Saul H. Davis

(S. Davis)

"I was batting with that Heinie Groh bat. Just punched the ball. Well that’s all I wanted to do! I was a singles, doubles hitter. That’s it! You can punch that ball over second base, over third, short, lay it down, anything, you can do anything with that bat."

--Saul Davis

"Heinie Groh's "bottle bat" model used by Saul Davis
(click to purchase this bat)

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©Copyright 2003, Kyle McNary, McNary Publishing

Negro Leaguer of the Month
April, 2003

Saul "Rareback" Davis
Born: February 22, 1901 in Bayou, Louisiana
Died: in Minot, ND
Ht: 5'-10", Wt: 165
Batted and threw right.
Positions: shortstop, second base, third base, manager
Years: 1917-1952

Teams: Vapor City Tigers, Columbus Buckeyes, Birmingham Black Barons, Memphis Red Sox, Chicago American Giants, Colored House of David, Gilkerson’s Union Giants, Zulu Grass Skirts

I met Saul about two years before he died at age 92. He lived in Minot, North Dakota of all places, and he was the last surviving member of the original Eastern Colored League.

Saul was also one of the last surviving members of the “Original Negro National League.” (In 1920 the Negro National League was formed of teams in the Midwest and South, in 1923 the Eastern Colored League was formed of teams on the coast. Both leagues broke up during the depression and when two major black leagues were reformed in the late 1930s, Midwest and southern teams formed the new Negro American League and the eastern teams formed the new Negro National League.) Saul didn’t like when people said they played in the Negro National League if it wasn’t the original.

I was fortunate to have formed a friendship with Saul a few years before his death and he was a very friendly and interesting man.

Saul was born in 1901 in Louisiana territory and after a playing on the sandlots of Bayou country, he traveled to Arkansas where he joined the Vapor City Tigers of the Arkansas Negro League consisting of Hot Springs, Hope, Arkadelphia, McGee and El Dorado.

Saul was a slap hitter, which was common in the early days before Babe Ruth made the homerun popular, but was known more for his slick glove and strong arm.

In the days before Derek Jeter, A-Rod and Cal Ripken, shortstops were meant to field well, and if they hit it was a bonus. Well, Saul could play shortstop, but he usually struggled to bat .250 most of his career.

Saul used a “Bottle Bat” the model made famous by Major Leaguer Heinie Groh.

Saul would rarely strike out, but would try to punch the ball over the infield. He only hit a handful of homers in his long career.

"Was [baseball] better back then? Oh sure, we had better ball players. You see, the ball players now got so much protection. Ball players today can’t even get out of the way of a fastball. You know what I mean? Well, they get hit by it then they want to fight. Well ,that’s no good.

"But see, we had to dodge them fast pitchers. We couldn’t stand up there and dig a hole, wait ‘til somebody throw you a ball you could hit and blow your bubblegum, eat your peanuts and stuff like that. See we couldn’t have that. You bring that in the dugout and you went on!"

After honing his skills in the Arkansas Negro League and the Texas Negro League, Davis made the black Big Leagues as a starter with the Birmingham Black Barons in the early 1920s. Davis was a huge fan of Rube Foster and always wanted to play for his Chicago American Giants. He got his wish in 1925 and remembered his years in Chicago as some of his happiest.

In the late 1920s, Davis joined the Gilkerson’s Union Giants, as top black traveling club, which also featured stars George Giles, Cristobel Torriente, Red Haley and Hurley McNair.

When Davis’ skills began to deteriorate in the 1930s he would travel around Canada with his baseball gear and a uniform in his car trunk, showing up at tournaments and asking teams if they needed any players. He played against Chicago “Black Sox” players Hap Felsch and Swede Risberg and their Virden, Manitoba team several times.

One thing Davis refused to do, though, was play against Satchel Paige, Double Duty Radcliffe and “that whole crew.”

“’Cause you can’t do no good,” explained Davis. “ I was trying to make a reputation. I could beat the average players in these white clubs. But when you get with these Negroes you got to be careful, you know. They gonna try to show you up. Some players called in sick when they had to face Satchel and them. That’s it. You got to do that.”

Davis got to meet Britain's Queen Elizabeth on her trip to Canada while playing in a tournament at Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, Canada.

In the late 1930s, legendary second baseman Bingo DeMoss and Abe Saperstein asked Davis to become player manager of the “Zulu Grass Skirt Team,” a traveling team that would wear grass skirts and make up to appear like savages from an African Tribe.

Although it seems degrading now, Davis enjoyed the experience as the team traveled with Jesse Owens who would take on the fastest runners teams could come up with and then blow them away. The team also drew great crowds throughout the Midwest and Canada.

After the team broke up in North Dakota in the 1940s, Davis settled in Minot, North Dakota and stayed there until the day he died.

It’s rumored that Davis made a nice living by running a club in Minot for years that was really a “house of ill-repute”.

One thing that Davis was especially proud of was the friendships he made in baseball and kept. Satchel Paige made several trips to visit Davis in Minot over the years, and he corresponded with other players by mail for decades.