The Rocking Chair Catcher
Nearly a century after he was born
By Ryan WhirtyPosted Apr 11, 2012
In the early 1970s, Baton Rouge native Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett completed a Baseball Hall of Fame questionnaire detailing his career as a catcher in the Negro Leagues – the network of pre-integration African-American teams that flourished before Jackie Robinson crossed the Major League color line in 1947. In his responses, Bassett lists the teams for which he played over two decades, the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. He lists his most outstanding achievement in baseball as “(p)laying in the East-West All-Star Game in 1935.” (The annual East-West contest was the preeminent event of the Negro Leagues calendar.)
But nowhere on the questionnaire does Bassett mention the gimmick for which he was best known – one that, for better or worse, has come to define his baseball career: playing catcher in a rocking chair.
The trick earned him renown far and wide, and not just among the country’s African-American baseball fans. Whenever Bassett’s teams barnstormed across the nation, the tour stops’ mainstream white papers took notice.
When Bassett’s Chicago American Giants went to Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1941, the Portsmouth Times announced that “[p]robably the most outstanding star of the Chicago team is Lloyd (Pepper) Bassett, six-foot-three inch, 225-pound catcher” who “is known as the ‘rocking chair’ catcher, having once caught part of an exhibition game in a rocking chair.” And when the Homestead (Pittsburgh) Grays came to Olean, N.Y., with Bassett in tow, the Times-Herald declared “[o]ne of the featured attractions of the club as [sic] Pepper Bassett, giant catcher, who takes his baseball so easily that he often edifies the fans by working a couple of innings while seated in a rocking chair.”
The rocking-chair stunt alone has made Bassett one of the most memorable baseball products of Baton Rouge, but it also obfuscates one other unfortunate truth: For all his achievements and fame, Bassett’s career was something of a disappointment.
The next Josh Gibson
When he entered the professional ranks in the early 1930s, Bassett’s size and hitting prowess spurred observers to tab him as the next Josh Gibson, the legendary Negro Leagues catcher whose prodigious home runs earned him the sobriquet of “The Black Babe Ruth.”
But despite carving out a very respectable career in black baseball, Bassett, a right-handed throwing switch-hitter, never lived up to that promise. And despite having a file in the Hall of Fame’s museum, Bassett isn’t a member of the prestigious institution.
Even Bassett’s birthdate remains cloudy. While most published sources list it as Aug. 5, 1919, the catcher’s Hall of Fame questionnaire shows it as Aug. 5, 1910. If his baseball career did begin in the early 1930s, a birth year of 1910 might make more sense. Regardless, Bassett was born to Cortez Bassett and Lillie Hatter. A product of Reddy Street Elementary School and McKinley High School in Baton Rouge, his name first shows in the media’s coverage of black baseball as early as 1931, when the New Orleans-based Louisiana Weekly issued a report about a game between the Scotlandville (Baton Rouge) White Sox and the Natchez Giants, for whom Bassett is mentioned as the catcher.
After that, Bassett bounced around from team to team, alternately plying his trade for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Homestead Grays, Chicago American Giants, and the Indianapolis/Cincinnati Clowns. His most significant stretch was probably the half-dozen years with the Birmingham Black Barons, for whom he batted .350 in 1948. (His time with the Barons also coincided with that of a heralded youngster named Willie Mays.) He finished his career with the Memphis Red Sox and Detroit Stars in the early-to-mid 1950s, at a time when black baseball was gasping for life in the wake of integration of the Majors.
Like many Negro Leagues players who had to eke out a living however possible, Bassett was also known to freelance for whatever teams needed a backstop. And while his overall career might have been a disappointment propped up with the rocking chair schtick, Bassett did achieve some level of non-trickery success: He played in four East-West games, and several media reports described him as one of the best catchers in the Negro Leagues.
Stranger at home
But was he acknowledged in his hometown of Baton Rouge? During his playing heyday, Bassett did garner some acclaim, including occasional mentions in The Morning Advocate. The catcher is mentioned in the paper as early as July of 1934, when the city played host to a New Orleans Crescent Stars-Austin Senators contest. The article referred to the Stars’ Bassett as, “the biggest backstop in captivity.”
In April 1941, the paper issued a three-paragraph brief about an upcoming Chicago American Giants vs. New Orleans-St. Louis Stars game, calling Bassett “the highest-paid negro baseball player in the business…famed as a ‘rocking chair catcher.’” (The claim about being the best-compensated player in black ball was very likely untrue, with many Negro League stars – most prominently Satchel Paige – earning much more than Bassett would have.)
Bassett received his most local press in August 1945, when City Park hosted “Lloyd (Pepper) Bassett Night” for a Black Barons-Cleveland Buckeyes clash. The paper gushes, “His throwing arm is rated among the best and his hitting is terrific...His rifle-like throws to the keystone sack demand the respect of all base-runners and would-be base-stealers.”
Overall, The Advocate, like most white papers of the time, provided scant coverage of black sports, a fact that no doubt contributes to the modern lack of local recognition. In his retirement years, Bassett relocated to Los Angeles with his wife Exidena, whom he married in 1941. He worked as a janitor for the state of California before his death in 1981.
Roughly a century after his birth in Baton Rouge, Bassett’s legacy in his hometown is just as murky as his lasting impact on the black baseball world. Whether or not the rocking chair catcher is remembered by worldwide Negro Leagues fans and aficionados as much more than a long-running publicity stunt is debatable. What is for certain, however, is that Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett remains something of a forgotten figure in local baseball lore.
Media Acclaim for Pepper Bassett
“One of the most outstanding defensive catchers in Negro baseball.” – Kansas City Plain-Dealer
“The big league sensation behind the plate. Standing six feet three, he has become one of the best catchers in the game today.” – Portsmouth Times
“He is a 200-pound six-footer with plenty of power. His throwing arm is rated among the best and his hitting is terrific. ...His rifle-like throws to the keystone sack demand the respect of all base-runners and would-be base-stealers.” – The Morning Advocate
Man on the Run
Bassett was born in Baton Rouge, but like many Negro League stars, he constantly moved from team to team in search of playing time. Here’s a list of his professional stops.
New Orleans Crescent Stars - 1934
Homestead Grays - 1936-37
Pittsburg Crawfords - 1937-38
Toledo Crawfords - 1939
Chicago American Giants - 1939-41
Mexican League - 1940
Ethiopian Clowns - 1942
Cincinnati Clowns -1943
Birmingham Black Barons - 1944-52
Philadelphia Stars - 1953
Memphis Red Sox - 1953
Detroit Stars - 1954