Big Luke’s Rochester legacy

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Photo courtesy Joe Territo Photography

My hometown of Rochester has always been a source of pride and comfort for me, and part of that mutual love between me and my native turf includes the Rochester Red Wings, the oldest continuously operating minor-league professional sports franchise in the country.

The Wings have existed in some form since 1899, and during the ensuing 117 years, the squad has seen some fantastic players and managers come through the ranks, including National Baseball Hall of Famers Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Walter Alston, Earl Weaver, Johnny Mize, Eddie Murray, George Sisler, Cal Ripken Jr. and Red Schoendienst.

Also on the roster at various points were stars like Ken Boyer, Don Baylor, Bobby Grich, Mike Mussina, Bill Virdon, Curt Schilling, Boog Powell, Justin Morneau, Mike Flanagan, Jason Kubel and Paul Blair. There was also football star Sammy Baugh, screenwriter Ron Shelton, and enigmatic folk hero Steve Dalkowski.

The Wings have retired only four numbers, though. Ripken is one (although he shouldn’t be, he played less than one full season in Rochester). Another is Joe Altobelli, a player/coach/manager/general manager/special assistant/color commentator who has become a legendary baseball not just in Rochester, but the entire International League. The third is owner/executive Morrie Silver, whose brilliant and innovative idea of selling shares of the team to the public and creating the landmark Rochester Community Baseball saved the franchise from oblivion in the 1950s.

The third Wings figure to have his number retired is Luke Easter, a Negro League slugger who, well into his career, went on to star at the AAA level before shining as a powerful slugger and first sacker for the Cleveland Indians after debuting as a 34-year-old rookie.

Unfortunately, by 1954, Luke’s bum knees forced him out of the major leagues and back to the minors. Because of that, his story, at first glance, seems like a tragic one – an immensely talented and jovial and loved by teammates and fans who got his big break so late in his career that he never achieved the potential that remained hidden in him for years. Luke Easter’s is a classic “what could have been” story.

Or maybe not, because that wasn’t the end of the tale of Luke Easter.

Luscious Luke made the best of his situation by turning into one of the greatest minor league ballplayers of all time. Even with wobbly knees that reduced him to a virtual limp on the basepaths, his sweet, sweet swing remained, and he ended up clobbering home runs like a kid half his age. His moonshots were stuff of legend, especially in Western New York with the Buffalo Bisons and then the Wings, and his slot at first base was halfway easy on his wrecked legs.

Luke was named the IL’s MVP in 1957 while a Bison, and, after finally putting his prodigious bat on the rack permanently in 1963, he served as a coach for several more years.

For his entire body of work, Easter was inducted into the International League Hall of Fame in 2008, and both the Bisons and the Red Wings retired his number.

It’s truly difficult to underestimate Luke Easter’s place in the pantheon of Rochester sports, a fact of which I was reminded when I attended a Wings game last week with my buddy and Sports & Leisure Magazine writer Mike Sorenson. On the left field wall of Frontier Field is a huge picture of Luke sporting his trademark eye glasses and a huge, hearty laugh, the kind that endeared him permanently to both fans and teammates – and just about everyone who met him.

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In addition, he was a charter member of the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame, his beautiful silver plaque hanging next to other baseball greats. As a 40-something, nearly crippled black man from Jonestown, Miss., Easter is a most unlikely legend for upstate New York.

And yet he is. And hall of fame inductions and number retirements still fail to do justice to Luke’s legacy in Rochester. In 1972, Larry Bump of the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper posed in a headline, “Luke Easter: Better Than Ruth?” Quoting Easter himself, Bump speculated that Luke could have bested the Babe’s 714 homers if given the chance.

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Dec. 27, 1972, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Then, in 1999, a fans poll named Easter the favorite player in Red Wings history, prompting longtime D&C columnist and Rochester fixture Bob Matthews to pen:

“Easter ranks only 10th on the team’s all-time list with 66 home runs, but he’s No. 1 in the hearts and minds of most Red Wings fans who saw him play – including me – and many others too young to have seen but admire his legacy.”

That was 37 years after the franchise sponsored a Luke Easter Day in which the International League president honored him with an IL plaque, and Sisler (at that time the team’s GM) presented the silver-haired slugger with a literal blank check as a reward for Easter’s amazing contributions. The accolades prompted Luke to say:

“I thought 1962 would be my last year, but after tonight I don’t know how I can ever leave Rochester.”

That comment reflects how much Rochester meant to Easter as well. There was, without a doubt, a high level of mutual affection. (Such a symbiotic bond existed between Easter and Buffalo. In fact, Luke even owned a sausage company there.) Easter often, in official documents, listed a Rochester address as his home, including the passenger registers below:

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(500 Norton Street was actually the address of Rochester’s old Silver Stadium, which served as the Wings’ home from 1929-1996, so that’s where Big Luke did his horsehide crushing. By the time I started going to Wings games in the early ’80s, Silver Stadium was, well, horrible. Iron girders blocked views at several spots in the stands, the concourse was grimy and a bit smelly, and one of the parking lots was so close to the stadium that several cars a game would lose their windshield thanks to foul balls The Norton Street neighborhood was in swift decline, making it treacherous on occasion to park on local streets and walk to games. While it was somewhat tough to see Silver go away, most Wings fans were ecstatic when Frontier Field opened up.)

Tales of Easter’s prowess and impact with the Wings have almost become canon and made their way into the national media. In 1964, for example, Pittsburgh Courier columnist Bill Nunn reported on Luke’s assumption of coaching duties with the Wings, as did other pundits in the African-American press.

But for me, one of the most incredible occurrences in Easter’s Red Wings career came in April 23, when he showed up a dictator. Reported the Norfolk New Journal and Guide:

“Fidel there, as was the president of the league, two or three ambassadors, some lesser officials and over 12,000 fans. But it was Big Luke who stole the show.

“Big Luke, of course, is Luke Easter, veteran infield baseball performer who is now the big bat swinger with the Rochester Red Wings of the International League.

“The former Cleveland Indians’ first baseman emerged as the biggest hero of IL openers Wednesday by belting a 10th-inning home run that gave the Red Wings a 4-3 victory over the Sugar Kings at Havana.”

Among a crowd of almost 12,490 was none other than Cuba Premier Fidel Castro, who, despite throwing out the first pitch and allegedly being greeted by “wildly-enthusiastic applause and cheers,” was outshined by Luscious:

“But Big Luke ruined it all, when he broke up a 3-3 tie in the 10th frame with a towering blast off Luis Arroyo, the third Havana hurler. …”

Ultimately, though, the Luke Easter saga does end with tragedy – after returning to and retiring in Cleveland, the locale of his fleeting major league exploits, he was eventually murdered in March 1979 during a hold-up as he was leaving a bank with $40,000 for his fellow employees at TRW Inc., where he was a union steward.

I wrote this article for the Cleveland Plain Dealer a couple years ago to mark the 100th anniversary of Easter’s birth. In the article I inaccurately described the time and situation of the murder, which you’ll see.)

When the news reached Rochester – it didn’t take long – my hometown took it extremely hard. The loss of one of the city’s biggest legends was a crushing blow to a city that had prized its baseball team for decades.

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March 30, 1979, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

But local reporter Bump found a silver lining in Easter’s death by noting that the slugger died a hero by working for his fellow TRW employees. Bump also interviewed a slew of journalists, baseball men and other friends of Easter, several of whom uttered touching elegies to Big Luke.

Towering Rochester sports journalist George Beahon:

“Luke always acted like baseball was doing him a favor for allowing him to play. He couldn’t wait to put on his uniform and get out there.

“He was a great ballplayer and a great person. He always loved people.”

Silver Stadium groundskeeper Dick Sierens:

“He was very popular on and off the field. It’s hard to imagine anything like this happening to old Luke.”

Longtime Rochester sports journalist Scott Pitoniak, in his book, “Baseball in Rochester,” wrote about Easter at length and included several vintage photos of the gregarious Wings hero, describing him thusly:

“Although Luke Easter was past his prime, few players ever captivated a city the way he did Rochester. A mountain of a man at 6 feet 4 inches and 250 pounds, ‘Big Luke’ was as exciting swinging and missing as he was hitting balls over the light towers. He was a gentle giant with an infectious smile and engaging sense of humor. The Wings acquired him in 1959 from Buffalo for the paltry sum of $100. He spent parts of six years with the team as a player, coach, and goodwill ambassador. It was one of the best investments the Wings ever made.”

Many current Red Wings fans – the young ‘uns – don’t know much, if anything, about Luke Easter. For them, he’s just a picture and number on the left field wall at Frontier Field, a name they hear in passing – maybe in the yearly program, maybe in chatting with the city’s old guard of hardball fans – that doesn’t register like it should.

I didn’t ever fully realize who massive a legacy Luke left in my hometown until after college, when I started learning about the Negro Leagues and the integration of Organized Baseball. That’s when I started taking to heart the many words D&C sports columnist Matthews dedicated to Easter. From what I recall, Big Luke was Bob’s all-time favorite Wing, and the writer spoke of and wrote about Easter with a reverential tone that, as I aged, finally struck home with me.

