Short-lived Negro League Milwaukee Bears team has little-known history
The Milwaukee Bears faced some other baseball legends during its one season of play. Wilber "Bullet Joe" Rogan was a standout pitcher and hitter for the Kansas City Monarchs. "He may have been the best all-around baseball player of all time, better than Babe Ruth," says Dixon, referring to players who excel at both pitching and hitting. Rogan was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.
Another opponent of the Bears in 1923 was the St. Louis Stars, who had a second-year player named James "Cool Papa" Bell. Known for his incredible speed, Bell is considered one of the fastest men on the basepaths in the history of the game. He was inducted to Cooperstown in 1974.
Player statistics for the Bears are not available. Based on the batting order of the few box scores published in the Milwaukee papers, some of the top offensive players for the Bears would have been first baseman Percy Wilson and second baseman Anderson Pryor. Shortstop Leroy Stratton was "said to be the best looking infielder among the colored leaguers," according to the Sentinel. A man named Fulton Strong was likely the team's top pitcher.
If statistics were available on the Bears, overall they would probably not amount to impressive numbers. The Bears were a mediocre team, finishing their aborted season with a 14-32 record. The first-place Kansas City Monarchs finished 57-33 that year.
Dixon has financial data for the teams of the Negro National League and it is clear from these numbers that the Bears were a struggling franchise. Dixon says the Bears made about $3,000 a month during the three months they played. By comparison, Dixon says, the two top franchises in the league, the Chicago American Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs, were making about $7,000-$8,000 per month that season.
When Dixon met one of the Milwaukee Bears, former pitcher Perry Hall, he used the encounter to rib Hall about a tremendously long home run he had given up to Kansas City Monarchs' star Oscar Johnson in 1923.
"I said 'hey Perry, did you hear?' He said 'hear what.' I said 'they just found the ball that Oscar Johnson hit that home run off you ... it just landed.' He got a kick out of that, that anyone recalled a home run he gave up in 1923. He thought that was pretty humorous."
There is a mystery about the Milwaukee Negro League team – its name. Books on the history of Negro Leagues consistently refer to the Milwaukee franchise as the "Milwaukee Bears." However the Journal and Sentinel only refer to the team as the "Milwaukee Giants."
An answer to this mystery may lie in the fact that "Giants" was an overwhelmingly popular name among black teams during this era. With its widespread use by Negro teams, the name "Giants" may have became synonymous with black baseball teams. Dixon confirms that the name Giants had become a generic term for a black baseball team. It appears that the Milwaukee papers had labeled the Milwaukee team as being the local version of the "Giants."
Not only are the Milwaukee Bears a forgotten part of local sports history, they were scarcely noticed back in 1923. But a group of Marquette University students are attempting to bring some belated attention to the Bears.
In 2004, members of the club baseball team at Marquette University paid a tribute to Milwaukee's forgotten boys of summer, sponsoring a summer league team called the Milwaukee Bears, in honor of Brewtown's Negro Leaguers.
"We needed a team to play ball with in the summer. To do it in a way that honors the guys who played on that team is even better," says Joe Hasek, a junior pitcher for the Marquette club team. "A good way to remember the team is to recreate them."
Hasek says the team competes in the Land O'Lakes baseball league, whose season starts in mid-May and runs through August.
The club also plans a research project that would turn into a presentation for youth baseball players.
Hasek hopes their tribute will create some long deserved attention for the players who suited up for the Milwaukee Bears. "Maybe somebody will see our name and take the time to look into the Milwaukee Bears. To create that kind of awareness is what it's all about."
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