The Cannonball

This article was written by John Holway

This article was published in the 1980 Baseball Research Journal


    For three fabulous seasons on the old Lincoln Giants of the Bronx, 1912-1914, Cannonball Dick Redding teamed with Smoky Joe Williams in one of the best one-two pitching punches ever seen in America.

    Many old-timers – pitcher-outfielder Jesse Hubbard is one – insist that “Redding and Williams were better pitchers than Satchel Paige. Now Satchel didn’t throw as hard as Dick Redding. You should have seen him turn the ball loose!”

    Hubbard isn’t the only one who thinks so. Cumberland “Cum” Posey, long-time owner of the Homestead Grays, ranked Williams and Redding one-two on his all-time all-black team. Satchel came in third.

    James “Yank” Deas, who caught both Williams and Redding in their primes, called Redding the better of the two, although he concedes, “I don’t know which was faster.”

    Dick was so good that his fellow Georgian, Ty Cobb, reportedly refused to hit against him in batting practice. No wonder. Legend has it that Dick struck out Babe Ruth three times in one game on nine pitches. Says Deas: “Ruth told him if he was a white man how far he’d go in baseball.”

    Ex-pitcher Bill Holland claims Redding racked up a total of 30 no-hitters in his long career. Though many of them undoubtedly came against semi-pro opposition, that’s still a tough mark for Paige, or anyone, to beat.

    Like Satchel, Redding relied almost entirely on his burning fast ball. Neither Paige nor Redding developed a curve until late in their careers. And both – mercifully, for the batters’ sakes -had very good control.

    Redding was a big, fun-loving Georgian who stood 6’4″, with hands so large he could hide a baseball in one of them. “They looked like shovels,” laughs Hall of Famer William “Judy” Johnson.

    Could Redding throw hard? Laymond Yokely, who himself threw one of the hardest balls ever seen in the Negro leagues, got his first look at Redding in 1926 when Redding was 35. “Redding was throwing hard then, and he was going out!” Yokely whistles. “They said, `He’s going out, it won’t be long before he’s gone.’ I looked at him and said, `Going out? Hard as that man throws?’ Yeah, he could throw harder than I was, and I was just coming in!”

    Imagine how fast he had been as a gangling 20-year-old who pitched batting practice against John McGraw’s National League champion New York Giants in Georgia in 19 11. McGraw’s eyes popped. “If they could have taken colored in the big leagues,” says Hubbard, “John McGraw would have taken Dick Redding.”

    McGraw brought him out of the south, Hubbard says, and the youngster hooked up with the Philadelphia Giants under veteran black baseball pioneer Sol White. But Dick jumped to the New York Lincolns later that year and is credited with reeling off 17 straight wins in his rookie season.

    The following year, when Joe Williams joined the Lincolns from Chicago, Redding really hit his stride. One report credits him with a 43-12 record, including a perfect game against the Jersey City Skeeters of the Eastern League. Another time he struck out 24 minor league all-stars in one game. In another contest he went six innings and struck out 15 of the 18 men he faced.

    The Lincoln Giants of that era were surely one of the finest clubs in black history. Shortstop and manager was John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, the legendary hitter now in the Hall of Fame. Spottswood Poles, reputedly faster than Cool Papa Bell, and with a .639 batting average against white big league pitching, roamed center field and was often called “the black Ty Cobb.” Louis Santop, the first great black power hitter, and possibly the top power hitter in the country in that dead-ball era, was catcher. The two aces of the pitching staff were Redding and Williams, the latter the exhibition game conqueror of such stars as Walter Johnson, Grover Alexander, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, and Rube Marquard. It would have been interesting to see how the Lincolns would have done against the Athletics or Giants, the two white champions of 1913.

    Casey Stengel played against the Cannonball in Bushwick Park, Brooklyn, and, according to Yank Deas, told Dick, “If you had a ball club in the big leagues, you wouldn’t lose any games at all.”

    In 1914 the Lincolns published Redding’s record as 12-3, probably counting home games only. The next year Redding joined catcher Louis Santop and outfielder Spottswood Poles in jumping to the rival Lincoln Stars. There he ran up a record of 20 straight victories against all comers, black and white. Number 17 came against a white all-star club led by ex-Cincinnati catcher Larry McLean. Number 19 was against ex-Tiger pitcher George Mullin, and Number 20 was at the expense of Andy Coakley, formerly of the Athletics. Turkey Mike Donlin, an ex-Giant, played for Coakley and couldn’t get a hit in four times up.

    In the black world series that fall against the Chicago American Giants – Pop Lloyd and Company – Redding was superb. He won three games, one a shutout, as the two teams tied at five games apiece. He also hit .385.

    Redding moved to the Brooklyn Royal Giants in 1916, and to the Indianapolis ABC’s in 1917. Against the powerful multi-racial All Nations team the latter year, he just missed a no-hitter, giving up his first hit in the ninth. In 1918, Redding spent a year in the Army in France, then returned to manage the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City.

    The Bacharachs, or B’s for short, had a powerhouse. On third they had a man some consider the finest guardian of the hot corner in the history of black baseball, Oliver “The Ghost” Marcelle, a slick fielding Creole from Louisiana. Next to him at shortstop ranged Dick Lundy from Jacksonville, Flordia – and many authorities insist that he was the best black shortstop. The pitching staff was probably the best in black baseball at the time. Besides Redding there was Harold Treadwell, who threw a fine sidearm curve ball; Andrew “Stringbean” Williams, and Merven “Red” Ryan, a fork ball artist.

