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 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 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 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.

The Cuban Giants meet Louis Sockalexis

Worcester Spy, May 18, 1895

I’ve talked before about how I have family roots in central Maine, way up in the woods, and I’ve written a few Maine-centric posts on Home Plate Don’t Move, such as here.

However, in addition to a natural affinity for all things Pine Tree State, I also enjoy dipping into Native-American history when I can (including when that history intersects with the Negro Leagues, such as here and here), and the combination of those two interests led me to recently purchase and read Brian McDonald’s book, “Indian Summer,” a biography of Maine native Louis Sockalexis, the first acknowledged Native-American to play in major league baseball.

(Research has recently found evidence that the honor of first American Indian to play in the majors was Jim Toy, a Pennsylvania native who competed for a couple major league teams between 1887 and 1890, but who apparently “passed” as white and as such wasn’t recognized as a Native-American during his career).

Sockalexis was a member of the Penobscot tribe, a relatively small group located in Old Town, Maine, a small island community nestled between two rivers and located just north of Orono, which is the home of the University of Maine.

Sock’s astonishingly quick ascent to baseball stardom was followed by an equally precipitous — and quite tragic — fall. His raw athletic talent was prodigious, especially when he poured it into America’s still-growing national pastime of baseball. He roamed the outfield with a quickness and natural instinct that seemed to preternaturally guide him to almost any ball lofted his way. He also possessed a cannon of an arm and a savvy, heady, daring fleet-footedness on the basepaths.

He was also a dangerous hitter, capable of tremendous, slashing power, especially once he mastered hitting a curveball.

Boston Globe, May 5, 1895

In 1897, at just 25 years old, Sockalexis earned a spot on the roster of Cleveland’s National League club, nominally dubbed the Spiders. He had a blistering first half of the season — at bat, on the bases and in the field — that both tabbed him for eventual superstardom and caused the Spiders’ attendance to rocket.

However, by the end of July 1897, Sock’s quickly worsening alcoholism — along with an untreated broken ankle — hastened a swift decline first into mediocrity, then into oblivion. He received less and less playing time as the summer came to a conclusion.

The following season continued the swift decrease Sockalexis’ playing time, and while he was able to maintain sobriety for some stretches, his frequent alcohol benders and his bum ankle ensured his place on the bench.

The 1899 season saw the end of both the Spiders and of Louis Sockalexis’ major-league career. He subsequently hoboed around the minor leagues of New England, signing contracts when he could but invariably blowing each chance he had at a comeback because of his physical deterioration. By the end of 1903 he was out of organized baseball for good, just six years after rocketing onto the national hardball scene as a can’t-miss prodigy.

On Christmas Eve 1913, Louis Sockalexis died of a heart attack while working on logging crew at just 42 years old. He thus joined the seemingly endless parade of “what might have been” tales throughout baseball history — which, in many ways, mirrored the fates of hundreds of Negro League and blackball players who never got the chance to become the stars they could have been in organized baseball.

And just like those black ball stars, Louis faced the same kind of racism and hostility that African-American players have faced for a century and a half of baseball. While the bigotry Sockalexis encountered might not have reached the same oppressive level of spite and intensity experienced by black players, the prejudice certainly contributed to the withering, alcohol-fueled despair that destroyed his promising career.

Sock’s tale has been told multiple times in book form, and McDonald’s biography is quite good, if a little skimpy on details of his youth with the Penobscots and his later years after his baseball career ended.

Why do I bring this up in a blog about the Negro Leagues? Because MacDonald’s book also talks about Sockalexis’ pre-professional college career, first at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., then briefly at Notre Dame in Indiana.

The campus of Holy Cross

The time Sockalexis spent studying at and playing baseball for Holy Cross in 1895 and ’96 (he also was a running back on the school’s football team and ran track) was extremely productive, joyful and hopeful, an experience he used as a launchpad to organized baseball and the major leagues.

At the time there probably weren’t enough institutions of higher learning that offered varsity baseball, if they did any sports, so collegiate clubs had to fill out their spring and early summer schedules by playing semi-pro, town and barnstorming teams.

For Holy Cross, those semi-pro foes came from all across the Northeast and, in 1895, they included none other than the Cuban Giants, the first all-black professional baseball team (with an ensuing lack of clarity, as you’ll see in a few paragraphs down).

The Cuban Giants were formed in 1885 with wait staff at the Babylon Argyle Hotel on Long Island, and they instantly became the class of “colored” baseball by touring constantly. There were no stable colored leagues at the time, so the Cubans — there were no actual Cuban men on the team, with the name being basically a marketing technique to appeal to a broader (read: white) fan base.

Adding to the attraction was the Giants’ playful yet tomfoolery that engaged stadium crowds with colorful gabbing, very enthusiastic coaching and the type of ball hawking and catching skills that many white baseball fans had never seen.

Early on the Cuban Giants’ roster was studded with black baseball stars, including future Hall of Famers Sol White and Frank Grant, as well as other legends like Clarence “Waxey” Williams, George Williams and John “Pat” Patterson.

Sol White

The Giants enjoyed their first full season in 1885, and by the time they played the Holy Cross squad nearly a decade later, the African-American aggregation were well known and highly sought after as opponents for towns, city’s and other teams throughout the country and especially in the Northeast.

The clashes between the two teams made for a fascinating anecdote in McDonald’s book on Sockalexis — the first black professional baseball team squaring off against the man who would become the first acknowledged Native-American player in the major leagues.

Holy Cross and the Cuban Giants first encountered each other during the 1895 season on May 18 at Worcester, with the African Americans clubbing the Crusaders, 9-1, with Sockalexis going 1-for-3 and scoring his team’s only run. He also swiped a base. Grant went 3-for-5, stole a base and scored three runs for the Cubans, while Robinson (I’m not sure of his first name) got the win in the mound.

Here’s how the Boston Globe described the G-men’s win:

“The Cuban Giants created quite a lot of fun for the spectators by their lively coaching. They played fast ball all the time, taking every advantage of their opponents’ misplays.”

Waxey Williams, added the Globe, “supported [Robinson] in good shape besides amusing the crowd in the grand stand by his catchy remarks.”

The Cubans came back to Worcester for a return engagement on May 28, when the result was the complete opposite of the first kerfuffle — the Crusaders this time clobbered the Cubans, 12-5.

On the mound, Holy Cross pitcher John Pappalau stymied the Giants hitters, scattering nine (or 10, depending on the source) hits for two earned runs and 11 K’s.

The Giants also played a sloppy game, making a whopping seven errors and allowing eight unearned runs. Bill Selden started the contest on the mound for the G-men, but he was quickly yanked for Robinson, who didn’t fare much better.

Sockalexis went 2-for-4 with a double, while Grant again led the Cubans by going 3-for-4 and a run scored. Waxey Williams smashed a home run as well.

Clarence “Waxey” Williams

(Pappalau ended up joining Sockalexis on the Spiders’ 1897 roster, bagging a single season in the majors.)

