Detroit Stars catcher Bruce Petway belongs in Cooperstown

Bruce Petway (highlighted) was one of the best defensive catchers in the history of negro leagues baseball. This photo is of the 1920 Detroit Stars.

I confess I never give Bruce Petway much thought until the calendar rolls around to this time each year, when for a few days much of the baseball news and commentary centers around the voting for a new class of inductees at Cooperstown. I read all about who made the Hall of Fame and who didn’t, and I note to myself that, once again, it’s “Wait ‘til next year” for Petway, the talented Negro leagues catcher who few of today’s fans have ever heard of. And then I pretty much forget about the whole thing for another year.

I can understand how difficult it is for even well-informed voters, much less just regular fans, to get a handle on Petway’s qualifications for the Hall. There is no film footage of him and anybody who saw him in his prime or played alongside him is long gone. Despite the best ongoing efforts of researchers, when it comes to the early Negro leagues the historical record is riddled with holes. All this makes it hard to size up a man who played a century ago. But right now I’m going to pop the cap on a cold Labatts (or two) and give it a shot.

Bruce “Buddy” Petway was a slenderly built, fleet-footed switch-hitter from Nashville, Tennessee. In 1906, he dropped out of college to play pro ball. He was a key component of some of the most dominating black nines ever, notably the Leland Giants, the Philadelphia Giants, and the Chicago American Giants. Such contemporary authorities as Connie Mack and John McGraw (numbers one and two in all-time managerial wins) considered him the top backstop in baseball, black or white. Either manager would have signed him in an instant if there hadn’t been a color line in place. “I don’t think the color of the skin ought to be a barrier in baseball,” McGraw said in 1915, speaking specifically about Petway. “If I had my say the Afro-American would be welcome inside the fold.”

A defensive marvel, Petway was renowned for his ability to pounce on bunts and was the first Negro leagues catcher to regularly throw down to second base without coming out of his squat, a testament to his powerful arm. “He can heave that ball down to the midsack and you would think that somebody was being shelled by a warship,” marveled Mack’s second baseman, Eddie Collins. “He’s the best thrower in the business.”

Petway was a contact hitter with exceptional speed. He hit a collective .248 across 19 Negro league seasons. That figure (which, as is the case for most Negro leaguers, is in a state of constant flux as additional boxscores are found and tabulated) is hardly indicative of his value. Because of his base-running and bunting abilities, he often batted leadoff, a rarity for a catcher. He was a base-stealing threat who once led the Cuban league in stolen bases.

Petway spent seven winters playing in the competitive Cuban leagues. Here’s a fun fact: In 1909, Petway and outfielder Pete Hill (later his teammate in Detroit) became the first black players ever to appear on a baseball card. They were part of the Cabanas card set, issued in Havana to commemorate the Detroit Tigers’ offseason trip to the island for a 12-game exhibition series against a team of Afro-Cuban players.

The Tigers’ top two stars, Ty Cobb and Wahoo Sam Crawford, didn’t make that 1909 trip to Cuba. However, they did the following winter, as the Tigers returned for a second round of exhibitions. This is when Petway made his claim to enduring fame, regularly gunning down Cobb on the basepaths. The exact details are open to dispute. Folklore says Petway threw out Cobb trying to pilfer a base three times in a single game. A surviving game account shows that Petway nailed Cobb once stealing and again when he attempted to bunt his way on base.

In a way, the particulars don’t really matter. Petway’s performance cemented his reputation and appears to have been a seminal moment in Cobb’s career. The Georgia Peach reportedly was so frustrated and embarrassed by being upstaged by a black man, he vowed to never again take the field against Negro players – a promise he kept. Unfortunately for Petway, it was that kind of mindless prejudice that deprived him of the fatter salaries and national recognition he deserved. “Oh, if his skin was whiter,” the Indianapolis Freeman lamented in 1919, the year Petway joined the Detroit Stars.

Petway spent the last seven seasons of his career (1919-25) with the Detroit Stars, handling such young gifted pitchers as Bill Holland (who in 1930 became the first black pitcher ever to pitch at Yankee Stadium) and Andy “Lefty” Cooper, who spent a decade in Detroit. Petway was a player-manager his last four years, guiding a competitive club to three straight third-place finishes in 1923-25. This was the golden age of black baseball in Detroit, with 10,000-seat Mack Park jammed on Sundays, including many white fans.

Like many members of the Stars, Petway worked in an auto plant in the off-season. After leaving Detroit, he worked as a Pullman porter and an apartment manager in Chicago. He was married twice, but was childless. He died inside a Chicago hospital on July 4, 1941, at the age of 55.

A few years ago, a special Hall of Fame committee was organized to consider previously overlooked Negro league players and executives. I thought Petway would get in. I was wrong. He was not among the 17 selected for induction, though two catchers, Louis Santop and Biz Mackey, were. Also selected for that jumbo-sized Class of 2006 were three deserving members of Detroit Stars of the 1920s: Pete Hill, Andy Cooper, and outfielder Cristobel Torriente. They joined the greatest Detroit Star of them all, home run-swatting center fielder Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, who had been inducted in 2000, the same year Sparky Anderson went in.

I was peripherally involved in promoting Stearnes’ candidacy. Over the years I had written several articles about his lack of recognition, as well as the first book chronicling the rich, forgotten history of Detroit’s Negro leagues. Ernie Harwell and a public relations agency employed by Stearnes’ supporters both used the book in making the case for Turkey’s long overdue induction. When that day finally arrived and Stearnes’ widow gave her acceptance speech in Cooperstown, the first people she thanked by name were baseball historian John Holway and me. As a guy who normally avoids causes and movements of any kind, I have to admit that it was a satisfying moment all around.

I’m unaware of any organized advocacy for Petway’s induction. I doubt there is any. Perhaps someday somebody will start a campaign . . . but not me, at least not now. For the time being I’ll simply limit myself to my annual musing over what could have been for Bruce Petway, and what might one day still come.

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