He was a star pitcher, one who not only threw a no-hitter — against none other than Rube Foster’s 1915 Chicago American Giants1 — but also tossed a four-hit complete game against the 1911 Pittsburgh Pirates. He was, for parts of two decades, a manager who is credited with at least 196 career wins. He was the traveling secretary for the 1942 Kansas City Monarchs. He was a part-time baseball writer with the Pittsburgh Courier. He was, for a time, the secretary of the Negro National League. In the early 1950s, he became one of the first Black scouts in Organized Baseball, working for both the Chicago Cubs and the New York Yankees, and in 1952 the Pittsburgh Courier listed him among the best Negro League pitchers of all time.2 Dizzy Dismukes was all of those things, making him one of the more important people in baseball history, yet one whom relatively few have ever heard of.
William Dismukes was born on March 13, 1890, in Birmingham, Alabama.3 His father was likely Isaac Dismukes,4 a laborer, and his mother Sally, a laundress.5 According to the 1910 US Census, after the young pitcher had already left home, Isaac was working as a soft-drink retailer, and the children still at home were James, Vashti, and Lucille.6
Evidently the Dismukes family valued education, so William attended Talladega College in Alabama before taking up professional baseball.7 It is not clear whether he graduated from that or any college, but as he demonstrated throughout his life, he developed the gift of clear, cogent prose along the way. In 1908, though, at 17 years of age, William began his baseball career as a right-handed submarine pitcher for the East St. Louis Imperials.8
His baseball skill and mercenary approach took him to the Kentucky Unions in 1909,9 and briefly to the Indianapolis ABCs, for whom he pitched against C.I. Taylor’s Birmingham Giants in a late July barnstorming series in Indiana. Dismukes lost his game, 17-2, but he likely caught the eye of the Giants’ manager. The next year, the 20-year-old pitched briefly with the Minnesota Keystones and manager Irving Williams.10 That team, though largely overshadowed by the nearby and much more prestigious St. Paul Gophers, still had players like Topeka Jack Johnson, and the 1910 version featured future star pitcher Hurley McNair, as well as an aging outfielder named Bill Binga. Fourteen years earlier, Binga had been a starter for the legendary Adrian Page Fence Giants.
Later that year, Dismukes joined the powerful West Baden (Indiana) Sprudels, a resort team then led by newly relocated manager Charles Isham Taylor. While he worked during the day as a resort hotel waiter, it was with the Sprudels that the pitcher tossed what proved to be one of the most notable games of his career, the four-hitter in an exhibition against the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 10, 1911. In that game, played in West Baden, the Pirates were not at full strength. The team had arrived that morning after an all-night train ride from St. Louis, where they had lost a tough Sunday afternoon game to the Cardinals, 7-6. In West Baden the next day, Pirates manager Fred Clarke sat Honus Wagner, Chief Wilson, George Gibson, and pitcher Howie Kamnitz due to injuries, but players like Bill McKechnie and future Federal Leaguer Vin Campbell were in the losing team’s lineup. Infielder Bill Keen, from Oglethorpe, Georgia, managed the Bucs that afternoon, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted that he failed “to see anything humorous in defeat at the hands of a colored team.”11 In other words, while the Pirates may not have been at full strength, they were highly motivated to defeat their hosts, making Dismukes’ effort all the more impressive.
While Dismukes ultimately returned to Taylor’s teams, he hit the road and spent parts of 1912 with the St. Louis Giants, joined the Brooklyn Royal Giants in 1913 and 1914, and played for the New York Lincoln Stars in 1914-1915.12 It was with the latter team that Dismukes enjoyed suiting up with the likes of Louis Santop and Spottswood Poles, and toured Cuba for Dismukes’ first trip out of the country.13 In 1915 he also made four appearances with Fé of the Cuban League.14 Some sources list a brief stint with the Philadelphia Giants (1913) in Dismukes’ vitae, but the statistics for his time there are not available.15
Dismukes returned to the C.I. Taylor-led ABCs in April 1915. In his nonbarnstorming appearances, he is credited with a 14-5 record in 188⅔ innings pitched.16 In his second start with Indianapolis, he threw a no-hitter against Rube Foster’s powerful Chicago Union Giants on May 9. In that game, Oscar Charleston homered and Bingo DeMoss singled and stole a base in Indianapolis’s 7-0 win.17 The following winter, Dismukes returned to Cuba, this time with San Francisco Park, but started only one game and made the rest of his appearances in relief.
