New Orleans becomes a major league city

Allen Page (left) later in life with Hall of Fame shortstop Willie Wells. (Photo courtesy of Rodney Page.)

Editor’s note: This is the unabridged version of an article that I wrote for the April 26 issue of the Louisiana Weekly. I started the article a couple months ago, so a few of the time-related references, such as the beginning of this year’s MLB season, are a little dated, but only by a month or two.

In the June 22, 1940, issue of the Louisiana Weekly, sports columnist Eddie Burbridge confirmed the reports that had swirled around Black New Orleans for a few weeks.

The city was joining the baseball big leagues.

In a recruiting and economic coup, local businessman, promoter and baseball kingpin Allen Page had become part owner of the St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League, which, along with the venerated Negro National League, was one of the segregation-era Black major leagues.

Beginning with a July 7 clash with the Cleveland Bears at Pelican Stadium, the Stars would split their second-half season with the Gateway City as the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars.

After steadily growing in national influence and economic clout on baseball’s biggest stage for several years, Page had landed what he and the city’s African-American hardball fans had dreamed of — recognition and reward in America’s pastime.

Burbridge voiced the elation and pride of the Crescent City’s Black fandom:

“This column wishes Allen Page the best of luck in his new venture. He has long tried to provide the city with major baseball, and it looks like his efforts have been crowned at last.”

However, running under the exhilaration was an ever present current of frustration and lingering melancholy, one the city’s Black population had battled for decades — that because of intransigent segregation and acute racism, the Stars, like all of Black baseball, and indeed all of Black society, were still viewed by mainstream white America as second-class and unworthy of respect or equality.

As long as the looming shadow of Jim Crow and its pernicious, lingering impact on history continued to exist, the Stars and the fans who loved them would never get their full due.

However, after decades of persistent advocacy and tireless, exhaustive research, that has now, at long last, changed.

In December of last year, Major League Baseball announced that the histories and statistical records of seven top-level Negro baseball circuits — including the Negro American League between 1937 and 1948 — would now be considered fully major league, equals with every long-recognized MLB leagues of so-called “Organized baseball.”

That means that now, finally, after decades in the shadows, legendary slugger Josh Gibson is officially equal to Babe Ruth, that ageless pitcher Satchel Paige is officially on a par with Walter Johnson, and tenacious, pugnacious Oscar Charleston — the man long considered by many as the greatest all-around player in history, regardless of race or era — officially stands shoulder to shoulder with Ty Cobb, the infamous racist whose malevolent bigotry held undo sway on the minds of white America and helped maintain Jim Crow in baseball. (To be fair, a great deal of information and literature has emerged in recent years arguing that Cobb’s reputation as a bigot is overblown. You be the judge.)

It also means that every team that was a member of those seven Negro Leagues during the stated time periods are now officially, in every way, Major League teams. That includes the 1940-42 New Orleans-St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League and every player and manager on its rosters.

New Orleans now, for the first time ever, has a history as a Major League Baseball city.

Something that no white teams based in the Big Easy ever reached was achieved by Allen Page and the players and managers of the Stars.

March 2, 1940, Chicago Defender

The news struck a deeply personal chord with Rodney Page, son of Allen Page, the entrepreneur and unflagging advocate for New Orleans Black baseball who brought the Stars to the Big Easy.

“This milestone achievement is deeply personal for me,” said Rodney, who now lives in Austin, Texas. “It is an important part of my life’s journey, and a significant dimension of my family’s story. It is something that I am extremely proud of and treasure immensely.”

Rodney said he continues to be awed by the myriad roles his father played both locally and nationally, as a savvy baseball team owner and executive, gutsy and influential sports promoter, executive officer in the Negro Southern League, and frequent attendee of the boisterous, high-stakes national meetings of the NNL and NAL.

Rodney said those connections, forged by hard-nosed negotiations and entrepreneurial daring, are what brought major league heft to New Orleans.

Rodney Page with the author

“His business acumen and stellar contributions were well known in New Orleans and throughout the South,” he said. “His risk-taking nature was on full display in 1940 as he became the owner of the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League with the designation of official major league status.”

The significance of the Stars’ elevation to major league status is certainly appreciated by Negro Leagues researchers, writers and educators nationwide. Kent State professor, Negro Leagues author and Society for American Baseball Research official Leslie Heaphy noted Allen Page’s many accomplishments — including the establishment and operation of the annual North-South All-Star Game at Pelican Stadium — as evidence of New Orleans’ importance to Black baseball history. She hopes that might help the modern baseball world shine a light on the Big Easy.

“Allen Page helped bring the team to the city to promote and elevate the level of play in the city,” Heaphy said. “With his support of the North-South All-Star game, it made it easier to bring the team to the city. Seeing the team as a major-league team now will hopefully bring more attention to all those who played, managed and owned the ball club.”

It cannot be understated the massive role Page played on the New Orleans sports and business over four decades in the city, within the Black community and in reaching and forming partnerships with white leaders. His business savvy, promotion and marketing savvy, and his dedication to local baseball also brought him renown and respect nationally. In October 1943, legendary Pittsburgh Courier journalist Wendell Smith called Page “a fair and unbiased promoter … whose whose record stands for itself …” Smith added that “Mr. Page has done more good for Negro baseball than any promoter in the South …”

Page’s dedication to the game and the resulting high regard in which he was held was also reflected in 1947, when he was chosen president of the Negro Southern League. Page, who also at the time owned the New Orleans Creoles, an NSL member team, was described thusly by journalist C.J. Kincaide in coverage of the June 1947 league meeting:

“Mr. Page is no new figure to baseball. In addition to being a successful businessman in New Orleans, he has been a promoter of baseball for a number of years and is well known and highly respected by owners and managers of both the Negro American and National Leagues.”

But while Allen Page was building his businesses and amassing clout in the baseball world, America and Black Americans as a whole were impacted by global events that would eventual plant the seeds of the modern Civil Rights movement.

Ray Doswell, vice president of curatorial services at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, noted that at the time the Stars moved to New Orleans, America was on the verge of a great awakening of national awareness and social conscience, one precipitated by the entry of the United States into the Second World War.

World War II was a major revelation,” Doswell said. “African Americans were fighting valiantly against fascists and Nazis abroad, while suffering indignities and bias at home. Among the opportunities denied African Americans, of course, was the ability to play Major League Baseball. This irony is not lost on many observers in progressive politics, the Black press, as well as the communist left press and others. It was often reported, reflected and investigated.”

The effects of World War II were also immediately and more tangibly visible on the baseball diamond. Between the draft and the military enlistment of hundreds of professional players, both Black and white, the quality of the game presented in the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues suffered to varying degrees.

Ray Doswell

However, Doswell said, the impact of the personnel drain on Black baseball was less significant, meaning the Negro Leagues now often offered a more exciting, appealing version of the game than the depleted major leagues, a development that opened the eyes of a growing number of whites to the top-notch quality of Black baseball.

On top of the slowly increasing awareness of Black baseball among white fans, the war brought financial success for some Negro Leagues teams and players, who discovered that the greater attention being paid to Black baseball translated to increases at the turnstiles and in the financial ledgers.

In addition, with thousands of young men heading off to Europe or the Pacific, high-paying jobs in American factories and other industrial businesses opened up to Black workers who previously would have been barred from such white-dominated jobs. Thus, as the vast wartime industrial growth benefited many Black workers and their families, it also enriched Black communities as a whole.

Thus, on several levels, World War brought the potential for greater advancement for Black Americans — socially, economically, politically and culturally — for which the Negro Leagues served as a microcosm. The early 1940s saw what has become known as a golden age of Black baseball.

“Fans and others began to question the validity of segregated baseball,” Doswell said. “This is not to say that all Negro Leagues teams enjoyed the same success as the [Homestead] Grays or the Kansas City Monarchs on the field and with fans, but as Black communities and economies fared, so did Black baseball.”

Such a heady situation is what birthed the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars, whose migration to the Big Easy also reflected the clout Allen Page had on the national scene.

Jan. 24, 1942, Chicago Defender

The seeds of the Stars’ move were sowed in the years immediately preceding 1940, when Page routinely recruited numerous top-level Negro Leagues teams from across the country — including the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, Birmingham Black Barons and Chicago American Giants — to come to New Orleans for preseason and post-season exhibition games, usually at Pelican Stadium. Thousands of fans usually attended the games — some reached 10,000 or more — and helped raise the Crescent City’s baseball profile.

That build-up in popularity got another huge shot of adrenaline in the fall of 1939, when Page hatched the North-South All-Star Game. Designed as a postseason complement to the prestigious East-West All-Star Game held each year in Chicago that was the highlight of each Negro League season.

While the North-South game never developed into the same grand spectacle as the East-West contest, it became a staple of the Negro Leagues’ post-season festivities and exhibitions, drawing the best players from across the country, including, specifically, players from New Orleans, Louisiana and the South as a whole. The contest further cemented New Orleans as a reliable, attractive Black baseball outpost in the South, a region that traditionally didn’t have a baseball scene as thriving and vibrant as the more traditional ones in the North and Midwest.

With high-profile exhibitions filling out the baseball calendar and the North-South game remaining a staple in New Orleans for a decade, the time was ripe for Page to execute his greatest coup. In March 1940, he trekked to Chicago to rub shoulders and shake hands at the spring meeting of the executives of the NNL and NAL teams; although Page didn’t yet have ownership or management of a team in either league, his presence doubtlessly allowed him to establish the connections and partnerships needed to land a big-time club of his own.

Pelican Stadium

After returning to his home base, Page promptly arranged several April exhibitions between NNL and NAL squads that were touring the South as part of spring training. He also called a meeting of New Orleans baseball prospects to lay out his plans for the upcoming season and brief them on how local lads would fit into those exploits. Penned Burbridge in the March, 16, 1940 issue of the Louisiana Weekly:

“With popular interests in New Orleans stimulated by major attractions presented last season, Mr. Page expects 1940 to prove a banner year for local baseball fans and has made plans to present the best talent possible.”

And boy, did Page deliver on the promise.

“New Orleans became the home of a major ball club this week,” trumpeted the Jun 1, 1940, Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s most important Black newspapers, “following the announcement that Allen Paige [sic], well known New Orleans sportsman, had purchased the St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League.”

Added the Courier:

“One of the best baseball cities in the country, New Orleans has been dickering for a team in organized baseball for some time. Paige’s [sic] purchase now assures Crescent City fans a season of topnotch [sic] baseball.”

The St. Louis Stars had been foundering a little at the gate and on the field — they’d finished far behind the first-half pennant winners in the NAL — and Page and the rest of the NAL executives hoped the move to a dual-city home base would be a shot in the arm that the franchise needed. 

Gary Ashwill, on his stellar Agate Type blog, actually discussed the travails of the late-1930s St. Louis Stars in a May 2018 post. The article chronicles the saga of a team — or rather, a team name, because over the course of three decades there were several iterations of the “St. Louis Stars,” with different owners, executives, players, origins, geographic paths and home parks.

The 1939 Stars, Gary notes, were the third version of the team, owned by real estate tycoon, night club owner and numbers runner Allen Johnson, who founded the club in Illinois in the mid-1930s as an independent team. They joined the NAL in 1937.

Gary points to a few of the challenges that faced the 1939 that might have spurred Johnson to usher Allen Page and New Orleans into the Stars’ fold.

“Few teams have suffered quite as much at the hands of an incomplete historical record as the 1939 St. Louis Stars,” he writes. “They were a pretty good team — the second half champions of the Negro American League, in fact, losing the pennant in a five-game series to the first-half champion Monarchs. But scouring the newspapers at the time reveals a paltry 15-16 record [the mark has been updated to 17-16 after further research] for the Stars in the Negro American League regular season (along with three losses to NNL teams). Clearly a large number of games were not reported, at least in the newspapers that have been found so far, and a lot remains to be uncovered.”

Gary adds that “[I]n addition to a tangled history and poor reportage, the ’39 St. Louis Stars have suffered from a lack of recognizable stars.” The highest-profile member of the ’39 Stars was probably catcher Quincy Trouppe, who was the team’s only bona fide star. The rest of the roster consisted mostly of solid, if somewhat unremarkable, players and pitchers, several of whom made the transition to New Orleans in 1940 with the franchise. I’ll get to the 1940 New Orleans roster in a bit.

The 1939 St. Louis Stars, before moving to New Orleans. (Photo courtesy Gary Ashwill.)

Unfortunately, Trouppe was not among them; following the 1939 campaign, he played in the Mexican League for several years, then finished up his playing career in the States, before managing in the Puerto Rico League. In 1952, at the age of 39, cracked the lineup of the Cleveland Indians, catching six games for the MLB club before suiting up for 80-odd games with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. He later scouted for the St. Louis Cardinals.

The newly branded New Orleans-St. Louis Stars debuted in their new hometown, and launched the second half of the league’s split season — on July 7 at Pelican Stadium, where they hosted the Cleveland Bears.

Unfortunately, the Stars fizzled out in their home opener, losing three of four games to Cleveland in the opening series. About 2,000 fans attended the contest, which was probably under expectations.

George Mitchell

The team that now called the Big Easy its “half home” was managed by George Mitchell, a 40-year-old Sparta, Ill., native whose career as a journeyman pitcher in the Negro Leagues was winding down. He first joined the Stars organization as player-manager in 1938 and piloted the club through the 1941 season.

Mitchell came to the franchise with some serious cred. In 1939, the Atlanta Daily World called Mitchell “one of the shrewdest baseball managers in the business,” and in January 1940 Homestead Grays owner and eventual member of two sports national halls of fame Cum Posey named Mitchell the manager of Posey’s annual “all-american” team in the Pittsburgh Courier.

(In hindsight, columnist Fay Young in 1944 declared Mitchell’s time as the New Orleans Stars’ skipper of marginal success at best; the Defender writer stated that “Mitchell tried New Orleans out a few years ago and didn’t do so well. Maybe it was because the St. Louis tag injured him with the New Orleans fans.” Young’s comments reveal one reason why the Stars’ tenure in the Crescent City, while historically significant now in modern day, never achieved the lofty heights predicted for it.)

The Stars’ pitching staff was anchored by Gene Smith, a 24-year-old righty from Ansley, a small community in Jackson Parish in north central Louisiana. Smith was just starting his career as a hurler, debuting with the Atlanta Black Crackers in 1938. Overall, Smith spent eight seasons pitching in the Negro Leagues, a tenure broken up by a three-year hitch in the Army, and his biggest claim to baseball fame would be pitching three no-hitters during his time as a professional moundsman.

Also pitching for the Stars during the tenure in New Orleans was right-hander Jack Bruton, an Alabama native whose brief Negro Leagues career lasted five season; Walter “Lefty” Calhoun of Tennessee, whose lengthy, respected time in Black baseball stretched for a decade and a half from 1932 to 1946 and included stops with the Montgomery Grey Sox, the Memphis Red Sox, the New York Black Yankees and the Indianapolis Clowns; and righty Frank McAllister, a kid from Arkansas whose career spanned several years in the 1930s and 1940s with a handful of teams.

In the field, the Stars were bolstered by a lineup of solid, if somewhat unremarkable, veterans, including Missouri native John “the Brute” Lyles, an infielder who was in his late 20s and whose career also included stops in Indianapolis, Homestead and Cleveland; Jackson, Miss., native Buddy Armour, an outfielder whose career spanned 19 seasons, beginning with the Indianapolis ABCs in 1933 and concluding in the early 1950s, when he actually broke into Organized Baseball with a couple minor-league teams in Canada; Alabaman Bobby Robinson, a dependable, well respected infielder whose defensive prowess made him a familiar name to many Black baseball fans and whose career was in its twilight by the time he hooked up with the Stars; Marshall Riddle, a heavy-hitting, 22-year-old infielder from Arkansas whose career spanned a half-dozen or so years; and outfielder and three-time East-West All-Star Dan Wilson from Yazoo City, Miss., who played for a dozen years that included a debut with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1938 and subsequent stops with the New York Black Yankees, Homestead Grays and Philadelphia Stars.

May 24, 1941, Chicago Defender

So how did the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars fare? Despite the early blush of optimism experienced by the New Orleans faithful in summer 1940, the team did … OK. They finished the season at .500, with a mark of 22-22, placing them in fourth place in the seven-team NAL. Riddle led the team in batting at .377, and Smith paced the pitching staff with a mark of 4-3 and an ERA of 2.76. Riddle and Calhoun were selected for the 1940 East-West All-Star Game, while Smith pitched for the South in the North-South contest.

Of significance was the fact that the vast majority of the Stars’ home games took place in New Orleans, which validated the NAL’s faith in the Crescent City as a location for a big-league franchise (as well as highlighted the plummeting enthusiasm for the Stars in St. Louis).

Through the 1940 campaign, the Stars were somewhat streaky — they began the league season with a calamitous run of losses — and were never able to grab hold of a solid winning streak or make a serious play for the second-half NAL pennant. The June 22 Chicago Defender said the Stars “have caused many of the clubs that thought they were pennant bound plenty of trouble,” and in early August the Stars played the Baltimore Elite Giants as part of a four-team doubleheader in Yankee Stadium, with the New Orleans-St. Louis team winning 6-4, while the Memphis Red Sox topped the New York Black Yankees in the other game.

