New book examines black baseball in Richmond, Ind.

Author Alex Painter and his family at a Dayton Dragons game. All images are courtesy of Painter.

Editor’s note: The last several months here on Home Plate Don’t Move have been very Indiana-centric — I recently posted interviews with authors Sherman Jenkins and Jeremy Beer about their books about Hoosier natives Ted Strong Jr. and Oscar Charleston, respectively.

I continue that Hoosier State theme with an interview of Alex Painter, who recently published a volume about black baseball in his hometown of Richmond, Ind., “Blackball in the Hoosier Heartland: Unearthing the Negro Leagues Baseball History of Richmond, Indiana.” I haven’t received a copy yet, but judging from Alex’s lively, insightful answers below, I can’t wait to dig into the book.

My own strong personal connections to Indiana and my research and writing about the Hoosier State, as well as my own fascination with black baseball in small-town American, further piqued my interest in Alex’s book, so I enthusiastically endorsed the new tome by Alex Painter, and I guarantee you’ll love this interview. Enjoy!

Ryan Whirty: How did you become interested in the Negro Leagues and black baseball in Indiana? What about it drew you to the subject?

Alex Painter: That’s a great question; as far as a flashpoint, I am not sure I have one. When I was a kid in the 1990s, I was given a book written by David Nemec called Baseball: More than 150 Years. Kind of a typical baseball anthology. But after reading every single page as a youngster, I was completely enamored with the likes of Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell. The interest has always seemed to stick. The fact that Larry Doby and Satchel Paige [the Cleveland Indians] also played for my favorite team was a plus!

As far as Indiana in particular, I am a Hoosier by birth, born in Fort Wayne. After studying history at Earlham College in Richmond, I actually have lived in this part of the state ever since graduating. Living here in Richmond, I was aware that Bob Feller and Satchel Paige’s All-Stars had made a stop here during their famous 1946 tour, and I had heard that Josh Gibson had allegedly connected on a legendary home run in one of the local parks. While working on a different book about Cleveland Indians slugger Luke Easter a couple years ago, I started poking around the local papers, and was able to firm up some facts. I put a pin in it for the time being, and was able to circle back around to it last year, when I began my history of the Negro Leagues in Richmond.

In my opinion, what is really neat about Indiana’s relationship with the Negro Leagues, even with Indianapolis and the Indianapolis teams notwithstanding, is just how many games were played here. If teams wanted to drive to St. Louis, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, Detroit or Chicago, they more than likely had to pass through Indiana. Games were constantly being hosted by large-to-mid-size cities like Terre Haute, Lafayette, Muncie, Fort Wayne and South Bend, and even small cities like Richmond, where most of my focus is. Knowing what we know about the itinerant, barnstorming baseball lifestyle, playing the smaller venues helped balance the books, while giving locals access an opportunity to see the best baseball players they’d see in their lifetimes. That is probably what is most interesting to me – the unassuming nature of that symbiotic relationship.

As far as the book was concerned, I started with trying to find every contest that featured a Negro Leagues team that took place in Richmond. I ended up finding well over one hundred between 1907 and 1957. Shocked at all the contests I was able to find, I then took another pass through all the games and recorded every single player or manager I could confirm was in Richmond with their clubs. That tally came to just a shade over 350 different players. After going through all my data, it was then I decided to go forward with the chronology, which eventually became the book.  

RW: Indiana, for better or for worse, has always been known as a “basketball state,” at least to many Hoosiers and general observers. How involved, active and successful historically was the baseball community and culture in the state, and in particular, how much of a black baseball scene was there over the decades, and has that history been overlooked over the years?

AP: First, so true! You absolutely have hit the nail on the head with how the state is perceived. I read that when the high school basketball tournament started in Indiana in the early 1910s, there were only a dozen schools who participated. Less than three decades later, there were nearly eight hundred schools competing in the tournament. “Hoosier Hysteria,” the Indiana’s love affair with basketball, has gripped the state since the early 1950s. 

Advertisement in the Palladium-Item about a game between two Negro Leagues titans in 1954.

I think that is what makes Indiana’s baseball history, particularly before 1950, so endearing. Much of it has been lost to history. If not lost, per se, it has certainly been obscured. For a state like Indiana, who never really had a “major league” team, so much of that baseball history lies within the Negro Leagues. I am sure if I were to tell people that even a small city like Richmond, Ind. (population 35,000), played host to 19 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who were also members of the Negro Leagues, some eyebrows would certainly raise. But it’s true! As I mentioned, Richmond played host to well over one hundred contests involving professional blackball or Negro Leagues clubs over a five-decade span. 

Through the first two decades of the 20th century, three of the best and highest-acclaimed blackball teams were from Indiana. When the Negro National League formed in 1920, most are familiar that the Indianapolis ABCs were among the charter members. In future decades, the Indianapolis Clowns had an incredible amount of staying power, playing well into the 1980s. Indiana’s mark on Negro Leagues baseball was indelible, and was essential to their genesis and survival. 

RW: Most casual Negro Leagues fans know about the ABCs and the Clowns, but how rich is the baseball heritage before those teams were established, and did the black baseball scene thrive in other parts of the state? Were there black teams in Fort Wayne and Evansville, Kokomo and Bloomington, Gary and Terre Haute?

AP: Absolutely. Though the teams that are best-remembered were located mostly Indianapolis, there were local, semi-professional black teams. Every once in a while, these teams might get a headlining black star from the big city. One such case was when one of the best-named teams in black baseball, the Kokomo Black Devils signed George “Rabbit” Shively in 1919 – since I am a big fan of your writing, a fact I know you are keenly aware of! 

I am a bit less familiar with the local landscape in the other cities, but I can certainly attest that Richmond had organized black baseball dating back to 1885 with the Wayne Colored Base Ball Club. There were several versions of the Richmond Giants/Colored Giants/Union Giants for the first couple decades of the twentieth century as well – all black clubs. The 1919 version of Richmond Giants and the Kokomo Black Devils actually appeared to have merged by season’s end, becoming the “Hoosier Giants.”

RW: One of the facets of Indiana baseball that’s always fascinated me was the surprisingly important role the sport played for many years at the spas and resorts in French Lick. Talk a little bit about that activity and history, if you can.

AP: Indeed! The West Baden Sprudels and the French Lick Plutos were rival blackball clubs that were sponsored by competing resort spas that were situated on the same salt lick and mineral spring. The resorts were then, and still are, located less than two miles from each other. Many of the ballplayers would work at the spas throughout the week, and then play games in the evenings or on the weekends. Naturally, many people know of French Lick because of Larry Bird, but these places were truly isolated geographically at the time (and still kind of are). It was amazing the talent these clubs were able to draw into rural Indiana.

A lot of noteworthy ballplayers got their starts on the resort teams. West Baden in particular. In 1913, all four of the baseball-playing Taylor Brothers (“Steel Arm Johnny,” C.I., “Candy Jim” and Ben) suited up at some point for the Sprudels. C.I. was the one typically pulling the strings. In my opinion, one of the most overlooked occurrences in Negro Leagues history was when C.I. and Ben Taylor moved to Indianapolis to help Tom Bowser run the Indianapolis ABCs. The other Taylors would join the team in due time, but if the ABCs were good before, they became a national powerhouse once they arrived. The move also gave the soon-to-be burgeoning Negro National League another steady franchise they could count on a few years later, and Rube Foster a worthy right-hand executive for the NNL in C.I. Taylor.

RW: Aside from the well known, legendary Oscar Charleston, who were some of the other talented, successful Negro Leaguers who were born and raised in the state? Who is your favorite Hoosier State Negro Leaguer?

AP: My kind of question! John Merida immediately comes to mind. Truly, you can consider Merida and Charleston two of the “main characters” in Blackball in the Hoosier Heartland. Whoever is reading this has probably heard of Charleston, [but] let me tell you a bit about Merida. I am beyond excited to breathe life into his story. 

He was born in Spiceland, Ind. – conveniently, just about 30 miles and one county west of where most of my research is based. His parents were born before the American Civil War in the South, so it’s very much in the realm of possibility they were born into slavery, though I couldn’t confirm. Anyways, Merida is born in Spiceland and grows into this huge, brawny frame – from my estimation, easily over six foot and probably close to the 200-pound mark. Because of his stature, he was quickly nicknamed “Big Boy,” and is a natural catcher. He is the best athlete in town by a far cry. He has strength, speed, agility, the whole nine yards. Folks like him so much in Spiceland and Henry County that he permitted to play on the all-white baseball teams as the only black player, starting his career at the Quaker-based Spiceland Academy at the turn of the century. As you know, that was incredibly rare for the time, with only a handful of instances across the country. Through the Indiana Historical Society, I was able to locate a few photographs of Merida from about 1900. He was pictured with three white teammates in one, and another showed him as the only black individual among dozens of participants at the annual Spiceland Field Day (he won the 100-yard dash). The photographs, preserved on glass plates, are simply beautiful. 

John Merida

Merida is incredibly affable and unwaveringly friendly. After every game at Spiceland Academy, he would get mobbed by all the fans (especially the children), regardless if they won or lost. It was because of his friendliness he garnered his more famous nickname – “Snowball.” After his time was over at the Academy, he played for local semi-pro teams all over east central Indiana, sometimes still being the only black player on the team. Merida got his big break in 1907, when he was signed by the Indianapolis ABCs. 

Here is where the story got very fun to me. The first documented game in Richmond with an out-of-town, professional blackball team was with none other than Merida’s 1907 ABCs. They squared off against a local minor league team, the Richmond Quakers. That was where I first met Merida – I simply couldn’t believe that there was a guy in the starting lineup for the ABCs from Spiceland (a city of less than a thousand with a 0.1-percent black population). That’s when I fell down the Merida rabbit hole. I actually dedicated the entire book to him (and my family of course), and if I can find enough about him, I have pledged to myself to write a book or even documentary about him at some point.

Merida quickly gains the respect of his teammates as a selfless player – he even plays the unfamiliar second base position since the ABCs already had an established catcher, Will “Shinny” Primm (a great nickname for a catcher) in 1907-08. He is also just tearing the cover off the baseball. Thanks to excellent research done by ABCs historian Paul Debono, we know that in just 33 games, Merida notched 40 hits, 13 doubles, three triples and three home runs. Seamheads has him as a career .349 hitter. In 1908 and 1909, he is named manager of the ABCs, becoming just the second documented manager in team history. 

It has been alleged that Oscar Charleston was a bat boy for the ABCs as a kid. If this is true, he would have certainly been Merida’s bat boy when he was 13 or 14 years old in 1908 and/or 1909. Talk about full circle! 

John Merida’s obituary

Merida heads north for the 1910 season, playing in Minnesota. He signs the most lucrative contract of his life to head west and play for the Kansas City Royal Giants for the 1911 season. He never has the opportunity to suit up; as he entered the hospital on May 9, and died on May 13 of spinal meningitis at age 31 or 32 (his actual birth date is unknown, only his birth month of May and year of 1879). Pretty much the same affliction that Indians pitcher Addie Joss succumbed to almost exactly a month before, at the same age. 

Merida’s tributes all had a common thread – a no-doubt big league player … if only he were white.

In addition to Merida, Ted Strong Jr. is another awesome Hoosier. He was from South Bend, and one of the original dual-sport stars suiting up for the Harlem Globetrotters and the Kansas City Monarchs. Sherman Jenkins wrote a spirited biography on him a couple years back. George Crowe is another. He actually made it to the big leagues after playing in the Negro Leagues, but he was from Whiteland, Ind. He played in the majors, saying he was a few years younger than he actually was. Though he was born in Lima, Ohio, Connie Day spent nearly his entire life in Indiana. He was a super-flashy infielder – I like to think of him as Ozzie Smith five decades before Ozzie Smith. Jack ‘“The Fighting Poor Boy” Hannibal is another favorite. He was an outfielder, born in Indianapolis. If the nickname wasn’t a giveaway, he was also a boxer. On Labor Day 1918, he played a doubleheader in Richmond during the afternoon and then sparred six rounds in a boxing exhibition in the evening. 