    In July 1920 they challenged the Lincolns in the first black game ever played in Ebbets Field. Redding took the mound before 16,000 fans against his old teammate and chief rival, Smoky Joe Williams. Redding was in trouble only once, when Clarence “Fats” Jenkins (a great basketball player in the off-season) lined a triple to center with no one out. But Dick bore down to get the next three men, the last one on a called strike. Redding whipped his old rival, Williams, 5-0 and the B’s went on to claim the colored championship of the East.

    That fall they even took on Babe Ruth’s all-stars at Shibe Park, Philadelphia, with 26-game winner Carl Mays on the mound for the Ruths. The Babe, who had just hit 54 homers that season, hit another in the seventh inning, but Redding beat the Ruth-Mays team 9-4. In September 1919 Redding had faced Mays, the clever submarine hurler, and the two dueled for 14 innings before Mays pulled out the victory.

    In 1923 Redding moved back to the Brooklyn Royals as manager and stayed with them for the next 16 years. Ted Page recalls him as “a real fine manager.” He wasn’t as smart as Pop Lloyd or Oscar Charleston perhaps, but Page, an excellent base runner, always was grateful that Redding let Page run on his own.

    Redding and the Royals often played against Babe Ruth after the regular season was over. “One game we played was in Red Bank, New Jersey,” says second baseman Dick Seay. “I was a kid then, my first year up, in 1925. “Ruth and Gehrig were on a local team. Ninth inning. We had them by one run. A man got on, and Ruth was up. They said, “Walk Ruth,” but he didn’t listen. He threw one to Ruth, tried to get it by him, and Ruth hit it into the next county, I think.”

    The following fall Ruth and Redding faced each other again. The Babe got three hits, including two doubles, but Redding struck him out once and beat him 3-1.

    Traditionalists maintain that the whites were not playing their best against the blacks in their frequent post-season exhibitions, that therefore the impressive margin of black victories doesn’t mean anything. Actually, the opposite was sometimes the case.

    In 1927, the year Ruth hit 60 homers, Ruth and Redding met again, on October 11 in Trenton, New Jersey. Ruth, Gehrig and a semi-pro team faced Redding and the Royals. Trenton promoter George Glasco recalls that he took the Cannonball aside before the game. “Now look” he said, “you know why all these people are here. You know what they came to see. They’re out here to see Ruth hit home runs, right?

    “Right.”

    “Now, when the Babe comes to bat, no funny business.”

    “Got ya,” Redding replied. “Right down the pike.”

    That afternoon Gehrig doubled, walked, singled, and popped to short. Ruth flied out, popped to second, and smashed three tremendous home runs over the right-field wall. The fans went home happy, and both Ruth and Redding went home richer.

    Pictures show Redding with a broad smile and twinkling eyes, because if there was one thing Dick Redding could do better than throw a baseball, it was make people laugh. “He took everything good natured,” says outfield Ted Page. “He didn’t have a care in the world so far as I could see, yet he never had much money or anything like that. He could do the funniest things.”

    “He was a nice fellow, easy-going,” agrees Walter “Buck” Leonard, who knew him in the 30s. “He never argued, never cursed, never smoked as I recall, never saw him take a drink.”

    But Redding did have a host of superstitions. Shortstop Frank Forbes remembers: “Redding wore the same sweatshirt to pitch for five days in a row. At the end of the five days that sweatshirt could stand up by itself. They made him wash it, and next day he got knocked out of the box in the first inning. Claimed he’d lost all his strength.”

    If he lost a game, chuckles Judy Johnson, he’d buy a new glove – as if the glove had anything to do with it.”

    One winter in Cuba, Redding was lounging in his hotel room when he heard the unmistakable sounds of newlyweds on the other side of the thin partition. The wall didn’t reach all the way to the ceiling, so Dick motioned to the other fellows, who pulled some chairs up for a peek. There they were, standing on tiptoes peering over the top when they lost their balance and came crashing down, wall and all, on top of the startled couple. The story is still a favorite whenever old-timers get together.

    Like all pitchers, Redding loved to brag about his hitting. “Dick wasn’t much of a hitter,” remembers old-time shortstop Jake Stephens. “I used to call him `Beady,’ he used to call me `Speed.’ I never will forget the day someone got two strikes on him, then threw him an off-speed pitch up about his chest. He got a double, and you ought to have seen Beady leg it. An ordinary guy would have gotten a three-bagger or a home run. He jogged in there with a double. `Greaat God, Speed!’ – Beady was emphatic   `Greaaat God, Speed! You see me burn those bases up?’ And I said, `Beady, you were burning those bases up, you were burning them up.’

    On road trips the Royals squeezed into two Pierce Arrow cars. Ted Page remembers one night driving through the Catskill Mountains on the Rip Van Winkle Trail when one of the tires blew out. Redding, Page and some others turned the other car around and drove 15-20 miles through the night to buy a spare. On the return trip, Redding held the spare against the running board while Page drove and the others slept. Back at the first car, Page stopped. “OK, Dick,” he said, “give me the tire.” Redding’s head had fallen forward. “Huh? What?” he mumbled, waking from a sound sleep. The tire was gone. Grumbling, the men piled back into the car and made another long round-trip to buy a second tire. “Now I get a laugh out of it,” says Page, “but it was no joke then.”

    Dick Redding remained in baseball spreading good humor until 1938. He died shortly after that. The circumstances aren’t clear. “I know he died in a mental hospital,” says Page, “down in Long Island – Central Islip, I think. Nobody’s ever told me really why, how, what happened to him.”

    The mystery may never be solved, but the memory of the big, grinning good natured black pitcher remains. “He was one of the finest men you ever saw,” says Stephens. “God, he didn’t enjoy money, he just enjoyed life. He was just a clean-cut, clean-living man. There’ll never be another Dick Redding.”

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