Another highlight, especially for the Big Easy’s fans, occurred when an exhibition by Olympic legend Jesse Owens — he won a race against, of all things, a motorcycle cop — punctuated a Stars doubleheader sweep over the Toledo Crawfords, who represented the shambling remnants of the once-great Pittsburgh Crawfords franchise. (Also of significance was who pitched against the Stars in one of the games — Johnny Wright, the native New Orleanian who would later play in the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system.)

An apparent rivalry ignited between the New Orleans-St. Louis club and their fellow NALers, the Memphis Red Sox; in early September, following the teams’ 3-3 split in a recent six-game series, Mitchell reportedly challenged the Tennessee team to a rubber-match series to determine the better Mississippi River squad team. Stated the Defender:

“A grudge series playoff for undisputed possession of second place is what Manager George Mitchell desires from the Red Sox management. He believes with the great spirit of rivalry existing between the two clubs, fans who witness the games are likely to see as much or better baseball than in a world series.”

Unfortunately, it’s not immediately clear if such a grudge series occurred.

The 1941 season started out fairly well for the Stars, whose big bats kept them lively through the first third of the campaign or so, while in June, Allen Page traveled to New York City to again attend the summer meeting of NNL and NAL executives.

The early part of the ’41 Stars campaign featured a barnstorming series of preseason exhibitions with the Chicago American Giants; the tour was scheduled to stop in several Louisiana locales, including Baton Rouge, Hammond and Monroe (now itself the unlikely home of a major-league team), as well as games in southwest Mississippi. In mid-season came a brutal, month-long barnstorming excursion for the Stars, during which the dual-home club flashed serious clout at the plate and rounded into shape on the mound after a rocky start to the season for the New Orleans pitchers.

Tom Parker

Another highlight was the mid-season signing of well-traveled slugger Tom Parker, a native of Alexandria, La., who had played several years with the Homestead Grays and most recently suited up for the New York Black Yankees. The Louisiana Weekly subsequently sang Parker’s praises in its June 7, 1941, issue, reporting that the new acquisition had clubbed three homers, two triples and six doubles since joining Allen Page’s aggregation. The publication stated:

“… Parker proved one of the best outfielders and greatest hitters in the Negro National League. He has also been used as a relief hurler and showed brilliant form on the mound. He possesses one of the greatest throwing arms in the game.”

The paper added that “[Parker’s] desire to be near home, because of business interest, gave the Stars an opportunity to obtain his services.” (Parker would later serve in the Army during the war and ultimately retire from baseball in 1948. He died in 1964 at age 52 near his hometown in Rapides Parish.)

In June the team went on a tear in the early summer — the Weekly described them as “[c]harging down upon the Negro American League leaders with vengeance in their bats and red pennants dangling before their eyes” — before hosting a familiar face at Pelican Stadium in mid-June.

Arriving in New Orleans for a doubleheader was Winfield “Lucky” Welch, another son of Louisiana whose professional baseball career began more than a decade earlier in N’Awlins. Welch was skippering the Birmingham Black Barons, the greatest, most storied Black baseball team in the South; he’d later lead the Barons to two straight NAL championships in 1943 and ’44. As far as the doubleheader at hand in June 1941, the Alabamians won the first game, and the second game was rained out.

In late June 1941, the Pittsburgh Courier reported on the Stars’ hot start, albeit with a touch of sarcastic skepticism. The paper stated:

“Reports trickling in from the road show that Manager Mitchell’s great aggregations, formerly known as the St. Louis Stars, and which has so impressed the sports scribes of the nation that many of them inevitably call them the St. Louis Stars or the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars or the whatchamacallits, are going great guns and setting up a terrific pace …”

But the team sputtered as the season wore on and finished in third place in the now-six-team NAL with a record of 17-24. Leading the aggregation at the plate was Wilson, who swatted .323 for the season, while McAllister paced the pitchers at a paltry 2-4 mark and a 4.88 ERA. Although the team enjoyed a solid season on offense, the pitching dropped off significantly from the previous year.

That was the second, and, as it turned out, last complete season enjoyed by the Stars during their time in New Orleans. The 1942 edition of the team never really got off the ground and folded early in the season, marking a substantial disappointment for Page, the team and their fans. The franchise reappeared in 1943 as the Harrisburg Stars in Pennsylvania, but that phase of the club’s existence also didn’t go well.

(As a side note in the Stars’ epilogue, George Mitchell bailed from St. Louis in 1945 as the last vestiges of the franchise collapsed and landed, coincidentally, as the manager of the Chicago Brown Bombers of the nascent but ill-fated United States Baseball League, the half-baked enterprise established by Gus Greenlee and Branch Rickey as a feeder Negro league for the Dodgers and, in Rickey’s hopes, the rest of Organized Baseball. Mitchell then signed on for the lasts gasps of another Black baseball franchise when in 1949 he became business manager of the NAL’s Houston Eagles, a rickety venture allegedly representing a new phase of the legendary Newark Eagles franchised forged by Effa and Abe Manley. Mitchell’s service in Houston lasted well less than a year. He died four years later in Sparta at the age of 53.)

The post-mortem on the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars read like the ones of other Negro American League teams over the course of the loop’s existence. The NAL remained weaker than the NNL for much of that stretch, and the franchises as a whole also proved a little less stable and permanent than those of the senior league. Clubs often came and went, some lasting just a season or two.

The Page Hotel on Dryades Street in New Orleans, where Allen Page conducted his many businesses, including sport promoting and team ownership and management. (Photo courtesy of Rodney Page.)

Such was the economics of Black baseball in the South, and Black baseball in general. However, the Stars time in New Orleans was nonetheless significant and, in hindsight, quite an accomplishment given the rough haul Southern teams faced compared to their big brothers in the North. It also must be kept in mind that for decades, no Major League Baseball teams existed in Organized Baseball in the South; while Negro Leagues teams like the Stars, the Birmingham Black Barons and the Memphis Red Sox did reach the top levels of Black baseball for several years on and off, the South only had minor-league teams in white baseball. (The first MLB team to lay down roots in the South was the Atlanta Braves, who moved to Georgia from Milwaukee in 1966.)

Rodney Page said that his father’s tireless efforts at promoting Black baseball in New Orleans, including the arrival of the Stars in 1940, left an indelible mark on the city, and a place of pride in Rodney’s heart. He said:

“I am continually amazed at my father’s many accomplishments as he transcended and excelled despite the shackles of the Jim Crow South and racism in America. I can only imagine the obstacles he had to face and overcome. I am honored to call him dad, and proud to be his son.”

While Allen Page deserves a book-length biography, I want to at least highlight his experiences following the Stars’ departure and as his career in New Orleans reached its twilight. The esteem, admiration and appreciation the city held for Page was expressed in October 1950 with a testimonial dinner that, according to the Louisiana Weekly, “commemorat[ed] twenty years of faithful and successful services in the baseball promotion field and achieving a position as one of Louisiana’s leading sportsmen.”

At the event, Page received a bronze plaque, and the keynote speech was given by Grambling College (now University) President Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones. Music was presented by Mary Wilson (who was not the Mary Wilson of the Supremes), and live coverage of the dinner was broadcast on radio station WMRY.

Page moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s to be with family, and he passed away there in 1979 at the age of 80 (although some official documents list birth dates for him that would have made him in his later 80s).

In sum, Page’s philosophy on presenting New Orleans with the best the national pastime had to offer was illustrated in an interview he gave to the Pittsburgh Courier in 1944 for an article about a trio of blockbuster Negro Leagues games he’d booked for that fall. Page said:

“[A]ll three of these games are of big league caliber and will go over great in New Orleans, the biggest and best sports town in the South. The fans here have been so loyal and enthusiastic that I would not be doing them justice if I did not bring in the best teams and players possible.”

Now, as the 2021 Major League Baseball season unfolds and the nation gears up for more pennant races and the best the modern American pastime has to offer, the Negro Leagues enter a new era of fame and recognition.

However, Doswell urged caution and measured optimism when it comes to celebrating the Negro Leagues’ new presence in the Major League record books. He said much work still needs to be done in terms completing the accumulation, evaluation and integration of the complete statistical record of the Negro Leagues into that of Major League Baseball.

Doswell said much of segregation-era Black baseball’s statistical record needs to be uncovered and compiled. As a result of shoddy record keeping and spotty media coverage, countless Negro Leagues games and league standings have remained incomplete and hidden in history; what statistics that have been found and compiled so far are the results of the tireless investigative efforts of a handful of dogged researchers.

Also remaining to be ascertained and agreed upon is the exact process by which Negro Leagues stats will be officially and mathematically integrated in the MLB record books.

As a result, while MLB’s historic announcement last December was certainly cause for celebration, Doswell said, there is still much, much to yet be done — just as in American society as a whole. The nation, including its national pastime, continues to suffer the repercussions of racial oppression.

“I applaud Major League Baseball for recognizing that the fuller recognition of the Negro Leagues has been a gross oversight for many years,” he said. “They have begun the path of correcting that with this announcement. Still, the decision is nuanced, fluid and not a cut and dry decision or conclusion, because so much on the data side of this question has been lost to history. That’s part of the story of segregation in America.

“There are many historians who have been diligently working to piece more material together,” he added, “but we may never have a complete statistical record of even the finite scope of years this decision encompasses (1920-1948). As [MLB’s official historian] John Thorn told me, ‘History is a process, not a product.’ This story is ever evolving. We won’t have the satisfaction of turning to a book source to settle all bar bets and arguments on baseball history, but the Negro Leagues are now, as they should have always been, a greater part of the conversation.”

Leslie Heaphy

Rodney Page, son of New Orleans businessman and baseball kingpin Allen Page, expressed similar thoughts as Doswell’s. But he added that, as he can personally attest, those involved in the Negro Leagues in many ways never needed the validation of mainstream white America to remind them of Black baseball’s brilliance.

Rodney said that for him, as for the dwindling number of living Negro Leaguers and the descendants of the Black baseball legends of yesteryear, the Negro Leagues were and have always been great, imbued with the pride of those who toiled, then as now, to persevere and thrive despite the prejudice and oppression at Jim Crow’s hands.

“As a young boy growing up in New Orleans, and the Negro League environment, I always heard and remember the term ‘Negro Major League Baseball,’” Page said. “I’m not sure when the emphasis changed to just Negro Leagues. But, for me, it has always been Negro Major League Baseball. Those I grew up around, the players, managers, coaches and other officials, defined themselves as Negro Major League Baseball. They knew their worth, excellence and significance. Self-definition is a powerful tonic and statement of self-worth.

“Major League Baseball’s acknowledgment represents atonement and proper recognition for the Negro Leagues contributions to the game of baseball and our country,” Page added. “It is not just baseball history or Black history — it’s American history. The great work and consistent, bulldog determination of Negro League historians and researchers made it possible. Their efforts keep alive the memories, faces, and voices of so many who have gone before and remain worthy of remembrance and recognition.”

New book celebrates Hoosier hero John Merida

John Merida. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.)

Editor’s note: My good buddy and fellow Hoosier dude Alex Painter just followed up his outstanding first book, “Blackball in the Hoosier Heartland,” with another chronicle with a distinctly Indiana flavor, this one about John “Snowball” Merida, a key figure from Alex’s previous book. Merida was many things — a brilliant shooting star, a prototypical five-tool player and segregation-era standout whose brief but illustrious life trajectory would find him crossing paths with not only famed Black legends — like Sol White, Ben Taylor and Bud Fowler — but also a few white major leaguers.

The new book, “Baseball Immortal: The Odyssey of Trailblazing Slugger John ‘Snowball’ Merida,” is now available to the public (links to purchase it at the end of this post), and I highly recommend it.

The following is a lightly-edited email interview I conducted with Alex about his new book and the player who instantly became a favorite for Alex …

Ryan Whirty: What was the genesis of the new book? How did you first learn about and become interested in John Merida?

Alex Painter: In 2019, I decided to start what I thought would be a little research project about all the Negro Leagues baseball activity that happened in Richmond, Ind. (where I live). I was absolutely shocked to find no fewer than 125 games were played here in a span between 1907 and 1957. After discovering and logging all the games, I realized I should have also been documenting all the players as well.

Now with a new mission, I dutifully started at the beginning – an Oct. 2, 1907, contest between the Indianapolis ABCs and the Richmond Quakers (a local minor league outfit from the old Indiana-Ohio League). Looking at the ABCs box score, I began to log the players, and the leadoff hitter was catcher/second baseman John Merida. Merida was literally the first player in this registry — one that would grow to over 350 players. Needless to say, I had never heard of him, but noted that the local Richmond paper called him “the best hitter in independent company, not excepting (Turkey) Mike Donlin.” I thought that was pretty interesting.

So, I scampered over to Seamheads to learn more about him – come to find out he was from Spiceland, Ind., just one county over from Richmond. That immediately caught my eye (perhaps because my favorite history professor in college is a Spiceland native). Spiceland is a very small, rural town, and I was not aware there was ever a Black population there (I was incredibly wrong on this front). I wrote down his nickname, “Snowball,” thinking it was kind of quirky and interesting. I also quickly noticed that he died less than four years after the 1907 game in May 1911 and he was also buried in Spiceland. 

1907 Indianapolis ABCs (John Merida, top row, fourth from left. Image from the Indianapolis Freeman.)

Anyway, with all my Richmond findings, I felt that I could write a history of Negro Leagues baseball through the lens of a small Midwestern city, which became Blackball in the Hoosier Heartland: Unearthing the Negro Leagues Baseball History of Richmond, Indiana. The entire time writing the book, I kept circling back to Merida, and, based on what I was finding, I grew completely enamored with him. I began Baseball Immortal when I was maybe only halfway finished with Blackball. 

RW: What about him, his life and his career drew you to his story?

AP: In a literal sense, it is one that hits home geographically. Merida played all over Richmond, including at my alma mater (Earlham College) a few times. I discovered he played at ball fields less than a mile in both directions from my home. His story is distinctly East Central Indiana. The grandfather of Daniel Reid Topping (former owner and president of the New York Yankees from mid-1940s through the mid-60s) gave a sizable donation to Earlham in 1900 to build an athletic facility – which would become known as Reid Field. Merida was the first Black baseball player I could confirm played there, which he did in 1901.

Anyway, a cursory Internet search of John Merida turned up some incredible glass plate images of him posing with some of his white Spiceland Academy teammates from 1900. He was a mainstay at catcher. [There is] another [photo] at the annual Spiceland Field Day around the same time – John was the only person of color in the entire photograph of approximately 75-100 people. The images are just beautiful. I thought it incredibly interesting that of all the places where the high school team was integrated at the turn of the century, it could be found in Spiceland. I just remember staring at the photographs, completely taken by them. 

Merida with Spiceland Academy teammates. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.)

So, I did two things that were absolutely critical to my understanding of my subject: first, I read (then re-read) Paul Debono’s excellent history of the Indianapolis ABCs, who John suited up for regularly from 1907-09. Second, I packed my then-6-year-old son Greyson in the car and we drove to Spiceland in January 2020. The small town is only about 30 miles from Richmond. We walked around the grounds of the Spiceland Friends Church (the former Spiceland Academy), and we hoofed through most of Spiceland’s cemetery trying to find his grave. We finally found it, and the headstone, dedicated in 1976, called him ‘Baseball Immortal’. I was so hooked.

Come to find out, John’s grave was unmarked for 65 years. A gentleman by the name of Richard Ratcliff raised the money, designed and dedicated the tombstone – he would later become the Spiceland and Henry County historian. He is still living, and I presented him a copy of the book – he beamed with pride.

After tracking him and his family in census data, I found out that his mother was born enslaved in Virginia, moving to Indiana after the Civil War. John was born in May of 1879 – the actual date is lost to history. Spiceland, being an old Quaker town, was a major stop on the Underground Railroad. I mean, many of the town officials were helping harbor the runaways and creating subterfuge to help them escape north. So, after the Civil War, many of those formerly enslaved returned to the small town, knowing the attitude was incredibly progressive for the time. Though he was very imposing, 6-foot-1, over 200 pounds, he garnered the nickname “Snowball” since he was so friendly and a fan-favorite around Spiceland, particularly with the children. Win or loss, he was mobbed by the crowd behind the plate after each game had concluded.

While the backstory on Spiceland explained his membership on the all-white Spiceland Academy team (1895-1903) – I also tracked him on no fewer than six other all-white teams around East Central Indiana, including stops in New Castle, Montpelier and Dublin before he started with the ABCs in 1907. He was just too good not to be included on these white teams. During this time, he was an absolute star everywhere he played. The consensus was clear – if he were a white man, he would be in the company of major leaguers. He was regularly heralded as both the best catcher in the state and the best power hitter any one had ever seen. When he played semi-pro ball in Montpelier, he became the first Black semi-pro player on a white team in Indiana since [Baseball Hall of Famer] Sol White.

His career with the early Indianapolis ABCs, then owned by Ran Butler, was absolutely astounding. Playing the game while firmly entrenched in the Deadball Era, he slugged the baseball in a way that George Herman Ruth would popularize later. No hyperbole intended. He was gifted in every way on the baseball diamond – hitting for average, vast amounts of power, swiping bases, and playing sound defense (even after switching positions to second base with the ABCs). In 1908, he was called the “terror of all pitchers” by the Indianapolis Freeman. He was muscling the ball to all fields, and was probably among the fastest guys on the diamond – even at his size. There just weren’t any weaknesses in his game. To back the claim up, I logged every statistic I could find from every game I could find from every single game and compiled them – he was just amazing.