But here’s the weird part — McDonald, while correctly stating that Holy Cross played the Giants in 1895, In his book, he refers to an undated game with a score I couldn’t confirm. He wrote:

“The school also took advantage of baseball’s popularity by scheduling games outside the college ranks. In 1895, Holy Cross played the vaunted Cuban Giants. Originally a team made up of black porters to entertain guests at a posh Long Island hotel, the Giants had become a traveling sensation. There were no Cubans on the team, but the name was affixed to the club as a way to side-step the stigma then surrounding black ballplayers. The Cuban Giants were led by Ulysses F. ‘Frank’ Grant, one of the premier black players of the nineteenth century. Though the contest was game, the Holy Cross nine lost to the Giants, 6-5.”

Moving past that idiosyncrasy and jumping along further, it’s interesting to note that the regional New England press covered the exploits of both Holy Cross and the Cuban Giants throughout that season, so much so that, in addition to the two teams’ games against each other, they sometimes appeared on the same page of newspaper coverage.

The May 3 edition of the Boston Globe reported Holy Cross’ loss to Brown University, the Crusaders’ first defeat of the spring. Just six columns inches below that, the Globe included a brief about a Giants’ triumph over the University of Vermont (more on the UVM Catamounts later).

A little under two weeks after that, the Globe reported on one of the Cuban Giants’ triumphs over Wesleyan, and two short box scores below that, the paper announced an impending Holy Cross contest against Hahvahd. Then, on June 2, the Globe noted the Crusaders’ loss to Yale, exactly adjacent to a short report on another Cubans victory over UVM.

Beyond their games against the Crusaders, the Cuban Giants’ spring through fall 1895 schedule trekked all across the Northeast, especially New England, taking on all comers. While Sockalexis was burning up the basepaths for Holy Cross, the Giants sauntered from Connecticut to Rhode Island to Massachusetts to Vermont that season. The Cubans also ventured as far south as Maryland and west into Pennsylvania and New York.

Stated the Philadelphia Times in April 1895 about the Cubans’ tireless travels:

“The Cuban Giants, the colored club, which is now touring the eastern part of this State, is a well managed organization, and it still includes almost the same players that it had ten years ago. The manager is a white man [most likely owner John M. Bright] who knows a thing or two about arranging dates. Although his club is not in any organization [league] he has 125 games booked for the season. His players are reasonable in their demands for salary, and do not want the earth while they are having a good time on the road.”

Such commentary reflects a public image of the team in which the traveling African-American players hard-working and dedicated but also are not to “uppity” or brash (as well as “controlled” by a white man), a combination that made the Giants an appealing opponent for mostly white communities.

Other media representatives approached the Cuban Giants with bemusement and curiosity. Take, for example, the July 22, 1895, Boston Journal, which employed either ignorance or snark (or both, it’s hard to tell) when discussing the team with a reference to global affairs:

“Of what stuff are these ‘Cuban Giants’ made, that they spend their time on the ball field when their country needs their help so sorely?”

Most likely this referred to the Cuban War of Independence from Spain, a conflict that began in 1895 and wasn’t completely resolved until after the Spanish-American War in 1898. Of course, the Cuban Giants weren’t actually Cuban; the team was given the name as essentially a marketing tool that portrayed the players as foreigners, which provided them an air of exoticism and a false image that they were non-threatening foreigners, a mirage that placed the white community more at ease.

So the Journal was either being ignorant, or the writer tried to employ satire to riff on the team’s exploits.

Other communities, though, eschewed such subtlety when hailing the impending arrival of the Giants to their midst, instead employing flippancy at best and bigoted derision at worst. The Mount Carmel (Pa.) Item announced the club’s approach to town in May 1895:

“The Cuban Giants will be here next Thursday to do battle with the Reliance. The ‘n*****s [my edit] are a set of hustlers and will put up a good game under all circumstances as they have done heretofore. Everybody should turn out and hear those Cubans coach.”

About a week later the Item doubled down on its tone:

“The Reliance and Cuban Giants are playing ball at the National park this afternoon, and quite a large crowd from the Gap are listening to the ‘n**s’ coaching.”

I gotta admit it’s a strange day when a town newspaper is so casually racist that it abbreviates the n-word as a method of advertisement.

Now, perhaps a valid question to ask before we proceed concerns the quality of the 1895 Cuban Giants. Were they as good as they were a decade earlier when they formed? Had the club sustained excellence and continued to be one of the most important baseball teams in the scene in the years leading up to the turn of the century?

My friend and colleague James Brunson, who recently published a magnum opus on 19th-century African-American baseball, offered a few thoughts.

“The 1895 Cuban Giants team was good enough,” James offered. “Good enough to split into two clubs in 1896; one being the Cuban-X Giants. I think the Cuban Giants traveled to Chicago that year as well, and played white and black clubs.”

Had the Cubans quality of play dropped off?

“No sir,” James said. “They were still pretty good.”

Having said that, and using the G-men’s clashes with Louis Sockalexis-led Holy Cross as a jumping off point, it’s fascinating to delve into the Cuban Giants other exploits in 1895 as a way of giving context to those encounters with the Crusaders. It also provides a peak into the life of a pre-1900 professional barnstorming “colored” team, an existence that was both thrillingly eclectic and exhaustingly workaday.

Cuban Giants, circa 1895

For many of the Cubans’ opponents, their encounters with the legendary African-American aggregation provided one of the highlights of the baseball season — and it big day at the gate. Games with the Giants were highly sought-after and, frequently, quite financially lucrative.

Often, smaller cities and towns frequently sought out the Cubans as visitors for games against local aggregations, especially when the town was celebrating a big event or having a fair of some sort. The highly touted Giants guaranteed a big attendance at these shindigs, which meant a bigger gate and more jubilant festival.

In June 1895, for example, the town of Brandon, Vt., solicited the attendance of the Cuban Giants at the town fair, scheduled for late September. The Brandon Union newspaper explained why the town pined for a stop from the blackball stars:

“It is expected that the fair as a whole will eclipse the effort of last year and plans are already being formulated and attractions secured for the edification of the public. The athletic committee were [sic] instructed to correspond with the ‘Cuban Giants’ base ball team for the purpose of ascertaining their terms, with a view, if reasonable, to secure their appearance with some other crack ball team as opponents, during one day of the fair.”

But in addition to quirky one-offs in tiny towns across the Northeast, the Cuban Giants also developed regular and heated rivalries with several opponents, including a foe or foes in Hartford (perhaps the Hartford Bluebirds of the Connecticut State League); clubs in Hagerstown, Md.; Newport, R.I. (these guys pop up a little later in this blog post); and Orange, N.J.

Instead of recounting the rest of Cuban Giants’ 1895 schedule in agonizing (for the reader) detail, I’ll touch on a few highlights I found intriguing:

— In June that summer, the club nipped the town team in Woonsocket, R.I., 8-7. No special anecdote here. I just like saying “Woonsocket.” Woonsocket. Goonrocket. Toondocket. Toadthewetsprocket. Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance.

