Father’s Day, a little late

Yours truly, Dwier Brown and Mike Sorenson

James Earl Jones, he of stentorian voice and accomplished film and stage career (that’s him next to Slim Pickens in the B-52), is also one of the few actors who have portrayed current or former Negro League players on screen. He played catcher Leon Carter (the Josh Gibson-type character) in “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings,” and in “The Sandlot,” he brilliantly settled into the role of Mr. Mertle, a former Negro Leaguer who eventually befriends the kids on the sandlot team.

But, of course, arguably Jones’ most famous movie role — my other JEJ fave appearances are “Coming to America,” “The Hunt for Red October,” the afore-referred-to “Dr. Strangelove,” oh, and voicing some dude in a black helmet — is Terence Mann, the disillusioned author hounded by Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams.” In the role, Jones delivers one of my favorite lines in movie history: “Peace, love, dope! Now get the hell outta here!”

It’s been noted by a few jaded critics, with whom I kind of disagree, that “Field of Dreams” presents only part of a complex baseball history — the players who come out of the corn field are all white ones from the segregation era, with black players, i.e. Negro Leaguers and pre-Negro Leaguers, completely left out. (I also believe “Hoosiers” presents a subtle racism, i.e. a team of all-white, aw-shucks country boys facing the big, bad, integrated city school, but that’s for another day.)

However, the fact that the main theme of “Field of Dreams” is spoken by a black writer who idolized Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field is extremely significant. Jones delivers one of the most famous soliloquies in cinema history, and, when Mann is chosen by Shoeless Joe as the one to chronicle the game of baseball in the great beyond, it’s a scene almost as moving as the last one in the film.

Which brings me to the “news” peg of this blog post … Two Sundays ago, my friend Mike Sorenson and I went to the Rochester Red Wings home game against the Thruway rival Syracuse Chiefs, with the Wings escaping with a 6-5 victory.

Late in the game we and the rest of the media types hanging around were joined in the pressbox by Dwier Brown, who played John Kinsella (Kevin Costner’s dad) in “Field of Dreams.” Brown’s screen time in the flick isn’t that long, but Brown commits to film one of the most moving scenes ever in movies, one that’s guaranteed to make any grown man cry by the end.

Brown is currently touring ballparks around the country promoting his book, “If You Build It … : A Book about Fathers, Fate and Field of Dreams,” and while I was home in Rochester, he pulled into Frontier Field for the Wings game. Dwier is a modern Renaissance man — in addition to his acting credits, Dwier is a successful author, speaker and blogger who’s been interviewed and written up in numerous news outlets. You can check out his stuff on his Web site, which I highly recommend.

While Dwier was in the Frontier Field pressbox a couple weekends ago, Mike was able to do a mini-interview with him, which Mike will write up in a story soon. Being the ever tactful fellow I am, I butted in to ask Dwier his thoughts on meeting and working with James Earl Jones, the man who’s figured so prominently in so many classic baseball movies.

Dwier said that of all the people on the “Field” set, he was most excited to meet Jones because of the latter’s storied and decorated career. Dwier related how he saw Jones in the film’s make up trailer, facing a wall of mirrors getting prepped for the day’s shoot, and that it was almost hard for Dwier to believe that he now had a chance to meet such a legendary, inspirational talent.

Dwier was just a wee bit anxious about initiating the encounter, but he told us today that Jones was exceptionally friendly, open and even gregarious, even introducing himself with, “Hi, I’m Jimmy.”

Which is pretty cool.

Dwier was glad to take a photo with Mike and I (shown above, with photog credit to longtime Rochester sportswriter Craig Potter).

I was going to post this last week, but I decided to hold it until after Father’s Day, which makes for another perfect news peg.

Now, if only Hollywood would make full-length films about the Negro Leagues … But maybe more on that eventually.

Gus Brooks: Turning macabre into memory

Photo courtesy Jeremy Krock

Is it OK to laugh at someone’s death? What if it’s a character on TV or the movies or a book (yes, those do still exist)? What if it is really, really funny?

We laughed when Ol’ Blue keeled over in the kiddie pool of, ahem, lube while looking at two nekkid coeds. We chortled when Danson and Highsmith’s hubris spurred them to splat themselves on the pavement while trying to catch a few crooks. Hell, Tarantino turned a teenage boy getting shot in the head by a mob hitman/disco champion into a guffaw getter.

Many of the cartoons and slapstick classics my generation and earlier ones grew up with — Tom and Jerry, Looney Toons, Laurel and Hardy — made us laugh when the characters turned into skeletons or flew up to the sky as harp-plucking angel or ended up flat on the ground with those black Xs in place of their eyes.

Even real-life going-to-the-great-beyonds can be and have been used as glib, comedic launching pads. One of the post popular sections of “News of the Weird” was “Thinning the Herd,” about idiots and doofballs dying absurd deaths because of their own dumbassery. The “News” writer, Chuck Spepherd, eventually stopped doing the section because some people, for some insane reason, felt that mortality-induced Schadenfreude was lacking in taste, but the weekly column still features bits about actual people actually almost killing themselves in the most elaborate-yet-birdbrained ways.

And what about just the term “kicking the bucket”? You don’t find too many obits that begin, “John M. Putzwad kicked the bucket Monday after a lengthy bought with cancer …” It’s a goof term created to make light of death.

That brings us to my/our role as baseball historians, researchers and writers. Because every so often we come across an archival item about death on a baseball field, and we’re made aware of how easily our society can morph such a tragedy into humor on the big screen or smartphone. Say, Adam McKay or the Wayans Brothers or Judd Apatow writes a movie script about a dumb or nasty or old player getting his/her hilarious comeuppance, which then triggers the develop of the hilariously wacky hijinks that ensue.

St. Paul Globe, June 17, 1895

But when I was at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., delving into the official archives of the Evangeline League, I came across a yellowing newspaper with a huge banner story about 23-year-old Crowley Millers outfielder Andy Strong in July 1951 being struck dead by a bolt of lightning while he was manning the outer garden during a game. When the lightning hit his head, Strong collapsed and died immediately.

Again, this is something that could be played off in films or cartoons as a nutty plot device, or it might be something found in the occasional macabre story in The Onion.

But in real life, such an occurrence is without a doubt horrifying to everyone involved. Strong was in his very first season of pro baseball and left behind a wife and 1-year-old child, while teammates, opponents and fans in the stands were stunned that such a tragedy could even occur on a laidback evening in bayou country.

As I learned when putting together this post about the recent efforts of the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project, a similar misfortune occurred to pre-Negro League outfielder Gus Brooks, one of the recent beneficiary of the NLBGMP’s work.

On June 15, 1895, the famed Page Fence Giants, a groundbreaking 19th-century “colored” team under the capable charge of Bud Fowler, squared off against a local white team in Hastings, Mich. Brooks, a seasoned base ball veteran from St. Louis who had just joined the Giants a couple months earlier, was stationed in center field when he suddenly collapsed and died about two hours later. Early reports asserted that severe sunstroke had caused his death, but later articles stated a heart ailment had been the primary factor in his passing at the reported age of 26. Here’s how the June 16, 1895, issue of the Detroit Free Press described it:

“G. Brooks, of the Page Fence Giants, colored, dropped down with heart disease to-day while playing ball in the center field. He was taken to the hotel, where he died two hours later. He joined the team in April and was one of their best players. His home is in St. Louis, Mo., where he has a grandmother living and is supposed to have no other near relatives. After his removal another man was substituted, and a hotly contested game was finished. The Hastings team was strengthened by players from other clubs, Miller, the Nashville pitcher going late into the box.”

The Giants ended up winning, 10-9, but news of Brooks’ fate spread across the Midwest, with papers in Chicago, St. Paul and elsewhere.

Brooks — full name Gustavus B. Brooks — had made his name in top-level colored base ball (two words back then) by then, first in St. Louis with the Black Stockings in 1888, and the West Ends from 1888 to 1892. Although little if anything has been ferreted out about his early life — or his private life at all, really — he quickly showed off his hardball skills. In August 1889, he clubbed three doubles to help the West Ends trounce the pride of Southern colored base ball, the New Orleans Pinchbacks, for example, while manning first base. Brooks stuck with the West Ends through 1892 (he also suited up for the Red Onions in St. Louie).

Brooks then trekked to the Windy City, where, over the next three seasons, he donned his spikes for the Unions, Goodwins and Ward Unions. Although any claim the title of “colored champions” in the 19th century was always tenuous and decidedly not official, while Brooks — who had settled into his prime position in center field by now — played in Chicago, various newspapers bestowed the Unions and Ward’s Unions with that mythical crown.

After promising stints in St. Louis and Chicago, in 1895 Brooks was ready to move on to what was arguably the first all-star team in blackball history — the Page Fence Giants of Adrian, Mich. With the great Bud Fowler as its manager and leading recruiter, the Giants were a conglomeration of youthful but talentged hired guns coming together from all corners of the colored base ball world into one mega-team, a professional operation through and through, both on and off the field. The Page Fence Giants heralded a new era in blackball and brought the sport into the 20th century by serving as a model for future aspirants.

And in 1895, they were freakin’ loaded, including shortstop/captain Grant “Home Run” Johnson, and the imposing pitching corps of Billy Holland, George Hopkins and George Wilson.

In fact, Hopkins and Holland joined Brooks in the Giants’ troika of standout recruits for the ’95 campaign. In February of that year, the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean made a point of noting the arrival of the three on the Giants roster as the team was preparing to launch a tour of the South. After the Giants came back north in the early spring, they criss crossed the Midwest as a premier barnstorming unit, crossing bats with white and black teams. In April, the Inter Ocean, when previewing a contest between the Michiganites and the Chicago Edgars, the paper discussed the Page Fence newcomers thusly:

“Three of the players — Hopkins, Brooks and Holland — were for years the mainstays of the local colored club, the Chicago Unions.”

So the Giants proceeded to jaunt across Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, with mixed results. Brooks anchored the outer garden most of the time.

Which brings us to Hastings, Mich., on the ill-fated date June 15, 1895, when Brooks, to use a term from a St. Paul Globe headline, expired. Early reports, such as that Globe dispatch, claimed that Brooks collapsed from sunstroke and died a little while later. The article stated that Brooks “joined the team in April and was one of their best players. His home is in St. Louis, Mo.”

Further newspaper reports stated that a search commenced in hopes of finding and relatives in St. Louis or Chicago, but none, apparently, could be found. And there’s where it gets a bit confusing. Initial coverage asserted that Brooks’ body was immediately being shipped to Adrian for burial. However, a Dec. 19, 1895, dispatch in the Grand Rapids Evening Press quoted Grand Rapids native and Page Fence Giants co-owner Len. W. Hoch, who, in addition to confirming that the franchise would field a team for the 1896 campaign, gave an update on the search for a Brooks relative that threw a wrench in the works:

“It is strange, but we never have found a clew [sic] to that boy’s relatives. After hunting in vain for some one who knew him or his friends were buried him there at Hastings. No, it wasn’t drink that killed him. If every team manager experienced so little trouble from that source as we have they would all be happy.”

As a result of that burial discrepancy, last week I called Riverside Cemetery in Hastings to confirm Hoch’s claim, but there was no record there of any Brooks being buried in all of 1895 as well as a few years earlier and later.

(Hastings is quite a small town; as of 2010, the population stood at 7,350, and at the time of the 1895 game, roughly 3,000 made Hastings their home. It officially became a city in 1871, just a couple dozen years before the Page Fencers arrived. The burgh’s black population seems to have always been miniscule; in 2010, only 0.5 percent of residents were African-American.)

In an effort to wrap up this post, I asked Jeremy Krock whether he and other NLBGMP workers had found any type of burial records or death certificates at all for Gustavus B. Brooks. He responded in the negative, added that the only thing he had to go on was a newspaper article.

Hence, with no record of any burial and Hastings and/or exhumation and transporting to Adrian, the home base of the Page Fence Giants, we might never know what truly happened to Gus Brooks, aside from the quirky tragedy of his death. I dare say that, until a few years ago, Brooks — with no known family to speak of and so little documentation or contemporary media coverage — might very well have been even less than a footnote in history. He would have been at best a ghost, a fleeting last name in an almost ethereal box score. With that type of actuality, laughing at the near cinematic circumstances of his death — the type of demise that’s been the subject of guffaws and belly laughs throughout movie, TV and literary history — seems just plain morbid.

However, from a certain point of view, combing through decades-old cemetery records and painstakingly reading and noting grave markers and headstones could be viewed as macabre, if it wasn’t for the higher purpose of bringing recognition and respect to these baseball men and women of yore.

