#Shortstops: Words on pictures tell fascinating Negro Leagues story

Written by: Kelli Bogan

Many photographs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s collection have writing on the reverse. This writing can be player identification, a caption describing a captured moment of play, or even an inscription written out from the player or photographer to a friend or fan.

This Negro Leagues team photograph of the 1916 St. Louis Giants, like many other team photographs in the Photo Archives collection, has player names listed on the reverse. However, in addition to these identifications, it also has a few anecdotes included which, while not unheard of, is unusual. Both the identifications and the anecdotal information was written by one of the other players on the team, Bill Drake, who is second from the left in the back row. Two of these anecdotes related by Bill are rather ordinary, referencing achievements in baseball. The other two anecdotes are more surprising and involve McKinley “Bunny” Downs (far left, seated) and Bill Gatewood (far left, standing). They read, “Downs later killed a woman, I don't know all the details. Gatewood, an emery ball pitcher, killed a man in batting practice.”

A team photograph of the 1916 St. Louis Giants of the Negro Leagues.

Research brought up nothing on Gatewood’s incident but it did unearth at least one other time that a player was killed during batting practice in the Negro Leagues when Jose Méndez accidentally hit Jose Figarola in the chest with a pitch.

Slightly more information was found about Downs' shooting. Research revealed that he shot the unknown woman in self-defense in Philadelphia before the 1923 season. However, the reason for the altercation and the legal ramifications remain a mystery and Downs would end up leaving the Hilldale Club shortly thereafter. To paraphrase Drake, we don't know all the details.

The reverse of the St. Louis Giants 1916 team photograph contains both identifications and anecdotal information on some of the players. (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

While not much was discovered about the anecdotes, this search revealed other interesting information about both these men, of whom this is one of the only photographs in the Hall of Fame’s collection, as well as connections to three Hall of Famers. Gatewood would go on to coach and manage and it is believed that during his time coaching the St. Louis Stars he added “Papa” to “Cool Papa” Bell’s nickname to give the name some style. It is also said that he went on to teach Satchel Paige his hesitation pitch while managing him in Birmingham.

Downs is credited with “discovering” Hank Aaron while managing the 1951 Indianapolis Clowns. He saw a scouting report, was instantly intrigued, and would ultimately sign Aaron to the Clowns in 1952.

The stories of these two players are not complete but they show how a simple photograph often has a much larger story hidden inside. Here they were brought forth by an intriguing note on the reverse but too often these stories remain buried, trapped in the illusion of ordinary images.

Kelli Bogan is the photo archivist and director of digital assets at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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