bertha, with Wilson pitching for the home team.58 Donaldson had been a member of the Kansas City Monarchs in 1920-21 and no doubt recognized his opponent as being Dave Brown, formerly a member of the Chicago American Giants.
For whatever reason, no former teammates or opponents ever revealed that ace semipro pitcher Lefty Wilson was the wanted criminal Dave Brown. Various players, including Hall of Fame shortstop Willie Wells and former House of David catcher/teammate L.J. Favors, admitted in later years that they were aware of Wilson’s true identity. Both players claimed that teams that employed Wilson always kept their bags packed in case someone – primarily the police – learned who he was and their team had to depart quickly in the middle of the night to avoid trouble.59
Wilson finished with a 14-8 record for Bertha in 1928, but the team’s attendance was so low that the owner joined a new, small-town league for 1929 that allowed its teams to use only home talent on their rosters. The second loss of employment in Minnesota did not faze Brown, who took his Lefty Wilson act back to the state of Iowa in 1929.60 By this time, obviously emboldened by the fact that no one had turned him over to the law, Brown, although he maintained his alias, did less and less to conceal his past and his identity.
On April 14, 1929, it was reported that Lefty Wilson would take the managerial reins for a Sioux City, Iowa, team sponsored by the Auto Kary-All Manufacturing Company. According to the local press, “‘Lefty’ Wilson, regarded as the greatest negro southpaw hurler in the game and formerly a member of the Chicago negro National league [sic] club, has been signed as manager and has secured a lineup of players from Scott’s Giants, Gilkerson’s Union Giants and negro league clubs.”61 The Chicago American Giants never had a pitcher named Wilson, but apparently Brown wanted to tout his past accomplishments and attributed them to his new alter ego without any concern for blowing his cover. Not only was Brown not lying low from people who might recognize him, he was now audacious enough to recruit players from Negro League teams.
The Kary-All nine did not receive extensive coverage. However, if the team’s May 11 game against the Kari-Keen squad was representative of their efforts, the team and its pitcher-manager did not fare well. In what the press termed a 12-5 “drubbing,” it was stated that “[t]he winners hammered ‘Lefty’ Wilson for 14 hits in six innings and had the game ‘sacked up’ before he was relieved by Truesdale.”62 By August, whether Kary-All’s season had ended or not, Wilson was a member of the Cubans, John Donaldson’s barnstorming team.
On August 29, in a game against the House of David team, “‘Lefty’ Wilson, the colored pitcher who had reached second base, started a chewing match [with the House of David shortstop] that ended in a real fistfight that took several of the players to separate.” Home-plate umpire Bunny Clouton ejected both players, but the House of David shortstop refused to leave the field. Eventually, to get the player to depart, Clouton agreed to be replaced by fellow arbiter Scoop Hunter. The fistfight and dispute over who would umpire the game took so much time that the game had to be called on account of darkness in the seventh inning.63
In 1930 and 1931, Lefty Wilson pitched for the Colored House of David team with varying degrees of success. He had, however, made quite a name for himself in the Midwest. After he pitched the House of David to an 8-6 victory over the Cold Spring (Minnesota) team on June 21, 1930, the press noted, “‘Lefty’ Wilson, well known in this community, did the chucking for the Davids against Cold Spring on Saturday,”64 Perhaps the last report of Lefty Wilson was in a preview article for a game between the Colored House of David and a team from La Crosse, Wisconsin, that was to take place on August 31, 1931. Wilson was mentioned as the possible starting pitcher for the Davids, who were “considered one of the outstanding negro teams in the country.”65
After Lefty Wilson faded into history, Dave Brown resurfaced seven years later in North Carolina. How, or why, he came to live in the Tar Heel State is another of the many unknown circumstances in Brown’s life. However, on July 15, 1938, “David Brown, 30-year-old negro, was taken into custody by Greensboro police and held for questioning … following an incident in which Jess [sic] Wells, white man, was said to have been pushed from the porch of a residence. … Wells, in an unconscious condition, was taken to Piedmont Memorial hospital around 3 o’clock. It is thought possible that he suffered a fractured skull.”66 Wells regained consciousness that night and identified Brown as his assailant. The next day a warrant was issued against Brown that charged him with robbery with deadly weapons since he had taken $4 from Wells in the assault.
