Plunging into the bureaucracy

Dear Mr. Dixon and Mir. Scott,

My name is Ryan Whirty. I’m a local freelance journalist, researcher and historian who is working on a project to locate and hopefully place grave markers on the graves of two former segregation-era African-American baseball players, one of which is buried in Holt Cemetery and the other in Carrollton Cemetery.

I was wondering if I could speak with you regarding my project, as well as the budget for the cemeteries line item, the process for upkeep and improvement, and the possibility of gathering a group of local volunteers to work on these players’ graves.

I am quite disheartened by the deplorable condition in which these cemeteries stand and the apparent lack of concern for the final resting places of thousands of deceased city residents.

I would like to move forward with giving these two local baseball legends the dignity in death they have so far been denied. Ideally, I would like the city’s help or advice for this project, but if not, I will move forward on my own to provide a service that no one else, including city officials, cares to provide.

Below are a couple blog posts I’ve written about this situation. Thank you very much, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Ryan

The City of New Orleans owns seven cemeteries within its limits – Carrollton No. 1, Carrollton No. 2, Holt, Indigent, Valence, Lafayette No. 1 and Lafayette No. 2 – which are scattered throughout the city, cover a total of XXXXXX acres, and include roughly XXXXXXX interments total. (Those ugly XXXXXXXs are meant to be in there — I’m currently trying to find out the info because it might further illuminate the situation. I have a couple other queries out there, too.)

In 2014, the city spent nearly $770,000 on those four cemeteries for upkeep and current burials. However, a year later, funding for the cemeteries plummeted to just $170,500, a massive 79-percent drop.

This year’s city budget allots a little bit more than in 2015 – about $126,000 – but that’s still only roughly $XXX per grave. According to the city’s 2016 budget book, New Orleans’ public cemeteries have just one full-time employee to care for them, a position simply tabbed a “laborer.” Note, however, that below, I post an email from a staffer at Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office that offers slightly different numbers. But I’ll get to that.

The cemeteries line in the budget falls under the Department of Property Management, whose total budget allotment for 2016 stands at just more than $9 million, which means the cemeteries paltry funding level of about $126,000 takes up just 1.4 percent of the DPM budget for 2016. Compared to the entire city budget of just over $1 billion, the care given to the city’s four cemeteries is a drop in Lake Pontchartrain.

Why is that? That’s quite a good question, one for which I’ve been trying to find an adequate answer. (More on that a bit further down.) But it might have something to do with the fact that much of the ground included in the quartet of cemeteries comprises potter’s fields, or sections reserved for the city’s poor and indigent – people who have no financial means to afford a proper burial, and neither do their families.

The result is that the dead are crammed into small family plots in graves that hold multiple relatives and are literally bumping up against each other. Very few decorations adorn the graves, and many of the stone markers are so old an unattended that the writing has either faded or been completely obscured by dirt, mold or other icky stuff. In fact, mud is a common surrounding for these forgotten people.

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John Bissant

However, that’s a best case scenario. In many potter’s fields, the recently deceased are, for all intents and purposes, basically dumped into the ground anywhere there’s a spot. No records are kept, no burial stones or markers are placed, no diagrams or plot maps are drawn up, and virtually no maintenance is done. Grass can be knee high, and vegetation is frequently so wild and unkempt that it’s hard to even tell whether you’re in a cemetery or in an open, grassy meadow.

These are the famed, Gothic “Cities of the Dead” – New Orleans’ many cemeteries that feature rows and rows and acres and acres or ornate, majestic stone mausoleums, somber obelisks and statues of the Virgin Mary.

No, populating Holt, Carrollton, Indigent and the other city-owned cemeteries are often the final remains of invisible men and women in society, people who, for the city’s more well off, just don’t matter. Well, beyond mowing the lawns, building the houses and serving the steaks to New Orleans’ upper classes, I mean.

So why are the public burial grounds virtually ignored? Because, well, no one gives a damn about the lost generations buried there.

