Negro leagues star Malarcher deserves to be remembered

Dave Malarcher was a standout third baseman in the Negro leagues for nearly two decades.

Dave Malarcher was a standout third baseman in the Negro leagues for nearly two decades.

There presently are 35 players and executives from the Negro Leagues enshrined at Cooperstown. Their ranks don’t include Dave Malarcher, which isn’t exactly an injustice, but nonetheless does seem a pity. Few men ever comported himself as well on and off the diamond as “Gentleman Dave” Malarcher. Possessed of an even temperament and keen intelligence, Malarcher was a favorite of players and fans during his career, which included a one-season stopover in Detroit.

Malarcher was a mainstay of Rube Foster’s great Chicago American Giants, playing a spiffy third base between 1920 and 1934 and succeeding Foster as manager in 1926. A switch-hitter, the slightly built (5-foot-7, 147 pounds) Malarcher wasn’t much of a threat at the plate, generally hitting in the .250 to .270 range, but he was a fine clutch performer and an outstanding glove man.

He also was a “race man,” the term given back then to those who looked to uplift their race through education, tolerance, and equal opportunity. He was born in 1894 in Louisiana, the youngest of 11 children. His mother, a former slave, pushed her children to stay in school. Malarcher labored in the cane and cotton fields when he wasn’t studying or playing ball. He once was asked why he had developed into such a fine athlete. He replied, “Because I led a good clean life, because I swam the Mississippi, ran through the woods looking for rattlesnakes, worked in the cotton fields, and I was really strong.”

In 1916, Malarcher’s performance in a game against the barnstorming Indianapolis ABCs prompted the team to offer him a spot on their roster for $50 a month. Malarcher, making $10 a month as a house boy while attending New Orleans University, readily accepted. Two years later, while serving with the 309th Pioneer Infantry Unit in France, he received a letter from Rube Foster inviting him to join the Chicago American Giants upon his return home.

Foster, in the midst of organizing several independent black teams into the Negro National League, first sent Malarcher to Detroit when he opened a satellite operation there in 1919. Malarcher batted an uncharacteristically high .355 for the Detroit Stars, who played at Mack Park. By the following season he was back with the Giants for good. Between 1920 and 1927, he helped Chicago capture five Negro National League pennants. The insufferably long road trips, including one memorable 1,700-mile bus ride from Louisiana to Winnipeg, coupled with the Jim Crowism encountered along the way, finally convinced Malarcher to leave the game. “They were conditions which I could not continue to bear,” he told historian Robert Peterson. Malarcher sold real estate in Chicago until his death in 1982. A sensitive, dignified man, he wrote hundreds of poems examining the question of race in America. He rightfully viewed the early Negro Leagues as setting the stage for making baseball a truly national pastime.

Rube Foster “knew that all we had to do was to keep on developing Negro baseball, keep it up to a high standard, and the time would come when the white leagues would have to admit us,” Malarcher said in his old age. “The thing for us to do, he said, was to keep on developing, so that when the time did come, we would be able to measure up.”