Spoon Carter (JAY-DELL MAH)

Spoon Carter

This article was written by Frederick C. Bush

Spoon Carter (JAY-DELL MAH)Although Ernest “Spoon” Carter was never in the top tier of Negro League aces, he had enough pitching acumen to remain in great demand over the course of a 17-year career that also included stints in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, and Canada. In fact, teams’ desires for Carter’s services placed him at the center of numerous disputes, from a 1934 quarrel between the Negro Southern League and Negro National League, to an international squabble between Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee and the government of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1937, to another interleague clash – this time between the NNL and Negro American League – in 1940. Along the way, Carter’s career constantly intersected with that of the legendary Satchel Paige, and he played on some of the greatest squads in Negro League history, including the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords and the 1943-44 Homestead Grays.

Ernest C. Carter was born on December 8, 1902, in Harpersville, Alabama, to Elick C. and Jennetta (Williamson) Carter. He was the oldest of the Carter children and was followed by a sister, Bera, and a brother, Weldon. Three cousins – Mary, Mattie, and Fred Carter – also grew up on the family farm. Young Ernest completed school through the eighth grade and then worked in Birmingham, 28 miles northwest of Harpersville. He began to play baseball in Birmingham’s Industrial League, though it is not known for which team; perhaps it was already for the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company, where he worked in later years. It took time for Carter’s pitching to be noticed, and he did not embark upon his career in professional baseball until the ripe old age of 29.

As Negro League baseball struggled amid the depression, Carter signed with the NSL’s Birmingham Black Barons for the 1932 season. His rookie season turned out to be brief, because “it was the shortest season ever for a Birmingham team. They played for a little over a month before apparently folding without warning or acknowledgment in the local press.”1 Carter earned the distinction of being Birmingham’s Opening Day starter and was the winning pitcher of record in a 7-3 road victory over the Memphis Red Sox.2 He garnered another win in a 3-2 triumph over the Montgomery Grey Sox in the first game of a May 15 doubleheader.3 However, the 1932 season “also was one of the poorest covered in the team’s long history” and little else is known about the Black Barons’ play before the team folded for the year.4

Birmingham fielded an independent team in 1933, but Carter moved to the Black Barons’ former NSL rival in Memphis. The Red Sox were rolling in the first half of the NSL season, and the Pittsburgh Courier reported, “Spoon Carter, Lefty Harvey and Peterson have pitched wonderful ball to help the Sox along.”5 The national black press continued to remark on Memphis’s strong showing as the Chicago Defender noted, toward the end of June, “It is noticeable that the Memphis bunch has not lost a series in seven weeks, some record for playing.”6 The Red Sox swept a three-game series from the Little Rock Stars at the end of June, with Carter winning the finale, on their way to the NSL’s first-half title.7 However, an event occurred that derailed Memphis’s fine season, and they lost the NSL championship to the second-half titlist, the New Orleans Crescent Stars. What happened was that the Pittsburgh Crawfords, members of the second incarnation of the NNL that began play in 1933, gave tryouts to Carter, fellow Memphis hurler Bill Harvey, and pitcher Jim “Speed King” Lewis. According to the Pittsburgh Courier, “[t]hese men were later sent to the Akron Grays and ended the season with the Cleveland Club.”8

The Crawfords’ crosstown league rivals, the Homestead Grays, had moved to Akron, Ohio, for the second half of the NNL season and made their debut in that city in a Sunday doubleheader against the Nashville Elite Giants on July 23. Carter turned in a complete-game effort in the first tilt but was saddled with an 8-4 defeat as Nashville swept the twin bill.9 Akron finished 3-7 in NNL play, and Carter struggled to a 0-3 record with an inflated 7.59 ERA. He then made his lone start for the Cleveland Giants, in which he surrendered seven runs – all earned – in 3⅓ innings and took the loss. Contrary to the Courier’s report, Carter finished the year with the Crawfords rather than the Giants. Now pitching for a stronger team, Carter responded accordingly and put up a 2.82 ERA over 22⅓ innings with the Crawfords. In a late September game, the Crawfords lost to the Philadelphia Stars, 3-2, “despite the airtight pitching of Carter in the initial contest, in which he conceded but two hits to the Quaker City club.”10 Carter continued to be a victim of hard luck and had a 0-2 record with Pittsburgh to finish a winless season.

Carter’s move to the Grays and, later, the Crawfords caused understandable displeasure in the Southern circuit and created friction between the NSL and NNL. Dr. J.B. Martin, the NSL’s new president and co-owner of the Memphis Red Sox, wrote to NNL Chairman (and Crawfords owner) Gus Greenlee “[in] an effort to prevent club owners from raiding teams in the Southern league” and informed him “that the practice of the major circuit members must be brought to an end.” Greenlee agreed to the demand, stating that he did “not want these players [Carter, Harvey, and Lewis] unless they are secured according to the rules and regulations of organized colored baseball.”11

Although Greenlee’s acquiescence meant that Memphis should have had claim to Carter’s services once more, it is unclear where he began the 1934 season. What is known is that toward the end of May, Carter and Irving “Lefty” Vincent, another Pittsburgh Crawfords hurler, traveled to Bismarck, North Dakota, to play for car dealer Neil Churchill’s integrated semipro team. Satchel Paige had plied his trade for Bismarck the previous year and had been contracted to return for a repeat engagement. When, in typical Paige fashion, he failed to show in Bismarck in 1934, Churchill lured Carter and Vincent to the Dakotas as replacements. A Bismarck Tribune account of the two pitchers’ arrival reported that “Carter is in midseason form having won five out of seven starts this spring playing with Cleveland in the colored league. In the east he engaged Satchel Paige … in two pitching duels and broke even.”12 The claim about Carter’s pitching prowess that year appears to have been pure propaganda – most likely generated by Churchill – as there is no evidence that Carter pitched for Cleveland in 1934. In all likelihood, Churchill wanted to convince Bismarck fans that he had found a replacement who was the equal of Paige, and there was no better way to make that claim than to assert that Carter had split two duels with Satchel.

