If you’re not quite old enough to have ever seen Buck Ewing hit a baseball or work his magic behind the plate, then you’ve probably at least heard the stories.
“He’d throw out guys at second base without getting out of his crouch,” remembered 91-year-old Frank Cornicelli, a lifelong Schenectady resident who watched the former black baseball star play on numerous occasions throughout the 1930s. “Buck was just fabulous. That whole team was. They were the best team in the area.”
Cornicelli is referring to the Mohawk Giants, a name synonymous with Ewing to Schenectady area baseball buffs. Frank Keetz, the author of “The Mohawk Colored Giants of Schenectady,” will speak about Ewing and other black baseball stars from that era when he gives a presentation on Saturday at the Schenectady County Historical Society.
Ewing, a native of Massillon, Ohio, played for part of the 1920s in Schenectady and then headed to the Pittsburgh area, where for two seasons he played with the Homestead Greys, one of the top Negro teams in the country.
‘Black Baseball Players, White Crowds: The Mohawk Colored Giants of Schenectady’
WHAT: A presentation by Frank Keetz
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $5, free for SCHS members
MORE INFO: 374-0263, www.schenectadyhistory.net
Ewing was traded by the Greys after suffering an injury, but instead of reporting to his new team he decided to return to his adopted hometown and played in Schenectady throughout the 1930s. He remained in the city after his playing days, worked at various jobs, and died in 1979 at the age of 76.
“He could have played in the big leagues, easily, without a doubt,” said 92-year-old Gerald Terry, who played against Ewing and the Giants and later served as his optometrist. “He’d be down in his crouch or down on his knees, and he would catch the ball and throw it to second. The pitcher had to duck out of the way.”
Frank Jones, a Schenectady native and Niskayuna resident, also related stories about Ewing’s propensity to throw from the crouch, as well as his all-around ability as a baseball player.
“I grew up in Mont Pleasant, and we used to walk the few blocks over to Central Park to watch him,” remembered Jones, 92. “My God, we thought Buck was the best that ever was. He had an arm like a rocket, but he was also a great hitter. He’d hit for power and average, and he could also run. Buck could do it all.”
During Ewing’s two seasons with the Greys, New York Giants’ manager John McGraw had the opportunity to see him play and said, “he’d be the greatest catcher in the big leagues but for his color.”
Earlier in his career, Ewing hit a home run off Grover Cleveland Alexander in a barnstorming game, and that Hall of Fame pitcher was said to have remarked, “That’s the greatest catcher I ever saw, black or white.”
According to Jones, there was a story going around back in the 1930s that McGraw tried to get Ewing to play for his Giants.
“McGraw was claiming that Buck was Cuban, and hopefully that was going to allow him to play with the Giants,” said Jones. “It didn’t work, and it was pretty ridiculous. Blacks could get drafted and go into the Army and get shot at and get killed but they couldn’t play major league baseball.”
As good as he was, Ewing lost his starting catching job on the Greys to Josh Gibson, the individual who is generally regarded as the best catcher in the history of black baseball. Some call him the greatest ever with no qualifications.
“Buck hit .365 his first year with the Greys, and was over .300 again the second year when a foul tip went off his finger and badly injured his hand,” said Keetz. “Well, they replaced him with this barrel-chested kid from Georgia, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
While Gibson went on to a Hall of Fame career playing against the best teams in the Negro Leagues, Ewing, traded to the St. Louis Stars in 1932, opted to come back to Schenectady and resumed playing with the Giants. He played against local teams like the GE Refrigerators and the Ferns, made up of white players, and would also match skills with barnstorming teams coming in from outside the area.
“Buck was obviously a great player, but we don’t know how great,” said Keetz. “We don’t know what he would have done if he had stayed at the top level with some other black team. He came back here because he was more comfortable here, and it’s not like the money was great for those guys. Even the white ballplayers didn’t get paid much. Buck probably got paid just as much playing in Schenectady, and here he was the big fish in the little pond.”
Ewing, who reportedly stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 190 pounds, was as big a baseball hero as Schenectady had, black or white.
Honored by city
“He was a very nice guy, a real gentleman,” Terry said. “He was probably 10 or so years older than me, but I considered him my friend. I saw him a lot after we were done playing because I was his optometrist. He’d come in and we’d talk about the old days.”
When Ewing died in 1979, two days later The Gazette ran an editorial titled “He Was First Class,” referring to Ewing “as fine a man as he was a baseball player.” The city of Schenectady renamed the Central Park A Diamond “Ewing Field” and proclaimed May 16, 1983, “Buck Ewing Day.”
While Keetz never saw Ewing play, he did meet him a few years before he died.
“He would kind of hold court on Jay Street and I went down there a couple of times and talked to him,” remembered Keetz. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t writing a book then. I would have had a million questions to ask him. I had heard stories about what a great guy he was, and he did seem very pleasant. Maybe he wasn’t a perfect angel, but people really seemed to like him.”
There is a Buck Ewing in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he was a white catcher who is often referred to as the best player of the 19th century. That Ewing played with several teams back in the 1880s and 1890s, and died in 1906.
Those attending Keetz’s talk will have the opportunity to see the Schenectady County Historical Society’s new exhibit on black baseball in Schenectady, featuring Ewing, the Mohawk Giants and other stars from the early 20th century, including Frank “Red Ant” Wickware. Several images and panels will be on display, including a copy of the newspaper article documenting Wickware’s 1-0 win at Island Park in the Mohawk River over Hall of Famer Walter Johnson in October of 1913.
“They had over 7,000 people at the game, and those were the original Mohawk Giants, the team that was loaded with great players,” said Keetz. “Johnson had won something like 35 games (Johnson was 36-7) that year for the Washington Senators. It was quite an event.”