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.

New 19th century chronicle a labor of love

Sylvester “Syl” Anderson was a member of a large baseball family. Anderson’s career (1890s-1900s) was primarily played in Wichita, Kan. He became a police officer and continued to play ball.
(All images courtesy of James Brunson.)
Friend, researcher and scholar James Brunson recently published a massive, comprehensive, revelatory study of 19th-century African-American, or “colored,” baseball through McFarland Publishing, “Black Baseball, 1858-1900: A Comprehensive Record of the Teams, Players, Managers, Owners and Umpires.”

It was a momentous undertaking, and it’s uncovered details and intricacies hitherto unknown, and it’s drawn the curtain back on some of systemic and individual racism — both overt and implied — that both hindered black baseballers and inspired them to great heights.

John Thorn supplied the foreward to Brunson’s book; here’s a link to Thorn’s Our Game official MLB blog featuring the text of that intro.

Here is a lightly edited, email-interview I recently conducted with James about his new work …

Ryan Whirty: This obviously was a massive undertaking. How long did it take you, and where do you even start with a project this big?

James Brunson: I am academically trained as an art historian and visual culture specialist who integrates high art and popular art into the history of 19th century black baseball.

My project began in 1985 or 1986, depending on how one views it. In 1985, I was researching subject matter for a series of paintings. Reading microfilm, I came across a story on Isaac Carter, a ballplayer for the St. Louis Black Stockings in 1883. Carter was shot and killed in 1884, by a man who claimed he was a burglar (the story is much more complicated). This story piqued my interest. I photocopied the page and filed it away.

In 1986, my family made its annual Memorial Day pilgrimage to St. Louis. Time was set aside to do research at the Olive Street downtown library. Eerily, the home connected to Carter’s death was on Olive Street. I photocopied everything I could about the St. Louis Black Stockings. Currently, I have two notebooks on them, at least three inches in thickness. I came across more St. Louis teams, and photocopied their stories.

I discovered that black clubs of Chicago and St. Louis had been rivals since the 1870s. I discovered that few baseball books detailed the history of the Black Stockings, let alone black baseball, to my satisfaction. Why? Such books posed more issues, which raised questions that I thought others — like me — wanted to know. With pluck and perseverance, I decided to research the entire history of 19th century black baseball. That was the beginning …

RW: What types of sources did you use? Were there any sources of information that proved especially challenging to locate, track down and use?

JB: When I began my project, neither Internet nor digital newspapers existed. I primarily used microfilm. My university [Northern Illinois] has a great microfilm library. St. Louis has a great microfilm library. The University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana has a great microfilm room, including many Missouri and Colorado newspapers, that historical communications corridor along the Missouri River. I expanded my search by going to libraries around the country (California, Nevada, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Ohio, Delaware, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania).

Whenever I had a university conference or family vacation, I carved out time in my schedule to visit microfilm rooms. Sometimes, I took weekends and traveled to libraries. To keep my new piece of information, despite the financial travel and hotel costs, was worth it (I am reminded of a Cincinnati trip where I only found the rosters of the 1869 Western Union B.B.C., and its precursor, the 1868 Creole B.B.C.).

The Wilson boys, Hiram (left) and Fred, of Kalamazoo, Mich., played in the 1880s and 1890s.

The Pythian archives at Harrisburg, Pa.,’s library is a gem. Unknown teams and players (at least to me) are listed. Moreover, this archive helps to flesh out mysteries that I had. For example, the Ashmun Club of Lincoln University had organized around the time of the [Philadelphia] Pythians team. Cross-referencing the club in the school’s 19th century yearbooks, I discovered more biographical info on players and team rosters.

Nothing was especially challenging in locating or using microfilm. If I wanted a newspaper unavailable at my institution, I ordered it through interlibrary loan. Usually received the microfilm in a few days. My organizational approach included photocopying, and jotting down information on my many legal pads (gray, pink, white, yellow). I also used composition notebooks. They are filled from front to back. I used multi-colored ink pens to differentiate either dates that I collected information, or to define a specific team or state. I was obsessed!

My ambitious plan included collecting and archiving everything! No parts of the newspaper, black- or white-owned, are left untouched. I have found advertisements with names of teams and players, as an example, which initially astonished me. They were similar in format to business cards. My archive grew. The main challenge was making sense of it all. I began to identify themes. Hotel-waiters, tonsorial artists-barbers, team rosters, black umpires, men and women’s teams, military teams, minstrel-theatrical teams, families composed of ballplayers, individual biographies, and black aesthetic style were themes I explored in my first book, “Early Image of Black Baseball.”

RW: Perhaps the biggest finding discussed in this work is that African Americans were playing what today would be called baseball a lot earlier than previously thought. What were some of the first instances of “colored” or “Negro” baseball that you uncovered?

