Roosevelt Davis (NOIRTECH RESEARCH, INC.)

Roosevelt Davis

This article was written by Jay Hurd

Roosevelt Davis (NOIRTECH RESEARCH, INC.)The June 6, 1945, headline in The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois) read, “Cincinnati Clowns to Play at Davenport Friday Night.” The piece to follow reported, “Some of the greatest names in Negro baseball appear in the Clowns’ lineup, among them being Roosevelt ‘Duro’ Davis, second only to ‘Satchel’ Paige in Negro pitching circles.” Hyperbole or not, Davis, 41 years old at the time of this article, had played baseball for nearly 30 years – a veteran of the Negro National League (I and II), the Negro American League, the Mexican League, and multiple independent leagues.

While records of Roosevelt Davis and his family are, at best, minimal and inconsistent, it appears certain that he was born in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, on November 19, 1904. His father, Will, was born on April 10, 1880, possibly in Bartlesville. Roosevelt’s mother has been identified as Anna; however, records indicate that Will did not wed until 1909 when he married, in nearby Arkansas, Octavia Campbell of the Cherokee Tribe, Foreman, Sequoyah, Oklahoma. It is unclear when Octavia died, but by 1935 Will lived in Peoria, Illinois, where he remained until his death in 1960. A brief obituary states that Will had been widowed for a number of years and left a son, Roosevelt; a daughter, Oleander; and a sister, Bertha.1 While his earlier employments may have varied (including California vineyard worker2), during the final 26 years of his life in Illinois Will Davis had been employed as a janitor by the U.S. Barge Lines.

Roosevelt may have attended the Douglass School, which was founded in 1907 for Bartlesville’s black students.3 The 1920 US Census shows Roosevelt, age 15, living in Bartlesville, not with his father and/or mother, but with his aunt Bertha Mackey and her two sons, Eddie and Robert.

There is also uncertainty in regard to exactly when Roosevelt began to play, but his name appears in Bartlesville newspapers in the early 1920s, including one game summary in which he is identified as a pitcher for the Coffeyville, Kansas, baseball team.4 At this time, and perhaps already in years prior, his baseball talent became evident and he played on other teams including the Wichita (Kansas) Monrovians5 and an integrated team in Tekamah, Nebraska.6 The St. Louis Stars, members of the newly organized Negro National League, added him to their roster as a starting pitcher in 1924. He was listed as 5-feet-9 and 168 pounds, and he batted and threw right-handed. He appeared in 25 games that season, compiled a 7-4 record, pitched 121⅔ innings, and held a 4.29 ERA. The Stars’ squad, managed by 40-year-old James Allen “Candy Jim” Taylor, included James “Cool Papa” Bell and Willie “El Diablo” Wells. After the season Davis married Lillian Turner of Omaha, Nebraska, on December 5, 1924. How long they remained married is unknown, and it appears that they had no children.

Davis again was a starting pitcher for the 1925 Stars, and his 17-7 record helped the team to reach the Negro National League Championship Series against the Kansas City Monarchs. Although the Stars lost the series, Davis had secured his spot in the starting rotation. For the season, he started 21games, completed nine, and struck out 54 batters.

In 1926 Candy Jim Taylor left the St. Louis Stars to manage the Detroit Stars; St. Louis’s new manager, Dizzy Dismukes, led his team to a third-place finish, and Davis compiled a 8-5 record, with only one complete game, in 18 starts. In 1927 Taylor managed St. Louis to a 62-37 record and a second-place finish. Davis pitched to an 11-8 record that year. Davis appeared in 23 games during the 1928 NNL season, although he made only eight starts, and achieved a perfect 8-0 record; however, he made only a brief one-inning appearance in one game of the championship series. The team, again managed by Taylor, did very well, posting a 61-26 record in league play, and won the Negro National League pennant in the championship series against the Chicago American Giants.

In 1929 Davis split the season between the St. Louis Stars, with Taylor in his final season as the manager, and the Chicago American Giants, managed by Jim Brown. Davis compiled a 6-7 record for St. Louis, but he was with Chicago by the time the team played a seven-game series versus a team of American Leaguers that included Wally Schang, Charlie Gehringer, and Harry Heilmann. The American Giants won the series, five games to two. Davis pitched in two games, one complete-game start and one relief appearance, and struck out six while pitching to a 1.69 ERA in 10⅔ innings.

