The Negro National League (NNL) was early in its second season when the Columbus Buckeyes made their initial trip to Indianapolis. The Indianapolis ABCs were a charter member of the NNL in 1920, along with Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, Cuban Stars West, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Kansas City Monarchs, and St. Louis Giants. The ABCs finished fourth in 1920, 10 games behind the league champion Chicago American Giants.
Indianapolis finished 1920 with a 44-38-4 record versus other NNL teams and a 49-43-5 overall record. Oscar Charleston was the ABCs’ top hitter, leading the team with 5.9 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a .936 On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage (OPS), a .353 batting average, 80 runs scored, and 20 steals. Charleston led the NNL in runs; his OPS and batting average ranked third in the league behind the Chicago American Giants’ Cristóbal Torriente and the Detroit Stars’ Jimmie Lyons, while his 20 stolen bases ranked third behind the Monarchs’ Bartolo Portuondo and Lyons. The ABCs’ top pitcher was Bob McClure, who led the staff with 2.2 WAR and a 2.42 ERA, garnering a 7-7 record over 115⅓ innings. Dizzy Dismukes led Indianapolis pitchers with 14 wins, 25 games started, and three shutouts.
The ABCs were managed by C.I. Taylor and played their games at Washington Park in Indianapolis, the site of the first NNL game, on May 2, 1920.1 The 1921 ABCs’ roster was notably different compared with the previous year. During the offseason, Charleston’s rights had been sold to the St. Louis Giants for an undisclosed sum. The sale, likely occurring without Charleston’s consent, was noted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,2 but was not reported in the Indianapolis newspapers.3 Taylor and Charleston’s relationship had soured as the 1920 season progressed. They quarreled behind the scenes throughout the season, then their feud went public during a postseason exhibition series. Taylor and Charleston disagreed about gate receipts, leading to a war of words in the press, and a fracture of their relationship.
In contrast, the Columbus Buckeyes were on their inaugural NNL season in 1921. The Buckeyes had replaced the Dayton Marcos, who left the NNL after its first season. The only other change among the NNL teams for 1921 was a name change; the Cuban Stars West were renamed the Cincinnati Cuban Stars.
Columbus was hoping to fare better than its Dayton predecessors. The Marcos finished 1920 with a 16-36 record, 23 games behind the American Giants. Their top offensive player was left fielder Koke Alexander, who led position players with 1.5 WAR, .933 OPS, a .350 batting average, and 23 RBIs. The staff ace was George Britt, who paced the team with 2.5 WAR, 20 games with 13 games started, 134⅓ innings, six wins, eight losses, and 71 strikeouts. The Marcos changed locations, but their top players returned for the 1921 season, with future Hall of Famer John Henry “Pop” Lloyd taking over as player-manager.4 Unlike Indianapolis, Columbus didn’t lose their stars during the offseason.
Indianapolis won its first two games of the season, both against the Cincinnati Cuban Stars. On April 30 Indianapolis won 12-2 behind Lloyd Latimer’s pitching and 11 runs scored over the final three innings.5 The next day the ABCs scored three fifth-inning runs on an overthrown pickoff attempt by Cincinnati pitcher José Leblanc on Leon Day; Indianapolis pitchers Dicta Johnson and Jim Jeffries made those runs stand up for a 3-1 victory.6 On May 4 the Cuban Stars benefited from stellar pitching by Claudio Manela to win, 7-2.
The Buckeyes had opened by hosting the Chicago Giants; they lost their opener on April 30 and tied the Giants in 11 innings a day later. Columbus traveled to Indianapolis for a series beginning on Saturday, May 7. In the first game of the series, the Buckeyes won 6-3 behind solid pitching by Britt and two triples by Clint Thomas.7 The next day Columbus defeated Indianapolis by the same 6-3 score. Columbus led 5-0 before the ABCs scored three seventh-inning runs off winning pitcher Roy Roberts. Indianapolis wasn’t able to deliver timely hits – the ABCs managed only four hits– and “loose work in the local infield” led to their defeat.8
The Monday afternoon matchup featured Columbus’ Britt against Indianapolis left-hander Jeffries. Jeffries was eager for a starting assignment, and Britt wanted continued success against the ABCs. Indianapolis manager Taylor addressed his team’s suspect infield defense by moving veteran Morten Clark from center field to shortstop. Clark, a 31-year-old veteran shortstop of the 1915-1918 Indianapolis ABCs when they were part of the Western Independent Clubs, provided needed stability to the relatively young ballclub. In addition, slugger Crush Holloway was moved from second base to right field while 20-year-old rookie Kid Lowe moved to third base and 18-year-old rookie shortstop Charlie Williams was benched. Holloway, who had refused to join Indianapolis the previous year after his San Antonio Black Aces folded, changed his mind for the 1921 season.9
Taylor’s moves appeared to work. The game was scoreless through four innings, with Britt exiting the game during the third for an unspecified reason. Britt threw 2⅓ scoreless innings, then was replaced by 18-year-old catcher Buck Ewing, who was pitching for the first time during a NNL game.
