Louis Santop, The Big Bertha

This article was written by John Holway

This article was published in 1979 Baseball Research Journal

    A big, gruff-voiced, light-skinned Texan, Louis Loftin Santop was the  first of the great black sluggers, the head of a dynasty that would stretch  through John Beckwith, Mule Suttles, Turkey Stearnes, Josh Gibson, Willie Mays, Dick Allen, and right down to Hank Aaron himself.

    Santop, who started hitting Texas-size blasts before most of the others were even born, was the only one who played most of his career in the old dead-ball era. Perhaps no man in the country, black or white, smashed the old softballs quite so far so often. No wonder they nicknamed him “Big Bertha,” after the monstrous German siege gun of World War I. They say “Top” could even call his shots a la Babe Ruth.

    In fact, the two top sluggers of their day, Ruth and Santop, faced each other, mano a mano, in Shibe Park, Philadelphia October 12, 1920, when Ruth led a semi-pro team against Santop’s club, the Philadelphia Hilldales. In four at bats the Babe walked, hit an easy fly, and struck out twice; Santop smashed a double and two singles in four at bats against the Yankees’ Carl Mays (26-1 1) and Slim Harris (9-14) of the A’s as Hilldale Won 5-0.

    “Santop hit the ball farther than anybody,” says ex-pitcher Jesse Hubbard. “Farther than anybody-Beckwith, Mule Suttles, Josh, anybody.” Hubbard remembers the famous Santop home run in Elizabethport and still calls it, more than 60 years later, the longest home run he’d ever seen. “We were Playing on a race track, a fair ground,” Hubbard says. “Most others, they hit home runs like I did, just over the fence. Santop hit them way over.”

    All the pitchers seem to remember the big left-handed swinger with a wince. Bill Holland of the New York Lincoln Giants testifies to “some terrific long balls” Santop sent sailing over the center field fence at Dexter Park, Brooklyn.

    The Newark park had a sign 440 feet away offering a suit of clothes to anyone who could hit it. `Top hit it three times one day, and they took it down.

    Remarked Hilldale outfielder Chaney White: “We’d get i a big park and we’d say, `Fences pretty far away here Top.’ He’d say, `I reckon I’ll draw `em in some.’ And like as not he would, he’d `draw one in’ before the game was done.”

    “Santop was big, chunky,” recalls pitcher Webster McDonald. “Didn’t like a low pitched ball. But a curve ball breaking away out there-it was gone!”

    Santop towered over most other players of his day. He stood about six-foot four or five, weighed over 240 pounds, and swung a big Shillelagh as if it were a toothpick. He threw right-handed, and, like Josh Gibson, spent most of his time on defense as a catcher.

    The big “Top” was born in Tyler, Texas, January 17, 1890. By 1909 he was catching for the Fort Worth Wonders at the same time the great Cyclone Joe Williams was pitching for rival San Antonio. The two must have faced each other often and certainly at the annual tournament in Oklahoma City.

    The following year Santop was up north with Sol White’s Philadelphia Giants, where he teamed with another husky rookie, Cannonball Dick Redding of Atlanta, to form the famous “kid battery.” In 1911 Top moved to the New York Lincoln Giants and teamed with his erstwhile Lone Star rival, Joe Williams, in one of the greatest batteries of all time. When Redding also joined the Giants, Santop caught both of these smoke throwers. No team in the nation, possibly excepting the Philadelphia Athletics, could boast such a threesome. Williams especially was so fast that old-timers swear he wore out two catchers in a game. That was later though. When Santop was catching, he caught all nine innings.

    Williams’ widow, Mrs. Eunice Taylor, remembers big Santop as “kind of a little fiery. But if you didn’t rub his fur the wrong way, he was a lovely person.” Santop also was tough. He reputedly once caught a double-header with a broken thumb. He won the first game with a triple, then won the second 1-0 with a home run.

