As anyone knows who’ve stood at the plate and faced down a fastball or had a screaming line drive come straight at their noggin, baseball can be a tough sport even for the most hardy of players. Yet the game’s history is peppered with players who carved out a niche despite their various physical handicaps. Some, like Eddie Gaedel, were a marketing ploy and others like Eddie Bennett were beloved team mascots. But there were the rare few who defied all odds and actually joined the ranks of professional baseball. One-armed pitcher Jim Abbott comes to mind, and Pete Gray’s inspiring story was the subject of a made-for-TV movie. Bert Shepard lost a leg but came back to pitch briefly in the majors and Monty Stratton overcame the loss of a leg and pitched a no-no in the minors. And don’t forget Humpty Badel – despite a humped back he came close to making it all the way to the Cincinnati Reds. Now, the one thing all those guys have in common, despite overcoming a handicap, is that they’re all white.
As you all know, prior to 1946 when Jackie Robinson and Johnny Wright re-integrated organized baseball, there was a vibrant alternative universe of baseball catering to those who were omitted from playing in the white leagues. It’s only natural that along with the hundreds of guys like Biz Mackey, Pete Hill and Bill Byrd who had the chops to make it to the majors, that there would also be Blackball equivalents of Pete Gray and Jim Abbott. And that’s what brings us to this week’s ballplayer…
Forrest Maddox didn’t let the loss of a limb get in the way of playing baseball. His left arm had been amputated all the way to his shoulder when Maddox was about 10 years old, but the young kid worked hard to carve out a reputation on the sandlots of Fulton County, Georgia. To compensate for his disability, Maddox developed a unique system of fielding a ball with his gloved hand, then tossing the ball in the air as he discarded his glove, then catching the ball again and throw it to complete the play. All that was accomplished at a well-practiced, lightening speed. Years later, Pete Gray would demonstrate a similar fielding style, though Gray had a bit more of an advantage than Maddox in that he still had a slight stump with which to hold his glove instead of jettisoning it on the ground. At the plate Maddox learned to hit with a one-handed bunt-style swing. His drive and determination made it almost irrelevant that he was missing an arm – only his nickname of “One-Wing”, later shortened to just “Wing”, remained a reminder of his disability.
While a white boy with a similar disability displaying the kind of talent Maddox had would have made great feel-good newspaper copy from coast-to-coast, this was 1910’s Georgia and Forrest Maddox was black. Though he honed his playing skills off the radar of white baseball coverage, the local blackball fans took notice, and by the time he was in his teens Maddox was playing for the Atlanta Cubs. The Cubs were among the better pre-World War I all-black teams below the Mason-Dixon line and about as pro as you could get in the days before the Negro Leagues were founded. This was quite an accomplishment for a one-armed pitcher and outfielder, but Forrest Maddox wasn’t satisfied. He had much more he wanted to accomplish.
In the fall of 1914 Maddox matriculated to Atlanta’s Morehouse College. Though he should have been precluded from collegiate athletics because he had played ball for money with the Atlanta Cubs, Maddox did indeed pitch for Morehouse. In the years before World War II many colleges turned a blind eye to such violations, and Maddox continued to play for the Cubs between semesters. The following year the team was re-named the Atlanta Black Crackers and Maddox continued to impress with his stellar fielding and batting.
In 1920 the Negro Southern League was founded and Maddox was signed by the Knoxville Giants for the league’s inaugural season. Knoxville had a major league-quality ace in left-hander Steel Arm Dickey and Maddox became the team’s number three starter and spot-reliever. His fielding skills and bat were thought too valuable to go to waste on the bench, so when he wasn’t on the mound he was in right field and batting in the bottom half of the order.
Behind Steel Arm Dickey’s golden left arm, Knoxville tore through the Negro Southern League competition and won the loop’s first pennant by 17 games. Steel Arm finished the 1920 season by winning 25 straight games. Though I’ve yet to uncover his actual stats from the season, it was reported in the newspapers that One Wing Maddox finished up as the Negro Southern League’s first batting champion.
Though the Negro Southern League was of lesser quality in both organization and talent than the northern, urban-based Negro National League, the Knoxville Giants challenged the NNL’s pennant winners to a championship series. Originally planned as a massive 13 game series to be played in four different cities, the 1920 “World Series” wound up being a more compact three game affair played at Birmingham’s renowned Rickwood Field, which is still used today. On September 21st, more than 10,000 fans showed up for Game One. Steel Arm Dickey held Chicago to three runs until the 7th when the American Giants pushed 6 across for a 9-0 win. The loss ended Dickey’s remarkable 25 game winning streak. Another 10,000 packed Rickwood the following afternoon. Game Two was much closer but the Chicagoans again edged out Knoxville 5-3.
Like his teammates, Maddox’s bat fell silent before the American Giants formidable pitching staff, going hitless in seven trips to the plate. Chicago put the nail in Knoxville’s coffin by winning Game Three by a 7 to 3 margin. However, the 1920 Negro Southern League batting champ came alive in the final game and went 2 for 4 including a tremendous triple to deep right field and scoring on an error. Newspaper accounts of the game singled out Maddox for both his bat and “two pretty catches in center.” As a silent nod to his talent, it was only mentioned as an after thought that Nashville’s star had but one arm.
The next season Maddox moved to the Washington Braves and then the Birmingham Black Barons in 1923. This final season is the only one that we have hard statistics so far. According to Seamhead’s Negro League Database, Maddox played in 7 league games and went 3 for 16 with 2 sacrifices for a .188 average. He pitched 1.3 innings and gave up two hits and no earned runs. He retired from pro ball after that season and accepted a professor position at Morehouse College. The former ballplayer taught at his alma mater up until his death at age 31 in 1929.
For many decades blackball historians were baffled by Maddox’s nickname of “One Wing” until the new breed of researchers uncovered contemporary newspaper articles that verified the pitcher-outfielder’s lack of a left arm. This revelation came as a surprise to many, more so when it was found that the one-armed ballplayer was the 1920 Negro Southern League batting champ!
This illustration and story has been a fun way to say thanks to all the people in Knoxville who have invited me to their great town. In doing the research for this story I met Mark, Eastern Tennessee baseball history expert who runs the excellent Old Knoxville Base Ball website. When I expressed an interest in Wing Maddox, Mark graciously went out of his way to provide me with some great Knoxville Giants material to work with. Then there’s Mike, the manager of Barnes and Noble who invited me to town in the first place.