JB: Historians not primarily focused on 19th-century black baseball (there are some who are, as you know), sometimes find additional gems that solidify organized black baseball’s roots in the 1850s. The first black baseball towns I uncovered were St. Louis, Chicago, Rockford, Ill., and Springfield, Ill. I discovered that some teams traveled to other cities, states and countries in the 1870s, and I began searching newspapers in those countries, states and cities. I was blown away, as an example, when I discovered that Chicago’s Uniques, in 1871, traveled to Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York and Upper Canada. I came across more teams and new locales to search. The discovery of the St. Louis Browns, a club that claimed professional status in 1870, was a revelation. It also became clear, at least to me, that the Uniques had claimed professional status as well.

The digital age: In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, my ongoing research uncovered that black clubs had formed baseball circuits in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s. I became particularly interested in finding players that moved from one team to another. Between the 1850s and 1870s, the following organized teams captured my attention: Flushing’s Hunter B.B.C.; Binghamton’s Parlor B.BC.; Brooklyn’s Van Delken/Weldenken B.B.C.; Chicago’s Twilight Blue Stocking B.B.C.; Rockford’s Blue Stocking B.B.C.; New Orleans Pickwick B.B.C.; New Orleans Union B.B.C.; New Orleans Excelsior B.B.C.; Cleveland’s Twilight B.B.C.; Cincinnati’s Vigilant BBC; Louisville’s Fair Play BBC; and Indianapolis’s Western Fairplay B.B.C. These nines immediately come to mind. Many others appear in the book.

RW: How early were white players, teams and executives already pushing back against the idea of integration in the sport? When did racism and segregation first start seeping into the history of our national pastime?

JB: Many books have been written on the subject, and I have little to say about it. What I will say is that black men played with white clubs in the 1860s, which I discuss in my book. White teams played black teams in the 19th century, also covered in the book. One target that I devote considerable attention to relates to the racist impact of blackface minstrelsy on black baseball. It was devastating! Its effects on black baseball have been little examined. My book examines what I call black aesthetic style — intentionally misrepresented in 19th-century newspaper accounts. Baseball narratives constructed by newspaper reporters (if carefully analyzed) and visual culture, support this thesis.

Representations minstrelizing black players trace back to the 1850s, the enslaved black body metaphorically transformed in a modern black Frankenstein. Just as Frankenstein’s body was constructed of mismatched pieces, so were literary and visual representations of the black ballplayer. The eyes, nose and mouth too big; the hands and feet too big; the body too fat, too gangly or too muscular; and shine bones, incompatible with hot grounders. In the book, I examine this racist ideology.

Some baseball literature remains mired in representations of black baseball or Negro Leagues as novelty, that is, “Negro Comedy,” a self-reflexive mode that serves little purpose in the 21st century. Unfortunately, such views are complicit in reifying the notion of black players engaging in baseball farce or baseball minstrelsy. Until now, no one has analyzed how this racist narrative gained traction and its misrepresentations incorporated into baseball literature. Initially, I found this all astonishing. Getting over my disgust, I began to critically examine how it happened. It’s not easy getting 19th-century black baseball right, because it’s easier to get it wrong.

Black Frankenstein, by Frank Bellew, 1853. Theatrical performers, newspaper reporters and visual artists imagined the black ballplayer as a Frankenstein monster. 

Black aesthetic style in organized baseball easily traces back to 1870, and it had nothing to do with baseball farce. It was cultural, part of the lived experiences of black folk in organized baseball; in certain cases, traceable to black enslavement. Organized baseball, newspapers and visual culture intentionally portrayed black clubs/players as minstrel shows/minstrels, not only to limit their search for equality, but also to mock their athleticism and baseball skills as novelty.

Another strategy had to do with leisure class culture and class competition — to hire black players meant fewer jobs for white players; in the professional leagues, relatively well-paid jobs for doing what one loved, baseball, mattered. To disparage black players and push them to the margins was a massive effort that sadly goes back to the beginnings of organized baseball. Let’s remember, however, that Ulysses Franklin Grant and King Solomon White, both playing for white and black clubs, engaged in so-called “Negro antics.” Both players are in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Let’s not get it twisted.

John H. Devereaux, publisher for the Savannah Colored Tribune (1875), and co-publishers George Davison and Thomas T. Harden, supported black baseball. Davison would manage the Savannah Chathams. The three men also played a role in the formation of the League of Southern Colored Base Ballists (1886).

RW: As someone who’s based in New Orleans and who’s focused a great deal on black baseball here, I’m curious to know how much your new work discusses early African-American baseball here in NOLA. How early did “colored” baseball spring up here in New Orleans, and how rich was the baseball tradition here in New Orleans in the 19th century?