    “Santop was great,” remembers old-time pitcher Arthur W. Hardy. “He  could really slam that ball. And a very consistent hitter.” Although later authorities would minimize Santop’s defensive abilities, Hardy says that in those days he had a very accurate arm: “Very few stole on him.” (Fifteen years later the arm was still a rifle. “He had a better arm than anybody I’ve ever seen,” says pitcher Scrip Lee. “Santop could stand at home plate and throw the ball into the center-field bleachers.”

     Statistics for three seasons have been found for Santop’s years with the Lincolns, 1911-16. They show him hitting .470 in 1911, .422 in 1912, and .455 in 1914, figures that may include white semi-pro as well as black big league opposition. His home run total was given only for 1914, and it is surprisingly small, only two in 191 at bats. His stolen base total was even more surprising-18. Santop wasn’t known as a greyhound.

     That 1914 club was one of the greatest of all time, black or white. Besides Santop, they boasted Williams and Redding, two of the three best black pitchers of all time (Satchel Paige being the third); John Henry Lloyd, managing and playing shortstop; and speedster Spottswood Poles in center field. Lloyd is already in the Hall of Fame. The others were all of equal caliber.

    In 1917 Santop moved to the cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, and that October jumped to Ed Bolden’s amateur Hilldale club for three games against a big league barnstorming squad that featured Bullet Joe Bush on the mound. Santop clipped Bush for four hits as the Hilldales won two and lost one.

    Santop was among the first professionals to join the Hilldales, which Bolden would soon fashion into one of the great powerhouses of black baseball. Top had hardly reported, however, when he had to leave, joining the Navy in 1918 and missing parts of 1918 and `19 as a result.

    With Top back in the line-up in 1920, the Hilldales began flexing their muscles. Phil Cockrell and Connie Rector did the pitching, Otto Briggs and George Johnson patrolled the outfield, Toussaint Allen, Bill Francis and Bunny Downs were in the infield. (Downs later managed Henry Aaron on the Indianapolis Clowns.) That fall they challenged Casey Stengel’s all stars to four games but lost three in spite of Santop’s six hits. They did beat Scott Perry of the A’s 6-2. Top singled and was robbed of a home run by a great catch in center field.

    Top “was the greatest star and the best drawing card we ever had,” Bolden used to say, and backed up his words by paying his big catcher a princely salary-$450 a month. Santop earned it by playing almost every game the Hilldales played, which meant about 180 or more a season. He was always advertised wherever Hilldale went, and the fans would have been mutinous if Top didn’t appear.

    Santop was the star, and he claimed the star’s prerogatives. “He was a man, that Santop,” chuckles little Jake Stephens, a rookie shortstop with the Hilldales in 1920. “He had a big bat case. At that time he carried two bats. He was very popular, so he says to me, `Heh, boy’-he called me boy-`take my bag.’ I said, `I’m not about to.’ He says, `You ain’t gonna be on this ball club but just so long.’”

   It was merely friendly bantering (Jake stayed on the Hilldales longer than Santop would). In fact, big Top wouldn’t let anyone mess with one of his Hilldale boys. In 1921 the great Rube Foster, a master of psychological warfare, brought his western champions, the Chicago American Giants, east to play Hilldale for the black championship of the country. Rube strode into the Hilldale clubhouse at Shibe Park before the first game and accosted young third baseman Judy Johnson:

   “Well, well, well, who’s the new boy? We’re gonna bunt on you today, we’re gonna drive you crazy,” and on and on. It was the signal for Santop to step in. “You go on now, Rube,” he growled in his gruff, bass voice, “leave the kid alone.”

   Rube’s race horses did run Johnson and Santop crazy that first game. But the Philadelphians evened the series in the second game. In the third, Santop smashed a triple to help win it 15-5, and in the fourth game drilled a double as Hilldale won again and claimed the black championship of the world.

