This article was written by Dave Wilkie
Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, speaking to Negro League historian James Riley, had this to say about his teammate Johnny Davis’s talent: “Perhaps too many gifts. Had Davis not divided his time between pitching, catching and playing the outfield, Johnny might have starred in the Majors.”1
John Howard Davis was probably born on February 6, 1918.2 In a questionnaire he filled out for the Hall of Fame in 1975, he listed this date and apologized for not knowing his place of birth.3 Davis grew up an orphan, spending most of his childhood in a Catholic protectory in the Bronx.4 He would often run away, get caught and be placed with a family, and then run away again. “I’d run away from the homes. I was probably looking for something, but who in the heck knows what I was looking for?” he said. “Maybe I was trying to find my mother. I was seven or eight. Just take off and run. Cops’d find me. OK, back in another home.”5 Davis played stickball and, later, baseball at the protectory. He claimed to be the biggest kid in his division.6
At 17, Davis left the protectory and joined the merchant marine. Between 1936 and 1939 he sailed the world, overcoming seasickness, learning Spanish, and experiencing life in way that he would fondly look back on later. “I always wanted to see what’s on the other side of the street, different people, different places, different foods. Eighteen years old, and I’d seen half the world already.”7
After leaving the merchant marine, Davis returned to baseball in Schenectady, New York. His play soon attracted the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Al Campanis. Campanis sent Davis to the Mohawk Giants in the Upper New York State Independent League and also secured him a job at American Locomotive to help make ends meet.8
In 1940 Abe and Effa Manley, the husband-and-wife owners of the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles, expressed an interest in Davis and attempted to acquire him from the Giants. The Giants’ white owner, Henry Bozzi, was willing to sell Davis, but Davis was on parole for a crime committed as a minor and he wasn’t allowed to move from the state.9 Effa Manley campaigned hard, later giving credit to the unnamed “biggest negro politician in New Jersey” in the transfer of Davis’s parole to New Jersey.10 Halfway through the 1941 season, her persistence paid off and Davis became a full-time member of the Newark Eagles.
Davis often referred to himself as part Cherokee Indian and his nicknames reflected a Native-American heritage.11 His Newark teammates called him Cherokee; in Puerto Rico he was known as Chief; and thanks to the legendary Josh Gibson, the Homestead Grays called him Geronimo. This came about when, after a mammoth home run at Ebbets Field early in his career, Davis jumped onto home plate after rounding third and Gibson shouted, “Geronimo.”12
The 1942 season saw Davis hitting his stride with a .310 average. Teammate and future Hall of Famer Leon Day said of Davis’s hitting style: “He was a good fastball hitter. Don’t try to throw the fastball by him. He hit the ball a long way.”13
Davis had a solid 1943 season, hitting .324 and settling in nicely with the star-studded Newark Eagles. Newark pitcher Max Manning described his teammate this way: “He used to act kind of wildish, he was a really big kid more than anything else. He’d do a lot of kiddish things. He loved to drive the bus. He liked to be alone, but he was a good mixer too.”14
With some of their best players, including superstar outfielder Monte Irvin, off to war, the 1944 Newark Eagles finished in fifth place, nine games behind the champion Homestead Grays.15 This didn’t stop Davis from having one of his finest seasons. He batted .353 and chipped in on the mound with a 3-3 record. Davis was also honored with the starting center-field spot in the 1944 East-West All-Star Game, in which he rapped out two hits while sandwiched between greats Josh Gibson and Sam Bankhead.16 Davis, power-hitting Hall of Famer Mule Suttles, and a few other veterans were able to take the field during wartime thanks to 4-F classifications by their draft boards.17
The 1945 season brought more success for Davis as he hit .333 and earned another trip to the East-West All-Star Game. He spent the offseason barnstorming for a team called [Biz] Mackey’s All-Stars, when they played a five-game series against the [Charlie] Dressen All-Stars, a white major-league team that included Ralph Branca, Virgil Trucks, Eddie Stanky, and Tommy Holmes. Standouts Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, and Willie Wells also suited up for the Mackey team.18 Davis went 3-4 in limited action in the series.