It also shouldn’t be surprising that the majority of these anonymous graves and stark, weeded plots hold the remains of the city’s African-American population. From the days of slavery, through Reconstruction, into Jim Crow and even through the Civil Rights era and ending today, the families of possibly millions of poor blacks had to see their loved ones lowered into ragtag graves dug by workers – most, of course, black themselves – hired (or not paid at all) by the city or its antecedent municipalities to do several such tasks every day. And that’s assuming the newly dead even had any family at all to care enough – or to have the means or wherewithal or ability – to attend the cursory burial rites.

Thus, perhaps, the fates of NOLA Negro Leaguers John Bissant and Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport, both of whom appear to have ended up like their African-American peers, family, friends and compatriots in New Orleans – hidden and ignored in unmarked graves.

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Ducky Davenport

And, just like the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project does nationally and just how a small group of us here in NOLA and Texas worked to buy and install a grave marker for legendary local Negro Leagues manager Wesley Barrow, I want to see what we can do to rectify the tragedies of these two players’ hopeless post-mortem fates.

Davenport is interred in Holt Cemetery, a situation I tried to investigate last year. Unfortunately, while I spent a good deal of time and resources on the effort, I was unfortunately unable to speak to a living descendant. I visited Holt Cemetery to scope out the facility, but I was instantly dismayed by the apparent impossibility of the needle-in-a-haystack task.

Then there’s Bissant, whose final resting place is in Carrollton Cemetery, only a few blocks from Tulane University. Because of Carrollton’s proximity to the university – which offers several phenomenal historical research resources like the Amistad Research Center and the Louisiana Research Collection – lately I’ve focused on Bissant’s grave. The process has been somewhat more productive than my inquiry into Davenport’s interment, but it’s still been trying and tedious.

I’ve kind of figured out a four-pronged approach to this: One, hit the books, files and databases to do research into the players’ lives and families to try to find a living descendant who could help; two, try to gather together some local friends who would be interested in helping me with this; three, attempting to get the attention of the local media (which is quite difficult during Saints and LSU season); and four, delving into the illustrious, arcane nooks and crannies of the City of New Orleans government bureaucracy.

This post, as signaled by the previous paragraphs here, is about my recent inquiries into local officials and civic employees. So let’s go the governmental way …

First off, here’s what the 2016 city budget (referenced above) says about the administration of the civic cemeteries:

“Facilities Maintenance: The Facilities Administration operates public facilities for charge, which provides space for meetings, celebrations, the performing arts, services for the elderly/indigent, and burial of the dead. The aspect of fee and rent collection differentiates this program from Facilities Maintenance. However, the activities are based on the City Charter, and include repair and maintenance. Unit Names: Multi-service Centers, Real Estate and Records, Gallier Hall, Cemeteries, and Cultural Center.”

That paragraph appears to state that the city, through its Department of Property Management, does indeed charge residents for the burial of the recently passed in the four cemeteries. While they’re public property, they ain’t free.

At this point, I should allude to the fact that in a prior journalism life, I was an investigative reporter for several newspapers, both daily and weekly. I wrote extensively about local governments and companies and all the business (both clean and filthy) that took place amongst and within them.

But I dumped that stuff after becoming thoroughly burned out on and fed up with all the nastiness, grime and duplicity I encountered and wrote about while doing that, and I eventually fled to and settled in historical journalism, particularly baseball and Negro Leagues history.

And, yep, I’m quite content, thank you. Good riddance to ickiness. Alas, like a former two-pack-a-day smoker who occasionally feels the overwhelming itch for a breath or two of nicotine, every once in a while I do miss all that government and politics stuff, and I long – very infrequently – to get back into it.

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A grave in the Bissant family plot

This subject right here – the dilapidated state of the graves of many of New Orleans’ Negro Leagues heroes – is a subject that more than satisfies that craving. Hence this post, and all the others like it that I have already written and (hopefully) will write.

I started this in earnest last month, when I visited what I believe is the final resting place of John Bissant. I then called the office of New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, whose district includes Carrollton Cemetery. I spoke with a very friendly, seemingly enthusiastic staff aide, who encouraged me to send a detailed email regarding my interests and inquiries.

Which I did. Three weeks ago.