In January 1916 Dismukes rejoined the ABCs in Palm Beach, Florida, where manager Taylor had taken them to represent the Royal Poinciana Hotel.18 Upon return to Indianapolis, Dismukes resumed his role as staff ace, posting a 2.73 earned-run average against a competitive slate of Western independent clubs that included the Chicago American Giants, the Cuban Stars West, Kansas City All Nations, and the St. Louis Giants. Dismukes routinely faced gifted hitters of the caliber of Cristobal Torriente, Pete Hill, Pop Lloyd and Bingo DeMoss, and he acquitted himself well throughout the season.
The real fireworks began after the end of the regular season. Rube Foster had been quick to tout his American Giants as the true champions of the world to any reporter who would listen, but Taylor’s ABC squad had defeated them often enough over the season that a “Colored Championship of the West” series between the two was necessary to crown the true champion.
After the ABCs dropped Game One to Chicago, C.I. Taylor started Dismukes in Game Two against Frank Wickware. It was, in short, a masterpiece. Wickware allowed only six hits and no earned runs, while Dismukes gave up only three hits and no runs at all. The ABCs won, 1-0, because of a rare error by shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd. Indianapolis won Game Three, 9-0, and then Dismukes returned to the mound against Game One winner Tom Johnson. This time the ABCs prevailed, 8-2, as Dismukes scattered seven hits.19
After an offday for the teams, Dismukes was back on the hill and took the ball for Game Five. Fatigued after only one day of rest, he allowed two runs to cross in the first inning and gave up another run in the second, then settled in to allow only one more hit through the next seven frames. After he had left the game, Indianapolis exploded for seven runs on seven hits in the sixth and held on for a 12-8 win. The Indianapolis Freeman headline proclaimed: “A.B.C.’s WIN WORLD SERIES.”20
The 1917 season marked some regression for both Indianapolis and Dismukes, the latter managing a meager 2-5 record. The team suffered several key injuries, and even lost an exhibition to the Indianapolis Indians (of the organized American Association). After the season, the ABCs played a three-game set against white touring teams and took two of three against those squads. The next year Dismukes accepted an offer from the Dayton Marcos to be their player-manager, but the team managed only a 1-6 record under their novice skipper before Dismukes’ season ended early due to World War I.
Dismukes was assigned to the Army’s 809th Pioneer Infantry, almost immediately headed off to France, and ultimately was promoted to sergeant.21 The unit was not permitted into combat, as the Army was still feeling its collective way regarding units manned exclusively by black soldiers, but according to diaries of several participating soldiers, it was demanding duty. According to various accounts:
“The Negro Service of Supply men acquired a great reputation in the various activities to which they were assigned, especially for efficiency and celerity in unloading ships and supplies of every sort at the base ports. They were a marvel to the French and astonished not a few of the officers of our own army.”22
“During the 14-day voyage aboard the troop ship President Grant, about half of the 5000 men on board fell ill with ‘Spanish flu.’ They were from many regiments being posted to Europe. So many men died enroute that their bodies had to be buried at sea.”23
After surviving such a horrifying year, Dismukes returned to Dayton in a pitcher-only role for 1919. At some point in his career, Dismukes was tagged with the nickname “Dizzy.” It was certainly an ironic moniker, as he was regarded as one of the more cerebral and calm players of the time: “A college man, he was a smart, studious player with a wonderful memory and was a strategist. He knew a batter’s tendencies and would almost unerringly position his infielders where the batter would hit according to the pitches he was throwing. He had a variety of breaking pitches and was considered by some to be a ‘trick pitcher’ because of the way his breaking balls moved.”24 Dismukes was valuable enough, nickname notwithstanding, to return to Indianapolis for the 1920 season.
Turning 30 years old in 1920, Dismukes logged 187 innings in the new Negro National League, and the team enjoyed a winning record. Near the end of the 1921 season, he moved to the Pittsburgh Keystones as player-manager. The 1922 season in Pittsburgh proved important in Dismukes’ career and life: He was invited to contribute the occasional baseball column to the Pittsburgh Courier. Teaming with Homestead Grays owner Cumberland “Cum” Posey, Dismukes would opine on the state of the game and the level of play, and generally bridge the gap between newspaper-reading fans and the players on the field. In a 1930 example of his direct prose style and candor, Dismukes wrote:
“The crop of young catchers breaking into the game in the past ten years have been so poor that I can only find three, namely: Frank Duncan of the Kansas City Monarchs, Raleigh Mackey of Hillsdale, and Larry Brown of Memphis Red Sox showing enough skill to qualify in my selection of nine best catchers. Topping the list is none other than Bruce Petway. …”25
Dismukes continued to write his columns for many years, finally giving up the typewriter in order to work as a front-office executive for the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1940s.
