I was strictly a submarine pitcher, a lot of junk. I had a good fast one, but I didn’t throw it when I didn’t have to. With the hard hitters, I’d time them. I’d throw mixed pitches – “56 varieties” they used to call me. And then when I showed them a good fast ball, they weren’t ready. I’d say, “See, you weren’t ready.”1
Remembered best for his pitching against White major-league players, Webster McDonald was a star pitcher in the Negro Leagues and independent ball from 1918 through 1946. McDonald began his playing career in 1918 with the local Philadelphia Giants and ended with the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. He was an underhand submariner who was well-liked and respected by everyone he worked with, and he played and managed for many teams, providing mentorship for new stars and aging veterans. During his career McDonald was part of seven pennant-winning teams, anchoring their pitching staffs and guiding the team strategies. Yet many fans have yet to learn about the pitcher about whom Connie Mack once said, “I’m sorry to say this, but I’d give half my ball club for a man like you.”2
Born on January 1, 1900, in Glasgow, Delaware, McDonald was one of six children of Charles McDonald, a carpenter from North Carolina, and Georgia native Katie Roundtree, listed in the census as a housewife. He was taken to Philadelphia when he was 3 years old to live with his aunt, Sally Cluster, who worked in a stocking mill; and Philadelphia became his home for the rest of his life.
Growing up in Philadelphia, McDonald played sports on the playgrounds and local ball fields. He got his start in baseball in 1918 with the semipro Philadelphia Giants. The Giants were not the same star-studded team of earlier baseball history but a new club with the same name. Between 1918 and 1924 McDonald played for several local independent teams while trying to break into the pitching staff for the Hilldale Daisies. He got a few starts with Hilldale but never was able to crack their roster. McDonald pitched for the Madison Stars, the Norfolk Stars, and the Philadelphia Giants before signing in 1925 with the new Wilmington Potomacs.
The Potomacs were unable to complete their season in the Eastern Colored League (ECL) and disbanded in July. McDonald pitched in 12 games for Wilmington with a 3-4 record over 48 innings. He got his first victory against the Cuban Stars, winning 6-1 on a two-hitter. A local reporter wrote that he had “showed the fans a brand of baseball that has seldom been seen around these parts.”3 McDonald finally got his big break when he joined the Chicago American Giants late in the 1925 season and stayed until the 1929 season. He ended the 1925 season having pitched in 10 games for the Giants, compiling a 6-2 record.4
McDonald returned to Chicago in 1926 and pitched to a 10-5 record in 135 innings. He showed the control he became most known for by striking out 80 batters and walking only 31. Hall of Fame first baseman Buck Leonard had the following to say about McDonald’s mastery: “He had good control. Whatever your weakness was, he’d throw the ball there.”5 The Giants earned the right to play the Kansas City Monarchs in a nine-game series to take the Negro National League (NNL) title and face the Atlantic City Bacharachs in the World Series. McDonald’s only two decisions in the postseason were both losses. One was a 10-0 loss in Game Three of the World Series in which Atlantic City’s Claude “Red” Grier threw a no-hitter.6
McDonald returned to the Giants in 1927 and had another good year with a 10-5 record in 134⅔ innings. He struck out 68 while walking only 21. One of the best games of his career came on August 15 when he came on in relief and proceeded to pitch seven innings of no-hit ball into the 10th inning, although the Giants ended up losing the game 1-0.7 The Giants again made the World Series against the team from Atlantic City. McDonald pitched the Giants to one victory, 9-1, over the Bacharachs’ Luther “Red” Farrell, but Chicago eventually claimed its second consecutive championship.