By then Davis resided in St. Louis. The 1930 US Census listed him as a single lodger who was employed in “League” industry as a ballplayer. The 1930 season again saw Davis play with two teams: theStars, now managed by John Reese, and the Kansas City Monarchs, managed by Charles Wilber “Bullet Joe” Rogan. He was 1-0 in two appearances for the Monarchs but posted a stellar 10-3 regular-season mark for the Stars and won his only start against the Detroit Stars in the NNL Championship Series, which St. Louis won in seven games.

Davis led a peripatetic existence in 1931 as he pitched for three teams. He was 1-0 with the St. Louis Stars before he joined the Indianapolis ABCs, also of the Negro National League, and played again for manager Candy Jim Taylor; Davis won only one of five decisions for the ABCs. He moved on to the Pittsburgh Crawford Giants, a member team of the Independent Clubs League that was managed by Bobby Williams. In Pittsburgh, he posted a 2-2 record that included a shutout and 20 strikeouts in 27⅓ innings pitched.

With the 1932 season came yet more change for Davis. With the Cuban Stars West, also known as [Syd] Pollock’s Cuban Stars of the East-West League, he pitched in two games. He also pitched in four games with the Cleveland Stars, another squad that was part of the East-West League. His composite record was 1-3 and he had a cumulative 3.61 ERA.

Davis again played a minor role in the 1933 season, this time for the Columbus (Ohio) Blue Birds of the Negro National League, who were managed by another familiar name, Dizzy Dismukes. Davis had a 2-2 record in eight appearances (four starts), but he had a sparkling 2.66 ERA in 44 innings pitched. The 1933 campaign was also when Davis taught Bill Byrd how to throw the spitball. Once Byrd became known for the spitball, he often faked throwing that pitch “for psychological reasons” to confuse batters.7 Indeed, Davis himself was a master of the spitball and, “legal or not, he was deemed one of the best spitball and emery-ball pitchers in black baseball.”8 Davis’s prowess in applying “slippery elm juice” to the ball would create interesting moments later in his career.

The most notable event for Davis in 1933 occurred when Neil Churchill, who owned an integrated team in Bismarck, North Dakota, recruited him after consulting with Chicago’s Abe Saperstein.9 The Bismarck Tribune’s account of Davis’s debut noted, “Davis caught the fancy of local diamond enthusiasts in his first game here Sunday when he blanked Fort Lincoln 16-0, allowing only three hits, striking out 16 (four in one inning), getting three hits and driving in five runs.”10 He was later joined in Bismarck by other Negro Leaguers who included, most notably, Satchel Paige.11

In 1934 Davis joined forces with Paige, Josh Gibson, James “Cool Papa” Bell, and player-manager Oscar Charleston on the NNL’s Pittsburgh Crawfords. He pitched in only five games, starting two and compiling a 1-0 record. He soon made a return trip to North Dakota, along with Quincy Trouppe and Satchel Paige. This time, Davis played for the New Rockford club while Paige and Trouppe again provided Bismarck with a formidable battery. The Bismarck Tribune remained complimentary to Davis even as he pitched for a rival team, and wrote about his loss to Bismarck, “Roosevelt Davis, a former teammate … turned in a good pitching exhibition but his erratic support gave him little chance against the Capital City team.”12

At 30 years old, Davis returned to the Crawfords for their 1935 championship season. After finishing the first half of the season with a record of 26-6, the Crawfords defeated the winners of the second-half pennant, the New York Cubans, in a hotly contested seven-game series. Davis fashioned a 5-1 record in 13 appearances (eight starts) during the regular season, but he was a key cog for the team in the championship series. He made two complete-game starts and one relief appearance against the Cubans and put up a 2-1 record pitching 23⅔ innings against the Cubans. Had it not been for Davis’s tough-as-nails pitching efforts, the New Yorkers might have prevailed against the team that many consider to be the finest Negro League squad in history, the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords.

On the heels of his great performance in the 1935 championship, Davis moved to New York, where he joined the Black Yankees for the 1936 season. Manager Bob Clarke led the team to a 21-16-1 record in NNL play; Davis put up a 2-4 record. The following season, Davis made one appearance for the Black Yankees before he rejoined the Crawfords, who were still being managed by Oscar Charleston. Davis pitched to the same 2-4 record (all for the Crawfords) he had accumulated the previous season and saw his ERA balloon to 5.04 over 44⅔ innings with the Steel City team.