While Vincent found success in Bismarck, Carter continued to be plagued by the same bad luck he had experienced with the Crawfords in 1933. He started Bismarck’s game against Jamestown “before a record-breaking Fourth of July crowd” and suffered a 4-2 defeat.13 The Bismarck Tribune reported, “In the celebration day attraction, Carter held the Jimmie heavy hitters to six safeties but the combination of four errors and two homeruns paved the way for the Jamestown victory in a game which took only 1 hour and 32 minutes.”14 When Churchill decided he no longer needed Carter, Spoon found employment with Valley City, where he fared no better. On August 16 Bismarck and Valley City engaged in “a nip and tuck battle featuring Frank Stewart and Spoon Carter in a superb pitching duel. The Valley City hurler held his former Bismarck teammates to five hits in the first nine innings and allowed only one man to see third base.”15 Carter’s good fortune ran out in the 10th inning and he took the loss in a 1-0 game.

After having traveled from the East to the Midwest to play in one integrated league, Carter journeyed to the West Coast to play in another, the California Winter League. As a member of Tom Wilson’s Nashville Elite Giants, Carter teamed with a veritable “Who’s Who in the Negro Leagues” – a group that included Satchel Paige, James “Cool Papa” Bell, Willie Wells, Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles, Andy “Pullman” Porter, and Larry Brown – to form as formidable a team as the league had ever seen. Satchel Paige was late to the show because he had just married Janet Howard in Pittsburgh on October 26, but he still dominated the league to the tune of an 8-0 record. Pullman Porter led the Elite Giants with 12 wins (to only three losses), but the Opening Day start once again went to Carter.16

The Elite Giants opened the 1934-35 season by winning two games of a three-game series against the Pirrone’s All-Stars team at White Sox Park in Los Angeles. The first game was played on October 20 and numerous festivities marked the beginning of the new season. The press raved about the event:

“A mammoth street parade formed at 12th and Central Avenue, marched south on Central to Vernon Avenue, then to the park. One hundred and fifty cars and three bands were in the line of march. This was the greatest winter league opening ever staged here. Supervisor Gordon L. McDonough pitched the first ball and Congressman William Treagur was the umpire.”17

The Elite Giants romped to a 14-5 victory, and the “[f]eatures of the game were the pitching of Carter, the hitting of Stearns,[sic] Snow, Wells, Williams, Suttler [sic] and Carter, the all around playing of the Giants.”18

Exactly one week later, Carter again went the distance in a much closer 9-8 triumph over the Pirrone’s All-Stars in which Stearnes’ second homer, in the bottom of the eighth, provided the game’s decisive run.19 In spite of Carter’s 2-0 start, his role diminished once Paige arrived on the scene. Carter started (and completed) only one more game, which he also won, and finished the winter league season with a spotless 3-0 record. It also marked the first of many times that he was a member of a championship team.

Carter’s success in California led to renewed interest by the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and he rejoined the team for the 1935 season. In a season preview, the New York Age predicted, “With their pitching staff strengthened by the addition of Ernest Carter, a brilliant right hander who was unbeaten in the California Winter League; Harvey, a sterling left hander and “Lefty” Schofield, another promising young portsider, the Pittsburgh Crawfords of 1935 are out to make a determined bid for the championship of the National Negro Baseball Association [which soon became known as the Negro National League].”20 The Age’s forecast turned out to be a classic example of understatement as the 1935 Crawfords have become labeled as the Negro Leagues’ version of the 1927 Murderers’ Row New York Yankees. The Crawfords finished the season with a 50-23-3 record, won the first-half NNL championship, and defeated the second-half champion New York Cubans to win the league title. The team’s accomplishments were all the more impressive because they were achieved without expected ace Satchel Paige. In an ironic twist, Paige spurned the Crawfords in 1935 and spent most of the season with Churchill’s Bismarck squad, the very team he had abandoned the previous year in order to pitch for Greenlee’s Pittsburgh team.

Carter contributed as much as possible to the Crawfords’ 1935 championship run. Negro League statistics are notoriously incomplete due to inconsistent press coverage, but available statistics show that Carter appeared in 11 league games and pitched to a 4-1 record with a 3.07 ERA in 55⅔ innings. His lone loss occurred early in the season, on May 21, when, “[i]n the first Negro game of the season [in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,] the Chicago Americans walloped the Pittsburgh Crawfords 8 to 1 on the island.”21 Carter was erratic, walking three, hitting a batter, and unleashing a wild pitch while allowing seven runs in six innings of relief work. As Carter’s statistics show, this game was not representative of his performance over the entire season. One regular-season highlight for Carter was his six-hit victory over the Crawfords’ intrastate and NNL rival, the Philadelphia Stars, on May 25 at Greenlee Field in Pittsburgh.22

Although Carter pitched effectively in 1935, when the Crawfords faced the Cubans in the NNL championship series, he found himself relegated to bullpen duty. He appeared in Games Two and Four and allowed no runs in 7⅓ innings. In spite of Carter’s efficiency, the damage had already been done in those contests, and the Crawfords lost both games, 6-3 and 3-2. Nonetheless, the Crawfords prevailed, 8-7, in Game Seven to capture the title. Carter was a champion once more, but the season was not yet over.

