With good reason, the 1931 Homestead Grays are usually ranked among the greatest baseball teams ever assembled. Like the other teams that make the top tier, such as the 1927 Yankees, 1953 Dodgers, and 1975 Reds, the ’31 Grays boasted a handful of future Hall of Famers: six to be exact. Three of them, Cyclone Joe Williams, Willie Foster, and Satchel Paige, were pitchers (though Paige only pitched one game for the team). The other Hall of Famers were catcher Josh Gibson, first baseman Oscar Charleston, and third baseman Jud Wilson. Additionally, three more players on the team have received major traction in Hall of Fame consideration as well: outfielder Vic Harris, catcher Ted Radcliffe, and second baseman George Scales. And while he wasn’t a tremendous hitter, outfielder Ted Page was widely regarded as the best defensive outfielder outside the major leagues. To state it plainly, the 1931 Grays had an all-star or Hall of Famer at six of their eight starting positions.
Anyone who has studied the Negro leagues knows that due to economic and travel constraints, teams were kept small, generally around sixteen players. A typical roster would be eight position players, one extra catcher and four or five pitchers, most of whom could play another position when needed. This left just two or three spots for utility players. And because they had to sub for eight different positions, utility players filled a crucial role on a team.
When it came to the 1931 Grays, one of the greatest ballclubs ever assembled in the history of the game, who did their owner/manager Cum Posey choose to send in when one of his all-stars or Hall of Famers was injured?
Bill “Happy” Evans, that’s who.
Happy Evans was a 32-year-old with almost a decade of experience playing infield and outfield for some of the better Blackball teams in the country. His all-around athletic ability and good disposition made him the perfect replacement player.
William Demont Evans II was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1899. His parents split when he was boy, and he grew up with his mother in his grandmother’s house on East Caldwell Street in Louisville’s 5th Ward.
He played baseball on the city’s sandlots and football in school. Alternately nicknamed “Skinny” for his lean frame and the “Gray Ghost” for his speed and light complexion, Evans set records in passing and rushing in high school. Through his father’s connections, Evans joined the Louisville White Sox as a teenager. The White Sox were a black-owned team in the short-lived Western Independent Clubs league. Besides playing against other Black teams, the White Sox took on many local White semi-pro clubs, giving Evans valuable experience in inter-racial play. In fact, in John Holway’s book, Black Giants, Evans describes working out with the Louisville Colonels of the White American Association. He also got to play against Negro League legend Oscar Charleston, then a young star with the Indianapolis ABCs. The two formed a friendship that would pay dividends for Evans in the coming years.
In 1917, Evans enrolled in Livingstone College, an historically black Christian college in Salisbury, North Carolina. He played college ball for two years before leaving to play ball for pay in Atlantic City. The Jersey Shore had a vibrant summer baseball league made up of the Black workers at the local resorts. Professional Negro League teams used these summer leagues as a reservoir from which to draw fresh, young talent.
In short order, Evans was recruited by Gilkerson’s Union Giants. Run by former Negro League infielder Robert Gilkerson, the Union Giants toured throughout the northern Midwest states playing town teams and other traveling ballclubs. During the early 1920s, Evans played against and befriended several of the banished Chicago White Sox players who threw the 1919 World Series. In Holway’s book, Evans relates how he learned his drag bunting skills from Buck Weaver and Happy Felsch during this period.
Evans’ reputation got around, and in 1924 he was traded to the Chicago American Giants. Run by owner/manager Rube Foster, the American Giants were among the most successful franchises in Blackball. The team had won the first three Negro National League pennants from 1920 to 1922 and, at one time or another, fielded the game’s greatest stars. However, Evans’ time with the American Giants was short. As he told John Holway, “But I found out Chicago wasn’t the place for me. I wasn’t used to drinking, and when they paid me off the first time, I got drunk. Next time I got paid, I did the same thing. So, I caught the train that night and went back to Gilkerson.”
Meanwhile, Oscar Charleston had left the Indianapolis ABCs and recommended his old acquaintance, Bill Evans, as his replacement. This began the prime of Evans career. He played for Indy in 1926, moved to the Cleveland Hornets and then the Brooklyn Royal Giants. When Charleston joined the Homestead Grays in 1930, he recommended team owner Cum Posey bring in Bill Evans.
