Davis, Piper 1917–1997
Piper Davis 1917–1997
Professional baseball player
Lorenzo “Piper” Davis was born on July 3, 1917 in Piper, Alabama. The company-owned town is no longer on the map, but Davis’s legacy lives on as one of the most talented and versatile athletes of his generation. Davis’s father John worked at Piper Coal Company as a miner and lived with his wife Georgia and their nine children. Davis attended high school in nearby Fairfield playing baseball and basketball. He was so good in basketball that he earned a scholarship to attend Alabama State University in nearby Montgomery. After one year of college Davis was forced to quit school and get a job to help support his family.
In the late thirties with the country in the depths of the Depression a man could make one dollar a day in the mines, so Davis signed up with Piper. Life as a miner being lowered into a black hole by a rope did not agree with the young athletic star and he quit after only three months. He got a job at a Birmingham steel mill and soon joined the black squad of American Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO) in the city’s Industrial League. The company had two teams—one for whites and one for blacks. The 19-year-old played well enough to be signed by the Omaha Tigers in 1936. The Nebraska-based Negro team traveled throughout the Midwest playing local clubs and performing exhibitions. After the 1936 season the Tigers had financial problems which forced Davis to return to Birmingham and the ACIPCO team. That squad included Artie Wilson, Ed Steele, Bill Powell, and Herman Bell—the nucleus of what would become one of the legendary Negro League teams—the Birmingham Black Barons.
The Black Barons manager Winfield Welch signed Davis in 1942 for five dollars a game and seven dollars and fifty cents a double-header. In 1943 Davis’s salary doubled and he joined the team as a full-time player. He chose baseball over his job at ACIPCO for which he earned three dollars and 36 cents a day. Davis became a fixture at second base for the most impressive Negro American League (NAL) team of the 1940s. The Black Barons won the NAL Pennant in the 1943, 1944, and the 1948 seasons, but each time the team lost the Negro World Series to the Homestead Greys.
In Davis’s career with the Black Barons he appeared in eight All-Star games beginning in 1945. Four times Davis represented the West in the East-West All-Star Classic. His All-Star totals included eight runs in 26 at-bats with four runs batted in (RBI) and a .308 batting average. But Davis did not excel in baseball alone. His Black Barons manager was also the coach of the Harlem Globetrotters. Welch found out about Davis’s basketball skills and signed him to play for the Globetrotters when
At a Glance…
Born Lorenzo Davis, July 3, 1917 in Piper, Alabama; died May 22, 1997 in Birmingham, Alabama; son of John (a coal miner) and Georgia, Education: Attended Alabama State University for one year.
Career: Signed by the Birmingham Black Barons in 1942; Player-Manager for the team in 1948 and 1949; Played basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters, 1943-46; First African American player in the Boston Red Sox organization, 1950; Played for the Oakland Oaks, 1951-55; Played for the Los Angeles Angels, 1955-57; Player-Manager of the Ft. Worth Cats, 1958; Scouted for the Detroit Tigers, St, Louis Cardinals, and Montreal Expos.
Awards: Made eight Negro League All-Star Game appearances; Elected to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.
the Black Barons’ season was over. Davis made $350 a month plus two dollars a day for meal money and another dollar if a player rode the bus all night instead of staying in a hotel. Davis played for the Globetrotters for three years through the 1946 season.
At the end of the 1947 season after Jackie Robinson had integrated the Major Leagues, the American League St. Louis Browns offered to sign Davis to a minor league contract, but he turned it down. Davis recognized the offer for what it was; a cynical attempt to put more people in the stands by a hapless and failing franchise. He returned to the Black Barons and became the team’s player-manager in 1948. Although he led his team to the 1948 Negro World Series, his stint as manager will be remembered for the discovery of a 16-year-old outfielder named Willie Mays. Davis told Dave Kindred of The Sporting News about the first time he put Mays in the lineup: “I had a fella pick up ballplayers and bring ‘em to the game. So I see this li’l ol’ boy out of high school and I say to him, ‘Don’t you know if they catch you out here playing ball for money, they won’t let you play high school ball no more?’ And Willie says, ‘I don’t care.’ So I called Kat (Mays’s father) and Kat says if Willie wants to play, let him play. I let him play the second game of a doubleheader out in left field. My center fielder could out-run Willie, but he couldn’t out-throw him.” Mays, still a student at Fairfield High School, ended up driving in the winning run of the only game the Black Barons won in the 1948 Negro World Series. By 1949 Mays was gone and then in 1950 Davis also left.
In 1950 the Boston Red Sox minor league affiliate in Scranton, Pennsylvania purchased Davis’s contract for $7,500. Tom Hayes, the Black Barons owner, was promised another $7,500 if Davis was still with the team on May 15. Far from being well received, Davis was forced to stay and eat in the servants quarters on the road apart from the rest of the team and even dress in the visitors’ locker room all by himself. When May fifteenth came around Davis was called into the general manager’s office believing that he was on his way to Boston’s Triple A affiliate. At that time he led the team in batting average (.333), home runs (3), and RBI (10). But the first black player in the Red Sox organization was not promoted. Davis was paid $500 and released. The organization claimed that it could not afford him. Davis finished the 1950 season in Guadalajara, Mexico and tried again to make the Red Sox in 1951, but he was cut.
After the disappointment with the Red Sox the 34-year-old ballplayer got a call from his old Black Barons and ACIPCO teammate Artie Shaw. Shaw was in California playing for the Oakland Oaks. Davis joined Shaw and played minor-league ball there for the next five seasons. Midway through the 1955 season Davis joined the Los Angeles Angels and played three years in southern California. From Los Angeles Davis secured a job as player-manager for the Fort Worth Cats in the Texas League. He stayed only one season with the Cats. At the age of 41 he had had enough of life on the road for a black ballplayer in the deep South of 1958. He was rarely able to eat in a restaurant or stay in a hotel, or even play in some ballparks. Davis went back to Birmingham in 1959 to manage the Black Barons, but by this time the team was a side show—a shadow of the squad’s formidable past tradition. In the early sixties Davis coached and drove the team bus for the Harlem Globetrotters but then returned to baseball full-time. He served as a scout for the Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals (1968-76), and the Montreal Expos (1984-85). Davis was elected to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1993. According to the state shrine Davis was inducted as “One of the state’s all-time best athletes—major league caliber in baseball and basketball. One of the most versatile players in baseball history, he could play any position expertly, as well as run, and hit with power and average.” Lorenzo “Piper” Davis died on May 22, 1997 at the age of 79. Davis will be remembered as a proud representative of the Negro Leagues and one of the Black Barons’ brightest stars. He told Kindred of The Sporting News: “Wasn’t no crusading … We looked to play ball is all … Wasn’t nothing the white Barons did, we couldn’t do. We outdrew ‘em playing in the same ballpark. We’d have a few whites come to see us, couple hundred a night. They appreciated good ball.”
Ribowsky, Mark. A Complete History of the Negro Leagues: 1884 to 1955, Birch Lane Press: New York, 1995.
The Sporting News, June 30 1997, p. 6.
Alabama Archives website: http//www.asc.edu/archives/famous/sports/piper.htm. Major League Baseball website : http://www.majorleaguebaseball.com/nbl/nl35.sm.
Negro Leagues website: http://www.the-coop.com/nlb/players/davis.htm.
—Michael J. Watkins
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