Locating and marking a forgotten soul’s burial site elicits passion, dedication and fascination from those who pursue it. In an online article titled from this past February titled, “Speak Their Names,” writer Shakeia Taylor quotes Dr. Krock thusly:

“A person dies three time. First when their body stops functioning, second when they are buried, and finally, the last time someone says their name. My goal is to keep the names of Negro Leagues ballplayers and others connected to it alive.”

Taylor’s article also details the circumstances of Gus Brooks’ death and the reasons his memory was chosen by the project, including his enduring status as a blackball mortality milestone:

“Gus Brooks, a Page Fence Giants center fielder, died of a heart attack while running out a fly ball during their inaugural season. Black baseball teams often performed acts and hijinks during games to attract crowds. Because of this, many in attendance did not realize Brooks had died; they thought his collapse was part of the entertainment. His was the first death associated with black baseball. Brooks’ family was unable to claim his body, and in 1895 he was buried in an unmarked grave in Oakwood Cemetery in Michigan.”

Many thanks to James Brunson for supplying a bio of Gus Brooks. One facet of James’ article that’s worth noting is that it states that neither Brooks’ grandmother in St. Louis, nor his relatives in Chicago were able to pay to ship his body back, an assertion somewhat different from contemporary articles’ claims that no family could be found at all.

Monuments, men, memory … and moving forward?

P.B.S. Pinchback

In New Orleans in the 1800s and early 1900s lived a gentleman and Confederate Army veteran — a former captain, actually, who served and was captured at the siege of Vicksburg as a heavy artillery officer — named Toby Hart. At the same time, there also lived in New Orleans another gentleman named P.B.S. Pinchback.

During the quarter-century or so following the end of the Civil War, both Hart and Pinchback played significant roles in Louisiana politics, culture and society. As it turned out, they were linked, albeit loosely, by the still-evolving, soon-to-be National Pastime — baseball, or as it was known way back in that day, base ball (two words).

New Orleans Times-Democrat, Oct. 11, 1874

However, Hart and Pinchback were very, very different in one significant way — in fact, one could argue that it was the only way that mattered in the post-war Deep South. Hart was (obviously, given his military service record) white. Pinchback was black. (To be more accurate, Pinchback was mixed race, or mulatto as was the lingo then.)

So how, then, given such a massive socio-political chasm, were the two gentlemen connected by base ball? Because Hart was instrumental in the development of base ball in New Orleans in the 1880s and, in particular, in the founding of the city’s very first professional sports team, the New Orleans Pelicans baseball club.

Before the team’s formation in 1887, Hart notched numerous base ball achievements, being a prime mover in the creation of the city’s Lone Star Base Ball Club in 1859, charter membership in the Louisiana Base Ball Association, guiding the push to build the New Orleans Base Ball Park, key involvement in the founding of the New Orleans Base Ball Association, and significant contributions to the early Gulf Coast League.

Until just this week, I’d honestly never heard that much about Toby Hart, even though I live in NOLA and have studied the 19th-century base ball scene here. Most of my research into said topic has been confined to colored base ball in the epoch, which is embarrassing, because a good historian does need to examine the full scope and backdrop of what he or she is detailing. I’ve known very well the crucial role Abner Powell, for example, had in the blossoming of the national pastime in the Crescent City, but, unfortunately and with some shame, I hadn’t made the acquaintance of Capt. Hart.

Abner Powell

Meanwhile, Pinchback — full name Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback — became the namesake for one of “colored” base ball’s first championship teams, the New Orleans Pinchbacks, who, in the late 1880s, not only dominated the hardball scene in the Big Easy, but traveled throughout the lower South and up through the Midwest as far as Chicago. In 1888, the Pinchbacks staked a claim to the national amateur colored championship.

Why was Pinchback important enough to earn the admiration of one of the country’s earliest black base ball successes? Because on Dec. 9, 1872, Pinchback, a Republican, became not only the first African-American governor of Louisiana, but the first black governor in the history of the entire United States.

This being the South in 1872, though, Pinchback’s governorship was both controversial and convoluted — and, it goes without saying, not viewed all that fondly by the state’s white populace. Era-wise, we’re dealing with the heart of Reconstruction, a time of carpetbaggers, scalawags, lynchings, agitators, midnight rides and scoundrels of all stripes. Pinchback’s assumption of the governor’s office was the result of political in-fighting, bureaucratic confusion and racial resentment, the full tale of which is too involved and (even to this day) a little too bewildering to explain or document in this blog post.

The same went for his eviction from the governor’s chair, an event that formally happened on Jan. 13, 1873, just over a month after his landmark swearing-in. Although Pinchback’s achievement was without a doubt extremely significant in our nation’s history, it remains controversial and murky even now.

Given federal support — led by the irascible, often less-than-sober President Grant and Radical Republicans in Congress — for Reconstruction, the fact that a black man achieved a governorship in the South wasn’t that surprising. Neither was his departure as Jim Crow was settling in and white Southerners seized absolute power in the region. So, then, Pinchback’s legacy was, in one way, memorialized by the dozen or so colored guys who proudly formed the Pinchbacks base ball club.

This recent flurry of thought on my part has been stirred mainly by the current chaos this city, New Orleans, has witnessed over the last week or so. Granted, in many ways NOLA is all about chaos, but in a good way. We are a people who are loosey-goosey and hang-loosey. Our unpredictability and zaniness is both a source of immense proud and an essential part of who we are as a community.

But the chaos lately has been of a much darker, foreboding nature. It’s been turmoil that, tragically, exposes a painful truth about where we as a city, as a state and even as a entire country find ourselves — even 152 years after Appomattox, even almost that long since Toby Hart helped forge baseball in the Big Easy and P.B.S. Pinchback inspired a stellar base ball team, a searing, seemingly irreconcilable philosophical, cultural and historical chasm still plagues and haunts us.

For what seems like an eternity now, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu — a member of a powerful political dynasty in this state — has pushed for the demolition and removal of four statues that have stood as testaments and tributes to an era of white supremacy in the South that stretched back before Jamestown up through at least the 1970s.

It’s a shameful, harrowing legacy that — regardless of whatever Jeff Sessions, David Duke and other alt-righters espouse — still lingers and even pulsates at this very moment. (Yes, I know that Jeff Sessions is different from David Duke, but let’s be honest, not all that much. He’s also not technically a member of the alt-right, but again, we’re parsing details. If you think that statement is an outrageous smear against our current attorney general, well, then sad day for you. Suck it.)

The four segregationist statues memorialize three pillars of the Confederacy — Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard — and the despicable “Battle” of Liberty Place, an instance of local white insurgency in 1874 in which a mob of violent members of the paramilitary White League and similar types attacked black New Orleans police officers and National Guard troops and seized control of the city for three agonizingly long days.

The riot helped signal the end of Reconstruction in the city and the growing, ominous pall of Jim Crow, segregation and virulent white supremacy. And notice that the flash of violent anarchy occurred just a year and a half after Pinchback blazed a trail in American society.

(Please, at this point, spare me also any moaning that these racist, violent insurgents from 1874 were all Democrats, which “proves” that it’s been the Democratic Party all along has been and to this day continues to be the racist bunch in this country. I don’t really have the time, energy or patience to once again dive into an explanation about the complexities of history and the fact that stuff, you know, changes over said history. Stuff it.)

The Battle of Liberty Place

Well, actually, that last monument doesn’t exist anymore; as many of you might have seen or read, city workers — protected by cops in snipers and bulletproof vests — last week tore down the Liberty Place memorial in the wee hours of the morning. The action signaled Landrieu’s tenacious, unflagging commitment to removing the four reminders of segregation (even though that process will apparently cost a lot more than what he had projected and touted to the public).

Naturally, the covert removal of the Liberty Place monument spurred white reactionaries — cloaked in the same tired, half-baked and utterly transparent notions of “heritage, not hate” and “it’s white culture that’s ever only done cool stuff for civilization” espoused by such shining American lights like Richard Spencer, Louisiana’s own David Duke, and honorable luminaries Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott and, yeah, Jeff Sessions — to protest the covert, admittedly somewhat weasely razing of the monument.

So now we have infuriated defenders of the segregation-era Southern legacy — many of them armed to the proverbial teeth with semiautomatic rifles and buttloads of magazines in the name of the Second Amendment and open carry and all that stuff — and equally irate, kind of irrational proponents of cleansing the city of these historical memories, all squaring off at the Davis Monument. There’s been bottles hurled and epithets spit out and cops called in an orgy of discontent, distrust and vitriol on behalf of all parties.

“The Civil War is over,” the mayor said. Which is absolutely true. So is Reconstruction. So is (minus some scattered remnants) Jim Crow, at least officially.

But the resentment isn’t. The stereotyping isn’t. Neither is the bigotry or the hatred or the ignorance. And neither is the complete and largely universal societal unwillingness to adhere to such seemingly basic, fundamental tenets as the Golden Rule and walking a mile in others’ shoes.

The recent disheartening events here in New Orleans have definitively proved that. Here’s what happened just today. I wasn’t there, but it appears as though the NOPD kept things more or less calm. But it took lots of metal barricades and closed-off streets and a heavy police contingent. Just a quick comment about that link — note that the pro-monument schmuck quoted early on said white people built this country. We know that’s absolutely fudging false. (Slaves did the heavy lifting, the back-breaking toil at the end of a whip and the barrel of a gun. Never mind the fact that it was white supremacist Christians who stole the entire continent from the people who were already here, but that’s another closet of skeletons.)

So has the ugly, unraveling national backdrop against which our events here are unfolding. The last two years in our country have been surreal (at best) and nightmarish (at worst), a downward spiral of insanity and a warping of reality that have mutated the fabric of our society and the strength of our democracy.

For the last few months, as a baseball researcher and writer, I’ve been in many ways trying to view the tempest through an historical lense, to place into context our current events against the surge of our collective past and the role the American pastime has played in the development of our national consciousness.

And without a doubt, baseball has played a key role in that process. Our national sport has been a vital avenue for different ethnicities to assimilate into and become welcomed by our country and its heritage. For a century and a half, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Asian, Latino and other immigrants and newcomers have slipped on their mitts, laced their cleats and wrapped their fingers around the horsehide, and in doing so they’ve helped our nation realize that they are all simply people too, with shared desires and needs and goals and challenges and aspirations. Likewise, Native Americans, who witnessed nearly their entire population and culture wiped out by genocide, have found solace and healing on the diamond.

Even African-Americans were able to take a this burgeoning sport and make it their own, to place their stamp on the game and have the game impact their lives in myriad ways. As the terms changed from colored to Negro to black to African-American, baseball was a source of pride and resistance, a way to proverbially spit in the face of oppression, to see the waving of rebel flags and the blinding flames of crosses and the failure of the Senate to formally outlaw lynching and defy the ignorance and arrogance of those who would call them lesser people, the cursed sons of Ham, a group of folks who just aren’t smart or moral enough to meet the challenges of governance and self-sufficiency.

Baseball gave Oscar Charleston — a man who had volunteered for military duty and served his country despite the rigid segregation within the Army in which he served — to reportedly rip the hood off a Klansman’s head and stare the coward down toe-to-toe.

The sport allowed Satchel Paige, a lanky Negro from Mobile, to become one of the most famous and fabled athletes of his day, an irresistible magnet that drew thousands of white fans to Negro League games and see for themselves the pitcher who could lick any major league hurler and make the heads of the best white sluggers spin with perplexed wonder. Satchel, by force of his ability and his charisma and characteristic flair, demanded attention from the entire country, and he more than earned it.

Baseball is what, in April 1947, forced white society — and the nation as a whole — to finally begin to accept that African Americans were not ashamed, and they were not afraid. The shit that Jack Roosevelt Robinson endured, the indignities and insults and verbal venom that he deflected with stoic pride … it was silenced by his bat, and his glove, and his feet, and his character. When he made white pitchers and catchers look foolish over and over again by audaciously stealing home and daring them to stop him, the entire country — the entire world — paid attention.

Here in New Orleans, baseball served as a conduit for a humble hotel proprietor named Allen Page to build an athletic and entrepreneurial empire through his ingenuity and moxie. Allen Page came to be respected by this entire Southern city by taking what meager scraps tossed to blacks by Jim Crow and becoming one of the most important baseball kingpins in the South, someone who regularly hosted not just hardball heroes but even the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis himself.

And Page even did former Confederate officer Toby Hart one better. Where Hart brought the Big Easy its first professional baseball team, Page delivered the city its first, and so far only, major league level baseball team, when in 1940 he enticed the St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League to split their time between that metropolis and the Crescent City.