On September 22, the day after Pittsburgh’s pennant-clinching victory, the Crawfords took part in a four-team doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. The Nashville Elite Giants defeated the Cubans 4-3 in the first game. The nightcap featured the Crawfords and the Philadelphia Stars and was a highly anticipated matchup because Paige was scheduled to pitch for the Crawfords. Even though Greenlee and Paige had been at odds all year, the former was all too aware of the lanky hurler’s drawing power and had paid Paige $350 to appear in New York on this day. In a move that should have surprised no one, but which certainly dismayed many, Paige failed to appear. Greenlee later informed the press that Paige had gone through Chicago while making his way to New Yotk and had been offered $500 to pitch there for the Kansas City Monarchs on September 22. Apparently, the Monarchs’ offer “caused him to forget all about his agreement to appear in New York.”23 Carter stepped into the void created by Paige’s absence and scattered 10 hits as he went the distance in the Crawfords’ 12-2 throttling of the Stars.

Carter returned to the Crawfords in 1936, as did Paige. The team again captured the NNL title, this time by virtue of having the best record (48-33-2) rather than via a championship series against the second-half champion Washington Elite Giants, but was not as dominant as the previous year’s squad had been. Carter was used sparingly, likely because – as his 6.94 ERA demonstrates – he was often ineffective, though he finished on the positive side of the ledger with a 3-2 record. One of Carter’s more notable outings was a 3⅓-inning relief stint in an exhibition game against the semipro Belmar Braves on July 24. In that game, Josh Gibson lived up to his billing as the “Black Babe Ruth,” clouting three home runs to lead Pittsburgh to victory. Gibson’s third homer was a leadoff shot in the ninth inning which sparked the four-run rally that made winners of Carter and the Crawfords.24 With his 34th birthday right around the corner and a poor individual season in his rear-view mirror, Carter may have wondered what the future held for him.

Initially, it looked as though the 1937 season would spell the end of Carter’s career. He started out the year in Pittsburgh but performed worse than he had in 1936. In two appearances, one of them a start, he surrendered 11 earned runs in three innings. In spite of his bloated 33.00 ERA at the time, Carter was still in demand. In fact, the latest bid for his services was the final straw that sparked an international incident.

Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic, had changed the name of the country’s capital city from Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo, and he wanted a baseball team that would win the Dominican League championship for him and the city that bore his name. Trujillo’s pockets were not deep enough to lure white major leaguers, but he had ample money to entice prime Negro League talent. In mid-May, the Pittsburgh Courier reported:

“First intimation that the Negro National League was being ‘raided’ came three weeks ago, when Satchell Paige, the Peck’s ‘bad boy’ of the baseball world; Catcher Perkins and Outfielder Christopher boarded a plane in New Orleans and hustled off to the Island Republic and its diamond ‘gold field’ breaking contracts with the Crawfords, last year’s league leaders.”25

Soon, players from the New York Cubans and New York Black Yankees also jumped their contracts to play in the Dominican Republic. Then, on May 8, Luis Mendez, an employee of the Dominican consulate in New York City, and Frederico Nina, a “wealthy lawyer and sportsman, representing a syndicate,” were spotted scouting players at a game between the Crawfords and the Homestead Grays at Greenlee Field. The two men were arrested and “placed in jail on a charge of ‘conspiracy’ after they had made an attempt to sign Ernest Carter, wild speedball pitcher with the Pittsburgh Crawfords.”26

A hearing was held on May 10, and Mendez and Nina were released on bonds of $500 each. Details of their attempt to sign Carter were revealed at this time. The two men testified that they had met with Carter at Greenlee’s Crawford Grill and then had accompanied him to his hotel room, where they had made their offer. Crawfords manager Oscar Charleston was informed about the meeting and, according to the two Dominicans, stormed into the room and threatened them: “‘I came in here to whip you,’ Charleston is alleged to have said, ‘but since you’re so little, I won’t do it. Why don’t you go into the white leagues and get your players.’”27

Carter also testified at the hearing and admitted that “he had agreed to play for Nina for $775 for eight weeks. In addition to this, he was to receive two round-trip tickets for himself and his wife, plus expenses. To substantiate his claim, he produced a railroad ticket to Miami, which he claimed the representatives had purchased.”28 Carter ended up going to the Dominican Republic, where he played for Santiago, a team that belonged to one of Trujillo’s political rivals.

On May 24, the NNL filed the names of all players who had defected from its league’s teams with the US State Department and requested “return of the fleeing players and damages for the clubs formerly owning them.”29 By June, Greenlee was headed to Washington to plead the NNL’s case with the US government. The Pittsburgh Press wrote that Greenlee planned to “create a diplomatic rumble that will shake the crease out of every frock coat and trouser leg from the State Department to Tanganyika” and reported that he already had “enlisted the support of 10 U. S. Senators and 28 Congressmen behind his charge that the Republic of San Domingo has ‘dealt with, induced and lured away’ … the brightest stars in the Negro baseball firmament.”30 Greenlee, who had raided other teams for their top talent in the past, now saw the Dominican Republic’s raids as an existential threat to all of Negro League baseball.