I know I am probably missing some other cool ones. But, like I said, this was my kind of question!

RW: What were some of the most surprising nuggets you found? How many excellent new facts that came out?

AP: To me, the story of John Merida was a revelation to this book. He had been covered somewhat sparsely in a couple other spots, but I tried to tie it all together and tell a story of local interest. 

The big one is the story of the 1918 Richmond Giants. There is a little backstory and the crazy-interesting confluence of inciting factors and events that had to happen for this team to come to be. 

First, a split in the ranks of the ABCs occurred in 1916. This essentially meant there were two ABC clubs, one ran by C.I. Taylor, and the other by Thomas Bowser. The “Bowser ABCs” played their games at Northwestern Park, the “Taylor ABCs” played at Federal League Park. Logistical problems arose during 1917 when Federal League Park was demolished, which essentially forced both ABC squads (Bowser had sold his team to Warner Jewell, so they then became the “Jewell ABCs”) and the Indianapolis Indians to split two parks, Northwestern and Washington. Three teams in two stadiums sounds far from ideal, and it was. The Jewell ABCs played second fiddle to Taylor’s ABCs as far as stadium booking. So, in 1918, they decided to become a permanent barnstorming outfit. This lasted for two terrible months of lopsided defeats and failing to show up for booked games. Jewell’s ABCs sought a more permanent home park for an entire month – during which most of the players had gone home or found new teams.

Coincidentally, Richmond, Ind., had a brand-new stadium, Exhibition Park, built in 1917, but no team to play in it. The city had fielded the Richmond Quakers in the Central League minor league circuit during the 1917 season, but the league closed shop during the 1918 season due to World War I sapping the strength of the teams, and attendance issues. The city was faced with a brand-new, 2,000-seat stadium sitting empty on the weekend. One plus one equaled two here. Jewell’s ABCs needed a home, Exhibition Park needed a team. Poof! The Richmond Giants were announced in June 1918.

But, most of the team had gone home. In fact, there were only three players on the roster for the Richmond Giants that were holdovers from Jewell’s ABCs’ last game the previous month. One was 20-year-old infielder Connie Day. The roster needed to be filled, and quick. Among those who suited up for the Richmond Giants was 36-year-old first baseman George Board, who was the first manager of the original ABCs just before John Merida; third baseman James Lynch, who had played for West Baden, French Lick and both ABC clubs; the aforementioned Jack “The Fighting Poor Boy’” Hannibal, and … drum roll … The “Hoosier Comet” himself, Oscar Charleston. Charleston was only 21 and in the midst of the breakout stretch of his career. Had this team formed one year later, Charleston would have been far too good or even famous to play for a small town’s weekend semi-pro team. I absolutely loved Jeremy Beer’s Charleston biography, but, best I can tell, this is the first anyone has heard of his involvement with this team. Naturally, this is one of the discoveries I am hanging my hat on.

 

Box score from the Richmond Giants’ first game, with Oscar Charleston listed.

But, there’s more! For the final weekend of the season in September (Charleston was gone by this time, back in the army), the Giants plucked a 17-year-old off the Indianapolis sandlots to throw a game on a Sunday and Monday to conclude the campaign. During the first game, Sunday, this youngster pitched a complete game against the white Muncie Valentines, undefeated on the season and stocked with seasoned veterans, allowing only one hit and striking out 11 hitters in a 6-1 Giants victory. The following day, he pitched another complete game, this time against Richmond’s Sunday Baseball League (SAL) All-Star team. He struck 13 more guys out in an eventual loss. Two days, 24 innings, 24 strikeouts, 17 years old.

Bill Holland (standing, first from left) with the 1920 Detroit Stars.

This is the first documented game of Bill “Devil” Holland – one of the best pitchers in Negro Leagues history and the first black pitcher to throw a pitch at Yankee Stadium. History states his career began with Jewell’s ABCs in 1919, when he was 18. We now know it began a year earlier, with the Richmond Giants, the artist formerly known as Jewell’s ABCs, as a 17-year-old. He was a member of the Richmond Giants for a time the following season, as well as throwing for Jewell’s ABCs, and being among those who folded into the aforementioned Hoosier Giants with the Kokomo Black Devils. He pitched until 1941. According to Seamheads, only nine pitchers in Negro Leagues history won more games than Devil Holland. He should be in the Hall of Fame. 

Needless to say, I am super proud of my 1918 Richmond Giants. They are chronicled heavily in the book. If it seems like you’re the first person I am officially telling this tale to, you would be correct, so the excitement may be bubbling. With such an increased interest in the leagues and Charleston, I was paranoid someone would find the 1918 Giants and post about it somewhere before the book went live! I actually discovered an article about the team while looking for box scores of a game between Taylor’s ABCs and the Cuban Giants that happened in Richmond that season as well. I was completely floored.

In 1933, the Chicago American Giants came to town to play the semi-pro Richmond Lincos, sponsored locally by the Lincos Gas Company. They weren’t particularly good, roughly a .500 ball club, but they absolutely took it to the Giants, 9-4. The Giants starting lineup featured none other than Willie Wells, Mule Suttles and Turkey Stearnes. Pitcher Bill Foster came in the game late for a pinch-hitting appearance, which meant the Lincos defeated four members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Though improbable, the Giants losing to a middling, municipal, semi-pro team wouldn’t have been completely unheard of. What gives the game an extra layer of cool was the fact that the Lincos had Richmond product Wilbur Ewbank in the outfield. ‘“Weeb” was a high school teacher and football coach who played ball over the summer to supplement his income. Sixteen years later, Ewbank was on Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns staff, and nearly four decades after the game, he was the winning head coach of Joe Namath’s New York Jets during Super Bowl III. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, making it five hall of famers on the field that day. Wild!

Also of note, in 1938, the Homestead Grays came to town to square off against the Indianapolis Sterlings, a state semi-pro champion the season before. By this time, Richmond had a new field, Municipal Stadium, which was built in 1936 (and is still used today). At the time, according to the paper [the Richmond Palladium-Item], the left-field fence was 412 feet down the line. Definitely what you would call a pitcher’s park. Anyway, Josh Gibson became the first guy to plug one over the left-field fence! Get this, the feat wouldn’t happen again for, wait for it, nine seasons! 3,311 days, to be exact. And they had moved the fence in at least 12 feet! 

And, finally, speaking of Charleston, his 1954 Indianapolis Clowns visited Richmond to play Buck O’Neil’s Kansas City Monarchs. This is noteworthy since Toni Stone, Connie Morgan and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, the first three women to play professional Negro Leagues baseball, suited up. The Clowns won the game, and the subsequent Negro American League title. Less than one hundred days after the Richmond game, Charleston was dead. 

RW: Finally, how much information, tradition and history about black baseball in Indiana is left to discover? Where do we as researchers and writers go from here as we continue to comb through history in Indiana?

AP: I think that is what is so thrilling about blackball and the Negro Leagues; there still seems like there is so much to discover. The statistics and team records are famously incomplete. I really think much of it comes down to good, old-fashioned gumshoeing, and looking through the primary sources. Often times, in my experience, Negro Leagues coverage wasn’t necessarily scarce, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult to find. That is what I found in Richmond. I couldn’t believe how rich the history is, but, frankly, you won’t find it unless you set out specifically for it. I think there is so much left to discover – particularly in an unheralded state like Indiana. The prospect of discovering more is exciting!

Author bio

Alex Painter is a baseball fan who loves the Cleveland Indians and has a deep passion for the Negro Leagues. He has also written one other book, “Folk Hero Forever: The Eclectic, Enthralling Baseball Life of Luke Easter,” published in 2018. He studied American history and politics at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. He currently lives in Richmond with his wife, Alicia, and their children Greyson, Eleanor and Harper.

For further background about the Negro Leagues in Indiana, check out Paul Debono’s book about the Indianapolis ABCs.

Some other cool articles about Indiana black baseball can be found here, here, here and here, while — shameless self-promotion coming up — here, here, here and here are some of my posts about the subject.

Kid Brown’s saga comes to a conclusion

The Secret 9, with Eddie Brown, circled, top row, third player from left.

Editor’s note: With this post, we come to the conclusion of the saga of Eddie “Kid” Brown, one of the members of the Secret 9, Satchmo’s semipro baseball team in New Orleans during the early 1930s, and a stellar pro boxer in and around the Big Easy for a half-dozen years.

For the earlier installments of the Brown story, go here, here and here. Other posts and articles about the Secret 9 in general can be found here, here and here.

Without further ado, the tale of Kid Brown wraps up …

By late July 1936, Eddie Brown Sr. was running out of gas after a successful pro career as a clever, resilient lightweight and welterweight in New Orleans and around the South. Matched against youngster Edgar Theard, the newbie — who only had one more pro fight after this one — handled Brown in a preliminary on a big draw card.

Here’s how Pete Baird (who apparently had a fascination with facial hair) of the Times-Picayune described the final pro fight of Eddie Brown Sr.’s career:

“The battle of moustaches wound up in the tank when Eddie Brown went down smiling and out smiling in the first round before the taps of Edgar Theard. It must be said, though, that Edgar was plenty vicious when he came out, seeing Brown’s moustache was more virile than his own. He tore right in with more vehemence than was necessary.”

Weirdly enough, Louisiana Weekly sports editor Cliff Thomas also was hypnotized by the whole moustache deal, zeroing in on said furry features in his column of Aug. 1, 1936:

“The two fellows with the moustaches who fought one of the prelims! I wonder if its [sic] really a fact that the reason Theard tried to murder Brown in the first round was because he was jealous of Brown’s moustache being longer that his?”

Thomas billed Theard as “an exceptionally rough young man,” echoing Baird’s assessment of Edgar’s merciless onslaught. Lip hair aside, Thomas gave a tip of his hat to Eddie, albeit as part of the scribe’s assessment of a new fighter on the scene.

“Young P.G. Carson,” Thomas penned, “to your scribe’s opinion the classiest boxer the Crescent City has turned out since the reign of the clever Eddie ‘Kid’ Brown, easily beat ‘Ringer’ Thompson, Baton Rouge lightweight pride, in a bout at the ‘Red Stick’ City last week.”

As fate would have it, Thomas’ compliment ended up being terse eulogy for Brown’s professional boxing career — at the age of just 26, Kid appears to have fought his last pro bout. Little else was said about his graceful but overlooked walk toward the sunset.

(Interestingly, Eddie Brown’s last pro fight also attracted one of the largest audiences of his career — 6,500 fans flooded Heinemann Park, home of the New Orleans Pelicans, for a gate of nearly $3,600, or nearly $66,000 in today’s dollars, for a huge slate of bouts.)

Back to present day, some of Eddie Brown Jr.’s most vibrant memories of his father are from Senior’s days in the ring, especially from ringside, where he soaked up the good, bad and ugly of the sport.

“[It was] amazing, and sometimes bloody and sweaty, but more amazing,” he told me.

After Kid retired from his boxing career he stayed close to the fight business by working as a judge and referee on countless bouts, in addition to coaching youngsters. 

“He also was an official for many local fights in the ’50s and ’60’s,” Eddie Jr. said. “There were fights on Monday and Saturday nights when I was a kid, and I saw hundreds of them and sat ringside.”

Through his father, Eddie brushed up against fistic royalty on a routine basis.

“I saw and met Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Tony Licata, Jimmy Mince, Percy Pugh and Jerry Pelligrini, who’s a barber about six blocks from my house,” he said.

Eddie Jr., while not as successful and prominent as his father, carried on the family’s athletic heritage.

“I was pretty good at football and basketball, but I spent a lot of time running in 10k and 5k races,” he said.