Luke Easter is indeed a Rochester legend. He’s the greatest Red Wing, and, I dare say, always will be.

John Bissant: A muddy, shambled reminder of the past — and the present

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Walking through Carrollton Cemetery in New Orleans in 92-degree heat at 1 p.m. in August is rough enough. But doing it after several days worth of rain in the cemetery’s potter’s field — where little grass and no paved walkways exist and your feet slip and slide in the mud — is even more of a challenge.

So why would I do that this past Monday? Because somewhere in that section of one of NOLA’s many historic burial grounds is the grave of John Bissant, one of the Big Easy’s best baseball products, Bissant played for the Chicago American Giants and Birmingham Black Barons, among other teams, in the 1930s and ’40s before retiring from professional ball by the end of that decade..

In 1942, for example, the New Orleans kid joined with Jimmie Crutchfield and Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell in the American Giants’ outer garden to form what wire columnist R. S. Simmons deemed “one of the greatest combinations of fly ball chasers in the league.”

But Bissant wasn’t just a diamond of a player; his leadership abilities also garnered the respect of his teammates and other peers. In 1947 he was named the American Giants’ team captain under manager Quincy Trouppe, a role to which he returned in 1948.

One particularly twist of fate brought Bissant together with another Big Easy native, Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport, on the Chicago roster. Bissant was 29 and Ducky was just 32 when he took the managerial reins of the Giants. That pairing might be especially poignant — like Bissant, Davenport appears also be in an unmarked grave, this one in Holt Cemetery, which is almost entirely a potter’s field at this point. I’m also trying to find Ducky’s final resting place.

 

(I’m very much hoping to eventually check out several years of the Louisiana Weekly, NOLA’s multicultural paper, from the 1930s onward to discover coverage of Bissant by the local black press. The Weekly is only available on microfilm.)

Unfortunately, memories of Bissant are fading rapidly into the burgeoning haze of passing time. Younger generations, even those with intimate connections to the blackball scene in the Crescent City, are simply not old enough to have any memory of him.

For example, I recently asked my good friend Rodney Page, the son of legendary NOLA team owner/promoter/executive/entrepreneur Allen Page, who told me this by email:

“Concerning John Bissant, I did not know him nor have any family connections. I’ve heard his name in long ago conversations and know that he was also a member of the New Orleans Creoles when my dad owned the team. Lots of familiar names, but no personal knowledge or experience like Wesley Barrow, who I still think of very often.”

How much has the New Orleans community — including African-American residents — let John Bissant’s legacy slip away? When I looked through issues of the Louisiana Weekly (the city’s multi-cultural paper) published in the weeks and even months after his death in 2006, I couldn’t find a single word about his passing.

Bissant died in Houston in April of that year — he relocated there after that year’s devastating hurricane  — and was brought back to his hometown for burial in Carrollton Cemetery, which is nestled in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, just a few blocks from the Tulane University campus and maybe a half-mile from where much of his family lived during the first half of the 20th century.

The Bissants were clustered in the blocks just north of famed St. Charles Avenue — a thoroughfare known for its overhanging willow and cypress trees and ambling streetcar line — on Clara, Cadiz and Howard streets. (Later generations of the family shifted a bit to the east, settling in the Garden District, located adjacent to downtown on the east.)

Bissant seems to have been a source of pride for the Carrollton neighborhood; in fact, he has an entry on a New Orleans museum’s page on baseball in Carrollton.

So it was probably natural that the Bissants would be interred in Carrollton Cemetery. But’s it’s also depressing as well — founded in 1849 when the Carrollton neighborhood was its own city, the burying ground was one of the few Catholic cemeteries in the area to be sectioned off by race and by class. As a result, the vast majority of the African-Americans buried there were relegated to the “colored” section — which, as one might guess given the harsh socioeconomic realities of segregation, is described by modern cemetery employees as the indigent section.

The Carrollton Cemetery has a long, 160-plus-year history as one of the cornerstone landmarks of the neighborhood. The burial ground’s managerial duties passed through several institutions and officials, from the Church to sextons to volunteer organizations to, finally, the City of New Orleans. Right now, it seems like maintenance of Carrollton Cemetery is primarily a city duty, but doubtless many volunteer organizations and church groups lend a significant hand as well, as with every historic cemetery on the city. (Originally its own incorporated city — in effect, a suburb of New Orleans — Carrollton was annexed by NOLA in 1874, shifting control of the burial grounds as well.)

Residents Upkeep occurred regularly as well into the 20th century — a wooden shed was approved in 1903, and in 1912, efforts began to extend city water service to the burial ground.

On that note, Carrollton Cemetery is quite unusual for the Crescent City, too — it’s located on remarkably high ground (at least for NOLA), which allows underground burials along with tombs and mausoleums. But, alas, most of the underground graves are guess where? Yep, the indigent/colored section. The rest of the yard is graced with the type of tombs and structures that make “cities of the dead” New Orleans landmarks and tourist stops.

That became the case early on, too — in a November 1879 edition of the New Orleans Times-Democrat, the writer described the cemetery thusly:

“While life flowed into the graveyards in the other portions of the city, the neat graveyard at Carrollton, situated on Adams street, was visited by a large number of persons throughout the day and the evening. The floral decorations also compared very favorably with those considered most prominent in thus beautifying the homes of the silent majority.”

You want quirky and creepy? We got that too. Stated the March 8, 1885, Times-Picayune, after an unusual overnight occurrence at the cemetery:

“… some persons broke into the Carrollton cemetery and destroyed the tomb of F. Carrouleau. The tomb contained the remains of a man named Dominick Fosse. There was quite a sensation Carrollton last summer over the supposed appearance of Fosse’s ghost at Carrollton avenue and Fourteenth street, and the ghost business is said to have some connection to the strange destruction of the tomb.”

Zoinks, Shaggy!

While the most well known New Orleans historical figures buried in Carrollton are white, there have been several celebrated black interments as well. For example, in November 1896 the Times-Picayune reported of the interment in Carrollton Cemetery of a towering figure in the city:

“The colored population of the city mourns the loss of one one of its most intelligent and worthy leaders in the person of Rev. Stephen Priestly, one of the most prominent ant able colored preachers in the state, and it might be even be said in the south. … It was the largest [funeral] that ever was witnessed among the colored people of this city. It was a tribute of an appreciative people to a worthy man who has devoted all the energies of his life to the education and good of his race. For thirty years he has been their counselor and minister, and has figured conspicuously in every movement for their betterment.”

Of course, the paternalistic and somewhat condescending tone of that article does reflect the attitudes of New Orleans’ white population at the time, but it’s still significant that Rev. Priestly’s burial in a city-owned location would garner so much attention.

Unfortunately, it’s now 120 years later, and things are a bit different in Carrollton Cemetery’s “colored” section. There’s no more famous African Americans buried there, no more ballyhooed funeral services, no chances for the local black (and white) population to celebrate important figures in the ever-evolving social nature of the city.

Now, this “indifent” portion of the cemetery plat, located in the south corner of the facility, stands as a depressing chunk of a bleak history that, quite frequently, is a muddy, bleak, rubble-strewn mess. While the other (i.e. white) section of the cemetery picturesque and tidy — with massive, ornamental crypts and organized, marked rows — the indigent section is a crowded, haphazard mess composed of graves that are either sunken into the earth and marked with cracked, faded or toppled tombstones, if marked at all. In some places, the graves are squished literally back-to-back and side-to-side, or often at odd angles that leave very little, if any, room to walk around and over them without stepping on the graves. When I quizzed a staffer about Bissant’s grave, she said the “indigent” section doesn’t even have a written, mapped out layout. “It’s just empty space,” she said.

It’s hard not to be completely deflated and blown away by that statement. It’s just really, really depressing. quite.

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When I visited earlier this week Carrolltom Cemetery was devoid of any people (living ones, I mean) except a single, African-American employee who was power-washing the tombs in the white section. With no on-site office — the cemetery is owned and maintained by the city from downtown — and almost no tourists or family visitors at the site, maintenance workers are often the lone people in the facility. When I asked this employee, a middle- to older-aged African-American man wearing a sun hat and rubber boots, where Bissant might be, he pointed to the south corner. When I told him the plot number for Bissant’s grave, he said he didn’t recognize it.

“Maybe if you just walked up and down and see if you can find it …,” he said with a twinge of resignation. He knew history’s reality. He knew why things are the way they are.

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By this time, my tubby ass was already sweating as I shuffled down toward the “colored” section. It would by an exasperating task. I knew that. But I was determined to find John Bissant, slugger for the Chicago American Giants and local hardball legend — one that had disappeared in death.

The story will continue in my next post. Keep up the good fight.

The Hall opens up once again!

 

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John Donaldson

The big news of the past week is doubtless that the National Baseball Hall of Fame significantly adjusted and updated its induction selection process. A press release to the statement is here, but for the concerns and fans of the blackball world, the bottom line is this: Negro Leaguers and other standouts from African-American baseball history will now be eligible for induction once again!

Here’s an excerpt from the Hall’s press release:

“Effective immediately, the Board has made changes to the Era Committee system, which provides an avenue for Hall of Fame consideration to managers, umpires and executives, as well as players retired for more than 15 seasons.