He returned to the ABCs in as player-manager in 1923, following the sudden death of mentor C.I. Taylor. After leading the team to a 51-33 record in 1923, but only a 5-21 mark in 1924, Dismukes left in midseason to manage the Birmingham Black Barons. After a reported disagreement with Black Barons owner Joe Rush, Dismukes left again and finished the year with the Homestead Grays.26
Playing the role of a baseball nomad, Dismukes spent 1925 pitching for and managing the Memphis Red Sox, and spent 1926-27 at the helm of the St. Louis Stars. While there is no existing statistical record of Dismukes’ baseball life between 1928 and 1931, it is likely that he remained with St. Louis through 1929, then took over the Chicago American Giants after Rube Foster’s mental breakdown and death.27 He may have been out of baseball in 1931, or he may have managed the American Giants, but he definitely returned to the diamond as manager of the Detroit Wolves of the East-West League in 1932. He spent 1933 and 1934 managing the Columbus Blue Birds of the new Negro National League, returned to the American Giants in 1935, and to St. Louis for 1936 and 1937.
After a brief encore as the Birmingham Black Barons’ manager in 1938, the Atlanta Black Crackers in 1939, and the Homestead Grays in 1940, Dismukes was named to his final, interim managerial job with Kansas City after Newt Allen’s surprise resignation in 1942. He moved into the role of traveling secretary when Frank Duncan took over as player-manager during that memorable campaign.28 According to Monarchs legend Buck O’Neil, Dismukes was known for “his arbitration abilities with ball players and upper management, and had tremendous influence with his mannerisms on and off the field.”29 In 1944 he and Monarchs co-owner Tom Baird represented the team at a league meeting intended to name a new, joint Negro National and American League commissioner.30
Dismukes remained with the Monarchs’ front office as traveling secretary until 1951,31 but he had begun to work as a bird-dog scout for the New York Yankees starting in 1949.32 In 1953 the Yankees offered him a full-time job as a scout, focusing his search on the array of untapped talent that still existed in the Negro American League.33 Dismukes told Wendell Smith, his old friend and Pittsburgh Courier columnist, “It’s a good job, but not an easy one. You are constantly on the go, riding trains, planes, and even buses. There is plenty of competition, too. Every big league club has a squad of scouts. Sometimes you think you have a kid in the bag, ready for delivery. … Only to discover that one of the other fellows has snatched him from under your nose.”34
The move was significant, in that the Yankees still had not fielded a black player eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line for the crosstown rival Brooklyn Dodgers. Every move the Yankees made drew the attention of the writers, and they were beginning to wonder aloud when the club might add a Black player to their roster. Dismukes was brought in as an experienced former player and manager and judge of talent, but also as an educated man with a communications pedigree that included his national column with the Courier. Dismukes defended the team:
“The general public,” he said, “feels that the Yankees are against Negro players, and that makes it tough for me. Just recently I had a good Negro prospect lined up but lost him. A scout from another team came along and signed the boy after his father told him that the Yankees didn’t really want Negro players. … The people who have been critical of the Yankees have been most unfair. Just because they didn’t keep (Vic) Power and sent Howard to Toronto does not mean they are anti-Negro. I know that they are not adverse [sic] to Negro players. All they are looking for is the Yankee type of player, race or color does not matter.”35
The scouting job also proved to be the most lucrative in Dismukes’ career. He had never married, so the arduous road-wearying lifestyle was fine with him, and the $10,000 per year that he earned certainly made the effort worthwhile.36 Once the Yankees introduced Elston Howard as their first Black big leaguer in 1955, and began to populate their minor-league system with talented minority players at all levels, Dismukes moved on. He did some scouting for the Chicago White Sox,37 and returned to the field that same year,38 replacing Jelly Taylor as manager of the Kansas City Monarchs.39 After the 1958 season, Dizzy Dismukes hung up his spikes for good.
Over the next few years, Dismukes’ health began to falter, and in 1961 he moved in with his sister, Vashti Owens, at her home in Campbell, Ohio. He died on June 30, 1961. After an autopsy, the cause of death was listed as hardening of the arteries.40 He is buried at the Mount Hope Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Campbell, Ohio.
This biography relied on information culled from various archives of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, Seamheads.com, and the Pittsburgh Courier, as well as several books on this era of the Negro Leagues (as identified in the notes). Jorge Figueredo’s summary Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961 was the primary source for Dismukes’ time in Cuba.
1 Center for Negro League Baseball Research: cnlbr.org/Portals/0/RL/Negro%20League%20No-Hitters%202019-10.pdf Accessed July 11, 2020.
2 From the Pittsburgh Courier, cited on johndonaldson.bravehost.com/a.html, accessed July 10, 2020.
3 This date differs among Internet sources, some of which list his date of birth as March 15, 1890. Both Dismukes’ World War II draft registration card and his posthumous application for a veteran’s headstone, however, state that he was born on March 13, 1890.