An advertisement in the Louisiana Weekly in 1932. Note that Weekly sports editor Eddie Burbridge is Brown’s manager.

After Brown Sr. retired from fighting himself, he worked feverishly for more than 30 years as a bout referee and judge, often stationing himself ringside for many of the top regional fights held in New Orleans and winning a reputation as a fair, decisive and insightful official. In 1946, for example, the famed Pittsburgh Courier newspaper ran a short dispatch from New Orleans covering the Candy McDanielsAl Gomez fight, in which the publication stated that Brown “used flawless judgment in stopping the fight” in declaring a technical knockout victory for Gomez.

Pittsburgh Courier, Jan. 19, 1946

In addition, as mentioned a few times earlier, he coached youngsters in the sweet science and served as a mentor for dozens of kids and young adults in the city. Eddie Brown Jr. said his father coached “all around the city” — at the New Orleans Police Department, Loyola University, and the Dryades YMCA. Eddie noted that his father also tutored folks in fencing. 

The Dryades YMCA today.

Eddie Sr. also took part in community events, benefits and fundraisers for various causes; in 1944, he stepped back in the ring (albeit briefly) for a match on a huge slate of exhibitions and “old timers” bouts for the benefit of the WWII war loan drive. (Admission to the fistic bonanza was the purchase of war stamps and bonds.)

The July 1, 1944, issue of the Louisiana Weekly reported that “outstanding pugilists from bygone years, boxing promoters, sportsmen, businessmen and entertainers are appearing in a gigantic war benefit boxing program at the Coliseum Arena” and called it a “novel method of supporting the war effort …”

“Bringing once again into the magic square circle — into the public spotlight — many of the city’s most [word missing] prizefighters of past years,” including Brown, Tommy Flores, Chocolate Bon Bon and Battling Ferdie, the Weekly reported. In all, 14 bouts were carded for the event.

Brown took part in other community charity events as well; in June 1932, he was part of an all-star card at St. Raymond Church’s baseball park, a boxing “stag” that served as a fundraising for the church. (Throughout its existence, St. Raymond’s ballfield hosted countless pro, semipro, club, college and high school baseball games, featuring classic local black squads like the Algiers Giants, the Melpomene White Sox, the Crescent Stars and St. Raymond’s own teams. In fact, none other than Louis Armstrong attended a Secret 9 game at the ballpark in 1931. The field was located at the intersection of Milton Street and Paris Avenue, a few blocks west of Dillard University and a little ways northeast of the fairgrounds race course. St. Raymond parish eventually merged with St. Leo.)

Kid Brown also dipped his toes in the managerial and promotional fields, handling younger fighters, and setting up and promoting bouts in his own right. In 1957, Brown was reported as managing Ray Portilla, a native of Mexico who eventually was based in New York.

New Orleans States sports columnist Harry Martinez wrote that Portilla’s camp was seeking a match with New Orleanian Ralph Dupas, who would later go on to win the world light middleweight crown in 1963. However, Martinez’ piece also notes that Brown was associated with Gene Fullmer, a Utah native who snatched the world middleweight title in 1957 from none other than Sugar Ray Robinson, considered by many to be the greatest boxer in American history, if not the world as well.

Kid Brown was likewise characteristically involved in New Orleans boxing tournaments and competitions, such as the Crescent City Amateur Boxing Association elimination tournament. In 1947, for example, Brown arranged and promoter several rounds of the CCABA tourney, first at St. Bernard Arena, then at the famed Coliseum Arena. 

Arthur Schott, founder of the New Orleans SABR committee and family owner of Schott and Company meat packing, where Eddie Brown Sr., working after the latter’s retirement from boxing. (Photo courtesy Derby Gisclair.)

Outside of his athletic pursuits, Eddie Brown Sr. worked at Schott and Company meat-packing business on Poydras Street. This fact is particularly interesting because a member of the company’s third generation, Arthur Schott, served as Louisiana’s official baseball historian for more than 40 years. SABR’s New Orleans chapter, of which I’m a member, is named the Schott-Pelican Chapter his honor. The chapter’s current president is none other than Derby Gisclair, whom I’ve already quoted in this post (in addition to local baseball, he’s also the authority on boxing history in NOLA). Derby has been a good friend to me and has enthusiastically supported and encouraged me in the pursuit of the Secret 9 mystery, for which I offer him many and continued thanks.

Official government documents state that Eddie Brown Sr. worked at a variety of jobs; the 1930 federal Census reported him as a porter at a lunch stand, while the 1940 Census lists him as a painter at a private address. His World War II draft card states that he was employed at Southern Bell Telephone Co. on Poydras Street.

Eddie Brown’s WWII draft card

Over time, Brown and his family lived at various locales in the city, including North Roman, Gasquet Street, North Robertson and Abadie streets. They spent much of their lives on the edge of the historic Treme neighborhood.

Eddie “Kid” Brown Sr. died in May 1976 at the age of 76. While much of New Orleans — especially the white population — wasn’t aware that an athletic legend had passed from their ranks. However, a few did recognize the final bell in the life of Kid Brown, including then-Times-Picayune sports editor Bob Roesler, who, unlike many Crescent City scribes before him, was extremely progressive in terms of face relations, and he did much to bring to readers black sports history, including boxing, and, even more so, the Negro Leagues.

In the May 26, 1976, issue of the T-P, Roesler noted Brown’s contributions to the city and the community:

“The boxing community lost a gem of a guy when Eddie “Kid” Brown died Sunday. A pretty good guy with the gloves in his younger days, Eddie spent the past 10 years working with kids in the Police gym … as the fight mob would say, ‘for free.’”

It’s significant to note that while this post and connected research and interviews sprang from the effort to find more information about a baseball team — the Secret 9 — and while Eddie Brown did play baseball at some point for at least one semipro club, I was unable to find much information at all about Brown’s further exploits on the baseball diamond.

Now, that doesn’t mean there’s not anything to find or that Eddie Brown’s stint with Satchmo’s team was the sum total of Brown’s hardball career. But I just haven’t been able to comb the archives of the Louisiana Weekly and other files and collections pertinent to this project. Rest assured that if more details or historical finds do emerge that I’ll post them here.

I’ll also continue to dig into the history and details of the famed/mysterious Secret 9, including attempting to ID the fellows in the photo, and if anything is uncovered, you’ll find the report here!

However, for my next post about the club, I’ll look at the origins of the famous photo itself and chronicle a New Orleans artist who vanished after leaping into the Mississippi River …

A few notes on events, people and places in Eddie “Kid” Brown’s athletic career …

Times-Picayune, Oct. 14, 1979

  • Lou Ovalasiti promoted many of Eddie Brown’s fights and served as a boxing kingpin and promoter supreme for decades in the mid-20th century in the Crescent City. Ovalasiti hyped and touted many black boxers and bouts over the years, including Eddie Kid Brown and his opponents. In fact, according to an obituary written by the Times-Picayune upon Ovalasiti’s death in October 1979, the Italian immigrant and retired businessman was “the first promoter to bring black boxers to New Orleans at the Coliseum Arena.”
  • Most of Brown’s bouts at Westside Arena — which was located on the westbank of the metro New Orleans area, across the river the main bulk of the city — were arranged and promoted by one Anthony “Tony” Tripani (sometimes spelled as Trapani). Tripani’s heavy involvement in the area boxing community is well documented in contemporaneous media coverage, and BoxRec.com lists five official events sponsored by Tripani, all at Westside Arena, between 1932-34.

But there’s more to the picture — it seems that Tripani, in addition to being a boxing promoter, was something of a crime kingpin in the city as well. News reports from the time state that Tripani operated a “soft drink establishment” or a “soft drink stand” in the McDonoghville neighborhood on the westbank, but that legitimate business appears to have been a front for all sorts of illegal doings on Tripani’s part, including bootlegging, bookmaking, illicit gambling and lottery violations.

In the 1950s, he became ensnared in investigations of organized crime. In early April 1952, he was one of 13 suspects arrested in a wide-ranging probe into gambling in New Orleans. The investigation soon widened to include police officers’ income, hinting at possible kickback schemes or other illicit payments from alleged mobsters, as well as bribery of public officials; Tripani, having been nabbed for, in one instance, illegal gambling, and in another bust, public bribery, was one of the witnesses called to appear before various grand juries.

Tripani died in 1964.

  • Another of Kid Brown’s foes worth mentioning is Darcey “K.O.” White, another popular, well traveled fighter who, like Wesley Farrell, brought a bunch of attention to the New Orleans African-American boxing scene. White, who was roughly the same age as Brown, racked up 69 professional bouts between 1930-1943, posting an overall 45-22-2 mark, including 16 victories by knockout. White was based in New Bedford, Mass., and spent the first several years of his career fighting in New England before heading Southern to spend about two-thirds of his pro tenure in and around the Crescent City. At the tail end of his career, White had earned enough national cred and renown that he boxed against several white fighters as well.

White, a welterweight, split a pair of fights with Eddie Brown; he knocked Brown out Feb. 2, 1934, at the Coliseum Arena, but Kid gained revenge just under a year later by besting White on points in a 12-rounder at Lincoln Park on Jan. 11, 1935.

The daily newspapers gave, at least by their meager standards, decent attention to Eddie’s Jan. 11, 1935, encounter with K.O. White. Reported the New Orleans States newspaper:

“Brown fought a smart battle, letting his opponent come to him and counter-punching to pile up his lead, which was a very substantial one. Only in the 12th stanza did White look like the ‘killer’ he has often been called. In that round, evidently realizing that he was far behind, White tried desperately to get over a knockout punch, but Brown was ready for this attack and tied his man up to keep out of danger.”

(Unfortunately, a frigid night in the Big Easy apparently kept fans away from the outdoor venue at Lincoln Park, resulting in a miniscule crown and gate receipts of only $192. By comparison, one night later, none other than Joe Louis drew about 5,000 folks to Pittsburgh for his victory over a German, Hans Birkie. The take for the bout — which was Louis’ 14th win in a row and which came more than two years before the Brown Bomber won the world heavyweight crown for the first time — was a whopping $7,500.)

  • The Coliseum Arena was arguably New Orleans’ premier indoor sports and entertainment facility for nearly 40 years. Located between the Tulane-Gravier and Treme neighborhoods, just a few blocks northwest of where I-10 runs now.

The Coliseum Arena

Opened in 1922 and closed in 1960, the arena housed 8,000 seats but could pack in a total of 8,500 spectators, and a slew of famous pugilists appeared in the facility over the years, including African-American immortals like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, and local fistic heroes like Willie Pastrano and Ralph Dupas. In addition to the fistic goings-on, concerts, speeches and other events took place, including, most memorably, an appearance by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957. (Today the site houses a metal-supply company.)

  • Lincoln Park, meanwhile, appears to have been some sort of amusement park facility in the Gert Town neighborhood, about a half-mile down Carrollton Avenue toward the river from Heinemann/Pelican Stadium; it included a skating rink, a ballpark and other sporting and entertainment facilities. Built just after the turn of the century, Lincoln was designed to provide recreational and spectatorial opportunities for the city’s African-American population, thereby obliquely reinforcing the existing Jim Crow system. Lincoln Park was used from 1902-1930, which doesn’t jibe with the heavy post-1930 activity the facility had, as reported on BoxRec.
  • The Westside Arena, where Tony Tripani sponsored numerous bouts featuring African-American fighters, including a bunch with Ed Brown, was located on the westbank of New Orleans in the now largely residential and commercial neighborhood of McDonoghville. It was owned by the Westbank Athletic Club; Derby told me that the 2,500-capacity venue “was the only boxing facility on the Westbank.” It opened in December 1931, and Kid Brown enjoyed his first Westside engagement a month later, besting Fast Black by points. According to BoxRec.com, 18 events were staged at the Westside Arena between 1932 and 1939.
  • Eddie Brown managed to land some national exposure at various points in his career. For example, he garnered regional and national ink in February 1935, when a lineup of pugilists from Tampa, Fla., arrived in New Orleans for a slate of matches against NOLA locals, including Eddie Brown, who drew a clash against Speedy Red.