“Highlighting these changes is a restructuring of the timeframes to be considered, with a much greater emphasis on modern eras. Additionally, those major league players, managers, umpires and executives who excelled before 1950, as well Negro Leagues stars, will still have an opportunity to have their careers reviewed, but with less frequency.”

As you can see, there’s a whole bunch of other readjustments to the selection process – thank goodness, because just about the entire method for election was arcane, byzantine and just plain goofy in spots – and the ins and outs of the changes are detailed in the above referenced statement from the Hall.

Exactly why the Hall’s higher-ups decided to make these seismic shifts might not be completely clear, and hopefully those details – especially the HOF’s reasons for once again opening its doors to Negro Leaguers after the huge 2006 induction class and the ensuing decade-long insistence of maintaining its institutional closed-door policy in terms of blackballers (which I’ve discussed here and here) – will emerge in the coming weeks and months.

What does appear to be true is that this shift will not mean that there will be a flood of blackball stars inducted anytime in the near future. Instead, it would be much more like a trickle over several years. That’s not ideal — and it certainly won’t rectify the horrible under-representation of Negro Leaguers compared to white players in the HOF – but, as many people have noted in the last few days, it’s absolutely better than nothing.

I didn’t have a chance to watch this year’s HOF ceremony yesterday, but it seems like it was an emotional and powerful event for everyone involved, and both inductees were more than qualified (although all Negro League fans know that Piazza, no matter how good he was, was most definitely not the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history).

But now, we have hope that the memories and legacies of some of the legendary stars of yesteryear will no longer face segregation and indignity in death as they did in life. It’s also unclear how exactly this will all play out in terms of practicality and concrete results, i.e. how many Negro Leaguers will get in, when they might get in, etc., but many of us are nonetheless ecstatic and waiting with bated breath to see how it all unfolds.

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John Beckwith

OK, with that said, last week I asked readers of several Facebook pages to submit thoughts about the HOF’s ban on further Negro Leaguers’ induction – this was before this past weekend’s huge announcement – and offered them a chance to nominate possible blackball candidates who should be considered, and your comments were incredible and much appreciated!

The big news from this weekend kind of makes moot thoughts given about the former closed door policy, but the suggestions of who should be considered in the future are still more than applicable. So, here’s a highly unscientific and largely qualitative summary of the responses we got from my questions of which Negro Leaguers merit a very close look from the HOF …

Of the comments I got last week, three names seemed to pop up several times – Bud Fowler, John Donaldson and Minnie Minoso. In fact, very soon after I posted my question, I immediately got a couple people putting forth Minoso, including Karl Lindholm and Risa Reid, who said the Cuban Comet “is the first name that pops into my head on this one.”

John Donaldson was another figure who got a lot of love. In addition to Donaldson’s prodigious talent, because he was so well traveled and well liked, he had a massive influence on countless other players and in many ways had a Midas touch.

Commenters who mentioned Donaldson were Rod Nelson, Joe Williams and Bill Staples. But the biggest voice for John was naturally Peter Gorton, the tireless advocate for Donaldson’s legacy and the head of The Donaldson Network. Stated Peter in his comments:

“I believe John Donaldson should be considered because of his impact on the game.  This endorsement should come as no surprise from me, however it has little to do with my opinion.

“The career of John Donaldson speaks for itself.

“He had an outstanding career as a pitcher, followed that with mentoring of some of the games best — including Satchel Paige — and was the first black scout in MLB history! His impact leaves little to be denied.”

A third name that popped up several times was Bud Fowler, one of the most fascinating and quirky characters in baseball history. For three decades in the 19th century, Fowler traversed the nation, practically coast to coast, playing for both white and “colored” teams, and founding/managing/heading several all-black teams after the curtain of segregation fell.

However, he never played in the Majors, which has often been used as a significant argument against his consideration for the Hall of Fame. Specifically, he’s gotten very little support from the Hall’s Overlooked 19th-Century committee. But his influence on the game and his lasting legacy cannot be understated. As such, Fowler was mentioned by Rod Nelson, Ted Knorr, Mitch Lutzke and Bill Staples.

A handful of other blackball figures got multiple nods, including Dick Lundy, Rap Dixon, Dick Redding, John Beckwith, Grant Johnson and, naturally, the great Buck O’Neil.

One name Ted Knorr also put forward was Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee, who could be the most deserving team owner/executive not already in the Hall. In my mind, though, a big issue with him – at least in the mind of Hall voters – was that he was widely and quite openly known as a gangster and numbers runner who was immersed in the Pittsburgh underworld. Nevertheless, Greenlee certainly at the very least deserves strong consideration from Hall voters.

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Fay Young

I was also delighted that one of my own – sportswriters – got a nod when Reginald Pitts posted this:

“Can I put in a plug for Fay Young of the Chicago Defender, the dean of black sportswriters, who was involved in black baseball and in beating the drums for Jackie Robinson?”

Other lesser known and very overlooked figures put forward were Spot Poles (by Joe Williams), Dobie Moore (by Bill Staples), George Scales (by Ted Knorr) and Laymon Yokley (by Bernard McKenna).

All in all, that’s quite a list, and just about all of the players/owners/managers mentioned deserve a very close look from the Hall. A few others I’d suggest at least for consideration are Bruce Petway (in my mind the greatest defensive catcher in Negro Leagues history), Oliver Marcell (the finest third baseman not yet in the Hall), Newt Allen (a sparkplug of a second sacker as well as a fine manager), Dave Malarcher (a solid third sacker but more importantly the heir to Rube Foster’s managing legacy), Frank Warfield, Tom Wilson (arguably the greatest Southern Negro Leagues team owner and executive), the incomparable character Double Duty Radcliffe, trailblazing Indianapolis ABCs owner C.I. Taylor, Renaissance man Dizzy Dismukes and the fabled Cannonball Jackman.

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Oliver Marcell

But, again, we’ll have to see how everything shakes out as this process moves forward, the dust settles and the pieces fall in place. I’ll try to write more about this in the ensuing weeks, and to all of you kind readers, please feel free to continue posting your thoughts on the latest developments with the HOF as well as your nominees for possible future residents of the hallowed halls of Cooperstown!

George Altman kicks off the Malloy!

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It’s hard picking out any comment that George Altman made as the “best” one. They were all pretty much incredible.

George opened the 19th annual SABR Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference by wowing the dozens of attendees who gathered to hear him tell tales of his playing days — as a Kansas City Monarch, as a Chicago Cub and as a star in Japan in a professional career that ran from 1955 through 1975. During his tenure in the top leagues, George achieved All-Star status as a Cub three times and smacked a total of 306 homers between his time in MLB and in the Nippon League.

I’m a bit bleary-eyed right now and running on pure adrenaline — it was definitely a mistake to drive here from NOLA (Arkansas can be a looooooong state) — but I made it, as did all of us pilgrims to the birthplace of the first Negro National League.

George was a special guest of the Negro Leagues committee, and during tonight’s meet-and-greet, he definitely kicked things off with a bang. Here are a few of his comments:

On the difference between spring training in the U.S. and in Japan — “They do things over there [in Japan] that are a loooooot different, and one thing was the spring training. I call it kamikaze training.”

On the pressure of playing for stellar managers like Leo Durocher — “You gotta go out and do a good job or else they back up the truck.”

On how he developed his fast feet while competing at youth rec centers as a kid in Goldsboro, N.C., in a rival team’s gym — “After the game, you had to move on home. They [other players] get very territorial after a while. And that’s how I think I got my speed.”

On the impossibility of choosing the best hitter he ever saw — “I saw Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, Stan Musial … I’d like to say who was best, but I’d have to say that they’re just all good.”

On the best day of his career — “Probably the day I signed my first contract,” a comment that garnered a lot of audience laughter.

On why he loved the Negro Leagues — “What I liked about the Negro Leagues was all the history. I heard about all these guys, and I just liked how colorful it was when they played. They had colorful nicknames — Double Duty Radcliffe, Smokey Joe Williams, Boojum Wilson …”

His advice for aspiring young African-American ballplayers — You just have to work hard, study and concentrate, and just be there when your chance comes along. The young black American player just isn’t pursuing baseball like they did in the past. But baseball offers so many opportunities, so I would think that black players would look at baseball more.”

After sharing his wisdom and stories, George received a commemorative certificate and bat from Malloy Chairman and Q&A moderator Larry Lester, to a standing ovation from the audience. George’s dedication to the game and the fans at the Malloy was evidenced by the fact that he made the trip from St. Louis despite a painfully ailing back.

But even at 83 years old, he’s lithe, spry and eager to open himself up to the public.

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As George sat signing autographs for a long line of fans after his talk, I had a little chat with his wife, Etta Altman, who didn’t meet and marry George until after his playing days. As a result, she said, she didn’t really know who he was and how popular he had been as an athlete. She said she was especially struck by how much of an impact he had when, while at another baseball convention, fans asked her for an autograph.

She told me about how she met rock ‘n’ roll icon Chuck Berry on a trip to Japan, where George had been invited to speak about his post-playing career as a successful commodities broker. She had a chance to meet a slew of other famous people through George, such as jazz/R&B singer Nancy Wilson.

