By Bill Staples, Jr.
Image: Custom baseball card of Bill Pettus, created by the author.
On August 13, 1924, Bill Pettus celebrated his 40th birthday. Nine days later he was dead. The Negro Leagues baseball veteran passed away on August 22, 1924, after battling tuberculosis for several years.
The following is Pettus’ obituary written by New York Age reporter William E. Clark.
Bill Pettus, Veteran Ball Player, Finally Succumbs To Death at Sea View Hosp.
Was First a Boxer Out In California, But Came East In 1910 and Took Up Baseball – Was Pal of "Cyclone Joe" Williams and His Catcher With Lincoln Giants For a Long Time.
FORMER BASEBALL COMRADES UNITE IN LAST HONORS TO PETTUS, ATTENDING FUNERAL ON MONDAY SENDING MANY FLORAL TRIBUTES
Pettus Was Also On Royal Giants and Hilldale; Organized and Managed the Richmond Giants For One Season, and Two Years Ago He Organized and Managed the Harrisburg Giants.
William Pettus, veteran baseball player, died after a long illness of tuberculosis at the Sea View Hospital, Staten Island, on Friday, August 22. The end was not unexpected, as he began failing two weeks ago. His wife was with him at the time of his death.
His funeral was held on Monday from the funeral parlors of Wainwright and Daniels and Interment was at Mount Olivet Cemetery. Under the leadership of Judy Gans, a former teammate and now manager of the Lincoln Giants, that team attended the funeral in a body. Representatives were also present from the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the Hilldale team, and the Harrisburg Giants, other teams with which he had been associated.
The floral tributes were numerous and beautiful and included a large piece in the shape of a baseball diamond with a spot vacant at first base. This was a tribute from the present members of The Lincoln Giants.
Pettus was not only an unusual athlete, but he was also a good sport in the best sense of the word and was well-liked by all who knew him. He was born in Albuquerque, N. Mex., about 42 years ago and began his athletic career as a boxer in California. When his hands became brittle, he turned to baseball and soon became proficient as a catcher.
Coming east to Chicago in 1910, he met Joe (Williams) and they struck up a lasting friendship. Both came to New York and joined the Lincoln Giants and for a long time Pettus was the only man to catch for Williams.
Five or six years ago he began playing first base and had played this position on the Lincoln Royal Giants and Hilldale. Three years ago he organized the Richmond Giants and two seasons ago he organized the Harrisburg Giants.
He suffered a general breakdown while with the latter team and had to go to the hospital. In six weeks he was so much improved that he left against the advice of his physician, but in April of this year he was again compelled to return.
Apparently, he improved steadily until two weeks ago, when his condition took a turn for the worse. His wife says that he realized the end was near and he died peacefully on Friday.
Source: The New York Age, New York, New York, Sat, Aug 30, 1924, Page 6.
(Note: I bolded a few other items in the obituary and will address them later.)
It’s important to note that Clark provides the wrong birth year and location for Pettus. As an athlete, Pettus made a name for himself as both a ballplayer and boxer in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but according to all early U.S. Census records (1900, 1910) and the 1912 Passenger Ship record when he competed in Cuba, he was born in Goliad County, Texas, on August 13, 1884.
In addition to reporting the news of Pettus’ death, W. Rollo Wilson of The Pittsburgh Courier also shared some insight into his character and the level of respect that the veteran garnered among those who played for him:
AS WE WRITE, A WIRE COMES TO OUR DESK, brief but full of sorrow: “William Pettus died August 22. Letter follows – His wife,” Thus passes a staunch figure of our sporting world, one who made his mark as a pioneer in modern baseball; a still, strong man in a blatant land. Blackmon, Pettus, "the youth in life's green spring and he who goes in the full strength of years." For "Sacks' the last great mystery is solved.
The writer was one of those who were planning to give a benefit game for Pettus, who was a victim of the great white plague. That game was to have been played in Philadelphia on September 11. Already we had been assured that the stars of the league would be at our disposal. Larry Somers, or the Penn-Jersey League, was arranging a lineup to do battle with this team. Our friends on the daily newspapers were ready to help. But we were too late.
We do not know what Bill's private life was, but he must have seen a prince. In the baseball world, he was one of the Immortals. If a player had it in him Bill saw it and developed his talent. He was a clean athlete and insisted that those who were under him should be clean. He regulated their conduct on and off the field. He drove home the fact that only the men who kept themselves physically fit could hope to advance in the game. His creed was short: "Fair Play," and he exemplified it at all times.
The Great Pitcher had him in a hole and cut a corner for the third one. He's called out for the last time.
Source: Eastern Snapshots, By W. Rollo Wilson, The Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh, PA, Sat, Aug 30, 1924, Page 13
About six weeks prior to Pettus’ death, The New York Age announced that $255.50 (the equivalent of roughly $4,570 in 2023) was raised by the Lincoln Giants during a game at the Catholic Protectory Oval on June 29. The donation was intended to help the Pettus family pay their medical expenses and move to a drier climate. Details of Bill’s health struggles were also included:
“… his health began failing him that year (1920) and it has steadily grown worse. He is confident that he can completely recover from tuberculosis if he can get to a drier climate, with the money given by the baseball fans on Sunday, he hopes to leave for Phoenix, Ariz., at an early date.”
“His lungs became affected about three years ago. He entered the hospital and remained about six weeks, but says that he was feeling so well he left (against the doctor's orders) thinking that he was cured. A breakdown came last fall but he delayed returning to the hospital until spring. Nevertheless, an x-ray photo of his lungs shows that only one is affected and the doctors are confident he can be cured. He will be glad to see players or fans at the hospital any day between the hours of 2 and 5.”
Source: The New York Age, NY, New York, Jul 5, 1924, Page 6.
As mentioned in his obituaries, Pettus was one of the handful of early Negro League ballplayers who also competed as a boxer. Based on coverage in the press, it appears that his peak years for boxing were between 1908 to 1910. Below are some boxing clips of interest:
Source: Photo of Boxer Bill Pettus, Albuquerque Journal, Sep 09, 1909, pg. 3.
Source: Wallace to Fight Pettus at Madrid, The Leavenworth Times (KS), Nov 3, 1908, pg. 8.
Source: Albuquerque Citizen, Mar 10, 1909, pg. 5.
It is especially interesting that as a boxer during the 1910s, one of his contemporaries in that world was Frank “Biz” Mackey, a featherweight from Ohio.
Below is an article from The Denver Post in 1909 that features boxers Bill Pettus and Biz Mackey on the same page.
Source: News Article, The Denver Post, Sep 22, 1909, pg. 12.
And here’s a photo of boxer Frank “Biz” Mackey.
Image: Photo of Frank “Biz” Mackey, colorized by the author via MyHeritage.com.
It appears that the boxer from Ohio was so popular at the time that it was not uncommon for athletes in other sports with the surname Mackey to take on the nickname “Biz.” For example, below is an article from Sporting Life in 1909 where catcher Jake Mackey of the Sharon Club (of Akron, Ohio) is also called “Biz.”
Source: The Sporting Life, January 02, 1909, Page 2.
All of the above facts now raise questions about the origin of the nickname for the Negro Leagues legend and Hall of Fame catcher, Biz Mackey (1897-1965).
When Mackey joined Bill Pettus’ team, the Lincoln Giants, in the California Winter League (CWL) in December 1920, the rookie catcher was known on the field and in the press only by his birth name – James Raleigh Mackey, or by his homonymous middle name, “Riley.”
Image: Custom baseball card of Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, created by the author.
Below is a box score from the 1920-1921 CWL season that features Pettus playing first base and batting third, with Mackey behind the plate and batting cleanup. Note that Mackey’s teammate from San Antonio, Texas, Henry Blackmon, is also in the lineup (going 1-1 as a pinch hitter and platooning at second base).
Source: The California Winter League, The Chicago Whip, Chicago, IL, Jan 8, 1921, Page 7.
According to popular legend, Negro Leagues catcher “Biz” Mackey earned his nickname because “he was always giving opposing hitters ‘the business’ as he jabbered away at them.”
From what we know about the Hall of Famer, his jovial nature probably did contribute to his success in getting into the heads of opposing batters.
However, it wasn’t until Mackey’s seventh season in professional baseball (1916-1920 in Texas, and 1920-1923 in Indiana and Pennsylvania) that the nickname “Biz” first appeared in the press. And the young player spent more than half of his playing time behind the plate (he could play all nine positions, and early in his career pitched and played shortstop and third base when not catching).
It was during a game recap of Hilldale versus the Baltimore Black Sox in June 1923, when Pittsburgh Courier reporter W. Rollo Wilson refers to Mackey as “Biz” for the first time in print.
Source: WINTERS SETS BLACK SOX DOWN WITH LONE BINGLE AS MATES BOMBARD SYKES: … W ROLLO WILSON, The Pittsburgh Courier (1911-1950); Jun 2, 1923; pg. 6.
Wilson also called the catcher “Big” Mackey around the same time, suggesting that the nickname “Biz” was not created in the press box, but instead originated among the players on the field.
So what occurred in 1923 that inspired the nickname “Biz” to surface — and then stick?
Circling back to Bill Pettus, it was around the same time that reports of his failing health appeared in the press. In June 1923, Bill’s tuberculosis was taking its toll on him.
Source: Stars on Sick List, The Courier, Harrisburg (PA), June 17, 1923, pg 5.
By the end of June 1923, Pettus was unable to play and pulled himself from the lineup.
Source: Manager Pettus Ill, Harrisburg Telegraph (PA), June 27, 1923, pg. 13.
Sadly, by 1924, Bill Pettus was completely out of baseball and in the hospital seeking treatment.
In addition to Pettus’ failing health, Mackey’s former teammate from San Antonio and Indianapolis, Henry Blackmon, died suddenly on August 8, 1924. The week prior he was unable to play due to “throat pain.” The exact cause of death was not reported in the press, but we’re left to wonder if tuberculosis took his life as well.
Source: The Pittsburgh Courier, Aug 23, 1924, pg. 13
Image: Custom baseball card of Henry Blackmon, created by the author.