As the city’s black population geared up for the New Orleans Stars’ home opener against the Cleveland Bears in July 1940, Eddie Burbridge, sports editor of the Louisiana Weekly (New Orleans’ primary black newspaper) dubbed it “the greatest day in the history of Louisiana baseball.”

Eddie Burbridge

A parade, complete with hundreds of cars and a whole bunch of Boy Scouts in formation, preceded the game. Even as black America’s athletic messiah, heavyweight Joe Louis, was in the midst of absolute dominance in the ring, the Stars still garnered front pape ink in the Weekly. On the sports page, Burbridge wrote:

“This is the thing we have waited for, and the thing we should proudly support. … Come out, fans. Pack Pelican Stadium until it creaks, so that this dream that has become a reality will stay with us from now on.”

Alas, it didn’t last; the Stars changed locales a few more times before closing up shop in 1943, in the middle of World War II, as hundreds of local African-American men and women contributed to the war effort by putting together thousands of Higgins boats in the city’s seven such plants.

But the fact that it was a black businessman who brought the best baseball players in the country here — in addition to the arrival of the Stars, for 30 years Page produced dozens of exhibitions and all-star games featuring the best Negro League teams and players in the country, with clubs like the Homestead Grays and Kansas City Monarchs bringing legends like Satch, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Dandridge and Hilton Smith, Hall of Famers all — should absolutely not be lost to history. In fact, the work of Page and his assistants stands as one of this city’s shining historical examples of black pride and ingenuity. That’s right. It was black baseball in the South that made us proud.

But moving on … it was here in New Orleans that, in 1965, Tulane baseball player Stephen Martin became the first African-American student-athlete in the history of the vaunted Southeastern Conference. That’s not just first black SEC baseball player. That’s first black athlete, period.

Stephen Martin

Oh, and by the way, the 1950s showed that African-American baseball fans in New Orleans and the rest of the state were some of the most committed and successful sports-related activists in the country. In 1956, after ever-progressive Louisiana banned integrated sporting events throughout the state, black sports followers (and a few sympathetic white activists) in New Orleans launched a mass-scale boycott of sporting events here and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association minor-league baseball circuit continued to stubbornly and blinded refuse to integrate its roster (beyond a few token “tryouts” that were identified very quickly as shams and PR bullcrap). The team’s pedigree traced all the way back to — yep, you got it — Confederate Capt. Toby Hart’s efforts in 1887, and during the ensuing 70 years, the Big Easy franchise remained ensconced in segregation.

Even a dozen years after Jackie Robinson led the Brooklyn Dodgers to the World Series in his rookie season, even 11 years after the Cleveland Indians won the World Series with Hall of Famers Larry Doby and Satchel Paige on their roster, even after most other minor league circuits integrated, and even after Henry Aaron and Willie Mays and Roy Campanella and Roberto Clemente and numerous others had become superstars … the New Orleans Pelicans wouldn’t budge.

(In fact, the Pels even rejected the idea of loaning their stadium to a collegiate game between Loyola University and Xavier University, an HBCU in the city. The bigotry was that petty and obstinent.)

I mean, the New Orleans black population began to hate the Pelicans. In a 1956 newspaper column, none other than Jackie Robinson relayed this potent memory:

“When [the Dodgers] played in New Orleans during spring training the Negroes in the stands booed every time they announced something about the New Orleans Pelicans. They booed so loud, in fact, that the rest of the announcement might just as well not have been made. …

“Because of that, they put some kind of unofficial boycott on the team and they are not going out to the ball park. At the same time they are doing everything they can to make people realize that if they expect them to come out and see baseball then they will have to give them somebody of color on the team.”

So, at the same time a massive boycott against Jim Crowed sports in the state in general gained traction, black New Orleanians doggedly refused to patronize the Pelicans. Plus, even white NOLA baseball fans eventually got tired of being deprived of the best quality hardball the sport could now offer; even strident bigots get curious when integrated teams are winning World Series and black players begin dominating league MVP voting.

The intractable indignation worked — from a high of more than 400,000 turnstile clicks in 1947 (hmm, what else happened in the baseball world that year?), the Pelicans’ attendance plummeted to less than 100,000 just nine years later.

What followed was an attempted sale of the team in 1957 and rumors that the Pels were about to go under. With fans of all stripes avoiding Pelican Stadium in droves, the franchise that had been launched by a Confederate captain breathed its last after the 1959 season. To say the local black populace and press was giddy would be an understatement. Louisiana Weekly editor Jim Hall, who had been at the forefront of the sports boycotts, offered this terse but beautiful requiem: “Nuf Sed about Jim Crow Birds.”

An unsigned editorialist for the Weekly went a bit further, and it was delicious:

“Not a fit of weeping was found among the local Negro baseball populations, when the Grim Reaper claimed New Orleans’ Double A ball club …

“They (the fans) did not express or feel grief or sorrow last week, when … the local coroner’s report listed the Jim Crow Birds officially dead.

“Instead, there was a jovial feeling among the tan fans, for this corner listed the the apparent total lack of fan interest as one of the prime causes of the Birds’ death. …

“Negro fans who had supported the Pels for years, put into effect a ‘Stay-at-Home’ policy. The solid support of the fans not to attend any of the home games began to hurt the club at the gate. In the past, it had been the Negro patrons’ attendance which had kept the Birds in a healthy financial state.

“But without their support at [the] turnstile … the Birds began staggering on the ropes. …

“Their passing of the Pelicans was by no means unexpected. The Negro fans did not mourn the loss of team, for there was no sympathy for the team which had slapped them in the face with segregation.”

Damn. As Jim Hall would say, nuf sed.

But wait, there’s more … Just as the Pelicans dropped dead, so did their former circuit, the Southern Association. Because, just like the Pels, the league also refused to integrate at all — none of its teams ever featured any color whatsoever. Zilch. The demise of the Pels and several other teams weren’t enough of a harbinger for the clods in the Southern Association.

Thus, after 60 years of existence, in early 1962, the Southern Association — one of the country’s oldest and most storied minor leagues — finally folded up its bigoted tents and collapsed under its adament, dogged and ultimately stupid and self-dooming unwillingness to integrate.

Seems that the brouhaha started by NOLA fans in 1955 spread like wildfire to the entire rest of the Southern Association. Because, until its dying breath, the SA virulently and foolishly refused to allow any black players (except for Nat Peeples, who played a token two games with the Atlanta Crackers in 1954), and it cost the league its livelihood and its fans their smug sense of superiority.

The reaction of the black community, including the press, was a gleefully familiar one. Wrote Cal Jacox of the Norfolk New Journal and Guide:

“There will be no weeping and wailing here for the death … of baseball’s Double A Southern Association League.

“True to tradition, its team owners went down fighting to keep their lily-white status. They insisted on maintaining the status quo and, from here, the loop’s departure from the baseball scene … is good riddance to a lost cause.”

(It should be noted that in addition to plummeting attendance, another effect of this staunch refusal to accept the inevitable flow of social change was Major League teams’ skittishness toward signing any more minor league affiliation agreements with SA teams, leaving the Southern loop squads to twist in the wind of their own segregated flatulence. That was true of the Pels, who found themselves without a parent club by the late 1950s.)

(Another note: the 1950s sports boycott in Louisiana also proved one of the death knells of the Evangeline League, a low-level minor circuit with teams throughout central and southern Louisiana that earned a joyous reputation as a freewheeling, anything-goes operation that made the league both famous and notorious. When Evangeline teams fell under the blanket of the state government’s disastrous athletic segregation law, they, much like the Pels and other SA teams, were besieged with boycotts, too. Unlike the larger league, the Evangeline provide a bit more pliable in terms of its policies, and some integration did occur in the loop. However, the Evangeline died out in the 1950s, a demise that owed just as much to the advent of home air conditioning, televised baseball than and, umm, a gigantic corruption scandal as to racial issues. I can personally attest to the fact that it’s really hard not to like the Evangeline League. For one, yes, it was a little more progressive than the Southern. But the EL was just gloriously wacky. But, digressing …)

Finally, it was baseball — or, rather, base ball — that spurred a group of “colored” men in New Orleans to form what became one of the most powerful teams in the country under the moniker Pinchbacks. The nascent national game provided not just those men, but the entire black populace an opportunity to express cultural pride in the first African-American governor in our country’s history.

The Pinchbacks carried the banner of their race every time they took the field, especially those times when a good chunk of white New Orleanians turned out to watch the black men’s prowess. New Orleans’ African-American population attached themselves so much to the club that when the Pinchbacks’ trekked northward to play challenge matches in St. Louis and Chicago, several carloads of fans caravanned with them.

The Weekly Pelican, one of the city’s earliest African-American newspapers, chronicled the Pinchbacks’ travels as well, frequently referring to the club as “our boys” or “our team.” When the aggregation departed for the Windy City in August 1889, the Pelican, under the headline, “They Are Off!” reported on the intimate connection between the colored squad and its fans”

“The Pinchbacks are composed of the best players in the South, and no doubt will hold their own with the Northwestern clubs. … As an evidence of the appreciation of their many friends for past favors the Pinchbacks will give a grand complimentary festival at the Young Veterans’ Hall to-night. One thousand invitations have been issued, and no doubt the affair will be an enjoyable one.”

In a slight deviation from the overall national trend in base ball in the 1880s toward rigid segregation, New Orleans ball fields frequently featured match games between colored teams and white squads; it was a phenomenon that, much to the city’s credit at the time, revealed the Crescent City’s relatively more fluid mores when it came to race.

Weekly Pelican, July 6, 1889

That included the Pinchbacks, who once in awhile crossed bats and held their own with white squads like the Ben Theards; the contests routinely drew several hundreds of fans — none too shabby before the days of bleachers and grandstands — and the Weekly Pelican roused the black community into supporting “our local champions.” For one July 1889 contest against a white team referred to only as “the New Orleans league team,” the Pinchbacks battled for a purse of $300 and all the gate receipts from the game. The Pelican previewed the match:

“The Pinchback’s [sic] are composed of our best colored players here and no doubt will make a credible showing against the Southern League champions.”

(Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any record of the game’s results.)

However, such relaxed social conventions, even in New Orleans, didn’t last long; by the start of the 1890s, the curtain of segregation had ended any sort of formal, integrated activity on the ball field.

(Many thanks to James Brunson for guiding and encouraging me in my 19th-century colored base ball research.)

Honestly, I wasn’t playing on writing this much about the details of these examples of New Orleans racial breakthroughs and triumphs, but producing this essay reminded me just how freakin’ awesome this shit was. So my apologies.

At this point I should stress that I don’t exactly mean to completely slag off to massive contributions men like Toby Hart made to baseball and to New Orleans history. What they achieved was significant and quite impressive. It showed determination and a passion for the national game at a time when the game needed it the most — at the beginning, when it was still struggling to lay down roots.

But it’s also quite difficult for me, as a writer and historian of African-American baseball, to view Hart’s accomplishments without a jaundiced eye. It’s simply impossible for me to examine what they created and sustained for decades without factoring the bigotry and fear that were one of the pillars of those accomplishments.

Every time I read local newspapers and their coverage of baseball from the first half of the 20th century — and, in fact, even earlier — how can I not make a note of the last sentence of so many articles: “A portion of the stands will be reserved for white fans.” It’s a sentence that Allen Page had to include in every single press release he sent out, and it’s one every black baseball fan here had to read if they wanted to learn the latest dope about the Black Pelicans or the Algiers Giants or the Jax Red Sox.

And now, here we are in 2017. Here we NOLA folks are, watching with a mix of incredulity and anger as fighting breaks out around some statues. Many of us know that it makes our city look ridiculous and backwards, and we are ashamed of it. The Stars and Bars clashes with Black Lives Matter, the future collides with the past, and misunderstanding and fear cast a pall over our city. The fact that this is all going on during Jazz Fest — one of the crown jewels of our local culture and something that draws thousands of tourists and their spending money into our confines — only serves to deepen our collective black eye.

However, to be sure, the Civil War, including the role it (and its aftermath) played here in New Orleans, is a complex one, replete with necessary nuance and (no pun intended) shades of gray.

Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard

Take, for example, P.G.T. Beauregard himself. True, he was a successful and revered general during the war, but what often gets lost is that, post-war, Beauregard adopted extremely progressive beliefs and stances, especially for a white Southerner. He pushed for equal rights in the state and even large-scale integration. (In that way, he was like Gen. James Longstreet, another highly decorated Confederate officer who commanding police and other forces in New Orleans during the Liberty Place riot and helped defend and shelter the victims of the violent mob. A year later, he and his family were forced to leave the city for health and safety concerns.)