By this time, Evans had made a name for himself with both his clutch hitting and strong, accurate throwing arm. Opposing teams found that when there was a man in scoring position, the last guy you wanted to see at the plate was Evans. His ability to put the ball in play, whether through a drag bunt, grounder behind the runner, or a fly ball sacrifice, made Bill Evans just the kind of player you want coming off your bench in a tight spot. Cum Posey, whose Grays teams had fielded future Hall of Famers such as Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell, said that he would rather see Bill Evans at bat with a man on third than anybody he’d ever seen.
Perhaps even more valuable was Evans’ throwing arm. Strong and freakishly accurate, Ted Page said that from the outfield Evans could hit a pack of cigarettes on home plate on one bounce. When playing shortstop or second base, Evans’ rifle accuracy turned the infield into a double play nightmare for opposing teams.
Grays owner/manager Cum Posey thought so highly of Evans’ utility work that he gave him his own “day” so the team and fans could show their appreciation for their utility specialist. To show off his versatility, Evans played all positions during the game. In later years, Posey was still so taken with Evans’ throwing arm that when he picked an all-time all-star team in 1937, the Grays owner selected his old utility man as “Best Throwing Outfielder.”
During the Grays famous 1931 season, Evans ably filled in for Charleston, Wilson, Harris, and any other position player except the catcher. With Evans working the swing shift, the Grays won an astonishing percentage of their games. Unfortunately, their actual record is bit hard to judge, since some scores have not yet been found and the level of competition ranged from small town and factory teams to mid-level white minor league clubs and professional Negro League teams. Phil S. Dixon’s book on the 1931 Grays puts their overall results at 143-29-2 for an .828 winning average. Research by historian Scott Simkus puts the Grays as the top Black team in 1931 and, given the same advantages in resources as a white big league team, theoretically finishing in the first division of the American League.
As for Evans, Phil S. Dixon’s book credits him with 125 hits including 18 doubles, 5 triples and a pair of home runs. Unfortunately, Dixon does not provide any further stats in his book. However, Seamheads.com which provides documented stats backed by box scores, shows Evans playing in 42 games with 37 hits in 142 at bats including 15 RBI and 4 doubles and 4 triples.
Like Gilkerson’s, the Grays were an independent team that played most of their games away from their home field in Pittsburgh. This meant endless bus travel, where the hardships they encountered make their .828 winning percentage even more amazing. In a 1976 article in the Omaha World-Herald, Evans recalls one harrowing evening with the Grays when their bus got stuck in mud outside Grand Forks, North Dakota. The team had to arm themselves with their bats to protect themselves against marauding wolves. Later in the article, Evans remembered, “We always were pitted against the bus. It was the tires, the transmission, or the engine. When our engine wouldn’t start one time, our owner got so mad he pulled out a gun and shot the bus in the radiator.”
Evans left the Grays the next year after leading the East-West League in singles. He wound down his career playing with the Washington Pilots and Cincinnati Tigers before retiring in 1934. He returned to Louisville where he became a playground director for the city. He and his second wife Lillie Ragland eventually relocated to Los Angeles where they both worked in the households of Beverly Hills’ elite. Lillie, who had attended college at Tennessee A&I before having to withdraw due to the Great Depression, eventually earned her realtor’s license, becoming the first Black woman admitted to the Los Angeles Realty Board. Lillie operated a thriving business, and in 1971 became the first Black director of the Los Angeles Realty Board.
Bill “Happy” Evans passed away in 1976. Though he did not have a Hall of Fame career, his part in making the 1931 Homestead Grays one of the game’s greatest teams cannot be understated. As a utility player, Evans filled a tough and crucial position unique to the Negro Leagues that was remembered by his fellow players and fans long after he passed. Perhaps the most direct tribute to Evans’ ability comes from teammate Ted Page who told John Holway, “When you’re picking the best all-round utility man, I always pick Martin Dihigo first. And then I come to Bill Evans.” A contemporary of both Ted Page and Bill Evans, Hall of Famer Martin Dihigo is regarded by many historians and players as the greatest all-around ballplayer in the history of the game. For Page to mention Evans in the same breath as Dihigo is quite a compliment.
In a curious footnote to this story, the old utility player’s legacy lives on in a way not shared by anyone else in baseball history. Though Happy Evans and Lillie had no children together, they enjoyed spending time with Lillie’s niece, Doria Ragland. That name may seem familiar – Doria Ragland is the mother of Meghan Markle, now known as Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. In fact, Doria inherited the Evans’ house in Los Angeles when Lillie passed away in 2004.
To quote Mel Allen, “How about that!”