Ewing struggled with his control throughout the game, and the ABCs soon surged ahead. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Indianapolis jumped out to a 3-0 lead. The ABCs added another two runs in the sixth, and led 5-0. Indianapolis scored two more runs in the eighth inning and rolled to a 7-0 win. The ABCs scored their runs on “bases on balls and wild pitch, mingled with several hits.”10 Jeffries earned the win, and Ewing absorbed the loss in what turned out to be his only recorded NNL pitching appearance.
Jeffries limited Columbus to three hits and one walk, and “looked about as good as anybody the [ABCs] have in the box”11 while Ewing issued 10 walks and was hit hard when the ball crossed the strike zone. Indianapolis’s offense was in full force, led by two hits apiece from Holloway, Connie Day, and Jeffries. After committing four errors during their loss a day earlier, the ABCs’ defense was significantly improved; they completed two double plays and committed zero errors. Their retooled middle infield was especially active; Day had seven assists at second and Clark had five putouts and three assists at shortstop. The team combined for 20 assists overall with Taylor recording 14 outs at first base.
Indianapolis finished fourth in the Negro National League that season with a 37-37-2 record, 11 games behind the league-leading Chicago American Giants. Including non-league games, the ABCs compiled a 55-55-3 record. Columbus finished sixth with a 30-38-1 record, 15 games behind Chicago and 2½ games behind the fifth-place Detroit Starts.12 The Buckeyes compiled a 42-48-1 record against all teams.13 The Buckeyes disbanded after only one season in the Negro National League.
Jeffries was one of the NNL’s best pitchers in 1921. He posted a 15-13 record and a 3.03 ERA (121 ERA+) with five shutouts over 42 games, including 28 games started, and 261 innings pitched. Jeffries led the NNL in pitching appearances, starts, and innings pitched. His 4.7 pitching WAR was fourth-best in the NNL.
Indianapolis’ Ben Taylor finished third in the NNL with a .392 batting average, fourth in the NNL with 84 runs, and fifth with a .967 OPS. Biz Mackey finished 10th with a .330 batting average. Columbus’ Pop Lloyd finished sixth in the NNL with a .348 batting average and departed for New York after Columbus disbanded.
Besides the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Seamheads.com, Baseball-Reference.com, and Retrosheet.org.
1 Paul Debono, The Indianapolis ABCs: History of a Premier Team in the Negro Leagues (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1997): 86.
2 “Local Giants to Train in South Next Spring,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 21, 1921: 28.
3 Jeremy Beer, Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019): 138.
5 “A.B.C.s Beat Cubans,” Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1921: 27.
6 “A.B.C.s Cop Another,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1921: 12.
7 “A.B.C.s on Short End of Score in Opening Contest,” Indianapolis Star, May 8, 1921: 26.
8 “Buckeyes Beat A.B.C.s for Second Time, 6 to 3,” Indianapolis Star, May 9, 1921: 12.
9 Debono, 89.
10 “A.B.C.s Come Back Strong and Beat Buckeyes,” Indianapolis Star, May 10, 1921: 12.
11 “A.B.C.s Come Back Strong and Beat Buckeyes.”
12 As with many NNL statistics, discrepancies exist about season records. Debono, The Indianapolis ABCs: History of a Premier Team in the Negro Leagues, 91, says that the ABCs finished fifth with a 35-38 record, 10 games behind the league-leading 41-22 Chicago American Giants. The Columbus Buckeyes finished sixth with a 25-38 record, 12½ games behind the American Giants.
13 1921 Negro National League standings, https://www.seamheads.com/NegroLgs/year.php?yearID=1921&lgID=NNL.
Indianapolis ABCs 7
Columbus Buckeyes 0
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