Meanwhile, the majority of “the brightest stars” of the Negro League belonged to the Ciudad Trujillo team, which, as expected, won the league championship. Little information is available about Carter’s stint with the Santiago squad, but ship’s logs show that he and the other Negro League defectors returned en masse to the United States in July. Upon arrival, they found out that they had been banned by the NNL, so Satchel Paige formed the Trujillo All-Stars (later renamed Satchel Paige’s All-Stars) with his fellow “outlaws,” and they sojourned first to Colorado to take part in the Denver Post Tournament.

Carter was a member of the All-Stars, managed by shortstop George Scales, who dominated the field and won the tournament. Paige, the biggest star of them all, was customarily late. He claimed that he had stayed in Cleveland to await a final payment from Trujillo and then had left in such a rush that he forgot his uniform; thus, he had waited in Chicago until his wife arrived there with both his uniform and glove.31 It was a tale that only Paige could spin and what happened next was, according to Negro League historian Donn Rogosin, an example of “the ambiguity with which the Negro League regulars viewed Satchel Paige.”32 The tournament promoters pressured the team into letting Paige pitch in the championship of the double-elimination tournament, and Paige could smell the $1,000 in bonus money that was to be awarded to the winning pitcher of the final game. However, Paige did not win the prize because the All-Stars did all they could to throw the game.

The Duncan (Oklahoma) Halliburtons handed the All-Stars a 6-4 defeat, their first of the tournament, as “errors played havoc with the Stars in the first game.”33 The team made five errors – more than they had made in their other six tournament games combined – and catcher Clarence “Spoony” Palm was charged with three passed balls that allowed two unearned runs to score in the first inning.34 Paige struck out 14 batters and allowed only five hits, but he trailed 5-4 after eight innings. Carter pitched the ninth inning and struck out the side, though he also allowed two hits and the Halliburtons’ final run. When Leroy Matlock took the mound for the second game, he got the support that Paige had wanted as the All-Stars romped to an 11-1 victory over the Halliburtons to secure the tournament championship. Matlock received the $1,000 bonus and was named the tourney’s most valuable player.

The entire All-Star team profited from its members’ baseball prowess. In addition to the hefty sums the players had received for playing in the Dominican Republic, their tournament victory earned them another windfall: $5,179.15, to be split evenly among all team members.”35 The team was lauded throughout the tournament and afterward, with one press account stating, “At Denver major league scouts heralded the All Stars as one of the greatest clubs in the country. Special praise was heaped on the pitching staff. …”36 The All-Stars continued to barnstorm throughout the country in 1937 and made mincemeat of their opponents. Carter started a game in Grand Island, Nebraska, in which “[t]he all-stars never extended themselves” as they won 11-6.37 The team was feted wherever it played, so much so that East Chicago, Indiana, declared “Pat Patterson Day” when the team played a semipro aggregation in that city. Patterson had grown up in East Chicago and had starred in football, basketball, and baseball at Washington High School. Once the Trujillo All-Stars’ triumphal tour ended, Carter sought baseball employment in yet another country, Cuba.

On the heels of playing for as great a squad as the All-Stars, Carter joined one of the worst teams he played for in his career. The 1937-38 Cuban Winter League’s Habana Leones suffered a fate similar to that of his first professional team, the 1932 Birmingham Black Barons. “Habana had the most woeful season of its history,” a historian of Cuban baseball wrote. “After only 8 wins in 46 encounters, management withdrew the team” on January 25, 1938.38 Carter appeared in four games in which he had a 1-2 record.39

When the 1938 NNL season rolled around, “the Negro League bosses did an about-face – lifting their ban, lowering their fines, and bringing back into the fold any who would come.”40 Carter came back but to the Philadelphia Stars rather than the Crawfords. He was the Stars’ Opening Day starter on May 7 in an exhibition game against the South Phillies and pitched a four-hitter in a 5-1 victory. He also pitched a two-hitter in a 4-3 triumph over his former team from Pittsburgh. The fact that Carter had allowed those three runs in such a low-hit game made this game a microcosm of his entire season. Although he led the Stars’ pitching staff with a 7-3 record and 109⅓ innings pitched, he had a hefty 6.01 ERA as Philadelphia finished the season with a 37-31-3 record, good enough only for third place in the NNL.41

Carter returned to the Stars for the beginning of the 1939 campaign, but he did not last long. The Stars were touted to challenge the Homestead Grays in the NNL, but the Pittsburgh-area nine asserted their superiority as they pounded the offerings of Carter and his reliever, Henry McHenry, in a 12-5 rout on May 27 in the first game of a key series.42 It was likely the final game Carter pitched in a Stars uniform. For the season, he made three appearances (all starts) for Philadelphia in which he had a 6.19 ERA in 16 innings.

Shortly thereafter, Carter was back with the Crawfords, albeit in new surroundings. Greenlee had sold the team after the 1938 season, and new owner Hank Rigney had relocated the franchise to Toledo, Ohio; the team had also switched from the NNL to membership in the Negro American League in midseason. To promote his team, Rigney hired Olympic track champion Jesse Owens to run races or simply give exhibitions of his speed prior to the Crawfords’ games; as a result, the team was as well-known for Owens’ feats as for its play on the field. On June 4 Carter struck out 13 batters as the Crawfords “handed an all-star team made up of Frigidaire and Pure Oil players a 6 to 0 defeat.”43 He continued to pitch well in exhibition games against semipro teams, but in NAL play he was 1-1 with a 5.65 ERA. The team fared poorly, as it finished at 8-11-1, in spite of several notable players: Charleston, who still managed the team, Jimmie Crutchfield, and a young Johnny Wright, who became the second black player to be signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in January 1946.

