Spitball specialist Bill Gatewood tossed first Negro Leagues no-hitter for Detroit

A lot of people don’t know a thing about the negro leagues. That’s changing now that MLB ruled that the negro leagues are major leagues akin to the American and National leagues.

But some people know a few things about the old negro leagues. Like Satchel Paige, considered by many to be the greatest pitcher in the history of professional black baseball. You may know that Paige relied on a bevy of pitches, including a famous “hesitation” pitch that confused enemy batters.

The man who taught Satchel how to throw his hesitation pitch was Bill Gatewood, a former pitcher who managed Paige on the Birmingham Black Barons in 1930.

Gatewood has a part in several pieces of negro leagues history, including one of baseball’s greatest nicknames, and the first no-hitter pitched in the Negro National League, when he was an ancient hurler wearing the colorful uniform of the Detroit Stars.

Early Years in Deadball Era Negro Baseball

We don’t know how many children the Gatewood family of San Antonio had, but we can be assured that William was the biggest. Born in 1881, “Billy” grew into an imposing physical presence: 6’7 with size 17 feet. It’s not apparent what he did after dropping out of school in the eighth grade, but his name first appears in the rosters of professional baseball in 1906 with the Leland Giants, who played out of Chicago.

The Giants were a formidable team with stars like Rube Foster and Pete Hill, both of whom have been elected to the Hall of Fame. The 1907 Leland team went 110-10 in games we have official scores for.

Somewhere along the way, Gatewood learned a spitball, probably from Foster. During the course of his best seasons, “Big Bill” used the spitter or emery ball as his primary pitch, and due to the lack of strain from throwing it. he proved to be very durable.

As was the practice in the early 20th century, Gatewood bounced among many pro teams, chasing the best paycheck. He used his tremendous size to his advantage, billing himself as a first baseman on days when he didn’t toe the rubber. He played in St. Louis, New York, Chicago, and Indianapolis in the 1910s, but his best days were coming after he inked a contract with Detroit during the 1920 season.

Aging No-Hit Ace of the Detroit Stars

The 1920 Detroit Stars. Bill Gatewood is in the back row, third from the right.

Gatewood used his wet pitch to win 15 games against only five losses for Detroit in 1920, but his most famous victory came in 1921.

The Stars were one of the promising teams in the new Negro National League in the early 1920s, and they played their home games at Mack Park, located on the east side of Detroit, four miles from downtown, at the southeast corner of Fairview Ave. and Mack Ave. The park was small by pro standards, seating about 6,000 and featuring short dimensions down the foul lines. It was typically a nice place for a batter. But on June 6, 1921, old Bill Gatewood mastered it in a brilliant pitching performance.

In 1921, Big Bill was 38 years old and had thousands of innings on his right arm. He didn’t have one of baseball’s best fastballs, and he didn’t even throw a curve, but the 6’7 giant had a fantastic spitball or “scuffball” that dipped and tumbled out of the strike zone. Bill typically liked to use an emery board or a small piece of sandpaper to scratch the ball. By 1921, he preferred that to wetting the ball, but he would still resort to a wet pitch now and again. His preferred method was to rub licorice saliva on the surface of the baseball, which he kept in his mouth.

On this day, in an afternoon game against the Cincinnati Cuban Stars, Gatewood broke out another trick to mar the baseball and give him extra movement: he made small scratches on the ball with a bottle cap he hid in his pocket. Reportedly, as the game wore on, the visiting team complained loudly to the umpiring crew about Big Bill’s malfeasance, but the officials did nothing about it.

According to the Detroit Daily Times, the Cincinnati lineup was able to hit only four balls out of the infield against Gatewood, who struck out ten batters. Only two runners reached, both on walks. The Detroit Stars won 4-0, with Big Bill hitting a home run to help his own cause. It was a helluva day for the ancient Detroit hurler, who had the first no-hitter in the history of the Negro National League, which would go on to be the most respected circuit in black baseball history.

The Author of “Cool Papa”

Gatewood didn’t pitch long for Detroit, bolting for St. Louis to earn more money as a player/manager. That’s where he was in 1922 when he met James Bell, a small-chested pitcher trying to make a place for himself on the staff. Big Bill was old enough to be his father, and he recognized quickly that the young ballplayer was a different kind of kid. He was soon tutoring Bell in the ways of pitching.

One afternoon, Bell struck out star Oscar Charleston in a tight spot, and Gatewood commented that his young hurler “sure looked cool” under pressure. He later added the term “Papa” and the nickname “Cool Pape” was forever hung on James Bell, who went on to be one of black baseball’s greatest players, albeit as an outfielder. It was Big Bill who switched Bell to the outfield and urged him to bat from the left side to take advantage of his blazing speed.

After an incredible thirty-year career as a player, in which he probably won more than 200 games and pitched his last game at the age of 45, Gatewood transitioned into a role as a manager and later pitching coach. He met Paige in 1930 as manager of the Black Barons. That was where he urged the tall, long-legged Satchel to add a deceptive pitch to his repertoire.

Gatewood remained in pro baseball in some capacity into his 60s, even forming a team under his own name called the Gatewood Browns in Missouri, that competed as late as 1949. He died at the age of 81 in 1962, in Columbia, Missouri.

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