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.

The Photo: The Secret 9 wraps up (for now)

Here we return, one last time, to the Secret 9, the great Louis Armstrong’s semi-pro baseball team in early-1930s New Orleans. More specifically, we dive into the iconic photo of the club with their famous benefactor taken during Satchmo’s triumphant 1931 homecoming to the Crescent City.

My previous posts about the club and the picture are here, here, here and here; they can fill you in on the purpose for this study of the Secret 9, how the investigation began and the life of one of the players on the team, Eddie “Kid” Brown. In addition, here’s a post I did about Villard Paddio, the photographer who snapped the photo and who later vanished after leading from a river ferry.

In addition, I’ve also had articles about the Secret 9 and the iconic image published in other media outlets here and here.

This new post represents the final installment of my Secret 9 series, and we pick things up with the photo itself — specifically, the various versions of it out there, and how the photo might have come about. With the publication of this article, my series wraps up, but I encourage anyone who has information about the Secret 9, or if you have any questions or leads, and their portrait to email me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

Alrighty, let’s dive into the examination of the photo itself that concludes with a pretty awesome revelation. I want to describe the process I and some compatriots used to scrutinize these versions, and how collaboration is very often both the key to discovery and breakthrough, as well as one of the main elements in what makes such research so fun.

A very important note before we start digging: I and others who enjoined this effort were waist deep into the investigation, which both provided key answers as well as raised intriguing new questions and lines of inquiry on a seemingly daily basis. It became a down-the-rabbit-hole situation, and then the COVID-19 crisis hit, which created a significant hurdle blocking our research because we haven’t been able to view any of the photo copies and prints we’ve found, or those we’d heard about.

Between those two factors — getting lost within the thicket of information and the inability to do in-person research — I decided to go forward and publish what we did have, along with the many mysteries still to unravel and trails of history to explore. So this is by now means a completed work, for which I greatly apologize!

With that said, let’s go! …

Last year, as I was bearing down on my research about the Secret 9 photo, I realized that several prints or copies of the photo exist. There’s the one that has been the most disseminated and viewed, pictured below:

Photo courtesy of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University

This is the version that’s held by the Historic New Orleans Collection, as well as the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University and the New Orleans Jazz Museum collection (with minor changes in visbility and legibility in each copy). It’s also the one used by the International House Hotel, employees of which recruited my last year to research the Secret 9 photo and identify the players in the photo.

You can hopefully see the greeting and signature in the lower left-hand corner:

“My Pal Lee, Best Wishes From Little Joe Lindsey.”

Joe Lindsey (sometimes spelled Lindsay) was a member of Louis Armstrong’s band and a member of what would today be called the entourage around Satchmo. Lindsey famously took part in the aforementioned goof-around skit held before the Aug. 23, 1931, game between the Secret 9 and the Melpomene White Sox, another local semi-pro club. that was attended by Armstrong on his lengthy trip home at the height of his early fame. (The White Sox won, 6-1.)

I’m not really sure who “Lee” is in Lindsey’s signature. Perhaps Lee Blair, a guitarist and banjoist who played with Louis and his orchestra in the mid- to late-1930s? Or Lee Collins, a trumpeter from New Orleans who, like Armstrong and Armstrong’s mentor King Oliver, moved to Chicago in the 1920s and played with a slew of early jazz greats?

However, I got those possible identifications by doing just heavy Googling, so they’re guesses at best, and several archives and historians cautioned against making any unsubstantiated leaps when identifying people. I included my speculation partially to introduce readers to such influential and important artists as Oliver, Collins and Blair.

Joe Lindsey is  pictured in the Secret 9 photo, back row, the first person to the right of the players. He’s wearing a round hat with a dark hatband.

Also note in this version that the bottom right-hand corner is torn off. That will be significant because …

A second version of this photo popped up when the folks at the IHH and I met with Eddie Brown Jr. and Marcus Brown, the son and grandson, respectively, of Eddie “Kid” Brown Sr., whom the Brown offspring had identified as the third player from the left in the back row.

That’s right, we ID’ed one of the guys in the iconic Secret 9 photo. And I previously wrote blog posts about “Kid” Brown here and here.

When the IHH holks (Sean Cummings and Stephanie Wellman) met with Eddie Jr. and Marcus roughly a year ago, the Brown’s brought their copy of the photo, shown below, in which Eddie Brown Sr. is circled:

Photo courtesy of the family of Eddie Brown

Being the supremely eagle-eyed, observant reporter I am (hopefully you picked up the sarcasm in that statement), I didn’t even really pay attention to the scribbling below the team in this, the Brown version. 

I didn’t examine that writing in detail — or, I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t even realize it was different than the writing in the HNOC/Hogan version — until I scrutinized it with my girlfriend and Tulane archivist Lori Schexnayder several months after meeting and talking with the Browns. Lori is really good at her job, as this tale will show as it unfolds. It was her diligence and eye for detail as an archivist that provided a major impetus for the development of this blog post.

But she and I did see that there were significant differences in the two versions, aside from the semi-circle around Eddie Kid Brown in the Brown family version.

The most significant variation, of course, is the handwriting in the bottom left-hand corner. While the Hogan/HNOC version has a fairly simple signature by Joe Lindsey, the Brown copy has a whole bunch of text scribbled on it, including some that appears crossed-out and/or overwritten at least once.

The one name you can clearly make out in the scribbling is Mr. Joe Glaser. Joe Glaser by himself is at least one book’s worth of material, because the guy was, to say the least, quite a character. He was a music agent extraordinaire, first partnering in business with Satchmo circa 1935, and eventually representing artists as varied as Billie Holiday, B.B. King, Barbra Streisand and even T. Rex. By many accounts, he also served as a surrogate father for many of the musicians with whom he did business, especially Louis Armstrong, whom he met when Satchmo was at the peak of his fame in the Windy City.

But Glaser, apparently, for all the financial, promotional and emotional support he gave artists, he was also a very complex character, with a long criminal rap sheet and intimate connections to the mob, including none other than Al Capone himself. There also seems to be some question as to whether, and how much, Glaser ingratiated Louis himself with and/or protected him from the mob.

Louis with Joe Glaser

Also up for debate is the impact Glaser had on Satchmo’s music, artistry and image. The manager helped bring Louis to a mainstream, and a global, audience, turning Armstrong into arguably the most well known, beloved musician of the 20th century — and bringing him the type of wealth Satchmo only dreamed of in his New Orleans youth at the Colored Waif’s Home.

But, of course, Glaser also got very rich off Armstrong’s fame, too, and some historians believe the promoter exploited Louis and forced the cornetist into a grueling, exhausting performance and touring schedule. Glaser also reportedly steered Louis toward more popular music, such as Broadway tunes and pop standards that focused more on Armstrong’s singing and less on his cornet wizardry. As that happened, Louis was accused by many peers, especially newer, more cutting-edge jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, as a sell-out, at best, or as an Uncle Tom, at worst.

Then there was Glaser’s ties to the mob. From what I’ve read, in the first few decades of its existence, jazz quickly became intertwined with organized, with the two settling into a sketchy symbiosis, as the Jazz Age and Prohibition occurred concurrently in the 1920s and contributed to each other’s rise.

But Louis loved Joe Glaser like a father, defended him and remained loyal until late in life, when Glaser passed away in 1969. Satchmo learned that his close friend and manager died without leaving Louis a percentage of Associated Booking, the company Armstrong and Glaser built into a money-making cash cow.

(Glaser also dabbled in boxing promotion, especially earlier in his career. Several articles on the sports pages of African-American newspapers mention Glaser, like the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender. For example, a February 1928 column by Courier sportswriter W. Rollo Wilson discusses a Chicago middleweight named Walcott Langford. But most famously, Glaser served as promoter/manager for heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, i.e. the guy whom Ali flattened twice in two years, as well as signed Sugar Ray Robinson, whom many pundits consider the greatest pound-for-pound boxer. Glaser inked Robinson late in the fistic legend’s career to tour the cabaret circuit as — this is true — a tap dancer/comedian, I guess a la Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the 1950s. Robinson returned to the ring a couple years later, however. And a little more on the promoter — I know this is a lot about a relatively minor character in this post’s narrative, but this Glaser dude was pretty fascinating. In 1966, he was subpoenaed in a grand jury investigation into alleged mafia interference in the fight game.)

But Glaser’s name on this Secret 9 print raises a quandary — if Louis didn’t connect formally with the promoter until 1935, as many historical accounts show, how could Glaser’s name be found on a print of a photo that was taken in 1931, before Glaser and Satchmo forged their relationship? And how did this copy get into the possession of the Brown family? This print appears to have been repurposed several times, so maybe Glaser wasn’t the original recipient and thus, in fact, wasn’t given the copy until later in the ’30s.

But while interesting and curious, the deciphering of the rest of the handwriting on the Brown edition, at least for that time being, wasn’t as significant to the process of researching this post as what Lori and I saw in the very bottom-right corner when we examined it: “V. Paddio, N.O.L.A.”

Villard Paddio (from the archives of the Louisiana Weekly)

Once Lori and I pieced together that it meant Villard Paddio, a highly-regarded, influential photographer in the local black community for several decades and the subject of my previous post, we mentioned what we’d found to Lynn Abbott, long-time employee at the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane who, like Lori, is really good at his job. He’s also just a pretty cool dude in his own right.

Turns out Lynn had never seen this (the Brown) version before, but as soon as he saw that Villard Paddio took it, he filled us in further about how important Paddio was to New Orleans black history, and how important Paddio was to Louis Armstrong himself, making the fact that Paddio took this photo very natural, sort of an “of course!” thing.

Until Lori and I examined the Brown copy, I didn’t know who snapped the picture — indeed, I had no idea who Villard Paddio was. That discovery led to the research about Paddio himself included in this post. Lori and I were significantly helped in this process by Lynn, not just filling us in on Paddio, but also helping us parse the names, identities and importance of every person included in the two separate signatures on the versions.

Lynn noticed, as did Lori and I, that the Brown copy looks like it could have been repurposed because of the different levels of writing that were signed, crossed out or erased, and overwritten by another gifter.

Lynn suggested that the first/top line in the signature might refer “to” an “Austin,” and the line below that says, “Best wishes,” followed by a third line stating that the copy is “from” someone whose name can’t be discerned.

As to who “Austin” might be, we aren’t sure. But it could be Cora “Lovie” Austin, a multi-talented singer/piano player/songwriter/bandleader in the 1920s Chicago music scene who, in addition to jamming with Satchmo and other jazz stars, provided backing for just about all the legendary “classic blues” singers like Ethel Waters, Ida Cox and Ma Rainey (my personal favorite). But again, I’ll qualify these musings like I did with “Lee” earlier in the post — these are wild guesses.

Louis with Sherman Cook and Joe Lindsey

Lynn then posits that the scrawl to the right of that states, as previously mentioned, “To Mr. Joe Glaser,” with the line below referring to “[unknown] Armstrong’s.” Lynn suggests there was possibly a third line under that that might have referred to the Secret 9 somehow.

Here’s a late-breaking comment from Lynn that I was unable to include when I first published this. In this comment, Lynn fleshes out his observations a little more:

“Here’s a late-breaking observation, RE: the inscriptions on the Kid Brown copy of the photo: compare the ‘r’s’ in ‘Mr. Glazier’ with the ‘r’s’ in ‘Armstrong’s’ just below it; and then go online and google Louis Armstrong’s autograph – not only do the ‘r’s’ look similar, but look at his ‘A’ in ‘Armstrong.’ I think you might see the same thing that you see in the ‘A’ on the Kid Brown photo. Which is to say, it may have been Armstrong himself who wrote the inscription to Glaser.”

