Whenever anyone thinks of a tragedy connected to Cleveland baseball players, their mind probably immediately drifts to Ray Chapman’s tragic death during the 1920 season, after he was hit in the head by a pitch. Or perhaps they remember a more recent tragedy that took place off of the field, when Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed in a boating accident during spring training in 1993. There was another Cleveland baseball tragedy that killed several players, and left several more critically injured, but very few Clevelanders seem to be aware that this ever happened. In 1942, while traveling between games, two players from the Negro League Cleveland Buckeyes were killed in a car accident. In fact, most of the team’s pitching staff was either killed or critically injured in the crash, and they had to go out and sign a few additional players just to make it through the last few weeks of the season.
First, a bit of background information – travel for Negro League teams could be somewhat uneven to begin with, since teams didn’t have the budget of major league teams. Additional challenges were created by World War II-era rations and shortages – rubber for tires and fuel were not always plentiful or easy to come by. The Buckeyes actually had a team bus, but it had broken down by September, forcing the players and coaches to ride in three cars between their games. The other thing that’s important to remember is that Negro League teams didn’t always have a fixed schedule like major league teams. In order to stay afloat, they would play in a number of league contests, but would add various barnstorming games to the schedule to pick up some extra cash. Around the time of the automobile crash, the Buckeyes were traveling throughout western New York, western Pennsylvania, and eastern Ohio to play a number of barnstorming matchups against the New York Black Yankees. The schedule was often so tight during these barnstorming trips, that players would wash their uniforms after a game, throw them into the car or bus to dry, and drive all night for their next gig the following day. Sometimes, the heavy wool uniforms weren’t even dry by the time they had to throw them on for their next contest.
At 3 a.m. on Monday, September 7, the Buckeyes were traveling from Buffalo, New York, to Akron. They had played a Sunday afternoon doubleheader in Buffalo, and were trying to make the 200-mile journey in their three-car caravan in time for another doubleheader on Monday afternoon in Akron. (Both sets of doubleheaders were against the New York Black Yankees). After the Akron doubleheader, they were supposed to travel approximately 100 miles to Meadville, Pennsylvania, for a Monday evening exhibition matchup against the Black Yankees. So in the early morning hours of September 7, one of the cars got a flat tire on Route 20 outside of Geneva, and pulled off to the side of the road to change it. After the roadside repair, catcher Ulysses “Buster” Brown pulled the car back onto the road but was hit from behind by a large truck with a semi-trailer; the force of the collision pushed the vehicle across the road and into a tree. Brown and pitcher Raymond “Smokey” Owens were killed instantly in the accident. General manager Wilbur Hayes and pitcher Alonzo Boone were ejected from the car, but amazingly did not sustain life-threatening injuries. Pitchers Eugene Bremmer and Herman Watts were much more seriously injured – it’s believed that Bremmer fractured his skull, and Watts fractured his pelvis.
The other two team cars were not involved in the accident and continued to their destination. The Buckeyes had a mix of league and exhibition contests scheduled through the end of September, so the team was forced to go out and find two new pitchers to help for the remainder of the year. With Owens dead, and Boone, Bremmer, and Watts badly injured, it was a major dent to the team’s pitching staff. As an example of how tight the scheduling can be, the Buckeyes were set to play the Black Yankees in nine different cities over nine straight days. In fact, the team would not play any more home games in Cleveland after the accident – all of their matchups were scheduled on the road. There weren’t many updates on the injured players over the rest of September in the papers; just a mention that the would “stagger through their few remaining games like true sportsmen” despite a number of disappointing losses.
One of the other facts about Negro League baseball that this tragic event illustrates, was the lack of publicity between the teams and the media. The teams really didn’t have appointed media-relations staff; it was typically left to the owner or the general manager to communicate results and statistics to the media. The fact that the media didn’t print many updates on the team, may be simply due to the fact that they did not get many updates on the team. With the team barnstorming on the road, already short staffed, contacting the media may not have been one of their main priorities. Another example of this was in July of the 1943 season, when the team distributed promotional posters around town. Some of the posters told fans to come see catcher “Buster” Brown when they came to the ballpark; the team placed him on these posters even though he had been killed in this automobile accident almost a full year earlier.
Despite the complexities to scheduling and travel for the Negro Leagues, events like this accident were not common. I haven’t really come across any other stories of the team bus (or vehicles) crashing and causing fatalities or even severe injuries. Since this is kind of a quiet time for the Indians, and baseball in general, I figured it was a good opportunity to share this story and remember the players that were killed in this tragic accident.