Bob Boston

This article was written by Bill Johnson

The 1948 Negro National League season was played on the cusp of a tectonic shift in the structure of Organized Baseball, as many black players were signed by clubs in the major and minor leagues. The 1948 iteration of the Homestead Grays, after two years of sub-.500 play and with a roster that no longer included immortals like Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, and Ted Radcliffe was more of an amalgamation of veteran players, with the average age on the roster being almost 31 years old. That stipulated, this was no minor-league squad, either. With a lineup that included future Hall of Famer Buck Leonard, as well as several future major-league players, the 1948 Grays were a substantially better team than they had been for the previous two seasons.

The Pittsburgh Courier reported a Grays victory over a South Carolina squad in the first exhibition game that spring, and noted that Homestead’s new third baseman was “Bob Boston, big Ohio star, (who) played at third and out of five times at bat got one hit, a long line drive into right field and a walk.”1 Boston, the paper later noted in a report from spring training in Daytona Beach, Florida, was a “young star from East Liverpool, Ohio,” and at 6-feet-4 and 205 pounds appeared to “have the inside track for third base this season since Howard Easterling left the hot corner. Boston led the East Liverpool City League in fielding and batting last year, and has made quite an impression on Manager Vic Harris.”2 The 1948 season would prove to be Bob Boston’s only year in professional baseball, but he filled an important regular-season spot on the final Negro League World Series champion squad.

On July 4, 1918, Ed and Bernice “Burma” (Evans) Boston welcomed Robert Lee, their sixth and last child, into the world in Dearing, Georgia, a small community just west of Augusta.3 Boston’s parents were extraordinarily hard-working people who, by available accounts, raised their family well.4 Ed had emigrated from Nova Scotia, Canada, as a boy, and worked as a sawmill laborer at Culpepper & Company in McDuffie County. He died shortly after Robert’s birth, at the young age of 26 or 27.5 His even younger widow, called “Burma” by family and friends, had married Ed at the age of 14 and now was left to both raise and provide for her children on her own. Working out of their rented house in Rome, Georgia, she labored as a laundress just to keep a roof over their heads and a little bit of food on the table. The burden was incredible, and she died two days before Christmas in 1934.

Robert, the youngest child, was only 16 and was not yet ready to move out on his own. A neighbor took Boston in, and he took a job as a laborer at a local quarry. Like so many youths of that time, irrespective of race, he had developed a deep affection for baseball and filled his free hours with any games he could find. Boston later moved to Gadsden, Alabama, to take a job with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. According to Mark F. Twyford:

“The rubber company fielded two teams, one for whites and the other for blacks. An applicant's baseball abilities often played a deciding role in the outcome of the hiring process, and those employees who played for the company's teams were given more desirable jobs and had to work fewer hours each week than those who did not play.  Boston's job required him to work only two days a week. The remainder of his work week was spent playing baseball.”6

The young player reputedly took the field with several semipro teams in the area, largely as a way to supplement his meager income. In 1940, he married fellow Georgian Lucy Hachett. Boston continued a life of work and play without much money until 1943; on March 26 of that year, he reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, and enlisted in the US Army. Lucy moved to East Liverpool, Ohio, to stay with her sister while Robert was away. Boston remained on active duty through the end of World War II, but he was not finally discharged until 1946. He had obviously been a solid soldier, as he was a technician fifth grade (the modern equivalent would be an E-3) when he departed. Upon his release from active duty, Boston left the South for good, moving to Ohio to rejoin Lucy and taking a $300-a-month job at Crucible Steel in nearby Midland, Pennsylvania.

At Midland he naturally joined the company baseball team, with whom he played against numerous industrial-league players and teams. Boston distinguished himself in every aspect of the game: Not only was he well regarded as a powerful hitter and fast runner, he also pitched at least one no-hitter and struck out 16 batters in a game. It was his bat, though, that made outsiders pay attention. Clarence Huffman, manager of the Golden Star Dairy team in the East Liverpool City League, invited Boston to try out for his team.7 When Boston accepted a roster spot, he became the only black player in the league.