So perhaps Beauregard should be regarded not as a villain, but a hero here in New Orleans. Instead of tearing down his statue, what about editing or reworking the plaque statement on it to stress what he worked so hard for after the war?

And, to be fair, maybe Capt. Toby Hart wasn’t a virulent racist either. Maybe he even worked to help the local freedmen. Maybe he was just a guy who served his country, then went back to civilian life and admirably dove into promoting and nurturing baseball in his home state. I’m not sure, and if anyone could provide any further information, it would be very welcome.

Or, then again, maybe Hart was just a step above Confederate Gen. Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, who was intimately involved with the early KKK. Or, for that matter, former Union Gen. George Custer, who, before his just comeuppance at Little Bighorn, made it his mission to wipe out as much of the indigenous population as he could.

And, yeah, Jefferson Davis — who died here in New Orleans but eventually had his remains moved to Richmond — remained unrepentant about his actions and his white supremacist beliefs.

Meanwhile, only 62 African-Americans dot big league rosters today. That troubling condition might not have a direct correlation to the aftermath of the War Between the States, but just about every modern race-related issue is to a certain extent rooted in slavery and Jim Crow.

Seventy years after Jackie Robinson stepped out on Ebbets Field, our sport is losing his spiritual and athletic descendants. The reasons for that exodus are many and complex, and even noble, successful programs like Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academies (including one here in NOLA at Wesley Barrow Stadium) have only begun to address the crisis.

But there seem to be few Allen Pages or Jim Halls or New Orleans Pinchbacks. They’ve vanished, and we have no idea if they’ll ever truly or fully come back.

This rambling diatribe has been an attempt at drawing a link between my passion for baseball history and what I’ve unfortunately been seeing daily here in my adopted hometown, and tracing a connection from the power of protest and pride to our country’s bleak social and political landscape. Whether I pulled that off in a coherent manner is probably debatable, but I gave it a shot.

Quite often, when our modern news outlets retreat, as they are wont to do, into the false, manufactured urgency of imagined 24-hour news cycles and a blinding need to stay relevant via tenuous, slipshod reporting and legions of unnamed sources, I like to slip out the side door and dive into online archives and databases of newspapers from eras and mindsets past.

True, such slinking away into antiquity and anachronism is, in a way, just a desperate man’s desperate attempt at finding some sort of sanity away from the jumbled, acidic reality of today. It’s escapism, simply put.

But it’s also what I love, and it’s what I do to (kind of) pay the bills. I take solace in the triumphs of yesteryear, and I derive comfort in the refreshed knowledge that at some point, we could find our way to justice, fairness and even, if we really put our minds to it, virtue.

 

The grave marking effort soldiers onward

Courtesy Jeremy Krock

For the next couple posts I want to give an update on the status of the various efforts of the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project. In addition to the sterling projects recently wrapped up by the NLBGMP (some of which I’ll discuss further down), right now, according to Dr. Krock and Larry Lester, there’s only a couple currently in the pipeline.

One of those is Billy Francis, a third baseman/manager from the deadball era/early 20th century who starred for influential teams like the Philadelphia Giants, the New York Lincoln Giants, the Chicago American Giants, the Hilldale Club, the Detroit Stars and the Bacharach Giants, as well as clubs in Cuba.

Francis is buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Ill., where numerous other blackball figures are also interred, including past NLBGMP beneficiaries like Bruce Petway, Walter Ball and Ted Strong. The Francis project has been in the works for several years now, but the light at the end of the tunnel is shining — the finishing touches are being made to the epitaph to be engraved in the stone (a task I was proudly in on), and Dr. Krock says there will hopefully be a dedication ceremony by the end of this year. (Finding a quality photo to use for the marker has been tough as well — like many of these legends, Francis was rarely photographed, or at least what’s currently known.)

The other endeavor currently gestating is the resting place of much-lauded, legendary journalist (and personal hero) Sam Lacy, longtime editor and writer for the Afro-American and inductee into the Writer’s and Broadcaster’s Wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Sam Lacy

Sam, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 99, is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Md. However, we’re still trying to sort out what exactly is on the grave currently as well as working to contact family members before we can get down to business.

(I made a few calls to the cemetery recently, but unfortunately I can’t find my notes about the calls and I can’t remember the results of the conversations.)

Other famous figures also interred in Lincoln Memorial are seminal black historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, football Hall of Famer Len Ford, tragic basketball prodigy Len Bias, medical pioneer Dr. Sarah Marinda Fraser, civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, trailblazing TV broadcaster Max Robinson, suffragist Mary Eliza Terrell, playwright Joseph A. Walker Jr. and, last but absolutely not least, the great Cyclone Joe Williams, who, frankly, I consider the best pitcher in history, any color or any era.

Naturally, given Lacy’s importance to and impact on my career, I’d like to contribute to this one, even though I’m 1,100 of miles away.

And, on that note, I should probably offer an explanation of where exactly my role is with the grave marker project. For a few years I reported on several of the NLBGMP’s efforts (including William Binga, Sol White and Olivia Taylor), but Dr. Krock and I talked a bit about a possibility of a conflict of interest for me if I was both helping with and making money from covering the project’s efforts.

So I decided to step back from covering the project for other publications — aside from this here blog — and focus on working for the NLBGMP itself for the time being. Aside from clearing up any ethical dilemmas, I’m really enjoying trying to give back to Negro Leagues and baseball history communities for all they’ve done to help, support, encourage and inspire me.

Tangential to that, then, are my efforts to locate graves of various blackball figures here in the Crescent City and surrounding parts and assess with of them could maybe benefit from the NLBGMP, such as Ducky Davenport and John Bissant. In the ensuing months, I’ll try to blog about and chronicle the progress I (and anyone else who wants to help!) make in that arena.

Dave Malarcher

I also want to celebrate the recent successful attempts to honor Louisiana legends, including Gentleman Dave Malarcher, who recently received a gorgeous head stone in Convent, La. Much to my embarrassment, I have yet to make it to St. James Parish to check it out myself, but I promise I will do that soon and report back.

Also mixed in there is situation of Hall of Famer Cristobal Torriente, who remains buried in a mass, unmarked grave in Queens, N.Y., and at this point (we think) the only HOFer left without his or her own headstone. Ralph Carhart has done a great deal of work with the Torriente situation, and I’ve tried to research/report/write/blog about as much as a can (like here, here and here), but the effort has kind of slacked off a bit as I’ve attended to other stuff and Ralph nears completion of his fantastic Hall Ball project. However, hopefully we can get back to Torriente’s plight very soon.

Cristobal Torriente

There’s also the slew of possible unmarked graves in or near St. Louis, a locale that largely has been untouched by the NLBGMP up to this point. However, Dr. Krock says the group has been in touch with officials at St. Peter’s Cemetery in St. Louis to determine how many players might be buried there, and then discover how many of them might need markers.

“That will probably be the big project of 2017,” he told me in an email.

Possibilities in St. Peter’s include powerful 19th-century owner/entrepreneur/kingpin Henry Bridgewater, St. Louis Giant Charles Mills and the multitalented Cowan “Bubba” Hyde.

Finally, possibly the most tragic, murky and complex story of all is that of Fred Goree, as covered by Ron Auther and Logan Jaffe. Goree was killed by police officers under still mysterious circumstances on an Illinois backroad in 1925 while driving with his semipro team to a scheduled contest.

There’s also others I’ve touched on in my blog but have kind of lost in the shuffle over the last year or two, such as sterling outfielder Ed Stone and Texas-born slugger George Johnson.

OK, now for some of the recently completed NLBGMP projects. One is Weldy Wilberforce Walker, the second openly African-American in the Major Leagues (after his brother, Fleet), who triumphantly received a stone in Steubenville, Ohio, thanks to the persistence and Herculean efforts of Craig Brown.

Courtesy of Craig Brown

Also finally receiving respect in death were Ted Strong and Waxey Williams.

One of the coolest recent success stories is that of Topeka Jack Johnson last October, another deadball star who strove tirelessly to create organized black leagues in the Midwest in the decades before the founding of the Negro National League in 1920. Not to be confused with heavyweight boxing champ of the same name, Topeka Jack toiled as a boxer himself but also worked as a police officer and firefighter.

To this day, Topeka Jack remains one of the most overlooked and underappreciated figures in blackball history, something Todd Fertig discussed in this excellent article for the Topeka Capital-Journal about the dedication ceremony last fall in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Topeka. I also wrote a blog post last year about Johnson’s involvement in the 1910 Western Colored League.

What’s especially cool about the recent Topeka Jack Johnson ceremony is that organizers and historians couple it with formal recognition of the nearby memorial to the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which in 1954 cracked the walls of segregation to arguably become the most important action of jurisprudence of the 20th century.

Topeka Jack Johnson

Sooooooo … there’s still much to be done, in terms of both legwork and financial donations. For more information, to help or to donate, check out the contacts info on the sites I linked to in the  first paragraph of this post.

I want to conclude this post by pointing you to a top-notch article from The Hardball Times from February of this year by Shakeia Taylor, who offers a comprehensive rundown of the NLBGMP’s history and mission, including photos of new markers and thoughts from Dr. Krock. So check it out if you can.

Next up for Home Plate Don’t Move — two grave projects in particular, Gus Brooks and Dan Burley.

Post-script

I would be remiss if I didn’t laud the efforts of my Malloy Conference roomie Ted Knorr toward honoring his personal hero and fellow Harrisburger Rap Dixon, a process that included raising funds for an installing this amazing head stone!

Courtesy Ted Knorr

Wright, Welch and the Black Diamond

Winfield Welch

The last couple weeks have been somewhat chaotic, and my mind has been a bit scattered. I tend to pinball from topic to topic and subject to subject with a general inability to concentrate what mental aptitude I have left after all these years into one coherent direction.

Over the last month or so that handicap has been compounded by a new steady freelancing gig I landed that has taken up a fair amount of time on a weekly basis. I do (hopefully) have larger posts working around in my head, but in this post I wanted to catch y’all up on some of the pursuits I’ve kind of, umm, pursued lately.

The first is Homestead Grays pitcher, Brooklyn Dodgers signee and New Orleans native Johnny Wright. In this earlier post I examined his tenure as the ace of the Great Lakes Naval team’s pitching rotation during WWII.

It was a pretty solid post, except for what I inexplicably missed — that Wright’s military grave marker says he served in the Army, not the Navy. For a supposedly hawkeyed journalist, I’m sometimes not all that perceptive.

Fortunately, a reader, Richard Tourangeau, did notice that discrepancy, and he thankfully emailed me and pointed it out. So I went through some of the newspaper articles I’d pulled up from online archives about Wright during the war, and, lo and behold, I found a story in the Oct. 7, 1944, issue of the Baltimore Afro-American that says Wright was given a leave to pitch for the Homesteaders in a doubleheader against the Black Barons:

But wait … the article states that Johnny was on leave from Fort Huachuca in Arizona! Not only is that not in Great Lakes, Ill., it’s an Army base, not a Navy installation! That somewhat corroborates his grave marker, at least a little.

Naturally I did a little more poking around to see if I could find any more contemporary articles that place Wright in the Army, but I couldn’t find any other than wire service variations of the one above.

However, things got even murkier when I found this wire service article in the July 26, 1945, issue of the Richmond (Ind.) Palladium-Item about the Fort Bennett Naval Field team in Brooklyn, N.Y., edging out the Chicago White Sox in an exhibition. Check out the reported pitcher for the New York sailors:

Yep, that’s our very own John Richard Wright, who suddenly is taking the hill for a Naval squad in upstate New York. Floyd Bennett Field was New York City’s first municipal airport before being converted to a military base.

At this point I have no idea what’s going on, and unfortunately, deadlines prevented me from digging any deeper into this. Doubly unfortunately, all the answers to the mystery of Johnny Wright’s military service trajectory might only be found in his personnel file somewhere, something to which I as a non-family member wouldn’t have easy access.

So, are there any military veterans or other folks reading this who could maybe explain Wright’s nomadic service travels? Would it be unusual for a serviceman whose primary duty was boosting troop and public morale by playing baseball, i.e. would it not be uncommon for a guy to be shifted around from installation to installation and even from service branch to service branch?

Also, obviously, if there’s any Wright descendants out there who would be able to willing to help clear up the hurler’s military career, definitely give a shout.

And because I like to have my head spinning as much as possible, I’ll throw in another quirky article before we leave the take of John Wright — a line or two in a Wendell Smith column from Dec. 1, 1945:

The Pittsburgh Courier column begins by stating:

“Johnny Wright, gangling right-handed pitcher of the Homestead Grays, has emphatically denied that he has signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Now in the Navy, Wright says he’ll stick with the Grays because Owners Posey and Jackson have been so good to him.”