— In late March, the G-men defeated a team from Lakewood High School of N.J., 8-5, showing that the Cubans were truly willing to take on all comers, even high school kids.

— The Giants routinely squared off against collegiate squads; aside from Holy Cross, the team of African American combatants played the University of Vermont (whom I’ll discuss in detail later), Wesleyan University and the blue bloods of Dartmouth, whom the Cubans clobbered, 17-8.

Dartmouth University baseball team, 1895 (photo from Dartmouth Library digital archives)

A resulting brief in the Boston Post reporting on the Cuban Giants’ triumph over the Ivy Leaguers of Hanover, N.H., in many ways encapsulates the team’s impact on any given community they visited — for many whites, watching the Giants display their talents was an experience both astonishing and peculiar. Stated the Post.

“The Cuban Giants won very easily from Dartmouth this afternoon, scoring 17 to 8. Each side wielded the stick vigorously, but the team work of the dusky ball tossers was so much better than that of the collegians that the result was never in doubt, and the exhibition was interesting chiefly on account of its novelty.”

One of the few repeat opponents that seemed to turn the tables on the Giants was the Fall River Indians of Massachusetts. In April 1895, the squads split a two-game series, then in September the Indians swept a pair of contests by a combined tally of 34-9.

Upon discovering these reports, my first thought wasn’t the athleticism, it was the macabre. Just three years earlier, Fall River was rocked by the grisly murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their own home by an ax-wielding assailant. A year after that, Lizzie Borden, Andrew’s daughter and Abby’s step daughter, was infamously acquitted of the murders, which as a result remain officially unsolved to this day. The surrounding media scrutiny and public sensationalism trained the eyes of the whole world on Fall River, and even today the murders and ensuing trial remain in the public consciousness.

So, being a major fan of horror movies and Edgar Allan Poe (but not an enthusiast for H.P. Lovercraft, who, despite his brilliance, was still a racist, anti-semitic jerk), the mention of Fall River automatically piques my interest. However, the Fall River baseball team will also come up again a little later in this post.

Boston Post, April 20, 1895

While we’re on the subject of Massamachusetts … the 1895 Cuban Giants became a familiar face in Western Mass as well; in July in Orange, Mass., for example, the Giants topped the Central Parks, 10-6.

Why do I have a particular interest in 1895 baseball games in Western Massachusetts? Because, you see, for two years in the late 1990s, I lived in the region, working for the weekly Holyoke Sun newspaper in Holyoke, a small city adjacent to Springfield, the largest city in the region.

Holyoke and Springfield help form the Pioneer Valley area, a region that runs along the north-south Connecticut River from the Connecticut state line up to Vermont.

Anchored by Springfield (the home of the Basketball Hall of Fame) on the Mass-Connecticut line, the Pioneer Valley also includes what’s colloquially known as the “Five College Consortium” — the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College and Smith College. The last four are private, liberal-arts institutions, and Smith and Mount Holyoke are women’s colleges. UMass-Amherst is the state’s flagship public university. (My brother earned his bachelor’s from there.) Also, confusingly, Mount Holyoke is not located in the city of Holyoke; it’s across the river in South Hadley.

(Also, let’s get one thing straight — contrary to popular theorizing, the Five College Consortium are not the basis for the characters on “Scooby-Doo.” According to the legend, Daphne is Mount Holyoke, Velma is Smith, Fred is Amherst, Shaggy is Hampshire and Scooby is UMass. But numerous people involved with the classic cartoon have asserted that the rumor isn’t true.)

Anyway, so I lived in Western Mass for a couple years, and it was a remarkable, emotional and bizarre time in my life. West of the Pioneer Valley run the Berkshire Mountains, a range in which is nestled a bunch of small, quaint, historic towns, such as Great Barrington, North Adams and Stockbridge.

The Berkshires could be viewed as the confluence of the Appalachian Mountains from the south and the Green Mountains from the north, and the region has become known as a resort area that attracts tourists visiting the forested highlands and enjoying the region’s rich arts, music and culture scene.

Baseball, especially in the sport’s beginnings, thrived in the Berkshires, as Major League Baseball historian John Thorn details in his revelatory book, “Baseball in the Garden of Eden.” The earliest known written reference to “base ball” occurred in Pittsfield, Mass., the large town at the northern end of the Berkshires, in a 1791 bylaw aimed at stopping those blasted kids from busting windows while playing this newfangled pastime.

Baseball teams of varying size, level and organizational status dotted the Berkshires and Western Mass throughout the 19th century, including the 1890s, when the Cuban Giants were thriving by traversing the country and taking on town teams in geographic nooks and crannies.

In 1895, the Cubans travels brought them frequently to Western Mass and the Berkshires for a few reasons, not the least of which was that Giants star and eventual Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Grant was from Pittsfield, where he began his baseball career. Grant also frequently returned home to visit family in Pittsfield.

North Adams Transcript, Nov. 6, 1895

Another reason for the G-Men’s frequent presence in Western Mass in 1895 was the formation of, in August of that year, the Stanleys, a semipro club based in Pittsfield that took on the Cubans several times in late summer. 

(With a dive into the research only a bit deeper than the tertiary level, it’s hard to pin down completely where the Stanleys were based because there were other towns with other teams, likely most semipro or club, in the Berkshires area, including Great Barrington and North Adams. Some of these other aggregations played the Giants as well, all of which at the very least that the region remained a hot spot for the burgeoning national pastime.)

The Cuban Giants’ meetings with the Stanleys were fairly well covered by the local press, such as The Berkshire County Eagle of Pittsfield, The Pittsfield Sun and The North Adams Transcript. The clashes even got a paragraph in the Springfield Republican now and again.

The day before what was apparently the teams’ first engagement, the Eagle noted, “Tomorrow’s game with the Cuban Giants will be one of the most interesting of the season as the visitors are a very strong team. Their coaching is one of the features.”

And a later issue of the paper that “[T]he Cuban Giants are one of the leading attractions of the country and by far the best traveling team.” Both assertions reflect how highly prized a date with the Giants was, and how much the “colored” team got people a-talkin’ about the Cubans’ arrival.

Let’s highlight what was by all accounts the finest Cubans-Stanleys game — the one on Aug. 13 of the year in question that boiled down to a nailbiter of a pitching duel that ended in a hard-fought, 1-0 triumph by the visitors after the G-men’s John Nelson got the W over the Stanleys’ John Pappalau.

Berkshire County Eagle, Sept. 4, 1895

(Pause for another entry in the “well ain’t that a coincidence” file. Pappalau came to the Stanleys after attending and pitching for Holy Cross on the same collegiate roster as … Louis Sockalexis! Moreover, Pappalau even briefly joined his college mate with the Spiders in 1897, when Pappalau pitched in two games for the Cleveland MLB club.)

The Aug. 13 game between the blackball legends and the Stanleys not only reflected how the Giants frequently brought with them some stellar, thrilling baseball, but the coverage of the clash — especially in the Berkshire Eagle — reflected the tremendous popularity of the Cubans each summer.