After his three-year stint with the ABCs, Merida went north to play for the Minneapolis Keystones in 1910. Despite having a belligerent, cantankerous owner (okay, he was pretty much an asshole, pardon my French) named Kidd Mitchell, the club still thrived, despite being practically ostracized from their home state due to Mitchell’s behavior. Chalk that one up to ace pitcher/manager “Big Bill” Gatewood, who somehow kept everything from falling apart.

In 1911, Merida decided to head west to play for the Kansas City Royal Giants, who were co-founded by “Topeka Jack” Johnson the season before. The Giants had an incredibly ambitious spring training tour in 1911 — spanning six Southern states and trekking no fewer than 3,000 miles. But, sadly, Merida never had the opportunity to play in a regular season game. He was admitted to the hospital on May 9, 1911, with symptoms of spinal meningitis before ultimately succumbing four days later. It happened just that quickly. Very similar to Addie Joss, who was roughly the same age and had died of meningitis just the month before. 

Muncie Evening Press, Sept. 3, 1902

After the obituaries (literally all of which made the claim he should have been playing in the major leagues), he was soon completely forgotten – relegated to the myth, lore and legend of Spiceland. After the founding of the Negro National League in 1920, many of the brilliant players from beforehand were greatly obscured or just forgotten. Buried in an unmarked grave for over six decades, John fit in the latter category. Thank God for Richard Ratcliff for keeping his story alive – my trail would have probably gone cold if not for him.

RW: What were some of the biggest challenges and obstacles you encountered when researching and writing the book?

AP: Man, honestly just the same I suppose as others who are trying to resurrect obscure or flat-out hidden stories – reading what seemed like endless pages of newspaper trying to gather the story … and even more to gather adequate context. Ryan, you know this as well as anyone, sometimes you write and have to be judicious about what to use because there is so much out there on particular subjects … other times you feel like you are inventing the wheel. That was what was easily most challenging but also equally exciting. Every find was exhilarating, every great game was cause for celebration. I knew I had a story – I just had to find more of it!

RW: What are some of the best anecdotes and nuggets of information about Merida and his life?

AP: How many Black catchers around this time were able to catch a major leaguer in a game? In 1904, while playing for the Krell-French Piano Company team, John (again as the only Black player on the team) regularly caught Jot Goar, a veteran of both the Reds and Pirates.

I had actually already plotted the entire book out before I found yet another amazingly cool chapter of John’s playing career; in early 1905, I had read a stray line out of a local paper that John received a contract offer for a Black baseball team in Cincinnati. Only after a deep plunge into the Cincinnati rags did I discover that John actually suited up for Bud Fowler’s Cincinnati Black Tourists that year! I was shook. I am a huge Fowler fan – I was so happy to find the association between the men. I may have been pumping my fists in the company of no one. Even though the Black Tourists fizzled after a couple months, I thought it was still amazing.

Indianapolis Freeman, July 11, 1908

As it were, Merida also played in the first Sunday football game in Indianapolis city history in 1906. Coincidentally, it was played at Northwestern Field, where the ABCs also played. He scored three touchdowns in the game for the Hoosier Tigers. After the game, someone wrote a poem to commemorate the occasion; Merida was listed by name.

Just to add to the legend a little bit here – he not only caught a former white big league catcher, he also hit a home run off a future Hall of Famer. In 1909, Merida hit a round tripper off then-pitcher Ben Taylor of the Birmingham Giants. Taylor would go on to a Hall of Fame career at first base, mostly for the ABCs. 

RW: How would you sum up the John Merida story — his personality, his prowess on the field, his life off the field and his legacy?

AP: Ryan, the guy was sensational – and the proof lies in the papers, statistics and the opinions of others. Shortly after a 1907 game between his Leland Giants and the ABCs, Rube Foster pointed to Merida and said, “When it comes to hitting, Merida is a dangerous man.” High praise, indeed!

For a Deadball Era player, I put his 1908 campaign against anyone of the time. I mean anyone. He hit the ball to all fields, and consistently over the fence. He played excellent defense (he’d play five different positions with the ABCs). He’d steal bases. In the latter two areas, he was a prototypical player of the era … in the offensive category, he was nothing short of a pioneer, playing a style of ball that would be popularized a decade after his death. I used the word “trailblazing” in the title of the book because that is exactly what he was. With very little hyperbole, we can think of him as akin to George Herman Ruth – just earlier and not on the same stage. 

“Snowball” Merida at Earlham College. (Photo from “Spiceland’s Black Heritage” by Richard R. Ratcliff.)

To me, the way he was described, he just seemed like a friendly, easy-going guy. He was very social – ABCs owner Ran Butler gave him a job working in his saloon in the winter of 1907-08. He was very popular among his teammates – they’d sometimes rib him from the dugout if he didn’t have a hit on the day – he’d wink or doff his cap at them, and then explode on the next pitch.

Unfortunately, he played during that time that I think can be chronically overlooked; Blackball before the advent of the Negro National League or other more organized leagues. The fact of the matter is John Merida was that good while playing for one of the very best teams he could hope to play for or had access to in the first decade of the 20th century. 

Stories like John’s really remind us that there is still so much to discover.

For more information or to buy Alex Painter’s new book on John Merida, check out here or here.

New novel explores link between baseball and blues

Michael Lortz’s new novel about baseball, blues and one’s soul.

Editor’s note: Baseball and the Blues. Are there any greater American creations? Nay, I say, and first-time author Michael Lortz has merged these two cultural pillars with his excellent new novel, “Curveball at the Crossroads.” The book unspools the story of JaMark Reliford, a young baseball pitcher who faces the premature end of a promising career and who, subsequently, receives an offer that might repair his arm but also take his soul.

Although “Curveball at the Crossroads” isn’t directly about the Negro Leagues, it reverberates with many of the themes that I attempt to critique on this blog — race, fame, legend and achievement — and that resonate with the future of baseball among the African-American community. In this lightly edited email interview, Michael and I discuss such topics, with a focus on the baseball and the Blues intersect and influence one another. People who know me know I love the Blues — it’s my favorite musical genre, especially Delta Blues — making Michael’s book a must-read for me and anyone else whose passions include the Blues and baseball.

Ryan Whirty: Where did the idea for the book come from? Describe how you developed the idea as a book project?

Michael Lortz: The idea for the book originated in 2012 when I wrote a short story that was basically the beginning and the end — a pitcher hurts his arm, makes a deal with the Devil, and has a confrontation. It was only five pages and was very influenced by Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I sent the story to several friends who told me it needed more. They said there was a concept that could be further explored and that I should get to writing. At the time, I was working as a government contractor in Afghanistan and after working my 12 hours a day, I had a lot of free time. And I missed baseball. So I dove into the creative world of my own baseball universe.

Michael Lortz

I put the story aside for a while when I went back to grad school. I edited a few scenes, but didn’t give it much thought. Then I sent it to Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports. Jay has been a good writing friend for a long time. He had some great suggestions and it wasn’t until the world slowed down during the pandemic that I was finally able to incorporate some of Jay’s suggestions and have a project I felt suitable to send to publishers.

As far as how the project was developed, I had the beginning and the climax already written from the short story. I like to say I had A and W written. The next part was filling in the rest of the story, the character development, the supporting characters, the dialogue, and the post-climax aftermath. That was definitely a creative challenge.

RW: How did popular folk tales and oral tradition about the history and development of the blues — especially the country blues tales found in the Delta — influence you to create a similar story, but for baseball? 

ML: I have been a Delta blues fan for well over 20 years. I made a journey to Memphis and Clarksdale in 2009, a few years before I started the book, that had a profound impact on my understanding of the genre. It went from music that influenced the rock I listened to, to a people that I knew and talked to. When you visit Memphis and then make that drive down to Clarksdale, Miss., and go to the Crossroads, there is a feeling there that is palpable. It is one of the poorest regions in America, but one that created a type of music that has an impact to this day. Visiting there helped me understand the paths that Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, BB King and so many more traveled. I was deep in both music and American social history.

The Crossroads at US 61 and US 49, Clarksdale.

Along with my trip to Clarksdale and Memphis, I also lived near the Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee, Fla. It is one of the last remaining juke joints in the South and an absolute gem of a place to see live music. It is a small club hidden deep in the woods outside of town. That idea that there is a crossroads and a small historical building nearby plays a big role in the book. As a matter of fact, I visited Tallahassee when the book was in early development. I thought it would be a good idea to swing by the Bradfordville Blues Club. While there, I pulled out my laptop and started working on the story. To this day, I swear I felt the spirits of the blues. I knew then I was on to something good. 

RW: When it comes to essential American creations and cultural foundations, the blues and baseball are two of the most prominent and fundamental. How do the histories of the two cultural pillars mirror each other, and where might they intersect?

ML: It is interesting to compare baseball to the Blues. While we can look at baseball’s predominant demographic of white men over 50 years of age and see their connections to the blues-influenced rock of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, these two pillars of Americana definitely go much deeper. Neither of these creations would be where they are today without the direct influence of African Americans. It is nearly impossible to tell the story of baseball or the blues without them even before the Civil Rights Movement. In music, we have Elvis taking so much from his Memphis roots, and in baseball, we have Dizzy Dean and others admiring the work of Satchel Paige and the Negro Leagues, watching what they were doing and learning.

I like your use of “fundamental” in this question. It leads me to think about the conservativeness of baseball and the blues. Each of these creations has rules that guide their rhythm. For baseball, it is the numbers — nine innings, three outs, three strikes, nine batters, nine fielders. There is a measured rhythm. Hence its fascination with statistics. Baseball is not as random, chaotic and uncontrolled as basketball, hockey or soccer. But in the measured world of baseball, there is always a story of people. Of winning and of defeat.

The blues is very similar. The blues is not a very complex musical genre. Twelve-bars, a few chords, a basic beat. The blues is almost as simple of a musical genre as we have in America. Stay in the rules or else it is not the traditional blues. But like baseball, in that measured element, is a story about people. Of winning and of defeat.

Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the Devil.

And we have seen people be very protective of the rules of both baseball and the blues. Almost to a fault. Baseball purists are very protective of the game. Blues purists are very much the same. You look at someone like Gary Clark Jr. pushing the limits of the blues and adding elements of soul and rock and hip-hop. Gary Clark Jr. is still very much the blues, even if he does a remix with rappers — which I can go on about a lot of hip-hop having much of the blues feeling as well. Meanwhile, in baseball, Fernando Tatis Jr. or Jose Bautista flipping his bat after a performance is not unlike Buddy Guy swinging a guitar around his neck or playing with his teeth. Showmanship isn’t something as routine in baseball as it in other sports, such as football or basketball. But maybe that needs to change.

As a writer, especially as a white male writer, I had to take all of this into consideration when writing “Curveball at the Crossroads.” As you know, my protagonist, JaMark Reliford, is Black. His family is Black. The folklore from which the story evolves is from Black culture. Just as I had to be detailed in my understanding of baseball nuances, I also had to be detailed in my understanding of blues folklore. Rightly, we live in a time when being authentic matters. From the nuances of the Delta to the nuances of a clubhouse, I had to be as detailed and correct as possible. I hope I did a good job with that.

RW: While the concept of “selling your soul to the devil” is perhaps most prominent in blues lore, the basic tale is found in just about all American pursuits. Why and how does it fit in with baseball and success at the sport?

ML: The most obvious answer to this is the steroids issue that plagued baseball throughout the early 2000s. Was the juice worth the squeeze for Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and many others? While they have amazing stats, the Devil could be that they might never see Hall of Fame recognition for their accomplishments.

“Neither of these creations would be where they are today without the direct influence of African Americans. It is nearly impossible to tell the story of baseball or the blues without them even before the Civil Rights Movement.”

As odd as it might seem, I never thought about steroids as the Devil until someone brought it up to me after the book was published. I was so into the Devil as a literal figure and not a figurative one that I was oblivious to the comparison. But it does make sense, although I am leery to make a direct comparison of JaMark Reliford to Roger Clemens, for example.

I also think there is something to be said about the commitment to the game that could be a Devil. The cost in travel and time and family in order to live that athlete lifestyle or make that athlete money. When it is all over, will there be a happy ending — both physically and mentally? What if playing professional baseball only means getting stuck in the Minor Leagues for 10 years with low pay in run-down stadiums?

RW: Aside from the blues influences, were there any actual people, places and/or events from which you drew inspiration? 

ML: Many. “Curveball at the Crossroads” is full of inspirations. As a matter of fact, that was probably the most fun part of writing the story. As the book was started in 2012, David Price‘s career was a huge influence on the career arch of JaMark Reliford. Dwight Gooden was an inspiration for JaMark’s repertoire of fastballs and curveballs (Gooden of course faced his own Devil through addiction, but that might be a whole other story). JaMark’s first Minor League manager drew inspiration from a sergeant I had during my time in the Army, a careerist with a no-nonsense approach to developing personnel. Dusty Polichardo, JaMark’s coach and friend, drew influence from Fernando Valenzuela and Tommy Lasorda. As I mentioned in an earlier question, Memphis, Clarksdale and the Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee definitely inspired me. The book is also full of announcer’s voices, where people such as Bob Costas, the Orioles’ Gary Thorne, who I grew up listening to, the Rays’ Andy Freed and Dave Wills, and my friends in Tampa radio were big influences. I was lucky enough to have two Tampa people, former Rays pre-game voice Steve Carney and news radio host Mabili Patro, provide their voices for the Curveball at the Crossroads youtube trailer

The Bradfordville Blues Club.

There are also many Easter Eggs throughout the book. There is a Snoop Dogg lyric, a reference to pro wrestling’s Iron Sheik, a Pee-Wee Herman reference, a Star Wars reference, a Casey at the Bat reference, a Field of Dreams reference, a Curious Case of Sidd Finch reference, and of course many, many Blues references. For example, it is not a spoiler for me to mention that JaMark Reliford shares a birthday with Robert Johnson.

The ending was also greatly inspired by a modern sports legend, but I don’t want to say more than that.

What was your goal in writing the book, and what is your hope for the impact it may have on the public and on the evolution of American folklore?

My goal is to make a ton of money and be able to retire after one book. I think that is the goal of every first time novelist. Of course, I don’t think that is going to happen. But I do hope my book can hold its own against other great baseball stories. I would like JaMark Reliford to be in the same pantheon as Sidd Finch, Roy Hobbs, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez and many other famous fictional baseball players. By combining these two American standards, I hope the book appeals to a wide audience. I hope it interests baseball fans in Blues folklore and interests Blues folklorists into different ideas for deals with the Devil.

I hope this doesn’t sound too pretentious as a white writer, but I also hope “Curveball at the Crossroads” can play a small role in reconnecting the Black community with baseball. African-American players make up a very small percentage of Major League Baseball players. Many of the best athletes from African-American communities are not playing baseball, either because of cost — travel baseball, etc., is very expensive — or because of lack of interest. I wrote my book because I thought it was a good story. In a way, “Curveball at the Crossroads” is my ode to baseball and the blues. It is my way of giving back to those communities and sharing my love for these pillars of American culture. If “Curveball at the Crossroads” encourages an increased love of baseball or Blues folklore in anyone, white or Black or any other background, I will be elated.

For more information about “Curveball at the Crossroads,” including reviews and how to buy a copy — go here. Thank you so much to Michael Lortz for approaching me about this gem of literary fiction.

Wright’s daughter remembers trailblazer on his birthday

John Wright in later life. Photo courtesy of Carlis Robinson.

Born in segregated New Orleans on Nov. 28, 1916 — exactly 104 years ago today — John, or Johnny, Wright rose through his school years in the Crescent City — some reports say he graduated from Hoffman High, others say McDonogh No. 35 — to become a professional pitcher for many years, beginning in the mid-1930s with the New Orleans Zulus and including big-league stints with the Toledo Crawfords and Newark Eagles and, most famously, the mighty Homestead Grays, for whom he served as an ace of the pitching staff in the 1940s, when the Grays were at their dynastic heights.

Wright — who was known as “Needlenose” by many fellow players, and as “Hoss” by his family — served in the Navy during World War II, playing for a service team at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station to entertain fellow sailors and soldiers, returning to his professional career at the end of the war.

Things then took an incredible career turn, when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him to a pro contract in January 1946, just three months after the Bums brought Jackie Robinson on board. The move made Wright, a hard-throwing righty known for pinpoint control, the second African-American player in Organized Baseball in the modern era.

The sky seemed to be the limit, but the lanky, unassuming Southerner — whom journalist Wendell Smith called “personal and likeable” in a column, and who was described by writer Joe Bostic as “[t]aciturn, almost to the point of complete silence” — struggled when given his chance in the spotlight, failing to make the Dodgers’ major-league roster and being demoted down through Brooklyn’s farm system. In particular, contemporaneous reports related that his famous pitch control flagged when trying out for the Dodgers and their farm system.

Johnny Wright

By 1947, Wright was back with the Grays, where he starred for several more years, and hopped around other clubs, including several in Latin America. He retired from baseball in the mid-1950s and moved back to his hometown, where he worked for the National Gypsum Company for many years before retiring. He lived in New Orleans for most of the rest of his life, only moving in his later years to Jackson, Miss., to live with his daughter and receive treatment for his flagging health. He died there on May 4, 1990.