Lynn acknowledges that his speculation s just that — speculation. But the handwriting similarities are definitely there.

Beyond that, Lynn noted that an inspection with PhotoShop could hopefully reveal more details that are currently camouflaged in the Brown copy. However, that might not be possible until the COVID-19 crisis passes and life returns (more or less) to normalcy.

Having said that, despite these key differences in the archive and Brown versions, both of them include the quasi title of the photo written, etched or in some other way emblazoned over the men, including the year and an arrow pointing to Armstrong. In addition, given who signed each copy — people very close to Armstrong himself — both are quite possibly fairly old copies that were made and handed out within a decent amount of time after the photo was taken.

Which means that both editions of the picture were two different copies of the original, and somehow over the years, the two separate copies wound their way through the world at large on different trajectories, one that ended with the Brown family, and another one that ended up in multiple archival collections. (I won’t go into how those two processes happened, because that would be traipsing a little too far afield from the topic at hand, even by my standards.)

Which begged the question: Do any original prints of this famous photo exist? I’d never come across one, and neither had anyone else I’d ever encountered or talked to. So, I thought, barring some unexpected development — say, finding a descendant of Paddio who might have one, or someone poking around in some official archives or collections of some sort — that would never happen.

Enter Lori again.

At one point last year, Lori was helping another researcher who came to Tulane who was looking for photos about Storyville, the fabled red light district in the Big Easy around the turn of the 20th century.

Her search included a dive into the Al Rose Collection at the Louisiana Research Collection; Rose was a legendary historian of early jazz, Storyville and related facets of New Orleans culture. At the time, the Rose collection didn’t have a published inventory, meaning Lori had to comb through the collection folders until she came across the Storyville photos.

While digging through the folders, one of them contained this:

Photos from the Al Rose Collection within the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane.

That’s right. A completely pristine, unblemished print of Villard Paddio’s Secret 9 photo. In just a random file. Completely unexpected. 

I cannot overstate how amazing this development was. Just the timing of the discovery of the print (as I was neck deep in the Secret 9), the complete randomness of it, and the fact that no one, to the world’s current knowledge, had seen such an unblemished print of this famous photo. Lori had no idea it was in Jones Hall, and neither did Lynn. It was just … there in the Rose collection.

The back of the photo includes a handwritten note stating it was of Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9, and identifying Joe Lindsey.

Unfortunately, while an incredible discovery in itself, this spotless photo doesn’t bring us any closer, really, to the very origin and circumstances of the photo. More to the point, it can’t identify any of the players in the picture other than Eddie Brown.

Another question to ponder is why this item was in the Al Rose Collection, without reference or notation in the collection’s finding aid.

How did it fall into Rose’s hands, and how well did Rose know Villard Paddio and/or Louis Armstrong? Could Rose’s descendants, either familial, journalistic or artistic, help lead us closer to the source and circumstances of the iconic photo of the Secret 9 baseball team? More to the point of this series of blog posts, would it help us ID any of the players in the photo?

However, Al Rose put together and published, “New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album,” a massive, comprehensive, seminal collection of jazz photography and images, in 1967, a tome that includes a few of Villard Paddio’s works.

Now, since I can’t at the moment get into a library that might have a copy of Rose’s book (which was co-authored by Edmond “Doc” Souchon, a prominent New Orleans guitarist, writer and historical preservationist), I circled back with Lynn to see if he could help once more.

I shouldn’t have wondered — Lynn always comes through! While he didn’t have a copy of the book at his home, so he reached out to a colleague in Sweden (Sweden!) who does have the book and, yep, on page 273 of the 1967 edition, is the Secret 9 photo. Lynn relayed that the caption in the book identifies next to Louis as Sherman Cook, and then Joe Lindsey next to Cook. Crucially, Lynn said, the Rose/Souchon book doesn’t identify any of the players.

(Cook, nicknamed “Professor,” was a dancer and manager who was also a consistent member of Armstrong’s entourage as Satchmo’s valet and bodyguard. In fact, Cook took part in aforementioned comedy routine before the Secret 9’s baseball game in 1931, so it makes sense that he’d also be in the photo. “Professor,” of course, was also the nickname for one Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as pianist and singer Professor Longhair — “Fess” — who, along with Armstrong, was one of the greatest and most influential New Orleans musicians of all time. Actually, Fess and Satchmo are two of the four figures on my New Orleans musical Mount Rushmore, along with Dave Bartholomew and Mahalia Jackson. But that’s just me.)

Lynn’s friend in Sweden surmises that the Secret 9 photo was indeed taken by Paddio. Other photos in the Rose/Souchon were also taken by Paddio (per this here), but I’m not sure exactly how many. Regardless, that suggests – only suggests, not guarantees — that Rose and Paddio were at least colleagues and possibly friends.

Another observation, this one from Lynn — the Al Rose collection print includes a good deal more of the foreground of the shot than does the Brown copy, which seems to have much of that foreground cropped out, for some reason.

Lynn also suggested that, given the difference in foreground between the two versions, the Brown copy could have more writing that was originally inscribed at the very bottom but that got cropped out as part of the aforementioned re-purposing. So whose names or well wishes could have been scrawled way at the bottom, and why would the cropping have been done? Again, more intrigue.

LATE BREAKING ADDITION: Right after I’d gotten this post ready to, umm, post, I received news of yet another copy of the photo, this one from the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York City.

A few weeks ago I emailed Ricky Riccardi, the director of research collections at the Armstrong House to see if that museum by any chance had a unique copy of the photo.

They sure did! Below is the digital copy of a version found in Louis’ personal collection, Ricky said. It’s securely part of the Museum’s collection.

Photo courtesy Louis Armstrong House Museum

If you examine this copy, you’ll see it’s aged into a sepia-toned, dog-eared, somewhat ripped and wrinkled print, more so than the other versions previously discussed here. As a result, it’s got an old-timey warmth to it, like something you might find in a stereotypical antique shop. I really like it.

At the bottom is a personal inscription signed by Joe Lindsey to “Mr. Red Baptiste,” which is in all likelihood a misspelling of Red Batiste, a New Orleans piano player from Satchmo’s era. The inscription states the date is 1949. We’re not exactly sure who this might be; Lynn, for example, said he came across 16 people mentioned in the Hogan Collection vertical files with the last names Baptiste, Batiste or Battiste, but none of them list a first name of Red.

After some creative Googling, I came across an interesting possibility, though. At the Music Rising outreach program at Tulane, there’s a transcript/description of a recorded interview with Treme native Louis Gallaud, a well known Creole pianist.

In the interview, the writer relates Gallaud’s childhood and his education of music, both with formal tutors and people who played in local bands and in clubs. The interviewer lists a “Red Batiste” as an example of “[p]iano players who could only play in one key,” as described by Gallaud. The interview transcript notes, however, that they aren’t sure if that was the right spelling of the name.

There’s more: Ricky said that on the back of the print is a hand-written note reading, “1964 From Elise and Gilbert.” Ricky isn’t sure to whom that is referring, but he noted that the handwriting on the back isn’t Armstrong’s.

Villard Paddio’s signature is in the bottom left corner, and you can see that this print has the same white identification lettering at the top and bottom that several of the copies already discussed have.

One last note from my discussion with Riccardi: he also mentions one of the versions we discussed up above — it turns out to be a variation of the version obtained and passed along by the Browns, they family of player Eddie “Kid” Brown”! Here’s this second one owned by the Armstrong House, the variation of the Brown copy:

Photo courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

The main differences between this one at the Browns’ copy is the absence of the half-circle halo over Kid Brown; the sharper crispness of the photo, including the guys in the portrait and the handwriting, some of which is also inked in blue; and the clear visibility of previous writing of the writing along the very bottom of the photo.

All of that — the blue ink and improved sharpness of the image — could indicate that this copy here (the second Armstrong House one) was the one used to make the copy that the Browns had, making the Brown copy at least “third generation,” i.e. a copy of a copy.

Which poses the question, were there additional copies of the Armstrong House No. 2 that were later distributed, just like the Brown copy? And finally, where did Armstrong House Numero Dos version come from?

That second question is answered at least partly by Ricky Riccardi, whose email to me stated:

“We also have this version, which Louis originally inscribed to someone with the last name ‘Austin’ … then he crossed it off and inscribed it to his manager, ‘Mr. Joe Glaser,’ but I guess because of the sloppiness, [Louis] decided to just keep it to himself.”

So there you have it! This version quite possibly came directly from Louis himself, because it’s in his handwriting! So it’s about as OG as we can get.

OK, now, before we wrap this journey up, there’s two final variables in all this, both in the form of additional copies of the picture. One is from Lynn, who points out that the version in the Hogan Jazz Archive (the “Joe Lindsey” one) has a notation that it’s a “copy from William Russell print.” That could mean that it ended up with the rest of the William Russell Collection at HNOC. Russell was, like Al Rose, a long-time New Orleans jazz historian, writer and collector. I haven’t been to the HNOC research center very much, largely because it’s in the French Quarter, which can be a pain to get to — parking is impossible or exorbitant, and I’ve admittedly been too lazy to take the streetcar. But I promise my readers and myself that I’ll go as soon as this pandemic chaos is over.

And finally, Lynn notes that another print of the Secret 9 photo turned up in the materials that were salvaged from the home of Danny Barker after the floods of Katrina receded. Lynn said it was too damaged but has yet to be examined closely, which is another task that we’ll have to get to when conditions allow it. Barker was an important musician, singer and author who helped preserve the jazz culture of New Orleans. When I think about it, this city fortunately had many such figures like Rose, Souchon, Russell and Barker who chronicled the music and history of the Big Easy.

Given all that, at this point, we might not be able to go much further in this Secret 9 series, at least until the pandemic safely recedes a little more. In addition, a reader who might have gotten this far might be confused and cross-eyed by now. Don’t worry, I am, too.

However, I, and the various people who’ve helped me on this odyssey, have thoroughly enjoyed the quest, because for us and other researchers, it’s quite simply fun to delve into historical mysteries. An emotional roller coaster for history nerds. Here’s how Lori put it:

“Researching the Secret 9 photo embodies [the essence of historical research] in that it was really exciting to sort of stumble across this new copy that had helpful information we hadn’t seen before. This doesn’t happen every day but it’s incredibly satisfying when it does. It’s also been frustrating to continue to run into dead ends.”

Questions still abound in the saga of the Secret 9 photo, from the circumstances of its original creation in 1931, to how each copy or print ended up where it did, to whom those copies might be referring, and, above all, the identities of the men in the picture.

At this point I need to note that while this series is done for now, my compatriots and I will still be collecting information — especially to more fully round out this post about the various copies of the photo — because there’s a lot of good stuff out there.

Those answers, as well as many others pertaining to the Secret 9,  are yet to be discovered, but I still believe they can be. Even with this series of posts, many answers have already been uncovered, through a group effort, and that feels pretty darn good.

On that note, the series comes to a close, and I want to extend a heartfelt “thank you” to everyone who helped me with this project, including Lori Schexnayder and Lynn Abbott at Tulane Special Collections; Sean Cummings and Stephanie Wellman at the International House Hotel; Eddie Brown Jr. and Marcus Brown, descendants of player and boxer Eddie “Kid” Brown; Ricky Riccardi at the Louis Armstrong House Museum; Chris Harter and Phillip Cunningham at the Amistad Research Center; the folks at the Historic New Orleans Collection; and journalist Manuel Torres, who worked with me as an editor on the Secret 9 article I did for the Times-Picayune.

