May 18, 1940: Young Roy Campanella clouts two home runs for Baltimore Elite Giants
For decades, baseball had been played in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on an island in the Susquehanna River known as City Island, until the ballpark there was destroyed by the Flood of 1936.1 Island Park reopened on May 16, 1940, to great fanfare as the minor-league Harrisburg Senators hosted the Wilmington (Delaware) Blue Rocks. It was fitting that Chief Bender, manager of the Blue Rocks, was there; he got his start on the island in 1902, pitching for a Harrisburg semipro team.2 Two days after it reopened, on Saturday, May 18, 1940, the Baltimore Elite Giants and Homestead Grays played an afternoon game at the renovated ballpark, before an enthusiastic crowd of 2,500.3
The Elite (pronounced “ee-light”4) Giants were the defending champions of the Negro National League, having defeated the Grays in the 1939 championship series. The game of May 18 was the fourth league game of the 1940 season for each team and their first meeting since the 1939 playoffs. It was originally scheduled as a home game for the Pittsburgh-based Grays5 but was moved to Harrisburg. (The Grays were expanding their base eastward and would play an equal number of home games in Pittsburgh and Washington during the 1940 season.6)
The starting pitchers were Willie Hubert, a right-hander for the Elite Giants, and J.C. Hamilton, a southpaw for the Grays. The pitchers were handicapped because the new Island Park did not yet have a pitcher’s mound, and so the pitchers faced the batters on a level playing field.7
Catching for the Elite Giants was Roy Campanella, an 18-year-old prodigy who had been tutored by the legendary receiver Biz Mackey. The Grays hoped for the return of their superstar catcher, Josh Gibson, who had recently jumped to the Mexican League. Filling in for him was a 23-year-old backstop, Ziggy Marcell.8
Each team was guided by a savvy, 34-year-old playing manager, third baseman Felton Snow for the Elite Giants and left fielder Vic Harris for the Grays. The Elite Giants were known for their defense: Henry Kimbro in center field, Red Moore at first base, Sammy T. Hughes at second base, and Pee Wee Butts at shortstop were among the finest fielders in Negro baseball. The Grays featured speed in their lineup: Right fielder David “Speed” Whatley, center fielder Jerry Benjamin, second baseman Lick Carlisle, and shortstop Jelly Jackson were among the fastest baserunners in Negro baseball.
The most feared hitter on either team was the Grays’ Buck Leonard, a 32-year-old first baseman known as “the black Lou Gehrig,” and he gave his team an early lead with a first-inning two-run homer, a long drive over the center-field fence.
Doubles by Bill Perkins and Norman Robinson gave the Elite Giants a run in the top of the second. In the bottom of the third, Whatley doubled and Hubert committed an error attempting to field Benjamin’s sacrifice bunt. A double by Howard Easterling followed, and the Grays had two more runs.
Young Campanella hit a solo homer in the top of the fifth, but the Grays got the run back in the bottom half on singles by Harris and Leonard and an error by Robinson in right field.
Trailing 5-2, the Elite Giants rallied in the top of the seventh. Singles by Perkins, Snow, and Robinson, and Campanella’s second home run put them ahead, 6-5. But the lead was short-lived, as Harris clubbed a two-run homer in the bottom half and the Grays were back on top, 7-6.
“With a number of home runs and foul balls out of the park,” the umpires ran out of baseballs, and the game was delayed until more balls could be located.9
Jimmy Hicks, a right-handed fireballer dubbed “the Bob Feller of colored baseball,”10 entered the game for the Grays in the top of the eighth inning. He walked Hughes, the first man up. Perkins then singled, sending Hughes to third, and Hughes came home on Snow’s infield out to tie the score.
Moore, a left-handed batter, stepped to the plate, and Harris brought in southpaw Edsall Walker to face him. Snow countered by sending the right-handed George Scales to pinch-hit for Moore. A 39-year-old coach and utilityman,11 Scales slugged the first pitch from Walker over the right-center-field fence for a two-run homer, giving the Elite Giants a 9-7 lead.
Woody Williams, a southpaw,12 was called on to close out the game in the bottom of the ninth. The first batter, Benjamin, smacked a home run, but Williams fanned Harris, Leonard, and Easterling in succession to end the game. The final score was Baltimore Elite Giants 9, Homestead Grays 8.
The teams combined for six home runs in the seesaw battle. The Harrisburg Evening News praised the fielding of first baseman Leonard and shortstops Butts and Jackson.13
Several more Negro League games were played at Island Park in 1940, including a rematch of the Elite Giants and Grays on July 12, a night game won by the Elite Giants, 18-7. Campanella and Leonard homered in the contest.14 But the Grays captured the 1940 pennant by a slim margin over the second-place Elite Giants.15
“Roy Campanella, brilliant young Baltimore catcher ... has been mentioned frequently for a tryout in the majors,” reported the Pittsburgh Courier on August 15, 1942. Campanella made his major-league debut at age 26 on April 20, 1948, with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969.
On June 6, 1940, the Chester (Pennsylvania) Times said, “If Buck Leonard was not unfortunately handicapped by a mere matter of skin pigmentation he would be commanding a salary today comparable to such stars as Joe DiMaggio, Jimmy Foxx, Bill Dickey, etc.” Leonard was 39 years old when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, and never played in the major leagues. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
Baseball on City Island remained a popular tradition in Harrisburg. In 2016 the Harrisburg Senators of the Eastern League played home games on the island at FNB Field.
- Related link: View stats from the 1940 Negro National League season at the Seamheads.com Negro Leagues Database
The author relied on the game accounts given in the May 25, 1940, issue of the Afro-American, a Baltimore newspaper, and the May 20, 1940, issue of the Harrisburg Evening News. Where there were discrepancies, preference was given to the more detailed account in the Afro-American.
Background information about the players was obtained from James A. Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994) and from Seamheads.com.
2 Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Evening News, May 16 and 17, 1940.
3 Harrisburg Evening News, May 19, 1940.
4 Bob Luke, The Baltimore Elite Giants: Sport and Society in the Age of Negro League Baseball (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 1.
5 Pittsburgh Courier, March 9, 1940.
6 Brad Snyder, Beyond the Shadow of the Senators: The Untold Story of the Homestead Grays and the Integration of Baseball (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2003), 88.
7 Harrisburg Evening News, May 21, 1940. The pitcher’s mound at Island Park was installed on May 20, 1940, two days after the Elite Giants-Grays game.
8 Ziggy Marcell was the son of Negro baseball great Oliver Marcell.
9 Harrisburg Evening News, May 20, 1940; Harrisburg Telegraph, May 21, 1940.
10 Chester (Pennsylvania) Times, June 5, 1940.
11 Baltimore Afro-American, April 20, 1940.
13 Harrisburg Evening News, May 20, 1940.
14 Harrisburg Evening News, July 13, 1940.
15 According to the Harrisburg Telegraph, September 11, 1940, the Homestead Grays finished the 1940 Negro National League season two games ahead of the Baltimore Elite Giants. Seamheads.com, accessed December 8, 2016, shows the margin as only one game.