Theories abound as to why John Wright couldn’t quite make it on the big stage; some observers felt his formative years in Jim Crow Louisiana made his shift to a white team and integrated situation jarring for him, while other pundits believe that, quite simply, he wilted under the scrutinous baseball microscope, unable to adjust the the intense pressure.

“Wright was a good pitcher,” wrote Hall of Famer and longtime Grays teammate Buck Leonard. “He had a good curveball and everything and could throw the ball over the plate. He was as good as Joe Black, or maybe even better. …

“Johnny Wright had the ability to play in the major leagues, but that was only one part of it,” Buck added. “There was something else, too. Robinson stood up under the pressure and Wright didn’t. He just wasn’t able to stand the pressure and couldn’t take the things he had to take. I don’t think many people could have or would have.”

To judge Wright for his inability to stay in Organized Baseball should in no way be used to judge him harshly; as Buck indicated, the pressure bearing down on John and Jackie was unimaginable and severe, which in my mind is more a testament to Robinson’s own sheer will, grit and determination and less a reflection on Wright’s character or ability.

I recently came across an article by reporter Lisa Fitterman from March 1995 in the Montreal Gazette newspaper in which she evaluates the brief tenure Wright and another African-American pitcher signed by the Dodgers, Roy Partlow, spent with the Trois-Rivieres Royaux (Three Rivers Royals) of the Can-Am League in 1946. In the article, Fitterman sums up the grueling experience the New Orleans lad faced in Organized Baseball.

“Single, uneducated, prone to hurt feelings, accustomed to being called Jim Crow, a derogatory term first used in the 19th century to describe blacks, and to strict segregation in the U.S. South, Wright was not the best of candidates to toss into the ring with the lions,” she wrote.

Buck Leonard

But harshly judging Wright based on a single baseball season is unfair and just plain incorrect. In addition to starring and serving in the Navy, Wright posted a longer, arguably better career in the Negro Leagues than Jackie. Wright was the ace pitcher of one of the greatest baseball dynasties of all time, playing alongside greats like Leonard, Josh Gibson, Jud Wilson, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Vic Harris and Sam Bankhead.

John Wright was, quite simply, excellent, and it’s time he be remembered as such. His absence from several halls of fame — especially the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame — is criminal and needs to be corrected. Now.

For those of us baseball history researchers and enthusiasts, Wright is nothing less than a brave trailblazer, one who gave his absolute all for the sport he loved and excelled at, one whose courageous efforts helped open the door for integration and justice. In New Orleans, he is a legend, the equal of other Louisiana-Born Negro League stars like Oliver Marcell, Dave Malarcher and Willard Brown.

Today is Johnny’s birthday, and one person who does remember him is Carlis Robinson, Wright’s daughter. (No relation to Jackie.) Carlis is one of four children of John and his wife, Mildred. Carlis grew up with her family in New Orleans, graduating from McDonogh 35 High School before graduating from business college. She retired in 2018 as a registrar in the Fort Bend Independent School District.

Chicago Defender, Feb. 9, 1946

Carlis is the last surviving child of John and Mildred; she now lives in Texas. Carlis works to keep her father’s memory and legacy alive, and she and I connected on Facebook recently. In recognition of her dad’s birthday, I asked her about her memories of John as a father and family man, and how her father regarded his baseball career as he got older.

Below is the short email interview:

RW: How would you describe your father and his personality? What were some of the things that were important to him?

CR: My dad was mild mannered and very laid back. He loved family, friends, food and drink. There was always someone in his home. Later in life, especially after retirement he loved fishing. 

RW: Did your father talk much about his baseball career? How did he view his time in professional baseball, including his days playing for New Orleans teams, the Grays and the Dodgers organization?

CR: He never brought it up when we talked, but if I would ask a question, he would respond. He felt very blessed to have had the opportunity to play in the Negro Leagues and to have played with and against some of the very best. He didn’t complain about not staying with the Dodgers’ organization. Instead, he continued playing in the Negro Leagues and winning championships.

RW: How did he view his baseball career? Did he look back on them fondly?

CR: He spoke fondly of the other players and held them in high regards. Several of them continued to correspond with him even after he left the game. He told me that he had no regrets because he had his chance. I found out after his death that he had memorabilia and shared stories with his physical therapist while recuperating at home. He was proud of his career and accomplishments.

RW: What do you think defined him as a father, and what are some of your biggest memories of him as a dad?

CR: My parents divorced when I was very young. I am the youngest and only surviving child. Therefore he wasn’t always around. But if you were able to speak with my two oldest siblings, you would probably get a different answer. They were born during the peak of our dad’s baseball career. However, daddy was around for those special occasions in my life such as baptisms and graduations, etc. My family and I visited him whenever we were in town. My best memories are when he used to take me (as a kid) to the park to watch him practice baseball. That was daddy and me time. 

RW: How important were his roots and time in his hometown of New Orleans to him?

CR: Very important. He entertained a lot at home and seldom traveled. My grandparents only lived a block away. I suppose that he had traveled enough between the Navy and baseball in both the summer and winter leagues.

RW: What do you think your father was proudest of, both in terms of baseball and his personal life?

CR: In baseball he was viewed somewhat as a celebrity locally when he was signed with the Dodger’s Montreal farm team. Personally he owned his own home. And bragging on his kids. 

Amsterdam News, Nov. 24, 1945

RW: Did he talk much about his time in the Navy? How important was his time in the service to him?

CR: Daddy was proud of his service. He said that he learned Spanish through his travels. He also played baseball for the Navy team.

RW: What are the things you most remember and treasure about him and his life? What do you think is his legacy, in terms of baseball, life after baseball, and as a father and family man?

CR: The memories all over the place. His nickname was “Hoss.” But I was always “Lil Chicken.” It makes me smile to this day. Dad always had something for you to eat, and he was probably the smoothest person I know in speaking slang. He left some items from his career and travels.  Those gave me a different perspective of John Wright, husband and father.

Our family may have not been traditional, but as a family we had some good times when we all got together. That’s what I will always remember. As for his legacy, truly the second Black man signed to a major league team should never be forgotten. Somehow his story has been lost.

I still don’t understand why his home state has not inducted him into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. I came across a book entitled “NEGRO YEAR BOOK.” The preface of the book speaks about how it includes prominent Negroes of the time. John Wright was listed in the book. And when I contacted the MLB organization, they emailed around 85 pages of information about him.

Many thanks to Carlis for taking time to speak with me for this post. I’m very grateful for any and all help and input I receive working on Home Plate Don’t Move.

Despite his struggles in organized baseball, Wright possessed a character that was quiet, humble, hard-working and optimistic. He was a committed family man who always dedicated himself to his team and his sport — whether it be at McDonogh 35, Newark, Pittsburgh, Latin America, Quebec or the Great Lakes Navy Base — his entire life, a life that has garnered respect, admiration and a lasting legacy as a baseball legend.

Pittsburgh Courier, Feb. 9, 1946

To wrap up this article about Johnny Wright, here’s a couple quotes from late winter 1946 from a pair of columns from Baltimore Afro-American columnist Sam Lacy, a personal hero of mine. The comments reflect why Johnny Wright is a hero in his own right and deserves to be recognized as such.

Here’s the first excerpt, in Lacy’s words, from March 1946:

“Wright, too, is doing a fine job of pioneering. Like Jackie, he has asked nothing from the other men on the squad.

“He has taken his gruelling [sic] running chores without a whimper, has worked seemingly endless sessions of covering first base from the pitching mound. He has chased bunts and sweated flies in the outfield, all with the zeal of determination that sooner or later must pay dividends.

“Wright doesn’t boast the college background that is Jackie’s, but he possesses something equally as valuable — a level head and a knack of seeing things objectively. He’s a realist in a role which demands divorce from sentimentality.”

Here’s the second quote, spoken by Wright himself to Lacy in February 1946. His words reflect his belief that regardless of how he fares in his own career, other players of color who follow will benefit from the trails that he, and Jackie, were blazing:

“I feel that there will be more and colored boys getting a chance in professional sports now that the first step has been taken. I expect to keep trying to do my very best, because I know I only got this far by plugging.”

Appendix:

If you have a few extra minutes, here’s the text from an article in the Feb. 9, 1946, issue of the Louisiana Weekly that came out the week after Dodgers GM Branch Rickey signed John Wright to a contract:

“Sports fans and citizens were elated to learn of the announcement last week by Hector Racine, president of the Montreal Royals Brooklyn Dodger farm team, that John Wright, 1705 St. Peter St., is the first native New Orleans Negro to be signed to play ball with a major league club.

“Wright, this week, began his preliminary workouts and training on the Xavier University diamond.

“Upon being interviewed, Wright said: ‘I am very happy to be the second Negro that will have an opportunity to play major league ball. I will do my utmost to come through and I wish to thank all of my friends who have been pulling for me.’

“Wright was recently discharged from the Navy. While at the Navy’s Great Lakes Training Center in 1944, he was a member of the first all-Negro varsity in the history of the Navy. In the same year he helped to win the Mid-western Service Championship.

“In 1945, Wright transferred to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he won the third Naval District Championship. He was also a member of the Floyd Bennett Naval Air Force team.

“Wright has been playing since 1932 when he was a member of the Hoffman High School team. John says that the greatest thrill of his baseball was when he defeated the Chicago White Sox by the score of 9-0 last year. He also has a victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. His last game against a major league club was with the Boston Red Sox.

“After about four weeks of training here, Wright will leave for Florida in March where he will join Jackie Robinson of Los Angeles, the first Negro to sign [a National] League contract. E.J. Ducy and J.B. Spencer, two prominent Negro ball players, are working out with Wright at Xavier.”

The San Jacinto Club in New Orleans

The sign from the San Jacinto Club, now on display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. (Photo by the author.)

I do solemnly promise to abide by the Charter, By-Laws, Constitution, Rules, Etc., governing the San Jacinto Social and Pleasure Club for the promotion of its welfare to the best of my ability, so help me God.

Members’ Oath for the San Jacinto

In kind of a spinoff on my earlier series about Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9 and Eddie “Kid” Brown, I’ve been wanting to post something about one of the places at which Brown engaged in some of his boxing matches, the San Jacinto Club.

One of the many social aid and pleasure clubs that were scattered throughout New Orleans over the last 200 years — the most famous probably being the still-going-strong Zulu Club — the San Jacinto was a facility and an organization that encapsulated just about every facet of African-American life in New Orleans in the early- and mid-20th century.

As such, it became one of the cornerstones in the Black community in the Big Easy; not only did it offer social service programs, but it also provided athletic, educational, political, activist and fellowship opportunities for African Americans who’d been shut out from segregated white society.

In a way, then, it was very much like Negro League baseball — and, in fact, the San Jacinto Club periodically fielded a baseball team that took on other amateur, club and semipro Black squads in New Orleans.

But more on that a bit later.

Courtesy Amistad Research Center.

The club’s philosophy was outlined in its charter, which was issued Nov. 7, 1905, with legal approval from Orleans Parish District Attorney James Porter Parker and notarization by public notary Robert Legier. Stated Article II of the charter:

“The objects and purposes for which this corporation is organized are hereby declared to be the cultivation of literature and science by the establishment and general increase of a library, of well assorted and standard books for the free use of of the members of the club, by the establishment of a reading room, supplied with the leading periodicals, magazines, reviews and newspapers of the day, whether scientific, literary or political, to be opened at all suitable hours of the evening, to the use of the members of the club and their guests, without special charge therefor [sic], and secondly, the regulation of social intercourse and amusement among the members of the club, by rules framed after consultation and by mutual consent, to promote enjoyment, harmony and refinement of manners, intellectual improvement and the moral, mental and material welfare of the members.”

The charter named the club’s first slate of officers: W.R. Dubuclet, president; Edward Brugier, first vice president; Charles Stanberry, second vice president; George DeGruy, recording secretary; M.R. Roudez, financial secretary; and A.B. Callioux, treasurer. Callioux, meanwhile, was a painter.)

(I did some cursory research on those gentlemen, and all them were skilled or professional tradesmen, which reflects the type of middle-class Creoles whom were sought by clubs like the SJC. Both Dubuclet and Roudez were coopers. Brugier and worked as a porter, while Stanberry was also a railroad freight handler. DeGruy worked as either a tailor or bricklayer; I couldn’t pin that down for sure.

The entrance to the San Jacinto Club, circa 1920s. (Photo by Villard Paddio, from the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.)

The club constitution was adopted concurrently with the charter and further established the by-laws, rules and regulations, including an age requirement (members must be between 18 and 60 years old); an admission fee of 50 cents, and monthly dues of 50 cents (or about $12 today); and a monthly regular meeting and an assessment meeting.

Then, the club by-laws also provided the authority of a club committee to establish the athletic program, which eventually included boxing teams and matches, as well as baseball teams. Stated Article XIV:

“This committee shall be composed of five members to be appointed by the President whose duty it shall be to take charge of everything pertaining to Athletics in which this club may be interested to promote contests and make rules governing same among the members and to see that all paraphernalia belonging to this department is always in good condition. A written agreement must be signed by the two presidents before any article is rented from the club so as to know who to hold responsible for said article.”

(At the end of this post I include some more details about the club constitution that reveal and highlight the importance the San Jacinto — like other such social aid and pleasure clubs in New Orleans — placed on honor, education, uplift and community wellness.)

Now, a basic history … Organized in 1903 and incorporated two years later, the club swelled to more than a thousand members — mostly middle-to-upper-class Creoles of color — and found its permanent location at 1422 Dumaine St. by the Twenties or so, and in 1922 it opened a sprawling, completely refurbished clubhouse at that spot in the Treme neighborhood. The two-story structure included office space; a ballroom, dance floor and concert auditorium with a 3,000-person capacity; a reading room and library with 2,000 books; a bar and social club; and a gymnasium.

The opening of the resplendent structure received significant press in the national media, including the Chicago Defender, whose Nov. 2, 1922, issue regaled the paper’s readers with a lush description of the New Orleans black community’s new jewel. The paper stated that San Jacinto members “are exhibiting their new club quarters with much pride. They claim that there is nothing else like it in the country.”

“Today 112 feet through the city block of Dumaine street, between Marais and North Villare streets,” the paper added, “has risen the San Jacinto’s new home. Two stories above the basement, which has been built into a large and handsome dancing floor and club hall, rests the most complete and modern Colored club house in the entire South, and equaled by few in the far North.

“Here in new and shining quarters, at their hands every modern convenience to facilitate their work and pleasures as well, the hundreds of men who are members of the San Jacinto can find comfort a plenty.”

The library of the club, circa 1920s. (Photo by Villard Paddio, courtesy of the Hogan Jazz Archive.)

An example of the club’s political activism and social-awareness campaigns took place in February 1930, during Eddie Brown’s early boxing heyday at the San Jacinto. Late that month, “a monster mass meeting” slated at the club building to organize a push against oppressive Jim Crow voting laws that robbed thousands of Black Louisianians of the vote. Reported the Feb. 22, 1930, Louisiana Weekly:

“At this meeting plans will be gone into and discussed concerning retaining an attorney to represent the group in attacting [sic] the damnable registration law as it is existing in the state at the present time.

“Speakers of the various civic organizations will address those who are present, and as this subject is a vital one, every one is requested to be present.”

The San Jacinto Club had deep pockets to fund all of this activity and to build and maintain its mansion-like clubhouse — by 1926, the club held assets of about $83,000 (real estate, equipment and cash balance), or roughly $1.2 million in today’s dollars.

Most contemporaneous and modern sources report that the San Jacinto was best known, locally and nationally, as a music venue that for three decades hosted balls, dances and concerts that attracted the best of New Orleans Black society. Countless musical acts played at the hall over the years, from early jazz bands in the 1920s to blues shouters like Ray Charles and Big Mama Thornton and local legends like Professor Longhair, Smiley Lewis, Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew and his scorching band. The hall also hosted recording sessions, most notably jazz greats like Bunk Johnson, who had influenced Louis Armstrong.

There was more, too, according to a Web site by radio station WWOZ (itself a New Orleans institution), making the club a locus of African-American life:

“Often, other black social organizations and promoters rented the hall to put them on — it was one of only a few venues of its size for black audiences under segregation. There were dances, balls, soirees, and battles of the bands. Baby Dolls and Mardi Gras Indians, groups who mask for Carnival, held functions here, too. For decades, the space was central to black social life in downtown New Orleans.

“The building was put to other uses during daylight hours. The traditional brass band drummer Lawrence Batiste told documentarian David Kunian that his backyard abutted the club, so he copped free lessons by listening to bands rehearse there during the day. The American Federation of Musicians Local 496 — the black musicians union — held meetings in the hall in the 40s before establishing its office on North Claiborne Avenue.”

Over the years, a slew of other events, soirees, gatherings and fundraisers took place at the San Jacinto Club, including commemorations of the efforts of free Creoles of color in the Andrew Jackson-led Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812; meetings and fundraisers of the League for Civil Rights and Justice; banquets of the Merry Makers Social and Pleasure Club; and anniversary dances of the Dukes of Windsor Club.