JB: Louisiana in general, and New Orleans in particular, are covered extensively. I first discovered New Orleans while researching the St. Louis Black Stockings who traveled there in the 1880s. My research notebook of photocopies on black baseball in New Orleans is four inches thick. For detailed information, I recommend my book’s team and player biographies, and team rosters.

While New Orleans has a rich black baseball history, traceable to the 1860s, it takes firm ground with the organization of a baseball tournament in 1875. By 1876, the Pickwicks, composed of black servants for the Pickwick Club, was a very strong organization. The black Pickwicks named their club after their employers (a dangerous, white supremacist organization that funded Mardi Gras and engaged in racial violence against black people). The Pickwicks team was led by the Cohen brothers, Walter Louis, Edward and James; and Edward Williams and James Duncan Kennedy; all excellent ballplayers. Interestingly, William Albert “Al” Robinson, from Chicago, joined the team around 1879. He played in Louisiana off and on between 1879 and 1886.

RW: Summing up, what would you say is the overarching theme in this work, and what message would you hope readers get out of the books?

JB: Family, Teamwork, Love, Hope and Devotion – My deceased wife, Kathleen (whom I love and miss dearly), traveled with me. Three times we visited [Major League Baseball official historian] John Thorn at his home in the Catskills. John enjoyed talking with her as much as he did with me; probably more. She shared my enthusiasm to the end. In the middle of the night, it was not unusual for Kathleen to yell from upstairs for me to get off the computer and come to bed. While she didn’t live to see the book’s publication, I had — from the beginning — dedicated this book to her.

I also dedicated the book to my daughters, Takkara and Tamerit, and my mom, Lucille Brunson. A special token of gratitude was given to my lifelong friend, Willard Draper, who read my drafts and posed questions that I hadn’t considered. Sadly, “Draper” wouldn’t live to see the book’s publication either, his death coming this year (2019), almost one year after Kathleen’s (2018). My book’s completion embodies family, teamwork, love, hope and devotion.

I end with this quote from my book: “Researching this book has been a humbling experience. Documenting the lived experiences of men and women who played the game has evoked a range of emotions: shock, sadness, disgust, humor, and jubilation … They played in the heat, rain, mud, and cold. They elicited hecklers, peals of laughter, and enthusiastic rounds of applause. Many of them went on to have successful careers outside of the game. As young men and women, however, all they ever wanted to do was play baseball — if they could — alongside their white brethren. This book is for them.”

I especially thank my editor, Gary Mitchem, at McFarland Publishing, who, back in 2011, believed in this baseball project.

Xavier, Part 1: Fats Jenkins, two-sport star

Harlem Rens, Fats Jenkins far left

I’m posting this piece much later — a month and a half, roughly — than I wanted to, and it’s turned into a multi-headed behemoth of information that I’ve been struggling to pull together in my mind and on the page, err, screen.

This past March 28 was the 80th anniversary of one of the most important events in both black history and American sporting history. In 1939, the legendary New York Renaissance African-American basketball team — known as the Harlem Rens or just the Rens — won the very first professional World Basketball Championship when they beat the Oshkosh All-Stars, a white team from Wisconsin, in the championship game of the inaugural pro hoops tournament, held in Chicago.

Opined Atlanta Daily World columnist Lucius Jones in that paper’s March 30, 1939, issue:

“Any doubt that the New York Renaissance basketball team is the real world professional cage champion certainly must now be dissipated to the four winds.”

In the April 8, 1939, edition of the Pittsburgh Courier, sports columnist Chester Washington Jr. stated thusly:

“You just can’t take it away from them. The Rens still reign supreme as the greatest pro basketball team in the country. … Skipper Bob Douglass’ [sic] classy outfit was pitted against the best pro teams in the country and they came through with flying colors. …

“The Rens had to be good to win out over such tough, youthful opposition. … As long as the Douglass-managed outfit continues to turn out a happy combination of experience and brains plus youth and pep into teams which hit perfectly ‘on all five,’ they’ll continue to be worthy of the designation: ‘The World’s Greatest Basketball Team.’”

The Rens — who, unlike their clowning rivals, the “Harlem” Globetrotters, where actually from Harlem (the ’Trotters were based in Chicago) — were the first fully professional all-black basketball team in history, and by winning the world tournament, they showed the world what many in the black community (not to mention the team’s white rivals, like the great Original Celtics and the Philadelphia Sphas) already knew — they were one of the best hoops teams ever assembled by that point.

I think the following quote from an April 8, 1939, article in the Chicago Defender perfectly nails down how the Renaissance played and how they dominated team after team in the 1930s:

“The Rens went about their task methodically and with [the] same precision which characterizes their play. When they needed it, they produced a scoring punch. When they guarded they did so to such an extent that the Wisconsin white team [Oshkosh] was forced to shoot from a distance and the shooting was erratic. The Rens’ defense was superb. What a team!”