Then I followed up with another email a week later.

Then last week I followed up with a call, another email and another call.

Wasn’t able to reach anyone or get anyone to call me back.

So last week I decided to widen my net and contact other city departments. One result was the email letter I copied at the beginning of this post. I sent it to the Department of Property Management Facilities Maintenance Administrator John Scott and DPM Facilities Administrator Ronald Dixon.

I haven’t heard back from them yet, although that’s somewhat understandable, because mid-level bureaucrats in a byzantine municipal administration frequently aren’t allowed to talk to the media without “permission,” or they just ignore the squeaky wheel and hope it stops on its own.

But the Mayor’s Office … they CAN respond to me. So I emailed a similar letter to Landrieu’s office, and his press secretary, C. Hayne Rainey, wrote me back yesterday, which was a pleasant surprised. Here’s Rainey’s message, with slightly different numbers than I found in this year’s city budget:

“This year, the City budgeted $100,000 to maintain the City’s seven cemeteries (Holt, Valence, Lafayette #1 & #2, Carrollton #1 & #2 and Indigent cemeteries). Of those seven, two are considered indigent (Holt and Indigent) and the remaining five consist of privately owned graves. While the City maintains the grounds through grass cutting and debris removal, the City relies on families to maintain their individually owned lots.

“In 2013, the City performed capital improvements at the Carrollton and Holt cemeteries; including new fencing, new lighting and signage as well as new or renovated cottages at these sites and improved drainage.

“We were able to determine that Mr. Bissant was buried on April, 8. 2006 in Carrollton Cemetery in Lot 4539/ Section A. Unfortunately, many records were lost as a result of Hurricane Katrina and at this time, no records have been located identifying the exact location of Mr. Davenport’s burial in Holt Cemetery in 1985.”

Rainey’s email provides a slew of answers, although they might not be the encouraging ones I was praying for. I already knew Bissant’s burial information, but I’m extremely disheartened to learn that, thanks to Katrina, there’s probably no way we can ever find Ducky Davenport’s grave.

So for now, maybe I’ll try to focus on John Bissant’s grave, and Rainey’s letter contained a flicker of hope – although the graves in Carrollton are owned privately (and therefore not kept up by the city itself, per se – individual families, i.e. the owners of the plots, are allowed and, indeed, encouraged to perform maintenance.

So, well, all I need to do is find a living relative of John Bissant. No problem. Maybe no problem.

I’ll conclude with a short conversation I had a couple weeks ago with a staffer in the city’s cemeteries office. Despite being swamped with their own work, they took the time to answer some of my queries as well as they could. (I use the pronoun “they” because I don’t want to identify the gender and, as a result, reveal their identity.)

I asked them if members of the one family could be buried in the same grave, and they said it’s “definitely possible,” with newly passed family members being interred, on average, about once every three years.

They said it’s not uncommon to see family members tending to their loved ones’ graves in Carrollton, for example. “People gather for their own people,” they said.

But, I then asked, what about a person outside the family – like a member of the public or other interested volunteer – maybe stepping in to help, like I’d want to do with John Bissant and his kin?

“You can,” they said, “but you need permission from the family in writing.”

So, alas, we’re back to trying to track down a living family member of John Bissant. Sigh.

My next few posts about Bissant – which will hopefully come halfway soon – will zero in on that search, as well as hopefully highlighting Bissant’s baseball career here in NOLA, before and after he made the big time with the Chicago American Giants.

Questionable Trump ad

Apparently WordPress is putting ads on members’ blogs in order to keep the service free.

Which is fine with me, I suppose, but for some reason WordPress has plastered a Trump ad on mine.

I just want to stress that I did not choose this ad, and I in no way endorse it or Trump.

I’m working on getting a different, non-political ad on there.

I very much apologize for the ad, and I hope it hasn’t deterred anyone from coming back to this blog!

Where do the blues and baseball intersect?

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Crush Holloway

Almost 15 years ago, while I was a grad student at IU and (at the time) researching and writing about the blues – my absolute favorite type of tunes – I traversed northwest Mississippi and southeast Arkansas visiting the graves of five legendary bluesmen.