That came just a month or two after Jackie Robinson had been inked by the Bums — and a just a few weeks before Wright did sign a minor league contract with Branch Rickey. As we know now, Wright never made it in organized baseball, the reason(s) for which are still debated to this day.

OK, on to the second find of the last couple weeks for me … In the past, I’ve written several blog posts (such as here and here) and an article about Winfield Welch, a native of tiny Napoleonville, La., who went on to an illustrious semipro and pro career with a slew of New Orleans teams before winning two NAL pennants with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1943-44 and eventually piloting barnstorming teams for promoter Abe Saperstein.

In all my previous research, I was never able to find an obituary or any other death details for Welch, other that he died in Pineville, La., in March 1980. But recently I’ve been trying to catalogue and locate the graves of various Louisiana Negro Leaguers, and I decided to take one more whack at the demise of Winfield Welch.

By coincidence, at the time I was also working on an article about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, a NOLA native who helped lay the foundation for the first truly American musical form. Bolden, you see, deteriorated mentally in his later years thanks to prodigious alcohol consumption, resulting in his committal to and ultimately his death in the Central Louisiana State Hospital, a longstanding and still-standing mental asylum located in, of all places, Pineville.

(After his death, Bolden’s body was moved back here to New Orleans, where he was buried in an unmarked grave in potter’s field named Holt Cemetery. The same fate befell another Crescent City native, Negro Leaguer Ducky Davenport, who starred for several NAL and NNL teams and was selected to multiple East-West All-Star rosters. A couple years ago, I looked into tracking down Davenport’s exact resting spot — chronicled by blog posts here and here — but I ultimately wasn’t able to do so, because, as I learned, many graves in Holt aren’t even recorded or charted. Such was also the case with Buddy Bolden; when grass roots volunteers worked to place a marker on Bolden’s resting place, his couldn’t be traced, but the community activists were able to erect a memorial for Bolden in the cemetery. That gives me hope that I can somehow try to honor Ducky Davenport in some way.)

Anyway, once I learned that the state mental asylum — as well as the facility’s own depressingly bleak cemetery — was in Pineville, I worried that Winfield Welch, who died in Pineville, might actually have spent his last years in the asylum and, as a result, was buried in the forlorn graveyard there.

Alas and quite fortunately, I at long last turned up an obituary for Welch in the Alexandria Town Talk from March 4, 1980 (Alexandria and Pineville are both located in Rapides Parish):

The obituary indicates that Welch died on March 2, 1980, in Pilgrim Manor Nursing Home in Pineville — not, happily, in the psychiatric hospital. He was buried Holly Oak Cemetery in Pineville. Note, though, that the paper spelled his name incorrectly — with two Ns instead of one. The misspelling of his name in contemporary media wasn’t unusual; during his career in New Orleans, Welch’s last name was frequently listed as Welsh. It was those various errors that probably made it tough to track down a definitive obit for him.

Now, onward and upward to the third of this post neat item I found recently — the legend of the Black Diamond.

That would be Robert Pipkins, a Mississippi born, NOLA-bred guy who gained substantial regional and some national fame as a pitcher nicknamed the Black Diamond.

And actually, Pipkins has a connection to Winfield Welch — when the latter was hired to pilot the Black Barons, he brought Black Diamond along as part of his pitching rotation. Here’s a pic from the June 24, 1942, issue of the Atlanta Daily World. To be honest, I’d never seen a good picture of him before, so this was a pretty cool find for me:

Following his stint with the Barons, the southpaw stuck with Welch when the latter managed barnstorming clubs like the Cincinnati Crescents in 1946.

Prior to hooking on with the Barons in 1942, Pipkins found fame on the, ahem, diamonds of New Orleans, frequently with teams owned by Fred Caulfield, such as the Caulfield Ads and the Jax Red Sox. Pipkins hurled for other regional teams as well both before and after his tenure in the national spotlight, garnering major coverage and kudos from the Louisiana Weekly, the Crescent City’s African-American newspaper.

As you can tell from his quirky nickname, Pipkins as such became a legendary figure on the New Orleans blackball scene, and during my research I’ve come across dozens of stories about him, but until now I never really had the opportunity to explore his personal life and background.

Thus, I was ecstatic when I found this picture and caption from the Times-Picayune in 1970, in which Pipkins receives an award from the Old Timers Baseball Club, a celebrated group of former NOLA Negro Leaguers who held an annual all-star reunion game and banquet. The caption for the picture states that Pipkins, at the time the oldest living member of the club, received the Old Timer of the Year Award:

The Diamond subsequently lived five more years before passing away in March 1975. Here’s his obit from the Times-Picayune:

The article indicates Pipkins’ involvement with the Old Timers Club as well as the Ninth Ward Grays Baseball Club, of which I’d never heard before. He was buried in Rest Haven Memorial Park, and I’ll hopefully be able to get out there and find his grave marker. There’s a good chance he does, in fact, have a marker, because he served in the Army during WWII and therefore should have had a military funeral.

According to several governmental documents — including his Army enlistment record from August 1942 — Pipkins was born in August 1907, which would have made him 67 at the time of his death.

Also of significance in the obit is the note about Pipkins’ membership in the local Masons and the scheduling of a memorial service by the organization. The note is signed by Worshipful Master Ellis Marsalis, which is quite intriguing because, if it’s the same guy, Ellis Marsalis was the patriarch of the famous Marsalis jazz musicians, including modern-day luminaries like Wynton and Branford.

OK, finally, on to the last item for this blog screed — expanding on my last entry, which examined at the importance of the contemporary African-American media to the coverage, evolution and progression Negro Leagues history and the integration of the national pastime. …

In another coincidence of my work and research, shortly after I penned that aforementioned post, I was assigned to write a story for nola.com about the founding of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper, a task that resulted in my delving into the archives of various academic journals and newspapers in search of information about the history of the publication.

In doing so, I discovered an essay by Doxey A. Wilkerson in the Autumn 1947 issue of The Journal of Negro Education entitled, “The Negro Press.” In addition to exploring the history of black newspapers, Wilkerson lays out how crucial African-American media have been to our nation’s history, but in a much more eloquent, encompassing way than my blog post did. Here are a few excerpts:

“This special-interest character of the Negro press is the key to an understanding of its unique role in the field of American journalism, and to an appreciation of its importance as a publicity medium. It is also a key to the effective use of that medium.

“From their inception more than 120 years ago Negro newspapers have always been fighting publications, militantly championing the freedom and full democratic rights of the Negro people, stimulating and organizing their struggles, and helping to build an increasingly unified Negro people’s liberation movement.”

The article asserts that “the pioneer Negro newspaper” was Freedom’s Journal, launched in New York City in 1827. The essay then states that the Journal, and all ensuing black newspapers, bore two primary purposes:

“… to promote the struggle for Negro democratic rights and to speak to America and the world in the name of the Negro people, constitute the predominating function of the Negro press today.

“It must be understood that Negro Americans are much more than merely one-tenth of the population which happens to have physical characteristics more or less different from those of most Americans. Their centuries of struggle against the slave system, and their continuing struggles since Emancipation against the social, economic and political discriminations which proscribe most all Negroes to an inferior status in the society-have built up common bonds of understanding among them, a sense of unity far more pronounced than in any other large sector of the population, and an organizational life which is in large measure separate from that of other Americans. As a result there has developed, within the general American population, a definite, self-conscious and increasingly organized minority people, fighting with ever increasing militancy and effectiveness towards its historic goals of full democratic freedom and dignity in all areas of our country’s life.”

As one reads through Wilkerson’s article, though, one must keep in mind that the piece was written in 1947, and as a result, should be approached through that contemporary prism, i.e. the politics and economics of the 1940s. He concludes with a look into the future:

“The outlook for the Negro press is the outlook for the Negro people — continued struggle against the hostile forces of bigotry which seek to negate the inherent worth and human dignity of America’s largest minority population. But it is a winning fight. Despite serious and at times protracted setbacks, the Negro people are, in- deed, moving forward toward their historic goal of full democratic rights and security. As always, the Negro press will continue to play a major role in organizing and strengthening this forward movement of the Negro people; and as they progress, so will the American nation progress-and so also will Negro newspapers become ever more effective instruments for the dissemination of news and insights and opinion.”

But here’s Wilkerson’s bottom line in 1947:

“In short, the Negro press is a crusading press which serves the special needs of a militantly struggling people.” [Emphasis his.]

I’m going to wrap things up with a quote from Dan Burley — a talented musician and bandleader, as well New York Amsterdam News editor, sportswriter and entertainment columnist — whom I referenced in this earlier post.

In August 1942, while discussing the risking career of prizefighter Harvey Massey, Burley stressed the importance of black newspapers to African-American athletes, sports and society, while also grinding an axe with what Burley saw as ungrateful readers and athletes:

“The colored newspaper worker … has a legitimate squawk: The Negro who gets breaks through our columns seldom gives credit where it is due. Many times Negro athletes, theatrical folks and others will take anything they can get through the efforts of a Negro newspaperman and then turn right around and give credit to a daily columnist or some other white person who takes over after the Negro benefactor opens the door.”

Such journalistic grousing, of course, is not unique to any particular ethnicity, era or medium; journalists have always grumbled about being unappreciated ignored by their readers and subjects, a trend that most certainly continues to this day.

But is it a fair complaint instead of simply wounded pride? That, again will be discussed and scrutinized in perpetuity. I’ll just note that in an ensuing post, Dan Burley and his influence will be front and center …

 

The black press: A complex past, a pivotal future

Dan Burley

PRELUDE

“Today, more than ever, the Black Press remains the trusted and audacious voice of black America. Today, the NNPA continues this irrepressible tradition of publishing truth to power. Our freedom fighting publishers are all united as we reaffirm the vital importance and relevance of the Black Press now and into the future.”

— NNPA President and CEO Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., to NNPA reporter Stacy M. Brown, March 22017

As the current administration in D.C. continues its completely rational and not-at-all-paranoid-and-unhinged feud/temper tantrum with the media, it’s forcing many of us in the journalism business to reevaluate and assess our purpose in society and American culture, what our role should be, where we’re headed and what we could be capable of if we actually focused on the right things and jettisoned our obsession with, well, stupid stuff.

It’s a reflective process that is absolutely necessary, and many observers feel the current political situation is spurring some American media members to “get their groove back,” so to speak.

Sports journalists, on the surface, might seem to be undergoing self-evaluation to a lesser extent, because so far, athletics — aside from the occasional volley of criticism or satire from prominent sports figures like Gregg Popovich or even teams like the Erie SeaWolves — have largely remained outside the fray. The sports media and the consumers of that sports media have traditionally often been able to keep the sports world separate from society as a whole, a place of refuge and tranquility, an escape from the madness of everyday life and all its deflating trappings.

But sooner or later, sports journalists will be sucked into the swirling cyclone that continues to rip our country apart. Maybe it’ll come when a championship team, as is tradition, to be invited to the White House to be honored and one or more members of the team refuse to go on political grounds. Or maybe it’ll come when, however terrifying the prospect is, a high-profile black or Latino athlete is assaulted by law enforcement authorities.

Whatever triggers the entrance of the sports media into the national debate, it will undoubtedly come at some point, and history has shown that over and over and over again. The sporting world and the complexities of society at large have intersected when boxing championships have dated white women or taken a stand against the draft. It’s happened when ex-football stars have been charged with murdering their ex-wives, and when Olympic sprinters have raised their gloved fists on the medal stand to protest the long-standing oppression of black Americans.

And, yeah, there’s a theme that emerges here — race. Most of the time, when sports and society do collide, it’s over racial or ethnic issues that expose the deep rifts that have severed our culture for centuries, issues that will continue to haunt our nation long, long after we are dead and gone. Racial oppression and bigotry will forever be the albatross around our collective neck, and no more apparent will it be than in the world of sports — whether sports scribes and fans like it or not.

White sportswriters weren’t thrilled …

Aside from boxing and track, ground zero for the clashing of sports journalism and society has been — or at least throughout the sport’s history — baseball. We need look no further than the film, “42,” which depicts the role African-American writer Wendell Smith played in Jackie Robinson’s entry into and first season in the major leagues.

In fact, as Negro League historians, we know that it was often members of the African-American media, particularly newspapers, who pressed for the integration of Organized Baseball and the end of Jim Crowism in the national pastime. Popular sports columnists arranged tryouts for black players with white teams, and scribes dogged MLB owners by consistent peppering them with question about whether the time for integration was upon the baseball business.