“I couldn’t believe how many people he knew!” she told me.

Etta stressed, too, that one of George’s achievements of which she is most proud is the fact that he earned a degree from Tennessee State University.

“That’s so important, to have something to fall back on,” she said. “You can get injured [playing sports], and you need to have something else there.”

Etta said her husband is dedicated to serving the community and giving back to fans, especially by appearing at conferences, conventions and memorabilia shows so he can share his experiences and his life lessons with newer generations of baseball fans and historians.

“These men have so many great stories to tell people,” she said.

OK, we got lots more tomorrow, so hopefully I can get another post or two up soon!

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The basepath less beaten

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It seems I might have reached a possible turning point in my career and my life. Probably not a permanent one, but one necessitated by health reasons, psychological stress and plain ol’ burnout.

I was, to say the least, not at my best during this year’s SABR Malloy conference, held in Kansas City. I was out of commission most of time, for which I greatly apologize to Larry, Leslie and all of my friends and my peers. I was truly looking forward to seeing everyone and catching up on the past year exploring blackball lore.

Quite simply, I had pushed myself too hard, especially given my ongoing disabilities and battles with brain disorders. Within a couple months I made three out-of-state trips — one to visit family, and two for Negro Leagues events — eight days of dog-sitting that included food poisoning from alligator sausage (true story), five article deadlines/edits and a downturn in my mom’s help.

Actually, I’m leaving NOLA Tuesday for Rochester for 12 days to help her transition back to her apartment from the rehab center. She’s doing much better now, but it was pretty scary at times. So for the next couple weeks, much of my attention, energy and love will be focused on getting her back on her feet.

But there’s something deeper than that as well, something that’s kind of gnawing on my noodle — I’m burned out from historical baseball research. I feel so horrible for saying that, but I think it’s true. For four years I’ve been harassing editors for assignments — and then getting them to actually pay me, which often is like the proverbial teeth-pulling — to both pay the bills and to pursue my passion for the Negro Leagues and other segregation-era African-American baseball subjects.

In doing so, I had an absolute blast, I learned more about our collective past than I ever thought I’d find, and I met and befriended some incredible, incredible people, developments that have often buoyed my spirits and kept me chugging along.  I’ve also been blessed with a far-reaching and dedicated network of family and other friends who have kept me from bottoming out and supported me in my efforts to both enjoy my career and continue working on solving the health issues that have dogged me for more than two decades.

But while all this was going, by the time 2016 rolled around, I realized I was, in fact, pushing myself too hard. I churned out so much copy, dug through so many databases and tracked down so many interviews. I was setting the bar unreasonably high, and I just kept on raising it. Part of the motivation for doing so was financial — when you’re on a limited income, you gotta do whatever you can to make ends meet — and part of it was psychological as well.

And in the end, I just collapsed, an outcome born out by my disheartening showing at the Malloy. I’m simply burned out, and I’m still in the process of catching my breath, taking stock of the situation and figuring out where to go from here.

And that could be bearing fruit — I feel like I’m starting to grab hold of a new direction in my life. Well, maybe not a new direction, but an adjusted one. I think I’m recalibrating my GPS — or retraining my compass, ’cause after all I did earn Orienteering merit badge as a Boy Scout — and focusing on a different spot on the horizon. And other such cliches, lol.

Don’t worry, the Negro Leagues will still be heavily involved, just in a different context. At this point, I need to step away from the intense, down ‘n’ dirty, turn-over-every-shell-for historical pearls that can seem so frustratingly elusive at times. I love digging into the intricacies of our past, but for now I need to take a break from it.

Enter the new focus. Over the years I’ve experienced some pretty heady stuff and visited a lot of cool places. It has certainly not been easy — in fact, it often has been quite painful — but I wouldn’t trade my 43 years on earth for any others. My trials, travails and travels have made me the man I am today. I’ve survived a lot and forged ahead, and I’m working very hard to actually be a little proud of myself and give myself an ounce or two of credit for my accomplishments, both professional and personal.

I’ve had quite a life. Now I want to write about it. I want to tell my story, and I want to weave it around and within my experiences investigating and loving blackball history and its legacy. I haven’t exactly figured out the intricacies of how I’m gonna do that — it’s a work in progress, a play-it-by-ear sorta thing. But I want to just … write. Let it out, let it flow, and see where it goes.

I’d even maybe like to pull all the disparate strands of thinking and remembering into a greater whole — a book perhaps? For two decades, I’ve wanted to be an author, but I’ve never hiked up my belt, tied my boots and got up the gumption to actually do it. (Oh, and if anyone reading this might have any ideas or suggestions for getting there, I’d welcome all the help I kin git.)

So here I sit, hopefully on the precipice of a new dawn, the rising of a new sun and the start of a new day. And I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes. I’ll try to put up some posts when I can, but I’m gonna try not to sweat it. Whenever I feel I got something cool to say, I’ll do it. So please be patient!

For now, then, I’ll sign off, but I’ll see you again soon. Thank you all for continuing to read this here humble production, and for all the support in general. I feel like you all are my family — by blood, by experience and by simple ol’ friendship — and I’m grateful for it all.

Right now, I’m just continuing to build a belief in myself as a person and as a writer. It’s naturally an ongoing process, but it’s steadily getting there. I’ll leave you with a quote from Buck Leonard. I met him at his house in 1995, just a couple years before he died, an experience I’ll most assuredly tell you about soon, and an experience during which he was gracious enough to sign my copy of his biography, pictured at the start of this post.

This quote is, actually, from his autobiography, from a section in which he selects his all-time Negro Leagues team: “Most people put me on the team at third base, but I won’t talk about myself here except to say that I always had confidence in my ability.”

There’s one more quote from Buck’s book that doesn’t really apply to me personally (I’m certainly no Wendell Smith or Grantland Rice), but it’s an appropriate one now that the Hall of Fame is once again open to blackball stars, and it touches on a topic I’ll definitely return to here and there:

“I just hope that the deserving players from the Negro Leagues begin to get in the Hall of Fame with the rest of us. I don’t understand why they keep passing over them every year.”

A holiday extravaganza of black baseball

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Former Vice President Charles Curtis

It’s been way too long since I’ve gotten off my big duff and back on the blogging trail, for which I apologize tremendously. I’ve had trips to visit family and a week of dogsitting a surprisingly spry 10-year-old golden retriever named Van Gogh.

I’ve also been kind of bogged down by the sheer mass of stuff about which I’ve wanted to write lately – it’s been so hard to pick out which juicy topic to attack first and bring to y’all.

As a result, which this post on the Fourth of July, I’ve tried to tie in as many of these scattershot subjects into one post. I’ve also hopefully come up with something quite appropriate for the 240th celebration of our country’s independence from those dopes who just voted to tank the global economy. (I want to note, though, that both Northern Ireland and my distant relatives in Scotland voted for sanity and to stay put, but their level-headedness was overwhelmed by a slew of jingoistic knuckleheads. Alas.)

Anyway, this post is about that most American of cities, Washington, D.C., and it also brings a whole bunch of stuff together.

But fair warning – this is the longest blog post I’ve ever written. It’s several thousand words long, so be prepared. Hopefully I’ve put it together well enough that it flows in some coherent manner, but I’m sure at spots it rambles a little too much and skips off into the meadows every once in a while.

So here we go …

One subject that I’ve unfortunately let wither over the last month of inertia is legendary catcher Bruce Petway, one of the best African-American backstops of the 1910s and ’20s and arguably one of greatest defensive catchers in baseball history, black or white.

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Bruce Petway

I wrote a post about him here, but that was a while ago, and, with his 100th birthday being marked today, Independence Day, I figured it might be a good time to revisit his story. In

addition, this month I have an article out in Nashville Lifestyles about Petway – a native of the Music City – and the Negro Leagues scene in that Tennessee metropolis.

As my work on Petway progressed, I strove to pitch a story or two to publications in Detroit, where Petway had suited up most famously for the Detroit Stars from 1919 to 1925.

But here’s a twist – over the last year of researching Petway’s life and career, at the same time I’ve been poking around some other quirky topics embedded in blackball history. One strand of inquiry stemmed this year’s already volatile presidential campaign and upcoming election in November. I was curious about whether any politicians – especially presidential candidates – from the past, in an effort to court the African-American vote, ever appeared at Negro Leagues games or events in any official capacity.

Another low hanging piece of historical fruit in which I’ve always been interested is the 1932 East-West League, an effort by Cum Posey, the Hall of Fame owner of the Homestead Grays, to pull together a formal Negro League after the demise of the first Negro National League the previous year. The NNL’s disintegration meant led to the prospect that the 1932 baseball season would pass without a top-level, or “major,” Negro League in existence, and Posey attempted to fill that void.

Theeeeeeen, while all that was going on … I’ve been working steadily (although, unfortunately, I admit, not as diligently as I should) on an article for a publication in Charleston, S.C., about that city’s involvement in the landmark 1886 Southern League of Colored Base Ballists, the first known attempt at a regional professional “colored” base ball (two words back then) circuit. Springing from my work in that area was a curiosity about any other important Palmetto State connections to African-American hardball.