The bout was covered, via correspondent, by the Atlanta Daily World, the largest black newspaper in the South, which trumpeted Red as the lightweight king of Florida, asserting the Tampa fighter came to NOLA to annex this state’s crown as well. 

Given Red’s ballyhooed prowess, after the fight was over, Daily World sports editor Sanders S. Mason opined that his state’s ambassador “was robbed of the judges[‘] nod in his 12 round battle with” Brown. Mason cited reports from New Orleans’ Lincoln Park that the see-saw battle was given to Brown but “should have been called a draw.” Mason reported that the “attendance was small but every bout was very exciting, the gate receipts was [sic] $203,” or about $3,750 in today’s money.

  • Finally, I come to the San Jacinto Club, which, I am quite embarrassed to admit, was completely new to me when I was researching and writing this post. I say embarrassed because of how important the organization was to the New Orleans black community — so important that I really should have learned about it much earlier than this, because by all accounts the San Jacinto was amazing.

The San Jacinto Social and Pleasure Club seems to have combined the community awareness and social uplift of the Knights of Pythias, the cultural and festive atmosphere of the famed Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and the athletic prowess and activity of Big Easy athletic clubs like the Olympic. As such, I really can’t do the club justice in this post — it really deserves its own blog post, or book chapter, or entire book.

The boxing ring at the San Jacinto Club.

So it shall. I’m working on a separate blog post about the San Jacinto Club that will try to focus on the organization’s activities in the baseball world. Hopefully that will come soon, so keep checking back!

For now, I’ll leave you with a taste of the type of wild, wooly popularity and importance held by the San Jacinto, in the form of excerpts from then-Louisiana Weekly sports editor Eddie Burbridge following one of Eddie “Kid” Brown’s fights there. The passages are a bit long, but they’re also somewhat entrancing.

We’ll start with Burbridge’s prose from the May 3, 1930, issue of the paper:

“A fight fan, obviously a lover of the ear-puffing racket, writes us concerning the verdict ‘donating’ (as he puts it), Jackie Moore, after taking a sound thrashing from Eddie ‘Kid’ Brown, Sunday evening at the San Jacinto Club Arena.

“The fan, E. Abraham, thinks that a competent room of judges should be selected because the present trio, after their ‘wild’ decision accompanying Sunday’s fiasco, clearly showed that they don’t know the difference between the winner of a boxing bout and an acrobat flop artist. He furthered explained that he had no particular interest in either of the combatants, but he does want to see a verdict go the right way. ‘Brown was in front by a country mile,’ he said, ‘and everybody in the arena knew it, and it was like asking everyone to contribute a five dollar bill to the Association for the Care of Blind Cats, when the judges’ vote was taken and Jackie Moore’s right arm was hoisted, proclaiming him the winner.’

“‘If the judges are accountable to distinguish between the beater and the beaten, (and it is clear as a crystal that they don’t), then they should get out of those comfortable chairs and turn them over to a group that knows its battles and which way they should go. Such farces are intolerable, Abraham states further, and it serves to nauseate one after he witnessed a very pleasant scrap. Such dumb practices must be remedied for the good of the game.”

A week later, Burbridge continued, and hopefully ended, the gathering storm of controversy:

Looks like E. Abraham touched a pretty soft spot when he ridiculed the judges of the San Jacinto Club Arena in his scorcher that strutted down the double column last week.

Earl Raby for one, one of the decision renderers of the downtown battle-house, is on Mr. Abraham’s neck and reports reached this den that [?] name-sake is not alone in frowning down upon the ‘Dissatisfied Fan’ which means that Abraham is not so far up in the good graces of the ridiculed.

Both forces (if such nom de plume is permissable [sic] in this case), dropped articles telling the other just where to get off. Both found their way to the basket, however, because we feel that too much friction will be produced on this one sheet if all that fire was splattered thereon. Why, the reader wouldn’t be able to read for the smoke. So we’ll take the chance of dropping a little suggestion on the subject.

It seems to us that a lot of good could be done if Messrs. Abraham, Clairville, Fraise, Raby and the other judges and powers that be of the arena where to stick their feet under some table in a group and discuss this decision affair frankly. Every one, from our knowledge of them, seems sincere enough about what the other fellow thinks, and with this in view, we’re willing to wager that after a half-hour’s DISCUSSION [itals in original] (and we do mean discussion) fan and judge would understand each other perfectly, and would have made the entire racket pleasing to all concerned. Unpopular decisions are common everywhere the glove slamming affair is legal (or illegal, too, for that matter), and all that can be realized from the present method of thrashing the affair is a mere newspaper controversy. Controversies are but controversies, is true enough, but one around a table will bring much better results. Give it a trial, gentlemen, and you’ll find it still holds good … and will help Old John Q. Publik.

‘Bedlam broke in the crowded arena’

Editor’s note: With this post, we return to the tale of Eddie “Kid” Brown, a member of Louis Armstrong’s semipro baseball team, the Secret 9, which blazed across the New Orleans black ball firmament in the early 1930s. While Brown was an adept ballplayer, his primary talent — and source of athletic glory — was his boxing career.

Here, we jump into Brown’s pugilistic exploits in early 1932, when he frequently ventured across the mighty Mississippi to the westbank of the NOLA metro area, where he engaged in a series of fights at the Westside Arena, a subject touched on in my last post here. The bouts were mostly victories for Kid. …

The New Orleans dailies did cover those encounters at the Westside Arena between Brown and a series of foes, albeit in tiny news briefs; the Times-Picayune’s reportage leading up to his Jan. 31, 1932, clash with local lightweight Teddy Jackson noted that the bout headlined the second weekly boxing “stag,” or card lineup, organized by promoter (and reputed mobster) Tony Tripani at the Westside A.C.

The featherweight fight — boxers frequently jumped from weight class to weight class — was slated for 10 rounds between “capable fighters.” Stated the Jan. 27 T-P:

“Brown is popular with the over-the-river fans and has rung up a long winning streak in his last six bouts in and around Louisiana and he will be out to add Jackson to his list. Jackson is a rugged two-handed battler and carries dynamite in two hands and a pleasant scrapper.”

Kid Brown won that clash on points, and he went on to claim victory in several more westbank bouts in early 1932.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana Weekly dived in a bit deeper in its coverage of the 1932 bouts at the Westside Arena. In the paper’s Jan. 23, 1932, issue, reporter Henry O. Bryant Jr. issued a dispatch about a multi-fight card on the westbank headlined by a scheduled 10-round clash between Kid Brown and Fast Black. Brown used his flashy hands and quick feet to decisively beat Black and, according to Bryant, Kid “added another victim to his long string …”

“Brown, the aggressor throughout, outclassed Black whenever he chose to fight, and that was most of the way,” Bryant wrote. “He was all over his opponent storming him [fl]urries of punches, fighting most of the time in the open.”

Bryant added:

“So terrific was Eddie’s speed that Fast Black appeared to be standing still most of the time. Brown played the ropes masterfully, bouncing on and off landing solidly to Black’s face.

“Black accepted Brown’s challenge to fight but was outclassed most of the way. …”

The fisticuffs brought about 300 folks to the arena, which isn’t a packed house, but it’s still decent for the middle of the Depression.

Then came Brown’s encounter with Teddy Jackson, for which Weekly assistant sports editor Eddie Burbridge himself took a ferry ride across the river to the westbank to cover the bout, and Burbridge ended up seeing what reporter Bryant saw a month earlier — a speedy Kid Brown who dominated the featherweight bout for an easy victory.

“Brown clearly demonstrated that he is the fastest featherweight slinging leather in this neck of the woods when he won practically every round over Jackson, who is a rather speedy boy himself,” Burbridge said in the Feb. 6, 1932, Weekly. “Jackson fought a good battle and proved to be in great condition although he couldn’t catch the fast moving Brown.”

At the end of his article, however, Brown added a blurb that reveals a glimpse into the general social setting at play in early 1932. Burbridge penned:

“The arena was pretty well filled, the whites outnumbering the colored fans four to one.”

Such a fact might show how, economically, white New Orleans and all of America was significantly better off, or at least less worse off, than the black population less than three years after the stock market crash. But deeper than that — and building off what my friend Derby said in my earlier post on Brown and the socioeconomic challenges faced by black fighters — perhaps African-American men felt that the only legitimate (i.e. non-illegal) way they could make a living and provide for their families was as athletes, as gladiators performing for the entertainment of whites, beating the crap out of each other just so white fans would give them scraps or pennies.

Louisiana Weekly, Feb. 6, 1932

I think there could very well have been that dynamic in action at that place and time — black men being reduced to simple amusements via blood sports for white society — but it also ignores the fact that some black men — and, indeed, also some white men and some women, too — just liked or like boxing as a competitive pursuit. The physical challenge and the mental chess game involved in each fight was thrilling and self-enriching on a spiritual level. Some folks just love to box, like I love to write.

But I digress. Back to Eddie Brown and the Westside Arena, because there’s one more significant fight — or, shall we say, non-fight — that went down in McDonoghville in early March 1932 that set the stage for something special a little later on.

Eddie was slated to fight Charlie the Kid — lots of “Kid” nicknames floating around, and it can be quite confusing — on March 6 of ’32 at the Westside. Charlie (sometimes listed as Charley) was a New Orleans lightweight who scuffled around the local pugilistic scene for a few years to middling success. A little way into his career, he signed on for a bout against none other than Eddie Brown in March 1932, setting up a promising little scrap both the fighters and the fans.

Louisiana Weekly, March 12, 1932

However, according to the official line, right before the gong ran, Charlie backed out because of illness, leaving the Westside promoter (likely either Tony Tripani or Lou Ovalasiti) scrambling to fill the suddenly one-sided bill. He (whoever the promoter) found a familiar face to climb into the ring — Kid Phillips, against whom Kid Brown launched his career in 1929.

Eddie ended up outpointing Phillips once again, this time using his speed to withstand Phillips’ improved attack. Wrote Burbridge in the March 12, 1932, Louisiana Weekly:

“These two boys went the route of ten rounds at top speed. Although hit hard and often by Philip [sic], who surprised everyone by going the distance without appearing to tire, Brown put on a spurt to take the last three rounds and the [decision]. Brown once more proved that he is the classiest boxer of his weight performing in this neck of the woods. He made Philip miss frequently by his clever ducking. At one time Philip swung at him and hit ropes where Brown had stood. Brown’s speed helped him out of danger often, although he proved he could take ’em. He took all Philip had to offer and kept boring in, leading the battle throughout.”

But here’s the deal: Charlie apparently wasn’t “ill” when he jumped ship. According to Weekly head sports editor Earl M. Wright, Charlie actually balked at the relatively paltry purse he was predicted to receive from (what he felt) an apparently underwhelming crowd size. Allegedly, Wright wrote, Charlie didn’t want to risk tarnishing his reputation with a possible loss to an up-and-comer like Brown, especially what probably would have been a less-than-stellar payday.

Wright stated:

“Charlie has fought what has been termed ‘important’ fights for a great deal less than he would have received for his end Sunday, we know that to be a fact. But Charlie knew that he was the pulling power for that fight and that, although Brown’s name and ability did go a long way towards attracting customers, he was the underdog, and a mighty terrible one at that. Dangerous enough to haul down the decision.”

All of this might seem life a goofy minor detail, but it actually helped set the stage for arguably the most intense rivalry of Eddie “Kid” Brown’s boxing career, as you’ll see a little bit later. 