By 1938 it appeared as though Davis’s career might be nearing its end. He once again split time between two teams, playing for the Black Yankees, managed by Walter Cannady, and the Newark Eagles of Abe Manley and Dick Lundy. His cumulative statistics included a 0-1 record in three appearances (one start) and a 6.75 ERA in only eight innings of work.

Perhaps in the hope that a change of scenery might help, Davis moved south to join the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League in 1939. On this team, managed by Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, Davis started four games, completed three and, while striking out 16, compiled a 1-3 record and brought his ERA down to 3.82. That same year, Davis made his only venture outside the United States to play for the Monterrey team in the Mexican League. He was one of “the stars of the first year” of the Monterrey Sultanes, who were later renamed the Industriales.13 During his stint south of the border, Davis was 3-6 in 11 starts, struck out 49 batters, and had a 3.76 ERA in 67 innings.14

While baseball had become Davis’s main source of income, he still needed to supplement his finances with employment in the winter months. His October 16, 1940, draft registration form indicates that he lived in Chicago and that he was employed by the Palmer House hotel (likely as a waiter).15 Keenly aware of the limitations of baseball income, Davis noted that “off season employment should have been ‘tackled and solved long ago. Baseball players have to eat and sleep and see the laundry man in December as well as June.”16

It also happened that, during the 1939 season, Satchel Paige’s ailing arm miraculously healed, and Paige returned to J.L. Wilkinson’s “B” team in Kansas City.17 To prove that Paige could indeed pitch again, Wilkinson and Abe Saperstein scheduled a game with the Palmer House Stars. Paige later recounted, “Abe says, ‘If Satch is great again let’s let his arm speak for us. The hottest arm in Negro baseball is Roosevelt Davis: How about putting Satch up against him?” However, Paige knew Davis and he said “Now wait. That Roosevelt Davis throws a cut ball. I don’t like to throw no cut ball. … Davis scratches the ball with his nails and his belt buckle. That makes the ball sail and Davis knows how to control it.”18 Paige continued, “So Abe books a game in late September with the Palmer House Indians, the team Roosevelt Davis was pitchin’ for. … They got three hits and we win, 1-0.”19 Lost in Paige’s account is whether he actually faced off against Davis that day, or whether a different pitcher took the mound for the Palmer House team.

Davis returned to the Memphis Red Sox in 1940 as a pitcher and occasional left fielder, but he mostly pitched for the Palmer House Stars in independent baseball. As the Stars traveled north from spring training in Texas, they stopped to play the Kansas City Monarchs in a seven-game series: “[T]he Palmer House team was credited with downing the Monarchs six times before finally losing, 2-1, to Satchel Paige. Roosevelt Davis took the loss in that game even though he struck out 10 Monarchs (besting Paige’s eight strikeouts). Davis was accused of scuffing the ball, though nothing came of the accusation.”20 He continued to pitch for the Palmer House nine, with success and controversy. “In 1940 they came in fifth in the Wichita National Semi-Pro Tournament, relying on the solid pitching of Roosevelt Davis.”21 His reputation as a creative pitcher preceded him: “Roosevelt Davis 38 year old Palmer House pitcher, who was ejected from the game in the ninth inning by Umpire Virgil Blueitt [sic] when he refused to surrender what Kansas City players charged was a tampered ball, struck out ten, yielded seven hits, and gave two walks. … Umpire Bluett chased Davis from the field amusing the crowd by putting on a wrestling act with the Palmer House coaches.”22

Davis now settled in Chicago and, in addition to playing for the Palmer House squad, also anchored the Chicago Brown Bombers’ pitching staff in 1942. In 1943, at the age of 38, Davis pitched in nine games for the Cincinnati Clowns of the Negro American League. He made six starts and completed them all, hurled one shutout, and posted a 2.35 ERA over 61⅓ innings. Davis had brief stints with the same team – now known as the Cincinnati-Indianapolis Clowns – in 1944 and 1945 before his professional pitching career came to an end. In 1944 he finished the year at 3-1, and in 1945 he had no wins and no losses in one start.

