The ‘Rocking Chair’ Catcher

By Tony McClean
Updated: May 13, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — When catcher Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett made his professional debut in 1934, he was touted by many as “the next Josh Gibson”. Some 20 years and a dozen stops later, Bassett never did reach those lofty expectations.

However, the Baton Rouge native did carve out a very serviceable career in the Negro Leagues. Born on August 5, 1919, the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder made eight appearances in the East-West All-Star Classic.

Bassett, a righthanded slugger, was also part of two Negro American League pennant winning squads (1944 and 1948) while toiling for the Birmingham Black Barons.

After beginning his career with the New Orleans Crescent Stars of the Negro Southern League, Bassett was signed by the Pittsburgh Crawfords where ironically he served two seasons as Gibson’s backup.

When he did get a chance to play, Bassett would sometimes perform a routine with his fellow pitchers. During certain barnstorming exhibitions and non-league games, Bassett would catch part of a game in a rocking chair behind home plate.

The “rocking chair” routine would become a permanent part of Bassett’s playing career which saw him play with several teams including the Homestead Grays, Toledo Crawfords, Chicago American Giants, Ethiopian Clowns, Cincinnati Clowns, Philadelphia Stars, Memphis Red Sox, and Detroit Stars.

In 1937, Bassett got his first chance at serious playing time. With Gibson embroiled in a contract dispute with the Crawford that led to a trade, Bassett would respond.

Bassett hit a career-high.395 and was voted the starter for the East squad in the All-Star Classic. He added another solid year (.308) in 1938 but at season’s end, the Pittsburgh franchise disbanded.

From 1939 to 1943, Bassett toiled for several teams while also spending his winters in the Mexican League. He would also make two more All-Star appearances (1939 and 1941) with the Chicago American Giants.

He also revived his “rocking chair” routine while playing the Cincinnati and Ethiopian Clowns. In his last season with the Clowns, he briefly caught a league game in his “rocking chair” character.

On July 5, 1943, Bassett caught the final inning of knuckleballer Eddie “Peanut” Davis’ 7-0 shutout of the Homestead Grays. He caught Davis’ fast pitches and slow pitches without shifting position.

The next season, Bassett joined the Birmingham Black Barons. Despite hitting a career-low .222, he helped lead the Barons to the American League pennant. Unfortunately before the World Series began, Bassett and four other teammates were injured in an car accident.

Neither players were able to participate in the Fall Classic which saw Birmingham fall to the Homestead Grays in five games.

It took a while for Bassett and the Barons to bounce back from that setback. However in 1948, Birmingham would find themselves back in contention.

The Barons (55-21) won the first half of the American League pennant that season and then swept the Kansas City Monarchs (45-25) in the playoffs to take another AL crown.

Bassett hit a hefty .350 for Birmingham, who were led by Artie Wilson’s league-leading .402 mark. Despite falling to the Grays in the World Series again, the Barons were back among the Negro League’s elite.

Bassett would play two more seasons in Birmingham before he retired from the game in 1954, ironically with the team he began his career with, the New Orleans Crescent Stars.

While Bassett will be remembered by some as the “rocking chair catcher”, he also established himself as one of the most dependable and underrated catchers in Negro League history.

NOTE: The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues, the Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball, Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game 1933-1953, and the Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues all contributed to this story.