Southern University’s 1959 national championship

Lou Brock as a Southern University Jaguar

Editor’s note: Here’s another guest submission, this one from Jay Sokol at Black College Nines, which is, as you might have surmised, is a fantastic Web site about HBCU baseball. I cannot recommend it enough. HBCU baseball has often been overlooked by historians, including, in my personal opinion, researchers, readers and fans of the Negro Leagues. Which is too bad, because it’s a fascinating history, and because many Negro Leaguers played or coached for HBCUs.

This essay is about the great Southern University baseball team from 1959, when the Jaguars burned up the NCAA tournament. Because the 2020 NCAA World Series would normally be taking place this weekend, this post will provide a little insight on HBCU ball in the tourney’s stead. Enjoy!

By Jay Sokol

Founder, BlackCollegeNines.com

Typically, late-May through mid–June is the time avid fans enjoy most about college baseball.  Post-season conference playoffs and regional tournaments that lead to a world series, bring out the best in a sport we love. Be it in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Divisions I, II and III or in the NAIA, there’s nothing quite like it for a college baseball fanatic. Even more institutions get a chance to compete for a world series title with the smaller United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) and the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) crowning national baseball champions, too.

That’s all different in 2020. In baseball terms … the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 has struck out the College World Series season. 

But we still have memories of past College World Series to keep our minds occupied until a new college baseball season begins. One that quickly jumps out for fans is the thrilling two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth inning, come-from-behind, walk-off home run by Warren Morris of Louisiana State University to defeat the University of Miami (Fla.) by the score of 9-8 to win the 1996 NCAA Division I College World Series.

About 15 minutes away from LSU in Baton Rouge, La., is another baseball-playing institution that won a CWS title, but did it 37 years before LSU claimed its memorable championship of 1996.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics first began sponsoring a College World Series in 1957, nearly five years after the organization’s groundbreaking decision to admit Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) into its membership. Initially, the tournament was an invitational competition leading to a crown.

In 1958, Maryland State College (now known as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore) was the first HBCU to be invited. However, because of distance and final examinations, the team was unable to make the trip to Alpine, Texas, the initial home of the series. This gave Southern University the distinction of being the first HBCU program to play in an NAIA World Series when it represented the association’s District 6/Area 7 in the eight-team tournament of 1959.

Going into the double elimination world series event, the SU Jaguars’ record stood at 19-3 with losses to conference rivals Texas Southern and Grambling and a non-conference matchup with Mississippi Vocational College (now known as Mississippi Valley State University).

The field of eight also included the 18-0 University of Omaha (now known as the University of Nebraska at Omaha) and 17-1 Paterson State College (now known as William Paterson University). Two additional institutions took part — Rollins College, which came into the tournament as the consensus favorite to win it all, and host school Sul Ross State University, each of which had previous world series experience.

The Southern University Jaguars, 1959 national champions

During the regular season, tournament teams had beaten the likes of Ohio State University, Wake Forest, the University of Florida and Michigan State.

Southern’s roster featured a number of first- and second-year players led by Louis C. Brock, the Jaguars’ sophomore right fielder. As the tournament opened, Brock was hitting a resounding .524 with eight doubles, six triples and five home runs. Left fielder Robert “Speedy” Williams had a batting average of .394, was second on the team with 21 runs batted in, and was tied with Brock for the team lead in doubles with eight. Fellow sophomore Harry Levy, the team’s second baseman, led the Jaguars and the Southwestern Athletic Conference with 27 stolen bases while hitting .365, and first baseman Herman Rhodes had a batting average of .361.

Southern’s formidable pitching staff was led by sophomore southpaw McVea Griffin, who had a 7-0 record with an earned run average of 1.35, five shutouts and 58 strikeouts in 61 innings pitched.

Leading the Southern nine were future NAIA Hall of Fame coach Bob Lee and his assistant, Emory Hines, who would succeed Lee as head coach in 1961.

The 1959 NAIA World Series opened with lopsided wins by the University of Omaha and Rollins College before Southern faced its first opponent, host school Sul Ross State College. In the game, Southern took a two-run lead before falling behind in the fifth inning by the score of 3-2.  In the sixth inning, the Jaguars tied the game at three followed by a go-ahead sacrifice fly by ace pitcher McVea Griffin, who then no-hit Sul Ross the rest of the way for the opening-round 4-3 victory.

SU next faced Western Washington College (now Western Washington University), which featured Roger Repoz, who at tournament’s end was named the series MVP and later became a Major League ballplayer. As in their first game, the Jaguars had an early lead, before the Vikings of Western Washington plated four runs in the third inning to turn a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 lead.  

With single runs in the bottom of the third and fifth innings, the Jaguars would tie the score and then take the lead. Western Washington responded by likewise scoring a tying run in the sixth inning and a go-ahead run in the eighth.

Falling behind 6-5 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, the underdog Southern Jags faced their first loss of the tournament. But Brock started off a rally as he reached first base on an error and advanced to second on a walk issued to Herman Rhodes. Third baseman Henry Triplett doubled to score Brock, and with one out, centerfielder Wiley McMillan squeezed Rhodes home for the 7-6, come-from-behind victory.

In the 12th game of the CWS tournament, Southern had an easier time, eliminating Rollins College from competition by the score of 8-3. Meanwhile, rebounding from an opening-round loss to Rollins College, the University of Omaha stormed back to win three straight and force a must-win match with the already 3-0 Southern Jags.

The college world series trophy presentation. Left to right: Unnamed tourney official, Southern head coach Bob Lee, assistant coach Emory Hines, team captain Harry Levy.

Because of weather delays and an upcoming, previously-arranged field commitment, for the University of Omaha to win the national title, the Mavericks would have had to play and win a total of five games in a grueling 32-hour span.

After eliminating Southern Illinois University, Western Washington and Rollins College, in the first championship-round matchup with SU on June 5, Omaha was on the road to do just that, winning by the score of 17-9. The victory set up a winner-take-all rematch with Southern 30 minutes later.

Though the University of Omaha had already played two more games in the world series than the Jaguar ball club, the Mavericks went late into the evening battling Southern for the first six innings of the NAIA World Series championship game. In the top of the seventh inning, with the score knotted at two, Lou Brock, who had not been much of a factor in the tournament to that point, connected for a three-run home run as Southern collected a total of four runs to take a 6-2 lead.

From that point on, the deflated and overworked Omaha Mavericks were held in check as Southern scored four more runs to win the game 10-2. When the last out was recorded in the bottom of the ninth inning to give Southern University the 1959 NAIA National Baseball Championship, it was already after midnight and now June 6.

At the awards ceremony, Lou Brock was named to the NAIA All-Tournament team. Six Jaguars hit over .300 for the series, led by Robert Williams‘ .455, Henry Triplett’s .389, Alvin Woods and Harry Levy each with an average of .333, catcher Roy McGriff at .316 and Lou Brock’s .304.

The significance of Southern University’s NAIA baseball crown has grown immeasurably since then. Sadly, no HBCU institution has won a national baseball title at any level since. So, in my mind, during this time when we have no college baseball tournaments to follow, one of the most thrilling memories to keep me going until next season is re-living Southern University’s historic title run in 1959.

Jay Sokol is the founder of the website blackcollegenines.com, which is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Historically Black College and University baseball by covering current HBCU baseball seasons as well as its history. A lifelong fan of college baseball dating to the 1960s, Sokol has been researching and compiling the history of black college baseball for future publication. He can be reached at jay@blackcollegenines.com.

Post-script: Many thanks to Jay for the stupendous article! As always, submissions are welcome, and check out BlackCollegeNines.com!

Luke Easter: A legend of Halberstamian proportions

Luke Easter, most likely from 1952, in a picture taken for his 1953 Bowman card.

Editor’s note: Here’s an excellent guest submission from good friend Alex Painter, who recently published a book about the Negro Leagues in Richmond, Ind., which he and I discussed here. Alex has also written a book about the great Luke Easter, who is the subject of Alex’s guest article here. Enjoy the tale of “Big Luke”! (Alex also recently contributed this article about Bill Holland to this blog.)

I never met Luke Easter. Stated more aptly, I never had the chance to meet Luke Easter. He was tragically killed almost a decade before I was born. Even so, I think about him often. Like, every day. I think about Luke Easter every single day.

Sometimes, it even leads to striking up a correspondence with Rochester, N.Y., native and fellow Easter fanatic Randy Macpherson. We talk fairly frequently, and share many commonalities, but our affinity for Easter is without question our strongest tie. Now, Randy actually watched Easter play when he was growing up in Rochester, so I get the distinct pleasure of hearing his firsthand stories.

I know we aren’t the only Easter fanatics around (I’ve had the opportunity to meet quite a number of them), but I still like to fancy our little duo as something of a partnership – one tasked with keeping the memory and legacy of our hero alive. 

Sitting idly during a break at work conference, I fired off a question for contemplation to my compadre — how many home runs would a healthy Luke Easter have been able to hit if no color barrier existed in Major League Baseball? I believe we settled on “almost 500.”

Alex Painter, right, with his friend, Randy Macpherson, another Luke Easter fan, at Luke Easter Day in Cleveland. Randy is holding a Rochester Red Wings Luke Easter jersey.

Yet another time, Randy shared with me an anecdote from the early 1960s, when Easter was (literally) on the last of his legs, still suiting up for the minor-league Rochester Red Wings in his late 40s. The Columbus Jets were in town, and young Randy was in the stands.

In the late innings, a relief pitcher came in for the Jets. After the reliever worked a quick strikeout and induced a weak grounder, the swaggering Luke Easter came up to bat, settling in the left-hand batter’s box. The pitcher, as Randy remembers, looked smugly at Easter, seemingly viewing his presence as nothing more than a sideshow. Maybe even thinking why he had to take the time and energy to pitch to this man, the equivalent of a geriatric on a professional baseball diamond.

Easter, taking a mighty cut at the first pitch, came up empty. Undeterred, Easter takes a mighty cut at the next pitch as well. The ball catapults off the aging slugger’s bat, landing safely in the right field stands for a home run. “’Big Luke’ could still rake,” Randy fondly remembered nearly six decades after the fact. 

For Luke Easter, who was the 11th baseball player to break Major League Baseball’s long-observed and vile color barrier, the round-tripper was unequivocally his calling card. He hit them everywhere, by the hundreds, and they were the longest anyone had ever seen. His 477-foot shot at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium was the longest home run in the field’s history. He was the only player to clear the center field scoreboard at Buffalo’s Offermann Stadium. Folks, this constituted a 500-foot blast … and he did it twice, two months apart! I should probably note he was 42 years old when the trick was turned.

So how many home runs did Easter hit? Hell, he didn’t even know – “I hit ’em, and forget ’em,” he’d famously reply when asked. He did, however, have a good sense of how far his furthest one had traveled. After being told by one of his adoring child fans that he had seen his longest home run, Easter bent down at the waist, and with a twinkle in his eye, gently informed the youth, “Bub, if you saw it land, you didn’t see my longest home run.”

