Black Baseball Pioneers: Bill Holland
Bill Holland doesn’t have the name recognition of some of his peers, but that doesn’t stop him from being one of the best pitchers in the history of the Negro Leagues. Elvis William Holland was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on February 28, 1901, began playing semi-pro baseball when he was
Bill Holland doesn’t have the name recognition of some of his peers, but that doesn’t stop him from being one of the best pitchers in the history of the Negro Leagues.
Elvis William Holland was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on February 28, 1901, began playing semi-pro baseball when he was just 17 for the Richmond Giants in his home state. His team featured a 21-year-old Oscar Charleston in centerfield, regarded by many as the greatest all-around baseball player ever.
He pitched for the Richmond Giants in 1918 and 1919, and moved to the Indianapolis ABCs during the ’19 season. In his early years playing as a teenager, Holland, who was nicknamed “Devil”, was said to have pitched games on consecutive days, pitching 20 innings in less than 24 hours, while allowing only five runs and striking out 24 batters with his blazing fastball.
Holland’s Major League career began in 1920 with the founding of the Negro National League, the first Black Major League. The ABCs sold him to the Detroit Stars, where he pitched for three seasons, with a short stint with Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants in 1921.
According to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, in 88 games (59 starts) with the Stars, Holland went 37-20 with a 3.08 ERA, which was 33 percent better than league average. He is also an example of why Negro Leagues research can be difficult. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum website, citing James A. Riley’s The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues says Holland “began his … career with a 17-2 record in 1920, followed by seasons of 13-12 and 16-13.” That adds up to a 46-27 record in his first three years. These inconsistencies make it difficult to quantify just how good a player like Holland was, but his peers recognized him as among the very best, despite what the surviving statistical record shows.
Following the 1922 season, Holland came east and pitched in New York for the remainder of his career. He spent 1923 and 1924 with the New York Lincoln Giants of the Eastern Colored League, before moving to the Brooklyn Royal Giants from 1925 through 1928. There is very little in the way of recorded games that he pitched in this era, appearing in only 60 games across six years, and never recording a winning season. Without a doubt, he appeared in many other exhibition games in these years where the box scores have been lost to time.
Holland returned to the Lincoln Giants for the 1929 season, and according to Seamheads went 6-8, but may have won at least 13 games, the number cited by the NLBM website.
The 1930 season, however, was one where Holland loudly pronounced that he was back. He went 29-2 according the NLBM website (14-3 according to Seamheads), but the flashy record and statistics were not the most notable thing for him.
On July 5, 1930, the Lincoln Giants played the Baltimore Black Sox in a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. Many American and National League teams would allow Negro League teams to rent their ballparks to play games, and successful political and social lobbying led to the Yankees opening their stadium to black players in 1930, seven years after the House that Ruth Built opened.
Holland got the start for the Lincoln Giants in the first game, making him the first Black pitcher in the history of Yankee Stadium. After allowing two runs in the first, he settled down to throw a complete game in a 13-4 win for the Lincoln Giants.
Due to the effects of the Great Depression, the Lincoln Giants disbanded after the 1930 season and Holland joined up with the Harlem Giants for 1931. The next year, the team was re-named the New York Black Yankees, and became the team Holland was most identified with.
The Black Yankees operated as an independent barnstorming team until they joined the Negro National League in 1936. Holland pitched for the team through his age-40 season in 1941, when he retired. A highlight of his time with the Black Yankees came in 1939, when he was selected to play in the East-West All-Star Game, annually the biggest event in Black baseball. He was acknowledged to be the ace of the Black Yankees, who often finished in the second division.
Across 11 seasons with the Black Yankees Holland is known to have gone just 25-30 in 72 games, but that seems to be incomplete data. He ranks fifth all-time among Negro League pitchers with 1,096 strikeouts and 175 complete games, and ranks sixth in innings pitched (1945.2). Holland has more complete games and innings pitched in the Seamheads database than Satchel Paige.
Stats don’t do Holland justice for just how good he was. The legendary James "Cool Papa" Bell ranked Holland as one of the four best pitchers in the Negro Leagues, alongside Paige, Smokey Joe Williams, and Bullet Joe Rogan. He wasn't alone in this assessment. A 1952 player-voted poll run by the Pittsburgh Courier of the Greatest Black Baseball Players voted Holland to the All-Time Third Team, placing him firmly in the same category as many Hall of Famers.
- Seamheads Stats Page: https://www.seamheads.com/NegroLgs/player.php?playerID=holla01bil
- Negro Leagues Baseball eMuseum: https://nlbemuseum.com/history/players/holland.html