4 There is no primary-source documentation linking Isaac and William, but the latter’s sister, Vashti, was the applicant for Dismukes’ veteran’s headstone. The only Vashti Dismukes in Birmingham, Alabama, between 1893 and 1920 was the daughter of Isaac Dismukes, so it is likely that Isaac was also Dizzy’s father.
7 Russ Cowan, “Teams Went ‘Pow, Pow, Pow,’ Until Ku Klux Klan Invaded Diamond,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 5, 1961: 37.
8 “Dizzy Started Back in 1908, Beat Pirates, 2-1, in 1911,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 5, 1961: 37.
9 From the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum biography of Dizzy Dizmukes. nlbemuseum.com/nlbemuseum/history/players/dismukes.html. Accessed July 12, 2020. It is possible that the Kentucky Unions were formed after the collapse of the more prominent Louisville Unions in 1908, but beyond the archives at the Kansas State University College of Education and James Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994), there is little primary source material corroborating the team’s existence or roster.
10 Todd Peterson, Early Black Baseball in Minnesota (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., 2010), 145.
11 C.B. Power, “Pirates Beaten, 2 to 1, by Colored Sprudels,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 12, 1911: 9.
12 Unless otherwise noted, the statistical references in this essay are all drawn from Seamheads.com, seamheads.com/NegroLgs/player.php?playerID=dismu01diz. Accessed most recently July 17, 2020.
13 Eduardo Servero Nieto Misas, Early U.S. Blackball Teams in Cuba (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2008), 116.
14 Jorge Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2003), 114.
15 Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) biography of Dizzy Dizmukes. nlbemuseum.com/nlbemuseum/history/players/dismukes.html. Accessed July 12, 2020.
17 “Dismukes Hurls No-Hit Shutout,” Indianapolis Freeman, May 15, 1915.
18 According to the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, “The Florida Hotel League, or the Coconut League as it was sometimes called, was a two-team league in Florida that was comprised of all-Black baseball teams representing the Breakers Hotel and the Royal Poinciana. … During the winter Black ball players would travel to Florida and take jobs as bellmen, porters, cooks, dishwashers and wait staff personnel in the restaurants of the big resort hotels. … Management … would form baseball teams and games would be scheduled for the entertainment of the hotel guests.” From Layton Revel and Luis Munoz’s monograph Forgotten Heroes: Charles Isham “C.I.” Taylor, 1916. nlbemuseum.com/nlbemuseum/history/players/taylorc.html.
19 Revel and Munoz, 17-18.
20 “A.B.C.s Win World Series,” Indianapolis Freeman, November 4, 1916, also cited by Paul Debono in his book The Indianapolis ABCs (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., 1997), 69.
21 It is often cited that he served in the 803rd Pioneer Infantry during the war. According to his application for a federal headstone or grave marker (DD Form 1330, submitted and verified July 2, 1961, he enlisted on August 22, 1918, and was discharged on August 2, 1919. He served in Company A, 809th Pioneer Infantry.
22 W. Allison Sweeney, History of the American Negro in the Great World War. gutenberg.org/files/16598/16598-h/16598-h.htm. Accessed July 13, 2020.
23 Global Security archives. globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/ap.htm. Accessed June 12, 2020.
24 NLBM biography: Dizzy Dizmukes.
25 “Dizzy” Dismukes, “Petway Rated Greatest Thrower and Johnson Best Receiver by Dismukes,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 1, 1930: 14.
26 “Dismukes Leaves Black Barons; May Hook Up with Grays,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 23, 1924: 12.
27 NLBM biography: Dizzy Dizmukes.
28 “Newt Allen Quits KayCee,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 4, 1942: 17; Dick Clark and Larry Lester The Negro Leagues Book (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1994), 133; Wendell Smith, “Smitty’s Sports-Spurts,” Pittsburgh Courier, October 10, 1942: 17.
29 Larry Lester, The Negro Leagues Book, Volume 2 (Kansas City, Missouri: Noir-Tech Research, Inc., 2020), 172.
30 William A. Young, J.L. Wilkinson and the Kansas City Monarchs: Trailblazers in Black Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2016), 136.
31 Buck O’Neil, I Was Right on Time (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 181-184.
32 Young, 174.
33 Wendell Smith, “Wendell Smith’s Sports Beat,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 4, 1954: 22.
34 Smith, September 4, 1954.
35 Smith, September 4, 1954.
36 “Dismukes Was the Original ‘Dizzy’ of Baseball,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 15, 1961: 56.
37 NLBM biography: Dizzy Dizmukes.
38 Young, 181.
39 Kansas City Times, July 25, 1957: 18.
40 “Dizzy Dismukes, ABC Pitcher, Dies,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 1, 1961: 11; “William Dismukes,” findagrave.com/memorial/96698303/william-dismukes. Accessed June 12, 2020.