Newark Eagles publicist J.L. Kessler wrote of Davis for the 1945 season: “John Davis, No. 31 – OF. Johnny is a fence buster and has been banging them to the far corner, but some of his longest ‘wappos’ have been long outs. He still sports a .300 batting average, and when they start falling where they ain’t, watch out for Davis!”19
The 1946 Eagles were the stuff that legends are made of, and the squad became one of the greatest teams in baseball history. They ran away with the Negro National League with a 56-24-2 record20 for a .700 winning percentage, finally ending the Homestead Grays’ nine-year grip on the title. Davis was a member of what was known as the “Big Four” – the power-hitting quartet that also included Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, and Lennie Pearson.21 The team also featured pitching standouts, Rufus Lewis, Leon Day, and Max Manning. Together the three pitchers combined for an other-worldly 42-8 record.22
The 1946 Negro League World Series was a nailbiter between the Eagles and the Buck O’Neil-led Kansas City Monarchs. The series went down to a deciding seventh game in which Davis delivered one of his career-defining moments. In the bottom of the sixth inning, with the score tied, 1-1 after an O’Neil homer in the top of the inning, Davis laced a double to left field that scored Doby and Irvin and put the Eagles up 3-1.23 Irvin’s run turned out to be the game-winner as the Eagles took the game, 3-2, and the championship, four games to three. Davis was 7-for-24 in the series for a .292 average. He said about his legendary team: “The 1946 Eagles would have beat anybody. We wanted to play the Brooklyn Dodgers. Wouldn’t play us, would not play us.”24
Davis managed to squeeze another highlight into an already memorable 1946 when he signed on with the Satchel Paige vs. Bob Feller barnstorming tour. The two star-studded teams played 12 games between September 29 and October 17. Feller’s team was made up of such stars as Stan Musial, Mickey Vernon, Charlie Keller, Phil Rizzuto, Spud Chandler, Johnny Sain, Dutch Leonard, and Bob Lemon. The Paige All-Stars fielded a team that included Buck O’Neil, Quincy Trouppe, Hank Thompson, Ed Steele, Howard Easterling, Hilton Smith, and Davis. It was truly a heavyweight bout.25 The white major leaguers took a very competitive series, nine games to seven. Davis’s heroics happened in game nine on October 12.26
Davis described that day’s game: “In Kansas City in ’46 Bob Feller’s team was leading us in the ninth inning with two outs and a man on, and I hit Spud Chandler’s fastball over the left-field fence. I picked Phil Rizzuto up at shortstop and carried him piggy-back from shortstop to third base, and we both slid in at home plate together.”27 Davis experienced another career highlight during the tour when he stroked two hits off Bob Feller in a game at Yankee Stadium.28 As if that wasn’t enough, Davis rounded out the year playing for league champion Matanzas of the Cuba Federation.29 He batted a paltry .238 (26-for-109), but chipped in with 12 runs for the winning club.30
The 1947 Newark Eagles were not able to recapture the magic of their championship season, possibly due to the uncertainty of superstar players jumping to the now-integrating major leagues. Newark did manage to do well in the first half of the season, but took a nosedive in the second half when Larry Doby was snatched up by the Cleveland Indians, becoming the first black player to play in the American League. Davis had another stellar year smacking 13 home runs, second in the league, and hitting 17 doubles, two behind the leader.31
Davis enjoyed a tremendous amount of success in the Latin American winter leagues, where he was more famous as a pitcher than a hitter. For the 1947-48 season, Davis hooked up with the iconic Mayaguez Indians of the Puerto Rican League and immediately felt right at home. “To me, the best thing was just going from city to city. I just wanted to see the next town. I like to go from here and see what’s on the other side of the street. That’s what intrigued me, going to different places to play baseball. I guess that’s why I liked it so much.”32
Davis went 12-7 with a 3.22 earned-run average and led the league with 100 strikeouts for the 1947-48 Mayaguez team. In what he described as his most outstanding achievement in baseball, Davis pitched a no-hitter on February 8, 1948, beating the Aguadilla Sharks 1-0.33 Joining sluggers Luke Easter, Wilmer Fields, and Alonzo Perry, Davis also slugged 11 home runs and played an integral part in leading the Indians to their first of many Puerto Rican championships.34
The Negro Leagues began to struggle mightily during the 1948 season and records became even more scarce. The integration of the major leagues and the Negro Leagues’ uncertain future were no doubt factors. The Homestead Grays finished the year winning the Negro National League title with a record of 44-23-1, but only seven games of statistics have been found for Johnny Davis.35 With the league barely hanging on, the Eagles were sold and moved to Houston after the season ended. Looking back on her team with a tinge of melancholy, Effa Manley talked about her players: “We had others who would have developed into great stars had they been given the chance. Leon Day, Rufus Lewis, Willie Wells, Johnny Davis, Terris McDuffie, Joe Ruffin, Mule Suttles, Dick Seay. There were a dozen Newark Eagles who would have been major league stars, not just major league material, but stars.”36
Davis headed south for the winter again for the 1948-49 season, returning to the Mayaguez Indians. He drove in over 50 runs in the 80-game season.37 Star players Artie Wilson, Wilmer Fields, Luke Easter and Alonzo Perry all rapped out over 100 hits for player-manager Wilson and his championship Indians. Davis returned to Mayaguez for the winter of 1949-50 and managed the team for a short stint.38
Davis spent his last two seasons in the Negro Leagues playing for the Houston Eagles. In 1949 he led the league with 14 home runs39 and played in his third and final East-West All-Star Game. Although the season started out well enough – in one May game Davis hit a homer completely out of the park while also pitching a 4-0 shutout – the Houston incarnation of the Eagles performed poorly.40 By midsummer the local press had turned on the team and was blaming the players, including Davis. A Houston Informer reporter wrote, “Johnny Davis’s bat has wilted. Of all things Tuesday night, he had the audacity to strike out when he knows his public expects him to knock one over the left field fence every time he comes to bat.”41 Things did not get any better in 1950, when the team was almost entirely ignored by Houston reporters; no statistics are available for the 1950 season.
