Teams: Harrisburg Colored Giants (1906-1908), Philadelphia Giants (1909-1910), New York Lincoln Giants (1911-1914, 1917, 1919-1923), Brooklyn Royal Giants (1912), New York Lincoln Stars (1914-1916), Hilldale Daisies (1917, 1920), military service (1918), New York Bacharach Giants (1919), Richmond Giants (1923)
Height: 5' 7'' Weight: 165
Born: November 7, 1889, Winchester, Virginia
Died: September 12, 1962, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
A fleet-footed, slightly bowlegged, sharp-hitting center fielder during the deadball era, Spot Poles usually batted in the leadoff position to utilize his incredible speed, which was comparable to that of "Cool Papa" Bell. Once in spring training he was clocked under 10 seconds for a 100-yard dash. A left-handed batter, he watched the ball all the way to his bat and consistently hit for a high average. He was also a good bunter but, despite a stocky build and arms described as "massive" for his size, he had only moderate power. In the field he had excellent range, good hands, and an accurate arm. An intense competitor, he was confident but not cocky in his baseball ability, and was called the black Ty Cobb.
Born to Matilda and French Poles, a laborer, he began playing baseball at age six, using a broomstick for a bat, and advanced progressively through a boys' league called the Hello Bill Club in 1897; the Springdale Athletic Club in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1902; and the Harrisburg Colored Giants in 1906. Then, at age nineteen, he began his professional career in 1909 as the center fielder for Sol White's eastern champion Philadelphia Giants. Poles soon settled in as the leadoff batter, playing two years with White's charges, before following his skipper to the New York Lincoln Giants when the team was organized in 1911 by Jess and Rod McMahon, and Sol White was appointed manager.
During his initial season with the squad, Poles demonstrated his incredible speed by stealing 41 bases in only 60 games. He also demonstrated his proficiency with a bat, and over the first four seasons with the Lincolns, Poles hit for averages of .440, .398, .414, and .487 against all levels of competition, which included a 1913 game when he faced Grover Cleveland Alexander and rapped three straight hits off the Hall of Famer. That season the Lincolns soundly defeated Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants in the championship playoffs, and owner Jess McMahon boasted that the Lincolns could beat any team, including the best major-league ballclubs.
In 1915 the speedburner jumped to the rival New York Lincoln Stars for a season, but returned to the Lincoln Giants the following year. Twice previously, Poles had left the Lincoln Giants briefly, but each time he returned during the same season. The first time was in 1912, when Poles and John Henry Lloyd, who had succeeded Sol White as manager, had a dispute, and Poles jumped to the Brooklyn Royal Giants but returned later in the season. The second temporary break in his service with the Lincoln Giants came in 1914, when the Lincoln Stars were first organized by the McMahon brothers, and he played with the Stars in the Early spring but was back in the Giants' fold in May.
Each of these defections were to other teams in New York City, but during his seventh campaign with New York-based teams, he returned to Philadelphia to join Ed Bolden's fledgling Hilldale club. His Hilldale tenure was interrupted by World War I, and Poles joined the Army infantry and served his country with distinction, earning decorations (five battle stars and a Purple Heart) for his combat experience in France as a sergeant in the 369th Infantry, attached to the French Army.
While overseas he wrote Ed Bolden, expressing his desire to resume his baseball career with Hilldale upon his discharge from military service. When he did return Stateside, however, Poles played with four different teams in 1919. Initially he was with his old team the Lincoln Giants in the spring, but returned to the Hilldale fold when the regular season started. He left the Darby clan in turn to assume the role of player manager with the Hellfighters, a team of black servicemen. His stay there was brief, and he finished the season at Atlantic City with the Bacharach Giants. By the close of the season, the Bacharachs were the best team in black baseball. Rejoining the Lincoln Giants in 1920, he batted leadoff and was still a dangerous hitter, playing until 1923.
When he retired from baseball after 15 years, he was credited with a lifetime batting average of over .400 against all competition, and an average of .319 for four winters in Cuba, including the 1913 Cuban winter season, when he recorded a .355 average. While in Cuba he often played exhibitions against the Phillies, Athletics, and other major league teams, and is credited with a .594 average against major league competition.
Regardless of the paucity of complete statistics, eyewitesses corroborate his greatness. New York Giants' manager John McGraw listed Poles, John Henry Lloyd, Cannonball Dick Redding, and Smokey Joe Williams as the four black players he would pick for the major leagues if the color line were not so firmly entrenched. Paul Robeson, a reknowned athlete and actor, was more emphatic in his praise, and once grouped Poles with Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson as the greatest black athletes of all time.
After Poles retired following the 1923 season, he bought five taxis and went into business for himself. He and his wife later worked at Olmsted Air Force Base in Middletown, Pennsylvania, and when they retired were "fairly well to do," enabling Poles to endulge in some of his favorite luxuries. He loved Studebakers and bought a new one every other year. In later years he loved to play the horses and made an annual trip to the Kentucky Derby.
Most importantly, he was able to continue in baseball as a coach, managing an integrated semipro team called the Harrisburg Giants. He was an enthusiastic teacher, counting future major-leaguer Brooks Lawrence among his protégés. In one game, when he was in the vicinity of sixty years of age, he proved he could still hit, when he entered a game as a pinch hitter and lined a base hit through the right side of the infield. After reaching first base he removed himself for a pinch runner, but his team won the game. To the end, he loved the game of baseball and was never bitter about the social conditions that prevented him from playing in the major leagues. He and his wife are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.