Jake Stephens

"We had a little man, weighed 139 pounds, at shortstop who could pick it! Jake Stephens!"
--Double Duty Radcliffe, speaking of the 1931 Homestead Grays

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Negro Leaguer of the Month

December, 2007

"Country" Jake Stephens

Born: Feb. 10, 1900 in Pleasureville, PA
Died: Feb. 5, 1981 in York, PA
Ht:5'-7", Wt: 155
Batted and threw right
Position: shortstop
Playing Years: 1921-1937
Teams: Hilldale Daisies, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Philadelphia Stars, New York Black Yankees

Jake Stephens was never the best shortstop in Negro League baseball, but he was very good, and was the glue that held together some of the best teams of all time. Stephens was the shortstop on championship teams of four different franchises: the Hilldale Daisies, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Philadelphia Stars.

Stephens was a leader in the mold of Pee Wee Reese, but not quite the hitter Reese was. With his small stature, Stephens may properly be called "The David Eckstein" of his day!

Peppery, agressive, fiesty. Those were all words used to describe Stephens over the years. Of course, those qualities alone don't get you to the black big leagues. Stephens was an expert bunter, a great base-runner, and was a great defensive shortstop.

In the 1920s, Stephens played shortstop on the Hilldale Daisies next to third baseman Judy Johnson, forming the best-fielding left side of any infield up to that point, and one that would only be rivaled by Mark Belanger and Brooks Robinson 50 years later.

In 1923 and '24, the Hilldales won the first two Eastern Colored League pennants, and lost to the Kansas City Monarchs in '24 in the first Negro League World Series. In that series, Stephens begged out of game eight (of a best of nine series) because of a severe case of nerves. Regular catcher Biz Mackey was moved to third base, Judy Johnson replaced Stephens at shortstop, and Mackey ended up making a crucial error that cost Hilldale the game, and Kansas City won the series when they beat Hilldale in game 9, 5-0. From that day forward, Stephens would never beg out of a game again.

In 1931, owner Cum Posey put together, what many believe, was the finest team in Negro League history. With the great defense of Stephens at shortstop, Jud Wilson at third, and George Scales at second, along with sluggers Josh Gibson, Chaney White and Oscar Charleston, and a pitching staff of Smokey Joe Williams, Willie Foster, Double Duty Radcliffe and Lefty Williams, it's no wonder that the Grays won 136, while losing only 17 games.

In 1932, Stephens, along with Gibson, Charleston, Radcliffe and Wilson joined Satchel Paige and Jimmie Crutchfield on the Pittsburgh Crawfords, on what was probably the second best team in black baseball history.

During Stephens' career, it was well known league-wide that he had trouble hitting curveballs, which kept his batting average in the .250-range with little power. It was with the glove, though, that Stephens earned his salary. Stephens was an acrobatic fielder, often leaving his feet to make diving stops, and he was incredible at the pivot on double plays.

In 1935, at age 35, Stephens was voted the East's starter in the East-West All-Star game at Chicago's Comiskey Park. Stephens went 2 for 6 in the game, singling off the Grays' Raymond Brown in the first, and against Bob Griffith in the 10th. The West won the game in the 11th when Mule Suttles hit a walk-off three-run homer.

After retiring from baseball after a stint with the New York Black Yankees in 1936-'37, Stephens worked as for the state of Pennsylvania and as a sheriff's deputy.

Stephens is a member of the Pittsburgh and York, Pennsylvania sports halls of fame.


(some information from The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues)