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Jake Stephens

Paul Eugene Stephens
Nickname: Jake, Country Jake
a.k.a. Stevens

Career: 1921-1937
Positions: ss, 2b
Teams: Hilldale Daisies (1921-1929), Philadelphia Giants (1924), Homestead Grays (1929-1932), Pittsburgh Crawfords (1932), Philadelphia Stars (1933-1935), New York Black Yankees (1936-1937)
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Height: 5' 7''   Weight: 150
Born: February 10, 1900, Pleasureville, Pennsylvania
Died: February 5, 1981, York, Pennsylvania

Small, fast, aggressive, argumentative, temperamental, and controversial, Jake was cat-quick and used this attribute to make acrobatic plays that pleased the crowd. The peppery shortstop had a wide range and a good arm and was also smart, excelling in decoying runners off the bag to set up a pickoff play to second base. Playing on championship teams with four different franchises, he was the hub of the infield and the backbone of the defense. In addition to his fielding prowess, he utilized his speed and quickness on the basepaths as well during his seventeen-year career.

The scrappy shortstop broke in with Hilldale in 1921 after sending a fake telegram to Hilldale owner Ed Bolden, with a glowing report about the great young prospect in York, Pennsylvania. Without knowing that Stephens sent the telegram himself, Bolden gave him a tryout. When he joined the team, manager Bill Francis, a third baseman, moved another young prospect, Judy Johnson, to shortstop to compete with Stephens. Although Stephens could outfield anybody at the position, he had great difficulty hitting a curveball, batting .263 against all levels of competition for the independent team. In anticipation of being dropped from the team, he jumped to a New England semi-pro league for more seasoning. He learned to compensate for the breaking pitch by using a heavy, large-barreled bat and hitting to right field, but curveballs continued to plague him throughout his career, and twice while playing winter ball (once each in Cuba and California), he sent fake telegrams to himself declaring that his father had died, so he could leave to avoid the steady diet of curves he was facing.

Hilldale, still searching for a shortstop, requested that he return to their team after a stint in semi-pro ball, and he responded with a .290 batting average against all levels of competition while playing as a part-time starter. His comparatively light hitting against top teams mandated that he continue as only a part-time starter when Hilldale joined the Eastern Colored League in 1923, and he provided good defense up the middle but batted only .209 and .190 in league play as Hilldale won the first two league pennants in 1923-1924. The latter season marked the first World Series, and the youngster was nervous against the Negro National League champion Kansas City Monarchs, and Biz Mackey was used at shortstop through much of the Series.

When Frank Warfield took over the managerial reins in 1924, he began working more with a set infield, and in 1925 he made Johnson a full-time third baseman and installed Stephens at shortstop, frequently placing him in the second slot in the batting order to utilize his superior bunting ability. The strong-willed little infielder responded with a .229 batting average as Hilldale won their third consecutive pennant and defeated the Kansas City Monarchs in their World Series rematch. The pair remained intact as the left side of Hilldale's infield through the 1928 season, with Stephens hitting .240, .278, and .168 in 1926-1928. In 1929 Stephens was traded to the Homestead Grays with Rev Cannady for George Britt and Martin Dihigo, but Stephens jumped the Grays and rejoined Hilldale, jumping them in turn in August.

With the Grays in 1930, Stephens, who usually batted at the bottom of the order, was used as the lead-off batter, and responded with a .373 average against all opposition. Since the Grays played an independent schedule, their opposition was generally weaker than league teams, accounting for his higher average. In three of the next four seasons he played on great teams, including the 1931 Grays, who are generally conceded to be one of the greatest black teams of all time; the 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords, where he hit .277; and the 1934 Negro National League champion Philadelphia Stars, where he hit .273 and teamed with Dick Seay to form the best double-play combination in baseball. After the season he was selected by Cum Posey for his annual All-Star team, and in 1935, Stephens hit .219 with the Stars and garnered 2 hits as the leadoff batter for the East squad in the 1935 East-West All Star classic.

In 1936 he joined the New York Black Yankees and played for them for two seasons before retiring from baseball after seventeen years. In the spring of 1938 he was sought by the Atlanta Black Crackers to play on their first league team, but he remained in New York City.

He was considered a fine gentleman and eventually ran a taproom for two years, worked for the state of Pennsylvania in the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (1939-1955), operated a registry for auto tags and drivers' licenses, and was part-time deputy sheriff. During the 1970s he was voted a member of both the Pittsburgh (1972) and York (1977) area Halls of Fame.

Off the field he was joking and good-spirited, and was nicknamed "Country Jake." He roomed with Jud Wilson on the Grays. Crawfords, and Stars, and they become very good friends. When Wilson was in the last days of his life and unable to recognize anyone else, he recognized Jake by name.

Stephens's quick temper sometimes caused Wilson problems. Once, when Stephens was arguing with an umpire about a close call, Wilson intervened by positioning himself between the two parties as a buffer, keeping the angry little shortstop behind him and away from the ump. Stephens reached around Wilson and hit the ump in the face, but the ump thought it was Wilson who struck the blow and tossed him out of the game. This infuriated Wilson and he had to be subdued by the police, who came out onto the field and beat Wilson with blackjacks, put him in a patrol wagon, and took him to jail.

On another occasion, at the East-West game in Chicago, when Stephens came in at 2:00 a.m. after a night of carousing and awakened Wilson, the angry Wilson held him out of the sixteenth story window by a leg. While the inebriated Stephens kicked him with his free foot, Wilson just changed hands, like a gunfighter's "border shift." The next morning Wilson's arms were bruised from the kicks, but he never lost his grip, or Stephens would have plunged to his death.

Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.