Although Carter’s 1939 season had hardly been a stellar one, he was back with the Crawfords in 1940. The moribund franchise struggled financially and split the 1940 season between Toledo and Indianapolis. The team opened its spring exhibition season against the Miami Ethiopian Clowns at Miami’s Dorsey Park on March 31. Carter pitched the final two innings and took the loss when he surrendered the game’s lone run in the bottom of the ninth.44 Carter, whom the Chicago Defender referred to as “Satchel Paige’s old sidekick,” did not spend much time with the Crawfords during the NAL season; he was 1-0 as he won his only start for the team, a 10-inning 2-1 triumph over the St. Louis Stars on June 2.45 Two weeks later, he ended up embroiled in the third dispute between teams that laid claim to him as their property.

On June 16 Carter pitched for Abe and Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles team in a game against the Homestead Grays. Both of these squads were members of the NNL, while Carter was a member of the NAL’s Toledo/Indianapolis team. Abe Manley had used Carter and a teammate, shortstop Bus Clarkson, to spite the NAL. The origins of the dispute went back to the end of 1938. At that time, the Manleys had purchased Paige’s contract from Greenlee for $5,000; however, Paige never reported to Newark in 1939. Abe Manley believed that “Paige had not reported because one of the members of the Negro American League had influenced him not to play with Newark but to play with an independent club in the west bearing his name.”46 The club in question was another barnstorming squad named Satchel Paige’s All-Stars and was affiliated with Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson. Since Manley held the NAL responsible for Paige’s failure to report, he decided he would use any NAL players he could convince to play for his NNL squad until Paige reported to the Eagles.

The matter was finally settled at a joint meeting between NAL and NNL leadership at Harlem’s Woodside Hotel on June 18. As had been the case in 1934, team owners – this time in the NAL rather than the NSL – were angry about their NNL counterparts raiding their franchises’ players and “the fur flew” as both sides presented their arguments.47 It was finally decided that Paige would become property of the NAL and that Carter and Clarkson would remain members of the Newark Eagles; subsequently, Paige signed with Wilkinson’s Kansas City Monarchs, an NAL team, in 1941. The agreement was described as “a concession by the N.A. league for the sake of inter-league harmony.”48

The Eagles were an average squad in 1940 and finished the NNL season in third place with a 26-21-1 record. Carter pitched in six league games (two starts) and ended his stint with Newark with a 1-0 record and a 3.86 ERA.49 At season’s end, he returned home to Birmingham, where he resided with his wife, Eloise, and his daughter, Jennetta, whom he had named after his mother.50 When Negro League legend Candy Jim Taylor brought his “baseball carnival” to Birmingham’s Rickwood Field in early October, he enlisted Carter to play on his team of Negro League stars that faced off against “the best players in the city and county industrial league teams.”51

For reasons unknown, Carter did not play in the Negro Leagues in 1941. He had pitched well enough with Newark to merit consideration for a return engagement, but perhaps the fiasco created by the previous season’s dispute between the leagues had left a bad taste in his mouth. As far as can be determined, Carter’s only professional baseball activity involved an extremely brief stint with the Mexican League’s team in Torreón. Carter made four appearances (one start) and put up a 1-1 record with a 10.13 ERA.52 Bus Clarkson, the second player who had become Newark Eagles property in the 1940 dispute, also played in Mexico in 1941, though he spent the entire season with Tampico.

In February 1942, as World War II raged, Carter registered for the military draft. He listed the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company as his employer on his draft registration card, but he once again found employment in the Negro Leagues that year. Now 39, he returned to Pittsburgh, this time to join the powerhouse Homestead Grays. Carter was the elder statesman on the pitching staff and was used sparingly. In eight appearances (five starts) he managed only a 1-4 record with a 7.55 ERA. The Grays were in the middle of a stretch in which the team won nine NNL pennants in 11 seasons, and they dominated the league in 1942. Homestead finished 47-19-3 in league play and 64-23-3 against all competition, but the team ended up being swept by the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro World Series. Carter’s postseason action consisted of one appearance in which he faced two batters and allowed no runs.

In spite of his relative ineffectiveness in 1942, Carter was welcomed back to the Grays again the following season. The 1943 season turned out to be magical for both Carter and the Grays. The team finished the NNL campaign with an amazing 53-14-1 league record and was 78-23-1 against all teams. Johnny Wright, Carter’s old Toledo teammate, was the undisputed ace of the Grays’ staff that year with an 18-3 record and a 2.54 ERA in NNL games, but Carter was right behind him at 14-2 and had lowered his own ERA to 3.83. Edsall Walker (9-4) and future Hall of Famer Ray Brown gave the Grays the most formidable pitching staff in the Negro Leagues. The Grays won the Negro World Series as they defeated the Birmingham Black Barons in eight games, with one game ending in a tie. Carter made one start but received no decision as Brown earned the win for the Grays in relief.

After the World Series, newspapers reported that Carter would be a member of the Negro Leagues’ entry for the 1943-44 California Winter League season. One account said, “Baseball fans will have an opportunity to look over Spoon Carter, one of today’s greatest colored players and ace pitcher for the Pittsburgh Homestead Grays when the winter league opens its season at Hollywood baseball park on Sunday, October 24.”53 This report was clearly in error as Satchel Paige made that opening-game start, and Carter did not participate in winter league play at all. Carter would not have been in California for a long time anyway because the season was cut short. In mid-November, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis refused to allow major leaguers to continue to participate in the winter league by invoking a rule that forbade players to participate in exhibition games 10 days after the major-league season closed.54 The Pittsburgh Courier noted that “[m]ost of the games in which these players have played have been against Negro teams” and lamented that Landis’s crackdown “will wipe out the sole means of measuring the abilities of Negro players with major leaguers.”55

In 1944 Carter returned to a depleted Grays team that was nonetheless still the class of the NNL. Wright was one of the many players who had been lost to military service, but Brown stepped up as the ace with an 11-1 league record. Carter and Walker tied for second on the staff in league wins with identical 6-4 records. After breezing through the NNL with a 47-24-3 record, the Grays again clashed with the Black Barons in the Negro World Series. Carter got the starting assignment at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field in Game Four and took the loss in a 6-0 setback to Birmingham. It was the only defeat for Homestead, which made quick work of the Black Barons in five games to capture its second consecutive championship.

An aging Carter played a reduced role on the 1945 Grays who, due in part to wartime travel restrictions, played so many home games at Griffith Stadium that they were now called the Washington-Homestead Grays. Roy Welmaker (10-2) was the new pitching ace, and Carter appeared in only six league games (three starts) in which he compiled a 1-1 record and a 3.69 ERA. The Grays won the NNL pennant by nine games over the Baltimore Elite Giants and played in their fourth consecutive Negro World Series. Carter saw no postseason action as the Grays suffered a shocking sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Buckeyes, an event that Pittsburgh Courier columnist Wendell Smith deemed “one of the biggest surprises in baseball history.”56

In April 1946, it was reported that “Carter was purchased from the Washington Homestead Grays” by the new Montgomery Dodgers of the Negro Southern League, and Montgomery owner Jake Whatley installed Carter as the team’s manager.57 News reports of the Dodgers’ games are scarce, but a June 11 article in the Montgomery Advertiser indicated that the team had changed its name to the Red Sox.58 It is quite likely that the Brooklyn Dodgers organization put legal pressure on Montgomery’s owner to make the name change. Carter also made a transition – from one Red Sox squad to another – as he rejoined one of his earliest teams, the NAL’s Memphis franchise. He pitched in only three league games for Memphis and had no decisions, though he did have a fine 2.89 ERA.

Although Carter had departed Montgomery in midseason in 1946, the NSL’s new Jacksonville Eagles franchise gave him a second opportunity to manage a team at the outset of the 1947 season. Jacksonville opened its season on the road, and Carter debuted with his new squad in a May 4 doubleheader against the Chattanooga Choo Choos.59 By July 7, prior to a game against the Harbor House of David team in St. Joseph, Michigan, it was reported that “[l]eading pitcher for the Eagles is none other than the manager, Spoon Carter, who made a great name for himself while hurling for the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League.”60

By mid-July, however, Carter had rejoined the Memphis Red Sox. On July 29 he was part of the West All-Star team in that season’s second East-West All-Star game, which was played at the Polo Grounds in New York. Carter pitched the final three innings, allowing only two hits and no runs, as the West sewed up an 8-2 victory.61 Memphis also played the Harbor House of David squad in Michigan, and this time the local paper reported that Red Sox manager Larry Brown had available among his pitching staff “Ernest (Spoon) Carter” who was “regarded the best relief hurler in the league” and who “often plays third base.”62 Box scores for Negro League games had become scarce by this time, and Carter’s statistics for the fourth-place Memphis team are unknown.

In 1948 Carter chose simply to begin the season with Memphis. Many games went unreported and only line scores are available for most others, but the available statistics show Carter with a 1-1 record and a 5.68 ERA in five appearances (two starts). Nevertheless, he was again chosen as a member of the West team for the second All-Star game at Yankee Stadium on August 24. Carter did not pitch in the game, but the 45-year old entered the contest as a pinch-runner for Kansas City Monarchs third baseman Herb Souell. He did not steal a base, nor did he score, in a game that the East team won, 6-1.63 As for the Red Sox, they finished last in the NAL that year.

The seemingly ageless Carter went to spring training with Memphis in 1949, though it is unknown whether he made the cut. His Negro League career came full circle when he signed with Birmingham in mid-June. The Black Barons had lost ace hurler Jimmie Newberry to a broken right arm and signed three pitchers – Carter, Felix “Chin” Evans, and Ted Alexander – to fill the void created by Newberry’s absence.64 As a Black Baron, Carter was a teammate of 18-year-old Willie Mays, who already amazed scouts, players, and fans alike with his all-around talent. On September 3 the old man and the young phenom led the way in a 7-1 triumph over the Cleveland Buckeyes. Carter went the distance, allowed only one run, and struck out nine hitters while “Willie Mays paced the victors at bat with a 350-foot homer and a double.”65 It was a highlight in an otherwise down season that saw Birmingham finish in fourth place.

