Davis, who is approaching his 83rd birthday in March, was one of the team’s prominent players. His brother, who passed away in 2005, was a team member and later a coach.
In a recent interview, he said he played in the league for about 15 years, adding that local games were played on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons on the old baseball field where the Cleveland Boys and Girls Club is now located.
Davis said the Indians competed against other Negro League teams from throughout the Southeast and Midwest. Among opponents were the Birmingham Black Barons, where Willie Mays was a standout player and later an All-Star in the major leagues.
He said the games and the team’s accomplishments had a tremendous impact on the Cleveland community. “The entire 6th Ward would turn out for games on Sunday afternoon,” he said. “ Local residents would attend church services, eat Sunday lunch, and then attend the games.”
League players were not paid, and the teams were financed by a small admission fee at the games and a variety of fund-raisers. “We’d sell fish and hold luncheons and other events,” Davis said.
Davis was an outfielder with outstanding skills, and continued with the team after his brother began coaching. “Willie Mays had nothing on me,” he said of his hitting and fielding accomplishments and ability.
Although he enjoys his memories of playing in the old Negro League, before stepping down from competition in the 1950s, he still wonders if he didn’t miss out on a tremendous opportunity.
At the urging of baseball scouts, players and coaches from opposing teams, “Buck” Davis and some of his playing companions attended a tryout camp by Pittsburgh’s major league team in Harriman.
“There were about 300 prospects who turned out (black and white),” Davis said in remembering that day.
“They really worked me out,” he continued. “They had me running, fielding and hitting during the tryout. One of their scouts said he really liked the way I played baseball.”
Davis said Pittsburgh officials asked if he could come back the next day for a follow-up evaluation.
“I had a job, which I really needed,” he said. “They (his employer) wouldn’t let me off the next day, so I didn’t go back. They (the Pittsburgh franchise) took the one other black player they asked to come back the following day ... and I was better than he was.”
Davis said that tryout camp more than 58 years ago has plagued him ever since. “I wonder if I missed out on my big opportunity,” he reminisced. “I wonder if I missed a chance to make it to the major leagues.”
He realizes that he will never have the answer to this big question ... but emphasized that it will always be in the back of his mind.
“I’ve had a wonderful life, and a wonderful family,” Davis added of his years in Cleveland. He said his dream of playing in the major leagues has changed focus. He has since dreamed that perhaps one of his 56 grandchildren (or a great-grandchild) will have a future in professional sports.
This dream reached some fruition a few years back with grandson Tonio Westfield, a standout at Cleveland High School who played in a rookie league for two years. “He quit when he found out he couldn’t hit all those pitches they now throw in the major leagues,” said his still-proud grandfather.
“Buck” Davis admitted that hitting might have been a roadblock to his career, if it had materialized. “If they threw me a fastball, I would hit it out of here,” he said. “But, I would have had to improve on my ability to hit a curve ball. Today they throw sinkers and all kind of pitches (which he might have struggled against).”
Davis was born in Polk County on March 16, 1925, to Ella and Wes Davis. His father worked with the railroad.
He later lived in Polk County with his grandparents, Sally and Ned Westfield. When his grandparents died in 1949, three months apart, Davis moved to Cleveland where his brother “Waddie” (who was four years older) and sisters Roberta and Cecil lived.
Davis attended King School in Cleveland, where he finished the eighth grade.
He said he began playing baseball as a boy, and seriously when he was about 9. His exceptional skills allowed him to move up quickly and he played outfield with the Cleveland Hurricanes in his teens.
“We had two black teams in Cleveland at that time,” he said. “Buck” played with the Hurricanes and “Waddie” played second base for the Cleveland Volunteers. “We played against each other on those community teams,” he added.
During these years the two brothers attended College Hill School, where they graduated after four years.
After graduating from College Hill, there was a break for “Buck” when went into the U.S. Army. He attending basic training in New Jersey and was then stationed with his field artillery unit at Blackstone, Va.
Baseball remained a big part of his life as he played with a service team in Virginia. He also became acquainted with future baseball All-Star and Dodger-great Don Newcombe, who was in the Army at that time.
“He didn’t play with our service team, but I passed ball with him a lot,” said Davis.
After his four-year enlistment was up, Davis returned to Cleveland and took a job with Magic Chef in the molding department.
He also returned to baseball with Cleveland’s new Negro League team, the Indians. “Waddie” was also a member of the team, playing in the infield.
He said his brother played for five or six years before taking over as a coach for the Indians. “Buck” continued as a player for about 15 years against some of the best black players in the nation.
He was married in the mid-1950s to the former Hugh Evelyn Spriggs and the couple had six children. They had two sons, Todd and Buck Jr.; and four girls, Maria, Angia, Joyce and Edwina.
“Buck” Johnson left Magic Chef in 1971 and went to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority. He retired from TVA in 1992.
After he stepped down as a player, Davis became involved with recreation baseball and softball ... spending many years as a coach for a variety of Cleveland and Bradley County teams and leagues.
He has since been recognized by the Bradley County Recreation Department, with one of the local youth leagues named in his honor.
Davis said one of his greatest accomplishments was coaching an all-black girls softball team (in the 1990s) that finished third in the nation in tournament play.
He stepped down from active coaching in 1992, but has continued to mentor young men and women in baseball and softball — especially many members of his family.
Although he has slowed considerably from active participation, he still has many fond memories of his playing days in the Negro Leagues and continues to be a spectator of his favorite sport.
He remembers his friendship with Don Newcombe, and playing against Mays and the famed “Suitcase” Simpson. Simpson played in the Negro League with a Dalton, Ga., team, and later starred in the major leagues with the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees, among others.
Davis said Negro All-Star Satchel Paige did not come into the league until after his playing days.
Despite his memories and the raising of a huge family, Davis still regrets that he didn’t take advantage of his big opportunity at the Pittsburgh recruiting camp back in the early 1950s. “If I had gone back, I have no doubt that I would have made the team,” he said with feelings of nostalgia.
Davis said the sport (baseball and softball both) has changed drastically since the years he played. “There is not as much individual attention to players (in high school) as there was for young players in my days,” he said. “One of the reasons is that there are so many young players.”
He added that today’s young pitchers have to learn to hit so many different pitches. “That was my weakness,” he added, “hitting a curve.”
Davis said his greatest strength was his love of the game. “I loved it,” he said. “It’s still in my heart.”