When we take a closer look at the timeline of events, we begin to see that the decline and death of Bill Pettus (and Henry Blackmon for that matter) seem to coincide with the introduction of the nickname “Biz” for the Hilldale catcher, Mackey.
The collective facts raise questions, such as:
- Was the former boxer Bill Pettus the first to call Raleigh Mackey “Biz” when they were teammates in the 1920-21 California Winter League?
- Did Pettus’ former teammates – or even Mackey himself – rekindle the boxing-affiliated nickname to honor the beloved Bill Pettus?
- Did Mackey himself embrace the nickname going forward to honor his deceased mentor?
If the answers are “yes,” we will never know for sure.
Source: Baseball Players and Fans Honor William Pettus in Death, The New York Age, August 30, 1924, pg. 6.
While we don’t have definitive answers, we do have clues to work with. For example, in the doubleheader against Bill’s former team, the Lincoln Giants, played on August 24, 1924 – just two days after Pettus’ death, and the day before his funeral – Mackey moved from his usual positions that season at catcher and third base and started both games at first base.
Source: Lincoln Giants Break Even in Doubleheader with Rival Hilldales, The New York Age, August 30, 1924, pg. 6.
Similar to the floral tribute at the funeral “in the shape of a baseball diamond with a spot vacant at first base,” was Mackey honoring the memory of his mentor with this move? It’s possible.
As someone who has studied the career of James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey for many years, if it was the case, I can say that it wouldn’t be out of character for him. Based on his actions on and off the field, one could argue that he is among the most thoughtful, sensitive, and emotional players in Negro Leagues history.
For example, he was the only player on record known to bow out of respect to an opposing pitcher during his barnstorming tour of Japan in 1927; he openly wept in the stands with regret that he was “born too soon” while watching Booker T. McDaniel cross the color line in the Pacific Coast League in 1949 (clip below); and throughout the 1940s, he thoughtfully mentored young players like Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, and Don Newcombe, etc., and did so again in the 1960s as an assistant coach with Chet Brewer’s teams in Compton, CA. And those are just a few standout, heartfelt moments from Mackey’s career highlights.
Side Bar: Mackey’s Hidden Major League Impact - Compton, CA
During the 1960s, former Negro leagues pitcher and then Pirates scout Chet Brewer established a baseball training program for youth in Compton, CA, a precursor to the MLB RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities). In addition to Brewer, Buster Haywood and Biz Mackey also helped coach the Rookie Pirates. Brewer’s elite team was called the “Pirates Rookies” and among the future major leaguers in the program were Dock Ellis, Enos Cabell, Bob Watson, Dave Nelson, George Hendrick, Leon McFadden, Bobby Tolan, Willie Crawford, Don Wilson, Reggie Smith, Eddie Murray, Ellis Valentine, and Roy White. The agent who later negotiated the famous contract for former Pirate Bobby Bonilla (with the Mets), Dennis Gilbert, was also a member of Brewer’s “Rookie Pirates” in the early 1960s.
Source: Phone interview with Dennis Gilbert, January 2, 2021.
Returning to Mackey's 1924 season, published box scores and articles reveal that he remained at first base for three weeks after Bill Pettus’ death. Around mid-September, he returned to third base, where he played for the rest of the season, and in the first-ever Negro Leagues World Series, where the Kansas City Monarchs defeated Mackey and his Hilldale teammates 5-4 in the best of nine games. (Note: Hilldale could have clinched the series title in Game 8, had it not been for a defensive miscue by Mackey at third base in the 9th inning).
So, we now see that James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey lost a lot in 1924. First, he lost his teammate Henry Blackmon on August 8. Then, he lost his mentor Bill Pettus on August 22. And then he and his team lost the World Series in October.
But Mackey was a resilient optimist. He bounced back the following season and his team returned to the Negro League World Series in 1925 – and won.
And going forward he would forever be known as “Biz” (or sometimes “Bizz,” spelled with two-Z’s) Mackey and he would also go on to assemble a Hall of Fame resume as a player and international baseball ambassador.
And perhaps most important, he followed in the footsteps of Bill Pettus and became a trusted and respected mentor to a long list of baseball proteges – many of whom would become Hall of Famers themselves.
Image: 1952 Topps Baseball card of Roy Campanella
Source: California Eagle, May 14, 1959, p. 7.
The death of Bill Pettus and the birth of Mackey's nickname “Biz” occurred roughly 100 years ago. Not many baseball fans today know their names, but I believe that their impact is still felt in the game. No doubt that their legacy is kept alive – in some small way – by the former players who continue to coach and pass on their baseball knowledge and the spirit of “fair play” to future generations.
Author’s note: To reiterate, the above is just a theory on the origin of James Raliegh Mackey’s nickname. While all of it is possible, at this time there is no hard proof that his nickname “Biz” was inspired by his connection to the baseball player/boxer Bill Petus, his mentor. All of the coincidences shared above might be only that – coincidences. Nonetheless, they are fascinating, beautiful coincidences that potentially add a richer and more heart-felt dimension to the legacy of Biz Mackey and Negro Leagues baseball in general.