Unlike the few previously mentioned newspaper articles that used derogatory words and exhibited a flippancy and ignorance about the Giants, the Eagle’s Aug. 14 issue was extremely flattering:

“The kind of baseball played at Waconah park cannot but help in promoting interest in the game in this county and although the home team was beaten, hardly a person left the grounds but what were satisfied they had more than received their money’s worth in seeing one of the sharpest games of the season. The Stanleys had as their opponents the celebrated Cuban Giants and although outplayed in the field, the home team made a credible showing.

“A team that is able to hold the Cubans down to one run is able to hold its own with any semi-professional team in the country. …

“The visitors, who by the way are among the most gentlemanly set of players seen here this season, put up a game in the field that could not be beaten. They covered a large amount of territory and upheld the great reputation they have throughout the country. There is no let up in their game which keeps up the interest from the beginning to the end.”

The article then added:

“The game put up by the visitors would make any team a big drawing card. Their coaching is a feature and they are in the game all the time.”

As an aside that tenuously connects Louis Sockalexis with my personal history, Sock — who spent several of his post-MLB career as a baseball vagabond, bouncing and careening and hoboing through the Northeast, playing for teams of all levels and invariably getting kicked off each one, usually because of his alcoholism — himself made a stop or two in Holyoke, where I lived and worked for two years. Unfortunately, at least one of those visits did not exactly go well — in August 1900, he was arrested for vagrancy at spent 30 days in the Holyoke clink. In the ensuing years there were reports that Sockalexis was seeking a spot on a team in Holyoke, but by then he was physically wrecked and psychologically crushed.

Dayton (Ohio) Herald, Aug. 23, 1900

Now to bring back two of the previously mentioned Giants opponents, Fall River and Newport, as well as contemplate a common phenomenon around this time — the emergence, operation and often quick disintegration of leagues of all sizes and levels    

It honestly can get very confusing. So there was there was minor-league New England League for decades between the 1880s and 1940s. Apparently teams and franchises came and went, then came and went again. Different cities would rotate in for a few years, then bag their team and league membership.

Over these decades the league changed size, covered an always-amorphous geographic reach, and shifted between minor-league levels. There were a handful of times when it didn’t play, and during World War II it was even a semipro loop. It seems the New England League’s importance soon waned by the time the American League joined the National League as the country’s two major league circuits and as an organizational, hierarchical network of the hundreds of pro baseball teams scattered all over the country — the formation of “Organized Baseball.”

It looks like that in 1895, according to Baseball Reference, the New England League included eight franchises — Augusta, Bangor, Brockton, Fall River, Lewiston, New Bedford, Pawtucket and Portland — but BR doesn’t list any stats, records, standings or championships for the 1895 NEL.

And as far as this blog post goes, I’m not really concerned about that. What’s important to note is three-fold:

One is just the entire baseball landscape that existed in New England in 1895. With the formation of Organized Baseball still a little ways away, teams of all sorts — pro, semipro, college, amateur, touring, barnstorming, from all six states in New England — were all mixed up together is a mild free-for-all.

While a minor-league New England League existed, the professional “farm” system hadn’t really emerged yet in the sport (that would happen in 1901),  meaning that every franchise, every club, every town, it seems, could do whatever it wanted — join a league, drop out of a league, not join a league at all, barnstorm — and could play wherever it wanted, outside of any league structure. Teams that were in leagues had their league schedules, but they also played exhibition games, one-off contests against traveling clubs, pre-season contests with college teams, games at county fairs — anything that could bring a decent payday.

This loose system also allowed players — and coaches and managers, for that matter — to hop from region to region, state to state, team to team with chaotic fluidity. The infamous reserve clause, which bound players to their respective teams even after the players’ contracts had expired, was in the process of forming in the 1890s on the major league level, but with the formal minor-league system still a half-dozen years off, baseball teams below the major-league level had free reign, I think.

Which allowed minor-league clubs (as well as collegiate ones) to play the Cuban Giants, including in 1895. But one particular little scheduling quirk that took place that year was something I’ve never really stumbled across before in my research — a spontaneous, late-season “league.” This newfangled circuit kind of filled in for the New England League, which apparently fell apart sometime earlier in the baseball season.

Windham County (Vermont) Reformer, Sep. 13, 1895

And not only did this “quadrangle” circuit sprout up, but one of the four teams in the league was the Cuban Giants. So along with the pro teams from Fall River; New Bedford, Mass.; and Newport, the four-team loop had a trailblazing, barnstorming, African-American aggregation. (As noted earlier, Fall River and New Bedford had been members of the New England League.)

I wasn’t able to delve too deeply into this league — I’m not sure what, exactly, the format and scheduling were, and I don’t know who won the “championship,” if there was any — but the fact that it existed, and that it included the Giants, is pretty fascinating in and of itself.

Unfortunately, from the coverage of this four-team league that I’ve uncovered, it appears the Giants didn’t do all that well in circuit play. They seem to have lost a lot more than they won, including a handful of blowouts. On Sept. 12, 1895, New Bedford bashed the Cubans, 15-3; the Boston Globe reported that “New Bedford knocked the Cuban giants [sic] all over the lot today in the presence of 1200 people.” Then, on Sept. 20, Fall River clobbered — the Globe used the term “annihilated” — the Giants, 20-3.

The Cubans managed to win one or two of these league games, though, including their first victory, on Sept. 16, when they toppled Newport, 10-4. 

One final note here … even though I do have strong personal and familial connections to Maine, and even though I started this epic post by pointing out that fact, I couldn’t find any coverage of the Cuban Giants playing in Maine in 1895. That doesn’t mean they didn’t; I just didn’t uncover any such Pine Tree State excursions. 

If anyone has any comments, questions or corrections about or for this post, definitely let me know, either by leaving a comment here or emailing me at

Aaaaaaaand that tops off my post about the exploits of Holy Cross, Louis Sockalexis and the Cuban Giants in 1895. Well, that’s not true. I hope to do an addendum piece (I promise it won’t be as long as this one!) about two particular aspects of the Cubans’ 1895 outing — a series of games against the University of Vermont, and the Giants’ ventures through Pennsylvania, especially how the black ball club was received in the Keystone State.

The Detroit Stars conference in pictures

The usual suspects. Left to right: Donald Conway, Phil Ross, James Brunson, Larry Lester and Jay Hurd. Photo courtesy Larry Lester.

Here’s my second post about the Detroit Stars Centennial Conference held Aug. 8-10 and hosted by the Friends of Hamtramck Stadium and other capable individuals. This one will be all photos, mostly from some of the folks who attended the shindig. Thank you to all the contributors to this post!

This is a follow-up to the previous post, which was an essay by conference stalwart John Graf. That post includes a bunch of links about the various attendees, presenters and discussions from the conference, so definitely check it out here.