The late Arthur Ashe — tennis star, social activist, author and one of the most influential, honorable and accomplished figures in sports history — wrote in “A Hard Road to Glory,” his seminal, three-volume chronicle of African-American athletics that Bob Douglas realized the limitations of the early game (gambling, lousy refereeing, ball-hogging) “and insisted his players perform more like a team, with strict adherence to discipline and the good of the team over that of the individual.”

The Rens were inducted as a team into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963, as is their founder/owner/visionary Bob Douglas. In addition, five individual Rens players — Tarzan Cooper, Pop Gates, Nat Clifton, Zack Clayton and John Isaacs — are enshrined as well.

The Rens dominated African-American basketball for roughly two decades and routinely got the better of not only their best black counterparts, but also the top white teams of the day.

I first learned about the Rens when I was at Indiana University, where one of my mentors, Dr. William Wiggins, introduced me to the trailblazing “big five.” When I was in grad school, I wrote a paper about the Rens for my Literature of the Harlem Renaissance class (which was taught by another role model for me, John McCluskey).

Doc Wiggins filled me in about the Renaissance and what they meant to basketball history.

“The Rens were the original setters of the standard,” he told me. He added:

Doc said the club wasn’t just the standard for the future of basketball — they were the standard for black kids and the whole black community. He told me:

“There was some civic pride [and] racial pride in the Rens. … For me, as a youngster in a segregated era, they definitely were idols for what they symbolized.”

For my paper (written around 2003, roughly), I actually interviewed guard John Isaacs, who at the time was the last living Ren but had yet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as an individual. I spoke with Mr. Isaacs, who was a lifelong resident of New York — where he mentored and coached local kids at the Boys and Girls Club until the day he died — on the phone and came away with one of the coolest experiences of my life.

Here are bunch of sweet quotes from our conversation, because sprinkled a lot of them in:

It wasn’t about you, it was about T-E-A-M. You’re only as good as the people you played with.

We traveled in all sorts of weather — rain, snow, sleet. You had a contract, and you honor that contract.

We played in places with six potbelly stoves, three on each side. Sometimes you played right up against those stoves.

You hurried up fast, took a shower, rubbed down with alcohol, got out with your coat with the collar up, and got back on the bus to take the trip back. We didn’t waste any time.

A lot of times I made sure I had some pineapple juice, some Ritz crackers and salami, some fruit. That would tide you over over until you got back to a hotel or the YMCA or wherever you were living.

Any time you go in, you should know you’re going to win.

John Isaacs

Johnny Isaacs played on that revolutionary Rens team of 1939 that won the world title, directing the squad’s precision offense, fluid defense and dazzlingly smooth and efficient overall game.

While I’ve always loved reading and writing about the New York Renaissance in general, their history and legacy directly intersected both my Negro Leagues research and my passion for New Orleans black sports history at the same time just recently.

First, the Negro Leagues angle … the captain and point guard on that Rens team was none other than Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, a versatile, multi-sport standout who starred in the Negro Baseball Leagues as well.

Starting his professional hardball career in 1920, Jenkins, a lefty, starred as an outfielder in the Negro Leagues for roughly 20 years. He gained superstardom in the 1920s with the Harrisburg Giants, where the speedster batted leadoff and formed the “Million Dollar Outfield” with National Baseball Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston and Rap Dixon, who many believe also deserves to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Jenkins’ was supremely adept at swiping bases and getting on base, making him an ideal leadoff batter who gave Charleston, Dixon and the Giants’ other sluggers plentiful opportunities for RBIs.

My buddy, perennial Malloy conference roommate and Harrisburgite (Harrisburgian? Harrisburger?) Ted Knorr has long lobbied for more, well deserved recognition for the Jenkins-Charleston-Dixon outfield as one of the greatest outer garden trios in the annals of the American pastime, and he’s done the leg work and number crunchin’ to back it up.