Those five were Elmore James (buried at Newport Missionary Baptist Church in Ebenezer, Miss.), Mississippi John Hurt (a family cemetery tucked away in his hometown of Avalon, which for all intents and purposes is a dead town now), Sonny Boy Williamson II (Whitfield Baptist Church, Tutwiler, Miss.), Albert King (Paradise Gardens Cemetery, Edmondson, Ark.) and Charley Patton (Holly Ridge Cemetery, Holly Ridge, Miss.).

While pursuing the ghosts of greats, I took notes and did interviews at every stop, with the intention of turning the experience into a book, a book chapter or a long essay.

It didn’t turn out that way, of course. The project fell by the wayside after I graduated from IU, consigned to the ever-growing dustbin of starry-eyed, abandoned and forgotten projects from the last 21 years of my life. (That list, naturally, includes probably half a dozen incomplete forays into literary journalism concerning various Negro Leagues topics, a fact that I might discuss in a later post.)

I did manage to turn my aborted travelogue into a presentation at the annual Delta Symposium at Arkansas State, but even that was somewhat pulled out of my arse – I essentially just winged it and depended on my immense personal charm and charisma to get me through.

I also wrote a really good article about the John Hurt leg of my trip for Blues Revue magazine, and I managed to crank out a personal essay/narrative about my time and investigations at Holly Ridge.

However, I’ve lost the text to that piece, as well as the entirety of my notes and files from the project, a situation is, to say the least, crushing and deflating. Perhaps all that stuff will turn up when I move next, but if not, it’s probably gone, lost into the vapors of my stunted career goals.

Why do I bring all this up? Because recently, I’ve been pondering the connection between music and segregation-era black baseball. Especially during the years before the integration of the national pastime, at a time when aspiring African-American hardballers simply couldn’t make ends meet as a full-time player, music could have been a secondary source of income for them.

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T-Bone Walker

Now, there’s no question that in the country’s urban areas where blues and R&B thrived – Kansas City, Chicago, New York, Memphis, Indianapolis, New Orleans – Negro Leaguers and black music stars of the day intermingled and developed lasting friendships and a sort of financial symbiosis.

After playing a game in one of those cities – and other burgs, like Newark, Pittsburgh and Detroit – Satch, Josh and other baseball stars hit the Crawford Grille or the Paseo Ballroom or the Apollo or the 708 Club to take in concerts by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, T-Bone Walker, Leroy Carr, Bessie Smith and other musical luminaries, and the baseballers brought with them to the clubs and speakeasies a slew of local residents who had attended the game and wanted a chance to meet their hardball heroes.

That connection has been fairly well chronicled and illuminated by numerous researchers, in the fields of both historical research and artistic creation, and rightfully so. For example, Whitman College Professor of Music David Glenn married baseball and jazz in his critically acclaimed composition, “National Pastime.” And, as celebrated scholar, author, and music and baseball fan Gerald Early once famously said:

“There are only three things that America will be remembered for 2000 years from now when they study this civilization: The Constitution, jazz music and baseball. These are the three most beautiful things this culture’s ever created.”

There’s a reason that the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum are right across from each other in Kansas City’s legendary 18th and Vine District.

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Gerald Early

But the music discussed so far is (or was) pretty much all urban jazz, blues and R&B, with big bands or swing blues combos or other formats facilitated by a populated region with ready access to the resources – manpower (and womanpower) and electricity and grand pianos and massive venues – necessary for that brand of soulful melodies.

What seems to have been somewhat overlooked, though, is any possible link between blackball and rural, country blues – which happens to be my favorite kind of blues. Almost the entirety of this genre is based in either the acoustic guitar, harmonica or a combination of the two, with progenitors and seminal figures like Patton, Hurt, Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Son House, Blind Blake, Leadbelly, Memphis Minnie, Skip James, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell (yep, there’s a pattern there), and even Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in their early days. There were also famed duos, like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. (Instead of tediously giving links to each of these musicians named, I’ll direct you to Allmusic, a fantastic online database/encyclopedia/compendium of just about every musician who ever recorded. Just go to the homepage and type a name in search.)

