Beyond Satchel: Part Five

By Tony McClean
Updated: May 20, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — When speaking of the elite pitchers in the history of Negro League baseball, the names (Satchel) Paige, (Leon) Day, and (Smokey Joe) Williams quickly come to mind.

However, there are many other hurlers of that era who should also come up in that conversation. One in particular was a master of all pitches including the knuckler, the curve, the sinker, and the dreaded spitball.

At 6-feet-1 and 210 pounds, William “Bill” Byrd was a workhorse hurler for nearly two decades (1932-1950). One of the last professional pitchers allowed to throw the spitter, the righthander was one of the game’s best control pitchers.

Born on July 15, 1907 in Canton, Ga., Byrd made seven appearances in the East-West All-Star Classic. Only the aforementioned Hall of Famer Leon Day made more appearances (9) as a pitcher.

Byrd played with several teams including the Cleveland Red Sox, Columbus Blue Birds, and Homestead Grays. But it was his long time tenure with the Washington/Baltimore Elite Giants franchise that put Byrd’s name on the map.

Like many players, Byrd’s playing career began in the sandlots of his hometown. He learned to hit by hitting rocks with tree branches on his family’s farm. He later developed his pitching style while hurling for the Blue Birds in 1935 as a youngster.

Columbus’ veteran righthander Roosevelt Davis took the developing Byrd under his wing. A master of several pitches as well, Davis taught Byrd how to throw the spitter, the drop, the screwball, and the change-up.

The spitter was later banned in all of professional baseball. However, the Negro Leagues would “grandfather” the rule which allowed pitchers like Byrd and Davis to continue to use it.

For Byrd, the spitter was used more as a psychological ploy against most batters. Because of his all-around success, Byrd allegedly never really like to rely on it as his “out” pitch. Much like Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, Byrd used the threat or question of a spitter to psyche out opposing batters.

One other thing that Byrd would take away from Davis’ mentoring was the way he could use his experience to be a mentor himself. For the majority of his career, Byrd assumed the role of looking after the welfare of younger players.

He would become a father figure to many teammates. One notable player that Byrd in particular looked out for would later become a Hall of Famer in his own right.

As a 17-year-old catcher, Roy Campanella would later join the Elite Giants when they played in Baltimore. Byrd and Campy developed a close relationship on and off the field with the younger catcher affectionately referring to the veteran pitcher as “Daddy”.

In 1936, Byrd made his first trip to the East-West Classic. That season, the righthander was 10-5 for the Elite Giants with a 3.57 ERA. He also played first base and outfield on days when he didn’t pitch as hit a modest .250. Counting barnstorming and exhibition games, Byrd was 20-7 for the entire season.

Three years later, Byrd would have another standout season which led to a Negro National League crown for the Elite Giants. His 15-4 record (second only to Leon Day’s 16-7 mark) was among the best in baseball that season.

The Giants (25-21) would meet the Newark Eagles (29-20) in the playoffs. Led by Byrd’s bat and arm that would lead Baltimore past Newark in four games. After the Eagles took Game One, the Giants would win the next three to win the best of five series.

In Game Four, Byrd had an RBI single and a homer in Baltimore’s 7-3 win. The next day, the Elite Giants won 5-2 to win the series and set up a showdown with Josh Gibson and the Homestead Grays.

Like the previous series, the Elite Giants lost Game One but would rally to take the series. Byrd held Gibson in check in the opening game, but he was out dueled by Roy Partlow in a 2-1 loss.

Byrd would bounce back and win Game Four. The next day, Jonas Gaines and Willie Hubert would combine on a three-hit shutout and the Elite Giants were league champions.

Despite displaying excellent control throughout the majority of his career, it was one of Byrd’s few errant pitches that led to an innovation that all baseball fans are familiar with.

On July 4, 1942 in the eighth inning of an 8-4 victory over the Newark Eagles at Yankee Stadium, Byrd beaned Eagles player/manager Willie Wells.

Wells was carried from the field, and the incident led him to design a batting helmet. When he stepped into the batters box the next day, Wells was wearing a modified construction worker’s hardhat.

The batting helmet was just another major innovation that the Negro Leagues adopted long before it became used in the major leagues.

During most off seasons, Byrd would play winter ball in the Caribbean. He often would hook up in pitching duels against Leon Day. Known as “El Maestro” by his fans, Byrd pitched in Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

When Byrd retired from professional baseball in 1950, he finished his career with a 114-72 record and a lifetime ERA of 3.37. While playing in semipro ball in his later years, Byrd maintained a regular job for the General Electric Company in Philadelphia.

He would retire from GE in 1970 and spent his remaining years in the City of Brotherly Love. Bill Byrd passed away on January 4, 1991.

In 2005, Byrd and 38 others candidates were nominated for induction in baseball’s Hall of Fame as a result of an intensive study of Negro League baseball commissioned by the Hall of Fame.

While Byrd wasn’t one of the players picked, he still should be considered as one of the best and consistent pitchers in the history of the Negro Leagues.

NOTE: The Biographical Encyclopedia of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, and the Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball all contributed to this article.