Bruce “Buddy” Petway: Keeping Ty Cobb (and history) Honest

 

Like many students of Negro League history, I was initially attracted to the subject by the rich stories that seemed too good to be true. Over the decades, many of those great tales have been proven false–but most, like the one I’m going to relate below, began with a true event, and no matter how much it was re-told and embellished over the years, that real story makes no less of a great story.

ONE OF THE MOST famous stories from the early days of Blackball is of catcher Bruce “Buddy” Petway gunning down Ty Cobb three successive times in a game. The game was to have taken place in Cuba during the Tigers post-season tour of the island. The series was also highlighted by Cobb’s halting a game to have the base path measured after being thrown out one too many times. There’s more to the oft-told tale, and you can read it in many books, but the story ends with Cobb leaving the island humiliated at being bested by a black catcher. It’s a great story and plays to the common perception of Cobb as a crude racist and our willingness to root for an underdog like Bruce Petway. Problem is, the tale is mostly that: a tale.

A look through newspaper archives from 1910 shows that the Tigers did tour Cuba in the fall. Baseball historian Gary Ashwill has done deep research into the story and has confirmed that Bruce Petway, the best catcher outside the major leagues at the time, did play a series against the Tigers, and during one game did throw Cobb out trying to steal second. Earlier in the game, he also threw Cobb out when he laid down a bunt in front of home plate. A Cuban newspaper at the time printed a play-by-play of the game and praised Petway’s defense on both plays. So Cobb wasn’t completely shown up by Petway, but he was kept honest on the bases with great defense from a catcher who should have been in the major leagues. And for the record, the measuring of the base paths didn’t happen, nor did Cobb flee the island in disgust. He and the Tigers actually did pretty well (7-4-1) against Cuban teams, the best any major league club managed on the island since Brooklyn toured in 1899.

Though it wasn’t as dramatic as legend made it out to be, the Cobb game cemented Bruce Petway’s reputation as Blackball’s best backstop of the early 20th century.

Bruce Petway was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1885. He and his older brother Howard often teamed up as an all-sibling battery on the sandlots of Music City. Bruce, or Buddy as everyone called him, studied medicine at Meharry Medical College, but he left in 1906 to play professional ball in Chicago. Buddy joined his big brother on one of the best all-black teams of the time, the Leland Giants. Neither brother stayed long, Howard returning to a team in Nashville and Buddy heading to Philadelphia to play with another top club, the Cuban X Giants. From there, Buddy jumped to the Philadelphia Giants.

Petway was just under 6 foot and wiry. He had a rifle for a throwing arm and became one of the first backstops to throw out runners from a crouch. Because he didn’t have to waste time getting to his feet as was the norm for catchers at the time, Petway had a few more valuable seconds with which to accurately gun down a base runner. This skill, along with a knack for handling any pop up, made Buddy one of the most sought after players in Blackball.

It was only a matter of time before Petway’s crossed paths with Andrew “Rube” Foster. Foster, at one time perhaps the best pitcher in the country, was regarded as the greatest baseball mind in the integrated game. In 1910, he had taken over the Leland Giants and stocked the club with the best black players in the country. With Petway behind the plate, Foster now had a virtually unbeatable aggregation and toured the country compiling an unofficial record of 123 win and 6 losses. The fall of 1910 found the Lelands in Cuba, and Petway and a few other Giants stayed behind for the winter season, playing with the Havana Reds. This is when the famous Cobb game took place.

Besides the Tigers, the Philadelphia Athletics were also in Cuba that fall, and because of these big league tours we have newspaper copy that testify to Petway’s ability behind the plate. Major League umpire Billy Evans accompanied the Tigers and told a reporter, “I have worked back of few better catchers than Petway.” The Detroit Free Press’s man wrote that Petway was “probably one of the best catchers in the world, who could be in the big leagues were it not for the color line.”

If he wasn’t already, the glowing press reports from the Cuba games made Petway as big a star as a black ballplayer could be in 1910. Back in America, Rube Foster re-branded the Lelands as the Chicago American Giants, and his team became the undisputed champions of Blackball right up until World War I. The American Giants toured extensively and with this came praise from various corners of the country for Petway’s abilities. A paper in Oregon quoted A’s second baseman and Hall of Famer Eddie Collins as saying “seen them all throw’ says Edward, ‘but Petway is the king of them all.”

Not that you have to take a white big leaguer’s opinion as official validation of a black ballplayer’s ability, but remember Eddie Collins was a superstar at the time who had nothing to gain by singing the praises of a player who, because of his skin, was all but invisible to most of the sporting public.

If there was a weakness to Buddy Petway it was his bat. Despite a few seasons of respectable numbers, Petway was a poor hitter with little power. In the era of “small ball” strategy, however, Rube Foster was able to exploit the catcher’s speed afoot and for a time even had the .200 hitting Petway batting leadoff. In Chicago, Petway added a few tricks to his already prodigious catching talent, including intentionally dropping a ball trying to temp a runner to advance so he could gun him down for an out.

After the first world war, Rube Foster formed the Negro National League. Foster gave up a few of his older stars to even out the competition and Petway was given to the Detroit Stars. The veteran had a few solid seasons and took over as skipper from 1922 to 1925. Among the youngsters he mentored were future Hall of Famers Turkey Stearns and Andy Cooper.

After two decades of playing ball year-round, Buddy Petway retired. He and his wife settled in Chicago, where he managed rental apartments. Regarded as an elder statesman of the game, Petway occasionally played a few innings as eager reporters and fans gathered around to hear his stories about the old days. The man who kept Ty Cobb honest passed away on the 4th of July, 1941 after a month-long illness. Though he was just 55 years old, his legacy lives on every time you see a catcher gun a runner down from the crouch.

This story was originally published in 21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball.

From Gary Cieradkowski, author of The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes, comes an artistic journal of baseball history and art. While some of the characters in this first volume will be familiar to most baseball fans, this journal focuses on their little-known aspects, such as Lou Gehrig’s college career. Other players will be more obscure: it’s a pretty sure bet that no baseball historian has ever written about Al Gizelbach or Karl Scheel. Some, like Johnny Wright, have been mentioned in books or articles, but their whole story never told in full – until now. Each article is beautifully accompanied by Cieradkowski’s bold, colorful illustrations, and the stories are told in an engaging, fast-paced style. Special features of the journal include a step-by-step look at how the artist creates the illustrations and a detailed look at a featured historic uniform. This is 68 pages of pure baseball joy, lavishly illustrated and told in the true tradition of diamond lore.

Copies of 21 are available HERE

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