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Negro Leaguer of the Month
William “Plunk” Drake was a nice man off the field, but between the lines was a fierce competitor who intimidated batters and often hit them with pitches on purpose, hence the nickname “Plunk.”
Drake was born in Sedalia, Missouri and first played for money with the traveling 1914 Tennessee Rats team which combined baseball and a minstrel show to provide entertainment throughout the Midwest; Drake made $12.50 week ($286 in today's dollars).
In 1915, Drake started with the All-Nations, an integrated traveling team that traveled in its own private train car and featured players with many nationalities, but was more famous because of their star left-handed pitcher, John Donaldson. When Drake joined the All-Nations he and Donaldson formed a terrific 1-2 punch with lefty Donaldson and righty Drake. Drake made $100 a month with the All-Nations (about $2300/month in today's dollars).
After the All-Nations played a game in Brinsmade, North Dakota, the Brinsmade town team offered Drake a raise and he jumped. Brinsmade hoped that Drake could help them in their battles with Cando, North Dakota. The two towns in the northeast part of the state, about 27 miles apart, had a rivalry like the Red Sox and Yankees, but instead of playing in front of 40,000 fans, they usually drew from four to eight hundred, and instead of taking a streetcar or train to the game, fans drove Model Ts on dirt highways, and after a heavy rain games were often canceled due to “bad roads.”
Before Drake arrive in the middle of the season, Cando had beaten Brinsmade twice, but Drake stepped in and became the team’s leading pitcher and beat Cando twice, once by a 6-3 score.
During the season, Brinsmade played Drakes former team, the Tennessee Rats (lost 1-0), the integrated All-Nations (Drake won and threw a three-hitter, though he faced a Japanese pitcher and not John Donaldson), and North Dakota town teams from Harvey, Bisbee, Minot, Starkweather and Cando. The Brinsmade Star newspaper reported that Drake hopped a train home to Missouri after his successful season.
Drake returned to Brinswade in 1916, and in order to pay for his services the team put on a dance and wrestling matches to raise money. In the season opener, Drake beat Cando 2-1 in front of more than 500 fans. Drake was on top of his game most of the year and he beat Knox, North Dakota 3-1, beat Maddock 9-3 on a three-hitter with seven strikeouts, threw a two-hitter 1-0 win against Starkweather, a no hitter against Cando in the “York Celebration Tournament” with 11 strikeouts, a 9-3 win over Knox with seven strikeouts. and a three-hitter against the All-Nations though he lost 4-2.
After the Brinswade season was over, Drake caught on with the Negro League's St. Louis Giants. After spending the 1917 season with the Kansas City Monarchs, Drake went back to semipro ball in '18, but in 1919 he returned to his home state with St. Louis where he played for the next four seasons and won more than 30 Negro National League games. Drake was fortunate enough with St. Louis to pitch to Hall of Fame catcher Biz Mackey, and another Hall of Famer, Oscar Charleston, ran down many of Drake's mistakes in center field. Drakes best season with St. Louis came in '21 when he won 20 league games and more than 30 overall. After the season the Giant played a series against the Majors' St. Louis Cardinals, and Drake lost one of the game, 4-3, in 12 innings as the Cards took five of eight game.
Drake spent 1922-25 with the Kansas City Monarchs where he threw to catcher Frank Duncan, and his teammates included Jose Mendez, Bullet Rogan, John Donaldson and Dobie Moore. Drake, a fine pitcher with a healthy ego, did not think that Rogan could out-pitch him.
In 1922 the Monarchs challenged the Minor League's Kansas City Blues, one of the American Association's top teams. The Blues carried more than 20 players during the year who had played, or would play, in the Majors, including Bunny Brief, who hit 40 homers for the Blues in '22. In a six game series, the Monarchs won five games, and Drake won one of the games, 6-2, and also hit a homer.
In 1924 and '25, Drake's Monarchs played in the Negro League World Series. In '24, the Monarchs beat the Hilldale Daisies with Drake pitching in four games as a reliever. In '25, the Monarchs lost to the Daisies, and Drake was hit hard and took the loss in two games.
During his career, Drake played winter ball in California, and in during the '24-'25 season he led the league with 11 wins.
Drake was known for a good fastball, terrific curve, and fine control, and struck out as many as 20 men in a game. And, of course, batters usually didn't get too comfortable at the plate thanks to Drake's disposition. Drake, like many pitchers, was a weak hitter, usually batting under .200, but he was a fine bunter and, because of his size, occasionally blasted one!
In 1926, Drake played with the Indianapolis ABCs under player-manager Bingo DeMoss, and in '27 he followed DeMoss to Detroit and played with the Detroit Stars. With Detroit, the 32-year-old Drake went 7-5 in league games.
During the '27 season, when Detroit played the Birmingham Black Barons, Drake met a young pitcher Barons, Satchel Paige, and taught him his version of the “hesitation pitch,” in which he would pause for an instant after his front foot touched the ground, then continue with the pitch, throwing the batters timing off. Paige perfected the pitch and threw it for the next 30 years!
Drake played with the Dayton Marcos and Memphis Red Sox in the late 20s, and finished his career at age 35 with the St. Louis Stars which featured Mule Suttles, Cool Papa Bell and Double Duty Radcliffe, and ended up winning the Negro National League pennant.
During his career, Drake played against Major Leaguers many times, including a series of games against Babe Ruth, whom he considered a friend.
After retiring from playing, Drake managed a basketball team, then worked for many years for Famous & Barr, a department store in St. Louis.