The New York Black Yankees played from 1931* through 1948 when they, along with the rest of the Negro National League, disbanded after the 1948 season. Although the disbandment of the NNL may have been a source of consternation for many fans, the end of the New York Black Yankees may have been considered an act of mercy. (*The team played as The Harlem Stars in 1931.)
Over their 18 seasons, the team posted a .347 winning percentage overall, which for some modern perspective translates to 56 wins over 162 games. Over their last six seasons, they (almost unimaginably) lost more than three-quarters of their games, finishing in last or second to last place in the NNL each of those six seasons.
Yet in 1936 – their first season in the NNL – they managed to make things pretty interesting for fans in the New York area. Led by the best starting pitching staff in the league, backed by great up-the-middle defense, the Black Yankees not only played over .500 baseball but finished in second place while competing against several legendary powerhouses.
It didn’t come without some challenges, however, as run-scoring certainly wasn’t a strength. The team got very productive individual seasons from third baseman George Scales, who finished fifth in OPS+ and tenth in home runs league-wide, and second baseman Walter Cannady (131 OPS+), but overall, plating runs was a struggle. The Black Yankees would finish the 1936 season sixth-best in the seven-team NNL in OBP, BA, OPS+ and runs scored. Perhaps most telling, their 20 home runs as a team were only two more than Pittsburgh’s Josh Gibson belted.
What they needed to win was stellar pitching and their staff certainly delivered. On a team level, the staff led the NNL in runs allowed per game, ERA+ (134), ERA, and BB%, while finishing second in K% and WHIP. On an individual level, Bill Holland, Henry McHenry, and Barney Brown led the way, with all three finishing in the top five in the league in ERA+, while Holland and Brown were first and second in the NNL in BB%, respectively. Unsurprisingly, Holland, McHenry, and Brown were also the top three WAR leaders on the team in 1936.
As you can imagine, defense played a pretty big role in run prevention that effective. Although as a team the Black Yankees were at or near league average in most categories defensively, they certainly showed the significance of getting sound glovework from the “up the middle” positions. Catchers Bob Clarke and Clarence Palm split time behind the plate and combined finished above league average in runs saved, runs saved per 1,000 innings, and catcher’s assists.
The individual standouts were at shortstop and center field. 36-year-old Jake Stephens showed he still had some gas in the tank by finishing second among all shortstops in both runs saved above average and runs saved from range. Meanwhile, 24-year-old center fielder Marvin Barker was the best defensive center fielder by a good margin in 1936, leading league center fielders in runs saved above average, runs saved from range, and runs saved from his arm.
When the dust settled on the season, manager Bob Clarke had led the team to a second-place finish in the NNL, trailing only the Pittsburgh Crawfords, whose roster included six future Cooperstown inductees. Despite posting the second-best record in the league, there would be no postseason for the Black Yankees. In 1936, the NNL split its season into two halves with the winners of each facing off in a championship series at season’s end. The Black Yankees did not win either half, so were awarded second place based on their overall record. (Which was just as well, as there were debates about who the winners in both halves were, and the championship series was called prematurely after three games – that’s a longer story for another day.)
Despite being at or near the bottom of the league’s standings over most of their 18 year existence, the Black Yankees typically ranked at or near the top of the league in attendance. 1936 must’ve been a rewarding year for the home team’s fans, as not only did they get to see some of the best to ever play come through New York as opponents, but for once they had a home team that could hold their own with the best of the best.