When Brown was brought to the police station, he wore a “glossy green shirt” that “gave him an unusual appearance and he was questioned as to athletics.”67 Brown confessed that he had played baseball at one time but claimed that he had never been a professional ballplayer and that he had never been out of North Carolina. Upon Brown’s admission that he had played ball, a detective “recalled the 13-year-old poster with the picture of a man wearing a baseball suit in the center thereof.”68 Police dug out the poster and noticed a striking resemblance between the photo and the man they had in custody. Brown was photographed and fingerprinted, and the information was forwarded to the authorities in New York.
On July 22 the Greensboro police received word that their prisoner was the same man on the wanted poster and were asked whether Brown would agree to waive extradition. Brown agreed, and awaited transport to New York, where he was to stand trial for murder. What happened next is best described by a one-word headline in the July 31, 1938, Raleigh News and Observer: “Lucky.” The news article explained:
“Today a telegram came from the New York police saying that all witnesses had disappeared in the intervening 13 years, and that since Brown could not be convicted, the charge would be dropped. When the Greensboro police turned to the local offense, they found that Wells had left Greensboro. There was nothing to do with Brown except turn him loose.”69
The Greensboro police did exactly that, and that is the last certainty in the life of Dave Brown, Negro League pitching ace of the early 1920s.
According to some articles about the Greensboro case, Brown claimed to live in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but no evidence has been found to support that assertion. Greensboro telephone directories list a Black man named Dave Brown between the years 1938 and 1959. This Dave Brown was a taxi driver, first for the Harlem Cab Company and later for United Taxi, and he was married for a time to a woman named Estelle. Dave Brown the taxi driver is absent from many common public records, which invites speculation that the two individuals may have been one and the same person; however, his death certificate from 1967 shows that he was a different individual.
In fact, Dave Brown the ballplayer appears to have left North Carolina in the aftermath of the Greensboro episode. Legendary Negro League pitcher/catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe claimed, “I saw him in 1949 in Frisco. I think he was working at the post office.”70 Radcliffe was well known for spinning fanciful yarns, but there are “unconfirmed reports that Brown died in California.”71 James A. Riley wrote that “[u]nverified reports also persist that he [Brown] died in Denver, Colorado, under mysterious circumstances.”72 Oliver Marcell, Brown’s longtime friend and former teammate, lived in Denver after he retired from baseball. Perhaps Brown went west to visit his old companion and became involved in an incident that resulted in his demise. Perhaps he became a postal worker in California and lived there until his death.
Perhaps one day documentation will come to light that will explain how Brown’s life continued after 1938 as well as where, when, and how he eventually died. Until such time, Brown will remain one of history’s mysteries and the mythology about him and his final whereabouts can continue to grow.
Gratitude is extended to Negro League researcher Gary Ashwill, who maintains the Agate Type website about Negro and Latin baseball and compiles statistics and information for Seamheads.com’s Negro League database. Gary’s research led him to be the first person to discover and to write about Dave Brown’s 1938 arrest in Greensboro, North Carolina. As he informed me in an email, he came across the first article about the incident quite by accident while researching another topic. As a fellow Negro League researcher, I know the excitement that comes with such a discovery as well as the serendipity that can be involved in unearthing such gems; such was the case as I discovered the information about Webster Brown’s criminal history and how it may have morphed into Foster’s 1923 tale about Dave. It is to be hoped that further discoveries about Dave Brown will one day be made.
All player statistics and team records were taken from Seamheads.com, except where otherwise indicated.
Ancestry.com was consulted for US Census information, military records, and birth and death records.
1 Rob Edelman, “Eddie Waitkus and ‘The Natural’: What is Assumption? What is Fact?” The National Pastime, SABR, 2013, https://sabr.org/journal/article/eddie-waitkus-and-the-natural-what-is-assumption-what-is-fact/, accessed January 10, 2021.
2 Multiple sources list Dave Brown’s place of birth as San Marcos, Texas; however, that was the birthplace of catcher Jim Brown. There is no evidence that the two players were related; even if they were kin, they certainly were not members of the same immediate family.
3 Silas Brown is listed as “Cyrus” in the 1900 census, but this appears to be a census-taker’s error that was typical of that time. Dave gave his father’s name as “Silas” on his 1918 World War I draft registration card, and Felix Brown gave the initials “S.B.” – with “S.” presumably standing for “Silas” – when he provided family information for their brother Webster’s death certificate.