While it was usually black journalists who instigated the discussion, sympathetic white writers gradually took up arms with their African-American brethren and crusaded for equality and justice in the American pastime by vocalizing their beliefs in their own work, as well, as standing up for black writers in press boxes across the country.

The book, “Black Writers/Black Baseball,” is a compilation of columns by the greats of the African-American press. Wrote editor Jim Reisler:

“They were extraordinary men. … Indeed, their most lasting collective contribution may have been an eloquent, persistent and occasionally bitter demonstration of words designed to urge to urge the white baseball establishment to integrate. It was that same group who actively accompanied black players to tryouts with major league teams, making their case face-to-face with the white owners. Arguably, their campaign was what finally pushed big league owners to question and finally end the color ban.”

Of course, there’s a bit of hagiography there, because black writers absolutely possessed their own foibles and weaknesses; in particular, their constant, necessary efforts to straddle the blurry line between objective chroniclers and overt cheerleaders and PR tools wasn’t always successful.

But, regardless, they did their jobs and helped foment social revolution. One of those men who helped stir the pot, so to speak, was one of my heroes, Baltimore Afro-American sports editor and columnist Sam Lacy, whom I profiled in this earlier post and whose role in Robinson’s achievements was sadly excised out of “42.”

But there were others in the “Negro” papers aside from Smith and Lacy who addressed the need for and then the impact of integration in baseball, and they frequently did it with a prescience and insight that is very often lacking in our modern sports media. These journalists displayed the sagacity and canniness necessary to peel back the layers of matters at hand and force readers to absorb, interpret and ponder those matters for themselves.

In fact, here’s a passage from Sam’s autobiography that aptly describes some of the truisms of journalism:

“Some people believe sportswriting is a sop. It’s not. Often a writer must assess the talent and conduct of major stars, some of them close friends, and at times, that conduct involves sensitive matters or questions that affect a person’s ability to make a living. To do it honestly, the writer must be as straightforward when dealing with the players as when challenging the personalities and institutions that refused for so long to open doors and opportunities for all talented athletes without regard to color.”

To the point … While doing research for an article about blackball history in Chicago, I came across a few examples of such contemplation, in both the years preceding and following the integration of the sport. The handful of articles I turned up caught my eye and my interest as examples of the type of journalism that’s often quite lacking in today’s sports media.

(I’ll note that because I was research blackball in the Windy City, I mostly looked at the archives of the Chicago Defender, but from past research I can state that the themes I explore here were common to just about every African-American publication.)

In September 1942, Fay Young of the Chicago Defender produced a lengthy treatise that pointed out what most black Americans already knew and what a growing number of white citizens were realizing — that African Americans could be recruited and drafted into a war for freedom, justice and equality, but they were rigidly blocked from playing in Organized Baseball, the flagship of American sporting image and culture.

Young bluntly called out the owners, managers and other powers-that-be in baseball by raising the names of the dictators the U.S. military servicemen and women were giving their lives to fight. Integration, he said, would seem to just make sense.

“But such is not the case — at least not so far — and it may be some time before the owners and powers that govern organized baseball come to the full realization that they themselves are playing into the hands of Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese emperor, Hirohito. The leaders are the Axis powers are the enemies of our nation — likewise and man or set of men who deny American citizens the right to earn a decent livelihood because of color must be jotted down in this day and time as enemies of fullfledged [sic] loyal American citizens.”

Damn.

Young also dropped some logic up in there — he noted that integration would increase team attendance and revenue; he disputed the “hotels and restaurants won’t serve integrated teams” malarky but pointing out that college football and track teams already did so just fine; and put the kibosh on the theory that race riots simply wouldn’t happen anymore, and Joe Louis’ reign as heavyweight champ proved that.

Plus, he essentially called MLB owners wusses — many of these guys claimed they want to hire Negroes, but they had so little backbone that they were skeered to make the first move.

Oh, and Young called strident segregationists “dyed-in-the-wool crackers.” Which, I’m sorry, is pretty freakin’ funny.

You want blunt and incisive? Move ahead 23 years and read a column Doc Young (no relation) wrote for the Defender in 1965 under the headline, “How Negro Players Saved Organized Baseball.” Eighteen years after MLB integration, Young ran down — with his characteristic soaring-yet-searing style — what happened in the 1940s, including the usual dumbarse and illogical reasons Organized Baseball and its enablers refused to integrate. Terms like “lilywhite as the driven snow,” “private preserve of segregationists,” and “cozy in their closed shop” were used.

But Young then drove to what many historians and sociologists believe was the heart of the psychology of segregation — white men, fueled by insecurity, jealousy, sexist and testosterone, were freaked about the possibility of black men getting close to white women. Wrote Young:

“A prominent, and frank, major league executive told a Negro club that integration would work because women were attracted to home run hitters and, he indicated, the idea of white women applauding muscular Negro home run hitters was no less than frightening.”

Mic drop.

That wasn’t the only bold assertion Young made in the column. Citing evidence that, by 1965, MLB’s best, most well paid players were largely African-American. Also noting that most competitive and potential pennant-winning teams had black stars, Young laid it all out there, with a juicy dollop of sarcasm:

“In this, the twentieth year of baseball’s equal opportunity employment program, no one gets upset because Caucasian females applaud a Willie Mays, not when Negro females cheer a Mickey Mantle. And, happily, contrary to the dire predictions of certain bigots on learning that Robinson had been signed to play organized ball, the country hasn’t gone to pot and Rickey hasn’t become a minister in a Father Divine Temple in Harlem.

“One needs not approach the boundaries of hyperbole to say that Negro players, and the Latin ‘coloreds’ who followed them, actually have been the saviors of major league baseball. For, without them, what is now known as major league ball would hardly measure up to Triple-A, minor league standards.”

In other words, baseball would suck without integration.

However, one prognostication about the impact integration would have — that it would kill the Negro Leagues — did, in fact, come true. Some pundits pointed it out matter-of-factly, some asserted it would be a painful but necessary sep toward a better American, and others flouted it as a phony baloney excuse to retain Jim Crow in the national pastime.

Regardless of how one views the decline of the Negro Leagues, it did happen, and naturally, journalists in the black press both documented and lamented it. Without a doubt, the very existence and greatness of the Negro Leagues was a shining example of African-American perseverance, pride and ingenuity, but it was also a gloomy symbol of the virulent fear that gripped American society for centuries.

The effect the disintegration of blackball had on the country’s African-American press is a subject that’s always intrigued me. Did the elimination of one of their bread-and-butter beats destroy Negro sports pages or cause catastrophic drops in circulation and ad revenue? Or were newspapers and reporters able to transition from the the subject of segregation to the topic of integration?

What would Ida do?

The answer to those queries are probably out there, but what’s true is that dozens of African-American newspapers and broadcast outlets are still alive and thriving. In fact, the Chicago Defender is in its 112th year of publication at a time when mainstream papers have been circling the drain for decades. In fact, the Defender expanded to a daily in 1956, a decade after baseball integration, suggesting the country’s flagship black paper progress in baseball. (It went back to weekly status in 2003.)

Of course, baseball hasn’t really been the only thing going on in the United States for 150 years. There’s been a few other things popping up now and then — wars, lynchings, economic downturns, and fire hoses and attack dogs and bombed churches — so it would be absolutely ridiculous to think baseball (as well as other sports) were what predicted the health of a black media outlet.

In fact, the greatest impact the Defender has had on American politics, society and economics was its strident, persistent, fearless messages to Southern African-Americans, urging them to abandon the life-threatening and humiliating fear and oppression of Jim Crow and move north for more economic opportunity and sociopolitical equality.

Such missives factored heavily into the Great Migration that completely transformed American on myriad levels. That recruitment was also despised and even feared by the Southern white establishment, who not only lost the ability to boost their own pathetic self-esteem by psychologically and physically attacking people not like them, but also the lifeblood of the agricultural, plantation economy that had fed and propped up all of Dixie society for centuries. In other words, Southern whites were scared witless of going broke and facing their own depressing psychologies.

Mr. Lacy

But, back to the original point … African-American newspapers of the late 1940s and ’50s were forced to cover and comment on the decline of the Negro Leagues. They knew they had to, for better or for worse, and they did so with impressive prescience and self-reflection that many modern-day media meatheads painfully lack.

In September 1950, the Associated Negro Press’ Luix Virgil Overbea (that’s a mouthful) penned a column that analyzed the decline of the Negro Leagues and asserted that rejuvenated support from black baseball fans (and, I suppose, fans of other ethnicities) was desperately needed to keep blackball alive.

The overall tone of Overebea’s piece was melancholic and rueful, but it was also laced with appeals to tradition and cultural pride. A few (lengthy) excerpts:

“Negro baseball is one the ropes facing a knockout blow unless Negro fans will rally to its support and save it until next year.

“Unfortunately, I must write this story of what appears to me a decaying enterprise, Negro baseball. Unless something is done constructively, by both the owners and the fans, I fear that next year at this time I may be forced to write an obituary for organized Negro baseball. …

“Racial pride tells me that in the main the NAL is a Negro enterprise employing Negroes and making money for the race. As a Negro I should support it.

“This, however, is not reason enough. As long as there is Jim Crow in the South on the basis of performance as well as in observance, Negro baseball as such is needed. If the Southern Negro wants to play baseball there, he will have to set up the game for himself.”

Overbea cited several examples of lousy attendance throughout the Negro Leagues world as evidence — less than 5,000 folks at an American Giants game despite a huge Elks convention in Chi-town; a continued sleep slide in turnout at the prestigious East-West game; and the Cleveland Buckeyes went belly up and the Baltimore Elites (the previous year’s league champs) were rumored to be on the brink of folding up their tents (they made it through the 1950 campaign before giving up).

Whose fault is that? Not just Negro League teams and owners, Overbea charged:

“What is wrong with Negro baseball to bring on all these troubles? The teams play a very good brand of baseball, better than most minor league clubs. Umpires keep the game moving and prevent those old-time player fist fights. A number of the players are very colorful.

“Some of the things wrong are not the fault of the clubs themselves. These include schedules, parks, booking games, and high costs. An example of park and schedule troubles is the case of the Indianapolis Clowns who did not play a single home games this season because no park was available to them.

“The great bugaboo in Negro baseball that clubs can do something about is the lack of fan support. People just do not go out to the parks to see the teams play.

“Artificial stimulants are not enough; clubs must build up fan loyalty. The American Giants had a ladies day on opening day and still did not draw 5,000 people to two games. The Giants also hired some white players, but they have not pulled in any crowds either here in Chicago. …

“A large percentage [of fans] still come just to raise the bottle and trouble. In talking to them I have learned that nobody seems to know the players. Some girls come out to see and meet the players. A youngster or two asks for an autograph. Otherwise the players and the games are often ignored.”

Plus he took a shot at the beat reporters who covered black baseball. In brief: Reporters are lazy dumbnuts.

There’s a lot to unpack in that column. One, in this day and age, having endured the steroid era/panic/witch hunt, the term “artificial stimulants” takes on a whole new spin, as it were. But we know what Overbea meant, and he was right — pretty much any goofy thing Negro League teams threw at fans made nary a difference. As the 1950s wore on, for example, the Clowns produced loonier and loonier stunts, but when the Majors snapped up their prime players — Mr. Aaron, for example — fans preferred to see the future clout king instead of zaniness.

Two, when he bemoans the fact that many fans come to Negro games simply to get plastered, cause a ruckus and completely ignores what’s happening on the field sounds like every Dodgers game currently.

But delving into deeper, serious matters raised by Overbea, I can’t address the issue because I’m neither black nor a mid-century baseball fan, so it wouldn’t be right for me to really do some opinionation on that topic.

But I would simply comment that, from research and discussions, it seems like the black baseball enthusiasts at that time might have had more racial pride in the guys who had broken through to the Majors and were excelling, like Robinson, Doby, Irvin, Satch and others. My sense was that the entire country knew that they were witnessing the dawn of an exciting new epoch and were adjusting to it in corresponding fashion (even the bigots who were still botherating had to grudgingly admit that their brand of segregated hardball was in the past).

The issue of black baseball in the South … Having undertaken a fair amount of research into that subject (especially here in NOLA), Overbea does have somewhat of a point, but he misses the fact that African-American talent in the South often signed up with squads elsewhere in the country, both integrated and segregated, such as several prospects here in the Crescent City like my late friend Herb Simpson. There was no reason the aspiring hardball stars would have to stay below the Mason-Dixon.