Roosevelt Davis played 20 seasons in the Negro Leagues. During that time, he played for 12 teams in four leagues while also competing in multiple independent leagues, where he played alongside many of baseball’s greatest players, both black and white. He compiled a 98-63 record, with a .609 winning percentage, and a 4.11 ERA in Negro League play. Despite a well-founded reputation for using the spitball, cut ball, and emery ball, he had remarkable control of his pitches.

On January 22, 1950, the Chicago Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America held its annual meeting at the Palmer House. During the occasion, “Some observant sports writers … spotted vaguely familiar faces” among the waiters. Five waiters in starched shirts and ties turned out to be veterans of the Negro Leagues and among them Roosevelt Davis, the first black player brought to Bismarck by Neil Churchill in 1933, the scuffed-ball maestro … in his Mid-forties (and balding), he carried serving trays for a living.”23

Roosevelt Davis died on December 28, 1968, in Chicago at the age of 64. He was buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. Through the efforts of the SABR Negro Leagues Committee and its Grave Marker Project, a marker noting his career in Negro League baseball was dedicated and placed at his gravesite in 2005.

 

Sources

Unless otherwise indicated, all Negro League statistics were taken from Seamheads.com. Additional sources of content include Baseball-Reference.com, Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com, the Oklahoma and Kansas Historical Societies, and a statistical bio prepared by SABR member Kevin Larkin.

 

Notes

1 Find a Grave, Will Davis, April 10, 1880-November 11, 1960, findagrave.com/memorial/187482031.

2 Alan J. Pollock, Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and His Great Black Teams (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 125-126.

3Bartlesville, Oklahoma, segregated black students from the rest of the student population until 1956. Bartlesville, Oklahoma Public School site, bps-ok.org/home/district/history/douglass.

4 “Black Oilers Down Hotshots, Score 4-3,” Bartlesville (Oklahoma) Morning Examiner, June 30, 1922.

5 “Panthers Open with Wichita Monrovians,” Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), April 29, 1923.

6 Pollock, 125.

7 Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, William Byrd,” nlbemuseum.com/history/players/byrd.html.

8 Mark Schremmer, “Negro League Greats Started in Topeka,” Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal, August 6, 2011. cjonline.com/article/20110806/SPORTS/308069876.

9 Donald Spivey, If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy “Satchel” Paige (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2012), 102.

10 “Bismarck Nine Will Play Gray Ghosts of St. Louis Here Tonight; Expect Roosevelt and Mates Will ‘Pack ’Em In,’” Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune, June 28, 1933.

11 Spivey, 102-103.

12 “Bismarck Hammers Roosevelt Davis; Wins from Rockford, 13-3,” Bismarck Tribune, June 18, 1934.

13 Martha Cedillo, “Sultanes de Monterrey, el Iceberg de Beisbol,” milenio.com/especiales/sultanes-el-iceberg-del-beisbol

14 Pedro Treto Cisneros, The Mexican League: Comprehensive Player Statistics, 1937-2001 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002), 469.

15 Of note: Roosevelt identifies his father, Will, as next of kin on his draft registration form. Will Davis, at the age of 61, registered for the draft on April 27, 1942.

16 Neil Lanctot, Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 163.

17 “Satchel Paige,” Baseball Hall of Fame, baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/paige-satchel.

18 Satchel Paige, as told to Hal Lebovitz, Pitchin’ Man: Satchel Paige’s Own Story (New York: Ishi Press International, 2015), 60.

19 Pitchin’ Man, 61.

20 Leslie Heaphy, “Palmer House Stars,” The National Pastime, 2015, https://sabr.org/research/palmer-house-stars.

21 Leslie Heaphy, ed. “Chicago Teams in the Negro League Era,” Black Baseball and Chicago: Essays on the Players and Teams (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2006), 34.

22 James Segreti, “Satchel Paige Pitches, Grins, and Conquers,” Chicago Tribune, September 23, 1940.

23 Tom Dunkel, Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Lines (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 267. According to the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, Davis also pitched in 1945 for the Philadelphia Stars and the Cleveland Buckeyes. He may also have played at one point during his career for the Brooklyn Royal Giants.

Full Name

Roosevelt Davis

Born

November 19, 1904 at Bartlesville, OK (US)

Died

December 28, 1968 at Chicago, IL (US)

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