The club’s occupancy of 1422 Dumaine St. continued until 1957, when the structure was vacated by the San Jacintos. The site then went through other uses, such as a nightclub, until the structure was purchased by the city, then destroyed by fire in January 1967. The building was bulldozed and eyed as a possible site for a cultural center. However, eventually the location — and several city blocks around it — became what is today the famed Louis Armstrong Park straddling the French Quarter and Treme.

Cornerstones and other portions of the San Jacinto Club structure have been saved, however, including the hall’s iconic sign, which today is on display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

The boxing ring/gymnasium. (Photo by Villard Paddio, courtesy the Hogan Jazz Archive.)

But there’s something else significant to note: the San Jacinto Club not only hosted some of the best “colored” boxing in the South, it had its own athletic teams, including boxing clubs for various age groups.

As outlined in my previous posts about the Secret 9, multi-sport athlete Eddie Brown laced up the gloves for a little neighborhood pugilism at the San Jacinto, but an army of other fighters stepped into the ring at the club.

I’ve obviously previously noted Eddie “Kid” Brown’s appearance in the San Jacinto ring, and I’ll highlight a few other pugilistic encounters around the same time Brown was at his peak. One comes from 1932 — I think it does, but I was a knucklehead and didn’t write the date on the hard copy I have — when the Louisiana Weekly reported on a multi-bout card at the club, the spectators at which displayed the typical liveliness and passion as they crowded around the ring.

The newspaper, as well as the crowd, dissed the top fight on the card, a frustrating draw between Young Jack Davis and Angelo Brown. The publication wrote that the Brown-Davis scuffle “topped a good card at the downtown club. Except for the main bout, which was roundly booed by the crowd, the other decisions were favorably received.”

Louisiana Weekly, Oct. 3, 1936

The article then states that “[a]fter the fights the large crowd wended its way down to the night club dance held in the club’s spacious dance hall and given by the boxers and gym boys.” Such a multi-stage, multi-activity slate of entertainment was common for clubs like the San Jacinto, but this club, whose building covered a full city block, had everything under the same roof, amazingly.

The Jan. 16, 1932, issue of the Weekly reported on a similarly boisterous card of fights at around the same time. The paper was sure to relate the sentiments of the spectators in the San Jacinto arena:

“A card of exhibition bouts were well booed at the San Jacinto arena Sunday evening, when all but two were converted into petting parties, the fighters embracing and patting each other affectionately upon the cheeks. …

“If the card was saved the credit rightfully belongs to Young George Godfrey and Chester Jones, two guys who would run the chance of starving just to fight. …

“And, oh boy, what a performance they gave. They mixed it willingly all the way, slugging, boxing and furnishing delicious dessert for a sour meal. The crowd went wild when the hands of both were hoisted, giving them a well-earned draw.”

Or in July 1936, the San Jacinto Club was ground zero for the launch of an ambitious venture in regional pugilism — a training academy and amatuer boxing tournament led by a local promoter, Jackie Elverillo. Stated the Weekly:

“What might be considered the greatest accomplishment in the local sports world in many years by any individual is the progress of the amateur boxing game revived here some months ago by one well known young man who is a professional fighter by trade and answers to the name of Jackie Elverillo. Elverillo, with his battling grounds in the San Jacinto A.C., has done remarkably well with his 25 or 30 ambitious fight-craving young men whom he trains daily. Jackie has done so well that he has worked up an inter-city amateur boxing tournament with Houston, Texas to be staged here in New Orleans … If this affair proves a success it will be known as the Negro Southern AAU Boxing Tournament.

“As it is Elverillo’s desire to have the best amateurs available to represent this proud Creole City, he will stage a city-wide elimination tournament in the San Jacinto Club that will run three Sundays. …”

The club’s boxing activity also played a significant role in the summer of 1938, when the San Jacinto launched a massive expansion and improvement campaign after a down period of dwindling membership and sagging finances. Now at the club, according to the July 9, 1938, Louisiana Weekly, “many debts left by previous administrations have been taken care of and the club is on an upward trend. …

“A huge drive is on now to swell its membership and among other improvements, the famous San Jacinto Arena, which saw the making of many top-notch fighters, has been enlarged to seat 2000 people. Paul Gray, fight manager, is the general manager of the arena and gymnasium, and A. Graber is [the] boxing instructor. Regular weekly boxing shows will be conducted.”

Testifying to the complete social and cultural experience the San Jacinto (as well as other social aid and benevolent organizations in the city) offered its members and the community at large, the newspaper added that the facility also “houses a reading room and has a large auditorium where dances are held, many big orchestras of the country having appeared there. It also has large reception parlors.”

Undated ad, 1922

But coming back to the subject of this blog — Black baseball history, of course — here’s an overview of the hardball program offered now and again by the San Jacinto Club. While America’s pastime wasn’t nearly as big as boxing at the club, and while there’s much less record of the San Jacintos’ baseball exploits, there are some accounts of their games.

In September 1916, for example, the San Jacinto’s baseball aggregation worked its way into the pages of the Chicago Defender, which reported the club’s five-inning, 4-3 win (rain shortened it) over the Lion Baseball Club, which the paper called “a fast and clever game that was marked by sensational fielding. …

“The largest crowd of the season turned out to see the two teams play at the Fair Ground’s Jockey Club. The feature of the game was Woods’ stealing home with the winning run. The San Jacinto Club has won 25 and lost 5 games this season.”

Although it was a rare occurrence, the club’s hardball team popped up in the city’s daily newspapers, such as in June 1921, when the New Orleans Item ran a brief about the San Jacintos’ 10-8 loss to the Crescent Stars at Crescent Park. “One of the biggest crowds of the season witnessed the game,” the Item reported. 

Then, in June 1922, a newspaper ad trumpeted an upcoming doubleheader at Bissant’s Park; Corpus Christi squared off against the home San Jacinto Club in the first scrum, with the Bissant Giants to play the winner in the nightcap. (I’m not sure if the park and team with the Bissant moniker is related to the great Bissant family, a prominent Black family in New Orleans that featured several outstanding, accomplished athletes, most notably John Bissant, who starred in multiple high school sports — most prominently baseball, football and track — before shining at local colleges. John’s athletic career culminated with stints with the Birmingham Black Barons and the Chicago American Giants in the 1930’s and ’40s.)

The 1930 season seems to have been a busy one for the San Jacinto men. In April of that year, the squad clobbered the St. Raymond Giants church team, 21-7. I’m going to quote the news brief in the Louisiana Weekly about the game, and just as a matter of probable obviousness, one of the names in the article is a coincidence. The paper stated:

“Led on by Cy Young [not that Cy Young, of course], who cracked out three thriples [sic] and a single in four trips to the plate, the San Jacinto Club nine walloped the Saint Raymond Giants by a record 21-7 score, last Sunday. Bob Mannee poled out a homer fro [sic] the New Orleans team, while Godo smashed one for the Saints.”

A month later, the San Jacintos made the short road trip to LaPlace, La. (maybe maybe 30 miles to the west of New Orleans), where they schooled the hometown White Sox, 9-3. Per the Weekly:

“‘Squatty’ Washington mastered LaPlace’s White Sox the second consecutive time, when he took ’em over 9-3 Sunday afternoon.

“The little right-hander pitched for the San Jacintos and was helped by two round trip smacks by a player whom the arthur [sic] of the article dishonored by merely giving his nick name [sic], ‘Bow Row.’ The player plays second base and poled out his second homer with the bases drunk. The writer likewise omitted the player that swatted a four-bagger for LaPlace, simply calling him ‘Spucks.’”

That jargon and slang and use of nicknames is one of the things I love about sports journalism in the early-to-mid-20th century, especially in the African-American press. It just brought a colorful, familiar feel to the prose and commentary.

Chicago Defender, Sept. 16, 1916

When the San Jacinto Club didn’t appear to have an active baseball team itself, it was still playing a key role in the New Orleans Black hardball scene, as was the case in April 1938. While the ’38 season was getting off the ground, one of the city’s baseball kingpins, “Creole” Pete Robertson, called together other New Orleans baseball leaders to a meeting at the San Jacinto Club “for the purpose of organizing a state baseball league,” according to the April 2 issue of the Weekly.

Robertson, stated the newspaper, was “recently appointed director of the South Central Zone of the US Amateur and Semi-pro Baseball association.” I’m not sure completely what that is, and I’m not going to delve too deeply into that. But it does reflect Robertson’s influence in the city and Louisiana.

Several managers and executives of various squads descended upon the San Jacinto for the meeting, including representatives from the Reserve Mixtures, Hammond Red Sox and New Orleans Black Pelicans and the Crescent Stars of New Orleans.

Reported the April 9, 1938, Weekly:

“Various talks were made on the merits of the league in the state of Louisiana and those present expressed their willingness to take part. Mr. Robertson, acting as chairman, announced that the final meeting would be held … April 14. All teams desiring to enter the league must be present and have their entrance fee at the coming meeting.”

I haven’t been able to find out what exactly happened after that in terms of Robertson and the proposed state baseball league, largely because the various archives and libraries that have the Louisiana Weekly’s complete run on microfilm haven’t been open for months.

But you can see that the San Jacinto was a significant social and economic hub for Black New Orleans, especially in terms of athletic exploits. I’m sure that as I continue to explore the New Orleans Black baseball scene, more reports about the San Jacinto Club, its offerings and its athletic representatives will filter in. The organization was a small but important part of the complex, rich tapestry of African-Americans sports and life during segregation, and its full place in that tradition is still out there to be discovered.

**********

The exterior of the club, 1956. (Photo courtesy the Ralston Crawford Collection of Jazz Photography.)

APPENDIX

I just wanted to add a few things from the San Jacinto Club, namely stuff from its charter, by-laws and constitution, because they really, I feel, show what the organization stood for, and what social aid and pleasure clubs did for the Black population of New Orleans.

Possibly the biggest mission of the San Jacinto wasn’t athletic pursuits; it was providing financial help to its members and family, especially when a member was sick or passed away. It was sort of a private insurance cooperative in which much of the members’ dues and fees was used to aid members and families in distress — health care if they were ill, funeral expenses if a death had occurred. The club also offered a version of a pension system for older members.

This is the club By-Laws’ Article XI, titled “Relief Committee” (the language is verbatim):

… Each member of this committee must within (24) hours after being apprised of a member being sick in his district he shall notify the President of this committee who must bestow continual attention to the sick members as soon as he has been notified that a member is sick and confined to his room. He shall go immediately to the residence of said member or as soon thereafter as possible. He has the full power and the responsibility to draw on the Treasurer for the pension of a sick member, provided, said member furnish a doctors certificate from the physician in attendance which must specify that said member has been sick and confined to his room seven (7) days. Each member of this committee must visit each member at his charge at least twice a week. Each member of this committee must visit each member of his district as soon as he is called upon. In case of death of a member it will be the duty of said committee to proceed together and carry out the law relative thereto. Each member of this committee must exercise strict surveillance on each sick in his charge and see that the sick is confined to his bed or room [or] otherwise declare his pension null …

The exterior, 1920s. (Photo by Villard Paddio, courtesy of Hogan Jazz Archive.)

And this is Article XIII of the By-Laws, providing for after-death services (also verbatim):

“In case of death of a member the club will be notified by the family of the deceased and the club will show particular respect for him by having the flag at half mass [sic] and a tax of 25 cents will be imposed upon the members of the club and within the shortest time possible after the meeting of said collection remit to whomsoever has been designated by the deceased as his beneficiary. Should there be no designation the club will not recognize any claim with the exception, if said member does not belong to any other organization and same can be proven, the club will dispose of said collection for the burial of said member. As soon as the President shall receive notice of the death of a member he shall go to the family of the deceased and offer the service of the club.”

The other facet of the SJC’s purpose and function was the strict rules by which members were required to abide, ensuring that all members were refined, gentlemanly, upstanding citizens at a time when Black citizens of New Orleans were trying to earn equal standing in society. Club members felt that one way to achieve that equality was “proving” to whites that Clack residents were upstanding citizens who deserved respect.

Hence the strict club rules. Here’s Article XII of the SJC Constitution:

“Any member who will commit a dishonorable act and be proven guilty of same shall be expelled from the club and can never become a member of said club.”

Some of the more particular requirements included:

  • All members entering the club parlors must be wearing their coats and take off their hats;
  • Expectorating on club floors, i.e. hocking loogies, was banned;
  • “Members shall not sit themselves on the front porch without their coats on. Louid, vile and boisterous talking or sitting on the banisters is strictly prohibited. Members wishing to enter the club and not wearing a coat must enter by the gate”;
  • Members who weren’t competing in any game — I’m guessing cards, chess, etc. — couldn’t interfere in the game.
  • “Any member entering the club rooms intoxicated and making himself otherwise boisterous, fighting or destroying the property of the club shall be liable according to the offense to a fine of 50 cents to $2.50 or be expelled.”

Negro Leagues managers and the Hall of Fame

 

Gentleman Dave Malarcher

According to Baseball Almanac, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown has inducted 23 people primarily as managers. However, only one of them, Rube Foster, is from the Negro Leagues (or even just African-American). With the doors of the HOF cracking open again to folks from Black baseball, there’s been little, if any, discussion about possibly inducting some Negro League managers.

But there needs to be.

If the Hall of Fame, as well as the larger baseball zeitgeist, is ever to achieve a full measure of diversity, justice, inclusiveness and historical accuracy, then the people who guided and shaped the abilities of players like Josh Gibson and Willie Wells and Bullet Rogan, and then molded them together to produce winning teams, deserve recognition and respect as well.

There would be no Homestead Grays dynasty without Vic Harris skippering the squad, and the Chicago (and later Cole’s) American Giants wouldn’t have remained a title-winning powerhouse after Rube Foster’s tragic departure without Dave Malarcher’s steady hand and strong principles.

Larry Lester, multi-book author, SABR award-winner, longtime co-chair of SABR’s Negro Leagues Committee, and friend and mentor Larry Lester said it’s time to give Black baseball managers their due.

Author, colleague and friend Alex Painter added simply:

“Managers in the Negro Leagues remain among the most criminally-overlooked constituency in baseball history, particularly when analyzing Hall of Fame inductions.”

“Great managers like CI Taylor, Candy Jim Taylor and Vic Harris labored behind the color curtain of inopportunity,” he said. “As we celebrate the Centennial of the Negro Leagues, let’s pull back this curtain and expose their deeds and contributions to every field of dreams. These men transformed how the game is currently played and re-shaped the attitudes of the naysayers.”

Plus this isn’t even to mention figures like Rube Foster himself — guys who excelled at multiple roles in the baseball world. Dick Lundy was a stellar manager, but many folks (including me) believe he deserves to be in Cooperstown for his playing career as an infielder. Buck O’Neil played, managed, scouted and served as an ambassador for the sport. And where do we even begin to describe, verbalize and quantify all the reasons that the incomparable Bud Fowler deserves induction?

As a result, below are brief commentaries by fellow Negro Leagues researchers, writers and fans about several Black ball managers and why these skippers deserve recognition in Cooperstown. What do you think?

C.I. Taylor

CI Taylor, by Geri Driscoll Strecker (also suggested by Ted Knorr)

[CI Taylor is Hall-worthy] for his role in professionalizing the game with the ABCs, setting the foundation for the Negro National League with sportswriter Dave Wyatt, sacrificing his own life to save the league at the 1922 winter meetings, and training many of the men who went on to become great managers themselves, including his brothers Jim, John and Ben; Dave Malarcher; Bingo DeMoss; and Oscar Charleston. I know I’m missing names here, but I don’t have a roster in front of me. When you look at the “family tree” of great Negro Leagues managers, CI is at the root of most branches. His influence is undeniable.

Candy Jim Taylor

Candy Jim Taylor, by Steve Kuzmiak

Candy Jim was one of four brothers to play in the Negro Leagues. His career as a player and manager ran the course of 44 years. In 1943, he led the Homestead Grays to their first Negro League World Championship. He managed for 30 years and is the winningest manager in Negro Leagues history with 907 wins. He died at the age of 64 in Chicago and was buried in an unmarked grave. That problem was rectified when a headstone was placed on his grave in 2004. Apparently, he was a World War I veteran as well.

Vic Harris

Vic Harris, by Will Clark

Vic Harris. A name that should be etched on a plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Anyone who leads his teams to eight pennants (six of them consecutively), while winning close to 70 percent of the games (Joe McCarthy, who is enshrined in the Hall, won eight pennants, but not quite 62 percent of his games), logically speaking, is a “no brainer” for Hall honors. Heck, it’s difficult enough to win even one time, but eight? That’s very rarefied atmosphere stuff. (Sure, Casey Stengel and John McGraw won 10 pennants, and Connie Mack  won nine, but none of them even won 60 percent of their games.)

Additionally, you’re also talking about a guy who had a lifetime batting average of .307 for that 25-year career, which is pretty darn good. It isn’t easy maintaining that kind of average for that long. Oh by the way, he also batted .364 against MLB pitching, so he was “the real deal.”

Nobody in Negro League baseball history comes close to Harris’ eight pennants won (no MLB manager EVER won six straight). He also played in six East-West All-Star games, and managed the East squad eight times (four more than Oscar Charleston, who ranks second on the list of East-West All Star game managers).  All in all, it’s high time that Vic Harris receives his long overdue Hall of Fame honors. 