However, if you were to ask me the very same question — how many homers Easter hit in his career — I’d have a fairly specific answer for you: 635, but with an addendum. Luke Easter hit at least 635 home runs; all of those are recorded and counted, but in all likelihood he clubbed more. Between stints in the Negro Leagues, Hawaiian Fall League, Pacific Coast League, Venezuelan Winter League, Puerto Rican Winter League, Mexican Winter League, American Association, International League and, of course, with the Cleveland Indians, counting all contests played, Luke Easter hit at least 635 home runs.

None of these recorded home runs were hit until he had reached the 31st year of his life.

I had the distinct pleasure of writing a biography on Easter, published in 2018, titled Folk Hero Forever: The Eclectic, Enthralling Baseball Life of Luke Easter. I believe Easter’s numbers speak for themselves – once you have a full grasp of them, that is. I also believe if the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was as equitable as I am sure they’d like to think, Easter should absolutely have a plaque adorning the walls.

However, I couldn’t shortchange the capturing of the man’s aura and magical presence on and off the baseball diamond. How much everyone adored “Big Luke.” How kind and giving he was. Just how improbable his entire baseball career seemed, literally, from Day One. 

His life and career seem almost Shakespearian when looking at its entirety, or, at the very least, thrillingly episodic. While recently reading a book from one of my favorite baseball writers, I couldn’t help but constantly think about my hero.

********

The summer of 1949 as it pertains to baseball has been forever immortalized by the late David Halberstam, possibly one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His book, Summer of ’49, written 40 years after the fact, is an expertly-told treatise on the memorable 1949 pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, the rise of a classic rivalry, as well as a character study on the titanic figures involved in one of the most bitter battles for the American League crown in baseball history.

Halberstam’s voice on the events is dripping with authenticity, perhaps even at times a boyish romanticism. Of course, you’d expect nothing less from a generational writer, but this one wasn’t even fair – he was a 15-year-old coming of age in New York City that very summer, watching the events unfold himself as an adolescent. The result is a classic tale that rests in the ever-growing pantheon of baseball books. 

Now, if Halberstam had grown up on the other side of the country — let’s say San Diego — but all the other factors were the same and he was again penning an account of his experience with the 1949 season, he obviously wouldn’t be writing about the aging “Yankee Clipper,” Joe DiMaggio, battling off salvo after salvo from a Red Sox team led by “The Splendid Splinter” Ted Williams, who was firmly in the prime of his career.

No, Halberstam would be detailing how, all of the sudden, it was nearly impossible to find a seat at Lane Field, the home diamond of the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1949. Hell, he would have most certainly relayed how it got to the point where folks were lining their cars up around the stadium fence, even standing on their hoods for a better view, craning their necks, just to watch the Padres take pregame batting practice. 

Halberstam, being a youngster at the time, may have written about the throngs of young boys, among them future baseball Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson, crowding around holes and cracks in the stadium fence, taking turns squinting their eyes through them, just to catch a glimpse of the action.

Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1949

Well, in actuality, the sudden demand and hubbub surrounded just one Padre — new, gigantic, former Negro Leagues first baseman Luke Easter. Standing a hulking 6-foot-4 and tipping the scales at 240 sinewy pounds of raw power, Easter certainly had a presence on the baseball diamond, to say the least. He was unwaveringly confident, yet always kind. Even through his extraordinary affability, his irresistible smile, make no mistake — Easter was not showing opposing pitchers any mercy in his first season of “organized baseball.”

Easter was the absolute toast of the city. “Brother Easter has to be seen to be appreciated,” Frank Finch of the Los Angeles Times wrote shortly after Easter got into town. “His shoulders are so broad that when he wears one of those racy pinstripe suits you think, at first, that he forgot to remove the coat hanger.”

Finch continued:

“Easter is a St. Louis boy, and he’s just as much of a showboat as the old sidewheelers that used to steam up and down the Mississippi … He sports a diamond ring that looks like a headlight on the Santa Fe Chief, [and] is also the owner of one of the longest loudest Buicks ever built.”

Luke laid it on pretty thick; he even asked teammate Artie Wilson, a shortstop and a fellow former Negro Leaguer, to drive the Buick up and down the streets while Easter sat in the back, to make it look like he had a personal driver. Easter would wave to folks, stopping off at the sandlots to give children some batting tips and to sign autographs. Always having a soft spot for children, it seemed like he signed a neighborhood’s worth of autographs every time he stepped out of the Buick. 

Unfortunately, given the focus of Halberstam’s work, Easter garners nary a mention in Summer of ’49. However, it was Easter who took 1949 by brute force, the same manner in which the ball was blistering off his bat, safely landing on the other side of the seven-foot fences at Lane Field. This included one that was slugged over the scoreboard in center field, some 500 feet from home plate. It has been written, perhaps apocryphally, that on that particular blast the pitcher actually ducked, thinking it was a shot back up the box, destined to be a screaming line drive single. Imagine his incredulity when he shot up off the grass only to see a triumphant Easter circling the bases — and probably flashing the pitcher a cunning smile, as if he’d just performed a magic trick on the hapless hurler.

Easter had an extraordinary path to even arrive at the 1949 minor-league baseball season. 

He was born in 1915 on the Mississippi Delta, an area of the country that became much more famous for producing blues musicians than baseball players, but when Luke was 9, his family moved to St. Louis as part of the Great Migration in an attempt to find better-paying jobs and to outrun the South’s widespread Jim Crow laws.

Easter came of age during the Great Depression, and worked odd jobs shining shoes and pressing suits at a dry cleaner. He fell in love with the baseball culture of St. Louis during the 1920s and ’30s. Though he and his brother didn’t have any money for proper baseball equipment, it is said that young Luke developed his batting eye by taking cuts at bottle caps pitched by his brother with a broomstick handle. 

In the mid-1930s, Easter began working for the Titanium Pigment Company and quickly began starring on the company’s baseball team, the Titanium Giants. His power at the plate was absolutely unmistakable. It was said that his teammates would sit on the bench long after the game was over, arguing about which one of Easter’s home runs traveled the farthest. 

Inexplicably, Easter never really got a chance to play in the Negro Leagues during this time. 

In 1941, World War II broke out, and Easter was drafted into the army the following year. Easter, who was still recovering from injuries suffered in a 1941 car accident, was honorably discharged and entered back into civilian life. He spent the remainder of the war working in a war-chemical plant, a naval shipyard and also as an evening security guard. 

Sacramento Bee, May 25, 1949

Purportedly, between 1942 and 1945, when Easter was 27-through-30 years old — ages typically not considered the prime of a baseball career — he did not play a single game of organized ball. Not a single game. 

Serendipity intervened when Easter was noticed while playing in a St. Louis softball tournament in early 1946. He was then invited to try out for the Cincinnati Crescents, the equivalent of a Triple-A Negro Leagues team, owned by Abe Saperstein (who also famously owned the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team). He made the team outright during its spring training in New Orleans

Finally, in 1946, at nearly 31 years of age, Luke Easter was playing professional baseball for the first time in his life. Though he had taken most of the wartime years off from baseball, his power at the plate awoke from any perceived slumber. The Sporting News reported that Easter hit .415 at the plate with 152 RBIs. It has also been widely reported in multiple contemporary accounts that he hit 74 home runs during the season. When Saperstein took his Crescents to Hawaii for the island’s fall league, Luke led the circuit in round trippers.

Easter’s late-blooming, upstart professional baseball career received another break, albeit as the result of a tragedy. On Jan. 20, 1947, famed Homestead Grays slugger Josh Gibson died of a stroke at the age of 35. The Grays, needing a new power hitter, one who could prove to have some box office pull, turned to Luke Easter. With future Hall-of-Fame first baseman Buck Leonard already installed at the first sack, Easter learned left field. Grays ownership even handed him the No. 20 jersey, Gibson’s old number, as a not-so-subtle reminder of his expectations as Gibson’s heir apparent. 

And he delivered. According to Collier’s Magazine, counting all contests, Easter hit 43 home runs in 1947 and another 58 in 1948. He did it all with a swagger that wouldn’t quit. 

Once, according to Baltimore Elite Giants catcher Frazier “Slow” Robinson, after Easter had hit a home run against the Giants, he slowed up right before he got the plate, looked at Robinson, and said, “Hey Slow, I’m the greatest, ain’t I?” He then touched home plate and went back to the dugout.

After Easter led the Homestead Grays to a Negro League World Series title in 1948 and proceeded to lead the Venezuelan Winter League in home runs that offseason, it was then the big leagues were bound to catch up with “Big Luke” Easter, now 33 years old.  

After Major League Baseball’s long-observed color barrier fell in 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians were, by far, two of the most aggressive teams in signing Negro Leagues talent. The latter came calling for Easter. The Indians owner, progressive maverick Bill Veeck, even flew down to Puerto Rico to offer him a contract in person. When Indians representatives asked him his age, he quickly gave a birth year of “1921.” This was, of course, six years younger than he actually was, but the Indians bought it. The suddenly on-paper 27-year-old signed a $10,000 per year offer sheet with the Indians. 

Given Easter’s actual age, and that he didn’t play any baseball wartime, and that he had spent nearly his entire life working in factories, plants and shipyards while merely moonlighting as a baseball player, now having a major league contract in-hand is rather astounding.  

Easter would begin the 1949 season with the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres. 

During spring training, Indians star prospect (and eventual breaker of the American League color barrier) Larry Doby collided with Easter in one of the last exhibition games before the season began. It was assumed by everyone in the stadium that Doby, three inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than Easter, bore the brunt of the collision, and thus received all the medical staff’s attention.

Easter waved off any attention, but he found that he could barely move his right leg. The pain was incredible, and one he kept secret. He later discovered that the collision had broken his kneecap. But, seeing no recourse, and knowing an injury could get him released, and his shot at the big leagues up in smoke, Easter played on.

Luke Easter, far right, with his 1950 Cleveland Indians infield mates, from left, Al Rosen, Bobby Avila and Joe Gordon.

Given the severity of the injury, I’ll never understand how he then did what he did. By the end of May, 57 games into the season, Easter was hitting .400 with 18 home runs and 67 RBIs. Twenty-thousand people were routinely packing into Pacific Coast League stadiums to watch Easter play. With the intensity the ball was flying off his bat, he put every fielder on notice. “I wish they’d get him out of here before he kills every infielder in the Coast League,” Hollywood Stars manager Fred Haney lamented. 

Luke’s flashiness, race and propensity to absolutely destroy the baseball (surely leaving the pitcher sheepish, pissed or a combination of both), made him the constant recipient of brushback pitches, even leading PCL president Clarence Rowland to issue a league-wide memorandum to managers to implore their pitchers to stop throwing at Easter. 

The memo was written in response to Easter taking a fastball off his problematic kneecap in early June, which sidelined him for several games. Due to the excruciating pain, he elected to have what looked to be season-ending knee surgery. A one-inch bone chip would ultimately be removed from his knee. Yes, the man whose physical condition had him honorably discharged from the armed services, who had spent most of his life in a rugged, blue-collar factory background, had absolutely owned Pacific Coast League pitching, with a broken kneecap.

Less than four months into the season, “Easter Mania” in the PCL had concluded. His batting average stood at .363, and with the 45 walks he was issued, his on-base percentage ballooned to an otherworldly .460. In just 80 games, Easter had clubbed 27 home runs and driven in 92 runs. 

PCL owners later claimed the loss of Easter to the league had cost them over $200,000 in gate receipts.

As it would be, the “season-ending” status of Easter’s surgery would not keep him off the diamond. The defending World Series champion Cleveland Indians, sinking in the standings and in desperate need of an offensive boost, practically peeled Easter out of his post-operation wheelchair and thrust him into action. The Indians were hopeful Easter’s bat in the middle of the lineup would give them a bit of juice down the stretch in a close pennant race.

On Aug. 11, 1949, one week after Easter’s 34th birthday (err, 28th birthday!), he made his debut with the Cleveland Indians. Still sporting a noticeable limp, and weighing nearly 20 pounds over his regular playing weight, Easter could not deliver on the impossibly high expectations set for him, particularly just five weeks post-operation. He hit just .222 in 1949 (10-for-45) for the Indians down the stretch.

I’ll still maintain .222 was pretty damn good all things considered. The Cleveland fans, disheartened by the team failing on its preseason expectations, found a convenient target in Easter. He was booed incessantly every time he came up to the plate, by the home fans. 

Easter, however, showed the same resiliency he had his entire life, only this time on the biggest stage, by averaging 29 home runs and 102 RBIs over the next three seasons for the Indians. His 1952 campaign, a story for perhaps another time, was nothing short of a miracle. 

After his baseball career ended, Easter took a job in the Cleveland TRW plant, beginning his time there polishing the airplane parts on the night shift. Eventually, he was named union steward by his peers in the factory. It was common practice at the plant to give your hard-earned paycheck to “Big Luke” on payday, who would faithfully and loyally cash it and return it to you. 

On March 29, 1979, during this act of kindness for his fellow workers, Luke Easter was murdered during an attempted holdup outside of the Cleveland Bank and Trust. One of the perpetrators was a former, disgruntled TRW employee who knew of the arrangement. Easter was 63 years old.

********

I never met Luke Easter. Stated more aptly, I never had the chance to meet Luke Easter, but I absolutely love him.  Whenever that nod to Cooperstown finally comes for my hero, I hope someone calls me. I’ll be sure to give my buddy Randy a call, too.

Editor’s post-script: Many thanks to Alex for this top-notch contribution. For more info about Luke Easter’s connection to my hometown of Rochester, here’s a post I did a couple years or so ago.

Alex Painter is a passionate, lifelong baseball fan. His particular areas of baseball interest and research include the Cleveland Indians, Negro Leagues, baseball’s integration history, Civil War era baseball, Indiana-based baseball and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. A proud Hoosier, Alex was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., and educated at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., where he studied History with an emphasis in 19th-century American history and politics. He currently lives in Richmond with his wife, Alicia, and three children, Greyson, Eleanor and Harper. 

Revised book reveals more about life, legacy of Effa Manley

Abe and Effa Manley (photo courtesy of NoirTech Research)

Editor’s note: The following is an email interview with author and researcher extraordinaire Jim Overmyer about the recent release of a revised version of his landmark 1998 book, “Queen of the Negro Leagues: Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles.” The new version includes rich new details about Manley’s intriguing, trailblazing, influential life and legacy.

As the only woman in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and one who proudly, boldly and doggedly promoted and strengthened both the Newark Eagles, as well as black baseball in general, Manley’s historical impact is virtually incalculable. Take a read of Jim’s thoughts below! …

Ryan Whirty: What are some of the additions, edits and updates in the new version of the book?

Jim Overmyer: There are two major updates. 

Chapter One now includes a substantial amount of new information on Effa’s early life, and also some additional information on her husband Abe. Since she began giving interviews to black baseball historians in the 1970s, she maintained that her mother had revealed to her when she was a young girl that she was a white person, that her mother was Caucasian and her birth father was a white businessman. Even though Effa had been deeply involved in the African-American communities in which she had lived, folks accepted her statements, because, well, there was really no way 40-some years ago to prove or disprove them.

Now, we have the Internet and the millions of genealogical records available through it. Some other researchers and I, including two of Effa’s grand nieces, Cynthia Moore and Michele Welch of Fort Myers, Fla., have been on the trail of Effa’s early life, and we can say that MAYBE she was Caucasian, although quite possibly not entirely.

Jim Overmyer’s book cover

Certainty is not easily achievable in this matter. We have established that her maternal grandmother, Agnes Staley, was white, making Effa’s mother, Bertha, at least partly so. The exact identity of Bertha’s father, Robert Ford, of Washington, D.C., is still a mystery. Filling in his blank on the family tree will answer several important questions, if we can ever do it.

Bertha was married at the time of Effa’s birth to John R. Brooks but told her daughter that her real father was a Philadelphian named John M. Bishop, with whom Bertha had an affair. My research has found a businessman of nearly the same name who could have been Bertha’s lover. But, as in the case of Robert Ford, this will be hard to pin down. However, John Brooks turns out to have led a life of white-collar crime, at which he wasn’t particularly skilled. He went to jail or prison three different times, and there is a strong possibility that he was in jail at the time in 1896 that Effa would have been conceived. We are frustratingly close to pinning that down. 

You might wonder why we are spending so much time on the details of her birth. The answer is that she brought it up first in her interviews and seems to have completely believed what her mother told her. So, we have to try to confirm it, or what kind of historians would we be?

The second major change is at the end of Chapter Ten, the last one, which now concludes with her election in 2006 to the Baseball Hall of Fame. She was one of 17 black baseball figures who were inducted that year based on the work of a special Hall committee.

There are other lesser changes throughout, updating the Hall of Fame status of others mentioned in the book, for example, and adding player statistics from the Seamheads.com Negro League Database, which I see as the most comprehensive and reliable source of black ball stats at this time. 

I was frankly surprised (and pleased) that the rest of the book held up so well since its publication in the 1990s, considering all the Negro League research that has taken place since then.

RW: Much has been written about Effa before this, but with baseball history, there’s always something new to discover. What spurred you to update her story?

JO: I had been going back to her origins whenever a new Internet genealogical information source was available, looking for our missing pieces to the puzzle of her early life. Her grandnieces were doing the same, and Amy Essington, a writer and researcher in Southern California, where Effa spent her last years, was coming up with interesting things from local records. Effa’s election to the Hall was public knowledge, of course, but I had been a member of the election committee, so I was well versed in that.

I had finished a manuscript on a contemporary Negro League owner, Cumberland Posey, and was waiting for it to through the usual publication process when, out of the blue, I got a call from Christen Karniski, the sports acquisitions editor at Rowman & Littlefield, publisher of the 1998 edition of Queen of the Negro Leagues. She wanted to know if I would like to do an updated edition in time for the 2020 centennial of the founding of the first Negro League. Naturally, I did, even in the face of a very short deadline to have the book revised.

Jim Overmyer

R&L was very supportive, and we overcame some hurdles (the original digitized photo files from more than 20 years ago had become lost, for one thing) to bring the finished product in on time. Meanwhile, the Posey book was moving along, and I am in the unusual, but enjoyable, situation of having two books out at the same time.

RW: What do you think made Effa Manley such a captivating figure? Why has her story resonated so much with so many people?

JO: She did not allow the prevailing attitudes of her time regarding gender and race to define her life. Her public persona included being well dressed and getting mentioned in the newspaper society pages, and she liked that.

But even before getting involved in Negro League baseball with her husband Abe in 1935, she was prominent in Harlem as an equal-rights activist. In 1934, she was one of the organizers of the Citizen’s League for Fair Play, a committee campaigning for increased hiring of African-American clerks in Harlem’s white-owned department stores, that instituted picketing and a boycott to make its point. Typically for Effa, she was at a meeting with one store’s executives, where the negotiating wasn’t getting the League anywhere. So, she dived right in:

“We think as much of our colored girls as you do your young white girls, but there’s no work for them except to work as someone’s maid or become prostitutes.”

The department store executives hit the roof, but her response was, “I’m only telling the truth.” After several weeks of picketing, when Effa could sometimes be found walking the line with a sign, the stores gave in and hired black salesclerks.

She was no different as a co-owner of the Newark Eagles. She had distinct ideas of how the black leagues could be run better, and made no bones about her disagreement with the bad business practices that plagued the Negro Leagues, such as the “raiding” of teams’ rosters by other teams and the lack of consistency in keeping to league schedules when potentially lucrative barnstorming opportunities were available.

At one Negro National League winter meeting, when she and Abe protested the hiring of a white booking agent to run the very profitable league games at Yankee Stadium, she called the owners on the other side of the issue “handkerchief heads.” That’s a term you never hear these days, but it was meant to describe household slaves on Southern plantations, who characteristically wore head coverings. Just envision the original Aunt Jemima of syrup fame. Casting Effa’s statement in more modern terms, she was calling these successful black businessmen “Uncle Toms,” and they were madder than hell.

Although the points of comparison are limited, you can draw some connecting lines to a famous contemporary of Effa’s, Eleanor Roosevelt. There had never been a First Lady like her before. She used her access to what her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, had called the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to advocate for many progressive causes (included equal rights). There had been some female owners of sports teams before Effa Manley, but none with her successful track record and outspokenness. 

RW: How was Effa able to stand toe-to-toe with such powerful forces as Cum Posey, Branch Rickey and J.L. Wilkinson, especially at a time when sexism was such a prevailing attitude?

JO: Effa had an enormous amount of self-confidence, and it really didn’t matter who she was talking to, if she thought she was in the right. After Rickey began signing Negro League players for the Dodger system without compensating their former teams (including the Eagles, who lost Don Newcombe that way), she confronted him over the issue in the aisle at a Negro Leagues doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. 

She was certain that she cramped the style of the other Negro League owners at their periodic executive meetings, since business was usually done among the men to the accompaniment of lots of swearing and cigar smoking. She unsettled them more by feeling free to express her opinions on how things were being run. But the other owners had to acknowledge her business acumen, even if they didn’t agree with her opinions. The Eagles were a well run team, and over the years Effa was given assignments that fit her abilities, such as organizing Army-Navy Relief Games during World War II and checking up on the distribution of East-West All-Star Game receipts when the NNL owners were suspicious of having been shorted. 

Her husband Abe Manley, the co-owner of the team, was a genial, well-liked fellow, and spent many terms as NNL treasurer, although he had a major aversion to administrative detail. He would travel with the team and scout talent, but balancing the books and writing letters was definitely not what he wanted to spend time doing. So, Effa did all that work, and while she may not have gotten public credit, everyone else in black baseball knew who really had the power of the checkbook.    

Although Effa and Abe had different personalities and approaches to getting things done, he always backed her up, and vice versa. While some teams had multiple ownership, each had only one vote in league meetings. She and Abe always hashed out their differences, if they had any, ahead of the meetings, and presented a solid front. The two of them got into black baseball in 1935 when Abe, an avid baseball fan, remarked to Effa that the Negro Leagues were a fine idea, but they really weren’t run very well. So, their views on baseball management were pretty well aligned from the beginning.

RW: How can modern baseball fans draw inspiration from Effa Manley? What are some of the enduring lessons that her life and achievements can teach us?

JO: The first version of “Queen,” in my opinion, ended on something of an unavoidable downbeat. The Negro Leagues executives had been almost entirely left behind by integration, and their leagues, and eventually their teams, went out of business. One was left with no way to project Effa’s talents into the future other than to imagine how she would rock white male owners back on their heels, as she had done to her Negro League colleagues, if she had been given the chance to be an executive in integrated ball.

But now, the revised edition ends with her election and induction into the Hall of Fame as its only female member. Her niece, Connie Brooks, accepted Effa’s plaque on Induction Day in 2006, and said, “I’m extremely proud of her because, No. 1, she’s a woman and this is a man’s thing here.”

In the end, Effa Manley had bestowed upon her, albeit posthumously, baseball’s highest honor. It took some waiting (25 years after her death and almost 60 after she got out of professional baseball), but it was worth it.

About the Author

Jim Overmyer specializes in the Negro leagues, although he looks forward to seeing his lifelong heroes, the Chicago Cubs, back on the field. His current books are a new edition of Queen of the Negro Leagues, a biography of Effa Manley, the only woman member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays, one of only two people elected to two American professional sports halls of fame. He is also the author of Black Ball and the Boardwalk, a history of the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants of the Negro leagues.

He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, and belongs to its Negro Leagues, Nineteenth Century, Deadball and Business of Baseball committees. He was a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2006 special committee that voted to induct seventeen persons from the Negro leagues and the black baseball period before the leagues were formed as members of the Hall. He lives in Tucson, Ariz.

All of Jim Overmyer’s books mentioned in this can be purchased through Bookshop.org, an online seller which gives a substantial portion of its profits to benefit independent bookstores.

An influential photographer, a mysterious vanishing

“One of Bedou’s best students was Villard Paddio. Paddio, who resides in the Treme area and operated an uptown studio, distinguished himself by being Louis Armstrong’s preferred photographer in New Orleans and by promoting himself as a commercial photographer.

“Paddio has the opportunity of seeing his photographs reproduced in Black history books, yearbooks, programs, directories and other publications recognizing Black achievement and promoting the consciousness of patronizing Black-owned businesses.”

— 1988 article in the New Orleans Tribune

Villard Paddio, from the May 31, 1947, Louisiana Weekly, shortly after his disappearance.

Editor’s note: Here’s my new post about Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9 baseball team, and about the famous 1931 photo of Satchmo with the squad’s players and other members of his entourage that, over the decades, has become iconic in both Louis Armstrong lore and New Orleans baseball history. My previous posts on this topic are here, here, here and here. …

On the morning of May 24, 1947, Villard Paddio, one of black New Orleans’ most popular and influential photographers, leaped over a railing and into the swirling tides of history.

For a reason known only to him, the man who snapped the iconic portrait of the Secret 9, Louis Armstrong’s early-1930s semi-pro baseball team, brought his story, and his life, to a close.

In doing so, Villard — who established a successful photography business in Treme in the late 1920s despite the economic perils of the Great Depression, and despite the bigoted racial norms of segregation that smothered the city — snapped thousands of images of New Orleans’ Creole and black middle- and upper-class residents, families and musical stars.

Paddio was so good, and so admired, that Armstrong himself frequently employed him as a personal photographer, especially when Satchmo came home to the Big Easy. That resume included the famous portrait of the Secret 9, the one with the players, managers and Louis’ close friends and confidants, that was taken during Armstrong’s mid-1931 visit to his hometown.

Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9, 1931 (photo by Villard Paddio, print from the Al Rose Collection at the Louisiana Research Collection)

The players are resplendent in their bright, white new uniforms — according to press accounts from the time, Satchmo spared no expense for his team, including outfitting them in spiffy new threads — and Louis himself stands at the far right, his famous smile beaming with pride, leaning on a baseball bat, duded out with a white hat, dark jacket and striped white pants.

While Armstrong was flitting around New Orleans on his triumphant homecoming in August 1931, he attended a game between his Secret 9 and the Melpomene White Sox, an event that included a little goofing around by Satchmo and a couple members of his entourage, Sherman “the Professor” Cook and Little Joe Lindsey, as well as a Secret 9 loss.

The team didn’t last very long, at most a couple of years, and only a handful of its games were reported in the media. By the end of 1932, the Secret 9 appears to have dissipated for good. Over the last couple decades, the team has gained a level of mythos within Satchmo lore and has been cited as both an example of Louis’ love for the national pastime, as well as the trumpeter’s quirky, one-of-a-kind personality and personal story.

I’ve written about the Secret 9 a few times, and for a year or two I’ve worked with various folks on investigating the origins of the photo, as well as the identities of each player in it, something that has always been a mystery.

New Orleans city directory, 1942

My fellow history divers and I did ID one of the players (more on that a little ways down), and various contemporaneous articles in the Louisiana Weekly had mentioned the names of a couple players on the team at the time, especially pitcher Kildee Bowers. However, I/we have yet to put any more names to specific faces of players in the famed photo.

But what about the man who snapped the picture? What about Villard Paddio? That subject, my friends, is well worth excavating because his role in the life of the greatest jazz artists of all time — including the Secret 9 — is enormous.

Here’s how Ricky Riccardi, the director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House and Museum, described the relationship between Satchmo and Paddio, and the significance of it, in an email. Note especially Paddio’s accompanying Louis during the latter’s 1931 homecoming tour that included the Secret 9 photo:

“Without Villard Paddio, our understanding of Louis Armstrong’s early years in New Orleans would be incomplete. Goodness knows Louis spent enough time talking about that period but without Paddio, we would be left alone to imagine what the [Colored] Waif’s Home band looked like, or we’d be at a loss trying to picture his mother Mayann.

“And when Armstrong triumphantly returns home for three months in the summer of 1931, it’s Paddio once again who is there to document his return to the Waif’s Home, his historic appearance broadcasting at the Suburban Gardens and his legendary ragtag baseball team, the Secret 9. Every image Paddio took of Armstrong has become iconic, and all fans of the trumpeter should be thankful that Paddio was there over a nearly 20-year stretch to document some of the most important moments in Armstrong’s time spent at home.”

To further point out the relationship between Armstrong and Paddio, especially the latter’s role in the former’s 1931 return to New Orleans, I turned up an article from the July 11, 1931, issue of the Chicago Defender reporting on Satchmo’s homecoming that summer.

In a “New Orleans News” column, reporter Emily C. Davis stated that Mike McKendricks, “assistant manager of the Louis Armstrong band,” attended a reception at the home of one Miss Doris Dozier. Other attendees of the gathering included McKendricks’ wife, Armstrong and other band members, and Davis then added:

“Several other social courtesies are being extended the popular musician and his wife, including a luncheon by V. Paddio, the photographer …”

Thus, with Paddio’s crucial role in Armstrong’s life established, we can focus a lens on the photographer’s life. And, as mentioned in the intro to this post, the saga of Villard Paddio begins at the end, as it were. Telling the tale of such an influential photographer and artist must start at his puzzling, somewhat forgotten death.

The front-page story about the tragedy in the Louisiana Weekly is pretty harrowing in its own right, telling a tale of an ailing man who was at his wit’s end. The story stated:

“New Orleans lost one of the South’s leading photographers to the muddy waters of the Mississippi River on Monday morning, May 24. Ill for some time from a heart ailment which led to a nervous breakdown, Villard Paddio, 53, 2009 Kerlerec Street, apparently despondent, ended his life by leaping from the Canal Street ferry, Westside, into the Mississippi.

“Paddio, a native of Lafayette, La., was known as one of New Orleans’ most progressive citizens, modest in his habits and manner.

“According to information obtained through police of the Third Precinct, Arthur Neville, 30, … told them that he had called at Paddio’s residence in response to a call for a taxicab at about 8:30 o’clock Monday morning. Paddio, unknown to Neville at the time, requested that he be carried to Algiers for a visit to a sister who was ill. Paddio also told Neville that he, too, was ill.

“After boarding the ferry, Paddio left the cab and walked to the rail. Hardly had Paddio reached the rail, he jumped into the river. Neville yelled that a man was overboard, and the ferry captain ordered that the boat circle the area where Paddio had entered the water, and ordered a life boat lowered. However, Paddio was not seen or found.

Canal Street ferry landing, with the neighborhood of Algiers in the background, across the Mississippi River, circa 1920 (photo from the Louisiana State Museum archives)

“A raincoat and umbrella to Paddio, which he had left in the cab, was returned to Mrs. Hilda Paddio … She told the investigating police that the description of the man who leaped into the river answered that of her husband. Mrs. Paddio also stated that her husband had been ill for six months and had been released from Flint-Goodridge Hospital one week ago.”

The article concluded by stating that “[a]t press time his body had not been recovered from the river.”

The article also attested to Paddio’s key role in the local black community by stating that after returning from military service:

“Paddio opened his own business, and since that time has earned quite a reputation as a photographer. His interests in the future of Negro business led him to support every movement in that direction. A pioneer in the field of organized Negro business, his zeal and since attempts to foster business opportunities won him many friends in all walks of life.”

What was the ultimate fate of the seminal photographer who captured Louis Armstrong’s early years on film and became a pillar of the New Orleans black community?

The answer is that I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. And it’s not for lack of trying.

Simply, Paddio’s body was never found, and I tried to dig into what exactly happened on the morning of May 24, 1947, and in the years after.

No contemporaneous news reports exist that report that his body being being found (which includes the Louisiana Weekly and several of the city’s daily papers), and I did a cursory newspaper database search in the hopes of finding a report of an unidentified body washing up somewhere, either in New Orleans metro area or downriver from the city. No luck.

I went to the New Orleans Public Library, the official repository of the archives of the city government and administration, and went checked out the 1947 annual internal report of the Algiers Public Service Co., which at the time operated the ferry across the Mississippi off which Paddio jumped (between the southern corner of the French Quarter and the westbank community of Algiers). I was hoping to find meeting minutes or something, but was dismayed when the records were just actuarial tables and accountant’s reports.

An ad in the March 1, 1930, issue of the Louisiana Weekly. The ad was part of a full-page, shopper-type promotion for local black business for Mardi Gras weekend.

I also asked for the New Orleans Police Department homicide reports, which, from what I could glean from archives finding aids, would be most likely to contain missing persons records. However, the library staff, after going down to the basement to find the cops reports, told me that the homicide reports for 1947 … just weren’t there. Gone.

Soooooo, I moseyed on over to Tulane University, home of the Louisiana Research Collection, where I combed through the records of the American Waterways Operators, a consortium of shipping companies and related river-centric businesses, governmental bodies, oversight agencies and Coast Guard officials formed to monitor and regulate the Mississippi River waterway.

But that was also a dead end — I found no mention in the 1947-48 AWO meeting minutes of any casualties, crimes or suicides on, from and/or around the Algiers ferry.

(I mulled whether to file an official FOI request with the Coast Guard and/or National Archives for any pertinent records, but I ultimately decided that it would be too much of a headache and might delay the publishing of this post for months, with very slim chances of a positive result.)

I also checked out an internal examination of “police developments in New Orleans” for 1946-47, to no avail.

The only thing that added even a little to the story was the NOPD’s annual report for 1947, and even then the pertinent information was limited.

It looks like the department seemed to realize that some type of water emergency squad was necessary — a squad trained in and equipped to prepare for boat-assisted water rescues and water-safety training was formed the same month as Paddio disappeared. In fact, during summer 1947, the squad saved more than 35 people from drowning in Lake Pontchartrain. However, the report makes no direct mention of the squad performing any operations on the river.

The NOPD also featured a Juvenile and Missing Persons Division as part of the Detective Bureau; however, most of the detail about the division’s activities in the report concern juveniles, youth and child mistreatment and abuse. About cases involving the missing, the report states:

“This Division keeps the records of missing persons for the Department and acts as a clearing house for records of this type for the Department as a whole. Attempts are made to locate missing persons and arrangements provided for their return home.”

So I guess Villard Paddio would maybe fall under this category? It’s unclear.

The most interesting info in the report, at least as far as this blog post goes, is the suicide statistics, under which I’m assuming Paddio’s case might also fall. Overall, the NOPD recorded 46 total suicides for 1947, more than a third of which were by people over 50. Thirty were white males, 13 were white females, three were “colored” males, and one was a colored female.

(I’m assuming there were more suicides by people of color that weren’t reported or ignored. However, traditionally there are less suicides among the black community than among whites; in 2019 in Louisiana, for example, the suicide rates for African Americans were well less than half that of whites.)

NOPD annual report, 1947, pg. 9 (from the Louisiana Research Collection)

Within the “colored male” category in the NOPD suicide reports in 1947, there were only three total, and only one listed as a colored male 50 years old or over. So that, quite likely, was Paddio. Under cause of suicide, a total of 12 were listed as ill health, including just one for colored males — again, that could very well be Paddio.

Finally, in the stats for type of suicide, there’s no specific line for leaps from boats, just categories for drowning and “jumping from high places.” Significantly, however, there were no suicides for 1947 listed as colored males who drowned, and there were likewise none under jumping from high places. Four of the listed drownings were white males, and one was a white female. (Just as a side note, there were no listed suicides for black females at all.)

So these numbers really don’t say much about what specifically could have happened to Villard Paddio after he jumped from that ferry, which, given the futility of my other, previously-mentioned research, leaves us more or less back at Square 1.

Villard Paddio’s rise as one of the most prominent black photographers of his day, as well as the legacy his immense body of work speak to the type of determination, perseverance and hope that was often needed for African-Americans, including light-skinned Creoles like Paddio, to survive amidst the segregation found in New Orleans in the 20th century. 

Unfortunately, the original source material and products that composed Paddio’s work are possibly lost to time, but his photography can still be seen in the archives of the Louisiana Weekly and other newspapers, as well as various historical collections and archives in New Orleans and beyond.

Villard Paddio’s WWII draft registration card

On that note, and at the risk of wandering off too far afield, I think it’s important to place Villard Paddio’s importance to the cultural and social stew of “colored” New Orleans — including why Louis Armstrong had such an affinity for Paddio and his work. 

To zoom out a little bit and sketch the scene in the first half of the 20th century in New Orleans, arguably the best, most incisive and comprehensive volume about black photography in New Orleans is the book, “Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographer’s View of the Early Twentieth Century,” by Arthe A. Anthony.

In the book, Anthony examines and celebrates the life of her grandmother, Florestine Marguerite Perrault, who forged a successful business and a celebrated identity as black New Orleans’ most prominent and respected photographer.

As a biography of a trailblazing woman of color, “Picturing Black New Orleans” is stellar, and I highly recommend it — it’s rich with fascinating personal insights and anecdotes from Anthony about her grandmother and Florestine’s life and career. It traces how courageous, tenacious and dedicated Florestine was, both as a person of color and a woman, at a time when being both was a major double whammy for anyone.

For the purposes of this blog, I’ll look at Anthony’s discussion of the bigger picture about the situation in which Creole photographers in general found themselves from the turn of the century into the 1950s and beyond, and then detail Anthony’s discussion of Paddio, who was a disciple of Florestine Perrault. 

In her book, Anthony, while unspooling her grandmother’s life, outlines the social, political and economic atmosphere in which her grandmother operated, especially as a light-skinned Creole who not only had to navigate the indignities and oppression of Jim Crows, but also had to walk the fine lines of social demarcation that existed among Creole and black society in New Orleans. Creoles held a place in New Orleans that was at once unique, nuanced and perilous when it came to forging their way in the city.

I write all of the above because of this — Florestine Perrault, along with one of her equally preeminent photography colleagues, Arthur P. Bedou, tutored Villard Paddio in the art and business of photography. It was largely because of them that Paddio — the man who worked as Satchmo’s personal photographer, including snapping the iconic photo of the Secret 9 — excelled as a lensman and as an entrepreneur.

The Emmanuel Perez Orchestra, a photo taken by Arthur P. Bedou, one of Paddio’s mentors and colleagues (photo from the New Orleans Jazz Museum’s collection)

In addition, much of the above description of the social, economic, political and racial facing Florestine at that time applies equally to Paddio. However, as Anthony notes, Paddio had a few advantages that she didn’t have — namely being a male who also had the ability to travel outside of New Orleans to shoot events beyond the metro area.

Anthony writes that Paddio used a military pension to finance his formal education that led him to opening his own studio. Here’s how Anthony describes Villard’s de facto apprenticeship with Perrault and Bedou, and Paddio’s emergence as the third part of black New Orleans’ triumvirate of legendary photographers:

“Paddio became the third member of this trio in the mid-1920s. Bedou was Paddio’s first teacher, but they parted ways due to a disagreement of undetermined origin. Their breakup brought Paddio to Bertrand’s Studio for instruction from Florestine, much to her husband’s consternation. Paddio became an accomplished portraitist as illustrated by his photograph of Dr. L.T. Burbridge, the president of Louisiana Industrial Life Insurance Company, which appeared on the cover of Negro American Magazine in July 1931. And his charming photograph of nautically dressed four-year-old Willie Joseph Misshore was the cover illustration for the August 1932 issue of the local Our Youth magazine. In addition to portraits of Creole family and community life, Paddio often made group photographs of musicians. One of his most famous subjects was Louis Armstrong, who called Paddio his favorite photographer when he was at home in the Crescent City.”

Arguably Paddio’s crowning achievement — and his most influential work, aside from his Armstrong images — was “Crescent City Pictorial,” a 28-page, souvenir booklet published in 1926 by O.C.W. Taylor, co-founder and first editor of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper (which has continually published since 1925, including during and after Katrina, and for which I’ve been blessed to freelance report for several years).

The booklet chronicles  “to the Progress of the Colored Citizens of New Orleans, Louisiana, “America’s Most Interesting City,” with just about all of its photos being taken and contributed by Paddio; subjects include some of the most successful black-owned businesses at that time, social organizations, educational institutions, churches and iconic architecture. The Tulane library Web site says the Pictorial “serves as one of the best visual documents of African American life in early 20th century New Orleans.”

Its contents are available at the Amistad Research Center on the Tulane campus, including digitally here. (Amistad has been a continuous source of information and resources for me over the years, including microfilm of the Weekly and the Old Timer’s Baseball Club’s collection, which was donated by the late Walter Wright, one of the most famous baseball players, managers and educators in black New Orleans.)

A 2014 Slate article by Rebecca Onion describes the “Pictorial” thusly:

“The pages of the booklet aim to show off the diversity and breadth of life in the black community. Photographer Villard Paddio, who owned a studio in the Treme area of the city, took pictures of the interiors of businesses, social clubs, community centers, “old folks’ homes,” and hospitals. The booklet contains four pages of the exteriors of homes of its citizens, and two pages of churches.”

In particular, Onion points to the images of the stunning Pythian Temple, which served as a social and entertainment hub, and a center of black socio-political activism. Onion writes:

“A collage of images of the Pythian Temple features a group shot in the roof garden, which functioned as a dance hall … The page also shows the range of professionals and businesses that leased offices in the temple’s space: doctors, attorneys, and the Liberty Industrial Life Insurance Company.”

In addition to his work chronicling Louis Armstrong, the New Orleans jazz scene, the Crescent City Pictorial and his in-studio portraiture, Paddio’s photos frequently appeared in the pages of the national African-American press. Here’s a few examples (print quality is low because they’re printouts from online database archives that have been converted from PDFs to JPGs):

Pittsburgh Courier, Apr. 5, 1930

Pittsburgh Courier, Oct. 19, 1935

 

Pittsburgh Courier, March 11, 1933

Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 1936

Paddio also occasionally advertised in the national edition of the Pittsburgh Courier, frequently touting his skills at touching up and restoring photos. A promo in the paper’s Sept. 16, 1933, issue blares, “PHOTOGRAPHS COPIED, RENEWED ENLARGED,” with a snappy couple of lines below:

“Have you some family snapshots, tintypes or old photographs? Are they faded, torn, soiled or scratched? What would you not give to have that cherished picture splendidly restored or enlarged!”

Then, centered under states, “Prints in Black and White or Sepia — Oil Paintings,” then his Dryades Street address on the bottom line.

Or sometimes Paddio himself was in the news for the Courier, such as the paper’s Aug. 8, 1942, which includes a photo of Paddio handing a check to Ernest J. Wright, fundraising campaign director for the New Orleans Negro Board of Trade.

The caption states that the owner of Paddio Studio on Dryades Street, “brought in 35 business houses as new members at the regular meeting at the regular meeting of the board last Thursday.”

Ernest J. Wright was a prominent social worker and Civil Rights activist who made a gutsy run for lieutenant governor in 1963, becoming the first person of color to do so since Reconstruction. However, I don’t think he’s in any way related to the Ernest Wright who owned the NNL’s Cleveland Buckeyes in the 1940s.

I want to note that in the Paddio-Wright snapshot, Paddio looms over Wright, so I think he was a pretty sizable guy. In terms of physical appearance, Paddio for some reason reminds me of Beau Jocque, the late zydeco great. Anyhoo …

Also of significance is the location of Paddio’s photo studio and residence. One of Paddio’s early addresses with his own family was at 2227 Onzaga St., which was in the historic Seventh Ward.

An early and traditional Creole neighborhood that played a significant roles in both New Orleans’ civil-rights history as well as the development and growth of jazz, the Seventh Ward was adjacent to the more famous Treme area and was part of the former Claiborne Avenue district, an economically-thriving, culture-rich, middle-class black commercial and residential section of the city, unfortunately, was bisected and decimated by the construction of I-10 in the mid-20th century.

Modern-day 2009 Kerlerec St.

The family later moved a half-mile south to 2009 Kerlerec St., also in the Seventh Ward but a little closer to Treme.

Which segues to the location of Paddio’s Studio, which was first located at 1428 Dumaine St., smack dab in the middle of Treme. Today, the address is in the north corner section of none other than the famed Louis Armstrong Park, between the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts and the Treme Community Center.

What I believe is 1428 Dumaine St. today

However, at the time, in the 1920s and ’30s, the studio still stood amidst the culturally-rich Treme neighborhood.

At some point, Paddio moved his business to 2113 Dryades St., in the Central City neighborhood, another economically and culturally vital section of New Orleans, and a relatively multicultural one. (Or as multicultural as Jim Crow New Orleans could get.)

For a century, the Dryades Street corridor anchored the bustling commercial district that featured a wide array of white- and black-owned businesses, including the Page Hotel, which, as the primary business of promoter/team owner Allen Page, served for decades as the business center of the New Orleans Negro Leagues.

The neighborhood was also home to the storied Dew Drop Inn music club, as well as seminal New Orleans musicians like Buddy Bolden and Professor Longhair.

Central City/Dryades also served as the cradle of the city’s civil-rights movement, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the New Zion Baptist Church and a series of prominent protests were rooted.

However, much like the Claiborne district, Dryades was uprooted and crippled by 20th-century development, a process that depressed the neighborhood economically, leading to high crime rates and socio-cultural void.

2113 Dryades St. today

However, in the 1980s a revival of sorts began, when part of Dryades was renamed Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, after Oretha Castle Haley, a leading local civil-rights activist who served as president of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality.

That was followed by significant reinvestment in the neighborhood, include the funding and construction of the Ashe Cultural Arts Center and the New Orleans Jazz Market, which took their place, along with the Dryades YMCA, as pillars of the rebirth. That rebirth hasn’t been swift, and it still continues as of now.