In his first season at the higher level, Boston batted a reported .560 while leading Golden Star to the city championship. It was that renown that led the Homestead Grays to offer him a $500-a-month contract to play for them in 1948. Boston roomed with Luke Easter, a player with whom he drew favorable comparisons, and played well, as did the entire Grays team. In one evening game, he ran into a light pole at full speed while chasing down a foul ball and shattered part of his arm in the collision. Doctors told the Grays that Boston needed complete rest in order for his arm to heal properly, but Harris had his prized third baseman in the lineup as soon as the open wound on his arm had closed.

A few games after his return to the diamond, Boston attempted to throw out a runner who had grounded to third, but his arm would not go forward. Twyford noted that the rookie just dropped his glove and walked off the field; he exited both the game and Negro League baseball.8 The career-ending injury deprived Boston of the opportunity to prove his mettle with the Grays; had he been able to do so, he may even have had a shot at joining a team in Organized Baseball, since integration of the major and minor leagues was now under way. Boston was also deprived of the chance to play in the last Negro League World Series, as the Grays won the NNL championship and went on to defeat the NAL champion Birmingham Black Barons four games to one in that landmark series.

After the abrupt end to his stint with the Grays, Boston returned to Crucible Steel and worked there until his retirement in 1980. Eventually his arm healed well enough that he was able to resume playing for local baseball teams. Between 1948 and 1951 he was part of two East Liverpool City League championships with Golden Star Dairy, and he dominated most of the statistical categories. He also played first base on a team in an East Liverpool fast-pitch softball league. After 1951, now in his early to mid-30s, Bob Boston retired from baseball entirely, but continued to play softball until the late 1950s.

After Boston retired from Crucible Steel, he and Lucy relocated across Ohio to the Dayton area. Lucy died in 1993, and Bob was eventually admitted to long-term care at the Dayton Veterans Administration hospital.  At 1:30 A.M. on July 2, 2002, Robert Boston died.9 He and Lucy are buried together at the VA cemetery in Dayton.

 

This biography appears in "Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, the Grays, and the 1948 Negro League World Series" (SABR, 2017), edited by Frederick C. Bush and Bill Nowlin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources listed in the Notes, the author also consulted the following:

Ancestry.com.

Baseball-Reference.com.

Riley, James A. The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994).

 

Notes

1 “Grays Curb Bats fo(sic)Spartansburg Sluggers, Win First Game 9 to 4,”  Pittsburgh Courier, April 3, 1948.

2 “Pittsburgh Opener Set for April 29; Outfield Has Power,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 10, 1948.

3 It is not uncommon for records of the day (and particularly Negro birth, death, and marriage records) to be incomplete, especially in the Southern United States a mere generation after the end of Reconstruction. There are several competing accounts of the details of Boston’s birth.  James A. Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues and Boston’s player listing at baseball-reference.com both give his birthdate as July 4, 1922, and his birthplace as Gaston, Alabama. Boston’s biographer on the East Liverpool (Ohio) Historical Society’s website is confident that Boston was indeed born on July 4, but in 1919 instead of 1922, and in Rome, Georgia, rather than Gaston, Alabama. Official census, Social Security, and other records variously list his birth date as either July 3, 4, or 13 in 1918, or July 4, 1919. His military discharge information used the July 4, 1918 date; thus, for the sake of consistency, that is the date that will be assumed to be correct in this biography. Additionally, based on the weight of documentation available onAncestry.com, it is most likely that Boston was actually delivered in Dearing, Georgia, rather than Rome, Georgia, or Gaston, Alabama.

4 Mark F. Twyford, “Blastin’ Bob Boston: East Liverpool’s Link to the Negro Baseball League,” eastliverpoolhistoricalsociety.org/Bobboston.htm, accessed June 21, 2016. This essay first appeared in the 20th Anniversary Tri-State Pottery Festival Plater Turner’s Handbook, published in June 1987. Twyford relied on personal knowledge of the subject coupled with very thorough research to write his article about Robert Boston. To the greatest extent possible, the information used from that source has been corroborated by other, independent sources.

5 Ed Boston certified on his 1917 draft registration form  that he had been born in 1891, but he was unaware of the exact date of his birth; he was also illiterate and was unable to sign his name on the form. (Source: US Draft Registration Form for Ed Boston, dated June 1917).

6 Ibid,

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Dayton Daily News, July 7, 2002: B5.