Sam Streeter: Smartest Pitcher In Negro Leagues

This article was written by John Holway

This article was published in 1984 Baseball Research Journal

When the first black All-Star Game was played in 1933, shortly after the first white classic, Satchel Paige came in third in the vote of the fans for starting pitcher. The top vote-getter, and thus honored with starting the first game, was a stocky little lefthanded spitballer who still lives in Pittsburgh – Sam Streeter, now 84 years old.

It wasn’t the first time that Satch had played in the shadow of Sam. Streeter was the ace of the Birmingham Black Barons in 1927 when Satch, then a skinny kid, joined them as a rookie.

“Streeter was one of the best Iefthanders you’d ever want to see,” Paige himself declared. “If there ever was another Sandy Koufax, it was him.”

Streeter remembers Satch well, of course. “He would throw hard, but he didn’t have any curveball,” Sams says. “I worked with him, taught him a curveball, got him control. See, he’d wind up and wouldn’t watch the batter. He’d look around, and when he’d come back, he didn’t know where he was throwing it.

“I told him to keep his eye on the plate, not to turn too far, to glance at the plate before he turned his ball loose. He got to the point where he had good control. And developed a curveball.”

Satch won nine and lost two that year. The Negro Leagues played about 100 league games a year then. Streeter topped him with a 14-7 mark, but fastballer Harry Salmon, another Pittsburgh resident who died in 1983, bettered them both with 15-9.

Manager John McGraw of the old New York Giants is supposed to have said Streeter had the best control of any lefty he’d seen. Sam had a good drop ball, curve, knuckler, and fastball. “He threw mostly curves, mostly slow on everything,” says Vic Harris, Streeter’s manager on the Homestead Grays later. “He knew where to spot his pitches. You never did get a good one to hit. He’d outsmart you.”

Crawfords outfielder Ted Paige, who also still lives in Pittsburgh, laughs that Streeter “kept breaking the curve off right in front of you. You’d walk up on his pitches, and he kept breaking each one off a little shorter. Before you knew it, you were halfway to the pitching mound.

“But when Sam got in a tough spot, he’d throw the spitball. He threw strikes with it, too.”

Streeter wasn’t a big man. He stood 5′ 7½” and weighed 165. “At that time,” he says, “if a man didn’t weigh around 200, he didn’t hardly get a job pitching. I wasn’t big enough to scare nobody out there in the box, but when a batter came up and swung his bat, I could almost tell whether he could hit a high ball or a low ball. If you studied them, you could tell. And I had pretty good success. I never lost too many games.”

Sam beat white major leaguers as well as blacks. In 1931in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park (later Connie Mack Stadium), he beat George Uhle of the Detroit Tigers, 18-0. The next year he bested Casey Stengel’s all-stars, 5-4, defeating pitchers Fred Frankhouse and Bill Swift.

“We’d lose some, but we won more than we lost” against the whites, Streeter says. He pitched against Lou Gehrig in the 1920s. “He didn’t get any home runs. Gehrig was one of those guys you couldn’t throw the ball by him. You had to kind of loosen him up, use a change of pace.”

He also beat Rube Walberg and Jimmie Foxx of the Athletics, 7-6. “Foxx hit pretty good, but he didn’t get any home runs,” Streeter recalls. “And we had hard hitters in our league, just like they did.”

Josh Gibson was one. “He hit a home run off me once in Forbes Field, but it actually should have been a single,” Streeter claims. “He hit it on the ground to center field and it bounced over the center fielder’s head. Josh was a fast man, too. When that ball came back in there, he was already back sitting on the bench.”

If it had been hit in the air, Streeter admits, it would have been a legitimate homer. “But those hard hitters, I tried to keep them hitting the ball on the ground, let them hit singles or doubles on the ground and maybe have a chance to get the next man out.” Gibson himself is quoted as calling Streeter the smartest pitcher in the league.