4 “Arkansas Negroes Clean Up on Dallas,” Fort Worth Record, June 7, 1917: 7. Since the two players had the same last name, their positions were sometimes listed incorrectly in newspaper lineups or line scores. The error is readily apparent because, while a catcher might pitch in an emergency if he were able to do so, it is extremely doubtful that any team in any era would risk an injury to a star pitcher by having him catch. (As Negro Leagues fans are likely already aware, there was one notable exception to this rule in the person of Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who earned his nickname by sometimes pitching one game of a doubleheader and then catching the second game.)
5 “Dallas Black Giants Win Game in Twelfth,” Fort Worth Record, June 15, 1917: 11.
6 J. Alba Austin, “Dallas Black Giants Take 2 from Camp Travis Nine,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), May 25, 1918: 9.
7 “Plenty of Baseball Provided for Fans of Dallas Today,” Dallas Morning News, August 11, 1918.
8 “American Giants Open Sunday: ‘Rube’ Foster Will Present the Greatest Team of his Career,” Chicago Defender, April 12, 1919: 11.
9 “League Moguls Here This Week; Baseball War Looms,” Chicago Defender, March 17, 1923: 10. Foster’s allegations became rumors that were widespread enough to be included in different works by noted Negro League historians James A. Riley and John B. Holway; however, no evidence has ever been offered to substantiate the story. In fact, Foster’s initial tale took on additional uncertainty, with Riley even stating that the highway robbery incident involving Brown occurred in the year 1917; see James A. Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons: Essays on Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012), 71. Riley’s claim contradicts Foster’s assertion that the incident occurred after Brown had first pitched for the Chicago American Giants in 1919 and demonstrates how the story took on a life of its own beyond the initial news article in the Defender.
10 “League Moguls Here This Week; Baseball War Looms.”
11 Foster would not have had to pay $20,000 for the bond; however, even the standard 10 percent of that figure is $2,000, which would have been an exorbitant sum for Foster to pay for a pitcher he claimed had not yet proven himself. Another problem with Foster’s story involves the terminology used. Foster claimed that he paid a bond to have Brown paroled to him; however, these two things do not go together. A bond is paid so that an accused person who is being released from jail will show up in court for his hearing and/or trial, whereas parole is granted to a person who has already been convicted and has been serving time in prison. Thus, if Foster truly paid money to have Brown released from prison – an action that seems highly doubtful – he may have managed to bribe Texas officials rather than to follow any legal procedures.
12 “Desperado Is Slain in Fight with Cops,” Tampa Bay Times, March 14, 1919: 3.
13 “Negro Killed after Long Chase by Officers,” Dallas Morning News, February 1, 1919: 5.
14 “Negro Killed after Long Chase by Officers.”
15 The other major independent teams in the West in 1919 were the Detroit Stars, Cuban Stars West, St. Louis Giants, Dayton Marcos, Jewell’s ABCs, and the Chicago Giants.
16 “Foster Giants, With Two Hits, Nip Kenosha, 5-0,” Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1919: 19.
17 Except for the Jewell’s ABCs, all the major Western Independent Clubs from 1919 became members of the NNL in 1920; two additional squads – the Indianapolis ABCs and the Kansas City Monarchs – also were founding members of the circuit.
18 Captain James H. Smith, “Foster’s Crew Puts Kibosh on Chicago Giants,” Chicago Defender, May 15, 1920: 9.
19 “American Giants, 2; Knoxville, 1,” Chicago Defender, October 9, 1920: 6; Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons, 74.
20 Paul Debono, The Chicago American Giants (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007), 80.
21 Chicago’s 4-3-1 record against the Bacharach Giants was derived from the game accounts found in Bill Nowlin’s timeline for the 1920 American Giants in the present volume.
22 “Pitchers’ Battle Goes to Dave Brown, 1-0,” Chicago Defender, August 20, 1921: 10.
23 “Pitchers’ Battle Goes to Dave Brown, 1-0.”
24 Frank Young, “It’s All in the Game: The Montgomery Grey Sox-American Giants Game,” Chicago Defender, September 17, 1921: 10.
25 Debono, 85; “Chicago American Giants Beat Hilldale Team 5-2,” Wilmington (Delaware) Morning News, October 11, 1921: 7.
26 Debono, 85.
27 “Near-Riot Stops Baseball Game,” Chicago Defender, May 13, 1922: 1.
28 Mister Fan, “American Giants Find K.C. Monarchs a Tough Bunch,” Chicago Defender, May 13, 1922: 10.
29 “American Giants Find K.C. Monarchs a Tough Bunch.”
30 “American Giants Find K.C. Monarchs a Tough Bunch.”