In 1928 McDonald started with the Giants but left in May to join the Little Falls Independents, a Minnesota entrant in the Northwestern League. He made the move to Little Falls for a higher paycheck, starting at $350 a month but later claiming to earn as much as $750 a month. McDonald pitched for Little Falls from May through August every season until 1932. Before and after the Little Falls schedule, he picked up games with a number of ballclubs that were willing to pay his salary. McDonald chose to stay in the United States and pitch rather than head south of the border for the offseason, opting to stay close to Philadelphia because of health problems affecting his wife, Frances.8
McDonald was often the only Black player in Little Falls. On occasion his catchers were either John Van, a Black man from Kansas, or Sylvester Foreman, a player from the Kansas City Monarchs. He became a popular player with the fans because he helped the team win the Northwestern League title from 1928 through 1931. An article in 1935 claimed that while he was in Little Falls he became the highest paid Black player in the country.9 One of the players he often pitched against was John Donaldson, who had recommended McDonald to the Little Falls club. In 1930 he beat Donaldson twice during the season.10
McDonald opened the 1929 season with the Homestead Grays, pitching their opening game on May 4. He left the Grays to join Little Falls in May, pitching them to victories over teams such as the Utah Mormons, Detroit Lakes, and McCoy-Nolan Colored Giants. McDonald relied on his control and a sneaky underhanded delivery. He found continued success in 1930, winning games against St. Cloud and the McCoy-Nolan Colored Giants. After the 1930 season ended, McDonald did what he was best known for, joining teams to help them win the playoffs and pitching against major- and minor-league All-Stars. On August 30 in front of an estimated 4,000 fans, McDonald helped Little Falls defeat members of the Minneapolis team of the American Association. McDonald struck out six and walked two en route to a 6-3 win.11
McDonald ended the season with two victories over major-league pitcher Eddie Rommel and a team of all-stars. McDonald gained both wins while pitching for the Baltimore Black Sox. He also pitched the Black Sox to a victory over an all-star squad that included three St. Louis Cardinals led by Frankie Frisch.12
McDonald pitched for Little Falls, Hilldale, and the Homestead Grays in 1931. He was credited with a 4-0 record with Hilldale. He also claimed a 4-0 record vs. a team of White all-stars from the National and American Leagues, including a triumph over George Earnshaw. The win was a hard-fought 3-2 victory, solidifying McDonald’s strong showing against White all-stars.13 In September, while pitching for Hilldale, McDonald helped his team win a 9-0 shutout over the Cuban Stars. The hitting stars of the game were Chaney White and Rap Dixon.14
In 1932 McDonald joined the Washington Pilots of the East-West League, compiling a 5-5 record and taking over as manager after Frank Warfield died during the season. As manager, McDonald led the Pilots to a 7-11 record, leaving them in sixth place for the season. His victories came against teams such as the Fewster Nine and the New York Black Yankees among others.15
McDonald’s reputation led to Ed Bolden approaching him to be a player-manager for his new Philadelphia Stars (of the Negro National League II) beginning in 1933. A Brooklyn paper referred to him as “Webster McDonald, peerless underhanded twirler.”16 McDonald spent the remainder of his major Negro League career with the Stars, leading them to the NNL championship in 1934. In 1933 McDonald pitched in 11 games with a 4-3 record. In a series of games against the Philadelphia SPHAs, McDonald continued to be seen as a pitcher who could come in at any point in the game and shut down the opposition.17
The 1934 squad that McDonald piloted was filled with star players. Slim Jones led the pitching staff while the hitting was led by Jud Wilson, Chaney White, and Jake Dunn.18 McDonald helped the Stars to early victories over Wentz-Olney, the Raphaels, and the Camden Nine. His star power was shown in June when the Detroit Cubans advertised in the papers that he would be pitching for them against the Eagles. A crowd of over 4,000 showed up, but, when fans found out they had been duped and McDonald was never on the roster, they left after the second inning.19 In leading the Stars to the championship in 1934 McDonald beat Satchel Paige and the Homestead Grays, 2-1, during the season and then defeated Chicago’s Bill Foster, 5-3, in Game Three of the playoffs. Wilson led the team in hitting with a .358 average while Jones compiled an impressive 20-4 record and then won the final game of the playoffs to give the Stars the title.20
The Stars came back in 1935 to finish in fourth place in NNL play. While his team did not fare as well as they had in 1934, McDonald was named as manager for the East in the annual East-West Classic. The East lost, 11-8, on a three-run homer by Mule Suttles.21 McDonald continued his late-season play against White all-stars, beating the Bushwicks and Dazzy Vance, 6-2, in September.22
McDonald returned in 1936 to lead the Stars to a last-place finish and then, in 1937, the Stars rebounded to third place. In 1938 McDonald returned to just playing for the Stars as they finished second to the Homestead Grays. As the Stars dropped back to fifth place in 1939, Jud Wilson took over the main managerial duties. McDonald pitched in only four games in 1940, his final season with the Stars and his last year to play in the Negro Leagues. During each of these seasons, McDonald also continued to shine in exhibition games. For example, in August 1936 in a game against the Black Yankees, McDonald pitched 18 innings in a game that ended in a 3-3 tie, though he collected eight strikeouts and only four walks. A month later he pitched in a benefit game at the Polo Grounds for Sam Langford. McDonald left the game against the Elite Giants in the seventh inning with a 3-3 tie. The Stars, however, went on to lose the game, 7-3.23
The Stars began the 1937 season with a newspaper-reported 14-1 record in their spring-training games. Fans were excited for the season, and one reporter wrote about McDonald, “He is known for his underhanded delivery and ability to place the pellet just where he wants it.”24 Sadly the good start only resulted in a third-place finish under Wilson’s managing.
Though he had been pitching for 20 years in 1938, newspapers still lauded McDonald for his sneaky underhand delivery. He was called a “submarine artist”25 and someone with “an uncanny underhand delivery.”26 The Stars finished with their best showing since 1934 with a second-place finish behind the Homestead Grays. McDonald saw fewer games in 1939 but still won against the Bushwicks, the Brooklyn Farmers, and a group of White major leaguers, proving he could still pitch with the best.27
As the 1940s began, and through the time of his registration for the draft during World War II, McDonald worked as a helper at the United States Mint in Philadelphia. He continued to play on, and sometimes manage, local ballclubs. In 1942 he was a member of the Philadelphia Daisies, a new independent team managed by Fats Jenkins. He appeared again in 1945 and 1946 in the new Unites States League (USL), the brainchild of former Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee, that had been commandeered by Branch Rickey. McDonald started 1945 with the Hilldale entry and became the manager of the Brown Dodgers in July 1945 and again in 1946 before ending his career in baseball.