OK, we’re off … The first photos are courtesy of presenter and newly minted author Mitch Lutzke, whose recent tome about the legendary Page Fence Giants has snagged a whole bunch of awards and media coverage:

The conference featured a presentation by Vanessa Ivy Rose (center), granddaughter of Hall of Fame slugger and Detroit Stars outfielding stalwart Turkey Stearnes, entitled “Combining Forces: Restorative Options for Baseball Integration and the Inclusion of the Negro Leagues.” Here Vanessa is pictured flanked by two of Stearnes’ daughters, Rosalyn Stearnes Brown (left) and Joyce Stearnes Thompson (right).

Quizmaster Ted Knorr, far left, and the three finalists of Ted’s Significa contest — left to right Geri Stricker, Larry Lester and John Graf. Larry would end up the overall winner.

Conference co-organizer Gary Gillette presents his all-time Detroit Stars team.

Larry Lester (standing) moderates the Player’s Panel before the Tigers-Royals game Saturday, Aug. 10. Seated to the right is Johnny Walker of the Kansas City Monarchs and Detroit Stars, the two squads honored with replica unis at the game.

Hamtramck Stadium

The one and only Motown Museum, which started off our day-long tour of the sights in Detroit on Saturday.

Multimedia artist Phil Dewey at the Detroit Historical Museum discusses his career creating Negro Leagues-themed art.

Left to right: Donald Conway, Phil Ross and some goof at the Hamtramck Stadium historical marker.

Mitch and Larry Lester with Mitch’s award-winning book.

The next selection of pics is from Jay Hurd:

A triumverate of conference-goers at the Tigers-Royals Negro Leagues game. Left to right: Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project founderJeremy Krock, Jeremy’s wife Jeanette and Phil Ross, who was easily the most photogenic person at the event.

Unofficial conference photographer Lizz Wilkinson at the Tigers game.

Jay, left, and James Brunson show their high-wattage smiles at the Tigers-Royals game.

Jay and John Graf at the Motown Museum.

Next up is a slew of shots from Larry Lester, beginning with a bunch snapshots of beautiful Comerica Park:

Some images from the Motown Museum:

That would be Little League World Series aficionado Lou Hunsinger in in contemplation at front.

Charles Young, left, and John Graf.

Larry also took a bunch at Hamtramck Stadium, including this pair of an expansive mural at the old park:

Some of Larry’s photos of folks at the Tigers-Royals Negro Leagues game:

Left to right: Joyce Stearnes Thompson, Turkey Stearnes’ daughter; Minnie Forbes, the last living owner of a Negro Leagues team; and Rosalyn Stearnes Brown, also one of Turkey Stearnes’ daughters.

Former Negro League players being honored on-field during a pre-game ceremony.

Walt Owens (left) and Pedro Sierra (right).

Walt Owens

Minnie Forbes (left) and Johnny Walker.

Here’s a few from me. I humbly but slightly egotistically present them:

We visited historic sports bar Nemo’s for lunch on Saturday. According to Gary Gillette, Nemo’s is one of the oldest sports bars in the country and one that’s received national attention and commendation. It’s located just a block from the site of the old Tiger Stadium.

Some from Hamtramck Stadium …

That’s Phil Ross there. He seems to find his way into a lot of people’s photos. Quite adorably ubiquitous.

I believe that’s Jay Hurd.

Some from the Tigers game:

The pre-game Players (and Owners) Panel, moderated by Larry Lester and featuring (front row, left to right) Johnny Walker, Ron Teasley, Pedro Sierra, Walt Owens, (back row, left to right) Bill Hill, Minnie Forbes, Jake Sanders and Eugene Scruggs.

Another baseball trailblazer and a favorite of mine, the Hammerin’ Hebrew.

Last but not least, here’s a series from Kevin Johnson:

A pair of shots from Old Tiger/Navin Stadium, one of the stops on the Saturday bus tour.

Kevin Johnson during his presentation, “Mack Park – Friend or Foe?”

A couple of pics from Comerica Park.

Larry Lester (left) and former players Johnny Walker, Ron Teasley and Pedro Sierra before the Tigers-Royals game.

The pre-game ceremony honoring the ex-Negro Leaguers.

Fox Sports Detroit’s John Keating interviewing Rosalyn Stearnes Brown at Comerica Park.

And there you have it! We had a stupendous time in Detroit — seeing old faces, restarting dormant discussions about baseball, and just being together with our Negro Leagues family again. We now await next year’s return of SABR’s Jerry Malloy conference, which will recognize another monumental centennial — the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League.

Thank you again to all those who contributing to the last two posts on this blog!

Summing up the magical Detroit Stars conference

Guest blogger John Graf (right) joins Charles Young at the historical placard at the Motown Museum. Photo courtesy of Larry Lester.

Editor’s note: Apologies for taking so long to get stuff from the Detroit Stars conference up on the blog. To start, here’s a guest commentary by researcher and frequent Negro Leagues-conference goer. John does a nice job at summing up what was indeed a magical few days in the Motor City.

By John Graf

The 100-year anniversary celebration of the formation of the Detroit Stars in 1919, one year before the launching of the Negro National League, was nothing short of magical. I could feel the magic that is in the air whenever and wherever our Negro Leagues history family gets together.

Two days’ worth of presentations provided a groove that was musically amplified Saturday morning with a tour of the Motown Museum. The gathering ended with an intimate look at the suffering of Tiger partisans this season as the home team, clad in Detroit Stars uniforms, went down to another defeat.

Those presentations were simply loaded with something for all tastes. There was Detroit general sports history (Mike “Tiger” Price), the 19th-century Page Fence Giants (Mitch Lutzke), Mack Park by the numbers (Kevin Johnson), the case for ranking the Negro Leagues as major leagues (Ted Knorr), a tour of the Negro League baseball card world (Gary Gillette), historic preservation and Hamtramck Stadium (Melanie Markowicz and Brian Powers), and a creative discussion of baseball and restorative justice (Vanessa Ivy Rose). Thursday was capped with a delightful reception that recognized Negro Leagues players and their families.

That’s not all. Nineteenth-century Black baseball was front and center once again Friday morning (James Brunson). The significance of Negro Leagues’ home fields (Geri Strecker) continued the theme of a sense of place that can capture the magic that was Negro Leagues baseball. The All-Time Detroit Stars Centennial Team was unveiled (Gary Gillette).

We were treated to an autobiographical journey through the career of Leslie Heaphy, one of a number of estimable “doctors in the house.” We had a discussion of the “Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings” film (Lisa Alexander) and a screening of “There Was Always Sun Shining Someplace” (Donn Rogosin). A presentation on Negro League photography challenged us to utilize our observational skills (Lizz Wilkinson). We were also filled in with more detail on who played where throughout the Negro Leagues (Paul Healey).

 And oh, that Saturday! There was dancing in our seats as we watched an introductory film on the history of Motown Records and then strolled and sang our way through the spaces that made up “Hitsville, U.S.A.”  A stop at the Detroit Historical Museum included a slide presentation of Negro Leagues art (Phil Dewey) and additional displays.

