Monday, February 4, 2013

The Walter Johnson - Frank Wickware Showdown at Schenectady

Frank Wickware, ca. 1913. From the Frank Keetz Professional Baseball Collection. 

Excitement was running high in Schenectady in the period leading up to October 5, 1913, when Washington Americans pitcher Walter Johnson and a team of "All Americans" -- all minor league players -- would come to Schenectady to face the local all-African-American team the Mohawk Colored Giants and its strongest pitcher, Frank Wickware, for the last game in the Giants' very first season. "Never has such interest been aroused among baseball fans," wrote the Schenectady Gazette. "No more fitting close could possibly have been arranged for the local fans and the largest crowd that has ever witnessed any athletic event or baseball game will be on hand." The newspaper touted the game as "a test of the best white pitcher versus the best colored twirler."

Walter Johnson's visit to Schenectady was scheduled just after Johnson had completed a stellar season with a 36-7 record -- including 11 shutouts -- with the Washington Senators. He was also the American League MVP that year. One of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball, Johnson's fastball struck out more players than any pitcher in history until the 1980s. Some of the pitching records he set during his 21-year career remain unbroken to this day. Johnson would go on to be honored as one of the "Five Immortals" -- one of the first five players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Walter Johnson, 1913. Image from Library of Congress. 

On the Schenectady side, Frank Wickware was considered one of the best African-American pitchers of the day, and was compared to white major league legends of his time. The Schenectady Union-Star called Wickware "the best colored pitcher in the world." The Amsterdam Evening Recorder held that it "was no wild assertion to say that were it not for his color he would be placed in the same class with [Walter] Johnson, [Christopher "Christy"] Mathewson, [Charles "Chief"] Bender and other stars of the game." Reporter Frank G. Menke described Wickware as "one of the greatest pitchers the game ever has produced" and decried the color line that barred him from joining the major leagues. Menke described Wickware's style of pitching as having "marvelous speed, a weird set of curves and wonderful control. And he has a trick that has made him feared among batters. He throws what seems to be a 'bean ball' but his control is so perfect that he never yet has hit a batter in the head. But when the batters see the ball, propelled with mighty force, come for their heads, they jump away — and the ball, taking its proper and well-timed curve, arches over the plate for a strike."

Wickware shone during the Mohawk Giants' 1913 season. "The Mohawk Giants were a good baseball team," wrote local baseball historian Frank Keetz, "but with Frank Wickware pitching, they were a great baseball team." Wickware was often pitted against the Giants' toughest competitors. He was responsible for defeating four State League teams, and had a personal record of 24 wins, 5 losses, 2 ties, and 2 saves. He pitched 9 shutouts and assisted in 2 other shutouts that season. When the Chicago Cubs came to the area for an exhibition game against a Rutland, Vermont team, Wickware was picked to pitch for the Rutland team as a ringer. However, the Cubs refused to face Wickware, citing the $1,000 fine that major league teams faced if they played against an African-American player.

The Johnson-Wickware game was to be played at Island Park, on Van Slyck Island (later Iroquois Island) in the Mohawk River. Baseball games had been regularly played at Island Park since the turn of the century. Fans paid their admission at the foot of Water Street in Schenectady, then crossed a pontoon bridge on foot to the stands. The construction of the new Western Gateway Bridge during the 1970s would later prompt the filling in of the Binnekill, transforming the area into one large piece of land from the rear of the Schenectady County Community College down to the Mohawk River.

On the day of the game, roughly 7,000 fans flooded into Island Park, with overflow from the packed stands covering much of the outfield. After both teams held their pre-game practice, the Mohawk Giants players suddenly ran off the field and across the pontoon bridge to the ticket booth. The players claimed that the team's manager, Bill Wernecke, had not paid them for the past six weeks. Since this was the last game of the season, they feared they would not be paid, and they demanded to be paid immediately. Seeing the players at the gate and sensing that the game would not go on, fans streamed to the ticket booth and demanded refunds. The scene of anger, fear, and confusion, according to an article in the New York Times, "came near developing into a full-fledged riot." The Union-Star described the behavior of the players as "disgusting" and "disgraceful," particularly noting that "Wickware, in an ugly mood, used his tongue too freely as he strode about the crowd, swinging a bat dangerously near the spectators and muttering threats against Wernecke." Police soon arrived and calmed the crowd. Alfred Nicolaus, a local restaurant owner and silent partner in the Mohawk Giants team, rushed part of the funds to the striking players. The game finally began a hour and a half after the scheduled 3:00 p.m start time. After another brief interruption -- the agent who had brought Johnson to Schenectady demanded his payment, as well! -- the game went on.

The crowd was excited to see an out-of-town star, and Johnson met their expectations. He struck out the Mohawk Giants in the third and fifth innings, and only gave up two hits during the entire game. He also hit two doubles in his two appearances at bat. In comparison to Johnson's pitching, Wickware "struggled a little," according to Frank Keetz. Over the course of the game, Wickware gave up five hits, walked three, and hit one batter with a wild pitch. During the fourth inning, the Mohawk Giants scored one run -- the sole run of the game. After five and a half innings, the game was called on account of darkness. Fans were likely disappointed that that the game was cut short, but the crowd left, according to the Schenectady Gazette, "perfectly satisfied that they had seen the world's best twirler perform."

You can learn more about Wickware and other members of the Mohawk Giants on Saturday, February 23, when local baseball historian Frank Keetz will trace the history of the team. This lecture will be featured in conjunction with the exhibit The Mohawk Colored Giants, which will be on display at our museum through May 2013. Details about the talk are featured below.

Lecture: "Black Baseball Players, White Crowds: The Mohawk Colored Giants of Schenectady"

Speaker: Frank Keetz

Date: Saturday, February 23, 2013

Time: 2:00 p.m.

Location: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Avenue, Schenectady, NY 12305

Cost: $5.00 admission – Free for SCHS members            

Local baseball historian and author Frank Keetz will trace the history of the Mohawk Colored Giants, an all-African-American professional baseball team in Schenectady, and discuss the team’s impact and legacy in the area. Keetz has written several publications about sports in the Schenectady area, including The Mohawk Colored Giants of Schenectady, Class ‘C’ Baseball: A Case Study of the Schenectady Blue Jays in the Canadian-American League 1946-1950, and They, Too, Were ‘Boys of Summer:’ A Case Study of the Schenectady Blue Jays in the Eastern League 1951-1957.

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