With baseball opportunities dwindling in the United States during the steep decline of the Negro Leagues, Davis, along with many other former Negro League players, headed north to Canada. In 1951 he starred for the Drummondville Cubs of the Quebec Provincial League. Davis finished the year batting .347 with 31 home runs and 116 RBIs, all second in the league.42
Davis joined the Santurce Crabbers for the 1951-52 Puerto Rican Winter League season, playing the outfield and pitching. The following year he would take the field with 17-year-old Roberto Clemente.43
They wanted me to go to the Chicago White Sox to hit behind Eddie Robinson, but I broke a leg. Before I broke my leg I was hitting about .400 and I was only one home run behind Max West for the league lead. When I came back my average dropped, but the way I started the season, I believe that I could have gone up there (to the majors) and kept on doing what I was doing. I regret not going to the majors … just a little. I’d love to go up there in August or September just to see what it was like.45
It wasn’t all bad news for Davis in 1952. He was married to Adamit Hasselmyer in Puerto Rico on September 9, 1952.46
Davis wasn’t quite ready to hang up his spikes and signed with the Pepper Martin-led Fort Lauderdale Lions of the Florida International league for the 1953 season.47 Proving he still had some fight left in him, while wielding his 35½-inch, 33-ounce bat,48 Davis broke the league home-run record with 35, drove in 136 runs, and batted .331.49
Davis closed out his professional baseball career in 1954 with the Montgomery Rebels of the South Atlantic League. He walloped 8 home runs in 40 games and batted .263.50
Davis spent his post-baseball days living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with his wife and their two daughters, Diana and Camille. He worked as an auctioneer’s assistant at the Galt Plaza Gallery. Davis died on November 18, 1982. He was 64. Probably.51
A powerful slugger and pitcher, Johnny Davis stood 6-feet-2 and is listed as weighing 215 pounds during his playing career. He batted and threw right-handed.52 Davis had a remarkable career and a genuine zest for life, and he deserves more recognition for his accomplishments. Davis reflected on his career shortly before his death: “I had a ball. I really had a ball. Baseball has been very good to me.”53
All statistics, unless otherwise noted, are from seamheads.com or John B. Holway’s The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History (Fern Park, Florida: Hastings House Publishers, 2001). In three places where the stats differed, the more recent Seamheads stats are presented.
1 Timothy M. Gay, Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 237.
2 February 16 is also listed as Davis’ birthdate by numerous sources.
3 Clifford Kachline, questionnaire of Davis for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, 1975.
Seamheads.com lists Davis’s birthplace as Ashland, Virginia.
4 John B. Holway, Black Diamonds: Life in the Negro Leagues from the Men Who Lived It (New York: Stadium Books, 1991), 158.
6 Holway, Black Diamonds, 160.
7 Holway, Black Diamonds, 160-161.
8 James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994), 216.
9 James Overmyer, Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles (New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993), 194.
11 Kachline questionnaire.
12 James A. Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012), 188.
14 Holway, Black Diamonds, 157.
15 John B. Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History (Fern Park, Florida: Hastings House Publishers, 2001), 415.
16 Larry Lester, Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game, 1933-1953 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,2001), 237.
17 Bob Luke, The Most Famous Woman in Baseball: Effa Manley and the Negro Leagues (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, Inc., 2011), 103.
18 William F. McNeil, Black Baseball Out of Season (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007), 105.
19 Robert L. Cvornyek, Baseball in Newark (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2003), 96.
21 Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons, 189.
22 John Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, 437.
23 Overmyer, 207.
24 Holway, Black Diamonds, 163.
25 Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, 441-443.
26 Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, 442-443.
27 Holway, Black Diamonds, 165.
28 Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons, 190.
29 Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, 444.
30 Jorge Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History 1878-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003), 284-85.
31 Figueredo, 447-448.
32 Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons, 190.
33 For Davis’s valuation of his game, see Clifford Kachline, questionnaire of Davis for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, 1975. For the game itself, see “Davis Pitches Second Puerto Rico No-Hitter,” The Sporting News, February 18, 1948: 24,
34 Thomas E. Van Hyning, Puerto Rico’s Winter League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1995), 140.
35 Van Hyning, Puerto Rico’s Winter League, 211.
36 John Holway, Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1992), 318.
37 Van Hyning, Puerto Rico’s Winter League, 140.
38 Lou Hernandez, The Rise of the Latin American Baseball Leagues, 1947-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011), 243.
39 Dick Clark & Larry Lester, The Negro Leagues Book (Cleveland: SABR, 1994), 276.
40 Rob Fink, Playing in Shadows: Texas and Negro League Baseball (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2010), 115.
42 Barry Swanton & Jay Dell Mah, Black Baseball Players in Canada (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009), 56-57.
43 Thomas E. Van Hyning, The Santurce Crabbers: Sixty Seasons of Puerto Rican Winter League Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999), 223-224.
44 Holway, Black Diamonds, 163.
45 Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons, 191.
46 Kachline questionnaire.
47 Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons, 191.
48 Dick Meyer, “Time Out for Sports,” Fort Lauderdale Daily News, June 3, 1953.
49 Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, 217.
51 Kachline questionnaire.
53 Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons, 191.