Oscar Charleston, of course, is already in the Hall of Fame, and Ted (and I and many others folks) believe Rap belongs in there, too. Fats might not have been good enough to merit consideration for Cooperstown, but he filled in the third slot more than admirably. Here’s some of what Ted wrote me last week regarding the triumvirate:

“On the outfield … seven [segregation-era black] players are in the Hall as an outfielder … with five more on the ballot [in the 2006 group induction] — Jenkins, Dixon, [Spottswood] Poles, [Alejandro] Oms and [Red] Parnell — easily interpreted as the dozen best outfielders of the Negro Leagues, at least according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“The 1924-1927 Harrisburg Giant outfield of Jenkins, Charleston, Dixon is, again in the opinion of the NBHOF, the greatest outfield in the Negro Leagues as it is the only one with three of the dozen [HOF nominees] in starting roles for an appreciable length of time …

“In my opinion, certainly under segregation, this outfield is the best in any league or era, besting Meusel-Combs-Ruth [1920s New York Yankees] or Veach-Cobb-Crawford [1915 Detroit Tigers] or Lewis-Speaker-Hooper [1910s Boston Red Sox]; or the earlier Delahanty-Hamilton-Thompson [1890s Philadelphia Phillies] It is much more difficult argument to say the outfield has not been topped in the 72 seasons under Integration but I believe it. …”

Fats Jenkins and Oscar Charleston

It was during this period (when he’s on the Harrisburg Giants) when Jenkins hitched on with the Rens, filling the role that today would be called point guard. For the next 15 years, Jenkins then excelled on Negro Leagues diamonds in the summers and on the Rens’ homecourt at the grand Renaissance Ballroom and Casino in the Big Apple.

The biggest chunks of his black baseball career were spent with the New York Black Yankees, but he also played for the Lincoln Giants, Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Brooklyn Eagles and several other baseball teams. He retired from professional sports in the early to mid-1940s, carrying on with some semipro clubs here and there.

Amsterdam News, June 18, 1938

For the purpose of this blog post — and because his entirety career and life were so long, rich, influential and hard-to-summarize — let’s narrow our discussion of Jenkins to 1938-39 — the seasons in which he helped lead the Rens to the big hardwood title.

In March 1938, Jenkins was slated to suit up for the Black Yankees, but the team dangled him as trade bait, which might have generated some dissension on Fats’ part — that same month press reports surfaced stating that there was a chance he’d jump to the Washington Black Senators.

An article in the Baltimore Afro-American further stated that Black Yanks’ owner James Semler groused about the costs associated with running a Negro Leagues club; Semler stated that by the end of each baseball season, club owners “take an awful beating” financially, adding that “we are in the red plenty.”

Fats Jenkins

Jenkins seems to have stayed with the Yankees for some of the season, holding down left field and sometimes batting leadoff. However, his age was apparently starting to take effect on his speed — for many games he was bumped down to third in the order, and while a few box scores from that summer showed Fats with multiple-hit games, for just as many contests he was limited to just one or even no hits.

Pittsburgh Courier, March 5, 1938

Moreover, by late summer Jenkins got fed up with the struggling Yanks and what he viewed as Semler’s penny-pinching, reportedly taking up shop with the Black Senators in August ’38. Later in August, the Afro-American reported that Jenkins had now joined the Crawfords, “having ditched the Black Yankees because of salary differences.”

But even with his age-dimmed skills and roster-hopping, Jenkins still drew raves from both inside black baseball and outside the Negro game. In September 1938, a wire service reported that a group of white ex-major leaguers “chose a roster of Negro all-stars, each of whom they considered good enough to hold down a post on any major league outfit.” The article reported that former Pittsburgh Pirate Eppie Barnes placed Jenkins on this Negro League dream team. Stated Barnes:

“His smooth playing resembles Joe DiMaggio’s. His big league ability is obvious to those who have seen him in action.”

Then, a month later, Homestead Grays owner and Pittsburgh Courier columnist Cum Posey — himself the only figure to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — tabbed Jenkins to Posey’s annual All-American baseball team, naming him the starting left fielder on the year-end best-of roster.

Then came the winter 1938-39 basketball season that culminated with the Rens’ landmark pro hoops title in March ’39, with Jenkins pacing the hardwood juggernaut, at least tactically and emotionally.

By the late ’30s, Fats’ floor time with the Renaissance was being winnowed down, undoubtedly at least partially because of his age, a fact born out, for example, by the Rens’ 1938 and ’39 visits to New Orleans to play Xavier University. The Gold Rush boasted one of the most powerful, feared and respected athletic programs in the HBCU world, with the hoops team being better than many pro teams. (More on XULA to come.)

When the hardwood teams clashed in January 1938, Jenkins didn’t play at all in the Rens’ blowout win, and when the two teams battled in 1938, Fats also doesn’t appear in the post-game box score. Compare that to January 1935 contest between the Renaissance and the Gold Rush, when Jenkins scored nine points in another big win for the pro cagers.

Harrisburg Telegraph, March 31, 1936

As the inaugural World Basketball Championship approached in March 1939, most observers knew that Fats was close to his last hurrah with the Rens. In a March 25, 1939, column in the Pittsburgh Courier, Cum Posey asserted that Douglas, the Renaissance owner, needed to infuse some young blood in order to win the title:

“Now, Bob, one more good little fast man to set up plays and a big man like Strong who moves on the offense and defense will give you lots of protection because after all Fats can’t go on forever and your two big men don’t go up and down the court as fast as a few years ago. You have the pick of the country and can get any player you want. Don’t wait too long.”