In 1950 McDonald was employed as a freight worker at the US Custom House in Philadelphia. He reported that he spent 26 years working the post office and later as head of the linen department at the Liberty Bell Racetrack.28
Webster McDonald died on June 12, 1982, of complications from injuries sustained in a mugging earlier in the year.29 He is buried in Fairview Cemetery, Philadelphia. In one of his obituaries, Monte Irvin said about McDonald, “He was considered among the best.”30 Pitcher Bill Holland explained McDonald’s longevity, saying, “He could pitch an entire week because he didn’t use much energy. He pitched underhand and he had a good fastball. Then he had this curveball that comes in low, then breaks up. His curves used to rise and his fastballs would sink. Then he’d slow it up.”31 Jake Stephens said, “When he had one of his good days, there wasn’t anybody going to lick him.”32
All Negro Leagues baseball data used in this biography comes from Seamheads.com, as of January 8, 2023.
1 John Holway, Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, rev. ed. (New York: DaCapo Press, 1992), 74.
2 John Holway, “Historically Speaking: Webster McDonald,” Black Sports, May 1974: 55.
3 “Cubans Beat by Potomacs,” Wilmington Morning News, May 7, 1925: 10.
4 https://www.seamheads.com/NegroLgs/player.php?playerID=mcdon01web; “Potomacs Take Cubans in Camp,” Wilmington Evening Journal, May 7, 1925: 8.
5 Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Munoz, “Forgotten Heroes: Webster McDonald,” Center for Negro Leagues Baseball Research, 2014). http://www.cnlbr.org/Portals/0/Hero/Webster-McDonald.pdf.
9 “Negro Stars Strong,” York (Pennsylvania) Dispatch, July 16, 1935: 11.
11 “Bernie Gets Hit, Rolls Under Fence,” St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times, August 30, 1935: 14.
12 “The Outfield,” Baltimore Evening Sun, October 10, 1930: 48; “Stars’ Hopes Soar with Eddie Rommel Opposing Black Sox,” Baltimore Evening Sun, October 17, 1930: 47; “Stars are Primed for Seasons’ Largest Stand against Sox,” Baltimore Evening Sun, October 24, 1930: 44; “Colorful Ball Aggregation to Play for All Star Nine,” Baltimore Evening Sun, October 11, 1930: 10.
13 Revel and Munoz, “Forgotten Heroes: Webster McDonald.”
14 “Hilldale Defeats Stars of Cuba,” New York Age, September 19, 1931: 6.
15 “Washington Pilots Win Two from Chick Fewster’s Kings Team,” Brooklyn Citizen, July 11, 1932: 6; “Kings Club Finds Pilot Nine Tough,” Brooklyn Times Union, July 11, 1932: 11; “Manager Will Pitch,” Washington Evening Star, September 6, 1932: 27.
16 “Philly Stars Strong in OF Players,” Brooklyn Times Union, September 9, 1933: 13.
17 “Sphas Hammer Out Victory over Stars,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 15, 1933: 16; “Bolden’s Stars Trip Sphas Under Lights,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 1, 1933: 16.
19 “Detroit Cubans Play Eagles in First Home Tilt Tonight,” St. Cloud Times, June 12, 1934: 10; “Fans Walk out of Park after 2nd Inning,” St. Cloud Times, June 13, 1934: 14.
21 “Pick M’Donald to Manage East All-Star Team,” Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1933: 16.
22 William J. Granger, “Philly Stars Beat D. Vance as Bushwicks Break Even,” Brooklyn Citizen, September 16, 1935: 10.
23 “Philly Stars Play 18-Inning Game,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 27, 1936: 22; “Crawfords Win in Polo Grounds Benefit for Old Sam Langford,” New York Age, September 26, 1936: 9.
24 “Ed Bolden’s Phila. Stars to Oppose Landreth Nine,” Bristol (Virginia) Daily Courier, May 4, 1937: 6. This was the newspaper that reported the 14-1 record.
25 “Braves to Tackle Philadelphia Nine,” Asbury Park (New Jersey) Press, July 21, 1938: 17.
26 “Pirates to Play Philly All-Stars,” Long Beach (New Jersey) Daily Record, June 3, 1938: 8.
27 John Holway, Black Sports, 54; “Heavy Hitting Locals Topple Famous Rivals,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, Pennsylvania), May 6, 1939: 15; “Stars Hit Hard Behind Miller’s Fine Work,” Delaware County Daily Times, June 29, 1939: 24; “Philadelphia Colored Stars Play Here Tonight,” Bristol Daily Courier, May 24, 1939: 4; “Philadelphia Stars Hand Bushwicks First Double Defeat of the Season,” Brooklyn Citizen, August 7, 1939: 6.
28 Holway, Voices, 86.
29 “Webster McDonald, Negro League Pitcher,” New York Times, June 15, 1982: B6.
30 “Webster McDonald,” Time, June 15, 1982. In the Webster McDonald file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York.
31 Holway, Black Sports, 54.
32 Revel and Munoz.