However, it is true that some leagues in Dixie did steadfastly and stubbornly refuse to accept the inevitable — like the Southern Association (including the New Orleans Pelicans), arguably most the recalcitrant circuit in the country, which, for all intents and purposes never integrated until its dying day in 1960. But other loops like the celebrated Evangeline League eventually did accept black players, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Southern teams knew the writing was on the wall, both socially and financially, and they welcomed African Americans when they realized they had to do so just to survive.

Then there’s Overbea’s most prickly point, at least for journalists — that beat writers of the day were slackers (maybe not as extensively as Spicoli, of course, but still occupying their time having pizza delivered to the newsroom).

That charge, I surmise, was completely bogus, because black media, especially newspapers, in the 1950s — aside from personally being thrilled to cover the exhilarating rides of Jackie and other pioneers — needed to survive financially, which meant giving their readers what the readers wanted to see, which was detailed coverage of said pioneers.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a brutal fact that still exists today, and not just for African-American media outlets. Media folks now are churning out what they believe their readers want, a process made even more thorny over the 30-plus years, thanks to online and social media and 24-7 TV outlets. The curse of the 24-hour news cycle — and I do believe it’s a curse, both for journalists and consumers — has led to the spewing out of just plain crappy news product.

Thanks for ruining things

That phony urgency has led media types to completely misread, so to speak, what many viewers and readers truly want — in depth, quality, complex journalism, not trashy tweets and garbage coverage of missing airliners and whatever dumb stuff was barfed out by InfoWars or Breitbart or Judge Pirro this time.

That also applies to modern sports media, which have made such amorphous mularky as bracketology and NFL draft boards staples of sports journalists’ own never-ending news cycles. Instead of posting up-to-the-minute updates about the status of Colin Kaepernick’s afro (“he’s 6-foot-5, with the afro 6-foot-9!”), sports jocks should delve deeply into the issues his actions have raised.

OK, now, back to the original theme of this ridiculously blathering post — the articles I found during my Chicago research — particularly the final one in the pile.

In October 1943, Defender columnist Lucius Harper penned one of his “Dustin’ of the News,” one that should serve as a model for serious journalists even seven-odd decades after it hit the streets. The lengthy commentary cuts to the bone regarding a phenomenon that has routinely shown up over the last century of American — the appropriation and outright theft of African-American culture and enterprise.

It’s an ugly trend that perhaps was/is most prevalent in the music business — white record company execs and concert producers swiping songwriting credit and profit from black artists. That’s not to mention the complete whitewashing of African-American music by white musicians, from Paul Whiteman to Pat Boone to Vanilla Ice.

But in October 1943, Harper’s concern was white businessmen taking advantage of the ever-evolving financial, geographic and structural nature of the Negro Leagues and its teams to slide in and usurp control, either upfront or behind the scenes, of blackball operations and enterprise. He asserted:

“Now that Negro baseball has become a paying proposition, it is on the threshold of danger for those few Negro business men who own and control colored clubs. When and Negro attraction begins to pile up enormous profits … and exhibition games can command the attention of some twenty-thousands persons in mid-season, there is a tendency on the part of white vested interests to gain the commanding reins of such a proposition, and with cunning and somewhat polite procedure relegate to the background, or to unimportant positions, the Negroes who control and share in the profits of such enterprises.

“So for racial cooperation from the standpoint of ownership and management of organized Negro baseball has been fruitful of great results, and has thus far demonstrated that racial unity in big business can be conducted along the lines of the most cordial and courteous relations. Upon this arrangement alone rests the hope and future of organized Negro baseball. To corrupt it would be fatal.”

Yeah that was a single long paragraph as originally published, so I broke it up into two of them. Even with that, Harper’s message can be a bit tough to discern through the complex sentence structure and florid language. At first, it seems like he’s lamenting the backdoor involvement of white entrepreneurs in black baseball, but then his prose takes a slight curve and he appears to approve, albeit reluctantly, the cautiously symbiotic arrangement produced by white intervention.

Such dense language and layered commentary was one of the constants of not just African-American journalism of the time, but all media outlets of the 1940s. But Harper offers measured qualifying of his first statements later in the column:

“Comes the report, however, that a corruption is in view. It will be known as the ‘October Plan’ in which organized Negro baseball may bury its interracial harmony and thereby transfer its profits and sole guidance to the interest of a group in which Negro owners of ball clubs will be merely the paid servants instead of the masters of the situation in the only sport now available for their stellar appearance in the nation’s athletic program. …”

Harper points to the music, boxing and horse-racing businesses in which it “seems an unwritten law that whenever a Negro becomes ‘a card or an ace’ he must not entrust his destiny in the hands and guidance of his own folk. Seeping into Negro baseball, now at its peak, is this odium.

“[The October Plan], we are told, is to break up the two leagues, combine them into one, mostly representing the East and West, couple Kansas City and Chicago, two of the best Negro League baseball centers, under one team (robbing Chicago fans of their hometown interest in an exclusive club) and transferring the master control of the league from colored to white.

“Such a plan if carried out in the October meeting will dwindle the interest of the public in organized Negro baseball, and it is the Negro fans in the final analysis who support the game and pile up the profits, not a few greedy, power-seeking owners of the clubs. The ‘October Plan’ has its ‘death sentence’ to the Negro owner in organized baseball that we hope it will not pronounce.”

Right off, I’ve never heard of any such backdoor “October Plan” that would have essentially been a massive coup on the part of white business interests with existing black team owners in full collusion. If anyone out there has heard of anything along those lines brewing during the 1943 Negro Leagues season, let me know.

(As a sidenote, Harper doesn’t name names in terms of exactly which white power brokers he had in mind, but it’s absolutely true that over the years, for better and for worse, white power brokers like Eddie Gottlieb, Abe Saperstein, Syd Pollock and the inimitable Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson, who arguably was the best white executive in blackball history and who has a plaque in Cooperstown to prove it.)

It should be noted that when discussing Gottlieb and Saperstein, two points are worth noting: one, both are more known for their basketball exploits (hence the links to the Naismith Museum); and two, both undoubtedly had to face and navigate anti-Semitism throughout their careers, which factors into the larger Negro Leagues picture.

Defender founder Robert Abbott

However, the organization, stability and profitability of blackball (at least in general) was certainly on the minds of other African-American journalists at the time; scribes such as Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier and Dan Burley of the New York Amsterdam News proffered a keen awareness that black baseball was at a crucial junction in its existence mid-war. (Burley was also a talented musician, music writer and booking agent.)

Coming off an extremely successful season in ’43 — economic prosperity from the war effort provided fans with enough money to spend on games, a development reflected, for example, by the tens of thousands who turned out for the East-West game — these media hawkeyes pushed Negro League owners to get their stuff together to be ready if and when Organized Baseball finally broke down and signed black talent.

Wrote Smith in December 1943:

“I am firmly convinced that the time has come for owners of Negro teams to settle down and start operating as a sound business basis. If there was ever a time for these men to start figuring and planning for the future, its is now. … No one knows when the majors will drop the color barrier and decide to admit Negro players. … Consequently, it seems to me, it would be wise for owners of teams in the Negro American and Negro National leagues to stabilize themselves to the extent that they will be able to realize a financial profit if they are forced to give up some of their players.”

Burley, meanwhile, eviscerated Negro League execs for the bumbling and fumbling that led to blackball’s failure to help the war effort:

“Another non-beautiful chapter in the do-nothing history of organized Negro Baseball seems to have been written … It can safely be said that a blow to racial prestige has come about in the failure of the bigwigs of Negro baseball to make a representation to the War Department for colored players to go abroad, either as teams, or mixed with the white clubs that are under consideration.

“All along, Negro Baseball hasn’t shown too much get up in demanding its proper place in the national morale equation.

“It has yet to take a clearcut, unequivocal viewpoint of Negro players in the Big League. …

“A loose organization of teams that can kick over the traces [of organization] on a moment’s notice; play where they want to and when they want to against whom they please, so to speak, isn’t a healthy indication that Negro Baseball is on its way. Neither does it augur well for the supporting fans to not see anything at all about what colored club owners and demanding not alone for the players, but for the good of all organized Negro baseball.”

Burley, who was always a bit more pointed and fearless in his critiques than other black writers, also targets the personal qualities of each team owner and how it affects the status quo — Ed Bolden of the Philly Stars (smart but to quiet and unassertive), James Semler of the NY Black Yankees (puts forward good ideas but too burdened by financial challenges and the lure of his Long Island retreat), Tom Wilson of the Baltimore Elite Giants (affable and happy-go-lucky, but to the extreme, resulting in a troubling nonchalance), Alex Pompez of the NY Cubans (a dreamer with big visions but no capital to make them happen) and Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays (extremely knowledgeable and capable but too accustomed to working behind closed doors).

Burley rips the Negro Leagues for never hiring a commissioner, failing to send advocates and lobbyists to Washington, relying too heavily on the once-a-year blockbuster East-West Game and a handful of premium exhibition contests for revenue, and just being insular and myopic in the big picture. He states:

“There is no doubting the ability of the boys in question to set up a table overnight, load it down with everything fine and nice and score a sellout with the tickets. But that’s overnight; the stuff is where it can be watched; where individual investors can run back and see if it still there during the course of the night, week or month the money is on the table. But when it comes to long-range vision in which what a guy does today won’t have effect or result until five years or so from now, our boys are on the wrong side of the fence.”

In the end, all of those factors, failures or fudge-ups absolutely could have contributed to blackball’s downfall, and exactly why those conditions existed — basically, why the powers-that-be in the Negro Leagues just couldn’t get on the ball internally and organizationally — has been oft discussed, always will be discussed, and stands as too big a topic for here and now.

However, the assertions of Smith and Burley do require reflection in one regard — the role of the great Effa Manley. Over the last couple of decades — and especially with her Hall of Fame induction in 2006 — Effa’s involvement in and impact on Negro Leagues history have received the attention and research they deserve, because Mrs. Manley was, quite simply, a titan, often the only Negro Leagues owner that had, well, any balls whatsoever.

But in his column, Smith advances bunch of ideas like commandments from Moses even though Effa had been advocating for several of those same proposals for years. Smith makes no mention of her whatsoever, and he steadfastly refers to all the owners and executives solely in the masculine.

But Burley does mention Manley in his critique of each owner, and he matter-of-factly asserts that she gets casually dismissed by her colleagues:

“Effa Manley of the Newark Eagles, a stormy petrel of idealism who has advanced many forward and constructive ideas about the investment of her husband, Abe, owner of the club, but who is handicapped by her sex and by lack of co-operation.”

But, digression aside, back to the analysis of the columns by the three scribes — Burley, Smith and Harper — because within them lies the fundamental difference between the urgent positivity of Smith and Burley, and the morose pessimism of Harper. It also, perhaps, fleshes out overall African-American society and all of American society at the time.

In 1943, Smith and Burley, for all their inspiring foresight, might not have fully realized what integration of the sport would eventually entail — as that process, initiated by Branch Rickey and joined by Bill Veeck and other MLB owners, gradually developed beginning in late 1945, at least a few of those MLB execs didn’t think anything of simply raiding Negro teams for talent, pilfering blackball stars with no compensation or even regard for Negro League teams of owners.

For all of Rickey’s visionary altruism and push for social equality, he was also had dollar signs in his eyes when he signed Jackie, a move that triggered slow, painful decline and disintegration of the Negro Leagues.

So, in a way, white businessmen did end up causing blackball’s demise not just as an athletic enterprise, but as a profitable, African-American financial juggernaut. It might not have gone in the exact way Harper foretold, but it did take place.

In that regard, as a journalist, Harper was on the cutting edge of prognostication and commentary, and he was able to cut through the misty-eyed halcyon days of the era with what proved to be a stinging truism — the destruction of the once-proud Negro Leagues by outside forces.

And that, ladles and gentlemints, is what a good journalist does. He or she needs to walk the tightrope between sensational bluster and revolutionary prescience when analyzing not just what’s going down now, but what the future may hold.

The best African-American journalists of the 20th century were able to do that, just like white pundits in the mainstream of society did. But in addition to contributing to the zeitgeist, black writers brought a distinctive, often ignored point of view — that of a minority that was boldly shedding centuries of bigotry and ignorance and clawing away, slowly, tenaciously, unflaggingly, toward a new day.

They were pissed, they were proud, they were relentless, and they were judicious. And they still are today. (One need only check out April Ryan sparring with Sean Spicer.) They are our brothers and sisters in arms, and they, like us, will not stop.

