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Louis Santop

Louis Santop
Nicknames: Top, Big Bertha
a.k.a. Louis Santop Loftin (his real name)

Career: 1909-1926
Positions: c, lf, rf, 1b, 3b, manager
Teams: Fort Worth Wonders (1909), Oklahoma Monarchs (1909), Philadelphia Giants (1909-1910), New York Lincoln Giants (1911-1914, 1918), Brooklyn Royal Giants (1914-1919), Chicago American Giants (1915), New York Lincoln Stars (1915-1916), Hilldale Daisies (1917-1926), military service (1918-1919), Santop Bronchos (1927-1931)
Bats: Left
Throws: Right
Height: 6' 4''   Weight: 240
Born: January 17, 1890, Tyler, Texas
Died: January 6, 1942, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee (2006)

One of the earliest superstars and a crowd favorite, Santop was a solid, strong armed catcher who excelled at blocking the plate, but was better known as a power hitter. He could stand at home plate and throw a ball over the centerfield fence, but could hit a ball even farther. The big Texan used a big, heavy bat and was noted for his tape-measure home runs during baseball's deadball era, which earned him the nickname "Big Bertha" after the Germans' World War I long-range artillery piece. A left-handed hitter, he especially liked pitches out over the plate where he could get good arm extension in his swing, and is credited with one gargantuan drive that traveled more than 500 feet.

Also credited with being a lifetime .406 hitter, Santop starred with several great teams during his career, spending most of his playing time before World War I with New York-based teams, including the Lincoln Giants, the Lincoln Stars, and the Brooklyn Royal Giants. Playing against all levels of competition with the McMahon brothers' newly formed New York Lincoln Giants (1911-1914), the big slugger registered batting averages of .470, .422, .429, and .455 while catching the era's two hardest throwers, "Smokey Joe" Williams and "Cannonball Dick" Redding.

Prior to coming to New York, Santop and Redding, as a pair of impressive youngsters, had formed a "kid battery" for manager Sol White's Philadelphia Giants in 1910. Santop had started his baseball career the previous year with the Fort Worth Wonders and Oklahoma Monarchs of Guthrie, Oklahoma. When he left the Lone Star State, Santop took the Texas custom of rolling his own cigarettes with him wherever he went.

In 1915 he returned West to play briefly with Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants, but soon returned to the familiar confines of the East Coast, where he joined Dick Redding, John Henry Lloyd, and Spot Poles on the Lincoln Stars. Ironically, it was Foster's American Giants whom the Stars met for the championship at the end of the season, with the Series ending in a deadlock. After 10 games, and the teams tied with 5 wins apiece, the eleventh game was called in the fourth inning with the Stars one run ahead and never resumed or replayed because of contention between the two teams.

Two years later, after returning to the New York Lincoln Giants, Santop found his team again facing Foster's club for the championship and, despite the double and 2 triples counted among his 7 hits, the Lincolns dropped a hard-fought 7-game series.

When playing exhibitions against white teams, he would perform a pre-game throwing demonstration that was unbelievable. For fifteen minutes he would stay in a catcher's crouch and throw the ball around the infield randomly to every base, sometimes including the shortstop, with unerring accuracy. The crowds loved it and he liked to "play to the crowds."

In his prime, as the biggest drawing card, in black baseball, Santop was paid accordingly (receiving up to $500 a month) and lived up to his star image. In this role, Santop was sometimes called the "black Babe Ruth" and once had a chance to play on the same diamond with the Bambino. In the 1920 postseason exhibition against Casey Stengel's All-Stars, Santop cracked 3 hits, including a double, while the Babe went hitless and fanned twice.

Years later, in the renowned 1932 World Series, Ruth would "call his shot," but claims are made that Santop often made home run predictions and delivered on the promise. Once, in Atlantic City, when Santop was in the on-deck circle, an avid lady fan sitting in the grandstand taunted him, saying he was going to strike out. Santop shook his head and pointed to the right-field fence. The woman yelled, "Bet you a buck!" Santop went to the dugout, secured a dollar, and walked over and stuck it through the screen in front of the grandstand. When his turn came to bat, he delivered on his promise by smashing a homer far over the designated fence. After circling the bases and crossing home plate, he went over to the lady in the grandstand to collect his money. The big, light-complected, gruff-voiced superstar enjoyed a good time, and this type of banter endeared him to the fans.

With different players and under different circumstances, the exchange could have provoked an ugly incident. Santop was amiable, but he could get riled on occasion. Once, after an exchange of words, he grabbed Oscar Charleston in a bear hug and, in a demonstration of strength, broke three of his ribs. He also evinced a toughness on the field, sometimes ignoring injuries to play hurt when the team depended on him. Once he caught a doubleheader with a broken thumb and won both games with crucial extra base hits, a triple in the first game and a home run in the second game.

In 1917 Hilldale recruited the gritty competitor to play a 3-game series against a major league all-star team largely comprised of Philadelphia Athletics, and Santop raked Chief Bender and Bullet Joe Bush for 6 hits as Hilldale won 2 of the 3 games. Santop proved that he could hit in the clutch regardless of the opposition, and compiled a .316 lifetime batting average against major league pitching.

Santop missed most of the next two seasons (1918-1919) due to Navy service during World War I, but after the Armistice he stayed with Ed Bolden's Hilldale club for the remainder of his career, including the pennant-winning teams of 1923-1925. Santop hit for averages of .373, .358, .364, and .389 for the 1921-1924 seasons, and .333 in the 1924 Negro World Series against the Kansas City Monarchs.

Unfortunately, Santop made an error that led to a Kansas City victory in the Series, and that miscue contributed to the demise of his career. With his team holding a tenuous 2-1 lead, the bases loaded, and 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Frank Duncan lifted an easy pop fly behind the plate and Santop muffed it, giving Duncan new life. Duncan made the most of the reprieve and, on the next pitch, drove in two runners to win the game. Santop was devastated, and a profane tongue lashing by manager Frank Warfield after the game reduced him to tears.

The following year, the thirty-five year old receiver's playing time was severely restricted as Biz Mackey assumed the full time catching duties, and by midsummer of 1926 Santop was released. Restricted primarily to pinch-hitting duties the latter two seasons, he had a composite batting average of .268 for 1925-1926. Although he formed his own semi-pro team, the Santop Bronchos, and played with this club for a few years, he never again played for a top team and soon faded from the baseball scene.

During those years when he was hanging on in baseball, he worked as a broadcaster on radio station WELK in Philadelphia, did some charity work, and became involved in local politics. After drifting out of baseball, he settled in the "City of Brotherly Love" and tended bar. As the years passed he developed severe arthritis and other debilitating illnesses, and eventually died in a Philadelphia naval hospital a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But the saga didn't end, and black baseball's first legitimate home run slugger is still remembered for his colorful exploits and his powerful bat.

He was inducted posthumously into the National Baseball Hall of fame in 2006.

Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Louis Santop photo

Louis Santop