I’ll wrap up the discussion of Brown’s experiences on the westbank of New Orleans, with one caveat. It’s possible that Brown enjoyed further engagements at the Westside, especially in 1935, when the daily newspapers either hyped upcoming matches staged by Lou Ovalasiti that included Eddie, or reported that Ovalasiti was seeking Brown and other fighters for cards at the Westside Arena. However, after checking BoxRec and doing a cursory database search, I find no immediate record that any Westside featuring Brown ever took place between after early 1932. I also didn’t have a chance to go through the Louisiana Weekly archives — a process requiring squinting at microfilm, because the paper’s old stuff isn’t online — in depth for this period, and of what of I did find post-1932, none of Kid’s bouts took place in the time period.

The second caveat about the Westside Arena and Kid Brown’s experiences there is that there’s a possibility that Brown fought at other venues during this time period in addition to the Westside A.C. Indeed, at times he engaged in two or even three fights a month, much like many other scrappers of his day, making it likely that he did take to the ring elsewhere, too. There’s evidence that he did get between the ropes at places like the San Jacinto Club in the Treme district, as well as at something called the Pelican Arena, during this stretch.

Now, jumping ahead a year or so in Eddie Brown’s career and hopping back of New Orleans proper, one of Brown’s most, shall we say, eventful fights came on Oct. 1, 1933, when Eddie “Kid” Brown climbed into the ring for a main event against none other than Charlie the Kid, who, it seems, eventually did square off against Eddie Brown sometime after the no-show in March 1932. That fight did not go well for Brown, crushed by Charlie, who knocked Eddie out.

Louisiana Weekly, Oct. 7, 1933

So, entering autumn 1933, the bad blood between Charlie and Eddie was already boiling, and it spilled over on Oct. 1 when they foes squared off in a thrilling rematch.

And this conflagration is worth examining. It wasn’t a championship bout of any sort, neither locally nor regionally (at least officially speaking), but holy cow, some seriously wacky stuff went down that Sunday night.

The Brown-Charlie rematch included the type of spectacle and celebration that African-American boxing garnered within the black community, including in New Orleans. And Eddie Brown — along with regional luminaries like Wesley Farrell and Kid Chocolate — was a huge draw and reason for excitement. Reported the Louisiana Weekly sports editor Earl M. Wright in the Oct. 7, 1933 issue:

“Brown wore a blue silk bathrobe and trunks of the same material, while Charlie sported trunks of silk pea green and a bathrobe of yellow gold silk. Bedlam broke in the crowded arena when the two little gamecocks rushed into the ring. A lot of unnecessary bla-bla preceded the battle while the fans yelled for it to begin and the speeches left for last.”

(I’m guessing “bla-bla” means good ol’ trash talking.)

The drama continued to virtually the point of theater, when the referee accused Eddie of delivering a low blow to Charlie and tugged Brown to the side of the ring while sending Charlie to his corner. According to Wright, the crowd watching the mix wasn’t happy, Charlie himself appeared like he wasn’t sure what was happening, and Brown, infuriated at the accusation of dirty fighting, climbed out of the ring and worked his way through the crowd and right out of the arena. Eddie’s manager persuaded his fighter to come back and finish the scuffle, but Brown did so only after the ref was replaced.

Brown earned the decision victory by completely dominating the early rounds, surprising Charlie and the crowd — who were expecting Brown to use quickness, lighting jabs and perimeter punching — by attacking from the get-go and battering Charlie over several rounds. Although Charlie turned the tables by the end of the fight, even flooring Brown at one point, Eddie’s commanding control of the early frames brought him the victory after six rounds. Wrote Wright: 

By demolishing Charlie that night, Eddie snatched revenge a few months after a previous fight between the two gladiators, in which Charlie had embarrassed Eddie by knocking him out.

The dose of vengeance left Brown ecstatic, as per Wright:

“At the bell Brown dashed over Charlie’s corner, lifted him from his stool, and carried him bodily around the ring. He was gleeful. A moment later Brown was yanked to the center of the ring and his hand raised in token of victory. His early fighting had won the fight for him.”

I think what’s most exhilarating about reading the reportage of the sweet science is how breathless the Weekly’s scribes could be in the prose. Like Wright’s coverage from this bout, the verbiage was colorful, and the scenes were set gorgeously, especially when the writer captured the emotions and passions of the fight fans in attendance. It was the intersection of black society, athletic prowess and economic enterprise that seems to have made fight night in the African-American community in New Orleans so thrilling. 

Which mirrors the place baseball and baseball games held in black society at a time when segregation was still rigid but being chipped away slowly until Jackie Robinson came along in 1947. Going to a Negro Leagues game was an event; men, women and kids turned out in their Sunday finest as a celebration of cultural unity and social resilience. Cheering for the athletes on the field or in the ring represented the pride that existed in the African-American community during the often crushing period of repressive Jim Crow.

But I digress. The Charlie the Kid vs. Eddie “Kid” Brown actually evolved into one of the most heated and repeatedly-enjoined rivalries in 1930s black boxing in New Orleans — they clashed at least three times. In March 1934, Brown repeated his winning ways over Chuck at the Coliseum Arena and proving that, according to a Louisiana Weekly headline, he was “the most clever and scientific boxers in the South.”

In yet another bout with Charlie, this one if August 1934, Eddie battled back from two knockdowns from Charlie’s fists to gain a third straight win by decision over his familiar foe. The Weekly stated that Brown “wag[ed] a brainy battle” to complete the comeback.

Other than Charlie the Kid, Eddie Brown squared off against several other regionally and nationally prominent fighters. Arguably the most famous opponent faced by Kid was lightweight Wesley Farrell, another New Orleans native who was a shade younger than Brown. Over a six-year career in the 1930s, Farrell went 31-24-8, with 14 knockout wins to his credit.

Wesley Farrell

Farrell actually began his career on the West Coast, fighting in Los Angeles and Santa Monica before returning to his hometown for a string of a couple dozen or so bouts in the Big Easy, including a pair of wins over Eddie Brown in 1934 at the Coliseum Arena. In 1936, Farrell shifted his home base to New England, where he engaged in a bunch of bouts in Holyoke, Mass. (where I myself worked for a couple years in the late 1990s); New Haven, Conn.; and West Haven, Conn.

After a year-long stint back in NOLA, Farrell ventured north again for a slew of fights throughout the Northeast, including several in New York City; Newark, N.J.; Providence, R.I.; Boston; Fall River, Mass. (a town I discussed in my post about Louis Sockalexis); Worcester, Mass.; North Adams, Mass. (also discussed in my Sockalexis piece); Holyoke; Portland, Maine; and even one in Montreal, Canada.

Farrell concluding his career at home in New Orleans with a few bouts in 1939.

Kid Brown’s pair of clashes with Farrell proved memorable and garnered a large amount of attention in the fighters’ hometown. In May 1934, Farrell picked up a TKO win over Brown, and the return engagements took place a little less than six months later. Prior to the rematch, the Weekly stated:

“Farrell is claimant of the Negro Southern lightweight title and states that he will prove his claim justified by repeating his K.O. victory over Brown, who is a much improved fighter in every respect. Eddie has piled up many victories over some of the best lightweights in the South … since his defeat at the hands of the cock Farrell … Yet, with all these factors in his favor the local boy [Brown] will likely go to the post Friday night [Oct. 26, 1934] an underdog in the betting odds, with Wesley a 2 to 1 favorite at the ringside.”

That prophecy came true, unfortunately, with about 4,500 fans at the Coliseum Arena watching as Farrell knocked Brown out in the sixth round of a scheduled 10-rounder. Brown fared well in the first round or so, after which, reported the Weekly:

“… Farrell cut loose on Brown, shaking the local boy with hard smashes to the body and head. When the sixth round came around it was just a question as to how long Brown could stand up under the punishment Farrell was dealing out. …”

(I need to mention some of the fighters on the various undercards to this “Southern championship” of sorts, because the names are glorious — Battling Siki, Kid Spibbens, Wildcat O’Conner, Newsboy Brown, Kid Carl and Baby Wills, among others.)

Post-note: We wrap up Eddie “Kid” Brown’s story in my next installment, which will hopefully be posted next week …

Kid Brown boxes his way into NOLA history

Louisiana Weekly, March 10, 1934.

This is the second part of a series of posts — actually sections of a much longer article in succession — about Eddie “Kid” Brown, a member of the Secret 9, Louis Armstrong’s semipro baseball team in New Orleans in the early 1930s. Check out the first part here.

In this installment, begin to examine Brown’s other athletic pursuit — boxing …

Before I take a dive into some of the career of Eddie Brown Sr., I need to note that just about every pugilist who fought in New Orleans carried a nickname of some sort or another. Some of the monikers were pretty wacky, and some were a play on words about the boxer’s color — Torpedo Smith, Young Danno, Fast Black, Baby Bear, Battling Siki and any number of fighters coined “Chocolate [something].”

But one of the more confusing aspects of the period in question is several many boxers were nickname “the Kid” or “Kid,” and it can be a challenge at times to parse out who’s fighting whom in which fights. Probably my favorite moniker of the Kids I came across was Kid Stringbean, a New Orleans lightweight in the ’30s.

Some background on the nature of professional boxing in New Orleans in the 1930s could be needed, too. While I was doing research, which largely covered just a couple years (from 1933-35), I found that there often wasn’t too much structure or organization to the proceedings, at least not beyond just the weight categories. Boxers could face one particular opponent multiple times in a year, and Kid Brown had a bout every one or two months. There appeared to be no official state or regional titles or championship belts or rankings; the awarding of crowns seemed to be more of an informal process, almost based on based on popular sentiment or media commentary.

Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9. Eddie Brown is the third player from the left, back row. (Image courtesy of the Louisiana Research Collection.)

For boxers of color, add racism and lack of opportunities to this willy-nilly, chaotic scene that existed for most Louisiana boxers in the 1930s. My friend Derby Gisclair, a local boxing aficionado and historian, related to me in an email the conditions and social background in which black fighters found themselves at the time. It’s lengthy, but I feel his prose captures the scene beautifully, a scene dominated by lonely anonymity, economic desperation and a desire to make their mark somehow, some way:

The majority of the introductions made at ringside were greeted indifferently, as if smothered under the fog of cigar smoke drifting up to the plenum of dark and aging venues like the Coliseum Arena that [the boxers] found themselves in that night. [The public and the fans] had not and would not form any sort of attachment to the lesser known fighters, particularly black fighters, who all labored in general anonymity.

“Many fought under assumed names, a tradition made famous by the first Jack Dempsey, the Nonpareil, and reintroduced years later by the second Jack Dempsey, the Manassas Mauler. But for legions of boxers it was the first hopeful rung on the ladder that would take them out of the crushing poverty that had invaded the country during the Thirties. In most cases, these bouts were a monologue delivered without notice or critique, but which nevertheless fanned the fire of hope to an entire generation of fighters.

“Boxing was a way to escape the Depression, made even more important to black fighters as a means of also attaining some measure of social justice that was their due, and that they hoped would be different this time. The great black fighters who inspired their ambition ranged from Tom Molineaux to Joe Gans to Jack Johnson, fighters who ascended to the pinnacle of the sport and, in so doing, gained a small measure of acceptance that proved to be as elusive as their fleeting fame.

“Yet these intrepid souls persisted undeterred between the ropes, battling moment-to-moment in a test of courage and morality. It was a fight outside the ring as much as it was a fight within the ring. If they were lucky there was a payday and a short recovery, and a chance to grasp the next rung on the ladder.

“Progress would be slow, typical of the pace of most things in New Orleans, but it came with a glimmer of hope. The club fighters of the Thirties may have labored in anonymity, but they proved to themselves if to no one else that the harder they fought, the more successful they would become.”

The Coliseum Arena in New Orleans. (Photo courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection.)