Winfield Welch

Winfield Welch, from a 2015 article at myneworleans.com

The headline is unequivocal in its assertion. The Sept. 16, 1944, issue of the New York Amsterdam News, one of the country’s leading African-American newspapers of the time, makes no bones about it.

“Baseball’s Top Pilot Is Winfield Scott Welch,” blares the headline.

And why shouldn’t the Black media have made that conclusion? Welch, who lived and breathed the national pastime, had just guided the Birmingham Black Barons — a squad with no superstars or future Hall of Famers — to their second Negro American League pennant using guile, strategy and a knack for getting the most out of his players.

In the days before the integration of America’s sport, when the country’s African-American baseball talent was forced to form their own teams and leagues if they wanted to pursue the game they loved, Winfield Welch was on top of the world, a so-called player’s manager, one who endeared himself to all his hardball charges.

 

Dick Lundy

Dick Lundy, by Alex Painter

Dick Lundy, also known as “King Richard,” enjoyed a baseball career that spanned over two decades, spent mostly with the Bacharach Giants in Atlantic City, N. J. A dynamic ballplayer in every sense, the switch-hitting Lundy sported a .319 career batting average, logging more hits than other shortstop in Negro Leagues history excepting a pair of Hall of Famers in Willie Wells and John Henry ‘Pop’ Lloyd.

As prolific of a hitter Lundy clearly was, his defense somehow dazzled even brighter; possessing perhaps the best infield arm in Negro Leagues history, paired with incredible defensive range, he registered the fourth-most defensive “runs saved” of any player in any position.

It was his natural leadership ability and cerebral approach to the game that led him to be named team captain/manager for the Giants while Lundy was still in his mid-20s. Lundy led the Giants to consecutive Eastern Colored League titles in 1926 and 1927 as player/manager (though his Giants lost to the Chicago American Giants both years). In 1934, Lundy was named the manager of the East All-Star team, with the likes of Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, Rap Dixon, Jud Wilson and Cool Papa Bell rounding out the roster. They defeated the West All-Star team in a 1-0 ballgame. 

Lundy continued to manage after his playing career was over, taking the reins of Newark Eagles from 1938-1940, finishing just two games behind the Homestead Grays for the league championship in 1939. Complimenting his stellar play on the field, only six managers in Negro Leagues history won more games than “King Richard.” 

Gentleman Dave Malarcher, by Ryan Whirty

Gentleman Dave Malarcher is my all-time favorite baseball player, regardless of color, league or era. Aside from the fact that he was born and raised in small-town Louisiana, about on hour or so from where I live, Malarcher was a Renaissance man who graduated from college, wrote poetry, became a civic and community leader, served in the military and combined grace, sportsmanship, competitiveness and braininess, on and off the field.

He went from a dependable, steady infielder who learned about teaching, coaching and winning baseball from the feet of the master himself, Rube Foster. As a Chicago American Giant in the 1920s, Malarcher soaked up every lesson Rube imparted, so much so that when Foster’s life began a tragic slide downward from health issues, Dave was able to step up and fill such massive shoes.

As a manager himself, Malarcher played Rube’s brand of hustling, crafty, savvy, gritty “small ball,” and, in so doing he guided the American Giants to three league pennants and two straight Negro World Series titles. He skippered the storied franchise almost continuously from 1926-34, always preserving Rube Foster’s legacy while also forging one of his own.

Lon Goodwin

Lon Goodwin, by Bill Staples Jr.

Alonzo “Lonnie, Lon, L.A.” Goodwin is a worthy candidate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame for his unparalleled career as the only Negro Leagues manager to make his mark in Asia before WWII.

His West Coast ballclubs dominated teams of all ethnicities during the 1910s, and he managed the perennial favorites in the California Winter League during the 1920s. He then led several Transpacific Goodwill Tours of the Philadelphia Royal Giants to Asia and the Hawaiian Islands during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Historians on both sides of the Pacific credit Goodwin’s tours as major influences for the start of professional Japanese baseball in 1936. Goodwin led teams on international goodwill tours in 1927, 1931, 1932-33 and 1933-34, traveling for an estimated 517 days and over 42,000 miles.

A native Texan, as a player Goodwin competed as a pitcher and shortstop with the Austin Reds, and later joined the Waco Yellow Jackets where was teammates with Andrew “Rube” Foster. Notable players who competed on Goodwin’s teams include: Oscar Charleston, Andy Cooper, Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, “Bullet Joe” Rogan, “Rap” Dixon, Walter “Dobie” Moore, George Carr, Carlyle Perry, Lemuel Hawkins, Hurley McNair, Frank Duncan, O’Neal Pullen and Connie Day.

**********

With that, how does the Hall of Fame itself view the possibility of inducting more Negro League managers? And what might the process of selection and voting look like pertaining to such candidates? I inquired to the Hall of Fame for comments on or explanations regarding such matters, and, with the assistance of Director of Communications Craig Muder, here are some thoughts by Jon Shestakofsky, the institution’s Vice President of Communications & Education.

(I included the entire comment verbatim because I was worried that any paraphrasing by me might misinterpret or omit key details or lose the important nuances of such an important, complex process.)

Said Shestakofsky:

“The Hall of Fame does not play a role in the nominating or voting process for election. While retired players are first evaluated by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, retired managers move straight to the Era Committee process. Each Era Committee ballot is constructed by a veteran group of baseball writers called the Historical Overview Committee and consists of 10 players, managers, umpires and executives whose greatest contributions to baseball were realized during one of four time periods.

“A 16-member Era Committee then convenes to consider the candidates on the ballot, with any candidate receiving a vote from at least 12 members of that committee (75 percent) gaining election to the Hall of Fame, to be formally inducted during ceremonies the following July.

“All former managers with 10 or more years in baseball, and retired for at least five years (with the exception of candidates who are 65 years or older, who are eligible six months following retirement) – including those from pre-Negro Leagues, the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball – remain eligible via the Era Committee process. Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues candidates are next eligible for consideration in winter 2021 via the Early Baseball Era Committee.

“In addition to those Negro Leaguers elected via various Veterans Committees, the Hall of Fame convened a Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues, which selected nine candidates between 1971-77, and the Special Committee on Negro Leagues, which in 2006 elected 17 Negro Leaguers after a multi-year evaluation and voting process that included the foremost historians on the subject of African-American baseball.

This Committee’s work resulted in substantial research that provided new statistics and information about individual careers in the Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues eras, which was utilized by experts in the topic in making their voting decisions. The newfound material from this wide-ranging research study further resulted in the publication of a book, Shades of Glory, which traces the dramatic history of Black baseball from the Civil War to present day.”

The Hall of Fame

I also asked about the lack of African-American managers, in general, in the Hall of Fame, and why more Black post-integration managers haven’t really come up for consideration. (One Facebook friend rightfully suggested Cito Gaston, for example, who won two World Series with the Blue Jays in 1992 and ’93.)

Shestakofsky offered the case of the legendary Frank Robinson, a second-generation, post-integration African-American Hall of Famer. Robinson presents an interesting case because, just like the aforementioned Negro Leaguer Dick Lundy, he excelled as both a player and manager.

Shestakofsky said:

“When considering Frank Robinson, who was inducted in 1982 during his sixth year as a big league manager, please note that each candidate’s entire contributions to the game are a part of Hall of Fame evaluation. For that reason, Robinson’s role as a trailblazing MLB manager is considered a significant part of his Hall of Fame legacy. While Black managers make up a relatively small percentage of total managers in Major League Baseball history, eligible candidates continue to be considered by the Era Committee processes as these groups consider all candidates for potential Hall of Fame election.”

This returns to the point about how many baseball greats, regardless of color or era, accumulated careers that included multiple roles — player, manager, executive, representative, etc. — that, taken collectively, support his or her candidacy and possible induction at Cooperstown.

In terms of segregation-era Black baseball, the example that immediately jumps out in Rube Foster himself, who played so many crucial roles in the development, popularity, viability and legacy of the game that he stands today as the Father of the Negro Leagues.

Sol White

Another already-inducted example is Sol White, who, over the span of several decades from the late-19th-century to the early-20th-century, excelled as a player, manager, team founder and, later on, as an author, journalist and historian.

And that brings us to the longstanding elephant in the room — no, not the Denver White Elephants, the continued lack of induction for Buck O’Neil.

Buck has a prestigious award named after him, and a permanent, bronze, life-size statue of him greets all visitors to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

However, O’Neil has yet to be actually elected to the Hall as an inductee, which many fans and observers view as a near-tragic omission that must be rectified, post haste.

 

The Buck O’Neil statue

True, Buck O’Neil might not merit induction based solely on his career as a player, and he might not merit induction solely as a manager. He was certainly very capable and accomplished in each of those roles, but perhaps not enough to get over the election hump by themselves.

But Buck’s impact on the tradition and history and research of Black baseball history moves beyond his batting average or winning percentage. As an ambassador of the Negro Leagues and of baseball as a whole; as the driving force behind the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; as a commentator and source for journalists; as the author of the seminal book, “I Was Right on Time”; as the first African-American scout in MLB history … his overarching role in the Negro Leagues and Black baseball’s preservation is absolutely undeniable. Buck more than merits induction under the tag of contributor or something similar.

Another such case from segregation-era Black baseball is, of course, the ubiquitous, the enigmatic, the incomparable Bud Fowler. The 19th great was truly a Swiss Army knife of America’s pastime, a guy who could do it all — and quite frequently did.

 

Bud Fowler

Fowler’s exploits are too numerous and storied to go into here. Suffice it to say, he was recently selected as SABR’s 2020 Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legend. While that designation hasn’t guaranteed eventual HOF induction, it did happen for one previously winner — third baseman Deacon White, who received the SABR honor in 2010 and was subsequently elected to the Hall in 2013.

Several of the other previous 19th Century Overlooked Legend recipients, such as Doc Adams (2014) and Jim Creighton (2019), have generated a groundswell of popular support for Hall membership, much like Fowler.

However the cases of Buck O’Neil and Bud Fowler will remain for another day …

Two final notes. First, another of my own personal Hall of Fame suggestions, Dizzy Dismukes, will hopefully be addressed in a later blog post, because in my mind, he was a next-generation Sol White — player, manager, journalist, scout — and as such deserves special mention at some point.

Second, as Kevin Deon Johnson pointed out, Seamheads has produced a quantitative listing of the best Negro League managers, by the numbers. Check it out here.

New Orleanians on the Canadian Prairies

The 1937 Broadview Buffaloes

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a multiple-part series on New Orleans Negro Leaguers on the Western Canadian Prairies.

I’ve stated a few times before that a good chunk of historical research and discovery comes along purely by chance — you’re looking into one subject or investigating a certain path of inquiry, and ka-blam! Something else completely unrelated pops its mischievous head up. That then leads to a steady uncovering of a tale all its own.

That happened several months ago as I was combing through microfilmed issues of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper here in New Orleans as part of my research about Eddie “Kid” Brown, a member of Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9 semipro baseball team and successful local boxer in the 1930s.

While doing this, I stumbled across a short article on the Sports page from June 2, 1938, with the headline, “Local Diamond Stars Shining in Canada.”

Nestled amongst similarly brief dispatches about the Alexandria (La.) Black Aces’ win over the Ferriday (La.) All Stars and the upcoming New Orleans Sports-New Orleans White Sox’ upcoming clash at the Crescent City diamond, the article about the Great White North discussed the exploits of local lads Freddie Ramie, Red Bougille, Lionel Decuir and “Bad News” Harris with the Broadview Buffaloes way up in the province of Saskatchewan.

The Louisiana Weekly article stated:

“Ramie and Bougille alternate in pitching and fielding. Both have been running up great records as pitches and due to their efforts, their team, the Broadview Buffaloes, are now leading the Southern League in Canada and seem headed for a pennant. Decuir catches and Harris plays first base.”

It added:

“In a doubleheader last week Bougille pitched the first game against the Senators winning 9-2 and Ramie hurled a twelve inning second game, winning by the close score of 8-7. All four boys are pounding the apple hard for extra base hits and are well liked.”

A couple months later, the Weekly ran a brief updating the situation in Saskatchewan, with a particular focus on Ramie. The article from Aug. 6, 1938, reported:

“From Broadview, Sask., comes the news that Freddie Ramie, son of J. M. Ramie, local letter carrier, is enjoying a brilliant season as a pitcher with the Broadview Buffs in Canada. He has compiled the good record of 9 wins, 3 losses and two ties. The Buffaloes have played 56 games to date, winning 43 and losing 10 and tying 3. The team has traveled over 4,000 miles during the current season. Young Ramie expects to leave Canada for New Orleans on August 15.”

A couple weeks later, in the newspaper’s Aug. 20 edition, sports editor Eddie Burbridge reported that the Jax Red Sox, a team in New Orleans sponsored by the Jax Brewing Co. and managed operated by longtime local Negro Leagues owner and entrepreneur Fred Caulfield, now had Ramie and George Alexander, another Crescent City native who had ventured north of the border, in the Jax lineup for a five-game city championship series with the New Orleans Sports.

Wrote Burbridge:

“Fans are in for some great baseball, as Manager [Clarence] Tankerson of the Sports is really pointing for the Red Sox. The Sox have been strengthened by the addition of Freddie Ramie and George Alexander, who have been playing good ball in Canada. The Red Sox play the Lafayette Red Sox in Lafayette on Sunday, August 28, Sunday, September 4, and Labor Day, September 5, play a Mexican Club at Pelican Stadium.”

Having stumbled on the local kids’ trip to Saskatchewan while perusing the Louisiana Weekly, I checked a couple newspaper databases on the Internet for any corresponding coverage in the Saskatchewan press from 1938.

The online adventure paid off when I found a bunch of articles from papers in Saskatchewan covering the Broadview Buffaloes that include writings about Ramie, Decuir, Bougille and Harris and their exploits for the Buffs in ’38.

Lionel Decuir with the Broadview Buffaloes

Bougille started Broadview’s home opener on the mound, and Ramie took the hill in relief. In addition, Decuir donned the catcher’s mask behind the plate. From there, the guys from the Big Easy played a huge role in Broadview’s stellar season, with reporters occasionally noting that the Louisiana imports were black, “colored” or antiquated adjectives like “dusky.”

In the June 2, 1938, edition of the Regina (Sask.) Leader-Post, sports columnist Dave Dryburgh relates how the Broadview management’s intensive scouting efforts had paid off by placing the Buffs “in a class by themselves.”

Dryburgh added:

“They’ve picked up a few dandies this summer and our guess is that rival Southern league clubs will have to do a spot of bolstering if they hope to stay within hailing distance of the Buffs.”

The article listed Harris (first base), Ramie (right field), Decuir (catcher) and Alexander (pitcher) on the roster.

A later article in the Post-Leader credited Broadview’s recruits for an easy Buffaloes’ victory in a day-long tournament that had attracted more than 2,000 spectators.

“It made the day just about perfect for main line baseball fans who are ready to wager next fall’s crop,” the article reported, “that the Buffs, with their sun-tanned imports, will clean up on everything around the countryside before the summer is over.”

The less-than-PC term “sun-tanned imports aside, the New Orleans players led the squad’s burst of talent. Similar effusive but cringe-worthy parlance filtered through a June 17 Leader-Post story previewing the upcoming weekend’s slate of contests; the article noted that much of the club’s core was composed of the NOLA fellows. It stated:

“In their first appearance in Regina this season the Buffaloes made a hit with a big crowd in taking a close decision over the [Regina] Senators. Their dusky sluggers from down Louisiana way are popular, and tonights [sic] crowd should be every bit as large.”

Throughout the summer, the Louisiana natives proved their versatility and adaptability. Ramie on the mound and Decuir behind the plate made up arguably the strongest battery for Broadview and possibly in the whole league, but when Ramie had a day off in the pitching rotation, he’d frequently play in the field, particularly in the outfield.

Bougille steadily and ably manned second base for Broadview, but he also appeared in the outer garden and occasionally pitched, while Alexander shined on the hill and Harris found time at first base.

The quintet of Louisiana lads was so good, in fact, that after a rocky start to the season, the Buffaloes pretty mowed down all of their competition by capturing several tournament titles, beating most of the barnstorming teams that traversed the Canadian prairie, and so outpacing the other teams in their league that the circuit closed up shop before the season formally finished.

Quite simply, baseball got boring in Saskatchewan thanks to the Louisiana-led Buffaloes, resulting in plummeting attendance throughout the summer as baseball fans lost interest in a race that was so clearly already won.

Penned Dryburgh in the Aug. 12, 1938, Leader-Post [irritating ellipses in original]:

“No doubt you have noticed that the Southern ball league has come to an untimely end … it just went phft …” he wrote. “… but it did seem like a good idea at the time and improvements can be made in the setup for next summer … for a while earlier in the year the loop caused some excitement as [the] Broadview Buffs failed to hit their stride but once they got to the front the Buffs killed interest by breezing to the wire … frankly, Broadview was too good for the league … but that wasn’t Broadview’s fault and the colored boys packed them in until the fans became accustomed to watching them win and commenced to stay home at nights … next year every club should attempt to important at least one good pitcher and a cleanup hitter … there’s a definite place for league ball during June and most of July … the good touring teams don’t come along until late in the summer.”

He added:

“On the whole it was a good ball season … the Buffs kept things humming at the various tournaments and the tourists that came along were of better calibre than in previous years …”

It’s significant that a sportswriter in the province heartily endorsed the recruiting of outside players by other Saskatchewan teams, and keep the presence of barnstorming teams in the area for a little later in this post.