Aaaaaaaaaand, while all of that stuff was percolating, I had in the back of my mind that 2016 – July 9, to be precise – marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Hall of Fame first baseman and legendary blackball slugger Mule Suttles, which prompted me to investigate any ways I could write about that milestone for various publications.

Mule Suttles

Mule Suttles

With all of these lines of inquiry floating around in my noggin, I eventually – and, perhaps, unlikely – tripped over a topic that amazingly brought all of those strands together – the Washington Pilots.

While much of this thought process tumbled along months ago – therefore, admittedly, rendering my memory of the whole thing a little fuzzy – I think my first inkling about the Pilots was stirred by my poking around the whole politics angle.

As I was searching various databases for info about politicians visiting Negro League games, I came across this post by Gary Ashwill on his outstanding blog, Agate Type. In the piece, Gary discusses how, in May 1932, then-Vice President Charles Curtis appeared at Griffith Stadium to throw out the first ball at the opening game of the … 1932 East-West League! The teams taking the field that day? The storied Hilldale Club of Philadelphia and … the Washington Pilots!

Setting aside the baseball angle for a moment, Charles Curtis, despite an intriguing personal story, seems to be relegated to the dustbin of American political history. Curtis, who interestingly possessed a strand of Native-American lineage, was a native of Topeka, Kan. Born in 1860, about a year and a half before the start of the Civil War, became a lawyer in young adulthood before scaling the political heights – first as an eight-term Congressman, then as a U.S. senator from Kansas from 1907-1913, then again from 1915 through 1928.

That experience turned Curtis into a major power player in D.C., where he served first as the Republican whip in the Senate, then as party majority leader. He specialized in Indian relations, national defense, natural resources and, most crucially, agriculture. He also solidified his reputation as a strict, dedicated adherent to the rule and letter of the law.

That tenure, especially his advocacy of farm relief, prompted GOP presidential candidate Herbert Hoover to select Curtis as his running mate. The pair triumphed in November 1928, with Hoover succeeding fellow GOP president Calvin Coolidge, who had retired.

But then disaster happened – the stock market crash of October 1929, which plummeted the national economy into the Great Depression, a situation that immediately and starkly soured the American populace on the Hoover administration.

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A panicked crowd mobs a New York bank after the crash

The administration’s feeble attempts to pull the country out of the Depression were utterly dismal, and the economic morass dragged on and on. At the same time, the Democrats nominated the charismatic, ambitious – and, some say, visionary – Franklin D. Roosevelt as their candidate, making the 1932 presidential election essentially a referendum on the future of the national economy and the role government should play in it.

Needless to say, Hoover and Curtis had a massive uphill battle facing them, which doubtlessly prompted Curtis to campaign tirelessly in an effort to boost the Administration’s abysmal public approval rate.

At that time, the Republican Party was still the go-to organization for most of the country’s African-American voters, or at least the ones outside of the South, where Jim Crow had for decades shut blacks out of the political process. The GOP remained “the party of Lincoln,” the Great Emancipator.

Meanwhile, the Depression had hit the country’s African-American population especially hard; by 1932, black unemployment hovered around a staggering 50 percent, significantly more than the population as a whole, and white animosity toward black workers constantly simmered just below the social surface. In addition, the U.S. military remained segregated, and lynchings continued to be a rising scourge on black life, especially in the South.

As a result, it could be argued that Hoover/Curtis, as the standard-bearers of the supposed “party of Lincoln,” knew they needed to court the African-American vote. One way to do that? Show up at a Negro Leagues game and mug for the cameras.

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Chet Brewer

Thus, perhaps, Curtis’ involvement in the Washington Pilots-Hilldale Club game in late May 1932. The VP’s presence did indeed make a splash in the media, especially the African-American press, which ran huge photos of Curtis winding up to throw out the first pitch from the stands. The Pilots’ Chet Brewer received the toss while other national officials – such as Assistant Attorney General C.B. Sisson and Republican National Committee director A.H. Lucas – looked on. Also in the VP’s box in the stands were Pilots officials H.E. Jones, R.B. McCoy and John Lucas (apparently no relation to A.H. Lucas), and more on that trio later …

Alas, all such PR efforts failed for Hoover and Curtis, who were crushed by FDR in the general election, triggering a massive political realignment in the country. Roosevelt famously launched the New Deal, which greatly enlarged the size of government by creating several social welfare programs that still exist today, as well as intensive job-building efforts such as the Works Progress Administration.

Coupled with the GOP’s distinct hesitation – as embodied by Hoover’s previous policies – to involve the government in addressing the Depression – FDR’s policies turned the Democrats into the country’s supposed “progressive” party and the GOP into the “conservatives.”

With that, the country’s black population gradually shifted its allegiance to the Democrats, a trend strengthened a couple decades later, when the GOP’s Richard Nixon launched a concerted effort to turn the conservative white South into a Republican-dominated voting bloc — the infamous “Southern Strategy.

To wit, here’s an excerpt from an article on the Library of Congress Web site:

“Although most African Americans traditionally voted Republican, the election of President Franklin Roosevelt began to change voting patterns. Roosevelt entertained African-American visitors at the White House and was known to have a number of black advisors. According to historian John Hope Franklin, many African Americans were excited by the energy with which Roosevelt began tackling the problems of the Depression and gained ‘a sense of belonging they had never experienced before’ from his fireside chats.”

Curtis, meanwhile, retired from public office after leaving the vice presidency but did maintain an interest in public affairs before passing away in February 1936 and being buried in his native Topeka.

Although Curtis has become little more than an historical footnote – the unfortunate fate of many a vice president, but especially for a one-termer who served in one of the most unpopular administrations of the last 100 years – he remains respected by historians for his character and dedication to serving the people. He received similar plaudits from the contemporary press at the time of his death. Stated the Feb. 9, 1936, New York Times:

“He was one of the few Vice Presidents positively to enjoy the office. He relished those social obligations even a partial census of which makes you think of the interminable drudgery of a Prince of Wales or a Royal Duke. He worked hard. It was a pleasure for him to play hard. …

“He was’ a character.’ His shirt was unstuffed. Within the circle of his doctrines, he served his country well. But it is the man with good Tawny blood in him and some tang of the frontier, his friendly qualities, his veracity, his little harmless vanities, that gained the good-will of persons who hated his politics.”

(Question: Does anyone know what Tawny blood means?)

But enough of my babbling about politics – I did, after all, double-major in political science as a undergrad, a decision that has often remained useless throughout my journalistic career.

Back to baseball! …

Thus, thanks to Gary Ashwill’s post, I was tuned into the Washington Pilots. And, because the Pilots were members of the 1932 East-West League, this newfound knowledge intersected with my ongoing interest in that Cum Posey-led circuit.

Then I checked out some of the players on the Pilots’ 1932 roster, a list that included … Mule Suttles, who died exactly a half-century ago this week! Bingo! Another strand of research leads to a central vortex of history.

In addition, one figure who was heavily involved in the creation of the East-West League was Hall of Famer Ben Taylor, a first sacker and one of the famous Taylor brothers quartet who collectively played an intricate roll in the development of Negro baseball for three decades in the first half of the 20th century. The Taylor brood also included famous siblings C.I., Candy Jim and “Steel Arm” Johnny.

Head & shoulders portrait of newly inducted Hall of Famer, Ben Taylor, 1st baseman of the Negro Leagues. Photo taken from team portrait of the 1915 Indianapolis ABC's.

Ben Taylor

Taylor did indeed get in on the ground floor with the new league, even playing a crucial role in the discussions that coalesced between various owners and execs in late 1931, after it became clear that the (first) NNL was kaput.

As it turned out, one of the final and most conclusive meetings occurred in Washington, D.C., in mid-October. In an article in the Oct. 24, 1934, issue of the Baltimore Afro-American, special correspondent S.B. Wilkins reported that a group of mostly Eastern baseball moguls had agreed to pull together a new, eight-team league.

However, what were termed “Western observers” also showed up, including Ben Taylor, who was ostensibly representing the Indianapolis ABCs. On top of that, the article asserted that Taylor was one of several managers at the meeting who were seeking gigs with one of the new eight franchises.

Also, most interestingly, Wilkins reported that Taylor had previously proposed an East-West league that encompassed aggregations from both the East Coast and the Midwest, but Wilkins wrote that the proposal “was deemed inexpedient at this time.”

However, at some point the nascent loop’s execs did, in fact, decide on an East-West League, apparently picking up on Taylor’s previously rejected idea. And while Taylor didn’t land a managerial job in the circuit, league execs tapped the venerable member of Negro baseball’s first family an umpire for the upcoming season. In fact, the Afro-American’s Bill Gibson reported, in cryptic-yet-common-for-the-day language, in April 1932 on the league’s targeting of Taylor for the blue crew:

“And before I leave the local baseball situation, I understand that ‘Uncle’ Ben Taylor, who piloted the Sox through many successful seasons, is being sought by the East-West League as an umpire. The pillar is for Ben. He fits into the picture nicely, eh, wot?”

Wot?

Added Pittsburgh Courier columnist Rollo Wilson a few weeks later:

“While Ben Taylor has not been conspicuous as an umpire, his background is such that he should be a success. Serving as a player, manager and owner, he is familiar with every angle of the game.”