Overall, according to BoxRec.com, an official boxing statistics holder, Eddie Brown Sr. had a career pro record of 18-7-1, with three knockout wins, in an active career stretching from 1929-36. His first recorded bout, according to the Web site, took place Dec. 11, 1929, against Kid Phillips at the New Orleans Coliseum Arena (where the majority of Brown’s pro fights took place) and ended, interestingly, in the only draw of Brown’s career. (More on this later, however, because murkiness exists in this area.) Brown wrapped up his fighting career with a knockout loss to Edgar Theard on July, 26, 1936, at Heinemann Park (later named Pelican Stadium).

Several other Brown fights heard the gong at Westside Arena in Gretna, La., which is across the river from the bulk of New Orleans itself; and a couple were enjoined at Lincoln Park in New Orleans. (It remains a mystery whether the national anthem at those clashes were performed by Linkin Park.) One took place at the Roseland Athletic Club in Baton Rouge.

From the first fight of Brown’s career — against the aforementioned Kid Phillips in 1929 — New Orleans’ black sporting community knew it had something special on its hands. However, the  start of Kid Brown’s fistic career appears to be shrouded in confusion.

Why? Because the media reportage of his first few months in the ring is, to say the least, jumbled. According to BoxRec, Eddie Brown’s debut came on Dec. 11, 1929, in a draw against Kid Phillips on Dec. 11, 1929, at the Coliseum Arena, a narrative that was reinforced by the daily New Orleans States newspaper in the publication’s Dec. 12, 1929 edition.

But the Louisiana Weekly offers a completely different timeline for Brown’s early days as a pro pugilist. The Weekly, New Orleans’ preeminent African-American journal, reported in its Dec. 14, 1929 edition that Brown defeated Kid Alfred on Dec. 8, 1929, at the San Jacinto Club arena as an undercard. (Check out the end of this post for more on the San Jacinto, one of the most influential men’s clubs in the Crescent City.) The paper stated:

“Eddie Brown came up from the canvas to carry away the laurels from Kid Alfred in the semi-final bout. Alfred massaged Brown’s face with a right jab he kept on tap for Eddie’s rushes, but after Brown got hip to Alfred’s southpaw style of milling the rest was easy and the judges handed him the verdict on a platter.”

(I’m not sure if “massaged” is the right word for pounding someone’s face with a fist, but it’s definitely descriptive.)

The boxing gym at the San Jacinto Club. (Photo courtesy the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.)

Brown quickly gained popularity, it seems, and by his Feb. 2, 1930, clash with John Boneris at the San Jacinto arena. The Weekly described as a pretty boy — it stated that Boneris was a “patent leather topped youngster” who “certainly draws the lady folk out to the San Jacinto Fight Arena” when he fought — who ended up having no chance against the up-and-comer Brown.

The fight led the card that night, signaling that the public already knew the young Kid Brown had dynamite in his fists and lightning in his feet. The bout garnered a large headline on the Weekly’s sports page, and 

Boneris, the Weekly stated, was out of shape, and his characteristic “ferocity and craftiness” was no match against “a tartar of the person of Eddi [sic] Kid Brown, 121 pounds …” By the fifth round, Kid Brown had taken control using a “two-fisted attack” that “pounded the ‘Patent Leather Kid’ about the face from long range and peppered his body in the clinches.”

The sixth round all but ended the proceedings in Eddie’s favor, stated the Weekly:

“Brown kept on Bonny all the way jabbing and sweeping him before him with a ceaseless barrage and won the round by a wide margin. And the fight too.”

Things got a little strange a couple weeks later, however, almost inexplicably so. It seems Kid Brown was a card headliner for a slate of fights at the San Jacinto Club on Feb. 16, but, according to the Weekly, he had to back out of his scheduled six-rounder against Kid Bagneris after “suffering a nervous breakdown.”

The newspaper’s article didn’t elaborate on the situation at that time, but in its March 8, 1930, issue, the journal reported Kid Brown back in action for an intense go with Jackie Moore, whom the paper’s sports editor, Earl Wright, colorfully derided as “that little Jamaican that fights at the San Jacinto Arena between boat trips [who] has no more business scrapping around New Orleans for the price of a meal ticket than Phil Scott had for climbing into the same ring with Jack Sharkey over in Miami the other night.” (That was a reference to the heavyweight fight a couple weeks earlier in Miami between reigning American champ Sharkey and challenger Phil Scott of Britain in which Sharkey dominated the Brit in a third-round TKO.)

The Brown-Moore six-rounder on March 2, 1930, turned out to be heated, and not just inside the ring. By the time the clash concluded, those in the crowd weren’t too happy. Reported Wright:

“Moore has everything. A fighting heart, a sock in both mitts terrific enough to drop almost any man in the flyweight and bantamweight divisions and a shift that is beautiful to see in execution as well as in snatching him out of dangerous holes. Jackie brought all of his wares into play Sunday night against Eddie ‘Kid’ Brown … and after the thrills and shouting had died away Moore received the verdict. But he didn’t earn it. Half the fans who saw the mill voiced the opinion along with us.”

Enter even more weirdness, in the form of medical conditions. Wrote Wright:

“But, man and boy, what a scrap that was! Brown, discharged by a doctor five days before the bout, substituted for Bobby Peyton, and the way he left jabbed and hooked his right after the first canto was impressive and disastrous enough to earn him a draw in the least.”

And the climax, per Wright:

“The fighters continued their killing pace throughout the six round and both were bleeding at the end. Moore’s aggressiveness won a large portion of the crowd, but according to our tally a draw decision would have done justice to both fighters.”

Wright didn’t elaborate as to Kid Brown’s exact medical condition, further enhancing the mystery of what exactly transpired in Eddie’s early career. However, these breathless several months — and the media coverage of them — fleshes out the atmosphere in which black pro boxing took place in the first half of the 20th century in the Big Easy. Spirited prose, passionate audiences, scheduling, seat-of-the-pants action … it was all there, in vivid scenes and on sweaty, bloody canvases. It was magnificent.

(The San Jacinto Club deserves its own blog post because of its importance to the New Orleans African-American community in the first half of the 20th century, so I’m going to try to produce such a story within the next few months. For now, check out the end of this post for a “short” — well, short by my standards — description of the San Jacinto for now.)

To kind of cap off the narrative of the first half-year or so of Eddie “Kid” Brown’s fistic career, in early June, I’ll note that even at that young age, “Kid” was already-community minded — in early June 1930, he was on the card for a fundraiser for the “Colored Hospital Fund.” The Weekly described the packed slate of benefit matches at a local community center gym as “a crop of exciting scraps … “ Also on the bill were local pugilists Joe Oliver and Young Harry Wills. (More than likely, the term “colored hospital” referred to the Flint-Goodridge Hospital, which for decades was operated by Dillard University as the primary medical-care center for segregated New Orleans’ African-American community.)

At this point, the online record (such as at BoxRec) of Eddie Brown’s career goes dormant for a spell, and I wasn’t able to fully dive into the period between mid-1930 to early 1932. However, it looks like many of Brown’s bouts between 1930-31 were held at the San Jacinto Club.

Downtown Gretna, 1943. The Westside Arena, where Kid Brown engaged in a few bouts in 1932, is located in the westbank city. (Photo from the Louisiana Sea Grant Digital Images Collection.)

Now, January ’32 is when online lists of Brown’s fights pick back up. It’s also when the New Orleans daily newspaper once again generated coverage of Brown’s fights — of course, their reportage on Brown’s bouts, as well as of black boxing in general, was seriously lacking in detail and comprehensiveness — beginning with a long series of pugilistic encounters at Westside Arena.

The Westside Arena, briefly, was the premier venue for boxing and wrestling clashes on the westbank, which is the portion of greater New Orleans across the Mississippi River that today includes the Algiers section of the city of New Orleans, as well as a good chunk Jefferson Parish. Cities/towns like Gretna, Marrero and Westwego make up the westbank half of Jefferson Parish; the other section is back over the river, mainly in the city of Metairie, to the west of the city of New Orleans. (Numerous semi-pro and even pro teams African-American baseball clubs sprang up very early in the 20th century, and perhaps earlier, on the Westbank, most notably the Algiers Giants, one of highest-profile and successful Negro aggregations.)

At various points during the facility’s existence, promoters (usually either Lou Ovalasiti or Tony Tripani, more on those guys in the post-notes below) strove to assemble weekly, multi-bout cards of black fighters, including Eddie Brown, events that attracted enthusiastic, fairly decent-sized crowds at times. In all, BoxRec lists three of Eddie Brown’s fights taking place at the Westside Arena in early 1932, all of them ending in winning decisions for Brown.

That wraps up Part 2! Look for Part 3 after New Year’s! As always, many thanks for reading!

Satchmo’s Secret 9: a name behind a face

Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9. (Photo courtesy the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane University.)

Editor’s note: For the last year-plus, I’ve been gradually working, with much-appreciated assistance from several folks, to identify and discover more about the famous photo of the Secret 9 semipro baseball team owned by Satchmo himself, Louis Armstrong, in the early 1930s in New Orleans.

That photo, shown above, has been a source of both great pride and great mystery here in NOLA, because so far, none of the players had been identified, the source of the photo remains an enigma, and the nature of the team’s possible connection to the famed Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club has been been nearly impossible to define.

I’ve written about the Secret 9 in several publications, including here and here.

But over the past year, there’s been several breakthroughs in the slog to unearth facts and put to rest fiction surrounding the Secret 9! One of those epiphanies has been the identification of one of the players in the photo, and here’s a multi-part tale of that discovery and the talented, influential athlete at the center of the find.

Also, I know that in the process I’ve started multi-part stories on this blog and not finished them, for which I greatly apologize. However, that absolutely will not be the case here. I promise I’ll tell the whole tale. Now, without further ado, the story of Eddie “Kid” Brown, Part 1 …

In late August 1889, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper reported on the upcoming game between the hometown West Ends and the visiting Pinchbacks from New Orleans. The two teams claimed to be the champions of “colored” baseball from their respective geographic regions; in this case, respectively, the West and the South. (At the time, St. Louis was still considered a city on the Western frontier of the growing nation.)

The paper — which unfortunately reflected the level of racism prevalent in society by calling the Pinchbacks the “new coons in town” and referring to the game as the exposure of “a dark secret” — specifically addressed the presence of one New Orleans player in particular.

“It is said that the reason Mr. Lou Brown, short-stop of the Pinchbacks,” stated the P-D, “wears eye-glasses is because he is color-blind. He is one of the new coons on the nine, and is of a dude make-up.”

St. Louis Post-Aug. 30, 1889. 

In addition to the reporter’s fascination with the mystifying phenomenon of eyewear and the casual racism, the term “dude” is quite a unique one particular to the era. In this case, it doesn’t mean a White-Russian-chugging, strike-rolling, Creedence-loving, be-robed stoner, but, in the parlance of the time, a man who’s always dressed to the nines, free-spending and socially active. Depending on the precise context, “dude” could be used as either a term of affection, or a derogatory pejorative for black men.

In another article in the same Post-Dispatch issue, Lou Brown is listed on the roster of the Pinchbacks, a team that coalesced in the Big Easy as the wall of segregation was being constructed and that was managed by Walter L. Cohen, one of the most prominent African-American politicians and businessmen in the Crescent City and much of the rest of the country for decades.

The team coined its name to honor P.B.S. Pinchback, who for a few months in 1872-73 became the first African-American governor of a U.S. state. The squad only existed for a handful of years but nonetheless stamped a significant impact on baseball in New Orleans and black ball overall.

The New Orleans squad stopped in St. Louis for a few games while on their roughly three-week tour of the Midwest that also brought them to Chicago for more contests. The West Ends clobbered the travelers, 17-5, on Aug. 31, but the ‘Backs annihilated the local guys, 12-2, the next day. However, the West Ends took the rubber match, 20-13, allowing the locals to “maintain the colored championships of the South and West.”

