As expected, the move from Muehlebach Stadium to Hilldale Park led to an explosion of offense. Unexpectedly, that explosion came from only one team. The Buck O’Neil offense jumped out to an early lead, then poured it on late to cruise to a 9-0 win, evening the series at two wins apiece.
Buck O’Neil knew it wouldn’t be an easy time against left-handed Hall of Famer Big Bill Foster, so he stacked his lineup with right-handed batters, with only Turkey Stearnes batting from the left box. O’Neil even penciled himself into the lineup for the first time.
His moves paid off immediately. Willie Wells, with only one hit in the first three games of the series, was inserted into the leadoff spot and broke out. Wells walked to open the game and scored on Josh Gibson’s double. The HOF shortstop ended up going three for five with a double and a triple, scored two runs, and drove in two more. Willie Wells is considered one of the greatest shortstops in Negro Leagues history, both for his offense (career .327/.408/.518 slash line) and his slick fielding. “El Diablo” slashed .390/.457/.707 against Major League competition and is credited with teaching Jackie Robinson how to turn the double play. He may or may not have been the first to wear a batting helmet.
Having kept himself out of the lineup for the first three games, Buck put himself out on the field for the first time, knowing when he was most likely to help the team. Not only did he double and score in his first at-bat, he showed why he’s considered one of the best defensive first basemen in Negro League history, showing great range to put out the first two batters from the Oscar Charleston squad, and even starting a double play that almost turned into a triple play in the second inning, ending a two-on, nobody out threat. O’Neil went two for three with a double and a run scored. Knowing his role, and willing to sacrifice for the good of the team, he let the other Buck take over once the lefty was off the hill, replacing himself with Buck Leonard, who walked in both his plate appearances, scoring a run in the 8th.
As expected, Josh Gibson took advantage of the change of scenery, going two for four with a double, a walk, two RBI’s, and his first home run of the series.* But the hero of the game was Dick Redding. Oscar Charleston knew from his time as a teenager playing alongside Redding with the Indianapolis ABC’s that his squad was in for a long day, and “Cannonball” proved it, dominating from the first pitch of the game with his no wind-up delivery and exploding fastball that gave him his nickname. Redding gave up five hits and walked just one in the complete game shutout. Born in Atlanta, Cannonball was one of the most dominant pitchers of the early Negro Leagues, throwing as many as 30 no-hitters and once striking out 24 batters in a game. In 1917, before seeing combat in France during World War I, Cannonball went 14-3 with a 0.70 ERA with the Chicago American Giants. Redding was a well-liked manager for the Brooklyn Royal Giants for six seasons. Sadly, Cannonball suffered a “strange malady” and died young in a mental institution in New York.
*Gibson’s first home run, a no-doubter to DEEP center field, may have actually come as a relief to the Oscar Charleston infielders. With the score only 3-0 at the time and Wells on third after a triple to leadoff the top of the 7th, “Charlie” was forced to bring his infield in. The move paid off when Stearnes grounded out and Wells stayed put, but that brought up the powerful Gibson. The infielders must have been quaking in their cleats to be so close to the massive Gibson, and can’t have been disappointed when the ball was launched deep into the sky as opposed to on the ground. Big Bill Foster must have been shook as well as he surrendered a home run to the very next batter, Oscar “Heavy” Johnson, ending his outing.
Oscar Charleston will send Hilton Smith back to the mound in game five, but even if his ace is able to recreate his game one performance, “Charlie” will need more life from his offense in order to break the series tie. Buck O’Neil will send Ol’ Satch back to the hill, who will most certainly have a chip on his shoulder after failing to best his Monarchs teammate Smith in game one.