Carter’s Negro League career was at an end, but he had one last season left in him. In 1950 he sojourned to Canada, where he played for the Winnipeg Buffaloes of the new Manitoba-Dakota (ManDak) League. The Buffaloes’ roster was made up entirely of former Negro League players and included two future Hall of Famers, pitcher Leon Day and manager Willie Wells. Although Winnipeg finished the regular season in second place, seven games behind the Brandon Greys, the team made it to the playoff tournament and advanced to the finals against first-place Brandon. In the fifth and final game of the championship series, both Day and Greys pitcher Manuel Godinez pitched all 17 innings before the Buffaloes emerged with a 1-0 victory and the ManDak League’s inaugural championship.66 Carter, for his part, contributed a 4-2 record in 12 appearances and finished his baseball career as a champion.67

Carter retired to his native Birmingham, where he and Eloise raised their two daughters, Janice and Rhonda, and their son Roderick. He owned the Community Barber Shop in the Ensley neighborhood and was active as a deacon with the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church.68 Ernest Carter died on January 23, 1974, and was buried in Shadowlawn Memorial Park in Birmingham.

 

Author’s Note and Acknowledgments

Much to the author’s chagrin, no information was found to explain how Carter came to have his nickname, “Spoon.” Since the moniker was applied to him almost from the outset of his career, it may well have been given to him by his family.

Thanks to Rosalind B. Brooks, an assistant at the Birmingham Public Library, for her thoroughness in fulfilling my request for information about Carter’s death.

 

Sources

Ancestry.com was consulted for US Census, draft registration, marriage, and death records as well as ships’ passenger logs.

Unless otherwise indicated, Seamheads.com was the source for all Negro League statistics.

 

Notes

1 William J. Plott, Black Baseball’s Last Team Standing: The Birmingham Black Barons, 1919-1962 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019), 87.

2 “Memphis and Birmingham Divide/Teams Own Two Games Each at End of Fourth,” Chicago Defender, April 30, 1932: 9.

3 Holsey Drake, “Black Barons Take 3 Games Out of 4 From Montgomery,” Atlanta Daily World, May 18, 1932: 5.

4 Plott, 87-88. Due to the sparse press coverage, there are discrepancies as to the Black Barons’ 1932 record. Plott has the team at 11-7-1 in NSL play and 15-15-1 against all teams (page 272) while the Negro Southern League Museum Research Center lists an 8-11 record for the team in NSL play (see negrosouthernleaguemuseumresearchcenter.org/Portals/0/Negro%20Southern%20League/Negro%20Southern%20League%20%20(1920-1951)STANDINGS.pdf ).

5 “Memphis Reds Have Hope for Pennant,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 10, 1933: 14.

6 Dr. R.B. Martin, “Southern Flag Is in Memphis’ Bag,” Chicago Defender, June 24, 1933: 9.

7 L.S.N. Cobb, “Memphis Wins Three in Arkansas/Sox Increase Lead in Southern Loop,” Chicago Defender, July 1, 1933: 9.

8 “Heed Protest of Dixie League Head on ‘Raiding,’” Pittsburgh Courier, April 14, 1934: 12.

9 “Nashville Giants Defeat Grays in Both Ends of Doubleheader, “Akron Beacon-Journal, July 24, 1933: 20.

10 “Craws Lose 3-2 Thriller to Philly,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 23, 1933: 15.

11 “Heed Protest of Dixie League Head on ‘Raiding.’”

12 “Colored Club Has All-Star Players in Every Position,” Bismarck Tribune, June 15, 1934: 8. This author was unable to locate any game reports or box scores that named Carter as a member of the Cleveland team, let alone that he had twice dueled against Paige. Additionally, Seamheads.com does not list Carter as a member of the 1934 Cleveland Red Sox.

13 “Two Homers Pave Way for Jimmies’ 4-2 Victory Over Locals,” Bismarck Tribune, July 5, 1934: 6.

14 “Two Homers Pave Way.”

15 “Bismarck Scores 1-0 Victory Over Valley City in 10 Innings,” Bismarck Tribune, August 17, 1934: 8.

16 William F. McNeil, The California Winter League: America’s First Integrated Professional Baseball League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002), 171.

17 James Newton, “Suttles’ Two Homers Beat All Stars/Stearns Then Uses Bat for a Second Win/Porter and Carter in Rare Form,” Chicago Defender, October 27, 1934: 16.

18 Newton.

19 “Royal Giants Annex, 9 to 8,” Los Angeles Times, October 28, 1934: 28.

20 “Crawfords Set to Make Strong Bid for League Championship,” New York Age, April 27, 1935: 3.

21 “Chicago Americans Win Night Game,” Harrisburg Telegraph, May 22, 1935: 12.

22 “Crawfords Win Philly Series; Hold Lead in League Race,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 1, 1935: 15.

23 William E. Clark, “15,000 Fans See 4-Team Series at Yankee Stadium Sunday; Crawford and Elite Gts Win,” New York Age, September 28, 1935: 8.

24 “Gibson Hits Three Homers as Pittsburgh Crawfords Trounce Belmar Braves by 6 to 2,” Asbury Park (New Jersey) Press, July 25, 1936: 16.

25 “Two Jailed in Baseball War/League Acts to Check ‘Raids,’” Pittsburgh Courier, May 15, 1937: 1.

26 “Two Jailed in Baseball War.”

27 “Two Men Jailed in Big Baseball Scandal”: 4. (Continuation of “Two Jailed in Baseball War”).

28 “Two Men Jailed in Big Baseball Scandal.”

29 “Players Who Fled League Face Return/Morton Files Names with Government for Damages,” New York Amsterdam News, May 29, 1937: 17. The list of players submitted to the State Department on May 24 included Pittsburgh Crawfords players Leroy Matlock, Ernest Carter, Chet Brewer, Satchel Paige, Bill Perkins, Cool Papa Bell, Thad Christopher, Sam Bankhead, Harry Williams, and Pat Patterson; New York Black Yankees Clarence Palm and George Scales; Newark Eagle Clyde Spearman; and the Philadelphia Stars’ Showboat Thomas and Red Parnell.