So that’s the basic outline of the story — New Orleans guys win big in Canada in 1938. However, after a little more curious digging, other rivulets of information branching out from this central narrative slowly grew in number and size, eventually outlining quite a fascinating historical picture.

Bernie Wyatt, an historian of Canadian baseball, told me in an email interview that the Buffs — and their success on the field and at the gate — were a huge deal, significantly because they were in a largely agrarian area with a pretty sparse population:

“The Buffs were very popular on the Canadian prairies — covering the three provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — in the late-1930’s especially in southern Saskatchewan and apparently well-known as far away as Winnipeg, Manitoba, 250 miles to the east,” he said. 

They were also revolutionary in actively and enthusiastically seeking out ringers — especially ones from thousands of miles away and from very different demographic backgrounds, Bernie said. Competition was intense between town teams in a region where, aside from outdoor recreation, there might not have been a lot for locals to do. In the summers, baseball was king, especially at festivals, fairs and other hullaballoos that drew from miles around.

It was in this situation that the Broadview club excelled, with a good portion of that success attributable to the import from the American Deep South.

“Local communities wanted to win,” Bernie told me. “The money was in tournaments, and not so much in league play. The Buffs took a lot of tournaments on both sides of the international border. Bringing in the black ringers — who were a novelty to Canadians — helped Broadview win. Side bets were the thing. And I heard that Broadview kept winning to the point that the side-betters usually had to give odds, and not go even-up.”

The strategic tactic was so outside-the-box that the Buffs, according to current knowledge, “were the first fully integrated ball team in Canada,” Bernie said. He added that “t]he Buffs in any given game would often put three, four or five black ballplayers on the field.”

The Louisiana imports were much beloved by their host community, said Bernie:

“The Broadview community took [the Black players] in as their own, although Black people were seldom seen on the prairies except for the occasional Black barnstorming team that came through.”

Bernie also wrote this excellent article about the Buffs on his blog, for some more in-depth analysis of the legendary team.

(For a comprehensive — nay, exhaustive — look at the history of baseball in Western Canada, you have got to go to this site. Specifically, here’s the page on Negro Leaguers in the region, and, specifically, here for the home page about 1938, and here for 1938 game reports. I’ll be circling back to the Web site in future installments of the series.)

In 2017, the 1936-38 Broadview Buffaloes were deservedly inducted into the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame.

Jane Shury, who recently retired as president of the Sask Baseball Hall, wrote an article in May 2017 for the Battlefords News-Optimist newspaper about the honor being bestowed on the 1930s Buffaloes.

In the story, Shury — who had been with the Hall since 1983, when it was founded by her late husband, David Shury — relates how the squad might be one of the most significant teams in Canadian history because of its roster. She wrote:

“This was a very unique, powerhouse baseball team in Saskatchewan that research indicates as the first fully integrated team in Western Canada and perhaps Canada, which took place 10 years before Jackie Robinson burst onto the major league scene.”

A perfect summary for an amazing club.

Post-note: The next installment (hopefully in a couple weeks) will take a look at the New Orleans players themselves, their lives and their careers.

New Orleans and the NNL’s centennial

Wesley Barrow Stadium in New Orleans.

Editor’s note: Last week I had an article about the 100th anniversary on the Negro National League published in the Louisiana Weekly newspaper, for which I usually do hard-news reporting. Below is an enhanced version of the original article here; I needed to keep the original version halfway short and aimed at a general-interest audience, and it turned out well. Anyway, here’s the buffed-up edition, written for this blog.

Every season, Major League Baseball, its teams, its players, its managers and its administrators celebrate and honor the history and legacy of the Negro Leagues, the all-Black baseball community that thrived despite the shadow of Jim Crow in the national pastime.

Over the last few decades, MLB teams have welcomed former Negro League players for on-field ceremonies, and teams have worn throw-back jerseys during games, replicating the uniforms worn by Negro Leaguers.

But this year’s Negro Leagues memorialization, which took place Aug. 16, was different — the special day of celebration marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League, the first sustained, successful professional Black baseball circuit.

In 1920, a handful of trailblazers led by the great Andrew “Rube” Foster met at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City to create the NNL. While Black independent baseball teams and figures had existed and flourished for decades leading back to before the Civil War, it was the crystallization of the first NNL that proved to the globe that the world of Black baseball was dedicated, colorful, powerful and potent — at the gate, on the field, in the boardrooms and in the press.

Oscar Charleston

And while Major League Baseball chose Aug. 16 to official mark its 2020 Negro Leagues Day, those within the modern, tight-knit community of scholars, writers, journalists and fans have been celebrating the special anniversary all year long.

Dr. Raymond Doswell, vice-president and curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, said honoring the 100th anniversary of the first Negro National League means recognizing the cultural influence and uplift that baseball had in the Black community.

The creation of a stable league structure in 1920 allowed for baseball athletes to be nurtured in the African-American community,” Doswell said. “Imagine baseball history without a Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron. Would these athletes have gone to other sports? The stable leagues made it possible for them to compete at baseball.”

Doswell added:

“Baseball was arguably the prime leisure activity for Americans, and the success of the leagues’ athletes paved the way for integration in the larger society. The Negro Leagues baseball teams were also part of the many businesses that had to thrive to support African Americans during segregation.”

Dr. Leslie Heaphy, an author and member of the Negro Leagues Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research, said the creation and success of the NNL held special importance because it turned baseball into an economic force within the Black community and provided thousands of Black Americans — not just players — with both livelihoods and leisure.

The first league created a professionalism and structure that had not been there before,” Heaphy said. “It had a huge economic impact on the players and all the support industries throughout the country as the teams traveled. The teams and leagues became a huge part of the Black community — something for people to be proud of, role models, helping to grow businesses like hotels, restaurants, providing jobs for ticket takers, players, managers and owners.”

Independent Black baseball teams, like the Cuban Giants, Page Fence Giants, New York Lincoln Giants and Philadelphia Giants, had existed successfully for decades, the NNL and the formation of lasting professional leagues gave rise to the golden ages of legendary Black ball teams like the Homestead Grays, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Chicago American Giants, the Birmingham Black Barons and the Hilldale Club.

And while pre-1920 Black baseball saw the growth of outstanding players — such as Hall of Famers Frank Grant, Pete Hill, Sol White and Martin Dihigo — the formation of the NNL ushered in the golden age of Black superstars and eventual Hall of Famers like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Bullet Rogan, Buck Leonard, Ray Dandridge and Oscar Charleston, who some feel was the greatest player in baseball history — any color, any league, any era.

After 1920, different top-level Black leagues also formed, like the Negro American League, the Eastern Colored League and a second version of the Negro National League. Beginning in the 1930s, the Negro Leagues had their annual extravaganza of stardom, the colorful East-West All-Star Game, which drew tens of thousands of fervid fans to Chicago’s Comiskey Park each year.

And often each Negro League season concluded with a Colored World Series or Negro World Series between the champions of the top two leagues.

And that’s where New Orleans in particular enters the Negro Leagues picture. During the 1948 Negro League World Series — the very last one to be held — one of the games took place right here in Pelican Stadium. The Homestead Grays squared off with the Birmingham Blacks Barons in that curtain call, with the Grays taking the series and the crown.

However, New Orleans had always had a thriving, rich Black baseball tradition, going all the way back to the 1880s and even earlier, with early powerhouses like the New Orleans Pinchbacks. While New Orleans never really broke into the Negro League big time, the city’s unique geography and cultural melange helped foster a rich African-American baseball tradition in the Big Easy. Said Doswell:

Any place that had a large Black population helped to sustain great interest in baseball. Cities like New Orleans were an ‘oasis’ for traveling Black teams throughout the country, offering safe places for them to stay, vibrant congenial culture and fan support for their play.”

Derby Gisclair, president of the New Orleans Schott-Pelican chapter of SABR, agreed.

“New Orleans has a long and rich history of Black baseball dating back to the 19th century,” Gisclair said. “Black citizens of New Orleans took to baseball with the same fervor as their white counterparts, despite the disparity in resources, access and social acceptance.” 

The African-American players knew they were good, too. But the vast majority of them never got a shot in organized baseball to prove it.

“If they had given us the opportunity at a young age, I would have been in the National League or the American League,” former player Brooks English told Bob Fortus of the Times-Picayune in 1983. “We had good boys in New Orleans, and many of them would have been up there. We had it from the heart.”

The goings were, at times, not always easy in the Crescent City Black baseball community. Just like how even the biggest top-level national teams sometimes had to struggle at the gate, often resorting to exhausting barnstorming tours and a packed league and exhibition game schedule that was often jammed with up to eight contests a week, Louisiana’s African-American teams often had to scratch out what success they could.

“Exhibition games and barnstorming tours were well attended and financially successful,” Gisclair said, “but this did not always translate to success for the local Negro League teams trying to carve out a niche in New Orleans.”

Over the decades, New Orleans saw the rise of several independent team owners and promoters, such as Walter Cohen, a powerful political figure who owned teams in the 19th century; and Fred Caulfield, who ran the Caulfield Ads and the Jax Red Sox. Other popular teams over the years included multiple iterations of the New Orleans Black Pelicans, the Algiers Giants, the Crescent Stars, the New Orleans Creoles and New Orleans Eagles.

Famous local baseball individuals also left their indelible marks on New Orleans, such as manager Wesley Barrow, known affectionately city-wide as “Skipper”; and Winfield Welch, who rose from the sandlots of the Big Easy to manage the Birmingham Black Barons to multiple Negro American League titles.

New Orleans Black teams also figured heavily in regional professional circuits, including the Negro Southern League, arguably the greatest of the Negro “minor leagues.” The NSL was, coincidentally, also founded 100 years ago in 1920, and it featured, at various times, the Caulfield Ads and Algiers Giants.

Such teams provided thrills to spare to the city’s African-American population on a regular basis. At the risk of wandering off on an interminable tangent, I was to highlight the 1933 hardball season as an example of the rough-and-tumble Negro League action in the Big Easy.

Because there was a lot of intrigue mixed in with stellar play on the diamond. A lot.

During a season in which several top-tier Negro League clubs — like Cole’s American Giants, the St. Louis Giants and Nashville Elite Giants — stopped in New Orleans for preseason training camp games and/or postseason barnstorming tours, the city’s most powerful Blackball teams were the Crescent Stars and the Algiers Giants, both of who at the time were members of the Negro Southern League.

The scene also was crowded with other formidable teams, like the Metairie Pelicans, New Orleans Black Pelicans and St. Raymond Giants. But the main event all year long was the lengthy series of tilts between the Crescent Stars and Giants.

But the plot, as they say, quickly thickened. Local team owner, mogul and manager Pete Robertson was ousted as the head of the Crescent Stars, a mysterious and controversial development chronicled over four weeks by the Weekly. The coverage, naturally, raised the ire of the Stars’ management, causing a rift between the city’s leading Black newspaper and one of the NSL’s top teams.

Then the mighty Memphis Red Sox, stalwart members of the NSL, found their bus seized, apparently by court order, by the Crescent Stars, who claimed the Tennessee boys had tried to duck out of a tab the Sox ran up in neighborhood establishments while in town.

John Wright

In August, local stars George Sias and Edgar “Iron Claw” Populus, got into a scuffle after a game at Crescent Park in which one of them (it’s not clear which one) pulled a knife, suddenly throwing the squabble into mortal-danger territory. A mini riot erupted before things calmed down with no injuries. It seems the two were both enamored with the same woman.

After that it was announced that Robertson had now assumed control of the Algiers Giants, adding napalm to the fire raging between the Giants and the Crescent Stars.

Controversy at the league level further complicated matters, with the NSL administration having trouble determining a first-half pennant winner. The flag was ultimately given to the Red Sox, while the Crescent Stars used a late-season surge — including the domination of a crucial series with the Nashville Elite Giants — to nab the NSL second-half pennant and earn them a spot in what was billed as a Negro World Series against Cole’s American Giants of the NNL.

(The series wasn’t really a national professional championship, because the NNL was the country’s only “major league” baseball circuit, while the NSL was a step down in competition. That rendered the postseason “championship” season as essentially a series of exhibition games. It was designed as a big money-maker, not championship-taker, for all involved.)

The first game of the showdown series ended with an American Giants win, but in addition, the massive, overflow crowd resulted in the collapse of a set of temporary stands, sending dozens of fans tumbling. The season, unfortunately for New Orleanians, ended with the American Giants cruising to the “world series” title.

But I digress. The 1933 season was a wacky, topsy-turvy example of the colorful world of Black baseball in NOLA — murky intrigue, suspicion, grudges, league controversies, fired managers, team defections, top-tier visiting teams, court cases, knife fights and collapsing stands. Now that is a baseball season.

But anyway … Individual athletes from the New Orleans region thrived locally before graduating to national Negro League stardom: Oliver “Ghost” Marcell, arguably the best defensive third baseman in Black history who also had a terrible temper; outfielders Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport and John Bissant; “Gentleman” Dave Malarcher, a graduate of New Orleans University who eventually managed the Chicago American Giants to multiple NNL crowns; and Johnny Wright, a pitcher who signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers just weeks after Jackie Robinson did the same.

“Much like the deep reservoir of musical talent coming out of New Orleans who had to leave town to find success and acclaim,” Gisclair said, “the best Black baseball players also found success outside of their home turf.”

But undoubtedly the most important figure in New Orleans Black baseball history was owner, promoter and manager Allen Page, who parlayed his lucrative business at the Page Hotel to on several professional teams and become a power player on the country-wide Negro League scene. His influence in the city was reflected by the plaudits he received upon first entering the Big Easy baseball scene by buying the Black Pelicans in June 1932. Stated the Louisiana Weekly:

“At last they landed him. Time and again it has been rumored that Allen Page, successful hotel proprietor and sportsman, would play a major role in local colored baseball. A number of club managers have attempted to have him sign on the dotted line and purchase stock in their organization because of his popularity and general ability, but always the old boy slipped through their fingers like a will-o’-the-wisp. But Monday night Page came out, bought a half-interest in the Black Pelican team and an hour later drove to Texas to secure ball players who are expected to make the Pels plenty hard to beat.”

Page was eventually responsible for scheduling exhibition contests in Pelican Stadium with teams like the Chicago American Giants, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Kansas City Monarchs. He was often involved in the administration of the NSL, and he created and sponsored the North-South All-Star games, which ran for a decade starting in 1939 and served as a supplement to the East-West All-Star Game.

Wire service writer Haywood Jackson was usually on hand in the Pelican Stadium press box when the North-South battle was enjoined, and he was impressed from the start with the Crescent City’s ability to bring in top-tier Negro Leagues. In October 1940 following the second edition of the all-star kerfuffle, Jackson wrote that “the Dixieland classic concocted by Promoter Allen Page, [the] South’s foremost Negro sports modul, the North-South game this year stamped itself as a fixture in the sports log of the deep South.”

Two years later, in October 1942 after the fourth contest in the series, Jackson gushed:

“Promoter Allen Page, leading race sports promoter of the South, added another laurel to his wreath when he gave local fans the most colorful setting of any sports event staged.”

In 1940, Page reached the pinnacle of success when brought to New Orleans the city’s only entrant in any major-league-level professional baseball league, black or white — the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League.

It was in this atmosphere that Rodney Page was raised in New Orleans. The son of Allen Page, Rodney, a resident of Austin, Texas, has retired from a career in education and coaching. Not only did Rodney grow up in a household where numerous visiting baseball legends stopped for food and reminiscences — Rodney has particularly fond memories of Hall of Fame shortstop Willie Wells, a close friend of Allen Page — he also played junior baseball under the Skipper, Wesley Barrow.

Wesley Barrow

“Obviously New Orleans played a major role in Negro League baseball,” Rodney said. “It was a community, and for my father, it was a business. I’m honored that my father was so involved in that over the years.

“I’m just thankful my father had an impact,” he added.

Now, 80 years after his father brought New Orleans its only major league team, and 100 years after the creation of the NNL, Rodney Page strives to keep alive the memory of his father, the Big Easy’s Black baseball legends, as well as the overall legacy, brilliance and influence of the Negro Leagues. Rodney said:

“It’s important for people, particularly people of color, to remember [the Negro Leagues]. It’s such a powerful story, the whole journey of the Negro Leagues. So many people have forgotten. We don’t honor our stories enough.”

The Black baseball itself might have died a bittersweet death following integration, including the scene here in New Orleans. But the memory and the spirit of those times, both challenging and thrilling, were kept by the Old Timer’s Baseball Club, a successful organization of former players, managers and administrators from the New Orleans Negro Leagues.

Members of the Old Timers Baseball Club

Founded in 1959 by local hardball legend Walter Wright, the Old Timer’s Club thrived for roughly 30 years in the Big Easy, gaining a membership of several dozen guys who got together to reminisce, remember and relate the tales of their glorious but hard-earned past.

The group even held an annual reunion banquet and alumni game each year, in which two teams of still-spry ex-players took the field at the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood venue now known as Wesley Barrow Stadium. The annual event often drew some big names in baseball history, including eventual National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Willie Foster, one of the best pitchers in the Negro Leagues for two decades. Foster often trekked to New Orleans from Mississippi, where he worked as the Dean of Men at Alcorn State University.

In his coverage of the 1981 edition of the Old Timer’s game, Louisiana Weekly sports editor R.I. Stockard included an interview with Milfred Laurent, a local star in the 1920s and ’30s who spent a few years with top national teams like the Memphis Red Sox and Cleveland Cubs.

“I was born 50 years too soon,” Laurent told Stockard, who reported that about 250 alumni of New Orleans Black baseball attended that year’s banquet.

Laurent was inducted into the New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame that same year. He died at the age of 93 in 1995.

In his 1981 article, Stockard opined:

“To those skillfully talented Blacks of the pre-Jackie Robinson Era we can all say in ethnic unison — we know, not believe, but know that had you, Milfred Laurent and hundreds like you, been given the opportunity that Vida Blue, Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson, Maury Wills, Lou Brock, Dave Winfield, Reggie Jackson and all the others had, the record books of the major leagues would be replete with your names. And if not replacing the names and exploits of the Joe Medwicks, Billy Hermans, Ty Cobbs, Babe Ruths and Joe DiMaggios, surely there next to them.

“It was the social-economic-legal aberrations of the 20s, 30s and 40s that manifests itself [sic] in this denial of a segment to its citizens of equitable and just participation. Baseball was only one such example. And to those who denied the Milfred Laurents their day in the athletic sun — You are the losers and lesser men for it.”

Friends and peers tip their caps!

This year, as my readers might know, is the centennial anniversary of the founding of the first Negro National League by Rube Foster and a group of other ambitious visionaries. The year-long celebration gave rise to the fantastic “Tipping Your Cap” project, in which people from around the world have posted online photos of themselves tipping their hats to honor the big anniversary of a landmark moment in history.

The effort has drawn contributions by more than 100 million people across the globe, including a slew of politicians, athletes, artists, celebrities, journalists and businesspeople. The list of people who’ve chipped in include Michael Jordan, Henry Aaron, Billie Jean King, Tony Bennett, Rob Manfred, Tony Clark, Gen. Colin Powell, Stephen Colbert, George Will, as well as numerous Baseball Hall of Famers, current all-stars and even all four living former presidents.

“Today, I’m tipping my hat to everybody in the Negro Leagues who left a century-long legacy of talent, spirit and dignity on our country,” Barack Obama tweeted, for example.

George W. Bush stated, “When I was a kid, my favorite baseball player was Willie Mays. It turns out Willie Mays played in the Negro Leagues for a brief period of time. I can just imagine what baseball would have been like had the predecessors to Willie Mays been able to play Major League Baseball.” 

Here’s my modest tip of the cap, complete with Birmingham Black Barons hat. But let’s not linger on my ugly mug — here are some other friends, folks and colleagues giving their personal thoughts on the 100th anniversary of the NNL and what the Negro Leagues mean to them.

Some of the contributors here discuss their heroes, their research and their Black baseball passions, and some beautifully place the Negro Leagues in the context of history, society, culture and politics. Enjoy!

Kevin Deon Johnson

“What the 100th anniversary of the NNL means to me is a good opportunity to recognize baseball players whose talents were not widely recognized or enjoyed during their lifetimes just because of their skin color.”

Mitch Lutzke

“I purchased this Homestead Grays cap due to my two favorite Negro League players, Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson, being members of the club. I am also partial to Cum Posey as an owner, too.”

Ted Knorr

“The last victims of the segregation of baseball during the first are today’s baseball fans … the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League (and Negro Southern League) provides an opportunity to educate those very fans … one cannot know baseball history of the first half of the 20th century without a solid knowledge of the Negro Baseball Leagues … thus we tip our hats to the Negro Leagues and to thousands of today’s baseball fans.”

Dan D’Addona

“There are so many legends who were kept out of the major leagues simply for the color of their skin. The least I can do is tip my hat to remember them and hope that leads other people to do the same thing and learn something about these amazing players and their amazing history.”

Terence Scantlebury

“Honoring the 100-year anniversary by tipping my cap was easy. Throughout the years I’ve been able to talk and meet with a lot of players from the league. But there is one selfish reason I tip my cap — if it wasn’t for Alex Pompez in 1944 bringing my father to the States to play for the New York Cubans, I may have not been born.”

Leslie Heaphy

“Tipping my cap as a simple sign of respect to all who took part in any way. Want to encourage all to learn these amazing stories.”

Jim Overmyer

“The Negro Leagues were vital to the success of desegregation of the previously-white major leagues in the late 1940s and early ’50s. They established that Black players could compete at a high level, and produced the first round of players who integrated the majors.”

Rod Nelson

“Sitting on the back porch and enjoying the good life in Colorado after being gone for a dozen years, saying hey to all my friends in the Negro League research community while celebrating the centennial year and trying to avoid exposure to the virus and fighting fascism in our time. Yes, strange days.”

Will Clark

“My ‘Tip of the Cap’ is to honor all the men and women who were part of the Negro Leagues, from executives, administrators (and assistants) writers, umpires, players, stadium and ballpark help. I especially acknowledge, and honor, the contributions of those who played from one inning, one game, one month, one year, 10 years or seemingly forever, from the good, not so good, to the great and legendary. Let their names (and their memories) be recalled, remembered, and given the respect they deserved, and still deserve.”

Alex Painter

“Tipping my cap to all the legendary men and women of the Negro Leagues — particularly my heroes Luke Easter, John Merida and Quincy Trouppe. May your indomitable spirit live on forever.”

Mark D. Aubrey

“Tipping my cap to the 100th anniversary of Negro League baseball, specifically the Knoxville Giants.”

Kevin Kryeski

“Tipping my hat to the 100th anniversary of Negro League baseball and all those who played.”

Karl Lindholm

Karl submitted an article he wrote about the effort. Definitely check it out.

Also, Bob Poet put his neat spin on it:

“2020 is, already, an unforgettable year, As was 1920.
Only fitting we remember the Negro Leagues and their place in history.”

For articles on the Tipping Your Cap project, go here, here and here.

For coverage of the 100th anniversary of the NNL check this, this and this, as well as the pages for SABR, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, MLB and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Book examines double HOFer Cum Posey

Editor’s note: Homestead Grays owner Cum Posey is a member of two halls of fame, but he’s always been something of an enigma, someone with a long legacy and rich life, but until now there’s never been a comprehensive biography on the man who put together arguably the greatest dynasty in baseball history.

But friend, colleague and author Jim Overmyer wrote a just-released volume on Posey, Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays: A Biography of the Negro Leagues Owner and Hall of Famer, and it not only chronicles his career as a baseball kingpin, but it also delves into his life as a basketball trailblazer. Below is a lightly-edited email interview with Overmyer about his book and about the man who shined in two sports.

Ryan Whirty: What was the impetus for the book? What are some of the new details about Posey’s life that have been uncovered?

Jim Overmyer: When I finish a book, I never seem to have a real idea of what to do next – books are a lot of work, and I’m not inclined to begin something that will eventually peter out. Instead, I work on smaller things and wait for another (hopefully enduring) brainstorm to come along.

I was in that position after the publication of my 2014 book about the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants when Gary Mitchem, my editor at McFarland & Company, asked me to peer review William A. Young’s biography of Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson. It’s a fine book, the first one I know of primarily devoted to Wilkie.

I had always considered he and Posey ranked just below Rube Foster among Negro League owners, tied for second behind Rube, if you will. Like Wilkinson, Posey had never been the sole subject of a biography, even though they were both elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. I had done a paper on Posey about 20 years earlier, thought about his need for a definitive bio, and, well, here we go.

I’ve written a lot about Black baseball, and I’m hardly bored by the topic, but the two chapters that were the most fun to write were about Posey’s basketball career (he is also a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame), and his work as a leading official in his hometown of Homestead, Pa., which found him working for reform of the corrupt local government while always looking out for Homestead’s African Americans. 

RW: How challenging was pursuing the research and writing of the book? What were some of your biggest challenges?

JO: I was moving right along in doing my research and writing in 2016, even had an outline of the whole book down, when I opened my local newspaper one morning to find out Posey had been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. I hadn’t even known he was on the ballot. I knew Cum had been a star in early Black basketball, and he had played in college, and I was planning on devoting a few early pages to his hoop exploits.

But now, he’s one of only two individuals who belong to two American professional sports halls of fame (the other is Cal Hubbard, in the baseball hall as an umpire and the Pro Football Hall of Fame as an early Green Bay Packer). So followed a deep dive in a very short period of time into Black basketball in the 1920s, which was fascinating and produced one of the longest chapters in the book.

So far as generally researching Posey’s career, there was so much material floating out there that it’s a wonder a biography of him didn’t already exist. But there are two sources of information about him that you don’t ordinarily find when writing about older sports personalities. 

One was the years-long collection of columns he wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier, the influential Black weekly newspaper that his father, a prominent Pittsburgh businessman, had helped bankroll in its early days. Posey wasn’t a stylistic writer, but he had a good, straightforward style. His columns are packed with information on current events, black sports history and, always, his opinions. It is possible that the only person Posey ever completely agreed with was the fellow he saw in the mirror each morning when he shaved.

Cum died in his mid-50s in 1946, well before Bob Peterson, John Holway, Jim Riley and the other first-wave Negro League historians interviewed the prime figures in black baseball. But Posey’s columns in large part stand in for those interviews, albeit ones in which he essentially got to ask himself the questions.

The other source was the extensive correspondence he maintained with Effa Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles. They were both aggressive and hard-headed and had several public disagreements. But they were both good businesspeople with the best interest of the Negro Leagues at heart. Their business letters, preserved for posterity as part of the Eagles’ business files at the Newark Public Library, include many Posey observations that didn’t get into print.

Cum Posey (top row, far left) on the 1916-17 Duquesne University basketball team

RW: Much has been said and written about Cum Posey and his life in baseball, but it seems like his basketball career has kind of been overshadowed by baseball. Why do you think that is, and how would you summarize Posey’s career in basketball? Why is he so important to hoops history?

JO: It was true of all professional basketball in the early decades of the 20th century that it was a financially risky proposition for team owners. This, of course, was especially true for Black basketball. There were very good early black teams, particularly on the Eastern Seaboard, but it was never possible to organize them into a league. The national black champions were “crowned” every year by a consensus opinion among black sportswriters, who based their opinions on challenge series among the teams that held themselves out as contenders. 

Posey, using the management skills that made his Homestead Grays great in baseball, put together a basketball team in Pittsburgh sponsored by the prestigious Loendi men’s club that claimed the consensus crown for four consecutive seasons beginning in 1919-20. Cum was the team leader on the floor as well, using his speed to become a leading scorer and key defender. While his bona fides for the Baseball Hall of Fame are based entirely on his executive skills, both his playing and management abilities got him into the basketball hall.

By the time the Loendi team broke up in the mid-1920s, he was regarded as one of the best, if not the best, Black basketball players in the East. By the time Loendi’s star had begun to set, though, Posey’s team was suffering from lagging attendance and related financial shortfalls that had a lot to do with its location in Pittsburgh, which didn’t have the large core of Black fans that existed in a place such as Harlem or Washington. He downgraded his team to a local and regional one that adopted the Homestead Grays name, but never competed for a national title again.

It was also true that, just as Black basketball was on the ropes in Pittsburgh, the baseball Grays were on the verge of becoming nationally famous, so that is where his attention and resources were directed.

1930-31 Homestead Grays, with Cum Posey, standing far left

RW: How would you describe Posey’s management and ownership style in baseball? Why and how was he able to put together such a great team that was so successful for so long?

JO: From the time he first took control of the then-local Grays around 1915, Posey seemed to have a plan. John L. Clark, a Black Pittsburgh journalist who was a long-time friend, wrote when Posey died that “Cum was the first Negro I had ever known who had set out to make money out of baseball,” while others were treating it as a weekend diversion. Posey had remarkable executive abilities and a sharp eye for on-the-field talent, but what had most of all was patience. He really played the “long game” of baseball management.

He was the Grays’ leftfielder when the growing popularity of the team around Pittsburgh hit a snag. Due to his religious beliefs the field manager refused to play on Sunday, a day that semi-pro teams could make serious money. Posey stepped into the breach and stayed there until 1946. While he had business partners over the years, it was always clear who was really in charge. When Posey took over the Grays, they were a popular local team. Then, using streetcars and local trains for transportation, they branched out to play opponents in the suburban area around Pittsburgh. In 1924 Posey sprung for a pair of touring cars, which enabled the Grays to play all around Western Pennsylvania, as well as Eastern Ohio and West Virginia. Opponents included lower-level white minor league [teams] and teams sponsored by major industries such as General Tire in Akron

By the mid-1920s Posey was shopping for Negro League-quality players who were without a team or were willing to bolt their current team to play for the independent Grays, who were not bound by league anti-roster-raiding rules. Posey picked up a lot of stars this way and boasted that he rarely lost anyone to another team in return. Until the depths of the Great Depression, he said, the Grays made money every year and could outspend other black teams.

Posey was an excellent judge of baseball ability, helped by his brother Seward, who did a lot of scouting for the team. There are 35 people in the Baseball Hall of Fame who were elected for their exploits in the Negro Leagues or independent black ball before the leagues were formed. Twenty-six of them were active as players from the mid-1920s on when the team began to expand its lineup beyond its original roster of local players. Eleven of them eventually played for teams that Posey ran. That group includes Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Smokey Joe Williams, “Cool Papa” Bell and Jud Wilson, each of whom spent several years with the Grays. 

Posey the successful baseball businessman was admired, but not necessarily beloved, by his fellow owners. He deliberately held the Grays out of the Negro Leagues until 1929, although the team’s presence in a league would have boosted the league’s credibility and attendance. By remaining independent, he could set the Grays’ schedule, which grew to at least as many games each season as a white major-league team played, just as he pleased. He didn’t have to give up games against regional semi-pro powerhouses that were likely to net more profit than playing a Negro League squad. And, staying independent enabled him to pick through league teams’ rosters to keep the Grays’ talent level high. 

The Grays enlisted in the Black leagues when the manufacturing slump that preceded the Depression began to reduce the number of really good Western Pennsylvania semi-pro teams. Now, being a league member offered [a] better financial situation. (Posey still used loopholes to go after other teams’ players, just not as blatantly.)

The Grays survived the Depression, entered the second Negro National League in 1933, and by the middle of the decade had become a powerhouse squad. They won nine straight National League pennants beginning in 1937, depending on how one views the end of the 1939 season, when they finished in first place but lost to the Baltimore Elite Giants in a Shaughnessy-style playoff among the top four finishers.

A distinctive move made in the early 1940s was to establish the Grays in two home cities, their native Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., where the team drew exceedingly well at the American League SenatorsGriffith Stadium.

Posey, as John Clark said, had set out to make money in the baseball business, and was determined to do so. He jettisoned several local players in the early ’20s (including himself, the Grays left fielder) in favor of out-of-town stars. He constantly shopped other teams’ rosters for new talent. Although he would discipline his players for fighting on the field, as a manager he was a world-class umpire baiter, and occasionally would pull the Grays off the field and forfeit a game to show his displeasure with a supposedly bad call. He didn’t care about the fallout. As he said when criticized in the Pittsburgh sports pages for the lopsided scores the Grays were running up against local competition, “fans love a winner.”

RW: What is Posey’s place in Pittsburgh history, as well as overall American history?

JO: Posey has two distinctions from his (sort of) college days. Penn State honors him as its first African-American athlete, as he started on the varsity basketball team during the 1910-11 season before leaving school. Duquesne University also considers him its first Black athlete, since he starred for its basketball team, and played on the baseball team, from 1916 through 1918. However, there’s no record of Posey, or his alter ego, Charles W. Cumbert (the name he played sports under for the Dukes) ever having actually enrolled and gone to classes there. It wasn’t unusual in those days around Pittsburgh for schools to bring in “ringers,” paid semi-pros, to bulk up their rosters. This seems to have been one of those cases.

His election to two American professional sports halls of fame is almost unique – only one other person holds that distinction. The Grays are remembered both in Pittsburgh, where the bridge over the Monongahela River connecting Homestead to the city is named the Homestead Grays Bridge, and in Washington, D.C., where five Grays Hall of Famers — Bell, Gibson, Leonard, Ray Brown and Jud Wilson — along with Posey himself, are included in the Ring of Honor of famous Washington baseball figures, at the Nationals’ park.

RW: Finally, what are some things that still need to be fleshed out about his life? What mysteries remain about the life and career of Cum Posey?

JO: It’s always risky, and probably not true, to state that a biography rounds up everything important about its subject. But the multitude of sources that were available, from comprehensive newspaper coverage of the team and Posey’s own columns, don’t leave too many stones unturned so far as the Grays are concerned.

Posey’s parents, Cumberland Sr., a highly-successful businessman, and Anna, a leader in the African-American cultural and education community, were also written about a great deal. When I first got interested in Cum, I interviewed one of his daughters, Beatrice Lee, and a grand nephew, Evan Baker, who told me a lot about Cum and the family. Rob Ruck, a University of Pittsburgh professor who wrote the book, Sandlot Seasons, about Black sports in Pittsburgh, donated all of his interview tapes to the university archives, and they contain much about the Grays and Posey.

I suppose the one thing I would really like to find out is if Cumberland W. Posey Jr. ever admitted publicly to anyone that had ever made a mistake.