William Thomas Pettus
Nicknames: Bill, Zack
Positions: 1b, c, 2b, 3b, ss, of, manager
Teams: Kansas City Giants (1909), Chicago Giants (1910-1911, 1917), New York Lincoln Giants (1912, 1916-1920), Brooklyn Royal Giants (1913), New York Lincoln Stars (1914-1916), Philadelphia Giants (1916-1917), St. Louis Giants (1917), Atlantic City Bacharach Giants (1917, 1921), Hilldale Daisies (1917-1920), G.C.T. Red Caps (1918), Richmond Giants (1922), Harrisburg Giants (1923)
Born: August 13, 1884, Goliah County, Texas
Died: August 25, 1924, New York, New York
This big, left-handed power hitter was one of the best batsmen of the deadball era and is one of the most underrated players from black baseball. Playing with many of the top teams, he was always hitting in the heart of the batting order, yet he demonstrated an ability to steal bases when the game situation dictated a need. A versatile player afield, he could play any position and was a catcher early in his career, but played more at first base as the years passed.
The Texan began playing baseball in 1902 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and remained on the same ballclub until 1904, when he ventured to California to play for teams in otherwise all-white leagues in San Francisco and Oakland. After only one year on the West Coast, he returned to Albuquerque in 1905 to manage a team composed of ten Mexicans and two black players. At the end of the season the team had defeated every ballclub in that section of the country, finishing with a 48-1 record. This experience proved useful, as he became fluent in Spanish. In later years, when he played against the Cuban Stars, he would always know when they were going to steal.
In 1906 Pettus was the catcher, and the only black player, for Albuquerque's team in the white league, and then spent two years behind the plate for a team in Santa Fe, New Mexico. While playing with Albuquerque he established a reputation for being an outstanding hitter with very good power. He had two big series that demonstrated his batting capabilities. In one home series he had 15 hits in 18 at-bats, including 8 triples; in another series, at Las Vegas, New Mexico, he had 15 hits in 20 at-bats, including 3 home runs.
In 1909 he caught and played first base for the Kansas City Giants, a team of higher quality than those in the Southwest. At the close of the season Pettus joined the Occidental ballclub, a "crack" black team in Los Angeles, California, for the winter baseball season.
When the 1910 summer season started, Pettus joined Frank Leland' s Chicago Giants. At the time he was considered one of the best catchers in the country, and was an excellent hitter with very good power. The free-swinger, expected to be the premier hitter on the team, was placed in the cleanup spot and fulfilled expectations with a .385 batting average for the season. After two seasons with Leland's team he jumped East to New York, playing first base and catching with Jess McMahon's Lincoln Giants. Batting fifth in the order behind John Henry Lloyd, Pettus hit .357 for the season.
In 1913 he jumped to the Brooklyn Royals as their first baseman and cleanup hitter, leaving after a year to reunite with the McMahon brothers, who formed the New York Lincoln Stars. He remained with the Stars for three seasons, hitting in the heart of the order and playing primarily at first base as the Stars captured the eastern championship in 1916.
In the fall of that season he began a series of moves that requires a road map to trace. In September, when the franchise began dissolving, he jumped back to the Lincoln Giants for the remainder of the season. Then in 1917, he played with half a dozen teams, beginning as the first baseman with the Chicago Giants. He was first sought by Jewell's ABCs in June, before serving brief stints with a trio of teams in July (the Philadelphia Giants, Hilldale, and the Bacharachs), and ending the season again with the Lincoln Giants. In 1918 the jumping between teams within the season continued, but on a lesser scale, and he left the Lincolns in August to join Hilldale, where he was called "old reliable." Returning to the Lincolns again for most of the seasons of 1919-1920, he was dropped in the batting order, usually batting in the sixth slot, but was still considered a dangerous hitter, even in the latter year, and is credited with a .434 batting average in 1920. In 1921 he played with the Bacharachs but managed only a .219 average.
Throughout his career Pettus was a clever ballplayer who used "good headwork," and as his remaining years as an active, full-time player diminished, he tried his hand as the playing manager of the Richmond Giants in 1922. Early in his career he had been a pugilist and could handle even the roughest ballplayers, but after only a year, he left the helm of the team. In 1923 he shared the first-base duties at Harrisburg, again batting in the cleanup spot when in the lineup.
But that was his last season, as he contracted tuberculosis and was confined to Sea View Hospital on Staten Island. Fans contributed $230.50, including a $25 donation by New York Lincoln Giants' owner James Keenan, to send Pettus to Phoenix to benefit from the desert climate, but the effort was too late. Before another season was over, and fewer than two weeks past his fortieth birthday, Pettus passed away.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.