30 Richard J. Lamb, “Gus ‘Whereas-es’ Diplomats into Action over Foreign ‘Raid’ on Negro Ball Team,” Pittsburgh Press, June 20, 1937: 2.

31 John Bentley, “I May Be Wrong,” Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star, August 12, 1937: 13.

32 Donn Rogosin, Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 140.

33 “Paige’s All-Stars Win Denver Tourney/Matlock Hero in $5,000 Win,” Chicago Defender, August 21, 1937: 21.

34 “Paige’s All-Stars Win Denver Tourney”; Jay Sanford, The Denver Post Tournament: A Chronicle of America’s First Integrated Professional Baseball Event (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 2003), 64.

35 ”Paige’s All-Stars Win Denver Tourney.”

36 “Satchel Paige and His Denver Champions Play Powers Here Tonight/Famous Negro Team Captures Title in Post’s Tournament,” Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star, August 12, 1937: 13.

37 “Win at Grand Island,” Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star, August 12, 1937: 13.

38 Jorge Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003), 218.

39 Figueredo, 221.

40 Larry Tye, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (New York: Random House, 2009), 117.

41 Since Seamheads.com has been used as the primary source for Negro League statistics, it should be noted that the site lists Carter as having made (and lost) one start for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1938. Carter made his home in Birmingham, so it is possible that he could have played for the Birmingham team late in the year.

42 “Grays Wallop Philly in Opener, 12-5/Leonard Leads Hitting Assault, Pittsburgh Courier, June 3, 1939: 16.

43 “Crawfords Win Over All-Stars,” Dayton (Ohio) Herald, June 5, 1939: 11.

44 “Clowns Edge Toledo, 1-0,” Miami News, April 1, 1940: 13.

45 “Crawfords Have 6 Ace Hurlers; Star Outfield,” Chicago Defender, May 11, 1940: 24; “Crawfords Split with St. Louis,” Chicago Defender, June 8, 1940: 22.

46 “Satchel Paige to American League/All-Star Game is Aug. 18,” Chicago Defender, June 29, 1940: 22.

47 “Satchel Paige to American League.”

48 “Satchel Paige to American League.”

49 Seamheads.com shows Carter to have made one appearance for the NNL’s New York Cubans in 1940 that covered 1⅔ innings and for which he received no decision. It is possible that he may have been “on loan” to the Cubans for one game or that he pitched one game for the team after Newark’s season had ended.

50 Jennetta was Carter’s daughter by a woman named Annie Lee Matthews; the author has relied on census information and marriage records for Jennetta Carter to establish this fact. However, no documentation has come to light to determine whether Carter and Matthews were married or, if they were, how their marriage ended (whether by divorce or Matthews’ death). The year of Carter’s marriage to Eloise Underwood is also undetermined, but the two had a long union and were still married at the time of Carter’s death in 1974.

51 “Array of Stars to Compete in Candy Jim Taylor’s All Star Carnival Sunday,” Weekly Review (Birmingham, Alabama), October 4, 1940: 7.

52 All major sources show Carter to have pitched briefly in Mexico in 1941. Pedro Treto Cisneros’ book of Mexican League statistics, from which Seamheads.com most likely took its information, lists “Hammis Carter” as the player with a 1-1 record for Torreón in 1941. There was no player, black or white, by that name, and no other pitcher with the last name Carter is reported to have played south of the border at any time. Thus, “Hammis” must be a misprint that may already have occurred in a primary news source. See Pedro Treto Cisneros, The Mexican League: Comprehensive Player Statistics, 1937-2001 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002), 468.

53 “Great Negro Hurler Pitches at Hollywood,” Long Beach (California) Independent, October 15, 1943: 18.

54 “Landis Clamps Down on Winter Leaguers,” Pittsburgh Courier, November 27, 1943: 16.

55 “Landis Cracking Down on Players in Winter Loop,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 4, 1943: 16.

56 Wendell Smith, “The Sports Beat,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 29, 1945: 12.

57 Leon B. Beauchman, “Birmingham’s Sepia Dodgers,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 20, 1946: 17.

58 “Red Sox Meet Black Barons Here Wednesday,” Montgomery Advertiser, June 11, 1946: 6.

59 “Largest Negro Crowd May See Opening Pair,” Chattanooga Daily Times, May 4, 1947: 51.

60 “Davids Meet Eagles Nine,” Herald Press (St. Joseph, Michigan), July 7, 1948: 7.

61 Larry Lester, Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game, 1933-1953 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 299, 301-302.

62 “Memphis Red Sox at Colony Park Tonight,” Herald Press (St. Joseph, Michigan), August 27, 1947: 12.

63 Lester, 321.

64 “Black Barons Edge New York Cubans,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 18, 1949: 24.

65 “Black Barons Beat Buckeyes Easily, 7-1,” Birmingham News, September 24, 1949: 9.

66 Barry Swanton, The Mandak League: Haven for Former Negro League Ballplayers, 1950-57 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006), 20.

67 Barry Swanton and Jay-Dell Mah, Black Baseball Players in Canada: A Biographical Dictionary, 1881-1960 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009), 47.

68 “Deaths: Ernest C. Carter,” Birmingham News, January 27, 1974: 23.

Full Name

Ernest C. Carter

Born

December 8, 1902 at Harpersville, AL (US)

Died

January 23, 1974 at Birmingham, AL (US)

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