These cats (and a few chicks) were often hoboes and itinerant ramblers, criss-crossing the rural South, which for decades was centered economically on massive plantations owned by rich white businessmen and populated by countless (often black) poor sharecroppers in what amounted to a 19th– and 20th-century feudal system. In fact, many of the legends of country blues were born and raised on plantations, and they bolstered their income by occasionally returning to the plantation system. The musicians played as many garden parties, juke joints and rent parties as they could to eke out something resembling a living.

But many Negro Leaguers also sprang from the rural Southern plantation system that birthed many a blues artist, one factor that might have bonded baseballers and musicians, at least in spirit. For example, fearless (often nasty) baserunner Crush Holloway, who was raised on a plantation in the Waco, Texas, area, told author John Holway for the latter’s book, “Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues”:

“I loved baseball. Out in them cotton fields I used to take a broomstick and took a whole pile of little rocks and hit. Imagination: That was a big deal. I’d hit a home run or a pop-up. Pop said, “If you don’t come in here, boy … out there in that dark.’ Just hitting those pebbles, you know? Imagination.

“Don’t tell me about working those cotton fields! My daddy had me out there early in the morning, getting them cows and things up. At sunrise we’d be in the field plowing. Oh that was big cotton – that was producing things down there then. Cotton and corn, wheat, all that stuff. …”

Likewise, baseball frequently became a focal point of plantation life, beginning with slave games on antebellum plantations and running through the employees and of ans sharecroppers on plantations who used the sport as exercise, recreation and entertainment, both for themselves and white audiences.

In fact, it was one of these situations from which came the earliest known film footage of African Americans playing baseball anywhere in the country – in 2014, University of Georgia researchers announced their discovery of such a film on the Pebble Hill Planation in Thomasville, Ga., dating to 1919.

The find caused a flurry of giddiness among scholars and enthusiasts of Negro and colored baseball who are constantly searching for such obscure gems. One of my SABR mentors, Dr. Leslie Heaphy, told the Thomasville (Ga.) Times-Enterprise:

“There is still so much of the story of black baseball to be found and examined for what it can tell us about baseball, African-American culture and American society. The footage from Pebble Hill shows us that we should not give up on finding other documents and materials that are still out there, waiting to be discovered.”

As is well known, the South at the time was blanketed by oppressive Jim Crow regimes, in which lynchings of African Americans happened almost weekly and the iron fist of segregation was rigidly enforced. Of course, Jim Crow thrived in Southern urban areas, but it was in “the country” and smaller towns where angry, violent mobs were allowed to storm local jail cells and where a boss on a levee construction crew could shoot an “insolent” Negro worker and have the body buried in the very levee the dead man helped to erect.

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Bukka White

Meanwhile, in the socioeconomic reality of the early-20th-century rural South, countless amateur, club and semipro blackball teams emerged, some thriving for many years, many coming and going within the span of a single summer. While fully professional city teams like the Birmingham Black Barons, Atlanta Black Crackers, Memphis Red Sox, Nashville Elite Giants and New Orleans Black Pelicans existed over a span of decades, just about any small Southern hamlet with a significant African-American population scraped up a blackball team that composed of players and managers who frequently played for little more than a love for the game.

So, lately, this has been my question: Did any of these early country blues greats, especially those in the Mississippi Delta, play baseball on some level? Did they manage or even own teams? Or did they at least have some close connection to Negro hardball?

Those are questions I’m hoping to try to answer, or at least explore, over the next few months, with particular attention paid, at least initially, to two famed bluesmen – Bukka White and Robert Petway.

Big Luke’s Rochester legacy

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Photo courtesy Joe Territo Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dec. 27, 1972, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March 30, 1979, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

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

Towering Rochester sports journalist George Beahon:

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

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

Silver Stadium groundskeeper Dick Sierens:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoinks, Shaggy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hall opens up once again!

 

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John Donaldson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Beckwith

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The career of John Donaldson speaks for itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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Fay Young

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

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

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

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

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Oliver Marcell

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

George Altman kicks off the Malloy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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