Baseball is a game of history. History frames much of what we know and think about the game. Baseball leagues the world over are all about creating new history and establishing a legacy that will keep them in the minds, and pocketbooks, of fans for years to come. This is what baseball has always been, and what baseball will always be: a game as beholden to its past as it is to its present and any future.
The Negro Leagues maintained a different sort of connection to history. That’s not to say that the Negro Leagues weren’t tied to history, they absolutely were — rather, in a time and age when they had none of the resources of white leagues, they were more interested in the here and now. The owners wanted to make money, the players wanted to play, and the fans wanted to watch a good ball game. In turn, there weren’t any calls to changing the course of history, but a more decided focus on getting your game in, and moving on to the next.
Luckily there were plenty of black-owned newspapers that did not share this sentiment. They were bearers of the news and documentarians of black history. They published results, kept track of who was breaking what records, and how history was being made or impacted. Time was not kind to black newspapers, and their attempts at keeping track of history seemed to be in vain. That is, until baseball historians of all colors and creed began to search out these newspapers and piece together the history of the Negro Leagues once more.
Slim Jones is a man who slipped through the cracks of history. Like most, if not all Negro League players he was never reported on by white newspapers. Even as historians dug up more and more of the history of the African American, Cuban, and Puerto Rican history of the game there were large gaps in that history. Jones was such a gap, and he stayed that way until people like the folks at the Seamheads Negro League Database took what we knew about the history of the Negro Leagues and changed it all.
Through their research, we now know that in 1934 Jones put up the seventh-best season in the history of the Negro Leagues with an sWAR of 7.6. Having shown flashes of brilliance with the Baltimore Black Sox, Jones finally found his footing with the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro National League. As a 21-year-old he went 20-4, with 20 complete games, 6 shutouts, and 2 saves. In 203 innings of work, he amassed 164 strikeouts while only walking 47 batters. He had a 20.8 K%, a 6.0 BB%, and a K/BB of 3.49. Those numbers unto themselves are really good, but not the sort that knocks off your socks. Why then was Jones’ 1934 season so great?
All told he ended up with a WHIP of 0.93 and an ERA of 1.24. His HR% was 0.8, and he limited opposing batters to a .196 batting average. The dominance he displayed in his 1934 season is starting to become clearer. There’s just one ingredient missing, and that ingredient is ERA+. In total Jones sported a staggering ERA+ of 334. The best in MLB that year came from the New York Yankees. Lefty Gomez led the American League with an ERA+ of 176. That is an excellent mark, one that any pitcher would love to have. Jones added another 158 points to that number. Now, I understand that league quality plays a heavy role in ERA+. The fact of the matter is that in 1934 the NNL was as good or better across the board than the AL. Jones was 234% better than the NNL average, and 158% Better than the best that MLB had to offer.
Jones would help guide the Stars to the 1934 Negro National League title, beating the Chicago American Giants in the Championship Series. He was on top of the world, but he was also a black man in America playing in the Negro Leagues. He wasn’t making much money, he faced racism at every turn, and he had personal vices to contend with. He also pitched for a few years in the Liga de Béisbol Profesional de Puerto Rico, throwing a lot of inning in the process and putting a lot of stress on his arm. Satchel Paige he was not, and after the 1934 season, he began to suffer from a dead arm, and his career never recovered.
Jones stayed in organized baseball until 1938, but his last years in baseball were rough. The Baltimore native wanted more money, but he wasn’t able to stay healthy long enough or put up the results to warrant a pay increase. From 1935 to 1938 his results waned and the Stars no longer had a star on their hands. Negro League fans remembered his 1934 season fondly, but in each outing, Jones showed that he was not the bright 21-year-old who had stood toe to toe with the best and come out on top.
In the winter of 1938, he found himself at home instead of playing baseball in Puerto Rico. Lore goes that he was out of money and craving his favorite drink, whiskey. Unable to buy any he sold his winter coat for a bottle of whiskey. Jacketless and dealing with a cold Baltimore winter he came down with pneumonia. Shortly after that at the age of 25, Jones was overcome by his pneumonia and passed away.
His career only lasted seven seasons, and his life was tragically cut short. Jones deserves more than what the annals of time have given him. For one shining season (he was also reportedly dominant in his time in Puerto Rico, but there is no information to back up such a claim) Jones was the toast of baseball. He put together a season that has stood the test of time and remains one of a kind. No starting pitcher in the history of any of the major leagues has garnered an ERA+ of more than 300 — no pitcher except for Slim Jones that is. Jones will never be a household name, but to this day he is a man who stands alone in baseball’s rich pitching history.Next post: The Managerial Search of Soft Skills
Previous post: A Positive Revision to Miguel Cabrera’s Legacy