   Johnson remembers another game, this one against Big Jeff Tesreau, formerly of the New York Giants, who had left the major leagues seeking bigger money as a semipro with his own club, the Tesreau Bears. “We were playing in New York one Sunday,” Judy recalls. “Tesreau was from Tyler, Texas, too. `Top came to bat and Jeff threw at him. Santop hollered out to him: `Heh, Jeff, you throwin’ at your home town boy,’ Jeff just said, `All niggers look alike to me.’”

   In 1923 Bolden formed the Eastern Colored League as a rival to Foster’s loop. The Hilldales, naturally, won the first pennant as Santop batted .338.

   In fact, Bolden declared war on Foster, and his league began raiding the west of its greatest stars. The biggest catch of all, in 1924, was Oscar Charleston, perhaps the finest black player who ever lived. Charleston was used to being top banana, and he had a reputation for being a scrapper.  Inevitably, a rivalry would flare up between the two superstars, Charleston and Santop.

   “Only one time Charley got out of line,” grins Stephens. “It was when he first came here from Indianapolis. Santop was our catcher. A big man, too, Santop hugged him, broke three of his ribs. He was a man, that Santop.”

   Santop hit .405 in 1924 and again the Hilldales finished first and thus gained the honor of playing the famous Kansas City Monarchs in the first modern black world series between the top teams of the two black leagues. In nine games Santop would bat .333, but instead of capping his career with glory at the age of 34, a few devastating seconds would transform him into a goat, the Merkie and Snodgrass of blackball history, in a bitter, tragic end to a great career.

       Hilldale jumped off to an early lead, three games to one, before Kansas City tied it three games all, plus one tie. That brought the clubs down to the eighth game in Chicago October 19, with the African Prince of Dahomey looking on. Hilldale pitcher Rube Currie, a Kansas City native, was mastering his former Monarch teammates handily and went into the ninth winning 2-0. Then trouble started. Currie gave up a run and had the bases loaded as the weak-hitting Monarch catcher Frank Duncan came to bat. Currie threw, Duncan swung, and popped a towering foul a few feet behind home plate. Santop whipped off his mask, craned his neck upwards, tapped his glove and waited. The ball hit the glove, glanced off, and bounced to the ground for an error. Duncan stepped back into the box and lashed  Currie’s next pitch toward third base, where Biz Mackey was guarding the line. The ball, a sure out, squirted through Mackey’s legs fortwo bases, and two runners raced home. The Monarchs won the game 3-2 and went on to take the series five games to four.

    The error virtually killed Louis Santop’s career. Though only 35, he barely played in any league games in 1925, as Mackey moved behind the plate and handled most of the catching. Santop could still hit, however. He swatted .385 for all games, league plus semi pro, but Bolden used him in only 17 league games, mostly as a pinch-hitter, and he hit a heart-broken .174. It was his last year in the black big time.

    After retiring, Santop remained in Philadelphia, where he died January 6, 1942. “He was well thought of there,” pitcher Bill Holland says. “He owned property right behind the Ebbetts Hotel. He had the best collection of clippings and ball players’ pictures and records. He had an office just full of them. I used to go by there and say, `Well, I want to look at myself.’ He had a wonderful collection.” (The collection was willed to ex-shortstop Bill Yancey, who in turn contributed it to Cooperstown, where it now resides.) The prize of the collection was a gilded bat in the parlor with a notation that said the last time Santop used it he hit a single, double, triple and three home runs.

    Catcher Macajah Eggelston of Baltimore remembers squatting down behind the big man in Philadelphia one day when Santop was near the end of his career. The bases were full and the Hilldales were losing by two runs. “Well,” Santop announced in his deep-chested voice, “I’m gonna go to Texas now. I’m gonna let you all go home.” Eggleston called for everything he could think of to fool the big slugger. “Finally,” smiles Egg, “the pitcher got one right in, and Santop hit it out of the ball park, over the trees outside the fence. That’s right. He `went to Texas’ on that one all right!”