POSTSCRIPT

 

“Yet, while these developments contributed to the African-American community’s decreasing interest in the Negro Leagues, the black press’ treatment of and relationship with the Negro Leagues played an important role as well. African-American newspapers’ attitudes towards the Negro Leagues shifted dramatically from the cooperative spirit between the two institutions in the 1920s and 1930s, to a fractured, contentious relationship during the 1940s and 1950s. This change influenced African-Americans’ perception of the league. More importantly, the deteriorating relationship between these two black institutions illustrates the struggles African-Americans encountered as they transitioned into an integrated environment.”

— Samuel Edward Gale, The International Journal of the History of Sport, July 2016

Johnny Wright, U.S. Navy ace

I apologize for going AWOL for two weeks — I had a couple of pressing deadlines I had to meet, and, per my usual, I kind of procrastinated. Kind of. Just a bit.

Anyway, in doing one of those articles — a summary of Chicago’s blackball history — I came across a few neat little bits and pieces that I wanted to put out there over the next week while I try to work on some longer, more personal posts.

The first one I picked up on involved the Great Lakes Naval Training Center team in Great Lakes, Ill., which sponsored two baseball teams of naval servicemen during World War II — one white, one black. The African-American squad was formed partially to provide a competitive adversary for the base’s white squad, which was helmed by future Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane.

Not surprisingly to readers of this blog, as well as other Negro Leagues volumes, the Negro Bluejackets did more than just compete — they won the Midwest Servicemen’s League title in 1944, in addition to successfully barnstorming around Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and other Midwestern states.

While the black club’s roster included only one huge name — Larry Doby, future star for the Newark Eagles and the Cleveland Indians, and 1998 National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee — the aggregation was definitely studded with a solid core of other Negro League standouts of the day. Capitol University graduate Ensign Elmer Pesek [I haven’t been able to track down the Capitol reference] skippered the squad (I’ve seen other variations on his name, including first names Ernest and Al, as well as last name Peshek).

The African-American Bluejackets’ strength was undoubtedly its pitching staff, which, from all accounts, was comprised of just two guys. One was Herb Bracken, who hurled for the St. Louis Stars before joining the Navy.

The other was one of NOLA’s most prominent hometown lads, Johnny Wright, who first gained fame on a national scale when he posted an eye-popping mark of 30-5 for the Homestead Grays in 1943.

However, he’s probably best known, at least to the general public, as the man Branch Rickey signed a couple months after Rickey inked Jackie Robinson. Wright obviously didn’t find the same type of success in Organized Baseball as Robbie did; he never made it to the Dodgers themselves, then flitted out of Organized ball altogether by the end of the ’46 season. He returned to the Grays, where he continued to be a stalwart on the iconic Negro League team for several years before retiring to near obscurity. He died in a VA hospital in Jackson, Miss., in 1990.

Over the intervening decades, a few theories have been advanced regarding why Wright couldn’t match Robinson’s success — by many reports, he had major troubled with control once he entered Organized Baseball — but the bigger issue that springs from that debate is why Rickey even signed Wright in this first place? Did the Mahatma truly believe that the New Orleanian had the potential to make the Majors? Or was Wright brought on simply to provide Robinson, the Chosen One, a companion during that brutal first year (1946) and beyond? (I actually wrote a story on this discussion for Baseball America a few years ago.)

For a pitcher who was described by some blackball compatriots as the equal to Satchel Paige, Wright’s story of slipping away into failure is an unbelievably depressing one.

But that’s not the matter at hand here. For the purposes of this blog post, I just wanted to highlight Johnny’s time in the Navy during WWII. Although I have yet to find any of his actually service records (Ancestry hasn’t been helpful), his success as a hurler for the Bluejackets in 1944 was pretty well documented by the contemporary press.

Wright appears to have been the main workhorse of the two-man rotation; in addition to being the primary starter, he also came on in relief several times. The highlight of his season, though, was a sterling, seven-inning no-hitter he tossed on July 8 against the Naval Air School. Wright’s teammates also came to play, clubbing out 15 hits in the 13-1 victory. The Air School’s lone tally came in the fourth inning on an error and a sacrifice.

Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1944

But that was hardly Johnny’s only prime performance. In May 1944, he entered in relief in the second inning against Fort Sheridan, who had run up four scores in less than two frames, and allowed only one more run in the Bluejackets’ 12-6 triumph. A month later, “Needlenose” Wright blanked the squad from Camp Custer, 1-0, giving up just a troika of safeties.

Then, in mid-August, 15,000 fans witnessed Wright dominating a team of local industrial league stars in Cleveland, giving up just two walks while fanning seven in the ’Jackets’ 14-0 pounding.

In addition to garnering press attention from papers at just about every locale the Great Lakes squad visited, Wright was watched by newspapers in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. The Post-Gazette, for example, occasionally included little blurbs about the NOLA native during the 1944 campaign. In its May 25, 1944, edition, the paper stated:

“Johnny Wright, former star hurler for the Homestead Grays, is keeping up the good work with the Great Lakes Negro baseball team.”

The black press, naturally, played up the service status and exploits of Negro Leaguers, and quite deservedly so. That included Billy Young of the Cleveland Call and Post, who authored a detailed profile of the Great Lakes team in July 1944 that included short bios of each player. Here’s how Young described Wright:

“John Richard Wright, right-handed pitcher, former member of the Homestead Grays, hails from New Orleans, Louisiana, is 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighs 168 pounds. He won 30 games and lost 5 last year. He worked in the [famed East-West] All-Star Classic at Comiskey Park, Chicago. He operates now as a seaman, second class, is 27 years of age and handles the duties of a physical instructor exceptionally well. He learned his baseball with the Newark Eagles and the Toledo Crawfords.”

(Wright did don the flannels of both those teams, as well as the Atlanta Black Crackers before arriving in Pittsburgh.)

However, although he was excelling for Uncle Sam, Wright also had a handful of opportunities during the season to suit up with his old Homestead mates. Taking full advantage of furloughs, saw time for the Grays in a loss to the Birmingham Black Barons in mid-June, and he made an appearance at the famous and prestigious East-West All-Star Game in Chicago in August. (Pittsburgh Courier scribe Wendell Smith notes that Wright “was getting handshakes from all the ball players.”)

But it was a week or so later that Wright his biggest chance of the season to help the Grays, when the Homesteaders faced the Newark Eagles in a one-game playoff to determine the winner of the NNL’s first half.

And the Crescent City kid came through for Cum Posey’s crew, who pulled out a thrilling, 9-4 victory in the ninth inning. Wright earned the W, while the irascible Terris McDuffie was tagged with the loss.

(As a military-related side note, an article in the New York Amsterdam News described an incident at the game in which a reporter needled Grays slugger Josh Gibson about the latter’s absence from military service. The reporter suggested that Josh was “ducking” service.)

That seems to have been Wright’s final appearance for Homestead in ’44; he went on to finish his service with Great Lakes, while the Needlenose-less Grays nonetheless proceeded to win the NNL overall flag and defeat the Black Barons, 4 games to 1, in the Negro World Series.

To sum up Wright’s service, here’s how the July 2015 issue of Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime newsletter relates it:

“In 1944, Wright pitched for the Negro Varsity team at US Naval Training Station Great Lakes, Illinois. He was 16-4 during the regular season and a Midwest Servicemen League all-star selection in June of that year.”

So, overall, Wright had a quite solid season on the mound in 1944, most of it while representing the Navy, which is definitely admirable. In terms of the role of the Great Lakes Negro team played in the overall war effort, as well as shaping the public’s perceptions of African-American servicemen and athletes, well, that could be a bit more cloudy. In an age when pretty much the entire American military was still segregated — a fact that kind of flew in the face of our country’s stated drive to preserve equality and democracy across the globe during the war — and black servicemen were frequently kept out of active combat and given more humdrum duties, the legacy of ventures like the Great Lakes Negro squad is decidedly mixed.

(To be fair, the military also had an inclination to often keeping star athletes of all races out of active combat and placing them in assignments that helped them play and perform for Stateside troops as well as civilians as a way to boost morale for the war. For example, heavyweight champ Joe Louis fought several exhibition bouts for Stateside crowds while he was serving in the Army.)

Author Steven R. Bullock examined the purpose and impact of military teams during World War II, including on troop morale and public support, in his 2004 book, “Playing for Their Nation: The American Military and Baseball During World War II.”

In a condensed essay in the Spring 2000 issue of the Journal of Sport History, Bullock noted that, while the Great Lakes men found a relatively decent amount of success, they were, unfortunately, an anomaly:

“The glaring exception to this preoccupation with athletics [in the WWII armed forces] involved African-American soldiers and sailors, who were often overlooked, ignored, or isolated by the American military. This inequitable treatment manifested itself very clearly in athletics, particularly in the realm of military baseball. At some of the larger military installations, such as the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, African American sailors did have the opportunity to compete on segregated baseball teams, and did so there with great success. In 1944, for example, a squad composed of African American sailors stationed at Great Lakes compiled an impressive 32-10 record and claimed the Midwest Service League title. However, for many smaller military bases, there were not enough African Americans to field segregated teams; thus, black soldiers and sailors often found themselves unable to compete on base-ball teams.”

As for Johnny Wright, he, too, remains an enigma, not just in the larger landscape of American baseball history, but also here in New Orleans, where his post-athletic life has always been shrouded in mystery.

When he was signed by the Dodgers, the local African-American newspaper, the Louisiana Weekly, ran massive spreads on the event and followed Wright’s progress in Organized Baseball, while national correspondents from other papers descended on the Crescent City.

However, once the local lad crashed and burned on the big stage, the local media gave him sporadic, fleeting mention as he rounded out his pitching career with the Grays and beyond.

After that, Wright worked a bunch of steady blue-collar jobs here and elsewhere, but in general he slipped into the ether, his life becoming just as puzzling as the reasons for his inability to match the success of Robinson and other black players who followed in Jackie’s path.

In fact, from what I’ve gathered, many locals — well, not many, really, because he’s sadly but largely forgotten here in his hometown — have just stories of fleeting encounters, tales of sightings at bars and in crowds. Whether Needlenose kept up with baseball or followed the sport on any level is just plain unclear, at least to this point.

One person who knew John Wright as well as anyone was legendary New Orleans player, historian and activist Walter Wright (no relation), who served as the patriarch of NOLA’s surviving Negro Leagues community for decades until his own death in 2002. In 1997, Wright was interviewed by the Times-Picayune newspaper, and he relayed a tale that was at best fragmented and mysterious.

“I’m sure most of his co-workers at the gypsum plant never even knew he was a ballplayer,” Walter Wright told the paper.

The article concluded with Walter telling the paper about giving the eulogy and Johnny’s funeral.

“And I when I looked over at his casket,” Walter Wright said, “I couldn’t help
wondering how many stories it contained – stories that now would never be told.”

One of my good friends here, Ro Brown, is an award-winning former TV sports anchor who currently works in the athletic department at the University of New Orleans.

On a couple occasions, Ro has related how, many years ago, he tried to track down John Wright and, at first, didn’t have much luck at all, until an old timer suggested Ro check a local dive bar. Ro says that even though he asked the man for the former star pitcher, the gentleman didn’t at first make the connection between “star baseball player” and the aging John Wright the man knew.

But Ro took the gentleman’s advice one afternoon and went to the bar, where he did, in fact, find John Richard Wright Sr., former pitcher for one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history and compatriot of Jackie Robinson, sitting alone in the gloomy tavern. The scene and discovery shocked Ro. Just the fact that such a phenomenal athlete — one who, at one time, was the talk of his hometown — had faded into such doleful obscurity was disheartening to Ro, who knows the history of sports in NOLA as well or better than anyone, especially when it comes to black baseball.

True, in modern New Orleans, the American pastime is, in many ways, an afterthought; once the Saints arrived and LSU turned into a pigskin power, football has reigned supreme in the bayou. Add in the fact that the city has had two NBA teams, and hardball just doesn’t have the appeal it once did. (We’ll see if the Baby Cakes can help change that this year. Oy.)

Johnny Wright’s story has also intrigued me as well, so much so that I was concerned that he, like so many other Negro League greats, was buried in an unmarked grave, so I decided to find his burial spot.

Fortunately — and this is what I was hoping for — Wright was given a full military burial, including a modest but proud grave marker, among family members in Providence Memorial Park in Metairie, which also includes the final resting places of musical legends Mahalia Jackson and James Booker, among others.

While I was working on my story on Wright for Baseball America, I made contact with a few of his descendants, but I was unfortunately unable to speak with any of them in depth. Since then, a multitude of other stories and projects have filled my calendar and to do lists, and I haven’t had a chance to follow up and speak with them.

I hope one day I can, because there’s so much I, as well as many other baseball history enthusiasts, want to learn about a man who not only starred on the mound but also served his country.