Our highly-informative bus tour guide Gary Gillette (a special hat tip to Gary for a job well done in all respects) regaled us with one story after another about places of note as we rode through Detroit and Hamtramck. The now-redeveloped Tiger Stadium site, the hopefully to-be-restored Hamtramck Stadium and the former Mack Park site gave us a chance to wander both among what still is and reflect on what once was.

The Negro Leagues Players Panel, moderated by eminent historian and “Don’t Call it Trivia” contest champion Larry Lester, included Ron Teasley, Pedro Sierra, Bill Hill, Jake Sanders, Johnny Walker, Walt Owens, Ms. Minnie Forbes and Eugene Scruggs.

All that and Joyce and Rosilyn (the golden-voiced Stearnes sisters), Phil Ross and Donald Conway (among the most entertaining attendees who weren’t presenters)! Who could ask for anything more?

Editor’s post note: Many thanks to John Graf for being willing to have me publish his excellent wrap-up of the conference. My next post (hopefully later this week) will be full of photos from various attendees at the conference. I’ll also includes links to some media coverage of the conference.

Life lessons from Sammy the Jet

Sammy “the Jet” Jethroe (photo courtesy Negro Leagues Baseball Museum)

A few weeks ago, while I was in Rochester for my mom’s funeral, a few of us were hoping to sneak away to a Red Wings game on July 27 to kind of have some fun and blow off emotional steam. I learned via Nate Rowan’s media listserv that before the game, the Wings were going to host the induction of Sam Jethroe into the International League Hall of Fame.

Armed with this new knowledge, I thought about attending the game and interviewing some of Jethroe’s descendants and International League president Randy Humber for a prospective article on Sam’s ushering into the ILHOF. However, we weren’t able to squeeze the game into our slate of events, which was disappointing, but we knew there was too much else going down in terms of the funeral trip.

But, fortunately, since then I’ve been able to land a few assignments about Jethroe and his induction, and I’ve been able to do a few phone and email interviews as follow-ups. One of the folks I talked to was Rachel Jethroe, Sam’s granddaughter, who lives in Rochester.

Other members of the Jethroe family attended the ceremony as well, including some from Erie, Pa., where Sam Jethroe retired to and spent his last several decades as a resident and businessman. (The IL does its Hall of Fame inductions separately at various places; Sam’s induction was held in Rochester because of Rachel’s residence there.)

“It’s a wonderful lifetime achievement,” Rachel later told me. “I wish he could have been there to enjoy the recognition for his achievements.”

Rachel added that the induction ceremony was extremely touching and meaningful.

“We enjoyed the game, the whole family came up from Erie,” she said. “It was a beautiful moment.”

Carla Jethroe, another of Sam’s granddaughters, told me that they’re “beyond proud” of their grandfather, adding that the honor helps to keep Sam’s legacy alive.

“It was a great [legacy] because it still lives on,” she said.

Red Wings officials, IL representatives and members of Sam Jethroe’s family gather for Jethroe’s induction into the IL Hall of Fame July 27 at Frontier Field (photo by Joe Territo/Rochester Red Wings).

I just contributed an article to the Erie Times-News about the induction; it was published Sunday, and you can check it out here.

But wait, wait, wait … Who’s Sam Jethroe anyway, you might be asking, and why is he important enough to warrant election to a hall of fame?

Well, here’s the rundown …

Sam Jethroe, who was raised and started his baseball career in East St. Louis, played for the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League in the 1940s. He was known first and foremost as a near-supersonic speedster and demon on the basepaths, but he also led the NAL in batting multiple seasons using a deceptively powerful swing to crush doubles and triples by the boatful. The Bucks won the 1945 Negro World Series over the vaunted Homestead Grays with Jethroe leading the way.

Here’s how SABR colleague, historian and author Stephanie Liscio summed up Jethroe’s Negro Leagues career:

“He was one of the Buckeyes’ most consistent and talented hitters during the 1940s. He hit for average, had tremendous speed, and was a skilled defender. The Buckeyes likely don’t win the 1945 World Series without him (and may not have been in a position to even be in the World Series).”

However — and here’s where he enters the baseball lexicon for many people — he went on to integrate the Boston Braves in 1950 as a starting centerfielder. Jethroe’s jump made the Braves the fifth major-league team to integrate, and, after a scorching first season in the majors, he earned the National League Rookie of the Year award at age 32.

The accolade made him the oldest rookie so far in MLB history to pick up ROY honors, and his second season in the majors, 1951, saw just about an equal amount of excellence as his first one; he led the NL in stolen bases each year, and he ranked high in several other categories.

In March 1951, Jethroe gave an interview to Baltimore Afro-American sportswriting legend Sam Lacy, who transcribed Sam’s comments and published them in a column. Jethroe’s words reflect how he realized that, despite some flashiness at the bat, it was his quickness and daring on the basepaths that earned his paychecks. Jethroe told Lacy:

“Anyone should know my legs are most important to me ’cause I make a business of running.

“I can run fast and I know it. May the Lord help me when I can’t run anymore. …

“[W]hen it comes to a real showdown, it’s the pair of good legs I was lucky enough to draw that makes my major league baseball life a success. …

“Taking a chance is something I believe in. If the other guy bobbles the ball, I’m gone, and he’s got to throw me out. In a close game, if an outfielder holds his head down on a ground ball just a second longer than I think he should, I’m going to make him throw me out ’cause I ain’t stopping! …

“I find that taking a chance pays off ’cause it has a tendency to make the other side jittery. The fielder knows he’s got to make the perfect throw and the man covering base realizes he has to catch the ball and outguess me on the slide.”

But things took a disappointing turn in 1952, when intestinal surgery and uncorrected bad eyesight led to a steep dropoff at the plate and in centerfield, where his poor eyesight led him to misjudge and just plain lose fly balls in the sky as they arched his way.

So for the 1953 campaign, the Braves demoted Jethroe to their Triple-A farm club, the Toledo Sox. The Pittsburgh Pirates took a chance on him and picked him up for the for the ’54 season. However, his foibles in the field and at the plate — coupled with the slowing of his fleet feet — earned him just two game appearances for the Bucs, who promptly sent him down go Triple-A again. He was retired from professional baseball and living in Erie by the early 1960s.

Thus, Jethroe’s major-league career — just over three seasons total in the bigs — now seems like a historical footnote and a prime example of advancing age catching up with a once-talented and supremely gifted athlete. (Actually, his career probably, for many people, carries a second footnote, but more on that a little further down.)

However, we have to remember the main reason why he didn’t break into the bigs until age 32 — the 60-year enforcement of a tacit “gentleman’s agreement” that barred African-American players, coaches and managers from the majors that wasn’t broken until a fellow named Jack Roosevelt Robinson came along.

In addition, Jethroe’s career wasn’t just about his relatively fleeting time in major league baseball. His stellar tenure in the Negro Leagues — particularly with the Cleveland Buckeyes — not only convinced MLB teams to sign him up, but also stands by itself as a formidable achievement. He was one quite simply one of the best players in the Negro American League in the 1940s.