Then came the tournament in Chicago, and Fats didn’t go full-time as the Rens advance in the brackets. Although he scored three points in the club’s semifinal win over the Globetrotters, Jenkins didn’t play at all during the championship showdown against Oshkosh; the team relied on Johnny Isaacs to direct the attack.

(However, although Fats didn’t play in every game in the tourney, he did receive an equal share — $1,000 — of the team’s winning purse.)

Afro-American, Nov. 4, 1939

At that point, Jenkins decided he just couldn’t keep pace with his Rens teammates anymore, and at the age of 41, he stepped off the team’s roster for good and stepped into the history books as a legend.

When the aging but accomplished Jenkins retired from the Rens, the Cleveland Call & Post, in its Nov. 9, 1939, bid a fond adieu to the hardwood version of Fats by pointing out his charisma, likeability, wisdom and his vibrant, playful personality:

“For many years, ‘Fats’ has played forward position for the Rens, and gained the reputation of being the fastest player on the court. ‘Fats’ also acted as captain of the squad, and his steadiness and sense of fair play have always endeared him to the fans. …

“Just how old ‘Fats’ is, is a matter of conjecture. Some say that he is well over forty, but ‘Fats’ has been as finicky about revealing the true date of his birth, as an old maid.

“‘Fats’’ popularity with the fans and his team was due also to the fact that he encouraged the younger ball players. When he learned that his legs could no longer keep up their dazzling pace, Jenkins took time out to train younger players to fill his shoes, which is one reason why the Rens have managed through the years to remain ‘tops.’

“Not only was ‘Fats’ an outstanding figure on the basketball court, but as outfielder for the New York Black Yankees. His ability as a hitter and his running of the bases, made him one of the team’s stars.”

My journalistic hero, Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American, had a brilliant way with words that both cut to the heart of the (sometimes ugly) matter but also described what he saw in the sports world with wit, clarity and insight, and when Fats Jenkins retired from the Rens in late 1939, Sam has on his game when he described Fats’:

“The name Renaissance is synonymous with basketball. And in circles where basketball is studied and talked reference to Fats Jenkins is almost inevitable.

“The kind of guy who defied all the accepted rules of athletic custom, save proper living, Fats played for 20 years in topflight ball. He was arrogant but likeable, ornery but a gentleman, chunky but fast, little but rugged.

“He could run away from an opponent in a surprise move and leave him as if he were tied to a spectator’s seat, then turn around and laugh at him. But in the next minute he’d be patting the same opponent on the arm or in the ribs as if to say, ‘Don’t let it worry you, you’ll probably do the same thing to me next time.’”

Lacy infused his commentary with a personal anecdote about Fats. In one hoops game, Lacy served as a referee, despite his inexperience and lack of confidence as a basketball official. Jenkins rode the anxious, overwhelmed new ref for the entire game, never failing to hassle, harangue or otherwise verbally rattle Lacy any way he could. As the game progressed, Fats lambasted Sam, constantly grinned in Lacy’s face, called the scribe a faker and a gypsy and even followed behind Lacy when the ref moved around the court, “mimicking my every move.”

But when the final buzzer sounded, Lacy recalls, the wily basketball captain caught the angst-ridden neophyte official completely off-guard. Sam wrote in relating the tale:

“Finally the timer’s signal put an end to my ordeal. And what do you think happened? Fats rushed over to me and said, ‘Hey, Sam, you did a damned good job, keep up the good work.’ I was dumbfounded.

“That was Fats, shrewd from the top of his alert head to the bottom of his nimble feet. Bubbling over with cunning, he could take advantage of any situation and turn the most barely noticeable weakness of the opposition or arbitration into a weapon for himself and his mates.

“That was Fats, a crackerjack player, smart as the proverbial whip, swift as a frightened gazelle and as tough an hombre as ever donned a pair of basketball trunks.”

(It should be noted that although Jenkins retired from the Renaissance, he did continue to road the parquet for a year or so as the captain for the almost-as-capable Chicago Crusaders.)

But just because he’d bid the Rens a bittersweet adieu, Fats was still raring to go on the baseball diamond, and just a couple months after the Renaissance’s historic success, Fats donned his baseball spikes yet again named manager of the Brooklyn Royal Giants baseball team in May ’39.

Reported the American Negro Press:

“From the offices of the Brooklyn Royal Giants comes an announcement which will be hailed with joy by the followers of baseball and basketball throughout the country.

“Clarence ‘Fats’ Jenkins, one of the most popular athletes of the diamond and court, has been named manager of this well known outfit of baseball players and will assume his duties immediately.