The Pinchbacks pulled into New Orleans on Sept. 14 after posting a 5-3-1 mark on their road trip, and they continued their 1889 season well into autumn. Exactly how much playing time Lou Brown got for the Pinchbacks might, thanks to poor record-keeping, never be known.

But he did play for one of the first great black ball teams in history, making him a sportive trailblazer.

(Off the field, Louis Brown, who was born in April 1869, worked as a fish cleaner at the French Market in the first few decades of the 20th century. He died in January 1939 at the age of 69.)

Louis Brown’s place in baseball history and New Orleans heritage overall doesn’t end with the Pinchbacks.

That’s because his son — Edward “Eddie” “Kid” Brown Sr. — also earned a place on a legendary baseball aggregation in the Crescent City.

Eddie Brown, you see, was a member of none other than the Secret 9, jazz legend and hometown icon Louis Armstrong’s semipro baseball team.

The copy of the famed photo used by the Brown family to identify Eddie Brown, who is in the back row, third player from left, with a circle around him.

The Secret 9 only existed for a season or two circa 1931, and by all accounts they were mediocre at best, but Satchmo, an avid fan of the national pastime, was ebullient to have his own club, and he was extremely proud of his boys back home.

So proud, in fact, that on one trip to his old stomping grounds in the Big Easy, Louis gathered up his club, as well as his sidemen and assistants, for a team photo that has since attained near-iconic status.

The photo, however, has also become an enigma of sorts, because so far, no one has been able to identify the players in the shot; while a few names have popped up as being associated with the team — such as Julius “Kildee” Bowers, who is listed as the Secret 9’s pitcher in a game or two — none of the players in the picture have been identified by connecting a name with a face.

Louisiana Weekly, Sept. 24, 1932

Through numerous articles about the team, no one had been able to do that, even with a recent story I did for the Times-Picayune newspaper. However, since then, the quest for names has been joined by the folks at the International House Hotel in New Orleans, who made it a mission to promote the culture and heritage of New Orleans by honoring Armstrong and his countless contributions to the city.

Last year the IHH offered a re-creation of Armstrong’s favorite alcohol concoction, the Laughin’ Looie, and offered replica jerseys of the Secret 9’s uniforms — the ones worn by the long-ago players in that long-ago photograph.

The hotel’s efforts also included trying to do something where others have failed — identifying the athletes in the pic. A few months ago, they found success when they connected with Eddie Brown Jr., son of the Secret 9 player who positively ID’ed his father in the photo — back row, third player from left.

Earlier this year, Eddie Jr., his son (and Kid’s grandson) Marcus and I met with Sean Cummings and Stephanie Wellman at the IHH to meet and chat, and since then I’ve been digging into the history books and newspapers, and texting back and forth with Eddie Jr. about his athletic family’s history.

It’s taking me a lot longer than I expected to post this blog entry detailing the Brown family, but I really wanted to fill out their story. And the way this connection was made was quite serendipitous.

Louisiana Weekly, March 10, 1934 (apologies for the poor quality, the original on the microfilm is dark.)

Eddie Jr. told me that despite his father’s local sportive fame, his family has few photos of him from his life and career, with much of the family’s mementos lost during Hurricane Betsy in 1965, including a scrapbook, newspaper clippings and photo collection of his dad’s career.

“The only photos of my grandfather that I’ve ever seen was in his baseball uniform with the old fashioned flat top baseball cap on,” Eddie said.

One of the photos lost during Betsy more than a half-century ago was a copy of the iconic Secret 9 snapshot. Several years ago, Eddie looked up the Secret 9 during some exploring of history, and when he came across the team photo, he said, “I realized that this was the same picture that we had before Betsy destroyed it in 1965.”

Then, a bit later, one of Eddie’s son’s friends saw my article about the Secret 9 in the T-P, and the friend remembered that he (the friend) knew from Marcus that Marcus’ grandfather played on the team.

From there, the Browns contacted the folks at the International House Hotel, and the ball started  rolling from there.

(I should note that I haven’t found any references to Eddie Sr. in the contemporary coverage of the Secret 9 from 1930-32, but those articles don’t mention any members of Armstrong’s club besides beyond a handful, led by Kildee Bowers.)

As a side note, the fact that Eddie Brown Sr. was a member of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club gives credence to the belief that the roster of the Secret 9 was largely plucked from the ranks of Zulu. Eddie Brown Sr.’s younger brother, Roland, served as King of Zulu for Mardi Gras 1951 — two years, coincidentally, after the reign of none other than Louis Armstrong, who relished the honor in 1949.

Louisiana Weekly, July 28, 1934

(However, for years, Zulu and its club historian haven’t even responded to inquiries about the Secret 9 from numerous people, including me and Stephanie at the IHH. Their stonewalling has actually been quite frustrating. In addition to making the process of filling out the history of the Secret 9 and identifying the players, you’d think the club would want to play up its connection to such a historical gem.)

As for Louis Brown’s role with the Pinchbacks, Eddie Jr. says he doesn’t know a whole lot about the 19th-century club, but he did remember that his grandfather (Louis) had in fact played on the squad. I then reached out to my esteemed friend, colleague and 19th-century black ball guru James Brunson, who turned up the 1889 article in the Post-Dispatch, and we had confirmation!

However, Eddie Jr. told me that his father was much more than a diamond demon. In addition to being a prolific, multi-sport talent, Eddie Sr. served as a coach and mentor for younger generations of black and white youth.

“I don’t know much about the Pinchbacks but I do know that my dad was a Zulu member, and he played baseball as well as football at Milne Boys home, which used to be called the Colored Waif’s Home,” Eddie told me.

Incidentally, the Colored Waif’s Home most famous resident and successful product was none other than Louis Armstrong. Eddie Brown Jr. said that while his father played on the Colored Waif Home’s sports teams, the elder Brown, as far as Junior knows, didn’t actually live at the home.

But did the Brown family know Satchmo himself, the man who formed, funded and found much pride in the Secret 9 baseball team? Eddie Brown Jr. said his grandmother, Georgianna, as well as Eddie Brown Sr., knew Armstrong; in fact, he added, his grandmother was friends with Armstrong. However, Junior said, neither his grandmother nor his father talked too much about Satchmo and their relationships with the great trumpeter.

Eddie Brown Sr., in his later years, passed on what he had learned — as a boxer, as a baseball player and as a black man — to younger generations, Eddie Jr. said.

“My dad taught boxing as well as fencing at the Dryades Street YMCA,” he continued. “He also taught boxing at the [New Orleans Police Department] Academy on Navarre Avenue, and at Loyola with a fraternity. The club was called the Badgers. He coached boxing teams around the New Orleans area. He would pick up many of the neighborhood kids and bring all of us to the YMCA with him every day after school.”

While Eddie Brown Sr. was also adept with a Louisville Slugger and a foil, it was as a boxer that he really made his mark on New Orleans sports history as a boxer, fighting against an array of regional and national standouts, fighters with flamboyant names, fervent followings and impressive cache.

Eddie “Kid” Brown’s WWII draft card.

However, unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, Kid’s celebrity remained limited to the African-American community. Much like the Nego Leagues and other black baseball players and clubs, info on black boxers’ exploits can be quite difficult to find, something Eddie Brown Jr. learned right away. Longtime, respected boxing publications like The Ring frequently short-changed or altogether omitted coverage of African-American pugilists, especially during segregation in the South.

Still, the proud son did manage to glean some information about his dad.

“I was trying to get his boxing records from the list at Ring Magazine and was getting nowhere because they didn’t keep accurate boxing records of African Americans back then,” Eddie Jr. told me. “I know for a fact that he fought for many years based on the amount of newspaper articles I had read as a child. Ring had only a few fights listed, I know that he beat Chocolate Bon Bon in NYC and was bold enough to sit on the corner post because it was a headline in the New York paper that I read.”

While Eddie Brown Sr.’s fighting career, much of it as a lightweight or a welterweight, spanned nearly a decade from the late 1920s to the mid- to late ’30s, arguably the heady height of his fame occurred during a two-year span from 1933-35, a stretch that found his name and photo splashed across the sports pages of the Louisiana Weekly and in wire reports across the country.

The second installment of this tale will (hopefully) be published next week. As usual, thank you for reading, and happy holidays!

Biography of Ted Strong Jr. brings light to two-sport star

Ted Strong Jr. (left) with Memphis Red Sox player Joe Henry. (Photo Courtesy of NoirTech Research, Inc.)

Ted Strong Jr. holds a unique place in African-American sports history. Much like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, Strong excelled in two sports for years; Strong starred in the Negro Baseball Leagues and for the legendary Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.

As such, Strong could be compared to fellow Negro League standouts like Cum Posey, the Homestead Grays magnate and early black basketball star who is the only person inducted into both the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; or to Fats Jenkins, who prowled Negro League outfields and helped revolutionize hoops with the Harlem Rens and whom I’ve previously profiled on this blog.

Fortunately, a 2016 book by my friend and colleague Sherman Jenkins entitled, “Ted Strong Jr.: The Untold Story of an Original Harlem Globetrotter and Negro Leagues All-Star,” has illuminated the life and career of Ted Strong Jr., a forgotten legend who excelled in two sports at a time of strict, tragic segregation in American sports. What’s more, Sherman built the book upon a solid foundation of friendship and familiarity with Strong’s family, giving the volume a warm, intimate feel.

Below is a lightly-edited, email interview I recently conducted with Sherman about his book …

RW: What prompted you to research and write about Ted Strong? Do you have a personal connection to him?

SJ: I knew Ted Strong Jr.’s father, Ted Strong Sr. I grew up with Ted Sr.’s children from his second marriage. We grew up on the South Side of Chicago in Woodlawn. I wrote an article about the senior Strong (see attached). Strong Sr. liked the article and told me that I needed to meet Ted Jr., who was the oldest child from Ted Sr.’s first marriage. I was scheduled to meet Ted Jr. but two weeks before our meeting, he suffered an asthma attack and died at the age of 61. Ted Sr. and Jr. had the same first, middle and last name. The only designation was Senior and Junior.

Ted Strong Jr. (Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.).

RW: What were the biggest challenges you faced when undertaking this project? Did you have a hard time finding human sources for the project? What about other sources? How much is out there about Ted?

SJ: The biggest challenges were finding people who were still alive and who played with or against Ted Jr. Moreover, I wrote the article about Ted Sr. in 1977. Life happened, and it wasn’t until 2013 that I worked to complete my research and write the book.

RW: How would you describe Ted Strong as an athlete, and as a person?

SJ: From what I could glean from various news articles in the black press, he was competitive, a gentle giant and, as his friend Buck O’Neil told me, “Ted moved as the wind blew.” He was an easy-going guy. O’Neil also said that Ted Jr. was the best athlete he had ever seen. Several family members told me that he was a fun-loving man who made family get-togethers fun.

RW: Do you feel Ted has received the amount of recognition and respect he’s due? How do we tell people what an incredible athlete and human being he was?

SJ: No. Researchers and the general public seem to focus on the staple [Negro League] names: Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige. I try to focus on [Ted’s] stats: seven-time Negro Leagues All-Star, 1946 home run champion, member of the 1940 World Basketball Champions Harlem Globetrotters, member of the Globetrotter team that defeated the all-white Minneapolis Lakers featuring George Mikan in 1948.

RW: What has been the reaction to your book from the public? Has it been positive?

SJ: Reaction has been positive. People ask why they haven’t heard about him until now. Take a look at comments about the book on Amazon.

Ted Strong Jr. striking his baseball pose in his Globetrotters uniform. Ted, Jr. was among the many players the Globetrotters publicized to marketed the team to fans. In news releases promoting an upcoming Globetrotter game, the publicist would state that Ted Jr. had the largest hands in basketball. (Photo credit: Harlem Globetrotters).

RW: What were some of the more interesting nuggets of information about Strong that you discovered during this process?

