This article was written by John Holway
This article was published in the 1975 Baseball Research Journal
They used to call Spottswood Poles the “black Ty Cobb.” He was a Negro League contemporary of the Detroit outfielder who excelled at hitting and running. Paul Robeson, football star of the 1918-22 period and later a famous singer, considered Poles one of the greatest black athletes of all time, grouping him with Jesse Owens, Jack Johnson, and Joe Louis.
It’s just possible that Poles may indeed have been one of the finest hitters and base runners in black baseball history. We may never know for sure. His best years were well over half a century ago, back before World War I, and there are not many left who saw him at his peak. Black baseball statistics, thin even in later years, were even more rare back then. What few batting averages we do have are stunning: .440, .364, and .487! We can only guess what he might have hit in the missing years.
And we can only guess what he might have hit in the major leagues. The hints we do have are eye-popping, to say the least. In ten games against the best white big leaguers of his day, Poles came to bat an estimated 41 times and drilled 25 hits for an average of .610!
If Poles could hit like Cobb, he could also run like Cobb. Stolen bases were counted in only four of his games against the big leaguers, but in those four games he stole five bases. Against black (and probably some white) opponents in 1911, he swiped 41 bases in 60 games.
Poles could still fly 12 years later when pitcher Sam Streeter saw him. Streeter had heard of Poles’ reputation on the bases, but he wasn’t prepared for the performance the little 36-year-old left-hander put on the first time they met. “He hit that ball on one hop right back to me,” Streeter says. “It was straight, just like a line drive. I turned to throw to first, and he crossed first before the ball got there! I said, ‘Well, I won’t play around with you anymore!’”
Streeter, who saw them both, insists that Poles was even faster than Cool Papa Bell, usually called the fastest man ever to play baseball. “If Poles hit to third base or shortstop,” Streeter says, “there was no question about it, he was going to be on there safe.”
The bowlegged Poles hardly looked like a speed merchant. He was born in Winchester, Virginia in 1887, and once reminisced that “I played baseball since I was six years old, using a broomstick and a tennis ball.” At the age of 19, in 1906, Poles joined the Harrisburg Colored Giants in the Pennsylvania capital. “I looked like my name,” he used to laugh — “a bean pole.”
Three years later Spot moved to the black big time, to the renowned Philadelphia Giants team founded by Sol White, who had developed such stars as Rube Foster, Pop Lloyd, Pete Hill, and many more.
When White moved to the Lincoln Giants in New York in 1911, Poles moved with him. He would enjoy his finest years with them as a leadoff hitter and center fielder, playing alongside such stars as pitcher Smokey Joe Williams, catcher Louis Santop, and outfielder Blainey Hall. In his very first year, Spot led the Lincolns with a .440 mark at bat.
“We trained in Florida in those days,” Poles later told sportswriter Al Clark of Harrisburg. “On Washington’s birthday, there was no game. All the players used to go to Palm Beach for a track meet, and one year I ran 100 yards in less than ten seconds. They tell me that was pretty close to the world record at that time.”
Poles spent the winter of 1912 in Cuba, hitting .364. The following autumn, in 1913, he joined the Lincolns in a post-season series against the Philadelphia Phils and their great pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. Poles stung Alex for three straight hits in a 9-2 victory, then slashed five hits against George Chalmers of the Phils in a 7-3 win.
The next recorded batting average we have for Poles was for the 1914 season, and it’s a beauty: .487. In the autumn of that year, Poles was again playing against major league stars. He collected four hits off Andy Coakley, former pitcher of the Athletics, in a 5-3 victory. Chief Bender came closest to stopping the pesky Spottswood, holding him to only one single. But he didn’t hold him enough: Poles scored the winning run. in the ninth to beat the Chief 4-3.
Poles’ career was suddenly interrupted in 1917 by World War I. He enlisted at the age of 30 in the 369th Infantry, which was attached to the French army. Spot earned five battle stars and a Purple Heart in France.
“I was proud then,” he used to say. Mustered out, he returned to the Lincolns and later the Brooklyn Royal Giants.
At last in 1923 Poles called it a career. “I was still batting above .300 when I quit,” he said. “The only thing was that I got tired of all the train travel and carrying those bags around all the time. So I got out of baseball and bought myself five taxi cabs.”
Poles was in retirement in Harrisburg in 1945 when. Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers. A few years later Poles took a promising young pitcher named Brooks Lawrence under his wing and sent him up to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he won 15 games and lost six in 1954. “I’m proud, real proud, of Brooksie,” he beamed.
How did Poles feel about missing the big time? “Maybe old Poles was born before his time,” he once shrugged. “I never had a chance.” Lapsing into a Pennsylvania Dutch proverb, he added, “Old Poles grew too soon old. But I came close. Mrs. John McGraw was going through her husband’s stuff a little while after
John died. He had a notation about us — Pop Lloyd, Joe Williams, Dick Redding, and me. If they would let us in the majors, John said we would be the ones he would pick.”
Spottswood Poles died in Harrisburg in 1962 at the age of 75. Based on his military service in World War I, he was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Although he didn’t get the publicity he deserved for his ball playing, he did at least get final recognition for service to his country.