“‘Fats’ has been a member of the Renaissance basketball team for years and as such has established an outstanding reputation for speed and astuteness of play. For years, he was regarded as one of basketball’s greatest, he later blossomed out as an outfielder of the first degree.

“‘Fats’ was a star for several years with the Black Yankees and with his team won his reputation on the diamond. Keen of eye, fleet of foot, he was a major leaguer if there ever was one.

“In his new job, he will be a playing manager, filling one of the his outfield positions — there being no better than ‘Fats.’ He is expected to add power at the bat, defense in the field and color to the whole team.”

Throughout the ensuing spring, summer and fall, Jenkins piloted the barnstorming Royals against a packed slate of opponents from regional semipro teams like Union City, N.J.; the Bay Parkways of Brooklyn; Tremont, Pa.; and the East Chicago Colored Giants way out in Indiana.

New Journal and Guide, May 20, 1938

And for most of the places Jenkins and the Giants went that summer, his name, and their name, preceded them. Stated the Munster, Ind., Times newspaper in late June of that year:

“The Brooklyn Royal Giants are the oldest team in colored semi-pro ranks. The ‘Royals’ as they are known to the hundreds of thousands of baseball fans all over the country have successfully operated in the semi-pro ranks for over 35 years and have always had a good representative team. This season the team has been greatly strengthened and hopes to take the independent colored championship.”

In addition, a paper in Tremont, Pa., the West Schuykill Press and Pine Grove Herald (yes, that’s the full name, apparently), reported:

“Leading the brilliant array of colored stars will be Clarence Fat [sic] Jenkins [who] is well known to many Tremont fans as one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the cage game. ‘Fats’ manages the club and plays in the outfield. …

“The Brooklyn Royal Giants are strictly a road team and play over the entire country during the season. They are recognized as one of the finest dressed teams in the game with a reputation for gentlemanly conduct and plenty of pep and hustle.”

However, arguably the Royals’ biggest showdowns were against one of the preeminent white semipro teams in the country, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, who for nearly 40 years squared off against the best clubs in the region, included numerous clashes with the top Negro teams of the era as well as exhibitions against a galaxy of major league stars.

On July 30, 1939, one of New York’s most momentous semipro battles went down when the Bushwicks hosted the Royal Giants at the former’s illustrious Dexter Park. The Amsterdam News newspaper previewed the doubleheader thusly:

“The Royals recently have been touring the west and their record [illegible] is a procession of triumphs. The new pep of the club is directly traceable to the management of Jenkins, who has been performing in the outfield as well.

“Credit also should go to Jenkins’ [illegible] cleverness, for he has added to the roster several outstanding players. …”

Aside from the Bushwicks, one of the Royals’ other big encounters of the 1939 baseball season was a twin bill with the great Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City in June of that summer. Although the Bacharachs’ glory years had come and gone more than a decade earlier, their name still carried a hefty amount of cache.

The teams ended up splitting the doubleheader, with the Bees taking the top half, 9-7, and the Royals copping the nightcap, 1-0, in a thriller in which Jenkins scored the winning run. Over the two games Jenkins batted a cumulative 3-for-5, including a double and three runs scored, while hitting third in the order and patrolling left field.

Incidentally, at the end of the 1939 baseball season, Fats received plaudits not only for is on-field and on-court achievements, but also the result of those achievements — making bank. New Journal and Guide columnist Edgar Rouzeau, in his Oct. 7, 1939, entry, set out the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, as black America’s most well paid athlete, then listed Jenkins at No. 2, asserting that Fats was a hybrid of two of the sports world’s most renowned names.

The column actually takes a dour twist by pointing out that unlike Jenkins and Louis, the vast majority of black sportsters struggle financially, placing Fats in even more rarefied air. Rouzeau wrote:

“Perhaps I should pause right here and admit that we do have a combination of Babe Ruth and Joe Lopchick [sic] in that great money player, Fats Jenkins, whose name is synonymous with Negro professional baseball and basketball and whose earnings from sports compares [sic] favorably with the increments of some of the best paid whites.

“Among colored athletes, he is several laps ahead of the field and second only to [Louis], but the significant thing here is that Fats Jenkins had to be superlative in two sports to get rich.

“He has been for many years, and still is, the highest paid Negro baseball player. He only forfeited his right to the last title when he stepped out and bought a half-interest in the Brooklyn Royal Giants baseball team and blossomed out in the triple role of owner-player-manager.

“Fats, however, is an exception. He has been playing basketball and baseball for eighteen years and is still going strong.”

(Really quickly, Fats Jenkins, as captain of the Rens, squared off against Joe Lapchick, the superstar of the Original Celtics, who were the best white hoops team. For 15-plus years the Celtics and the Rens squared off in some epic clashes that have since become part of basketball lore.)