31 “Near-Riot Stops Baseball Game.”
32 Debono, 90.
33 “The Game Play by Play,” Chicago Defender, August 26, 1922: 10.
34 Jorge S. Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003), 143.
35 Figueredo, 147.
36 The founding teams of the Eastern Colored League were Hilldale, the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, the Cuban Stars East, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the New York Lincoln Giants, and the Baltimore Black Sox.
37 “Pitchers Brown and Rile Jump to the Outlaws,” Chicago Defender, February 17, 1923: 10.
38 “Pitchers Brown and Rile Jump to the Outlaws.”
39 “League Moguls Here This Week; Baseball War Looms.”
40 Figueredo, 148.
41 Figueredo, 154.
42 “Lincoln Giants Grab Two Games from Washington,” Chicago Defender, May 24, 1924: 9. The Harrisburg Giants were the other new addition to the ECL in 1924.
43 “Lincoln Giants Outclass Bacharach Giants in Two Games and Lead League,” Chicago Defender, May 31, 1924: 9.
44 “Cubans Win Two Games from the Lincolns,” Chicago Defender, October 4, 1924: 9.
45 Figueredo, 157.
46 Figueredo, 157-58, 160.
47 “Lincolns Win Two from Bacharach Giants,” Delaware County Times (Chester, Pennsylvania), April 28, 1925: 8.
48 “Local Baseball Players Alleged to Be Mixed in Shooting of Benj. Adair,” New York Age, May 2, 1925: 1.
49 “Local Baseball Players Alleged to Be Mixed in Shooting of Benj. Adair”; “Extra: Kill Man and Escape in Taxi,” New York Amsterdam News, April 29, 1925: 1.
50 “Taxi Driver Freed in Adair Murder,” New York Amsterdam News, May 6, 1925: 2.
51 W. Rollo Wilson, “Eastern Snapshots,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 9, 1925: 13.
52 “Colored Boys Run Wild to Win, 11 to 4,” Davenport Daily Times, June 21, 1926: 14.
53 “Union Giants Hurler Whiffs 17 at Spencer,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, July 10, 1926: 9.
54 “LeMars Loses to Pipestone by 7-2 Score,” Sioux City Journal, July 31, 1926: 15.
55 Peter W. Gorton, “The Mystery of Lefty Wilson” in Steven R. Hoffbeck (ed.), Swinging for the Fences: Black Baseball in Minnesota (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005), 108-111.
56 Gorton in Hoffbeck, 110.
57 Gorton in Hoffbeck, 110.
58 “Donaldson and Wilson to Be Opposing Pitchers,” Brainerd (Minnesota) Daily Dispatch, June 14, 1928: 5.
59 Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons, 73-74; John Maher, “A Tale of Baseball, Murder, Mystery,” Austin American-Statesman, August 25, 1997: 15, 22.
60 Gorton in Hoffbeck, 110-11.
61 “S.C. Firm Will Back Fast Club,” Sioux City Journal, April 14, 1929: 21.
62 Joe Ryan, “Keri-Keen Wins from Kary-All,” Sioux City Journal, May 12, 1929: 21.
63 “Cubans Drop Final Tilt 5-4,” Saskatoon (Saskatchewan) Star-Phoenix, August 30, 1929: 21.
64 “Colored Davids Down Springers by 8 to 6 Count,” St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times, June 23, 1930: 13.
65 “Bewhiskered Colored Team Invades Copeland Today,” La Crosse (Wisconsin) Tribune, August 30, 1931: 9.
66 “Jess Wells Injured and Negro Is Held,” Greensboro (North Carolina) Daily News, July 16, 1938: 4. Dave Brown previously had never used the name David, and his actual age by this time was 41; however, given Brown’s prior alias and his continued need for cover-ups to dodge the law, as well as the information that next came to light, it appears that this David Brown was indeed Dave Brown the former Negro League pitcher. Subsequent articles in both Greensboro newspapers always gave the victim’s first name as Jack, which appears to have been his correct name.
67 “Negro May Be Involved in 13-Year-Old Murder,” Greensboro Record, July 23, 1938: 10. This article erroneously gave Brown’s first name as George.
68 “Negro May Be Involved in 13-Year-Old Murder.”
69 “Lucky,” Raleigh News and Observer, July 31, 1938: 6.
70 Maher, “A Tale of Baseball, Murder, Mystery,” 22.
71 Maher, 22.
72 James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994), 118.