Which was better, Josh Gibson or Willie Stargell? “Maybe Stargell had a little something on Gibson,” Streeter says, surprisingly. “I think Gibson was a better hitter than Stargell, but he didn’t hit them as hard as Stargell. I’d give Gibson the batting eye, but I think I’d give Stargell a little stronger bat.”

Streeter sees or hears every game the Pirates play, though he doesn’t get out to the park much anymore. “I’m kind of down on my back,” he says. “I can’t walk as much now.”

Bill Madlock is one of his favorites. “With that short stroke he’s got, he don’t have to swing until after the ball starts breaking,” Streeter says.

Sam compares Madlock to Charlie “Chino” Smith, who was, by common agreement, the best hitter ever to play in the Negro leagues. Gibson and Suttles were right-handers and Smith was a lefty.

“I didn’t have too much trouble with Smith. You had to kind of outguess Smith. And you had to keep him loose. I’d throw him a fastball inside, then I’d break one at him inside, then I’d throw to the outside corner. A good curveball is kind of hard for a man to place just like he wants to. He might hit it, but he’ll usually hit over it or down on it.”

Like most black pitchers with the notable exception of Paige, Streeter could hit as well as pitch. His four known season batting averages are .357, .347, .409, and .444.

Sam was born in Birmingham on September 17, 1900. All the steel mills around there had teams, and when he was in the eighth grade he went to work for the American Cast Iron & Pipe Co., mostly to play on their team. At the age of 14 he stepped up to the Hensley steel mill team, the best in the league. Soon he was playing professionally with Atlanta in the Negro Southern League.

In 1920 Streeter joined the best black team in the country, the Chicago American Giants, under the great Rube Foster, the So-called “father of black baseball” and a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame.

A bout with appendicitis knocked Sam off the team, so he joined the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, one of the powerhouses in the East. His next club was the New York Lincoln Giants under Smokey Joe Williams, who was voted the greatest black pitcher of all time, defeating Paige in a 1952 Pittsburgh Courier poll of experts.

Streeter agrees with the experts. He once saw Smokey Joe strike out 24 Brooklyn Bushwicks in one game. The Lincolns needed two catchers in every game, he claims. “By the fifth inning the first catcher’s hand would be swollen,” Sam says. “And Joe could ask a hitter where he wanted the pitch – they usually asked for one chest high. `Okay,’ Joe would say, `if that’s what you like, that’s what you’re getting,’ and then he’d breeze it past him.”

In 1925 Streeter and Williams joined Cum Posey’s Homestead Grays. The Grays may have been the best black team in the country, although at that time they didn’t play in the league, figuring they could make more money barnstorming against white semi-pro teams in the Pennsylvania-Ohio area. “In `26 we won 43 straight games,” Sam remembers.

He went home to Birmingham in `27, met young Satchel and helped pitch the Black Barons to the playoffs in the Negro National League.

In 1928 Streeter was back with the Grays, who played in Forbes Field when the Pirates were away. They joined the league the following year, and Sam’s won-lost record was 10-6.

Three years later virtually the entire Grays team, Streeter included, jumped to the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the new club being formed by Gus Greenlee, tavern owner, and numbers king.

Monte Irvin, who later played with the New York Giants, calls the Crawfords the greatest team in blackball history. Many authorities agree. They boasted five future Hall of Famers – Oscar Charleston, Paige, Gibson, third baseman Judy Johnson and outfielder Cool Papa Bell.

Black fans swarmed to the ballparks 50 years ago, and the Craws often drew large crowds to Forbes Field or Greenlee Field. Streeter doesn’t understand why the Pirates have such a small following among the city’s blacks today.

In `32 Streeter was credited with an 11-3 record. The following year he led the vote of the fans for the All-Star Game pitching staff. Sam finally hung up his glove in 1936 and went to work on the open hearth of the Jones and Laughlin steel mill. He put in 29 years there before retiring in 1965.

In all, he played ball for 20 years. “I enjoyed it,” he says. “Never regretted it. Those were some good days. Baseball then was different from what it is now. They weren’t playing for money, they were playing because they liked the game. That made a lot of difference.”