SJ: Per Strong Sr., Ted Jr. had asthma, but it didn’t seem to affect him, although, an asthma attack took his life. He was very respectful of his elders. Moreover, he played himself in two movies about the Globetrotters: “The Harlem Globetrotters Story” and “Go Man Go!”

RW: Now the tough question: was Ted Strong a better baseball player, or a better basketball player?

SJ: I would say baseball. Seven-time Negro League All-Star, [for] which … the players were selected by readers of black newspapers across the country. Although, in basketball he was a rock in the post and marketed by the Globetrotters as having the largest hands in basketball.

Sherman Jenkins’ biography of Ted Strong Jr. can be purchased on Amazon here.

Sherman Jenkins

Sherman L. Jenkins has been a researcher of the Negro Leagues, and specifically Ted Strong Jr., and working with Ted Strong Sr. over the last 30 years. Jenkins is a member of SABR Negro League Committee, and the book “Ted Strong, Jr.: The Untold Story of an Original Harlem Globetrotter and Negro League All-Star” was published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers of Maryland in October 2016.

New Oscar Charleston book chronicles legend’s story

Oscar Charleston in 1922 (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth P. Overton estate.)

Whenever I’m prompted to discuss the greatest baseball players of all time, my answer is usually quite succinct: Oscar Charleston is the GOAT, and he most likely always will be. He was a five-tool player times 10, someone who casts a shadow over person I believe is the best MLB figure of all time, Willie Mays. Add in his supreme intelligence, cagey savvy and unquenchable fire, and there’s no one — not even Ruth, Mays, Cobb, Gibson — who can touch Oscar Charleston.

I’ll admit that I’m a little biased because of the seven and a half years I lived in Indiana, Oscar’s home state (he’s an Indianapolis native), and because I wrote an article about him years ago myself. I’ve been to his grave in Floral Park Cemetery, and I’ve strode through Oscar Charleston Park in North Center Indianapolis).

But regardless, there’s never been a comprehensive biography of Charleston that’s done justice to his talent, his influence, his success and his legacy. But Jeremy Beer has changed that with “Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player,” an exhaustive tome chronicling the Oscar Charleston story, and it’s destined to become a classic, just like Oscar himself.

Below is my recent, lightly-edited email interview with Jeremy Beer …)

RW: Given that Oscar Charleston is one of the greatest players and figures in baseball history, why do you think it took so long for someone to set about writing a book about him? What prompted you to take on the challenge and work through it?

JB: Well, oddly enough, we have full biographies of only two or three players who spent their entire careers in the Negro Leagues to begin with (Rube Foster, Josh Gibson and I think one other), so Oscar isn’t the only player who has been neglected. You would think that the burgeoning of African-American Studies departments would have led to a plethora of biographies and in-depth studies, but that hasn’t happened, for some reason. Also, until recently most old newspapers weren’t digitized. That the vast, vast majority of them are now online and easily searchable with one or two subscriptions was a huge help to my work — I probably couldn’t have reasonably undertaken it otherwise. So maybe that’s another reason: that only recently has everyday documentation of the past been so readily available to us.

I took on the challenge for two reasons: (1) I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of Oscar when I encountered Bill James’s ranking of him as the fourth greatest player of all time — if others also didn’t know him, that seemed like an obvious and regrettable injustice; and (2) Oscar, like me, was from Indiana, which meant it would be even more fun and satisfying to tell his story.

RW: What were the biggest challenges you encountered when conducting research and writing the book? How did you overcome them and get to the nitty gritty of Oscar’s life?

JB: The biggest challenge is that the trail is cold. Oscar has been dead for 65 years. I got started too late to talk to too many ex-players; as you know, their number has dwindled dramatically in the last 10 years or so. Oscar didn’t leave any descendants. Maddeningly, the nine brothers and sisters who lived to adulthood didn’t seem to leave much of a descendant trail either — my Ancestry.com family tree for Oscar was exceedingly difficult to fill out after his generation. In short, there just weren’t that many people to talk to, at least not that I could find (someone else might do better than me on this).

But I talked to everyone I could, and three other things really helped. First, I made contact with Oscar’s wife Jane’s niece and her daughter. They were tremendously cooperative and helpful and helped me fill out some details of Oscar’s personal life. They also had some great photos and other personal effects to share with me. Second, I had access to Oscar’s personal scrapbook and photo album, which are held at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City. 

Jeremy Beer

Those items offered precious windows into Oscar’s personality, interests, and character. I relied on them heavily. And third, sportswriter John Schulian graciously shared with me all of the notes he had taken when writing a profile on Oscar for Sports Illustrated in the early 2000s. Those notes included interview transcriptions with a number of players who had played with and for Oscar. All praise to John (who created Xena, Warrior Princess, by the way) for being such a mensch.

Then, of course, all the census data, ship manifests, birth and death certificates, draft cards—all of that stuff helped tremendously, and fortunately most of it is available on ancestry.com these days. These are good times for a biographer!

RW: How would you describe Charleston as a player, as a manager and as a human being? What were some of his biggest traits, strengths and weaknesses?

JB: As a player: intensely competitive with a nearly maniacal drive to win. Dynamic. Energy pouring out of him. Twitchy at the plate, always pumping the bat up and down. Talkative, including trash-talkative. Aggressive, taking the extra base whenever he could and sometimes when he couldn’t. Rather unconcerned with your personal safety. And needless to say, truly excellent at almost everything (he may have had only an average or just above-average throwing arm). As of right now, he has three of top seven best offensive seasons, by OPS+, in the Seamheads.com database (and five of the top 16, minimum 300 plate appearances) and has more of lots of counting stat than any other Negro Leagues player: hits, doubles, triples, runs, walks, stolen bases. (He is second to Gibson in home runs and RBIs.) He played a very shallow defensive center field and was lauded for more than a decade for his ranginess out there.

Oscar Charleston’s death certificate

As a manager: Oscar was a natural leader, first and foremost. His managerial style was not democratic, nor was there anything new-school about it. He demanded effort, punctuality and attentiveness. He also believed in the principles of “scientific baseball” as taught by his mentor C. I. Taylor, who signed Charleston to play with the Indianapolis ABCs in 1915. You didn’t screw around with Oscar as a player, but at the same time he had your back and was lauded by Crawfords players of the 1930s for the way he bonded them together as a team. He was voted the greatest manager in Negro Leagues history in one poll conducted 20 or 30 years ago.

As a human being: charming, charismatic, friendly, self-disciplined (he neither drank nor smoked). Said to have been an accomplished pool player and a good singer. He dressed well and was not unattractive to women, to the detriment of his marriage with Jane. Perhaps most importantly, he was really intelligent. He only went to school through the eighth grade in Indianapolis, but he nevertheless seems to have taught himself how to read, write and speak Spanish remarkably quickly while he played winter ball in Cuba. The intelligence is further confirmed by the sorts of friends and associates he preferred — almost always college-educated, socially accomplished types. He seems to have taken a lively interest in the issues of his day, including civil rights.

I’ve mentioned a lot of strengths already, so among the weaknesses would be hot-headedness during competition. He got into more fights than he should have on the field. He could be overly stern as a manager, and he wasn’t regarded as an innovator in that regard. And he was a proud man — not arrogant, but proud, and that probably hurt him at times.

RW: Many legends describe Oscar Charleston as “the black Ty Cobb,” not just for his incredible accomplishments as a player, but also for his irascibility, temper and boldness. Would you agree with that assessment? Or was Charleston more complex and misunderstood than that?

JB: So Charleston was like Cobb on the field in several ways, yes. He might spike you coming into a base and figure that was part of the game. When you were playing against him, you probably didn’t much care for his style; Buck Leonard certainly didn’t. But that’s about as far as I would go. Cobb, although he has been partially rehabilitated by Charles Leehrsen, was not very popular with some teammates and many others. He was moody and brooding, at least at times. And he definitely got into some scrapes and scandals off the field. Charleston was a more popular and likeable character, by contrast. I wouldn’t say he was irascible. He doesn’t seem to have been touched by the melancholic aura that surrounded Cobb, nor was he as concerned about preserving his own reputation. When sportswriters called him the “Black Ty Cobb” early in his career, it was mostly just a way of saying, “This guy is the best we have.”

RW: Some, including the great Buck O’Neil, felt and still feel that Oscar was simply the greatest of all time, regardless of race, league or era. Would you agree? Why or why not?

JB: I think it would really be stretching it to rank him ahead of Ruth, in terms of how much he towered over his contemporaries. But I think you could make a reasonable case against literally everyone else (besides Mays and maybe Honus Wagner, the best competition comes from Josh Gibson). I’ve imagined an alternative Oscar who played in the white majors and concluded that, look, we know he was incredibly durable, we know that his speed and defense would have translated easily to that game. Maybe he would have faced more consistently good pitching.

Headstone application for Oscar Charleston

Fine: let’s give him a career OPS+ of 140 (it was 174 in the Negro Leagues), 250 career home runs (he had 209 against major black competition, in a little more than half the career plate appearances of Willie Mays), 400 career stolen bases (he had 354), and make him an above replacement defender (so, a defensive Wins Above Replacement above 0). Who else has done that in the majors? Only Barry Bonds, who presumably had a little chemical help. And we are being *very* conservative with our alternative Oscar’s numbers here. So that’s one way of answering your question.

I will say, too, that you can make a solid argument that Charleston has the best overall resume of anyone who ever played the game, when you take into account not only his stellar playing performance but also his managerial record and his record as a scout. It’s worth mentioning that not only did he lead Negro Leagues teams to championships as a manager, but he also seems to have managed a semi-pro team in Philadelphia’s Industrial League during World War II. Why does that matter? Because it was an *integrated* team, five years before Jackie Robinson debuted for the Dodgers. That was pioneering. So was the scouting work he did for Branch Rickey in 1945, which I think probably makes Oscar the first African American to have paid to scout for a National League or American League team.

You put it all together and the resume is incredibly impressive.

World War II draft card

RW: Was there any person, source or organization that was particularly helpful as you pursued this project?

Tons! I’ve already mentioned John Schulian. Larry Lester was always generous and encouraging and shared photos, statistics — anything he had. Ray Doswell at the Negro Leagues Museum provided crucial assistance. Gary Ashwill gave me the day-by-day box scores for Oscar that underlie the stats on Seamheads. Ted Knorr in Harrisburg made key connections for me. Various librarians and archivists helped out. Ex-players gave me their time. Lots of others are mentioned by name in my Acknowledgments. And then I benefited so, so much from all the work done over the previous decades by Negro Leagues researchers like Robert Peterson, Donn Rogosin, John Holway, Neil Lanctot, Brent Kelley, Jim Bankes, and the list goes on. I am standing on the shoulders of giants in writing this book, to be sure.

RW: What has been the reaction and public response to the book?

JB: It’s been uniformly positive, fortunately. I do sometimes encounter skepticism that anyone as good as I claim Oscar was — or as James claimed he was—could actually have been so forgotten. Some people have a hard time believing historical memory can be so unjust. But it is! It’s not just Oscar and it’s not just Negro Leagues players who fall prey to the erasures of time. Other athletes, writers, inventors — there are plenty of stories out there to be recovered and re-told, especially the stories of those whose lives didn’t or still don’t fit convenient culturally dominant narratives. One of my jobs, as I see it, is to convince people that that’s the case.

Author bio

Jeremy Beer’s Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player was published by the University of Nebraska Press on November 1. Beer has published on sports, philanthropy, politics, and culture in outlets such as the Washington Post, National Review, the Washington Examiner, First Things, Modern Age, the Utne Reader and the Baseball Research Journal, among other venues. He is the author of The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) and the editor of America Moved: Booth Tarkington’s Memoirs of Time and Place, 1869–1928 (Wipf and Stock, 2015). He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Kara.

To purchase Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player, go to Amazon here or to the University of Nebraska Press Web site.