Added an un-bylined article in the same issue of the Courier a few weeks earlier:

“Benjamin H. ‘Brother Ben’ Taylor, famous scion of that of that illustrious Indianapolis baseball family, has been appointed as one of the umpires in the East-West League. Ben handed in his application when the league moguls met in Washington after failing to land a berth as manager of one of the clubs in the loop. Taylor’s decision to take umpiring is commendable due to the fact that Ben, for many years star first baseman of his immortal brother C.I.’s Indianapolis ABCs, is the first one of the major stars to give consideration to turning to another part of the game that they know so well.”

So, hmm, though, where else did I know Ben Taylor’s name from … Oh right, from my digging around South Carolina Negro League history – Ben was from Anderson, S.C.! He was born in that burg on July 1, 1888, and went on to enjoy a lengthy, diverse, well traveled Negro Leagues career that led to posthumous induction into Cooperstown in 2006.

Enhancing this wild and wooly tale is the fact that the 1932 league wasn’t Ben Taylor’s only link to the nation’s capitol – in 1923, he helped conglomerate the Washington Potomacs, who a year joined Philadelphia’s Ed Bolden’s Eastern Colored League, which served as a second “major” Negro League to rival Rube Foster’s NNL from 1923-28 before its own demise. The ECL became notorious for its renegade ways, which included raiding NNL teams for talent and brashly challenging the NNL to the nation’s first editions of a “Colored World Series.”

Ben Taylor recruited his brother, Steel Arm Johnny, to anchor the Potomacs’ pitching staff. However, the Potomacs – and therefore the Taylors’ tenure in D.C. – didn’t last very long. Ben Taylor bailed after the ’24 season, and in 1925 the franchise shifted to Wilmington, Del., where it quickly collapsed altogether. (Want more on Delaware, btw? Check out this, this and this. The history of blackball continues to be complex but always interconnected.)

(Also, it should be noted that at least one online biography and directly links Taylor of the Washington Pilots themselves, but I’ve found no real proof of that.)

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Steel Arm Johnny Taylor

Sooooo … so far in this winding narrative the Washington Pilots have brought together presidential politics (via VP Curtis), Mule Suttles (the Pilots’ Hall of Fame first baseman), South Carolina (via umpire Ben Taylor) and the 1932 East-West League (in which D.C. was a charter franchise).

Now, what about some of the other topics that’ve been careening around my brain – namely, Bruce Petway and the Detroit Negro Leagues?

That’s where the story of the Washington Pilots themselves comes into play. It’s also where I must apologize for now engaging in a moderately embarrassing bait-and-switch. …

Petway didn’t play for the Pilots, and I couldn’t find any meaningful connection between him and the franchise. I know I roped you in partially by hinting at more Bruce Petway with this, but alas, there really isn’t.

But there is, via him, a connection between the Pilots and the city of Detroit … Petway spent the latter half-dozen years of his career with the Detroit Stars, one of the top teams in the later days of the first Negro National League.

And Detroit ended up playing a crucial part in the Pilots’ story, as we shall see …

The nation’s capitol played a key role in the plans of the East-West League from the very beginning – in February 1932, the press trumpeted the creation of the Pilots, whose ownership, including John Dykes and Bennie Caldwell, were immersed in the D.C.’s vibrant club, social and cultural scene, a fact that made them, seemingly, a strong asset to Posey’s nascent circuit.

For example, in January 1932, the Baltimore Afro-American’s Trezzvant W. Anderson penned a gushing piece about how teenaged Elmer Calloway, kid brother of famous swing band leader Cab Calloway, had secured  the gig as house band leader at the businessmen’s Club Prudhom. The joint’s owners, in turn, displayed their penchant for success and all things outsized and glamorous. Wrote Anderson:

“Entering the Club Prudhom was the first ‘big’ assignment of young Calloway, and whether he relished any misgivings about the chances of success or not, I could tell you, but won’t. But he took his band in there and, supported by the already famous name of the Calloway clan, the slender lad began his work under the able ministrations of Bill Prather, Rhody McCoy, John Dykes, and Lonnie Collins, all makers of celebrities.

“Broadcasting was a much considered idea in the heads of the operators of the growing little club, which was regarded curiously at first as an experiment, until the owners began to show the Capital that they meant business. …

“Facing this psychological atmosphere, Elmer swung into his work with all the enthusiasm of youth … and results began to come.

“Patronage at the Prudhom began to pick up; crowds grew each night, the popularity of the hot spot of Washington’s Harlem became a certainty; and before long Prather and his associates knew that broadcasting and further expansions would be worthwhile, and so they inaugurated that program. …”

Why, with such a record of success backing it up, how to Negro baseball fail in D.C.? In the Pittsburgh Courier’s Feb. 13, 1932, reporter Lloyd P. Thompson asserted that, after Caldwell, Dykes and promoter “High Powered” Doug Smith put on a handful of allegedly well attended and successful baseball promotions in 1931 after a good deal of hustling and personal investment, Washington’s movers and shakers sensed the potential for something grand, and when Posey created the East-West, they knew their opportunity had arrived. Wrote Thompson:

“This and a couple succeeding promotions by Smith set some of the Washington boys who were in the know class thinking there was gold in them that concrete enclosure [the Senators’ Griffith Stadium] and to have a couple of ringer clubs from the outside toting it off was all wrong, and subsequently a home ball club, the Washington Pilots, was launched on paper. The delegation waited on Smith with the ink still wet on their letter heads informing Doug that he was major-domo of all that he surveyed, but when the delegation was informed that they only needed about ten grand to go with the stationary, the good ship Pilots cracked up before it left the ways. However John Dykes who specializes in finance and floor revues has stepped into the breach and with Doug Smith and Bennie Caldwell the Washington entry is in. Oh! And about the ball club – well, that’s another story.”

As we’ll see a bit later on, the D.C. power quartet – Caldwell, Dykes, Smith and Roy McCoy – weren’t all they seemed to be. But for now, the news of the Pilots’ birth supposedly created jubilation both in the nation’s capitol and within the head offices of the East-West League. Stated the March 31, 1932, Philadelphia Tribune:

“Nowhere around the circuit of the East-West League is there more pep and enthusiasm about the fast approaching season than at Washington, D.C. Manned by the combination of John Dykes and Roy McCoy in the heavy roles, the Washington Pilots … with [their] complete personnel aside from players [are] humming with activity to give the Capital [sic] City fans something to talk about when the corners around Ninth and You [sic] streets get cluttered up during the coming baseball season. …”

The team’s owners finagled the securing of the wily, wise and wicked Frank Warfield as the club’s first manager by snapping him up from the Baltimore Black Sox, thereby also securing a built-in Beltway rivalry between the two squads – one that was slated to be consummated when the two franchises faced off in the season opener.

Frank Warfield! Remember him? Earlier this year I argued his case for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a belief I stick to now. If the Hall does end its current, shameful exclusionary policy and justly reopen its doors to blackball figures, the Weasel more than deserves heavy consideration.

And there’s more along those HOF lines! The Pilots also secured the services of another wizened blackball veteran – none other than Harrisburg’s Rap Dixon! As I’ve chronicled several times in the past (including here), my SABR buddy and Malloy roomie Ted Knorr has been lobbying Rap’s case for Cooperstown, and I certainly agree!

Also on the Pilots’ early roster was Chet Brewer (who would later catch an opening pitch from U.S. VP Charles Curtis, if you recall), Nip Winters and submarine pitcher Webster McDonald. After a harried few days of training camp, the D.C. pro team worked its way through a quick exhibition slate – including an embarrassing, season-opening loss in Wilmington to the semi-pro white Camden squad of Lou Schaub before opening E-W League play in mid-May.

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Nip Winters

The Pilots squared off against league foes like the Baltimore Black Sox, from whom the D.C. crew took two of three games to pry open in lid on the league slate; the Hilldale Club, who clobbered the Washington squad at the latter’s home debut at Griffith; Syd Pollock’s Cuban House of David (whom, Gary Ashwill notes, were not that serious of a team, at least at the time), who took the measure of the D.C. team, 10-3, in an early June match; and the Black Sox again, who turned the tables on their rivals by beating the Pilots twice under the lights in night games and in a 13-inning thriller.

Unfortunately, as was the case with the first NNL, the ECL, the different incarnations of the Negro Southern League and other pro blackball circuits, the East-West suffered from shoddy record-keeping and lackluster, often biased reporting of game results by its member teams.

That led to different newspapers publishing vastly different league standings on the same day; in its May 21 edition, for example, the Baltimore Afro-American published standings that had (perhaps predictably) the hometown Black Sox in first, followed by the Detroit Wolves (remember them for a bit later), the Pilots and the Cubans, while the Pittsburgh Courier from the same day posted a bracket that had the Pilots, Wolves, Grays and the Cubans at 1-2-3-4.