(This is where the second footnote comes into play. In 1945, Jethroe was one of three Negro Leaguers — the others were Robinson and Marvin Williams — invited by the Boston Red Sox for a workout in front of Sox management. As could be predicted, the event turned out to be a complete sham; the Sox were never going to sign any of the trio anyway. The BoSox, of course, were the very last MLB team to integrate, which didn’t happen until 1959 with Pumpsie Green, who died just this past month).

However, there was a third section of Jethroe’s blazing career — his tenure in the minor leagues, during which he emerged as one of the greatest players the Triple-A International League has ever seen.

Jethroe’s saga in the minors begins not within the Braves organization, but in none other than Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers farm system.

Because, you see, Rickey ended up signing and grooming a large handful of Negro Leaguers during the late 1940s, in addition to Robinson. Naturally there were Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, but Dan Bankhead, Joe Black and Jim Gilliam all eventually made it to the Dodgers roster. 

Like that half-dozen, Jethroe was inked by Rickey, and in 1948 he was assigned to the Montreal Royals of the International League, the team that Jackie Robinson shined for in 1946 on his way from the Negro Leagues to the majors.

And Jethroe made the most of his first true crack at “organized” baseball, eventually establishing himself as a phenom in the International League for two full seasons in which he ranked highly in a whole bunch of categories, including stolen bases, homers, doubles, hits and other rankings.

(Jethroe enjoyed his experience in Montreal, too.the province of Quebec as well. In a 1948 American Baseball Bureau survey, he answered the question about his most interesting experience in the sport, he answered, “when I had a chance to play with the Montreal Royals.”)

However, while such a track record that normally would most likely lead to a call up to Brooklyn, Rickey instead sold Jethroe to the Boston Braves for a then-whopping $125,000. (To this day there’s much speculation about exactly how high the price tag was, but it was easily at least six figures.)

1957 Toronto Maple Leafs

Reasons for Rickey’s decision to let such a bright prospect, from what I can tell, have never been completely pinned down — it’s tough to tease out the mental machinations of the baseballs Mahatma — theories included the fact that future National Baseball Hall of Famer Duke Snider was already ensconced in centerfield in Brooklyn, making another CF like Jethroe, no matter how good, expendable.

Another theory is that Rickey was hesitant to bring up a fourth black player (in addition to Robbie, Campy and Newcombe) to his major-league roster because, the notion goes, having four players of color on the Dodger roster was simply too much to be acceptable at that point in the integration process, i.e. the other teams and powers-that-be, while they might grumble, were willing to accept three black guys on one team, but four was beyond the pale for the conservative times.

Plus, of course, the sale of a hot commodity like Jethroe would net a whole lotta green for Rickey and the Dodgers. Money, it seems, has always talked.

So the Braves were given the first crack at establishing Jethroe with a major-league career. But, as noted previously, the Jet became a shooting star for the Braves, who sent Jethroe to Toledo. 

At that time, the Toledo Sox were members of the American Association, but the International League eventually emerged on Jethroe’s horizon again. Because when the Pirates dropped Sammy to their minor-league system, he ended up with the Toronto Maple Leafs of — you guessed it — the International League!

For five seasons, Jethroe served as a steady member of the Maple Leafs, batting .280 over the stretch and once again frequently showing up in the IL’s leaders in various categories.

Encompassing his entire cumulative tenure in the International League with Montreal and Toronto, Jethroe batted .293 over 875 games, racking up 940 hits, 157 doubles, 52 triples, 91 home runs, 383 RBIs and 205 stolen bases. That includes the single-season marks for steals, hits and runs, the last two of which still stand.

He retired after his stint in Toronto, settling in Erie for the rest of his life. He owned and worked at a bar for many years and became a fixture in the northwest Pennsylvania community.

In the 1990s Jethroe sued Major League Baseball and the players’ union for a pension plan, arguing that he and many other former Negro Leagues players hadn’t reached the required threshold of MLB service because racial discrimination prevented them from breaking into the majors sooner. Although the lawsuit was eventually tossed, MLB agreed to provide a modest pension to Jethroe and other players.

Sam “the Jet” Jethroe died in 2001 at the age of 84.

For my article in the Times-News, I chatted with International League president Randy Mobley about Sam Jethroe’s election to the IL Hall of Fame, and he said Jethroe’s outsized achievements, especially with the Royals, more than earned the Jet a spot in the hall.

Another scene from the July 27 induction ceremony (photo by Joe Territo/Rochester Red Wings).

“To put in perspective how well he played, in my research I’ve come across where some people thought he made Montreal forget about Jackie Robinson,” Mobley said. “That’s a pretty good statement about him.”

Also thanks to Red Wings media relations guru for his help with my articles and blog. I also want to give credit to longtime Wings GM Dan Mason for his contributions, including commenting for my articles.

“It was an honor to host the family of Sam Jethroe on Saturday, July 27 as Randy Mobley inducted Sam into the International League Hall of Fame,” Dan told me. “It was great to see our fans so interested when Randy described the details of Sam’s groundbreaking career. With such a rich history of professional baseball in our community it was great to host this event for the League and Sam’s family, some of whom reside in our town. He is certainly a VERY worthy inductee for the International League Hall of Fame.”

When assessing Jethroe’s overall legacy on the national pastime — as well as the game’s history of racial turmoil, struggle and ultimate success — it’s perhaps instrumental to note that he was never a superstar in the majors, but he still made it to that top level of play. Just like all white players couldn’t be Joe DiMaggio, not all former Negro Leaguers could be Jackie Robinson. As Martin F. Nolan wrote in the Boston Globe upon Jethroe’s death:

“The lesson in equality Jethroe taught is the civil right to be less than the best.”

Sometimes “success” isn’t about becoming an all-time legend; it’s measured in more modest terms. And that’s a lesson I myself can learn from Sam Jethroe.

Am I a Pultizer Prize-winning writer? Honestly, probably not. But I know I’m still pretty darn good at what I do, and I’ve earned a pretty decent spot in the worlds of journalism and historical research. For years, I’ve beaten myself up for not writing books or becoming a university professor or breaking through to the prominent national-level media.

But I’m learning to be proud of what I have accomplished — I’ve developed an award-winning blog, and I’ve had hundreds of articles published in dozens of publications and on dozens of Web sites. Are the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine among them? Not as of yet. But I know that most of the media outlets I have worked for really liked and appreciated my work and efforts, and I’m proud and glad to be able to contribute to every one of them in any way I can.

And I know my colleagues respect and like me (I hope!), and I respect and like them, and I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has supported and encouraged me over the years. That includes family, friends and loved ones, too. Despite all of my health challenges, I’ve found a place for myself in the world, however modest, and I’m starting to learn to be proud of that as an important achievement on its very own — just like Sam Jethroe did.

And just like, I sincerely hope, have all of you, my readers. Find your place in the world — a place of respect and pride and accomplishment and acceptance and happiness — and enjoy life for all it brings you. Do your best and make an impact all your own, and know that you’ve made a difference for countless people and enriched their lives.