Alrighty, that wraps it up for now for Villard Paddio. It’s quite a tale, and a mysterious one that, quite sadly, might never be fully solved.

The final installment in the Secret 9 series will focus on the famous photograph itself, the various discovered copies of it, and the process of unraveling the iconic picture’s history.

However, I’m not sure when this last planned post will go live, because it will probably require in-person visits to one or more libraries or archives, which, for the time being, won’t be possible. Hopefully, the wait won’t be too long!

Below is a bunch of biographical info about Paddio, including the basics of his own life, as well as a glimpse at his genealogy and family. If you want to check out now, I totally understand.

As many people know, I’m obsessive about such research and am frequently seduced into diving into the rabbit hole. Thus, at the risk of making this high-falutin’ screed any longer, I want to highlight a few details/insights quirks of Paddio’s biography and family tree, just for a little contextual color.

His date of birth

The first is Paddio’s date of birth, which, in the various documents I found, is all across the map. He was born in the Lafayette Parish town of Scott, or so he said on his WWI draft card. However, the issue of the exact date of his birth, or even the year of his birth, skews wildly — his WWI draft card states he came into the world on May 17, 1883. However, his draft card for the Second World War reports his birth date as Feb. 19, 1892 — nearly nine years later!

To see if either of those dates is even close to the actual one, the Louisiana Weekly article reporting his disappearance in 1947, he was 53 when he leapt over the rails of a ferry. That means he would have been born around 1894; likewise, if he had been born on the listed dates on his draft cards, he would have been either 65 or 55!

(The 1947 article states that Paddio was indeed born in Lafayette, although it doesn’t specify if that’s Lafayette Parish in general or specifically in the city of Lafayette, which is also the parish seat.)

The 1900 federal Census lists Villard’s birth year as 1893, and the 1910 Census lists him as 18, which means he would have been born in 1892, while the data in the 1930 Census places Paddio’s birth year as 1896.

His early family tree and places of residences

Another facet of Paddio’s life that’s worth tracking is his family’s location, where it called home.

It looks like Paddio’s family originated, at least postbellum, in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, including his grandfather, Charles Paddio, who owned a farm and toiled as a planter in the village of Vermillionville. I haven’t found any records for anyone who could be among previous, i.e. pre-Civil War, generations of Paddios of any race or status.

Charles appears to have been born in 1813 or thereabouts, and he was married to the former Mary Louise Senegal, nee about 1830. Charles, a planter, owned his own property, where he and his family worked.

The 1870 federal Census lists Charles and his family as “mulatto,” and several of his neighboring residents were listed as such as well. That would establish a running theme through the Paddios’ documented history — exactly what race in which they’d be pigeonholed, as it varies from “mulatto”/biracial to black/”negro,” to even white on a small handful of documents. Such official ambiguity is no surprise, given his light skin and status as a Creole in a city and state containing complex racial stratification and designation.

Lafayette Parish and Lafayette city proper have a history that ranges from unseemly to downright frightening, at least when it comes to racial issues — and that no doubt significantly impacted the development and history of the Paddio family.

From the prevalence of slavery to postwar violence and suppression of civil rights to the integration process, it’s not a pretty picture. I won’t go into details — in the continued interest of blog post length — but there’s some good articles on the subject here, here and here.

While a good chunk of Paddios stayed in Lafayette Parish right up through today (particularly the town of Carencro), while others eventually migrated to Texas, including in Beaumont and Galveston along the state’s Gulf Coast. Some headed for St. Landry Parish and its parish seat, Opelousas, and others filtered to New Orleans itself.

A move to Mermentau

All of that aside, back to Villard Paddio and his immediate family. They shifted from Lafayette County, located in south-central Louisiana, to the parish to the immediate west, Acadia — the town of Mermentau, specifically, which is listed as their home in the 1900 and 1910 Censuses (Censi?)

Villard appears to have been the youngest offspring of the Telephose and Laura (nee Bauque) Paddio; according to the 1910 Census, Laura had seven children total, five of whom were still living — Charles (who had started his own family with whom he lived next door), Georgia, Raoul, Villard and a fifth I haven’t been able to pin down.

Telephose is listed as 60, while Laura is 48; by 1910 they’d been married 35 years, meaning Laura was just 13 at the time of the nuptials! Villard’s reported age is 18.

Telephose (strangely listed here as Teliswa) was a farm laborer — owned his farm himself — a role his sons also took on. Interestingly but not surprisingly — this was Creole and Cajun country, after all — the family’s primary language was French, and only Villard and Georgia could read and write. (Georgia worked as a cook in a private family.)

Mermentau, La., has always been an extremely small community, it looks like, having reached its peak historical population of 771 in 1980 (as of 2010 it held 661 folks.)

Originally part of vast, heavily-wooded marshlands and bayous inhabited by the Atakapa people, the community became known as a refuge of smugglers, pirates and other rapscallions engaged in all sorts of skullduggery and illicit shenanigans.

The tiny cluster of residents expanded ever so slightly through the 19th century, as traders, missionaries, French government agents and logging interests set up temporary or permanent shop, a process augmented by the arrival of railroad service. Nestled along the Mermentau River, the community became a legally-designated village in Acadia Parish in 1899.

Today, Mermentau is 86 percent white, roughly 12.5 percent black, with small percentages of other racial demographics. About a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.

Villard’s military service

Villard’s youth in Mermentau segues into the next facet of Villard Paddio’s biography — his WWI service, which, as Arthe Anthony wrote in her previously-discussed book, allowed Paddio to settle, post-war, in New Orleans and launch his photography career.

I’m not sure specifically where Paddio was stationed during the war, but his draft card reports his occupation as a cook, as of June 1917, and his residence as Mermentau.

Paddio’s WWI draft card

Villard’s name was drawn on July 21, 1917, and he was scheduled to report for service Oct. 27. According to a transport vessel that departed from Hoboken, N.J., presumably for active duty, on Dec. 4, his unit is listed as a quartermaster company.

His immediate family

Finally, I want to touch on makeup of Villard Paddio’s immediate family. His parents were likely Telephose Paddio, born around 1850, and the former Laura Bauque, nee about 1840. Documents show that Laura could have lived until 1950 — possibly making her 110!

By my count, Villard had at least four brothers and sisters — the aforementioned Charles, Laress, Georgia and Raoul. He might have had another brother, Joseph.

1910 federal Census

Coming back to the theme of racial ambiguity, in the 1910 Census, Telephose, Laura, Villard and his siblings are listed as white, reflecting the fact that they had very light skin and could “pass.” His brother’s family, which lived next to Villard’s family, were also recorded as white. They were living in Mermentau still.

Railroad depot in Mermentau in 1967

(Further, the 1930 federal Census lists Laura, Telephose and two grandchildren as living in Mermentau. The rest of the residents listed on the sheet are reported as white, with a “w” written in the pertinent column about race. However, the Paddio family, spelled as “Patio,”  is reported as “NEG,” and it appears as if the pen was pressed on the paper really hard, with some writing underneath it. That hints at the possibility that the census-taker that he or she “goofed,” for a lack of a better term.)

Anyway, from 1910s Mermentau, Villard headed to war and settled in NOLA. Exactly when and by what process he did so, I’m not sure. He’s listed in the city directories at least as early as 1925.

As far as starting his own family, Villard Paddio married his wife, Hilda, the former Hilda Poree, and had a son, Villard Jr., in 1928. Hilda was born in 1895, the daughter of Hypolite and Adele Poree; Hypolite was a bricklayer who had lived in New Orleans for some time. Hilda worked as a seamstress.

After Paddio’s disappearance in 1947, Hilda and their son moved to Los Angeles. Hilda passed away there in 1978 at the age of 82, while Villard Jr. died in 1987 at 58. Villard Jr., like his dad, spent time in the Army; he enlisted in November 1950 and served nearly two years during the Korean War.

I’m pretty sure that Villard Sr. and Hilda had some grandchildren, but I stopped short of trying to locate any specifically.

Guest commentary: Jackie, Henry and Me

Editor’s note: I have another guest submission here, from Will Clark, a devotee of the Negro Leagues, their history and their legacy. Here, Will gives an emotional retelling of one of the most important, moving moments in his life …

By Will Clark

With this past April 15 being the 73rd anniversary of Jackie Robinson‘s MLB debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the image of his Hall of Fame plaque burned large in my consciousness. It all served to bring to my mind a flood of memories, with one in particular standing out.

That was the memory of my first “pilgrimage” to the “Baseball Shrine of Shrines”: The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the first encounter with the live viewing of the plaques of Jackie and Henry Aaron (my two baseball heroes).

One early Saturday morning, got behind the wheel of my black 1977 Mercury Cougar XR-7 two-door coupe (named “Queenie,” incidentally), filled up her 26-gallon tank, stuck a cassette in the player, turned the CB radio channel to 19, and headed on the highway.

Armed with AAA “TripTik” routing maps (yeah, this was before GPS, you should know), I cruised along until, a bit more than four hours later, I wheeled onto Main Street in Cooperstown.

Entering the Hall for the first time was, I remember, a humbling experience. I remember, as I walked along and studied the various plaques and exhibits, it felt akin to being in a classic cathedral, a place of reverence. If anyone talked, I wasn’t aware of it.

The one thing that was foremost on my mind was to find the plaques of Henry Aaron and Jackie Robinson, the two ballplayers central in my young life to that point.

It wasn’t very long before I came upon Aaron’s Hall of Fame plaque. Staring at it, felt transfixed, locked into that one spot. A thousand memories rushed through, from every Topps baseball card I owned of his, the books, magazines, newspaper articles.

Then came the memory of the night of April 8, 1974, in a South Bronx fourth-floor walk-up tenement apartment, sitting on a hardback chair on one side, and my father in a similar chair on the other side, both of us watching a black-and-white screen on an old TV set perched atop a dresser drawer.

We witnessed Aaron, taking one quick swing, driving Al Downing’s pitch deep, deep to left field, with Dodger left fielder Bill Buckner climbing the fence in hot pursuit, only to see the ball land on the other side. Through it all, I was remembering a relatively rare occurrence: my father smiling. Felt my eyes beginning to mist and cloud as I stood in front of the plaque.

I continued my reverential stroll through the hallowed Hall, marveling at the exhibits and the legendary names, practically oblivious to anyone else, taking no note at all of the passing time.

Before I knew it, I found myself standing feet from the plaque of Jackie Robinson. Standing in place, eyes locked on the image of a man, a proud, brave man who knocked down barriers, it suddenly felt as if I had stepped into a time tunnel.

I saw and heard my father telling me his stories of the great Jackie Robinson, tales that, with each telling and retelling, brought him to life. I could almost see the large frame in his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, terrorizing pitchers and catchers with his daring base running, eyes of purpose alight on the diamond.

As it all came upon me, a sense of loss and emptiness permeated my being. For a brief moment, I wished my father (who had died of a heart attack on Sept. 28, 1974) could have been here at the Hall.

An emotional wave swept through and enveloped me, and the tears flooded and burned my eyes, flowing freely. Trying to choke them back proved fruitless, so I just let them flow, caring not one iota who, if anyone, saw me. Then, just as quickly, the flow stopped. I looked into the eyes of the raised face on the wall, and, choking back more emotions, blurted out a halting, “Thank you.”

(Photos from baseballhall.org.)

Many thanks to Will for his excellent submission! And the offer is always open to any and all to submit something of your own. Just email me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com. Stay safe, stay well y’all!