Such chaos contributed to a major league shake-up in early June, an earthquake also spurred by horrendous gate receipts, outsized operating costs and general public and institutional apathy. Under the blaring headline, “East-West League Introduces Drastic Changes,” the June 11, 1932, Afro-American laid it all out after a league tete-a-tete in Philly:

“Club owners of the East-West Baseball League met … here this week and after wrestling with their problems in a session that lasted all night, decided that only radical changes would permit any of the clubs to continue because of adverse business conditions and financial reverses up to the present time.

“The policies debated and adopted for the continuation of the league and some of the individual clubs were boiled down to three major issues: drastic cuts in salaries and overhead operating expenses, revision of league schedule and discontinuance of the plan of everyday baseball, and discontinuance of employing monthly salaried umpires. These changes went into effect after June 5.”

But there were other disheartening moves as well. Syd Pollock and his Cubans were reported to have bailed entirely, and Posey was begrudgingly forced to admit his personal Steel City rival Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, into the loop. In addition, the Cleveland club was nudged into a so-called co-plan – its players wouldn’t receive set salaries, but a portion of the already meager gate take instead.

(It’s semi-important to note that Posey’s invitation to Greenlee in all likelihood was made with extreme bitterness – in the off-season, Greenlee had unashamedly poached the Grays’ brightest lights, including Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston, a move that absolutely crippled the Homesteaders on the field and at the gate.)

There was also one more alteration, one that finally connects (albeit, admittedly, tenuously) the city of Detroit with the Washington Pilots – the collapse of the Detroit Wolves. Some of the Detroit roster was absorbed by the Grays – a natural occurrence, since Cum Posey conveniently owned both franchises – but the rest was put up for sale and/or draft to the league’s other teams.

That roster-juggling proved to be a boon for the Pilots, as they inherited none other than Mule Suttles from the Detroit Wolves! The E-W shakeup brought the D.C. club a slew of other stalwarts , including hurlers Leroy Matlock and Ted Trent, third sacker Dewey Creacy, outfielder Bill Evans, and catcher Mack Eggleston. Finally, Washington lured sparkplug shortstop Jake Dunn from the Los Angeles Royal Giants, giving the Pilots what appeared to be one of the East-West’s strongest lineups.

Quirkily, though, is the fact that for much of the East-West’s 1932 campaign — or at least the portion when the Wolves actually existed — the Detroit club completely owned the Pilots on the field. In late May, for example, the Wolves busted out their brooms to talk all four games of a series against D.C. in Detroit, including taking both games of a series-ending twin bill.

That sweep and a bunch of other W’s — a record triggered by an airtight defense that led the league in fielding percentage — propelled the Wolves into first. It didn’t get much better for the Pilots, either — when the Washington squad came to Detroit, the Wolves absolutely plastered the Pilots, 16-1, in the first end of a doubleheader at Hamtramck Stadium. (The second contest was stopped by Jupe Pluvius.)

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The May 29, 1932, Detroit Free Press

And it’s doubly interesting, perhaps, that the Wolves themselves were created by benefiting from another team’s misfortune. When the first NNL tanked at the end of 1931, its last champions, the St. Louis Stars, also collapsed, triggering a free-for-all for its players. According to spring 1932 media reports, the Wolves landed seven members of the previous year’s St. Louis team, including Cool Papa Bell, Suttles, fellow Hall of Famer Willie Wells, Creacy, Trent and Quincy Trouppe. In fact, the Wolves aggregation that emerged in early ’32 was virtually a brand-new one from an iteration from 1931. Stated the May 5, 1932, Detroit Free Press:

“Not a member of last year’s club has been retained. with the reorganization of the old Negro National League came a higher class of ball.”

Anyway, the re-jiggering of the league structure doesn’t seem to have mattered, though – the circuit stumbled and tripped and collapsed by the end of the season, leaving the unlikely Negro Southern League as 1932’s only sustained, “major level” blackball circuit. (Greenlee would launch the second NNL in ’33, quite successfully.)

The D.C. aggregation managed to sputter toward the fall and assemble something resembling a second half of a baseball season, including a road trip filled with scheduled visits to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as well as, in late July, playing in the first-ever night game in Washington, a 5-1 loss to the Crawfords under the lights at Griffith Stadium.

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Frank Warfield

Unfortunately, however, Frank Warfield died suddenly just a few weeks later, leaving Webster McDonald in possession of the managerial reins.

Still, according to the Sept. 5, 1932, Washington Post – the city’s major daily actually provided the Negro club with pretty decent coverage – the Pilots returned to D.C. sporting a sterling 14-5 mark during a recent, lengthy road jaunt, and by the end of the summer the D.C. bats – especially those of Suttles and catcher George “Pep” Hampton – had come alive. Both trends reflected of what the Pilots might have been capable if they’d been birthed into a league with more sturdiness and accountability than the East-West.

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Clark W. Griffith

And, most importantly, the positive aspects of the Pilots’ stay in Washington didn’t go unheeded, because at least one of Organized Baseball’s kingpins was paying attention. In early August, reporter Trezzvant Anderson, now with the Associated Negro Press, scored an interview with powerful Washington Senators mogul Clark W. Griffith himself, and the American League club’s owner apparently had very good things to say.

Anderson, who caught Griffith as they attended a night game in D.C. between the Pilots and the Crawfords, wrote that the white owner:

“… declared that he believed that high class baseball for Negroes would pay, and that it should flourish, if properly organized and supported by hometown fans where the teams were located. …

“He asserted that Negroes deserved high class baseball, for he has recognized the fact that Negroes are just as discriminating as whites in their desire for the best, and he said that he was sure that they could get the best, for just then he was watching two of the best teams in colored big league baseball play …

“It is his belief that those behind Negro big league baseball should do everything possible to give their fans the very best they can get …

“But, said Mr. Griffith, it is almost impossible to have success with big league baseball unless the fans in the team’s hometown take an interest in their team and consider it as their own, a proprietory [sic] interest, which would be reflected in the efforts of the players to justify the feeling.

“The playing of these big league Negro teams as duly impressed Mr. Griffith, and his interest was clearly shown as he sat and watched each play like the baseball hawk that he is and has been for thirty-six years, during which he has had every experience baseball has to offer …”

Anderson reported that Griffith worked with a local firm to bring extra lighting to the Pilots’ night games that season, in addition to use of Griffith Stadium’s own illumination sets, apparently out of the goodness of his benevolent heart.

He also made a point in lauding the Negro talent he was seeing at his stadium that year, especially with Dixon and Suttles. In addition, Griffith lavished praise on Pilots owner Dykes, calling him a “clean-cut fellow” who would undoubtedly [with Anderson paraphrasing] “bring colored baseball to a high plane in Washington.”

Concluded the reporter:

“Commenting on the failure of the Negro National Baseball League a year ago, Mr. Griffith said that it was necessary that the race have leagues in order to properly function and to produce the high grade baseball which the people wanted to see. ‘Negroes,’ he said, ‘no longer are willing to pay to see just any kind of ball, and least of all here in this section of the country, and where they can see Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other stars on regular big league teams instead. You must give them a comparative brand of ball.’ And it was his opinion that the brand of ball as played by the Pilots and the Crawfords was well worth the price of admission.”

All of those comments [at least as worded by Anderson] from Griffith reflected the latent of patronizing paternalism found among many white baseball executives, managers and players when viewing blackball. It was a verbal patting on the head and an only partially earnest, “You can do it, little guy. I know you can.”

Griffith also, perhaps unconsciously but still absolutely clearly, established Organized Baseball and its talent as the standard bearers of top-notch baseball, hinting that Negro players like Suttles and Dixon – while certainly quite talented – were still a notch below the beloved Babe.

To that end, it’s also worth noting that, while effusive in his praise and generous in his advice, Griffith refrained from any mention or even insinuation of any possible prospect of or desire for integration. For example, while he dubbed Suttles “worth anybody’s money,” he didn’t even hint that he himself would have any interest in signing the Mule – or any other African-American player.

However, given that it was 1932 and Judge Landis still held iron-fisted sway over the status, such thoughts from Griffith were probably just about as good as blackball was gonna get.

Anyway, as it was, the Pilots did eventually fade at the end of the ’32 campaign and the unceremonious demise of their league, at least as anything resembling a major Negro Leagues team. (They did manage to trudge on as an independent/semipro team for a year or two.)

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Webster McDonald

The members of the Pilot roster thus scattered hither and yon. Suttles returned to the Chicago American Giants for ’33, while Nip Winters and McDonald hopped to the Philly Stars. Brewer slid on over to the KayCee Monarchs, Dunn suited up for the Black Sox and Nashville Elite Giants, and Matlock was inked by Greenlee, who continued to amass what was quickly becoming one of the greatest aggregations in Negro League history. Trent, Searcy, Eggleston and Bun Hayes also moseyed on to various squads and played out their careers to varying levels of success.

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Jake Dunn

What about our good friend Ben Taylor, future Hall of Famer and East-West League umpire? His career continued for a few years more, mainly in the dugout, including managing a reconstituted Baltimore Black Sox squad in 1933. He also returned to D.C. in 1938 to manage the Washington Black Senators.

But Taylor’s later life was unfortunately not devoid of strife – in fall 1932, just as the East-West League was on its last legs, his son, 15-year-old Ben Jr., disappeared from the family home in Baltimore, prompting even two Boy Scout troops to launch a dragnet to find the lad.

