ABCs' small ball won big
1916 Indianapolis team named fourth best in history
The countdown to the greatest team in the history of Negro League Baseball continues with team No. 4. More than a handful of teams were worthy of this spot. But it went to a pre-Negro Leagues ballclub, a team that many ranked highly because of its depth. With a young Oscar Charleston, Ben Taylor and Bingo DeMoss, not many teams had as much talent. No. 4 on the list is the 1916 Indianapolis ABCs. Here is their story:
Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants dominated the Western Black Baseball Division from 1910-15, but the team met its match in 1916.
That was when the Indianapolis ABCs defeated the Giants in five games to win the division title. Indianapolis outscored Chicago, 33-15, in the series. It was sweet revenge for the ABCs, who lost to the American Giants the year before.
Managed by C.I. Taylor, Foster's equal during the era, the ABCs were 43-23-2 in 1916, and they were arguably the most fundamentally sound team in baseball history. Instead of relying on the long ball, they preferred small ball to win games.
"That was the only time a team challenged Rube Foster's dominance," said historian James A. Riley, who wrote "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues."
"They had a sound ballclub," said Riley. "C.I. was a practitioner of what is called small ball -- hit and run, stolen bases, playing for one run. They used to say that C.I. would train the players and Rube would sign them and take them away from him."
But in 1916, the best players were on Taylor's roster. Center fielder Charleston was the team's most complete player, and historians have often said that his game was similar to Willie Mays'.
George Shively, nicknamed "The Rabbit," was the leadoff hitter and hit .352 that season. Second baseman DeMoss was a superb contact hitter and was considered the model at turning the double play.
There was also a little brotherly love on the team. Taylor signed his siblings, Ben and Candy Jim, to play on the team, and it proved to be more than just nepotism. Ben was the team's first baseman and cleanup hitter, hitting .334 in his career, while Candy Jim was an excellent defensive third baseman and batted third in the lineup.
"The conglomeration of talent on the team is significant. Oscar Charleston is a Hall of Famer. Ben Taylor is a Hall of Famer. A lot of those players at that time in their careers were probably at their prime," said Paul Debono, who wrote a book on the ABCs 10 years ago. "It really was a big deal to unseat the American Giants. Indianapolis had good clubs for many years, but for them to unseat Chicago, it was the zenith of the franchise history."
At the start of the 1916 season, it looked as if Indianapolis would not come close to winning a championship. C.I. Taylor and Thomas Bowser were the owners of the team, but the two butted heads over the way the team was run and business deals Taylor made without Bowser's consent.
Bowser decided to form his own team called Bowser's ABCs. As it turned out, Taylor's ABCs had the better talent. After a slow start, Taylor's ABCs went on a roll and met the American Giants for the second year in a row for the Western Black Baseball championship.
The American Giants won the first game, 5-3, but Indianapolis won the next four for the title. One of those games was a 9-0 forfeit after a fight between the two clubs broke out. Foster, unwilling to relinquish the title, claimed that the American Giants were still the champions. He felt the 9-0 game never should have been forfeited.
"It was a major occurrence because Rube was the dominant personality and his team was dominant from 1910 through 1922," Riley said. "Those two teams battled tooth and nail. There was some friction -- some hard feelings there."
Despite their breakthrough against Chicago, the ABCs were unable to repeat as champions, as seven of their players left the team to fight in World War I, cutting short the run of one of the greatest teams in black baseball.
No. 3: Tuesday, Feb. 13
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.