Aside from the generous but dubious claim that Jenkins was the best-paid African-American baseball player — with Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and other superstars still on the scene — Rouzeau’s column contains a bit of reverse foreshadowing. Contrary to still going strong, Fats was already winding down his playing career.

Just a month later, he’d announce his retirement from the Rens. Then the 1940 campaign would be his last as a baseball player to any real extent. While he returned to lead the Brooklyn Royal Giants, he for all intents and purposes hung up his player’s cleats, became a successful businessman, and settled into domestic life in Philly.

He seems to have remained on the baseball periphery and occasionally flitted in and out. In January 1947 the Cleveland Call & Post reported that Jenkins had signed on as business manager of the Cleveland Buckeyes; the paper asserted Fats’ “ability to know ball players has been one of the main factors of success in the Buckeye camp.”

Throughout his hardball (well, and hardwood) career, Fats quickly gained the approval, then the respect and finally the admiration of all who say him, including those in the press, who continually singled out his heady, smart, speedy play — the same skills and abilities he flashed on the basketball court.

The many scribes in the white/mainstream press certainly appreciated Jenkins. In June 1931, a reporter for the Central New Jersey Home News (the name of an actual newspaper in New Brunswick, N.J.), in previewing a barnstorming contest between a local team and the Black Yankees, called Jenkins “one of the most versatile colored professional athletes extant,” adding that “in addition to being an ideal lead-off man is as brainy a player as comes up the pike. He has speed to burn.”

Olean (N.Y.) Times Herald, Aug. 21, 1935

In June 1939, the Times newspaper of Munster, Ind. (in northwest Indiana, near Gary and a little ways from Chicago), in an article (the same one I quoted earlier) announcing a game between the Brooklyn Royal Giants and the East Chicago Colored Giants, stated:

“Clarence ‘Fats’ Jenkins is manager of the [Royal Giants] and is considered one of the smartest men in Negro baseball ranks. ‘Fats’ Jenkins has worked very hard this spring to gather together what he thinks will be the best ball club that has represented the Giants for quite some time. In addition to playing one of the outfield posts, ‘Fats’ was considered as one of the outstanding basketball players of all times. He captained and played with the World’s professional champions, the Renaissance Big Five … ‘Fats’ has the widest acquaintance of an Negro player in the country.”

If any cadre of journalists knew about Fats and his abilities, it’s the reporters and editors in Harrisburg, where Jenkins first made his name in baseball in the 1920s. In mid-summer 1942, Harrisburg Telegraph sports columnist Welly Jones said thusly as Fats arrived back in Harrisburg with a barnstorming semi-pro baseball team, the Dixie Daisies:

“One feature will be the presence of Fats Jenkins who manages the Daisies. He will be given a great welcome. Fat [sic] Jenkins was a star for several seasons on the champion Harrisburg Giants’ team. He also is a great basketball star and has been in Harrisburg a number of times. One interesting feature Fat [sic] Jenkins pulled off frequently was to bunt and beat the ball to first base. He was a speedy runner. As an outfielder he had very few equals.”

As skilled, adept and well known Jenkins was on the diamonds, it was on the hardwood that he truly distinguished himself, especially within the African-American community. He became a role model and a symbol of the best the black athletic realm could offer.

Fats Jenkins was revered in the black sports world, not just because he was multi-talented, multi-sport superstar, but also because he was dedicated, loyal, encouraging and witty. In short, it was just his athletic prowess that made he beloved by fans, teammates and journalists, but also his effervescent personality and sense of pride and honor.

Fats Jenkins died in Philadelphia in December 1968, five years after the Renaissance Big Five was inducted into the Basketball Hall as a team and four years before Satchel was inducted into the Baseball HOF as the first career Negro Leaguer ushered into Cooperstown.

I know this an abrupt end to this piece, but this post is already way too long, and my pal Ted Knorr summed everything up beautifully, so I’ll him conclude things. Said Ted:

“I do not have enough superlatives to truly capture Clarence ‘Fats’ Jenkins.”

End note 1: Ted added that on June 15, Fats Jenkins will be inducted into the Capital Area Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. Reported Ted: “I am humbled to be the stand in for Fats that evening. He will join his picket mates of the 1924-1927 Harrisburg Giants in such recognition.”

End note 2: This is the first in what will hopefully be a trilogy of posts centered on Xavier University of New Orleans and its athletic program. Hopefully Part 2 will come soon.

End note 3: I also must point out that Jenkins wasn’t the only Negro Leaguer who did double duty with the Rens. Bill Yancey balanced both in the 1920s and ’30s as well, but not to the same level of success as Fats. Yancey’s tale, while fascinating, is one I’ll leave for others to tell.