However, I couldn’t immediately find out what happened with Ben Jr., disappearance, obituaries published after Ben Sr. died in early 1953 report that he was, in fact, survived by, among others, Ben Jr., so I guess it turned out OK.

Ben Sr. still had a few more rough sports, including having his right arm amputated after a bad fall at his Baltimore home.

On yet another tangeant … Like I noted way up at the top of this treatise, I’m working on an ongoing project about 1880s base ball in Charleston, which is how my interest in Ben Taylor was piqued. I’ll hopefully put up a blog post or two arising from that research, but for now, there’s just too much wrapped up in that tale to give much of a rundown here. But trust me, there’s a lot of good stuff wrapped up in that yarn.

Now, what about the Pilots’ management/ownership, the dudes with whom I previously dropped some foreshadowing about their adventures post-baseball?

Well, it wasn’t a purdy picture.

First up are Prather and Dykes … In essence, their curtain was pulled back, revealing not a tiny, blustery wizard, but instead the pair’s real business – running numbers and the ol’ racketeering. Like so many other Negro Leagues big cheeses, Dykes and Prather used their more legitimate ventures as covers for much more unseemly deeds.

In 1933, a federal grand jury indicted Dykes and Prather on charges of tax evasion, much like big-time mobsters Al Capone and Owney Madden. A lengthy report by the Norfolk New Journal and Guide in November of that year painted a seedy picture:

“In the brief span of four years, they traveled from comparative poverty to wealth as measured by their racial standard, and back again almost to their starting point.

“Almost overnight they became big shots in the number racket, operating in Washington, Baltimore, Harrisburg and other points.”

Prather, the article stated, used a middling barbershop as his initial front:

“His business was poor, but he himself had a reputation in the … underworld of being a good hustler, not adverse to making money through any avenue which presented itself.

“He has a certain amount of color. He is a good spender and a good mixer – affable and well liked. Notoriety attracts him as a flame does a moth.

“Such were his condition and qualities when the numbers craze struck Washington. He muscled in through his affability and spending and his bidding against other bankers for big books, he built up a good business.”

Prather then alleged roped in Dykes as a partner, and the duo established themselves as two of D.C.’s biggest runners. Fed by illicit numbers earnings that allegedly reached four figures a day, the pair indulged in spending sprees, chauffeured cars, yachts, race horses and real estate. The Club Prudhom was erected as their primary cover.

Alas, the bubble abruptly and painfully burst, thanks largely to the duo’s exceeding the size of their financial britches. Reported the New Journal and Guide:

“The boom days, however – even in the numbers racket – were over. A series of numbers, heavily played, hit. Their bank was unable to stand the strain. With the big commission and salaries they were paying for play, they were unable to carry on and finally reached the point where they were unable to pay off.”

After failing to stem the bleeding with some financial finagling, Prather eventually opened another (more modest) club in D.C., and Dykes started up a taxi business.

After failing to file returns on an alleged annual income of $35,000, Dykes and Prather caught a break from Fourth U.S. District Court Judge Calvin Chestnut, who fined them each $3,000, reprimanded them harshly, and issued a sentence and parole (I guess both sentences could happen at the same time) lasting three years.

The sentence was handed down in March 1934 following a four-month IRS probe that apparently included a close look at the Pilots baseball team, which figured into the duo’s smothering of attention to their illicit dealings.

To make matters worse, it seems Dykes didn’t learn his lesson – just more than a year after his tax case calmed down, Dykes was again busted, this time by the Prince George’s County cops, who raided his new hot spot in Landover, Dykes’ Club House

It seems that the club grew especially clattering during one weekend’s festivities. After neighbor complaints, the fuzz swooped in and found, among other uh-ohs, whiskey on sale sans proper license. Resulting charges on various individuals included operating a disorderly house and selling booze without documentation.

So much for Prather and Dykes. How about the fate of another Pilots honcho, Bennie Caldwell? Again, ugh.

Caldwell did immerse himself in a handful of more or less legitimate businesses – like the Crystal Caverns Club and a bowling alley – and was generally seen about town, such as at a post-fight soiree for boxing champ Henry Armstrong in fall 1940 and a similar wingding in Harlem for the great Joe Louis in summer 1946.

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Judge Burnita Matthews

However, Caldwell, like his baseball mates, was naughty. In 1940, for example, Bennie entangled himself in a gambling and vice scandal at the Little Belmont Club in Atlantic City, and in 1954 he endured a final ignominious fate – a conviction of jury tampering in U.S. District Court. Yep, busted. Judge Burnita Matthews pasted the 50-year-old, balding, wispy Caldwell with a sentence of 20 months to five years and a $500, prompting the flustered defendant to collapse in the courtroom.

The ruling seems to have been the exclamation point on a case that began in early 1950 stemming from Caldwell’s attempts at jury bribery during a gambling case. In 1951 Caldwell was originally convicted but managed to get the verdict set aside on appeal in 1953. But his hopes of freedom were dashed at the second trial.

Oy. Between Prather, Dykes and Caldwell, the fact that yet another former Pilots owner, Roy McCoy, was sued for allegedly stiffing an investment partner in February 1932 look like miniscule potatoes.

Sooooooooo, the tale of the Washington Pilots – the franchise that knotted up numerous strings of personal research and serves as a moderately glorious Independence Day yarn from the nation’s capitol. I greatly apologize for the rambling, possibly (at times) convoluted and disjointed narrative. It’s been a loooooong time since my last post, so I s’pose I had a lot of verbiage stored up.

One final, tangential postlude, though … Sprouting off from the idea of big-time politicians courting Negro Leagues baseball fans for votes, although, as Gary noted in his blog post, there’s no evidence that a sitting president ever attended a blackball contest, in 1940 the city of Chicago came close to such a landmark occurrence when Republican presidential candidate (and fellow Indiana U. alum!) Wendell Willkie addressed a largely black crowd of 10,000 at the American Giants’ ballpark.

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Wendell Willkie

The event appears to have been solely a political rally, with no actual game being played. Willkie apparently went for broke, too – one press report stated that he “frankly appealed for the understanding and support of the Negro group.”

Despite Willke’s impassioned plea at that rally, and despite every other best effort by the candidate and his running mate, Charles L. McNary, the Republican U.S. Senate minority leader from Oregon, the pair lost to FDR in the 1940 election.

Willkie, who died just four years later at the age of 52, seems to have been very similar to Charles Curtis, the vice president who threw out the first ball at a Washington Pilots game way back in 1932 – they were both well respected for the dignified comportment, valorous honesty and dedication, and passion for their cause. Many of his peers admired him despite policy differences.

So, there you go, my comeback, Fourth of July blog post. Again, I greatly apologize for the absurd length and winding narrative that probably, at times, didn’t make complete, linear sense, but, if you had the gracious patience to work through it, my deepest gratitude.

And enjoy the holiday! And to many of my SABR friends, I’ll see you in KC in a few days!

The Negro Southern League Museum

Howdy howdy howdy. Today it was a struggle to stay dry in NOLA — the downpours and thunderstorms that have ravaged Texas are now upon us. Fortunately, there hasn’t been any major damage as far as I’ve heard, but I’m guessing the two sinkholes on Canal Street might be filled to the brim.

Anyway, here’s the second installment of stuff covering this week’s Negro Leagues reunion in Birmingham. Yesterday I unleashed some pics of the 21st annual Rickwood Classic, and this post includes a slew of pictures from my trusty iPhone 5s of the brand-new Negro Southern League Museum in downtown Birmingham, right next door to Regions Field, the current home of the Double-A Barons.

The museum, to say the least, is quite, quite impressive. Dr. Layton Revel and Co. did a phenomenal job. and best of all museum visits are free.

Tomorrow I’ll hopefully post some written thoughts about my hectic two days in Alabama, but for now, here’s some more photos …

Outside

Lineups

Chalkboard forming a mock up of the lineups for the 1948 Negro World Series between the Black Barons and the Homestead Grays, complete with game-used bats.

Balls

The start of the tour features thousands of baseballs signed by ex-players and managers. It was my favorite part of the museum.

Poster

A poster from the ’48 World Series.

Fences

Seats

The tour included a simulated portion of a stadium, including fences and seats.

Huntsville

A game-worn uniform from one of the teams in other parts of Alabama.

Ind 1

Ind 2

Ind 3

These three reflect the NSLM’s crucial emphasis of Birmingham’s influential industrial leagues, which launched the pro careers of dozens of local.

Wings

OK, remember when I said the framed baseballs were my favorite aspect of the museum? Well, this is actually tied for the top slot — a game-worn, 1958 uniform from Bill Greason when he played for my hometown Rochester Red Wings!

Bullet

I’m assuming y’all know this gentleman …

Pels

Finally … OK, remember when I said my two top items in the museum were a displays of balls and a Red Wings jersey? Yeah, umm, this one makes it a three-way finish — an authentic 1920s New Orleans Black Pelicans top. To make this display especially personal for me is the inclusion of several game-used items from Louisiana native Gentleman Dave Malarcher, one of my all-time favorite players and research subjects.

Tomorrow comes a little bit of prose … Thanks again for checking out the blog!