That is what Sam Jethroe did, and he deserves and hard-fought, honored place in many people’s lives. We should all be so lucky.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum curator Dr. Ray Doswell offered a pretty good summation of Sam Jethroe’s impact on baseball history:

“Jethroe to me represents the great talent, yet unfulfilled opportunities of many Negro Leagues stars had to endure. If, perhaps, he had opportunities a few years sooner, could we be speaking of Jethroe among his Hall of Fame contemporaries? Might his ROY season been sooner? He was as good an athlete as any available at the time and could have helped any team. This honor from the International League recognizes that and the importance of his minor leagues contributions.”

Upcoming conference focuses on Detroit Stars, Hamtramck Stadium

The 1920 Detroit Stars (photo by the Detroit News)

With SABR’s Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference on hiatus until 2020, when it will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the original Negro National League, another group of dedicated baseball historians, researchers and preservationists have stepped up to fill the void with a conference that will recognize and shine a light on another crucial black baseball milestone — the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Detroit Stars.

From Aug. 8-10 at the Marriott Detroit Metro Detroit, the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium — a group that works to preserve and promote Hamtramck Stadium, one of only five Negro League home ballparks still in existence — as well as other folks in the Detroit area will host the gathering celebrating the establishment in 1919 of the Stars, a club that played in the NNL for the latter’s entire lifespan (1920-31) and featured lengthy stints by Hall of Famers Andy Cooper, Pete Hill and Turkey Stearnes, as well as other black ball greats like Bruce Petway, John Donaldson, Jimmie Lyons, Bill Holland and Frank Wickware.

Below is a lightly-edited email interview I conducted recently with Gary Gillette, one of the Detroit conference’s organizers, who encourages all Negro Leagues enthusiasts and fans of baseball history in the Motor City to attend.

Ryan Whirty: What was the genesis of the Detroit Stars conference? How did it start and get off the ground?

Gary Gillette: Because 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Detroit Stars, the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium were planning several special events. At the same time, the SABR Detroit Chapter was considering making a bid to host an upcoming Jerry Malloy Conference, most likely in 2021. When the surprising announcement was made on March 2 that the 2019 Malloy Conference would not be held, we started to think about whether we could host our own conference to focus on the Detroit Stars’ centennial.

RW: Why did you (the conference committee) feel the need to organize and present an event like this? What about the history of black baseball in Detroit makes this subject intriguing?

GG: The primary organizing reason was the Stars’ centennial, which no one else in Detroit seemed to be thinking about. A second reason was the general lack of knowledge about the history of the Negro Leagues in Detroit. This seemed like a good way to publicize the history of Black Baseball in Michigan as well as seed the ground for more events next year during the national celebration of the centennial of the Negro National League.

The back of the historic marker at Hamtramck Stadium (photo by Karolina Gillette)

RW: Detroit in general, and especially the Stars, sometimes gets overshadowed by more well known “western” Negro League teams like the Chicago American Giants and Kansas City Monarchs. Why do you think that is, and why is it important to remember and celebrate Detroit’s blackball legacy?

GG: The American Giants and the Monarchs were two of the most successful Negro League clubs ever, so it makes sense that they would overshadow the Detroit Stars. Plus, the American Giants had the connection to [original NNL founder and National Baseball Hall of Famer] Rube Foster, and the Monarchs a strong connection with Satchel Paige.

Another key factor is that the original Detroit Stars lasted only until 1931. After 1931, the three major Negro League teams in Detroit weren’t very successful, and each lasted only one season. Detroit should have gotten another franchise in the Negro American League in the 1940s, but never did. Several NAL owners apparently conspired to block that logical move so as to preserve lucrative dates for neutral-site games in Motown, which was prospering due to the wartime economy.

The 1935 Detroit Cubs, another team that played at Hamtramck Stadium (photo property of the Burton Collection/Detroit Public Library)

RW: Preserving and rehabbing Hamtramck Stadium has been a massive, lengthy and ongoing undertaking. How do you think the stadium is holding up today, and do you think the general public, especially in Detroit, realizes its importance and understands why it should be preserved?

GG: In terms of its physical condition, the stadium is about the same as when I first learned about it 11 years ago. After all, these buildings were designed to withstand the weather. Of course, there’s some new graffiti, a few more holes in the bleacher treads, and some general age-related deterioration — but it is still restorable and well worth saving.

The major improvement in the past decade is the awareness of the stadium’s history and its importance to both [the city of] Hamtramck and Detroit. The number of people who know at least a little about the history is many times what it was a decade ago, and the number of people who care about its preservation is hundreds of times what it was 10 years ago.

Former players Ron Teasley and Pedro Sierra at Hamtramck Stadium (photo by Karolina Gillette)

RW: Who is your favorite Detroit Star, and why?

GG: [National Baseball Hall of Famer and centerfielder] Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, one of the most underrated players in baseball history. His life story is fascinating. Note that I can’t claim objectivity here, as the Stearnes’ family in Detroit has been incredibly warm and welcoming to me. Other favorites are [catcher and outfielder] Andy Love and [third baseman and NBHOFer] Ray Dandridge. Love was a star prep athlete at Hamtramck High School who was a utility player for the Stars’ in 1930–31, their first two years in Hamtramck. Hall of Famer Dandridge made his pro debut in Hamtramck with the 1933 Stars.

Turkey Stearnes later in life (photo by John Collier)

RW: What do you think was the Stars’ greatest team?

GG: There’s no question that the best Stars’ team was the 1930 club, which played at a .750-plus clip in the second half to end up in the Negro National League Championship Series against the powerful St. Louis Stars. Detroit lost that hard-fought Championship Series in seven games.

RW: Who would you say was the greatest Negro Leagues player born and raised in Detroit and surrounding areas, and why?

GG: There weren’t many Negro League players born in Detroit, probably because the black population of Detroit was pretty small before 1920. The best of the native Detroiters was Mike Moore, an outfielder in the pre-league era. However, he only lived in Detroit until age 13 or 14, when his parents moved to Chicago. Because Turkey Stearnes came to Detroit very young (22) and stayed for the rest of his life, I consider him to be a native Detroiter. If one agrees with me, then there’s no competition for the greatest native …

Major League Baseball legend Ty Cobb throwing out a first pitch at a game in Hamtramck Stadium (photo property of Avanti Press)

RW: Of course, there’s much more to the Negro Leagues in Detroit and the state of Michigan than just the Stars, from the Page Fence Giants forward. What other subjects will be presented and discussed at the conference? How would you describe the black baseball legacy of the state of Michigan overall?

GG: Certainly significant, but after 1931, essentially a lost opportunity for the reasons outlined above. The Page Fence Giants were pioneers, but the club lasted only four years. If baseball had integrated in the 1930s, Detroit would have been remembered as one of the most prominent Negro League venues, but by the time Jack Roosevelt Robinson took the field for Brooklyn in 1947, Detroit’s Black Baseball history had faded.

For more information on the Detroit Stars Centennial Conference or to register for the event, check it out here. For more info on the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, head here.

All photos provided courtesy of Gary Gillette and the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium.